29 July 2011

Get some dim sum in Denver!

I belatedly decided to take someone's advice and visit Empress Seafood Restaurant on West Alameda in Denver.  They have the standard Chinese meal menu, heavy on the seafood, but they also have dim sum, which I enjoy for the food and for the circus.

Now, I have heard that the dim sum carts do not always come around in this place (though there is always a dim sum menu, presented much like a sushi menu, from which you can order), so the best time to enjoy the circus is Saturday and Sunday, mid-morning to mid-afternoon.  Dim sum is traditionally eaten at the time we Americans designate as brunch, so I suppose this makes sense.  I went to Empress at 11:30am on Saturday, and most of the diners were Chinese (and elderly).  Yesssss.

The other thing about dim sum is that is traditionally form the Canton region, which favors mild and slightly sweet dishes.  Many reviewers have raved about their BBQ pork buns, but to me they were a very large dessert item--sweet bread wrapped around a small amount of sweetly sauced shredded pork.  I think they were good, don't get me wrong, but being the size of softballs, I wish I hadn't wasted all that room in my stomach when I could have had another vegetable bean curd roll.

Speaking of which, did I mention the vegetable bean curd roll?  It was a very thin egg pancake filled with bean threads and bok choy swimming in a brown gravy.  In texture and flavor, it was divine.  I was surprised I loved it so much.  I also really enjoyed the sticky rice in lotus leaf, but be forewarned: this is not a sweet treat.  It's described that way, and I suppose the sticky rice itself is similar to sushi rice, but it's loaded with little bits of tender duck, pork, diced eggplant, and water chestnuts with a savory seasoning.  I had been told about this before--it's actually eaten around New Year's in the Canton region.  One wrapped package is huge and oh-so-filling--good for sharing with another.

We also tried their famous shrimp crepes, which were OK but a bit on the sweet side for me (it's a steamed egg crepe filled with sweet shrimp), and the steamed shrimp and pork (two separate fillings) dumplings were quite tasty.

For dessert, we tried sesame dumplings, which were perfectly fried and sweet, like the Chinese version of a doughnut...but, er, sprinkled in sesame seeds?  Whatever, they were good.  I love the Chinese dessert aesthetic of eating sweet fried breads--not too sweet and very chewy.  We also got something that sounded scary to me but ended up being my favorite dessert: egg custard dumplings.  They were basically flattened little patties of fried sweet dough with what looked like hard-cooked egg yolk in the middle.  Please try them. They are amazing.  Finally, we asked for a coconut pudding before seeing it.  It had a very mild coconut flavor, but I just couldn't get past the blobbiness and rubbery texture.  It was basically an opaque, white block of Jello-O.  It creeped me out, but I think that I am overly picky about these things.

The dim sum menu is vast, and covers common, parent-friendly items as well as some authentic specialties for the brave, like chicken feet and duck with squid.  Prices for each item hover around $2.25, and there's enough on each little plate to share.  My husband and I walked out so stuffed we thought we might pass out, all for the price of $22.65.  And if you're clueless about the process like I was, we found that the dim sum carts came around fast and furious for about 15 minutes when we and another family first showed up, and then we didn't see them again for a long time.  But they leave a menu with you at the table (which is how they keep track of what you buy), and you can always flag down a waiter and order things without having to wait for the cart again.  If you know what you want, you can just say so from the start.

The neighborhood is a little out of the way, but there's ample parking and the food is really worth the visit.  I highly recommend getting your dim sum on at Empress!

26 July 2011

This is comedy, not a food endorsement

From the boys at The Sporkful, an enticing new set of reasons to eat ice cream this summer...

22 July 2011

Too hot to cook: Moroccan Couscous

In my ongoing exploration of foods that won't heat up the kitchen, I would like to present humble couscous: exotic ingredient of the moment circa 1992, this lovely, versatile, and quick-cooking grain has been shoved to the back of the pantry in favor of millet, wheat berries, and other complicated things. But couscous is available everywhere, it is practically cooked as soon as it comes into contact with hot water,  and it is tasty and satisfying hot or cold.  

Moroccan Couscous

It seems simple, but the subtle North African flavors in this side dish elevate a meal of roasted vegetables or meat.  For a meal, toss those leftover veggies and meat into the couscous and sprinkle with some slivered almonds.  

Serves 4-6 as a side, 2-4 as a meal.
I threw an egg on top of mine. 

1 ½ cups couscous
1 1/3 cups water
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons butter

In a saucepan, bring water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil.  Remove from heat, stir in uncooked couscous and fresh ginger, cover and allow liquid to absorb, about 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, in a dry skillet over medium heat, toast all spices until fragrant; remove from heat and add butter, stirring until it melts.  

When couscous is done, fluff and stir in spiced butter and cilantro.

15 July 2011

Wonton wrapper magic

I love wonton wrappers.  They make short work of so many good snacks, and I like the flavor and consistency they have, too.  You can use them in place of those stupid, fragile noodles to make lasagnas (and exert more control over how huge the thing is), cut them into strips and steam, then fry for crispy noodles, and stuff them with all kinds of things for appetizers or light meals.  I like to make these little treats and freeze them on a baking sheet, then throw them in a freezer bag to keep until an impromptu party arises (or when a dire need to go the the store loses out to extreme laziness in the middle of the week, or when it is too hot to cook).  This recipe is slightly simplified from the excellent Food and Wine magazine.

Squash Wontons

1 package wonton wrappers (24 wrappers)
1 box frozen squash, thawed and drained of excess liquid
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
4 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1 teaspoon salt
fresh ground black pepper to taste

In a large bowl, mix squash with seasonings and garlic.  Working carefully, place a wonton wrapper on a flat work surface.  Place about 1/2 teaspoon of the squash near the middle of the wrapper, wet the edges with water, and bring one corner up and over the squash, folding the square into a triangle.  Gently pat down the wrapper all around the squash to get out excess air, then fold the corners up over the triangle, so you end up with a small rectangle filled with squash.  Work this way until you've used all the wrappers.

