Sunday, April 24, 2005

IMBB#14: Orange You Hungry for Some Chilled Citrus-Melon Soup

A girl could really get into this - constant feedback in the form of praise for a job well done in the kitchen. After discovering a new and tasty recipe for Molasses Oat-Banana bread, I was flying high and fancy free - figured I could do no wrong, and shoot, why not try out IMBB for size? This week hosted by Food Goat and themed after a color rather than a taste, ingredient, or something equally expected, I figured I was up for any challenge and this was just the one to test me.

This is how egos are made and popped, my friends, for this coming entry in the IMBB contest would take no prizes for taste. Presentation, yes. It's a beautiful soup, the mouthfeel is exquisite, and even the scent as you prepare it is intoxicating - like a walk on a warm day in the orange groves of southern California, a slightly chilled breeze in your hair, the sun on your face.

The taste, however, is lackluster. I'm afraid I'll have to blame it on my own fool-hardiness; buying summer produce too early in the season is always a recipe for disaster. Look at the mealy tomato salads, tasteless strawberry shortcakes, and tough, chewy lobsters you get when you don't buy in the height of spring or summer, during peak seasons.

I tried, dear reader... Lord knows I tried. I marched proudly into my market, went through every cantaloupe/muskmelon with an exacting eye for quality (and in the process making more than one little old woman sigh loudly as I went around her for a potentially winning specimen). I followed my clues... looked for a smooth, even, slightly golden rind - no slick spots, and a slight dent at the 'pick-point'. And yea, I found two melons I felt up to the task of IMBB.

I should have known that my luscious looking melon, with its soft orange blush and its heady fragrance, wouldn't come to full flavor yet. That I needed to wait until June or July to really get the bang for my sweet, silky bite.

Alas. It had me fooled until the bitter end (or bland, as the case may be). I cut up my melons into nice, smallish chunks, my hands covered in sweet, sticky nectar and smelling like spring. The first melon went into the blender, at which point I got out a couple of ripe oranges and juiced them until I had about 3/4 C. juice. That went in, then the juice of a lime. Finally, to add to the sweetness of the fruit and to cut the acid just slightly, a tablespoon of raw honey (CameraMan's contribution. He loves different varietals of honey. Brattleboro's Raw Honey from Vermont. ..very nice). I spun the mixture into a froth in the blender, removed some to allow for more space, then added the remaining melon chunks which I'd cut up while the first batch mixed.

After bringing it all to a smooth consistency, I poured the mix into a large bowl and whisked in 6 oz. of whole milk vanilla yogurt, plus 2 T. of fat-free plain yogurt (which is what I had). When it was evenly combined, I grated some dried ginger over the top, whisked again, and then into the fridge for a couple of hours.
Behold, the lovely ocher smoothness, like sand on a beach when the sky is painfully blue and the clouds piercingly white. I garnished it with a bit of the orange peel and a small dollop of plain yogurt so that the tartness might contrast the sweet of the soup. And it would have... if there was some sweet to be offset. Just a bit too bland.

We were able to salvage it - a little salt brought out the flavours that were there admirably. But I think that the key to this dish (in addition to the salt) is to wait until the fruit is really ready to show its potential. She's a fickle diva, our muskmelon, and she won't reveal herself until she's good and ready.

I don't know about you, but for a real dish, I'm willing to wait.

Chilled Cantaloupe Soup
Serves: 6-8

2 large cantaloupe (muskmelon), cut into chunks
3/4 C. fresh orange juice (if you use store bought, pick one with no added sugar)
1 lime, juiced
1 T. honey
8 oz. whole-milk vanilla yogurt
1 tsp. freshly grated ginger
1/2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste

Directions: Cut one cantaloupe into evenly sized chunks. Add to blender with orange juice, lime juice, and honey. Blend until smooth. Cut second cantaloupe into chunks, then add to mixture and blend until smooth.

Pour mixture into a large mixing bowl. Whisk in 8 oz. yogurt until well blended. Add ginger and salt; whisk again until completely mixed.

Chill for 2 hours. Serve garnished with mint, citrus peel, or even fresh raspberries. Go nuts!

Friday, April 22, 2005

Sugar Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh Friday!

Sorry, the 'i' got stuck in the sweet, gooey glop that is our key ingredient. Brown and oozing, molasses creates a visceral reaction in me, stemming possibly from afternoons in the kitcken with my Mom making homemade ginger bread or playing Candy Land with my little brother on the living room floor.

