Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Simple Things in Life: Roast Beef Revisited

I remember spending weekdays with my nana, watching her cook dinner every single night for my papa. Some things made me run and hide, like liver and onions and finnan haddie (a stinky smoked fish that she used to cook in milk); others made me stand near the stove with anticipation, namely mince served over mashed potatoes and her roast beef. Those memories came to the forefront this week while I was shopping and saw boneless rib roasts on sale for $1.89/pound.

For a mere $6.24, I got a 3.3 pound roast that would feed 6 (or 4 plus leftovers for sandwiches). Getting ready to cook dinner, I’d almost forgotten how simple it could be to cook a roast beef. Really. It took me absolutely no time to fix dinner. I literally unpackaged the roast, put it on a roasting rack in a pan and stuck it in the oven for about 2 1/4 hours at 325 degrees. (Yes, you can season the outside if you want, but there really is no need.)

About an hour into it, I threw in some scrubbed baking potatoes and when all was done, I tossed some spring mix lettuces with veggies and dressing and we had a meal. All for less than 5 minutes of prep. Who doesn't have 5 minutes?

I served the roast beef with some leftover blue cheese (from the smoky beef stew I had made for Sunday dinner), because the horseradish in my garden isn’t quite ready for harvest yet. Simple, easy, and tasty.

In this day and age when we are trying to do things quickly, we forget about basic roasting (chicken, beef or pork). While there is a longer lead time than making Hamburger Helper, the actual hands-on time is significantly less. About the same amount as boiling some pasta and heating canned spaghetti sauce, and oh so much better.

So next time you see roasts on sale, grab one and give yourself a break from spending time in the kitchen.

NOTE: The above image is a stock image because, once again, I forgot to get the camera out. But this image looks almost identical to the one that I cooked and I did want to give you an idea of what you would be working with.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grazing Through Portland

There is nothing quite so fun as eating your way around a city, even in the middle of a downpour, which is exactly what Brilliant Daughter and I did last weekend. She and I took a three-day girls sojourn up to our northern neighbors to graze and shop, and even though the weather was not very cooperative, we managed to slog through and have a wonderful time. (It always helps to overpack so you can change out of wet clothing frequently.)

Landing on Friday morning, we jumped on the light rail and headed to our accommodations, a great boutique hotel, Hotel Modera, located between downtown and the university district. My first impression was I wanted to move in permanently. The walls of windows, the coolest couches (pic below) and chairs—just how I would want my living room to look. The cool vibe extended to the front desk clerks in their black turtlenecks, as well as the rooms: well appointed but minimal in aesthetic.

We had been expecting the worse, weatherwise, on Friday. All reports had indicated pouring rain, and there was even a severe weather alert on Yahoo. Hah! Nothing. We wore our coats and carried our umbrellas for naught. It was perfect sweater weather. Brilliant Daughter and I explored downtown and stopped into the Red Star Tavern for lunch around 2pm. Great vibe, we were seated right away and had a very attentive waiter. The menu ranged from burgers and pulled pork to cedar plank Alaskan halibut and smoked shrimp salad. Not wanting anything too heavy, we settled on the jerked chicken salad and the beef skewer salad with apples and gorgonzola. blue A pleasant amount of food, well plated, although the beef was slightly undercooked and a bit chewy.

After a bit more shopping, we headed back to the hotel to plot our weekend food adventures. We laid out the basics for each day from the list we had brought, but booked venues, restaurant closings, or some other unforeseen event forced us to alter plans time and again. Not that we did not enjoy ourselves immensely and eat some wonderful food, it's just that nothing much went as planned. Call it serendipity.

One delightful detour was Veritable Quandary. I wanted to eat there based on the name alone. I love it. Not sure what the name has to do with food, but it's intriguing nonetheless. Located across the street from the police station, the place was hopping on Friday night. We sat in a booth in the bar, rather than the dining room or patio, and had one of the best salads ever. A riff on the traditional Salad Lyonaise, this version started with a generous portion of a cornbread base, topped with butter lettuce leaves and a gently, perfectly poached egg. Smoked bacon, pickled onion, and small cubes of a dry aged jack decorated the plate. The dressing, a buttermilk-chive-white cheddar, was not overwhelming and a perfect balance. We made the mistake of ordering only one to share and we both agreed that it would have been preferable to have our own serving. I followed the salad with a creamy cauliflower and root vegetable soup, while BD had the prawn appetizer. Huge, and I do mean huge, prawns wrapped in pancetta, served with grilled chayote and a chilaquiles sauce. We topped off the dinner with their decadent chocolate souffle, which was light, airy, and very chocolately. A great ending to our first day in Portland.

