Thursday, February 25, 2010

Favorite Condiments

If you're anything like me, there is a soft spot in your heart for your favorite condiments.  I know it's not something people think about on a regular basis, but when you really focus on that topic alone, I'm sure you can come up with a few that you couldn't live without.  Okay, maybe you could, but you wouldn't want to!

I definitely go in phases, sometimes forgetting my past favorites, so I tried to put together a complete list, starting with my current go-to accompaniments.

Bufalo Chipotle Mexican Hot Sauce is THE hot sauce for me.  I've used Tabasco sauce here and there, but this tops any other hot sauce I've tried.  It isn't just hot, but actually has a rich flavor profile which translates into great taste along with the heat.  Best way to eat it?  Personally, I love it drizzled over fried eggs that have a little bit of cheese melted on them.  The bottle says "very hot" but I don't agree with that statement.  A must try for anyone who likes hot sauce. 

Crosse & Blackwell, Relish Branston Pickle is something I learned about on a trip to England when I was young.  I couldn't stand the food in England, so I stuck with ordering a Ploughman's lunch whenever I saw it on the menu.  That made me happy - cheese, bread, butter, a hard boiled egg, and pickle relish.  The most common one served is Branston Pickle.  The flavor is a mixture between sweet and spicy and it consists of chunks of vegetables in a thick brown sauce.  I agree, it doesn't sound appetizing, but put it on some bread with a slice of aged cheddar, and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Stonewall Kitchens Hot Pepper Jelly is my go to appetizer when I need something quick.  One of the best and definitely easiest appetizers is to open an 8-ounce block of cream cheese and spoon a jar of hot pepper jelly over the top.  Served with crackers, it is quite yummy!  Stonewall Kitchens is a good one, but there are tons out there in a variety of flavors and colors.  In fact, when I travel,  I often find different pepper jelly concoctions often times made locally.  I normally can't resist and end up taking a jar home with me. 

Zatarains Mustard Creole is a great mustard to accompany smoked sausage, or any sausage for that fact.  Mark and I love to try different mustards and we do have a current local favorite, Port Brewing's Shark Bite stone-ground mustard made with their red ale, but when it comes to good standbys, this creole mustard wins. 

Lea & Perrins The Original Worcestershire Sauce.  No oil.  Very low salt.  You know how Lea & Perrins invented it? One story is that they owned the chemist shop in Worcestershire. A colonel in the British army came home from serving the Raj, and told them about a great sauce he had tasted in India. John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins worked together with great care to assemble the correct ingredients. They left them to ferment in a barrel down in the cellar. The colonel never came home again from India. Three years later, Lea & Perrins remembered the barrel, but they couldn't remember what they put into it. So, they invented Worcestershire Sauce. It is still made in the original factory on Midlands Road.

Peanut Butter & Co. Dark Chocolate Dreams is probably not so much a condiment, but I thought deserved a mention here, since it isn't your basic peanut butter.  This decadent jar contains all natural peanut butter blended beautifully with rich dark chocolate.  I'm sure there are several ways to enjoy this delight, even as simply as spreading on a piece of bread, but my personal favorite is to slice up a banana in a bowl and put a dollop of this dark peanut butter in the middle.  Dip my banana slices in and I'm in heaven.

I know there are several others I could name, but I also want to hear from you!  What are your favorites, stand-bys, and new finds?  Please do share.  Happy dipping, saucing, and spreading!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Con Pane Rustic Breads & Cafe - THE best sandwiches!

I haven't blogged about a restaurant in awhile, so I thought I would tell you about my favorite sandwich shop in San Diego.  In actuality, it's a bakery, but their sandwiches are to die for.  Con Pane, Rustic Breads & Cafe is located in Point Loma in the Shelter Island area. 
As you can see in the picture, they have two magnificent blackboards filled up with handwritten menu items.  I'll begin by telling you about some of their many breads.  I haven't tried them all, and in thinking about it, I should definitely make a point to do so! There's a tie for first - Rosemary Olive Oil and Gruyere & Chive.  The good thing about the Rosemary Olive Oil is that you can get that any day of the week (except for Wednesdays since they're closed that day).  It has an incredible crust and a moist middle that is flavored with good quality olive oil and fresh rosemary.  As for the Gruyere & Chive, that is one of their weekly breads, so they only make it on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. If you are lucky enough to come on one of those days, you can enjoy this loaf made with olive oil, imported Swiss gruyere cheese, chives, and sea salt.  You have to try this bread on it's own; not on a sandwich, not with butter; just simply by itself and enjoy the richness as it melts in your mouth.

