Thursday, February 28, 2008

Exotic-cool Martinis: Shaken, Stirred, & Twisted—Impress Your Friends with Ease

The beloved martini. Everyone has their favorite style and variations. Luckily, we live in a more culinarily experimental world than we used to (when I was coming of age, I'm pretty sure martinis came in either gin or vodka—that was about it for the options). Now even our local Cajun restaurant serves a spicy Cajun martini (The Palace Grill, Santa Barbara), many cafés have their own martini menus, and you could fill an entire store aisle just with vermouth permutations (Have you heard of Vya vermouth? Probably the world's finest, utterly drinkable alone, and it is made in neraby Santa Ynez valley). The world is your martini glass.

Lavender Martini
My hubby and I came up with this jointly. He—with all the advanced degrees in plant science—knew such info as, use culinary lavender seeds and not the purple lavender petals, because the petals are more bitter (even the seeds must be used with restraint). Since then, with a little more reading, I found that other lavender-savvy folks have thought of the lavender martini idea too, and there are actually many variations on it (and probably the petals are fine too).

Culinary lavender, if you haven't tried it, is a fragrant kick in the taste buds. Every foodie's kitchen should contain some (which is dynamite with chicken, lamb, or pork in marinades, and don't get me going on desserts!). Anyway, lavender would not have entered my mind if I did not live in the lavender capital of the U.S.. Not only does it grow abundantly in southern California, but it requires little water, and it always looks fabulous. There is even a Lavender Festival in nearby Ojai, California, where I learned more about culinary lavender and got to meet renowned food writer, Sharon Shipley, author of The Lavender Cookbook.

Where do you buy culinary lavender? Online is the best—that way you can shop for a bargain. If you waltz into your local health food store, you'll likely need a second mortgage to buy bulk lavender. One good source I found is San Francisco Herb Company, which has two different grades of culinary lavender and different quantities too.

You can also find lavender syrup—for the ultimate lavender experience, but I haven't tried it yet—if anyone does, please let me know. It is a sugar-based syrup, so would make your martini sweeter.

Assemble your choice of gin or vodka and vermouth, along with suffient ice in a martini shaker.
Add in one or two drops of lavender essential oil (if you have it—make sure it is edible essential oil—some are not the grade for consumption) per serving. Shake or stir, as desired, and strain into a chilled martini glasses (rimmed with sugar, if you like). Take a few culinary lavender seeds in your fingers and crush them to release their fragrance, then float them on top of the drink. Serve with the embellishment of a lavender flower. Now that's a 'tini sure to win a maiden's heart.

Rose Martini
I invented this, I'm proud to say, so let's call it the "Tumerica Rose Martini," shall we? Is there a patent for drink formulas? Nah? Just share and enjoy.

Assemble your choice of gin or vodka and vermouth, along with suffient ice in a martini shaker. Before shaking, add in a splash of rose water. (What the heck is "rose water"? Rose water is the essense of roses in a water suspension and is sold in Middle Eastern grocers. It's a condiment and is a common addition to many Middle Eastern desserts, as well as being added to lassis, those lovely yoghurt drinks you've probably had before. Rose water keeps forever, so it's great to have around as a staple for exotic occasions.) Strain into martini glasses (sugar-rimmed or not) and serve with a few rose petals floating on top. Beautiful. (Rose petals are edible, by the way—they even make great candy when coated with a sugar mixture. But make sure they are home-grown and not the kind from florists, which might not be wholesome.)

Chocolate Martini
Add half vodka and half chocolate liquer, along with suffient ice in a martini shaker (this is a sweet 'tini). Shake or stir, as desired, and strain into a chilled martini glasses. Serve with the embellishment of dark chocolate shavings (use a potato peeler or a grater to grate the chocolate)—the darker the chocolate, the better (look for 70% plus cacao content). Chocolate martinis are almost a slam-dunk to impress the one you love.