Saturday morning brought sunny skies and a trek to Voodoo Donuts. I normally shy away from donuts, but everything we read about this place meant it needed to be on the must-see list. We trekked 18 blocks only to find a line out the door. This was not nearly as bad as I first thought, as the interior of this shop is tiny. About 10 customers can fit inside at one time. The menu is longer than I had time to read, but the maple bacon bar caught my eye as a necessary evil. I was doomed, however, as they were sold out. I had to quickly settle for the Portland Crème (Portland’s official donut), while BD ordered the Voodoo Donut, a human-shaped donut with chocolate glaze, two eyes and a random pretzel shoved in to resemble a real voodoo doll. I'm sad to report that neither donut was anything to write home about. A standard donut with filling and glaze, it appears that this place is probably lauded for its unusual donuts, with unusual names, and unusual toppings (Captain Crunch or Cocoa Puffs cereal, Tang, and Oreos, among others). Maybe we should have tried more?

The worst part of the trek was that by the time we exited Voodoo Donuts, there was a downpour happening. No coats, we resorted to pulling out our mini umbrellas and walking briskly to the first coffee house we could find, unfortunately a Starbucks. But it gave us cover from the rain in order to eat our donuts, so we were grateful. With no end in site, we had no choice but to return to the hotel, change out of our sopping wet clothes and don boots and coats.

Off to the Pearl District to wander while we waited for the 2:30 showing of District 9 at the Mission Theater. A living-room type theater that houses a McMenamins pub, we had hoped to order lunch and watch a movie as a respite from the rain. After walking all the way over, we found the theater and pub closed and no one in sight. Not wanting to wait 45 minutes in the pouring rain until the showing, we chose to hoof it back to the Pearl District and find sustenance. We landed at the Living Room, another cool theater with couch seating, that has a modern little bar and restaurant. Rather than ordering and watching a movie, we just grazed on tapas and had some liquid fortification (a tasty ginger mojo that I will try to recreate at home). I was wary of BD’s choice of the warm artichoke dip, but it was a homemade version with large chunks of artichoke hearts that was generous and tasty. We also noshed on deviled eggs (one each of shrimp/avocado, caviar and roasted red pepper) and beef skewers. Skipping dessert we decided to check out Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe nearby, another tiny hole in the wall (capacity 5 people). We managed to keep the order to 6 choices, but not for lack of variety. Everything looked delicious, but my girlish figure had to draw the line somewhere. My favorite was the Conquistador Hazelnut Praline. I could use one of those right about now….

Dinner was planned at Higgins, just a short 3 blocks from our hotel, but the Saturday night theater crowd made that impossible. Plan B was 3 Degrees but they wouldn't even answer their phone, so we went with Plan C and called Carafe, a little French bistro next to the Keller Event Center. Tables were available, so we hoofed it over. Barely a quarter of the tables were full, which seemed odd. While the menu had a good selection and the waitstaff was pleasant, the food was less than stellar. My fresh radishes, served with butter and fleur de sel were good, but even a child could fix that dish. The steak and frites, ordered by BD came out with the steak on the raw side, when it had been ordered medium. My special beet salad was good but not spectacular. Even the peach tart tatine was uninspired. Guess that's what you get with Plan C.

Sunday started off with a move to the hip Ace Hotel in the Pearl District. Very retro/industrial, this renovated hotel appeals to the under-35 crowd. Comfortable and affordable, it is within walking distance to Powell's, one of the best indy bookstores in the nation. And to Everett Street Bistro, one of BD's fave restaurants, and after eating there, I can see why. For two years BD has been raving about the steak and pommes frites at ESB. We had wanted to eat dinner there, but again, not in the cards for us, so we settled for brunch. Starting off with mimosas, we went eclectic and ordered the wild mushroom scramble, Belgian waffle with candied bacon, pecans and maple crème fraiche and…of course…an order of frites with lemon aioli. We ate every last bit of every dish. And I could eat those fries every day of the week. Cooked and seasoned perfectly with whole garlic cloves fried alongside, they were divine.