Moving onto the sandwiches.  I only have good things to say about the Turkey Cobb with Gorgonzola cheese, the Ultimate PB&J with honey roasted peanut butter, and the Almost Grilled Cheese with triple cream French brie.  However, my heart belongs to the Seasoned Roast  Beef.
The pure mention of goat cheese starts me drooling, but when combining it with seasoned roast beef, fresh roma tomatoes, sliced red onions, mayonnaise and romaine lettuce, there's a pretty good chance I won't be carrying on any conversations while eating this since I'm too focused on my meal.  For any of their sandwiches, you can pick which bread you want it on and nine times out of ten, I go with the Rosemary Olive Oil.  Another good one for this sandwich is their Point Loma Sourdough. 

Mark's devotion is to the Italian Salami.  I hadn't indulged in this one until he ordered it for the first time, and I can now confidently say, it is my second favorite after the roast beef.  He too, prefers the Rosemary Olive Oil bread (although this time he got Kalamata Olive) to compliment the Italian dry salami, house roasted roma tomatoes, spicy pepperoncini, and romaine lettuce. 
They use olive oil to give this sandwich its moisture, but not just any olive oil, rather olive oil infused with house made basil pesto.  No mayonnaise.  I know some people are mayo haters, but I'm far from that.  Sometimes, however, a sandwich is in need of something extra special, and Con Pane nailed it with this one.  Definitely one of their messiest sandwiches, since the oil tends to ooze out of the crevices in the bread, but you want that with this one.  Delicious.

We also enjoy the ambiance of the eatery.  The rich dark wood, the chalkboard menu, and the friendly service.  They pay attention to detail and it doesn't go unnoticed.
Even the filtered water is something to behold.  The tank is equipped with a beautiful stainless quarter-turn valve.  It's fun just to get water! 

The bakery is always cranking, turning out french baguettes, artisan multi-grain, raisin & hazelnut, cibattas, focaccias, and their sinful brioche cinnamon rolls, scones, and cookies.  I could go on and on, but you'll just have to go and try for yourself.  They have something for everyone's taste.  They are located in the Shelter Island area of Point Loma, but towards the beginning of summer, they will be moving to Liberty Station.

Con Pane Rustic Breads & Cafe
1110 Rosecrans Street, Suite 100
San Diego, CA 92106
(619) 224-4344
Closed Wednesdays
Monday - Friday:  7:00am to 6:00pm
Saturday:  8:00am to 6:00pm
Sunday:  8:00am to 4:00pm

So when you are trying to decide...Subway? or Con Pane?...I urge you to give this beautiful bakery a go.  You can taste the love they put into their sandwiches.  Maybe this cartoon will help with your decision making.  Good food is an art!
(Originally by Left Handed Toons. Check them out for more funnies.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mardi Gras Celebration! Who got the baby?

I have to thank my good friend Tiki, for indulging me in the spirit of Mardi Gras.  Ever since I've known her, we have celebrated it in one way or another.  Be it making gumbo, eating a king cake, or better yet, making the trip out to New Orleans to experience the true meaning of Mardi Gras, I have successfully celebrated the holiday every year since 1991.  This year was no different, except for the fact that I made my own King Cake!  As tradition stands, there is a plastic baby somewhere in the cake and whoever gets that piece, will have good luck for the whole year. 
I decorated this year by bringing out my own beads (earned during Mardi Gras in the early 90's, and yes, you are assuming correctly) to lay on the table and to adorn our guests.  I kept almost every strand of beads that I commandeered during that trip, so I was able to have an extra bowl for people to choose from.  Purple, green, red, gold, white, blue, pink, you name it...Mardi Gras beads come in all shapes and sizes. Some even have a baby in the middle of them, like one I used as part of the centerpiece.  One of the reasons I enjoy this holiday so much is that in the dull-drums of winter, even though in San Diego it was 75 degrees today, the colors of Mardi Gras bring a brightness to the ordinary drab winter.  To me, it's like the first sign of spring. 