If you haven't caught on to the pomegranate craze, now is your chance to make up for lost time. Other than the long list of apparent health benefits, pomegranate juice is simply beautiful—a lovely shade of ruby red. You can buy pomegranate juice at any grocers (it costs a bloody fortune, but you use only a small bit here and there—it also lasts practically forever). Now, the Pom Wonderful (the best-selling brand of pomegranate juice) website lists a "pomtini" that is complicated and includes the dreaded sour mix. Here's how I feel about sour mix: ICK. Never accept a drink that contains sour mix. Sour mix is just lemonade or limeade that is reconstituted with water, and it contains all kinds of stuff no one would intentionally put in their body. Just say no to sour mix. When making drinks that call for it, you can substitute fresh lemon or lime juice, water, and sugar. (If it tastes like lemonade or limeade, then you made it right. If you have to heat the sugar in the water to get it to dissolve, that's fine also.)

But back to the drink, my version, which I'll call a pom-tini, calls for equal parts pomegranate juice (which is not very sweet), Grand Marnier or any orange liquer, and vodka. Add in sufficient ice, shake or stir, and then strain into martini glasses. Garnish with an orange or lime twist.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Mai's Cafe on Main Street: Fabulous, Loving Service, and Kick-butt Authentic Vietnamese, Korean, and Hawaiian Cuisine—So Fun!

Got a yen for pho soup and have no idea where to get it? If you happen to be near Ventura, CA, think no more. Drive straight to Main Street and hop into Mai's Cafe (2815 East Main Street
Ventura, CA 93003, 805-652-2061). You will be greeted with smiles and made to feel like an honored guest. You will have a delicious assortment of authentic Vietnamese, Korean, and Hawaiian specialties at your beck and call--for reasonable, if not low prices. Oh, yeah, the bartenders give a generous pour and there's live music on some days--call ahead to check. The bar has a roaring fire. And you get a happy feeling being there. The owners will likely come ask how you are enjoying your food.

We love the pho soup, naturally. I enjoyed the citrus pork and we both loved the Vietnamese chicken salad (I noted I could have eaten a large bucket full of it). One of my favorites is Vietnamese spring rolls (goi cuon). For lunch, you can eat like royalty for less than $10. For supper, less than $20. Enjoy! And if you are lucky enough to hear the Hawaiian music band with the little hula dancer, you are blessed!


Saturday, February 09, 2008

How to Woo Your Valentine—with Chocolate Love

Non-traditional Chocolate Love

Diamonds? Nah—too pricey. Hallmark card? Too mainstream. Heart-shaped candy from the local store? Too blah. Flowers? Too obvious. Looking for a new way to woo your Valentine? Just say yes—to chocolate. Glorious, rich, reason-to-live chocolate. Cultivated and developed on this continent (Central America and Mexico—thank you Aztecs and Mayans—you rock!), it's one of the best-loved aphrodisiacs. Unlike, say, Viagra, the ingestion of chocolate is wholly pleasurable as well as its effects. Montezuma was so convinced chocolate was an aphrodisiac, he drank huge quantities before every trip to his harem. Is it the serotonin in chocolate? The rich fatty luxury of it? Who knows for sure, but you can experiment with chocolate—accompanied by the one you wish to woo—and get back to me on how it works.

Meanwhile, here a couple of ways to enjoy chocolate with your love:

Chocolate Mole
Ahhhh, mole. The chocolate curry of Mexico. Savory chocolate—what’s not to love? No better way to celebrate your passion for both chocolate and food by taking your honey out to enjoy some autentico Oaxacan or Pueblano mole. Here are two highly recommended spots in the L.A. area to try (surely you can uncover some near you with some research):

3014 W Olympic Blvd (Cross Street: Normandie Avenue)
Los Angeles, CA 90006-2516
(213) 427-0608

Described as, “straightforward, totally authentic, very flavorful, extremely reasonably priced, and super-delicious.”

Frida Mexican Cuisine
236 S. Beverly Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90212

Tel: 310-278-7666

Described this way, “If you're after more authentic Mexican cuisine in smart surroundings and the chance of a celebrity sighting, then this is a must.”