Our last meal of the day was shared with our friend Chris Heidrich of Bootsnall. We met up at Clyde Common, the restaurant adjacent to the Ace Hotel. The concept here is common tables, and the owners liken the space to a European-style tavern. Food runs to "domestic and foreign," which means anything goes, and they do use local farmers, foragers and ranchers, which is always a plus in my book. Because Content 09 (a fashion/music event) was taking place at the Ace and the abandoned laundry next door, the restaurant was full to capacity and the bar was 3-4 deep, making for a rather noisy venue. But we had a good (although not great) meal that consisted of tagliatelle with roasted wild mushrooms, steak and frites, a lamb dish and the caramel fig tart tatine with balsamic. The steak was slightly underdone (again) and the lamb a bit fatty, but overall flavors were nice and the portions good.

Portland appears to be a great food city. I would have loved to try so much more, but time and calorie intake had to be monitored. I look forward to my next visit, during drier times.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Noir Food & Wine, Pasadena

I frequently visit my brother down in the Southland. I enjoy the weather, seeing his kids grow up, and more recently, cooking with him in his newly renovated kitchen. Spacious and light, it is actually a whole addition to the home and is the size of my office and kitchen combined. Great cabinet space, a huge industrial-type gas stove, two ovens, and most of all—room to work without tripping over one another.

While we did get to do some cooking together during this last visit, we also had the pleasure of dining at one of Pasadena’s newish restaurants, Noir Food & Wine, located in Old Town. The small restaurant, located adjacent to the Ice House Comedy Club, currently consists of seating for 30 inside and 10 tables on the outdoor patio. Construction is expected to start in a week to open a wall out to the patio, which will reduce seating by 3 tables total, but will make serving easier, as well as access to the wine storage. (Reservations are encouraged given the size of the space.)

The restaurant’s kitchen is run by chef Claud Beltran with an ever-changing menu of small plates, rotating cheeses, charcuterie, and some yummy desserts. The menu during our visit was well rounded, and upon questioning found that about 80% of his produce is sourced locally, which is something I always like to hear.

The wine list included (no kidding) 600 different bottles, including over 100 pinot noirs, which is virtually unheard of for a restaurant this size. Taking the pressure off having to choose one, sommelier Jared Hopper kindly works out a menu of wine flights that allow you to tiptoe through selections, and has a lengthy wine-by-the-glass menu. Extremely knowledgeable, he also helped us venture out of our comfort zone and try new things, and made a generous substitution when they were out of one of our choices.

Since there were four of us, we were able to try a wide variety of items. We began with a fromage board of Exploratuer, Bucheron, and Servilleta, which came with fig cake, honeycomb, glazed nuts, and jellied fruit triangles. They don’t go overboard on the cheese offerings (11 total), and split them between those cheeses that would pair well with white or red wine. My only complaint was that the portions were a bit skimpy. The charcuterie plate had some tasty Spanish chorizo, as well as prosciutto, salami and hot coppa. Unfortunately the hot coppa, while wonderful by itself, wipes out the tongue for awhile with its heat and flavor, making tasting other items a bit difficult. Probably not the best choice when served with delicate cheese, but that was our bad. We also ordered a side of pomme frites here, which arrived with a homemade garlic aioli, catsup and blue cheese dip.

Round two was a salad of heirloom beets. The delicately cooked and julienned beets were served with chives, roasted garlic vinaigrette and a parmesan mousse. What was nice is that this wasn’t the standard roasted beets with goat cheese, which I love, but becomes a bit repetitious.

On to the seafood course, which brought two large, nicely seared sea scallops served on a bed of fresh corn and shitake ragout. Cooked perfectly with a crisp crust, we were sopping up the sauce with pieces of bread, it was just that good. The shrimp remoulade was well sauced and tasty, with a portion of four Gulf shrimp nestled atop a layer of grilled Treviso lettuce.

The red meat course was well received at our table. We tried both the hanger steak and the Farwell burger. The hanger steak was cooked perfectly and served with (slightly tough) mustard greens, chorizo-flavored gravy and grilled potatoes. Again, a sauce worth mopping. The Farwell burger was served slider-sized with tarragon, caramelized onions, remoulade and melted Pecorino. Hard to share, I only had a small bite at the end, so I did not get a full taste. My fellow diners did enjoy it however.

The last, and my favorite, course was dessert. The French press coffee arrived right before and was the perfect accompaniment to the chocolate terrine, Noir Bananas Foster, and the heirloom apples with ginger caramel sauce. The terrine, rich and dark, melted perfectly on my tongue, coating my mouth with heavenly chocolate. The Bananas Foster was an innovative version, with chunks of bananas deep fried in a delicate batter and served atop a caramel-like sauce with vanilla ice cream on top. Two orders of that went down in a jiffy. The simple presentation of a sliced apple with a dipping sauce washed down all the richness of the evening. Bright Honeycrisp and Granny Smith apples made short work of the well-infused caramel sauce. Some might think there was too much ginger flavor there, but it worked perfectly. (The only thing to make this better would have been a sprinkling of their glazed nuts!)