Which is why I was a little annoyed that it was picked. Afterall - spring has sprung! Now is the time for light, airy fluffy desserts with nary a calorie in sight, as we shift our minds (and our giths) toward summer, and bathing suit season kicks our will-power alive where our New Year's Eve virtue left it in February. Now is not the time for the thick, rich, lava-like goodness of fall's favorite sugar, molasses.

Or is it?

There's a lot of hullabaloo in dietary news about the importance of fiber, whole grains, fruits, and eating naturally. Diets, once focussed on low carb this and high protein that, seem to have died back down in favor of eating what the Good Lord put on this Earth unabated. The less processing, the better.

So, to temper my desire for Spring time, I decided to take molasses and help it turn a slender ankle in the direction of health and well-being. I decided to take a Cooking Light recipe, a little creativity, and some nutritional knowledge, and create a sugar high Friday to save myself a little guilt without sacrificing my dessert.

Enter: Oatmeal-Molasses Banana Bread with Bananas Foster Topping

I began with this recipe for Molasses-Oat Banana Bread from the September, 2003 CL magazine. I had to use fat free yogurt, because that's all we had in the house, but otherwise I followed the recipe appropriately. The batter came together beautifully, despite my adding the bananas a little late in the game, and was a lovely, mahogany color spiked with little oak pips of banana and oats.

I spatulaed (like the verb? Looks latin.) the batter into an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray as per the instructions, and popped it into the oven.

My oven runs cold, so my bread was baked at a setting of 375° for 1 hour, at which point I checked it and my left-over wood skewer for making satays came out clean. I love these things. Much more finger friendly than a toothpick when you're dippin' into something hot.

I did let the bread cool 10 minutes in the pan on a wire rack, but when I tried to remove it from the pan, it stuck a bit. Not a lot, but a bit. That's sugar for you. Maybe with the full fat yogurt, I would have been okay, but I doubt it. That's just sugar. Anyway, I removed it from the pan, sat it on the rack, and let it cool the rest of the afternoon so that it could firm up and the moisture would set. After about 30-45 minutes, I did cover it with a towel.

Later that evening, I made the Molasses-Foster topping. It came from a recipe on the Grandma's website - here is the link. The recipe calls for using a microwave, and since I was doing things pretty much by the book, I did it that way. But, in the future, I would do it in a skillet and get a little golden-browning goodness. It also would have helped if I had toasted the nuts. Lessons for next time.

Anyway, I made the cream-molasses caramel as per instructions. It didn't thicken up the way I expected, but the flavor was amazing - full of that savory-sweetness you get from molasses, not corn syrup. I added three sliced bananas to the mix as well as a quarter cup of pecans, since that's what we had, and cooked until it was all gooey. Mmmmm... the smell... I can still smell it. A little rum might not have gone amiss....

The caramel bananas recipe, on its own, was meant to serve four as a dessert, but I decided to use it as a topping on the banana bread to increase moistness and to make a more dessert-like final product. So, I sliced up the bread:

I added 2 T. of caramel, a couple slices of banana, and a few pecans.

Then, as a coup de gras, a tablespoon of Philadelphia-style (eggless) vanilla ice cream. The final product was divine. The molasses notes came out in the bread, the sauce, and were beautifully accented by the vanilla and banana flavors. Nothing tasted too heavy - in fact, the bread, when you took small bites, left with whisps of sugar-molasses thread that gave it an etheral quality I wasn't expecting. The banana flavor wasn't at all overwhelmed, which I feared, by the molasses. And the chewy oats gave the bread a lovely texture that prevented it going all soppy while we were photographing.

CameraMan felt the bread needed a little more salt to bring out the flavor, and that the bread was a little dry. I feel obligated to point this out, but I think neither, because the bread soaked up the sauce to the point where I feel the moisture level was perfect. I do think that, if you wanted to eat the oatmeal bread on its own, you might want to increase the bananas and make sure to use the low-fat (or even full-fat) yogurt to increase moisture.

So, how virtuous did my sugar high Friday turnout? Not too darned bad, especially for the number of real ingredients used - no fat-cuts except the yogurt. The bread, when sliced into 14 pieces, is (maybe a little less fat, since I used FF yogurt):
Calories: 177(23% from fat); Fat 4.6g(sat 2.4g,mono 1.3g,poly 0.4g); Protein 3.5g; Fiber 1.6g; Carbohydrates 31.9g. The sauce? For a 2 T. serving, you add on another 89 calories, 5 g. of fat (2g. saturated), 13 g. carbohydrates. and 1 g. of protein.

A delicious, sweet dessert for 266 calories?

Bring on the bathing suits.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Happy Tax Day!

