Monday, April 21, 2008

The Dish: Couscous

Couscous is one of those ingredients that you see often showing up on menus as part of an accent to a dish, or as part of the vegetables and sides options. Very rarely does couscous star on its own, partially because not enough people know what to do with it, or how to leverage its unique flavors and texture. Many people often think that couscous is a grain of some sort because of its small circular shape, but in actuality it is technically a pasta, usually made out of semolina wheat. The Israeli version, which is my favorite, is usually slightly bigger and made from a different type of wheat. Personally, I like the Israeli type because it is bigger and each piece is separated and allows you to get more of the soft texture that is almost like a less rich risotto.

Usually couscous is used similar to rice in Mediterranean and African dishes, with vegetables or meat being placed on top. The sauce gets absorbed by the couscous and makes for a hearty, but easy meal to make at home that is much different from the standard carbohydrates most Americans eat. Think about how often you might eat rice, pasta, bread, or potatoes and how different it would be to quickly make couscous instead. In the U.S. most couscous is actually the instant kind (think Uncle Ben's Rice), but outside the U.S. it is cooked traditionally and with quite a bit of care. My favorite ways to have couscous are usually the simplest. Adding some grilled asparagus and squash, fresh herbs, and olive oil for a cold Israeli couscous salad is a trick I picked up from my mom. Another favorite is adding fried chickpeas or lima beans, scallions and small pieces of tomato with beef to make a warm and savory dish akin to a stew. The key is really just thinking about if you want it warm or cold, and after that what flavors you like. Couscous does better with fresh, simple ingredients, and doesn't need to be overwhelmed with strong flavors, cheeses or sauces.

Give Couscous a it's fun to say aloud!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Beer of the Week: Red Stripe

Jamaican beer, Hoooray Beer! Sadly (or gladly?) advertising for Red Stripe will always stick in my head for its simple yet memorable tagline at the end. The beer itself, similar to other Caribbean beers, is best enjoyed on a hot day at the beach. Despite this tag, Red Stripe has had a bit of a renaissance in popularity and is often found as one of the main import beers at bars alongside Heineken and Amstel Light. Its distinctive bottle shape and logo always stand out in a bar, and I am convinced it is harder to knock over than those flimsy long neck bottles. Best of all, Red Stripe actually tastes surprisingly good considering it is a mass produced lager. It goes down very easily, like most lagers, but the flavor is there from the hops and almost a corn or malty taste (in a good way). Unlike some of its brethren that are meant to be drank sitting on the beach, Red Stripe tries to combine hints of subtle flavor with icy cold easy sipping that should be enjoyed lounging somewhere beautiful. If that somewhere happens to be the part of Jamaica that is right near da beach, boy-eeee, then you should consider yourself blessed.

Number of beers drank in one sitting: 5 (sometimes you just have to give one away)

Pair with food: I personally have only had it when drinking for drinkings sake. It's too light to go with much, but perhaps some fried food just to cut the salt.

Lord Have Mercy It's Beer

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Condiment of the Week: Guacamole

Condiment. Dip. The reason god created tortilla chips. Classifying guacamole is a pretty tough task. Is it something to be used with Mexican food and put on top of burritos? Is it a dip or a condiment? Do you put it on sandwiches like a spread? Perhaps we will never truly know. The important thing, however, is that it exists, and for that I am forever thankful. Good guacamole usually has two important elements going for it, creating it fresh and delicious avocados. The ingredients and texture of guacamole always seem to vary slightly depending on where you buy it or who makes it. One item that should never ever ever be used (I can't stress this enough) is sour cream. It gives guacamole the wrong type of texture and makes it too creamy and mutes the overall flavors that should be bold and jump out at you in harmony. Cilantro, jalapeno, avocado and tomatoes are almost always found in guacamole. After that most recipes tend to differ slightly. Some people add onions and garlic. Others add in lemon and/or lime juice. I've had some that even add small pieces of citrus zest and parsley. The one thing that no guacamole should ever be without is salt. More so than any other food, avocados need salt to really bring out their flavor and sweetness, and it cannot be overlooked when making guacamole. I find restaurant made guacamole's biggest faux pas is the extreme lack of salt and always keep an eye out to see if it's added when made in front of you.