Overall, delightful space, company, and food. Service was good, staff was friendly and helpful, and for being such a small space there was not an overwhelming din from diners. I wish the Noir the best of luck in staying open in what is a very crowded food scene.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Part 3: BlogHer Food 09 Recap

The last part of my day at BlogHerFood 09 was spent attending the Visual Track, Session #3, which was Advanced Food Photography, led by Matt Armendariz of and Lara Ferroni of Cook & Eat and Still Life With (which chronicles styling food).

Both of these amazing photographers have built businesses around food styling. While Matt is more classically trained, Lara is primarily self-trained but has a tremendous eye, but both are making a living with their camera.

Lara’s Equipment:
  • IMac Intel Core 2 Due 2.4, running Tiger
  • ColorVision Spyder
  • Canon 5D MkII
  • 100mm 2.8 macro, 90 mm 2.8 tilt/shift, 50 mm 1.4, 85 mm
  • Lightroom 2 – for editing (great app)
  • FileChute (file sharing large files with others) – shareware
  • Bridge – part of Photoshop for organizing

Matt’s Equipment:
  • Mac laptop
  • Canon 5D MkII or 1 DS Mark III
  • Profoto 600watt strobe, Pocket Wizards
  • Flex Color
  • Digitial Photo Pro
  • Adobe Photoshop CS4

Both agreed that the best lens to get, if you have to have one single focus lens is the 100mm 2.8 macro. (Which, I might add, means nothing to me!)

As most of us know, it is important to have photos with a recipe. People are more likely to cook something with an image – on a blog or in a cookbook. So it behooves you to attempt to capture either the ingredients, the process or the end product (or all three if you are ambitious).

One way to make the learning curve easier is to shoot tethered to your computer. You can see, on a bigger screen than the camera has, what your shot looks like instantly. You can adjust light, setting, accoutrements. If you do this it is important to try and get true color. Light changes this quickly. It is important to calibrate your monitor and check color balance.

The use of props is important, but you do not have to spend a bundle. Both Matt and Lara have cases of props: Plates, forks, serving utensils, trays, linens, materials, papers, cake plates, serving dishes, glasses, cut yardage/fabric. Things should be on the smaller side. And thrift stores, antique stores, and eBay are good for unique and/or cheap items. Also, look at things that have alternate uses for things. Lara has taken a burner cover and turned it upside down to use as a dish.

Poorly colored food can be difficult to shoot. A bland brown stew or one-color salmon mousse can be perked up with a little creativity. Use a pretty serving dish and a sprinkle or side of herbs for the stew. Rather than shooting the whole pot of mousse, show it on a toasted piece of baguette with a thin slice of avocado or dill on a cutting board with additional pieces of baguette in the back. Use props, think outside the box.

Look for inspiration. Find photographers whose work you like, cut out images from magazines or bookmark/download images you like off the net to refer to. Put them in a file, or on a bulletin board. Look at every image you see – closely. See how the light plays, how the props are used, how the food is displayed.

Some good places to start:

Upping your game:
  • Change your angle
  • Try the shot with different lighting
  • Always take a few shots after you think you’ve gotten the golden shot
  • Recreate a photograph that you love. Try to match the look and feel of the styling and props. Notice highlights and shadows
  • Practice – take a subject and shoot it for 5 minutes. Then change something and shoot it for 5 more minutes, repeat, repeat, repeat
  • Don’t be afraid to fail.

Challenge yourself to understand your camera, focus and framing.
  • Play with your f/.stop
  • Learn to read a histogram
  • Shoot tethered – you can see exactly what happens when you change your f/.stop, etc,

I have to say that this session, while maybe a bit advanced for me, gave great advice. I’m anxious to get home, charge that battery and get shooting.

Thank you,BlogHer for putting on such a great event at a great venue. I immensely enjoyed my time and meeting so many like-minded people

PS: A quick shout out to all the sponsors of the event. Not only did they make this wonderful event possible, as a reasonable price to us bloggers, but they provided great swag! (especially PUR, Cuisinart, and Scharffen Berger Chocolate)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Part 2: BlogHer Food 09 Recap

The second part of my day at BlogHer Food 09 started with lunch in the Gallery. While many attendees chose to spend their free time exploring this great culinary city’s many fine dining establishments, the room was still comfortably packed. Full table settings greeted us, as did wine tastings from St. Supery. The draw for the meal for many of the attendees was not the food, but the food’s presenter, Rocco DiSpirito. A celebrated chef who has his share of face time on TV, written several cookbooks, and was named 2002 People Magazine's Sexiest Chef Alive, was joining us to hawk Bertolli Products, as well as recipes from his recent book.