You can either freezer them in a single layer at this point, or cook some.  To cook, lightly spray a steamer basket with oil and place over a shallow pot of boiling water.  Working in batches, steam the wontons for about 5 minutes each, removing to a plate when they're done.  If you want to get junky with them, you can them heat a couple teaspoons of olive oil in a frying pan and fry them all up, about 1 minute on each side or until golden and crunchy like an egg roll.

Can also serve with toasted walnuts or pine nuts sprinkled on top.  Somebody got fancy in this picture...

12 July 2011

I had crepes for breakfast and you didn't, nya nya...

Does this hat make me look offensively stereotypical enough?

I stopped in at the local new place in my neighborhood, Cafe Panache, at 821 10th Street in Greeley. CO.  They've barely been open a week, which means they shouldn't have their act together yet, so I was prepared for things to be a little clumsy while they develop a routine.  But you know what?  I already love the place. Simply put, they do crepes--the kind you buy on the street in Paris, neatly folded and and wrapped in paper--that you can eat at the table or carry back to work.  Fillings range from the very French-sounding (apple, walnut, & bleu cheese; mushroom & leek) to child's fair (Nutella), to the slightly adventurous (banana, peanut butter, and bacon), and they are delicious. The price is right, too: $3.75 or $4.25 for one of the more adventurous ones.  It's filling, reasonably fast, and definitely the most interesting sandwich you're going to get in Greeley.

We stumbled in for breakfast this morning just as they were opening, and as an apology for being slow (they weren't), we got a free macadamia nut biscotti drizzled with chocolate while we waited.  I am not normally a fan of these dreadful things, which amount to a long crouton with some hard chocolate on top.  But this one actually had some moisture to it, reminding me more of a nice piece of shortbread.  And the coffee was pleasant, too.  No high-powered acidic Starbucks brew, but it was roasty, flavorful, and a soothing, gentle compliment to my mushroom-leek crepe.

If you are in the area, please go.  I hate to see this place struggle, because they're doing everything right.  And I rarely say that with such wild abandon here in Greeley.  7am-2pm M-Th; 7am-10pm F.  

08 July 2011

Fun with tequila

Ain't it the truth, brother!

Funny story--I lived for a summer in southern Germany as a poor musician (as opposed to my current occupation of poor musician in Colorado).  I was young then, and my body metabolized toxins more efficiently. For some reason, tequila was very cheap in the tiny provinces south of Munich, and my friends and I often used it to quiet our growling stomachs in place of actual, nutritious food. It was generally consumed as shots, often just before opera rehearsals (in my opinion, playing in an orchestra backing an entire cast of divas requires alcohol, and we earned it).  At the end of that summer, and a good number of hangovers later, I had developed a bit of an intolerance, you might say, to the liquid gold and didn't touch it for about 10 years.  Even the smell would send me running.  I'm proud to say I have gotten over that childishness and am back on the tequila bandwagon.  Cutting it with other ingredients helps.

This is one of my favorite recent additions to the rotating cocktail hour menu at our house; the flavors of sage and tequila make me think of the Southwest, my (almost) adopted home.  This drink is earthy, refreshing, and the best part: it has tequila.


Makes 1 drink

1 oz. lemon juice
6 fresh sage leaves
2 oz. tequila
1 oz. honey syrup*

Place sage leaves in a cocktail shaker and muddle with a wooden spoon.  Add all remaining ingredients and shake vigorously until the outside of the shaker becomes too cold to hold.  Strain into old fashioned glasses over ice.

*Honey syrup: combine equal parts honey and hot water; whisk to incorporate.

03 July 2011

Do you like to grill? Maybe you will like these?

I feel badly that I don't post anything about Independence Day, but honestly, I don't know what to write.  It is my birthday, and for many of my birthdays since I turned 14, I have spent the day playing craptastic patriotic music for old people sitting in lawn chairs.  It's just not an overly exciting day for me.  So, as you imagine me toiling in the blazing sun in a sub-par orchestra this 4th of July, have at some mediocre articles I wrote recently in homage to the grill, my favorite summertime cooking appliance.  Oh, and long live democracy, or whatever you're supposed to say.

Dressing up your Hotdogs (no snide remarks, please)

Easy Kabobs

Healthy Grilling (well, except for the carcinogens)

Rather drink booze for the holiday?  A reveler after my own heart.  Here are some tongue-in-cheek offerings:
Cocktail Hour: a salute to Flag Day

Now don't say I never gave you nuthin'.

01 July 2011

Moroccan Spiced Grapes

A prolonged winter seems to have burned directly into hot, hot summer weather here on the Front Range, and I can't be bothered cooking anything for dinner.  Instead, the patio in the back yard has become the scene of our nocturnal snacks: wine, cheese, and crusty bread.  I decided to throw these spiced grapes into the mix and discovered that, not only are they delicious, but the extra honey sauce is terrific drizzled over cheese and bread.

This recipe is adapted from Patrica Wells' latest cookbook, Salad as a Meal.

Spiced Grapes

8 ounces small black grapes
1 cup lavender honey
½ cup red wine vinegar
4 bay leaves
10 peppercorns
3 whole star anise

Cut the grapes into small clusters of 6-8 grapes each.  Arrange in a large jar.  In a small saucepan, bring remaining ingredients to a simmer over medium-low heat.  Stir and simmer 1 minute.

Allow sauce to cool and pour over grapes.  Refrigerate 1 week before sampling, then store up to 6 months.