For a more profound chocolate thrill—for those who dare—make your own mole (I do—it's worth every bit of effort). You will need a spice grinder (a coffee grinder works great), lots of nuts, garlic, dried chilies, and, naturally, a rich, good quality chocolate (preferably Mexican chocolate). Here’s a great site to teach you all you need to know about making mole (the process is not that difficult—it’s more a matter of gathering a lot of ingredients, taking your time, and not succumbing to shortcuts [use turkey or chicken on the bone, for example]):

Chocolate Truffles

Sure, there are chocolate bon-bons—those chocolate candies with mystery ingredients inside. But hard-core chocolate aficionados prefer truffles. Chocolate inside, chocolate outside—all the more chocolate to enjoy. But don't settle for the standard-issue truffles—go for the gusto at these spectacular chocolatiers—or search for handmade truffletiers near where you live:

L' Artisan du Chocolat

3364 West First Street
Los Angeles, CA 90004

Boule Gourmet Chocolates

420 N La Cienega Blvd (Cross Street: Rosewood Avenue)
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 289-9977

Homemade Truffles

Don't forget that you can make truffles easily as well. Homemade truffles will not look as glamorous as ones you might find at a chocolatier, but they will be made with love—by you—and therefore may be even more potent as an aphrodisiac (see Like Water for Chocolate if you don't believe me).

Here's a quick and simple recipe—the results will astound both you and the object of your affections. Plus, there will be plenty left over to take to work and amaze everyone there. Enjoy! All ingredients can be purchased at your local Trader Joe's. Recipe makes five dozen 1" truffles.

1 Pound Plus bar of bittersweet 72% cacao Belgian chocolate (17.6 oz.)
1/2 pound Ghirardelli white baking chocolate
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (3/4 of a stick)
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons vanilla extract (or substitute liquor, such as Chambord or Grand Marnier)
2 tablespoons water
Shredded coconut or chopped, unsalted nuts (to roll truffles in)

Boil a few cups of water in a pot. Place a bowl (or another pot) over the boiling water (thus creating a double-boiler, if you don't have one). Melt the chocolates in the upper bowl, stirring to mix the dark and light chocolates (taste, if desired). When the chocolates are melted and mixed, add in the butter, water, vanilla (or liquor) and mix thoroughly. Add in a dollop of heavy cream, stirring it in well before adding another dollop. When the cream is well–mixed, remove the chocolate, cover the bowl, and refrigerate it for two hours or until the mixture is firm enough to hold its shape (you may need to refrigerate overnight).

Spread out a sheet of parchment paper on the counter (or plastic wrap). Scoop up about a tablespoon of the chocolate and roll into a 1" ball, rolling between your hands to make a nice rounded shape (just like making meatballs). Roll the truffle in a plate with the coconut or chopped nuts to coat the outside. Place the coated truffle on the parchment paper. Continue in this way until all the chocolate is gone (be sure to sneak a few for taste-testing and quality assurance). You can find lovely food-grade boxes at Cost Plus World Markets to package your creations in. These simple truffles get such rave reviews, I’ve actually been offered money for them. The secret is using the high-cacao content chocolate and then adding in the bit of white chocolate to mellow and sweeten the mixture slightly (but not too much—mildly sweet is most irresistible).

Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Pancakes Day: Pancakes Limey style(ish)

It's Shrove Tuesday , the day before Ash Wednesday the first day of Lent and in the UK it's celebrated by making pancakes - and is therfore called Pancake Tuesday. NOT Sooper Toosday. The pancake is an emblem of the last feast before the penitence of Lent.

We have public pancake races... which a combination of insurance companies and the Health and Safety Act and stupid Police have managed to squash - apparently the town of Liberal in Kansas has one.

You need for a dozen pancakes:

110g/4oz plain flour with a pinch of salt
2 hen's eggs
275ml/7fl oz full fat milk
2oz butter - (1/4 butter stick)

Melt the butter and mix everything with a whisk, hand held mixer—get the kids involved—allow for spillages in mixing quantities.

Smear butter on pan get hot and spoon out the mix.

Toss when the surface is just about to smooth over - essential to whoooop!!! as it happens or it will taste unpleasant ... or use a spatula if anal and cautious , but be careful about the whooping

Boring traditional serving is sugar and lemon juice, but add anything, sweet , fruit and cream, ice cream, kids love peanut butter and jam.

Eat whilst watching an endless repeat of the last 2 minutes of the Superbowl.