I truly enjoyed the first course salad, composed of butter lettuce, haricot vert, sliced egg, olives, and an anchovy vinaigrette, as well as the dessert of milk chocolate flan with espresso foam. The wine pairings were also a nice treat. And the camaraderie at the tables, exchanging of ideas, plans, and all the encouragement that was found made my stay for lunch worthwhile. I must say, we are a nice group of bloggers.

The only bad thing to come out of the lunch is the realization, while trying to shoot the delicious salad, that I did not charge my DSLR and I do not have enough battery life to take pictures. I mean really, I’m here for the Visuals track and I forget to do something so simple? ARGH!

After lunch everyone took their full stomachs off to Session 2, which for me was Principles of Photography, led by White on Rice Couple, Todd Porter and Diane Cu.

The underlying themes here, in addition to learning the basic principles, to know your camera and improve your skills through practice. I think the joy of having a DSLR—or even a point and shoot camera—is that I can take 100 pictures of a jar of jam if I want to. It doesn’t cost me anything but time. Unlike the old days, when I used to drag my long lenses to my son’s soccer games and shoot 3 rolls of film in a day, only to have…maybe…8-10 photos worth saving, after having paid a pretty penny to have the film developed. That is no longer the case. And believe me, I have paid my dues in film processing. Kodak has made a mint off of me over the years.

Here is an outline of what I garnered from Todd and Diane in the Principles of Photography:

Photograph is about LIGHT
How to harness it
How it enters your camera
How your camera measures it
How to control it to get the images you want

The main ingredients that help you manage the light that enters your camera:
Shutter speed

What is exposure?
total amount of light used to create the photo
shutter speed + aperture + ISO
these 3 elements help you manage the light you want

Shutter Speed
-how long it lets light thru
-it’s about time
-measured in the speed of a second (1, 1/2,, 115, 1/40, 1/80, 1/100)
-controls motion

The best way to learn shutter speed is to play around with it. When shooting liquids /action like pouring wine or a mixer beating, you need to control shutter speed. Try 1/800. But if you want a muted style, with some blur, slow it down to 1/25 or 1/4.

The amount of light it lets thru
F1.4, f2, f2.8, f4, etc. correlates to amount of light going thru lens

Shutter speed and aperture have an inverse relationship. The lower the shutter speed, the higher the aperture.
1/15 f16
1/30 f11
1/60 f8
1/125 f5.6
1/250 f3.5
1/500 f 2.8

Be aware of your depth of field. Choose where the focus is to be (aperture controls this)
front – foreground
mid - midground
back - background

In a scene where you have 3 objects, and you want to control focus on the foreground, use 1.4F 1/200 sec.
To get the foreground and midground, try 4f 1/60 sec
To get all, try 10f 1/8sec or 16 f 1/3 sec

ISO- Rating for how sensitive film or camera sensor is to light
Higher the ISO (800, 166)
More sensitive
Low light situation
You can pick up noise with a higher ISO – start low and work up to find the best exposure without noise

Lower ISO (200,300)
Less sensitive
Bright light situation

White Balance
How your camera reads light different temperatures of light
Goal: get accurate color – have whites look white
Look at camera manual to see how to white balance using a white sheet of paper.

Lens focal lengths – general rule of thumb
Wide-angle – less than 50mm
Normal – 50 mm
Telephoto – over 50 mm


If it’s too bright, or is throwing shadows – you can diffuse/soften the light. Use blind or thin sheet or tissue paper to soften. Another option is a white plastic garbage bag. If there isn’t enough in the background, you can balance the light by using a white foam core to the side or back – like a bank shot in pool. Manipulating natural light.

Tools to use to shoot in the kitchen – if it is dark
Speed Light – attach it camera (SLR only) better option than pop-up flash. You want light off of angles. You can bounce light off the ceiling, side walls – rather than direct flash.
To diffuse light – particularly in restaurant – put lightweight napkin in front of pop up flash.

Visual Session #2 was great. Much of the above may not make sense to you. There were visuals that went along with each to help us understand, but it may make you curious enough to do some more research and better learn how to use that pricey DSLR….

and maybe, I might get one more recap in, on Session #2. Cross your fingers.