First I made the king cake.  I can't believe I'm going to admit this, but I basically did a Sandra Lee recipe, with a few adaptations.  I'm not a fan of hers in anyway shape or form, but today, I was not in the mood to cook up a king cake in the proper fashion of using yeast.  I went for the easy way out and used bread sticks, braided them together, and formed them into a circle. 
I have ordered king cakes in past years, but in an effort to save money this year, I decided to make my own.  Upon reading the reviews for Sandra Lee's King Cake, I opted to go with one reviewer and dip the bread sticks in melted butter and sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar before braiding.  All in all, it was okay, but since I cooked it earlier in the day, it did dry out.  Next year, I'll be making the yeast cake.  After cooking, you insert a plastic baby somewhere in the cake and then cover with frosting.  Can you spot the baby?

For the main course, we had Jambalaya, which was good and comforting.  I chose not to put in as much cayenne pepper as it called for since we were also feeding it to kids.  To compliment the dish, I put out a couple different hot sauces so the adults could spice it up a bit.  It was tasty, a tad on the gummy side, but very fulfilling with pieces of smoked sausage, ham, chicken, and shrimp.  
The kids also dressed up for the occasion!  Little did they know, but dressing up in costumes, wearing masks, and dancing is a big part of Mardi Gras.  I'm glad they did their part :)  

So who got the baby?  I'm glad it was one of the kids.  To make it even better, the kids were trying to pick their piece, telling me where they wanted me to cut it, etc...Ryan said he didn't care, and just to give him any piece.  Well, it worked.  
Happy Fat Tuesday!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Let's make it a combo - Valentine's Day and Chinese New Year

Valentine's Day and Chinese New Year on the same day is quite exciting to me!  It made for an easy and fun decision on what to cook for dinner.  I really don't cook much Chinese food at all, so I went with some simple basics - Five Spice Grilled Chicken and Salt and Pepper Shrimp - from Sam the Cooking Guy.  I've mentioned Sam before in a previous post, but again I must say, he has a special place in my heart and with a little luck, maybe I'll get to meet him one day since he lives in San Diego.  He quit a job at a drug development company to pursue a passion (which originally started out as travel and not cooking) and has now become a national celebrity with 11 Emmys, a television show, and a cookbook!  Best of all, he is still a regular guy and has simple recipes that anyone can cook.  
There were only two of us, but when I think of Chinese food, I normally think of more than one dish to share.  The first one I attempted was the Five Spice Grilled Chicken.  
This was an incredibly easy marinade (soy sauce, Chinese five spice seasoning, and brown sugar) that I made up the night before so the thighs could have a good 24 hours to absorb the flavor.  They browned up beautifully on the grill and then were completed with a shower of diced green onions.  I love fresh green onions.  They add such a brightness and contrast to most dishes.  The chicken was extremely flavorful with the traditional Chinese five spice aroma, combined with the slight crunch of the fresh green onions. 

After the chicken came off the grill, I immediately started the Salt and Pepper Shrimp.  These take just minutes to cook, so I knew the chicken would still be plenty warm when it was time to eat.  
I readied everything ahead of time - garlic, ginger, green onions, and salt and pepper - so that all I had to to was toss it into the smoking skillet.  
Once the peanut oil was steaming, I threw everything in, including the shrimp.  The shrimp and seasonings stir fried for about 3 minutes, until the shrimp took on their pink, Valentine's day hue and curled gently into themselves.  The last touch is to sprinkle them with salt and pepper and stir fry until well coated.  These morsels were juicy, bright, and fun to eat.  The shells and tails are left on, so it's a messy meal of peel and eat shrimp. 

For dessert, I let the true meaning of Valentine's Day shine.  No Chinese dessert here...just a wonderfully rich and simple chocolate cake, courtesy of a fellow San Diego blogger.  Thanks, Pierre - it was decadent!
 I hope everyone had a great Valentine's day and Happy Year of the Tiger!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Broccoli Pasta

This is one of my son's most requested recipes -  Broccoli Pasta.  It all came about at the farmer's market when I told him that he needed to pick out the vegetable that we would cook that night.  And the winner was...broccoli!  We headed home and I searched for an intriguing recipe with broccoli as the star.  I found a recipe for Penne with Broccoli and thought we would give it a go.  Even though he personally picked the funny looking green trees, I knew this dish had to have another component that he also enjoyed, which is pasta.  