The best texture usually comes from hand mashing the ingredients with a fork (or masher if you want to get technical) although there is something to be said for the "fancy" way of doing it table side in a big stone bowl. Tomatoes don't really add much flavor, but if diced add a nice texture. Personally, I like my other ingredients like garlic, onions, jalapenos and cilantro to be very finally chopped and to keep the avocado chunky. The best guacamole always has that balance of chunky and smooth, allowing you to dip a chip and actually see a piece of avocado within the rest of the dip.

While some may claim they make better guacamole (and to each their own in terms of composition of flavor) I personally, of course, think mine is the best, despite using a lot of ingredients. Although the exact measurements vary, I make my recipe with avocado, cilantro, tomato, garlic, red onion, jalapeno, lime juice, salt & pepper, and Franks Red Hot. Recipes and tastes may vary, but one thing we can all agree on is that you can never have enough guacamole!

Start your own Guac Off

Friday, April 11, 2008

Restaurant: Ramen Setagaya

The two block radius around my apartment in the last few years seems to have become the nexus for ramen soup existence in New York, and I for one can't complain about that. You have your low end no frills Rai Rai Ken, which has been around longer than any other place in the area. You have the high end culinary darling that is the ever expanding Momofuku empire (now with an office right next door to me). Somewhere in the middle (although that is debatable) is Ramen Setagaya. Only two blocks down from Momofuku, I will put this out there right now, it has better more flavorful (and cheaper) ramen than Momofuko. Momofuku, while great, is not a place to go if you just want a ramen fix, it is a place to go for a fun, exciting and delectable meal. Sometimes though, you just want ramen, and to not know if your eating Berkshire Pork or the same pork you find at my local Key Food.

After only waiting a few minutes (the lines used to be around the corner when it first opened) I was seated and it didn't take long to order from the short menu. I ordered the shio ramen with the BBQed pork and an order of seafood gyoza. While you can order regular pork, the grilled pork I felt added a nice charred grill flavor to what was the most exquisite broth I have ever tasted. The broth is considered a salt broth, and while that may not sound good, the amount of salt, and the types of salt (and salty products) used balance well to make for a flavor that is quite unusual and savory. It's not going to blow you away, but there is something to be said for such a simple taste that is done so well and yet so many other places in New York can't reach the same level of flavor. The noodles are also delicious, thin, and cooked al dente. The biggest problem I have with most ramen places is the noodles are always over cooked, and become soggy by the time you are done because they sit in steaming hot broth while you eat. Ramen Setagaya's noodles were firm and held up to the steaming broth the entire meal, much to my delight. The bowl of noodles and broth is topped not only with the pork, but also half a boiled egg, some various flakes of who knows what, and sesame oil marinated bamboo shoots. If you have time to look up from your bowl, check out the crazy TV show they play on repeat - nothing beats Japanese TV!

The gyoza, while very tasty, are nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone has come to expect gyoza when in a Japanese restaurant, and who doesn't love tiny dumplings stuffed with various meats and fish? I should note, however, that the dipping sauce for the gyoza was great, with a nice balance of saltiness from the soy, acid from vinegar, and what seemed to be small pieces of ginger.

All in all this is my new favorite ramen house, and they even have a Monday deal - $12 for ramen and gyoza. They also offer Japanese beer (nothing unusual), and the option to order extra broth, extra noodles, and extra pork. One idea that I don't get is the option to order the noodles and broth separate and dip the noodles into the broth. Seems like a lot of unnecessary effort to me.

Not That Awful Ramen From College

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Restaurant: Angelo & Maxie's

Yes, I know, yet another steakhouse, but I can't help it if steak is popular, but at least this one is near union square and didn't take me to scary places like midtown west. On my trip to Angelo & Maxie's a group of 6 borderline professional eaters including myself were celebrating a recent engagement of a friend. We picked the steakhouse for a couple of reasons - it was steak, it could handle a rather boisterous group of guys, and it wasn't overly expensive. We went in with no pretense of expecting the best steak we had ever had, and we left knowing it was by no means the best steak we ever had.

