Sunday, January 31, 2010

Holy Mole!!

After a day of snowboarding in the Sandia Mountains, Julie and her best friend, Mandeep, and I were ready for a warm meal. All the talk about red enchiladas with an egg over easy, sour cream, guacamole and onions last Sunday had Mandeep and me craving some dank Mexican food. But following my six year stint in Las Cruces, its hard to find the same kind of Mexican eats you find closer to the border. The salsa was spicier, the chiles were heartier and it seemed like the meats were much more savory. 

However, the thing with most Mexican restaurants is that they close on Sundays–being a day for worship and time with family (or at least that was my reasoning behind it). So we ended up driving around to a bunch of different places that were listed on Mandeep's cell phone when we googled some places. I think the first five places on the list were closed and we ended up just driving around in search of a place to sit down. Destiny had apparently lead us to El Sarape, the restaurant right next door to my former place of employment, Fuji Yama. Ironic yeah? Perhaps. Fate? Not so much. 

At first we lingered in the car trying to decide if this was where we were going to eat or not, then we dragged our feet from the car to the building where we were pleasantly greeted by a mad who spoke little english but was very friendly. He sat us in the corner and gave us some time to look the menu over. With thoughts of many of the restaurants in Las Cruces racing through my head I perused the menu hoping that something was going to pop out at me–and it did just that. 

The menu was primarily written in Spanish with an English translation following each menu item's description. Hurray! This just brought me back to living in Zacatecas, Mexico while I studied Spanish a few years ago. For me it was also a confirmation that the food was going to be stellar. Thinking back to one of my first dishes that I ate in Zacatecas I looked for a mole plate and sure enough there it was. I was so excited. I haven't had mole since I visited my friend, Josh, in Harlingen, Texas in October and before that since I cooked it at home with Dusty during school. 

Since we were all starving too, we decided to get a small shrimp cocktail and a small bowl of the Azteca soup—bad idea for our bellies, great idea for our tastebuds. The soup was simple considering it had four basic components: toasted tortilla strips, cheese, avocado and a chile sauce. That was all it need too. The cheese and the avocado provided a slightly creamy contrast to the spicy sauce and the tortilla strips gave a nice textural component to it. 

The shrimp cocktail was equally satisfying. It has a typical cocktail sauce for a Mexican-style cocktail–a slightly runny mixture with lime juice, cliantro and avocado (sometimes cucumbers) with whole shrimp chilling on the bottom. None of that popcorn shrimp that you find at other place either. The sauce comes together with a sweet but salty tasty with just enough acidity to work with the avocado's mild flavor. It was a refreshing combination too, reminding me of summer. 

Our dishes came shortly after we had admitted that we were getting full and had no more room for our tacos, enchiladas and mole. But we were thinking, "If the soup and the cocktail were that good, the other food must just as good if not better, right?" So we dug in—at least as far as we could. My mole was great. Totally brought me back to Zacatecas and home with Dusty eating chicken mole (not that I know of any other kind of mole). The shredded chicken was served in the mole sauce accompanied by a side of rice, refried beans and warm corn tortillas. Despite the description saying that there would be sesame and pumpkin seeds on top, I was still excited for was lay ahead. I took a bite of the chicken and was taken to a state of nostalgia. 

For those of you who have not had mole, I suggest giving it a try. Its a different taste than what most people are used to when it comes to Mexican food–or at least the connotation of Mexican food. Though there is chile in the sauce, it has a range of flavors including chocolate and other spices. Though chocolate is almost always the first flavor that comes to mind, it is not an overwhelming flavor. The sauce has a slightly savory, yet sweet taste to it. As far as I know, the process of making mole at home takes a good amount of time and patience. I've also heard that its an all-day process of slaving over the stove and putting a lot of love and care into making it right. I'll have to keep that in mind for another post. 

I'm glad that we decided to go there for dinner, it was great. We were seriously stuffed—in a good way at that. And now I know where to get some good Mexican eats when I have a hankering for it. 