There's nothing quite so... impacting... as tax day. We dread it, grumble about it, joke about its inevitability, and every year it returns to hover over us like a nosy co-worker reading your email or that crazy aunt who won't leave you alone until 'she gets her hug'. It's also that time of year when couples tend to fight.

I am a fortunate woman, dear reader, for my CameraMan and I are on our first season of taxes and did not fight one bit. We took our ridiculously complicated bundle to H&R Block where a bizarre little gnome of a man proceeded to tell us that we didn't really need to declare our Iowa revenue, as it was only $300 over the declaring limit and therefore irrelevant. He says this to an auditor. Right. So we had our giggle together at the expense of Gil, and did not feel the need to kill one another over a stray receipt or missing check.

This, sadly, is not the common reaction. And so, to promote world peace and good will toward men, I offer you this inexpensive, delicious appetizer that you can serve when your tax man when he comes a calling. These little gems are courtesy of my Grandmother, by way of a friend from the 1940s/1950s. Food was expensive, but that didn't mean that homemakers could abscond from their responsibilities by not providing drinks and appetizers when friends or co-workers stopped by. Nor did it mean that they had to accept mundane, unpleasant morsels to serve their guests. It simply required a little creativity. Here, then, are Vera's ripe olive hors d'oeuvres:

Vera's Ripe Olive Hors D'Oeurves
1 cup chopped ripe olives- (4 1/2 oz. can)
½ cup chopped green onions
2 cups grated cheddar cheese- sharp
½ cup real mayonaise
½ teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon salt
cocktail rye bread

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Mix all above ingredients, and if time allows let stand awhile to marinate flavors. I wouldn't recommend lightening this recipe with no-fat addins or making it chi-chi by buying fresh, greek olives from your local market. That's not the point. It's warfood, and its good like this - I can't vouch for the flavor otherwise. Once mixed, this will look a bit vile, like a ham and cheese salad with little black flecks in palce place of the ham. Have faith, dear friend! This can be made several days in advance if desired and refrigerated, so you can plan for it, if the tax man cometh.

3. Spread mixture on rye rounds. We use about a tablespoon on each, but its never measured. We eyeball these things, in the grand tradition of women before us. Arrange on a cookie sheet (no grease necessary) and bake about 10 - 15 minutes til thoroughly melted and gooey. They can be shoulder to shoulder like soldiers - even if the cheese goozes over onto the next one, it's only going to be delicious.

I will say, we never time them in the oven anymore, because more often than not we didn't have the oven pre-heated. Why? Because we weren't expecting company and needed something quick and on the fly! So times may vary and I recommend waiting around the oven like starved vultures, watching for the little toasts to bubble their way to glory.

4. Serve! Hot! When they get cooler, the cheese starts to congeal and its less pleasant, but hot they are divine!

A few notes from my Grandmother, who would be aghast if I shared Vera's recipe without letting the world know of her changes. The original recipe called for using quartered english muffins in lieu of the rye rounds. We find that the rye rounds are prettier (better contrast in color and flavor) and seem to allow for better nibbling/hand-feel. Medium sharp or sharp cheddar cheese works the best. Also, you can use chopped mushrooms (not cooked) in place of the ripe olives if you wish. She never served it that way to us, so again, can't vouch for its yumminess. Lastly, if you use "hot" curry, you may want to try using a bit less at first.

One of the biggest problem with these appetizers is they never get photographed. They're too good... in fact, they rarely get from pan to plate. We stand around the cookie sheet, spatula in one hand and hors d'oeurve in the other, chatting. I think Vera would have liked it that way.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Too 'Koo' for Words?

Over the weekend, the New York Times decided to one up me in my zest for culinary investigation by sneaking its review of Koo in before I was able to experience it myself. I dislike this for two reasons. First, it taints what I'd normally try. I know, I know... I should be able to work beyond that and judge for myself what would best tickle my palate, but it's the New York Times, afterall... one only has so much self-control. Second, I hate being trumped. Hate it. Especially when we've had this trip planned since last Monday, to celebrate my younger brother's graduation from college. Ah well. If it had to be someone, best be the Times, right?

Having said this, I felt a little smug as my family and I walked into Koo in downtown Ridgefield. For I know the history of the place - it used to be the home for Bully's Tavern, a family owned burger joint and bar which had been around as long as I can remember (at least 10 years). When the town of Ridgefield decided to raise rents to three times over the previous year, the humble pub couldn't manage, and out it went. Which, in turn, provided the perfect opportunity for a New York restranteur to snatch up a cozy corner in the Westchester/Fairfield corridor, where the normal City clientele lives, vacations, and spends the remaining 20% of its time (not to mention money). The homey, almost mid-western feel of Bully's tavern gave way for the Asian-modern-fusion stylings of Koo.