We had three bottles of wine throughout the meal, but they were all somewhat after thoughts to the actual food. None of them were too expensive, and on average probably came to about $50 a bottle which is not bad at all for any restaurant, let alone a steak house. The bread was actually a pleasant surprise, including a nice selection of rolls, and soft doughy pretzel bread. We all decided to forego appetizers and just concentrate on tons of meat and sides. 2 groups of 2 decided to share the porterhouse for 2, while another person got the 13oz filet mignon with béarnaise sauce. I myself went with the 13oz filet mignon au poivre (a personal favorite when it comes to steak). The sides can be ordered as smalls or larges, and we of course assumed we would need large shoestring fries, onion strings, garlic mashed potatoes, 2 creamed spinach, and fried zucchini sticks. Our waitress suggested, and thank god she did, to split the fries and onion strings into a single large order.

The guys who had the porterhouse seemed very happy with their steaks, and all seemed to eat as quickly as possible to make sure they "got their money worth" in meat. The filet with béarnaise sauce also seemed to make the person next to me happy, although I tasted the sauce and it was extremely lacking in flavor, closer to a tartar sauce than a béarnaise. My steak, while very tasty was a little over cooked, and also lacked that certain flavor that the better steak houses seem to always have with their meat. Maybe it's how they cook it, how they age it, or just the quality of the steak, but I wouldn't even put it in the top five au poivre steaks I've had. While the au poivre part of the steak was good, the sauce itself lacked much flavor, and relied too much on the pepper and high quality cut of meat, and was a total after thought.

Apparently one thing that Angelo & Maxie's prides itself on is its portion size, which I guess would be great, if we had known that in advance. When the sides first started appearing we were a bit shocked. Depending on the steakhouse you will either get small sides, or bigger sides, but nothing like what we got. The same size platter that held the porter house for two contained foot tall piles of fried zucchini, and the other platter was just as tall split in half with fries and onion strings. The bowls of mashed potatoes and creamed spinach were equally huge, and we realized suddenly that we had extremely over ordered. Despite this we did our best to try to clear our plates, taking it up as a challenge. The fries, sadly, were nothing more than filler, but the onion strings were light, crispy and flavorful. Garlic mashed potatoes were just a bit too much garlic for me, and with all the other heavy foods on the table I had as little as possible. The two biggest standouts for the sides were creamed spinach and fried zucchini. We managed to finish both spinach bowls and even argued over who could get the last spoonful. It was rich, but the cream in the dish didn't overwhelm the actual spinach and made for a great classic side. The fried zucchini (arguably the healthiest thing eaten the whole night) was crispy when it first came out, and seemed to use the same batter as the onion crisps which meant you didn't just feel like you were eating fried dough. The horseradish dipping sauce was both cool and tangy, and almost refreshing compared with all the other food. Sadly, by the time we got the bottom of the huge dish the zucchini had become soggy and lost its crispness.

The idea of dessert was almost a joke, as we all sat around wondering how we could possibly go out drinking afterwards, but all in all the meal was a success when we realized that we got all that food for only $500 (including a very hefty tip). Angelo & Maxie's, while not on the same level as the better steak houses in New York, is a good deal, with good enough food and has a fun and easy going vibe to it.

There aren't that many steakhouses near union square...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Beer of the Week: Presidente

Although my first thought when I hear Presidente beer is Fidel, in actuality it's very tasty as far as lighter beers go, and also seems to always get people excited when they see you bring it. Although easier to find than most people think, I rarely see anyone buying it except my friends who hail from the DR and were raised on the stuff. I still remember going over to my friends house back in college for dinner and her mom pulling out Presidente's from the freezer so that they were icy cold. Ever since then I haven't been able to drink them just refrigerator cold, but have to have them icy cold, in an icy glass. Perhaps this is why it is such a popular beer in the DR, where I hear it can get a little warm. The taste always reminds me of Red Stripe, maybe it's just that carribean malt and hops. Either way, you don't drink Presidente because you want to savor each sip, you drink it to remind you of warm summers, and ice cold beer.

Number of beers drank in one sitting: 6 (aka a six pack)

Pair with food: Goes great with the somewhat salty, and hearty Dominican and latin food I've had in the past

Beer fit for a president