Friday, January 29, 2010

Some Sort of Sushi

One thing about my job that I can't complain about is the never-ending desire to eat sushi. I just can't get enough of it. The possibilities are nearly endless—add fish here, sub vegetables there, take away the crab and throw in some freshwater eel too. And don't forget about they style of preparation—let's fry this roll in tempura batter or lets put this one in a soy wrapper. On top of that are the sauces used to dress the rolls up—eel sauce and spicy mayo to name two. At Sushi & Sake, they love the sauces. One of the most popular rolls, the Nob Hill (named after its location in Nob Hill, a popular destination in the downtown area), has all the sauces on it: eel sauce, wasabi sauce, spicy mayo and not to mention that there is Sriracha (the well-known Thai red chile sauce) in the spicy tuna mixture. The Amigo, made with a cream cheese stuffed chile that is fried in tempura, is covered in the wasabi sauce, a chili oil and eel sauce. The sauce is apparently boss. 

I've fallen head over heels for the tempura maki roll. It has a combination of tuna, salmon, and avocado in the center, with rice and nori (seaweed) on the outside. Of course, its dipped in tempura batter and then fried. They throw a few zigzags of eel sauce on top and sprinkle the roll with toasted sesame seeds. Delicious I tell you. The tempura is a nice contrast of the texture from the sticky rice and the soft fish and avocado. Also the slightly sweet flavor of the eel sauce and the lightly salted tempura batter provides a well-balanced background of flavor. I love rolls with that fried component. I'm big on textures–remember, I can't even eat a banana. 

Tonight I had a chance to order roll before I headed home so I asked one of the chefs to surprise me with something that he equally enjoys himself. My only stipulation was that it had to be fried in tempura batter. You see, we have a few of other rolls that are fried but the others are rolled in panko crumbs–I don't like that kind of texture, or at least thats what I've decided so far. He told me that he would make me a 'Multiple Orgasm'. As with anything dealing food, I quickly responded with an 'okay'. I was down. 

When it arrived, I was visually pleased–it was not only fried in tempura batter but it was also toasted in the oven. Yum. It was smothered in spicy mayo and eel sauce and had a toasted sesame seeds on it for the final presentation. I was thrilled. My first bite was bit hard to grab with my chopsticks, but I was victorious. I'm no professional when it comes to chopsticks so I often end up losing half of me piece or experience an avalanche of rice and fish down my chin at the last minute. Neatly nestled in the center were salmon, avocado and cream cheese. The avocado was slightly overripe (or maybe it was just the heat breaking it down), the salmon was at a medium temp and the cream cheese was nice and soft, not so firm like it so often is. 

The flavors were very strong–each one speaking out at the proper opportunity—the cream cheese at first, then the cream avocado, the light earthy, salty flavor of the salmon ending with the sauces, tempura and sweetened rice dancing together on my tongue. It was a 'multiple orgasm' of flavors. So many tastes all in one roll. Next time I may feel ready to try the Nob Hill. One of my co-workers says that its too many different flavors—I think she may be right. I'll have to take baby steps. 

On another note, Kelly's Brewery does not sell growlers. I swung by tonight to grab one for my sister and me but no go. Apparently Nob Hill doesn't allow it. I was thoroughly disappointed. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Heightening the Taste of Food

Today my sister, Julie, was going through all her books and I came across a bunch of book about Siddhartha and other related books about meditation and life. While I was pilfering through the ones I decided that I was going to read, I began thinking about another article I read on the Dining & Wine page of The New York Times Website, "When Chocolate and Chakras Collide". 

It got me thinking about the concept of marrying food and yoga in the same class. The article tells of a disagreement in yoga communities about the marriage. Some argue that since the path of practicing yoga leads followers to enlightenment, then why not heighten their sense of taste or 'enlighten' themselves while eating and tasting different foods. On the other end of the spectrum, some firmly follow the earliest teachings of yoga, supporting that yoga forbids the eating of meat and the teachings of yoga which forbid pain for others, where the 'others' may include the sources of our food. 