You may think, to this point, that I wasn't too impressed with Koo. It's not that. The food was amazing - some of the absolute best sashimi I've had, bar none. However, the execution, in my mind, was hit and miss. When you enter the restaurant, you're met by the maitre'd and a couple of waitresses, standing at the typical restaurant podium, in front of the bar. They are wearing black - pants and button down shirts on the men, and something similar on the women - and they are clean cut, which is pleasant. The room is open, with light-colored wood floors, asian-style twigs in modern vases, and neon colored lighting lines the bar and the floor in a nod to 70s/80s clubbiness. If you are sitting in a large party, likelihood is that they will take you back into the second room, which is lit dimly and swathed with gold-sheer fabric. It was so dim, in fact, that taking pictures was impossible, so I unfortunately will not be able to tantilize your appetite with CameraMan's artistic vision. That said, it may have been the saving grace needed to pull off the decor. The ceiling swathes, to me, looked fine, but the sheer coverings over the entrance to the kitchen and the glass-ware room looked cheap; like something someone might have gotten from Michael's and put up with a staple gun.

The tables were large and round, with a 'C' shaped booth in the back and three or four chairs in front allowing our party of 6 to sit comfortably. Plywood chopsticks in cheap, paper wrappers sat in front of our plates, propped up by black faux-river rock chopstick holders and bearing the 'koo' logo on the wrap. We were in a back corner, which should have been nice and quiet compared to the open room, but the swathes weren't functioning as the sound-dampeners they were intended to be, so there was a strange echo caused by the bose sound system as brightness bounced off the wood floors and panels. A waitress brought us leather menus and took our drink orders - there was a decent selection of beers, wines, and sakes, however I wasn't drinking and simply ordered a seltzer and a hot tea. The drinks came quickly, however the hot tea was served, tea bag still floating in my cup. These are the sorts of touches you do not expect to have to find in an upscale fusion restaurant, and honestly, they were offsetting.

However, that's where the misses end and the 'hits' started rolling. We purused our menus, long lists of hot and cold appetizers tempting our interests.
Our group ended up ordering two orders of the Calamari Martini, an order of the Toro Tartar with Oesetra Caviar, a Toro Negi roll, and the Mission 05. The Calamari Martini - a lightly battered squid spritzed with a light chili oil, served in a martini glass with a banana leaf to wick moisture, and flanked by two double-shot glasses, each containing a dipping sauce - was lovely, although a bit greasy for my tastes. The portion size was perfect, the exterior was crisp, and the sweet dipping sauce was like a typical sweet and sour, but more nuanced, with subtle chili flavors. The Toro Tartar was decadent, served in a mountain of ice with a golden caviar spoon, the toro tuna so soft and melt-in-our mouthes perfect that it was almost as though it suggested a fresh seaside breeze rather than leaving us feeling as though we'd actually eaten. The Toro Negi roll was good, but to me, it seemed a waste when so many other magnificent options were available. However, my brother loves rolls and he seemed very pleased with his choice. The far and away winner, however, in my book, was the Mission 05 - layers of spicy tuna, fluke, and domestic caviar, shaped like a flower and topped with a raw quail egg. The caviar burst in my mouth with little salty pops, perfectly complimenting the smooth tuna, the slight chewiness of the fluke, and the creamy quail egg. I absolutely recommend trying this if you visit.

After our first course was cleared away, our main meal was brought quickly. Four of us ordered the omakase sashimi platter, which includes roughly 25 pieces of sashimi of the chef's choosing, while one ordered the omakase sushi platter, about 10-12 pieces of sushi, and one the broiled black cod in saikyo miso sauce. The clear winner was the sashimi, which came served in a white, ocean-wave style serving bowl, filled with a mountain of ice, topped with cellophane noodles, and clean, beautiful, bright pieces of fish fanned over the entire thing like jewels being presented to a queen. My dish came with an orchid and some japanese twigs (looking rather like rosemary decoration) while the men's dishes came with bamboo leaves and twigs. Although the sashimi changes based on the quality of the fish each day (the chef chooses what he thinks will be the best each night), we were treated to a fantastic mix: a botan ebi (sweet shrimp), which is my absolute favorite variety of sashimi, toro (tuna belly), shuro maguro (albacore), kanpachi (amberjack), sake (fresh salmon), hirame (fluke), hamachi (yellow tail) and tako (octopus). Each cut was perfect, creating a smooth mouthfeel that complimented the freshness of the seafood and the bright color amazingly well. The sweet shrimp and fluke was rolled in flying fish roe as contrasting texture, which was surprising but excellent. The albacore tuna was almost like eating fois gras, it was so rich and velvety. And everything tasted light - no strange fishiness or odor offset the experience. At $30/plate, it was an incredible deal.

