Friday, January 27, 2012

What Happens in Vegas Gets Posted on Blogs

So what had happened was - I spent time with good friends, gained five pounds, and discovered the natural beauty of Las Vegas. And by that I do not mean that I went to a strip club that specializes in chicks with real boobs. Although now that I've said that, I kind of smell a new business venture!

I've found myself in Vegas twice in the last few months because my best friend recently moved there. We met and became fast friends while working for a golf course in Irvine, CA in 2006. Since then, she became a pastry chef and spent time living and working in Chicago, IL. Vegas isn't exactly down the street, but it's close enough that we can see each other every couple months. She's gorgeous, hilarious, sharp, and extremely talented.

My beautiful friend Stephanie Boswell during her days at Naha in Chicago
Generally my time with Stephanie is like a lazy Saturday only with another person present. We watch DVDs for hours--favorites include Ali G, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dave Chappelle, Arrested Development, and dance movies--and sit around in lounge pants while we giggle and gossip. However, for this trip, I did my herr, put on some heels, and met up with some college friends at Steph's restaurant. 

Steph works at Sage in the Aria hotel, and I'm going to do my best to walk you through my culinary journey there. I don't have the most sophisticated palette and tend to lean toward comfort food over fine dining, so my fine dining lexicon is limited. I pretty much have no idea what I'm talking about. 
Ees so swanky! Picture me on the far right, eating a poached egg like it's my job
The lounge area is so beautiful and has plenty of seating space to accommodate small groups. I sat at the bar while I waited for my college friends to arrive and ate the menu item that had been haunting my dreams. Blessing my dreams, actually. A slow-poached organic farm egg with smoked potato and shaved winter truffles and toasted country bread.

Words and pictures cannot even come close. Go eat this right now.

I was sippin' on a "desert shrub" cocktail as well. It was fantastic and unexpected. Tequila, prosecco, pink grapefruit, and purple sage. Everyone knows citrus and tequila go well together, but mostly people go with lime.  Have you seen people drink tequila and squirt? It's good and cheap. I love tequila, fresh grapefruit juice, and a bit of sprite to achieve a more high end version of that. The desert shrub took it to another level. Beyond.

Real bits of grapefruit in there. Classy. Pic via
Next I had the seared bigeye tuna sashimi with baby artichoke, preserved lemon, and oil cured olives. The best sashimi I've ever had, hands down. So flavorful. When my friends arrived we had the roasted sweetbreads with glazed bacon (YUM), creamy white polenta (YESSSS), and trumpet mushrooms. I've been afraid of sweetbreads a little, but they are not scary. I wasn't amazed by them, though. The glazed bacon and creamy white polenta could show up on my table every day, and I wouldn't mind. The list goes on, and it is long. We had oxtail crostinis with sweet and sour onions, a delicious variety of artisan salumi, grilled spanish octopus, and crispy rainbow trout with green beans. I also added a "hemingway daquiri" to the mix, which was made of ten cane rum, maraschino liqueur, and fresh lime and grapefruit.

Now we must talk about two fine dining staples that I have never in my life even considered trying. In fact, I didn't know what one of them was until we checked with Professor Google. Beef tartare and foie gras.  The foie gras is made into a custard that is served like a brulee, garnished with blood oranges and cocoa nibs, and served with salted brioche rolls. This dish is probably the most decadent thing I have ever eaten, and even the brioche rolls by themselves are dangerous. Given everything else that we had eaten, a few bites of this was sufficient. Next time, I think I would start with this (and share it with someone) so I could savor every last bite.

Foie gras custard brulee
Another name for this post could have been "Discovering How Many Ways I Can Consume Poached Eggs in One Meal" because the most attractive part of the wagyu beef tartare was the freakin' egg. The dish is also served with a crushed caper aioli, pickled mustard seeds, and crispy chocolate. The crispy chocolate was a fun, unexpected element that I really enjoyed. The chocolate and beef kind of melted together in your mouth as one rich, savory morsel with just a touch of sweetness.

Wagyu Beef Tartare. Oh you fancy, huh?
For dessert, we had the crunchy chocolate and peanut butter tart with a cassis sphere and toasted marshmallow sauce, the passion fruit mousse with huckleberries and white chocolate, almond sponge cake, and namelaka, the warm apple-fennel strudel with hazelnut crumble and brown butter ice cream, the flexible chocolate with candied walnuts and carmelized white chocolate ganache, and a pear dish that is no longer on the menu unfortunately. All the desserts were good, but the passion fruit mousse and chocolate and peanut butter tart seemed a little out of place. Sage is embraces the "farm to table" philosophy and uses primarily local and in-season food. I don't think passion fruit is either of those things. Also, the chocolate and peanut butter tart was yummy but didn't come across as uniquely upscale like the rest of the menu items.