While I understand that both sides of the argument, I have to admit that I agree with these new innovators of these food and yoga classes. I think its a great idea. Among other ideas that are similarly designed, the idea of heightening the senses and enjoying the food's flavors for what they are, is a wonderful gift for people who love food and people who are willing to try new things. 

In some big cities, there are places that try to heighten those senses in a different way–not so much through meditation but more so through the elimination of other senses. Since the five senses include  hearing, tasting, touching, seeing and smelling, the easiest to eliminate would be sight, right? These places create dining areas–whether they be typical dining settings with tables and chairs or low tables where diners sit on cushions–where the lights are turned off or where diners can wear masks to cover their eyes. Unable to see their food, diners must rely on the other three senses (considering that they're not cooking the food, there is no sizzling or crunching involved, or at least enough to determine the taste of their food) to taste the meal. 

Smell has been proven to be a significant part of taste so smell is a big factor and touching or feeling food can play an equally significant factor in determining agreeable or disagreeable tastes. For instance, I don't like the taste of bananas because I don't like the texture or the smell. Its a slimely, yet thick, texture with a very sweet, nearly floral smell that I can't handle. I can only eat half a banana—on a good day. 

I think that when people can get down to the meditation and tranquility of uniting with one's self, I think that the taste of food would definitely be magnified. When people can achieve peace with themselves, only can they truly enjoy what others–and food– have to offer, right? Or at least something like that. I believe there is truth behind that. If there were a similar class here in the Duke City, I definitely participate. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Growlers Are Great

Every Wednesday, newspapers across the country publish my favorite section–the food section. Referred to differently in different papers, The New York Times Dining & Wine section to read and is also my homepage on my MacBook. With the easy access to the Internet and the accessibility of publishing during different times of the day, the website is constantly updated with pieces that may not appear in the Wednesday version of the paper. Today there was a story about the 'return' of growlers. 

Like I said on my last post, while enjoying some pizza at Il Vicino I decided to bring home a growler of the Slow Down Brown. When I told him that I was going to buy one, he told me that he had no idea what a growler was. To my dismay, there are a healthy handful of people who don't know what they are. The NY Times story "The New Old Way to Tote Your Beer" goes into some detail of the history of the 64 oz. jugs and provides reasons for their 'return'. I say 'return' because though I am merely 24 years old, I have been purchasing or participating in the purchasing of growlers for close to five years. 

While I was attending New Mexico State University, my ex-boyfriend and I would buy growlers for us to split or to bring to a friends house to share. Being a fairly small town, Las Cruces only had one brewery, High Desert Brewery. They had some delicious beers on tap. Of course, given the season they had a ever-changing list of brews on tap. One of my favorites was their Wheat beer or their ESB–the Extra Special Bitter. Lip-smackingly tasty. 

Here in Albuquerque, as far as I know, there are at least five breweries. Il Vicino is one of my new favorites (with refills costing $10), Turtle Mountain, being the first to introduce me to the growler when my pa would bring them home, Chama River (has some really good eats too), their sister company Marble Brewing and Kelly's, which is conveniently located just next door to my place of employment. Note to self: pick up a growler after work tomorrow night. 

Some breweries will even fill up other companies growlers, at least so I've heard. I have yet to test this myth. My pa has a growler from Turtle Mountain from 1999 so I am a little scared to bring it in–they may trade it out. I want the classic bottle for display.  I also have a Soccorro Springs growler from the brewery in Soccorro. We would stop in on the way north or south from Cruces. And now I have my Il Vicino Growler, which I plan on filling up fairly often. I think I may try and do that tonight actually. I took the Beer Brewing and Society course at State and loved it. I love trying new beers and believe I'm pretty able to tell them apart... Perhaps at least. Also I want to try brewing some brews sometime. Its an expensive hobby, but then again, I think it can pay for itself in the end. I may have to leave that for another post. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pizza Night

For some strange reason I have had this crazy craving for pizza. I've been thinking about before my breaks at work and I've been seeing it on the boob tube too. I even went to the Il Vicino the other day with my friend and still had the craving. Or at least until tonight. I think I have been satiated—at least for the moment. 