Interestingly, in this recipe, the broccoli is cooked down so much, that it really doesn't even look like broccoli anymore.  I equate it to a pesto consistency, but with broccoli instead of basil.  
After heating up about 1/4 cup of olive oil, you add garlic, chopped broccoli, salt, pepper, and a touch of red chili pepper flakes.  I use less chili flakes than the recipe calls for since Ryan is not a huge fan of spicy foods.  You could probably add as little as a pinch, or as much as 1/2 teaspoon.  As it simmers, the broccoli slowly transforms into a muted green pesto-like sauce.  This dish isn't the prettiest since the normal bright green broccoli color quickly fades away as it cooks down, but don't let that fool you, the taste is amazing!  A final touch of Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese and it is literally our new comfort food. 

Broccoli Pasta (adapted slightly from Sunset Magazine)

1 1/2 lbs broccoli florets
1/4 cup olive oil, plus a little extra as needed
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp hot chili flakes (or to taste)
About 1/2 tsp salt
About 1/4 tsp pepper
12 ounces dried penne or bowtie pasta
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish

Rinse broccoli, trim and discard stem ends.  Coarsely chop tops and stems.  In a 5-6 quart pan over medium heat, stir olive oil and garlic often until it sizzles.  They stir in broccoli, chili flakes, salt, pepper, and about 1/2 cup of water.  Cover and cook, stirring occasionally until broccoli is very soft and mashes easily with a fork, about 20 to 25 minutes.  Add 1/4 cup of water to the pan if the broccoli threatens to scorch.  Drizzle in additional olive oil, as needed, to achieve desired consistency.  

Meanwhile, cook pasta, drain, and then add to broccoli mixture along with the cheese and stir.  Add salt and pepper to taste. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Boeuf Bourguignon - my first Julia Child recipe

Believe it or not, I hadn't watched Julie & Julia, until just recently.  I told myself I was going to see it when it was in the theater, but not being big movie-goers, we never got around to it.  Instead, we put it to the top of our Netflix queue just in time for the weekend.  When it arrived, I had the brilliant thought (as if I'm the only one that did this) to make Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon to complete our "dinner and a movie" evening.  Those who have made this recipe, know that is dish is like a 5-hour long event.  I was ready though; no plans the whole afternoon besides to cook - I was in heaven!

Even the shopping was fun.  I had never purchased pearl onions before.  They are like the dainty version of regular onions.  I also got to fully explore the wine aisles.  For everyday wine, I tend to stick to the California vineyards and also to $10 or less a bottle.  For this grocery trip, I perused the French land of Burgundy and Bordeaux.  After finding a moderately priced Bordeaux, I grabbed 2 bottles - one for the stew and one to pair with the dish.

Once at home, I began the labor of love.  After cooking up the bacon until lightly browned, I added my dry beef to the pot.  I took extra care to dry the beef in order to ensure proper browning.

I was careful to cook the meat in batches and not over-crowd the pan.  Once the meat was browned, I added the onions and carrots.  They smelled amazing while sauteing in the bacon and beef fat.  Then you complete a process of tossing the beef and vegetable mixture with flour and putting it in a hot oven for a few minutes, stirring, and then putting it  back in again.  Once the flour bonded to the ingredients, I poured the robust Bordeaux into the pot just until it covered the meat.  After adding tomato paste, a bundle of herbs, and garlic, back into the oven it went to simmer the hours away.
For the herbs, since they remain whole, I chose to wrap them neatly in cheesecloth and tie with a string - easier removal for later.  As the beef cooked to it's irresistible tenderness, I peeled, then simmered the dainty onions in butter, olive oil, beef stock, and herbs for about 40-50 minutes.
Once the meat was closer to being done, I also cooked up the mushrooms in their own separate pan.  (Lots of clean up with this recipe!).  I sauteed them in butter and olive oil and they browned up nicely in my new stainless steel All-Clad french skillet.
Finally, the stew was nearly ready.  I took it out of the oven, drained the the meat through a colander over a saucepan, skimmed the fat off the sauce, and combined it all with the pearl onions and mushrooms.  I probably wouldn't go through all of that straining and skimming again, since I'm not sure it really made a difference.  Low and behold, I had a finished product - Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon!
So I suppose I should add my thoughts about the movie, Julie & Julia.  I'm not sure how popular I will be after I say this, but I only thought the movie was so-so.  Just okay.  Maybe I had built it up in my mind so much that I was expecting something more?  As far as food movies go, it didn't inspire me nearly as much as some others, like Tortilla Soup and Mostly Martha.  I guess I didn't see the passion in her cooking, but more in her as a writer and with her contest she was working towards.  The movie was cute, enjoyable, but nothing I need to watch again.  There, I said it.  I'm still a foodie, believe me, and maybe I'm not alone with feeling this movie was a bit lack-luster considering the rich content they had to work with.  Would love to hear your thoughts. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Camping at Agua Caliente...and food, of course