The sushi was beautiful, and many of the same fish were provided, although it didn't come with sweet shrimp, but instead saba (mackerel) and ebi (shrimp). The rice was slightly sweet, and held together even under our blundering chopsticks. The presentation was more sparse, to the point where someone joked that the individual who'd ordered sushi had been had, but all told he was in a state of bliss from start to finish.

Finally, the broiled cod lived up to its reputation. The portion was small - had my mother not had an appetizer, she likely would have been hungry after finish - but the flavors were delicate, well-balanced, and savory. A slight smokiness was present setting off the lovely umami flavors of the miso, and the presentation, served with a spoon of mashed potatoes alongside the filet of fiash and a sprinkling of delicate purples orchids gracing the plate, was another perfect balance of aesthetic and food.

We had no room for dessert, so instead paid the check (~$340 + tip for a party of 6... not bad for the area and amazing for the quality of the food) and left with full tummies and happy faces. Should you go? Well, if you're put off by the little things - strange service, poor decor, cheap accent pieces or a loud dining experience that precludes you from hearing anyone but your immediate neighbor, then no. Order take-out, which is sure to be stellar, and enjoy your sushi with a bottle of your own wine, a pair of real chopsticks, and in the quiet of your own home. However, if you are in it purely for quality food, gorgeous presentation, and freshness unparalleled in Fairfield county, venture forth! And do not miss the sweet shrimp.

Where: Koo, 470 Main Street, Ridgefield, CT 06877
Hours: 7 days, M-Th: 11:45am - 2:45pm, 5:00pm - 10:00pm;
Friday & Saturday: 11:45am - 2:45pm; 5:00pm - 11:00pm;
Sunday: 5:00pm - 10:00pm;
What: Neo-Japanese fusion cooking, with an emphasis on seafood
Reservations?: Recommended; 203.431.8838
Dress Code: Smart-casual
Must-Tries: Mission 05 appetizer, botan ebi sashimi, shiro maguro sashimi

Friday, April 01, 2005

What Are Little Girls Made Of? SUGAR!

Yesterday was my birthday, which will probably get a blog entry all on its own on my other site, but in honor of said special event, much sugar was consumed. At least for me. My darling co-workers got me a sheet cake, which I can't post a picture of until Melissa sends me the file, but it was like something out of a Japanese anime, covered with technicolor sprinkles, drizzles of pink, purple, and blue streamer-icing, and my name written in magenta. I was quite pleased, especially when cutting it revealed a thick, dense chocolate cake. It was moist, something I wouldn't have necessarily expected from a 'grocery store' cake, but instead from something homemade, and it reminded me I hadn't made a cake in a while... mmm... cake.... so I think that very easily could be this weekend's project, if I can tear CameraMan away from the auto show, house hunting, and all the other niggling chores that must be done.

In addition to my acid-cake, my co-workers sang me a heartfelt rendition of the Birthday Song, which was all the better surrounded by our clients (I'm an IT auditor, so we work on site at client locations to assess information systems... which means we're a service oriented group, and singing happy birthday is a little unprofessional... I was touched) and their products - massive bottles of wine, beer, and spirits. Very festive. :)

I came home, and on the way stopped to get some groceries to ensure dinner would be available. CameraMan and I decided to go out to eat tomorrow night to celebrate, since I have a big work lunch this afternoon, and I thought it might be overkill. To my surprise, I saw the wonder that half the food-blogging community has been talking about - Dark Chocolate M&Ms! Now, CameraMan *loves* peanut M&Ms, but he's always complained that the chocolate is just 'enh'. He doesn't eat them for the chocolate, he eats them because their the most convienent candy he 'likes'. But at word of Dark Chocolate, his eyes lit up. So, when I found some in our Easter Candy aisle, I had to pick them up to be tried.

All I can say is, I have been converted to the dark side of the force. The little candies are delicious - certainly not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, but I would say comparable with Dove dark chocolate bites (it's a bit hard to tell with the peanut in the way). The colors are a little bizarre - I had a maroon one that looked as if it'd been tie-dyed, rather than just darkened. But given the choice overall, CameraMan and I would make the switch permanently. The downside to all of this is, if the American public decides they don't agree with us, we may never go back to plain or peanut milk chocolate M&Ms... it's just not the same.

Hopefully if we in the US can't keep 'em here, the Japanese will help. As noted by chika at shewhoeats, there's certainly a different perspective on mass-marketed treats there than we've got around these parts.