One day, I was talking about pizza at work with the sushi chefs and one of them had suggested Il Vicino or Saggio's so I was thinking about stopping in when I had a chance. I never made it on my break but I finally had a
 single shift and was able to enjoy my evening not working. A friend and I went to Il Vicino on in the heights which was sort of in an unfortunate location. Or at least it appeared to be at first glance, obviously people knew they were there so they get business and they have a few locations in Albuquerque so they aren't lacking the clientele. 

One of the awesome things about Il Vicino, other than they rad wood ovens they have, is that they also brew their own beer. When I went in they had a selection of about five or so beers on tap along with a nice selection wines–local and national labels (I think). Their selection of pizzas is pretty impressive too. They had personal pizza, paninis calzones and more. I don't think I need to tell you, but I ordered a pizza. Number 11, the Molta Carne. It just sounds grand yeah? It had Kalamata olives, pepperoni, sausage, capocollo ham and mushrooms with a 
marinara sauce and fresh oregano. A nice little personal meat-lover's pizza. Delicious. And to make the experience even better, being that cold weather is perfect for brewing dark beers, I ordered a 22 oz. Porter (the formal name escapes me, but the taste lingers still). It was a great brew. Unlike their distant relatives, Stouts, Porters have a more chocolate, less roasted taste or bitterness. Their brew was very smooth with a slightly sweet finish to it. I even took home a growler of the Slow Down Brown for me and my dad to drink. It was an equally crafted brew. I was thoroughly excited about the pizza, but the beer was a plus. 

Today was my first full day off in a few weeks so I took the opportunity to cook something. I decided that pizza sounded easy and pleasing enough for everyone in the house
hold. My sister moved back home and my parents are usually home–aside from their short little visits to the Santa Ana Casino. So I picked up some the ingredients for the pizzas after my best friend, Kelly Robertson, and I watched Avatar. Definitely recommend it–awesome flick! 

My ex-boyfriend and I used to cook pizza a few times a month since it was so easy. It may not have been all-the-way-made-from-scratch, but it was close enough. We always bought a box or two of the Jiffy Pizza Crust Mix at the grocery store to plan ahead and usually had the rest of the ingredients in the fridge or picked them up as we planned for dinner: a big can of spaghetti sauce, veggies (usually mushrooms, onions and spinach) and some sort of meat (chicken or pepperoni). 

The spaghetti sauce is just as tasty, if not more so, and the pizza crust was easy to add any sort of flavors too. I like to throw some Italian seasoning in there and some garlic powder. Some minced garlic and sesame seeds around the crust make for nice textural and flav
or components. Go wild–just think of the boxed crust mixes as a piece of white bread for you to add some flavor too. You could very well make a dessert pizza with it too. 

My brother, Robert, was going to come by for dinner so I was planning for at least six or seven mouths to feed–he has an entourage you see. I made two pizzas tonight, one with Italian sausage and one with pepperoni; both with red onions and mushrooms, topped with mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. I tried to toast the crusts before topping 
them, but I think my oven was at too low a heat to achieve the crust I wanted. Other than that, the pizzas came out great. I love how the onions will caramelize and give off a nice charred flavor. and the sesame seeds were a nice, nutty contrast in taste from the creamy cheese and the salty sauce.

I think my hankering has subsided so I think I'll be good for a while. Or at least until morning—I have a few slices in the refrigerator waiting for me to eat them for breakfast. I love pizza leftovers–they're the best reheated. 