Last weekend, we packed the car to the brim (literally) and headed out to the desert.  In San Diego County, we have the beautiful Anza Borrego Desert where they have a state park called Agua Caliente.  Yes, hot springs!  Some may say it isn't true can easily get clean whenever you want...but we enjoy it, none the less.
Our camp site was in the perfect location.  We were right up against the rocky terrain, which instantly created a natural playground for the kids (and Mark).  Speaking of playgrounds, this campsite is very kid-friendly and do have a real playground with a slide, swings, and climbing bars.  The piece de resistance, however, are the natural hot springs, 3 in total.  The one indoor pool is kept at about 100 degrees, complete with an island and jets, but does not allow kids under 56 inches.  Great for adults, but not for those of us who have small kids!  Still, we took turns enjoying the adult pool.  Outside, there is a main pool that isn't heated, which is unfortunate at this time of year, but I'm sure will be refreshing as the desert warms up.  Lastly, there is a smaller outdoor pool up on the hill that is kept around 85-90 degrees.  That seems to be where most of the kids hang out, along with their parents. 
Luckily on Sunday, we basically had the pool to ourselves.  The only downside to this pool is that the minerals in the water have disintegrated the plaster so much, that the gravel is exposed and the surfaces are extremely rough.  There were plenty of cuts and scrapes, but nothing major.  See...we were roughing it!

Now, onto the food.  Our dinner consisted of kebabs, polish sausage, potatoes, and kapusta (polish sauerkraut homemade by my dear friend, Monika).  For the kebabs, I marinated chicken tenders in two different kinds of sauces, Hawaiian and buffalo chicken, the night before we left.  We skewered them at the campsite and put those on the fire pit grate along with the kapusta and some cheesy potatoes in foil packets.  The potatoes were chopped and mixed with diced green and red bell peppers, onions, and shredded cheese.  Sprinkled with some seasoned salt, they were quite good, except for the fact that I kept them in the fire too long and they burnt on the bottom a bit.  
For dessert, we had two offerings - s'mores and gooey stuffed bananas.  Our s'mores were traditional - graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows - but gently wrapped in foil packets and warmed until they oozed their chocolatey goodness.  As for the bananas, we left the peel on, cut a slit down the middle, and stuffed them also with chocolate and marshmallows.
After a night of drinking, talking, walking, admiring the full moon, and more drinking, we passed out in our tents under nature's nightlight.  It truly was a moon to behold.  One main reason we went camping this weekend was because of the full moon.  The campsite even has a trail called Full Moon Hike, but with the cold weather and our short duration, we didn't quite make it.  The night before we arrived, it was the biggest and brightest full moon of 2010.  Scientists said it was about 30% brighter than other full moons.  It was magnificent. 
We awoke to a sunny day and ready to grub, once again.  Our breakfast was simple, but plenty filling enough for our big day ahead of lounging in the pools :)  Bacon, eggs, fruit, and biscuits wrapped in foil and cooked on the grill. 
You may have picked up on a common camping trick to cooking food - wrap in foil.  I'm honestly amazed with what all it works with.  Even the biscuits were a tasty addition to our breakfast spread.  Stay tuned for our next trip since we've already reserved our campsites and Monika and I are planning on making a hearty stew (sans foil) but I'm sure there will be other new foil creations!