Monday, January 25, 2010

Let's try this again—again

So much for keeping up with this blog on my trip back to N.M. It was a tough trip. I was driving alone and I thoroughly failed at planning any sort of route and ended up wasting time getting lost, among other things. However,  I had a blast! And according to my friend, James Steves, I now have some life experience to prepare me for getting a grown up job—or at least something like it. 
The trip took me about 12 days, I think, and I saw a lot of things and did a bunch of things I'd never done before. I saw the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, saw most of the monuments in D.C., I stayed in a hostel for the first time, I drove through a dozen states and only got pulled over twice in Texas, plus I lost my ATM card in the midst of my adventure. All in all it was an awesome trip. Next time, I want to drive along the Pacific 101 and camp out in the Redwood National parks, visit the beaches and of course, grub down on some killer eats. 

But until then, I'm living back at home with my parental units and working at a sushi joint that shares the same rood with a Korean restaurant. Sushi & Sake and the Korean B.B.Q. House are one entity run by an unwieldy Korean lady named Suzy. For being someone that stands no more than a few inches taller (if that) than my 4-foot-9 1/2-inch self, she has quite a bite and a heavy hand (metaphorically speaking).  I've only just begun working for Suzy this year so my skin is still sensitive to you her strict scrutiny and and serious demeanor. Before that I was working at another sushi joint up the street, Fuji Yama. 

Fuji Yama is a new Japanese restaurant located on the busy strip of Central Avenue in Albuquerque that lives in the shadow of the Chinatown buffet that formerly occupied the building. I worked there for a just over a month, last Friday being my last day. Suzy told me that if I didn't quite working for Fuji Yama she was going to have to fire me, so that ended my time there. I assumed it was a conflict of interest but later discovered that it was a matter of personal conflict.

The problem wasn't that Fuji Yama was a sushi joint but that there were some personal matters involved as well. The owners of Fuji Yama are Korean and attend the Korean United Methodist Church. Suzy's sister also attends this church and apparently my former employers are no longer nice to Suzy's sister... At least this is according to what Suzy says. I don't really know what their deal is, but I think its funny. 

Yeah. So where does the gastronomy fall into this? Well while working at both places, I think I've gotten a minimal glimpse of what the the Korean eats are like. Even though Fuji Yama is a 'Japanese' restaurant, I primarily ate Korean food there. During our shifts, the owners would allow us an opportunity for a break and chow down before the dinner rush. Almost everyday we would have our kimchi, our rice and something else. It was usually some sort of soup, egg dish, or fish dish. On occasion, the cook (a Mexican gentleman) would make some variety of fried rice or burritos with egg or chicken. Among all the foods that I ate there, I fell in love with the fish. 

Being a sushi joint, the chef would butcher the salmon and and use portion out what he needed. To avoid being wasteful, they would cook what was left and serve it for lunch. Though it was just the bones of the fish with just a thin layer of pink meat, I discovered my favorite piece of the fish—the fatty portion of meat just beneath the dorsal fin. It is delicious. Its very moist and juicy,comes right off the bone and contains a lot of flavor. They would take these bones of the fish and  grill them, which left the meat of the flesh a little dry, but that part of the fish is delectable. 

I may be wrong, but I don't think that a lot of people know about this part of the fish. Living in America, we have the luxury of buying just the filets of fish or just the breasts of a chicken or the ribs of a cow. I would go so far as to make the claim that not many home chefs know how to break down an entire chicken or butcher a fresh caught fish. I've also seen the chefs cook up the fish collar– either in a soup or grilled. I haven't had any of it, but from what I've seen on television, the meat on the collar is supposed to be very flavorful and quite tasty. 

Working at Fuji Yama, I also learned how to make kimchi. Mmmmm! Love that stuff. Despite my move to Sushi & Sake, I like Fuji Yama's rendition of the traditional side dish much better. Only because at Fuji Yama they don't as saucy or runny. I also enjoy the fresh version of kimchi, with less soaking time for the cabbage and a more coarse blend of the chile. They we were very encouraging when it came to my questions and my observing while they cooked and prepared other Korean eats. 

I'll be sure to let you know how it goes when I make some kimchi for the first time without the supervision of a seasoned Korean telling me what to do. Hopefully that will be soon. But as for right now. I find myself on a diet of sushi, Korean and Filipino cooking. I love my life. At least the part where I get fed awesome and diverse foods.