It took almost four hours to eat that meal, which is why it took me hours to write this post. I'm guessing it might have taken you just as long to read it. If you are reading these words, in fact, I both congratulate you and thank you.

My next installment - Red Rock Canyon!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Doing Good Work for the American People, Like Taste Tests

Last week, after a 17 minute trip to the post office, my work wife and I set out on a mission of utmost importance--the procurement of snacks, preferably candy from foreign countries.

 This book is actually my autobiography. 

A Google search might lead you to believe that only men have work wives, and women have work husbands (um, yeah right--like I need two of those) but how narrow minded! My cube neighbor is my work wife because she holds me down, just like a good wife should.

Everyone should have a work spouse! Making out optional!

Back to the snacks. My discovery of sour straws from Holland was a huge win, but I also noticed some organic peanut butter cups from the good ole U.S. of A. I picked them up and looked closely at the crisp,white packaging and enticing image of a peanut butter cup almost identical to a classic Reese's. Then I saw the price! Organic AND $2.29? They MUST be delicious! Like the good partner that she is, my work wife grabbed a pack of Reese's and a taste test was declared!

  Justin, I find your packaging and outrageous price verrry appealing

We immediately scurried to our cubicles where she delicately opened both packages. We cleaned our palates and took a bite. And some sniffs. First,  that unmistakable creamy chocolate and melty peanut buttery taste of the Reese's. Pretty much perfection. Next was Justin's organic version...bleck! I almost couldn't eat it all except of course I did! Two out of two work wives agreed - waxy chocolate, lacking in flavor,  and nearly devoid of any peanut taste. Even the color paled in comparison to the Reese's. Before you go telling me that the Reese's is probably pumped full of food coloring, let me tell you that we checked, and you are wrong!

 What is in there, nail filings blended with sawdust chips?

Sorry pricy, organic option. I just can't go to bat for you this time.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

You Bet Your Goulash I'm Hungarian!

Don't be embarrassed. This is just my night shirt.

In honor of my Hungarian heritage and the need for a quick dinner that would utilize my ground beef, I decided to make some (faux) gulyas while googling pictures of the Gabor sisters. I think it was a success, the goulash and the googling, so I'm going to share the search results and my recipe with you.
The Gabor Sisters. Um, Kardashians who? Also, did you know Eva wrote a memoir titled Orchids and Salami because that's all she kept in her fridge? OMG never been so proud to be Hungarian!

Now before I begin, I realize this probably brings up a number of questions for you. One such question might be, ANOTHER recipe? what the hell is this, some crappy food blog? No, no it's not. As you know, this blog is about all the things I think and say and do that I find interesting and fascinating. Surely, you are fascinated by stories of the things I cook, no? Another question I'm almost certain you are asking yourself is, wait a minute, this chick isn't Mexican? Don't feel bad. People make this mistake all the time. If you'd met me in person, my gargantuan stature would have given me away.

Now, back to the recipe. I actually got the idea from my very non-Hungarian friend, coworker, and soulmate Susan. I said, Sus, what can I make with ground beef besides hamburgers or meatballs? She said, I just dealt with this myself when my husband brought home a refrigerator box full of ground beef. Then we laughed. Then she told me to make goulash.

Susan's husband in the same cart he used to bring home the ground beef. Via

Traditional goulash is not made with ground beef, and it is also not usually made in 20 minutes. Hence why this recipe is faux. I needed fast and simple that day, but generally I do try to stick to tradition. See below.

Just a normal day making for realz goulash

So, based on Susan's suggestions, this recipe and its comments, and my own taste, this is what I came up with:

1 pound ground beef
1/2 medium/largeish red onion - chopped or sliced (I would have used yellow if I'd had it)
some form of garlic
16 ounces crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons paprika (the recipe said teaspoons, but I read it wrong. I think teaspoons wouldn't have been nearly enough. The more paprika the better!!)
1/4 tablespoon smoked hot paprika
1 teaspoon garlic salt (maybe more? I actually don't know)
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 (16 ounce) package noodles (egg noodles would probably be best, but all I had was some pasta. this would be tasty over rice or mashed potatoes too)
beef, chicken, or vegetable broth as needed

First I got the water going for the pasta. While waiting for it to boil, I heated a bit of butter and olive oil in the pan, and once hot, I sauteed the onions until soft and then added the beef and sprinkled it with a generous amount of garlic powder. (If you use fresh garlic, add it to the onions for the last minute or so of cooking before adding the beef.) While the beef was browning, I mixed the tomatoes with the remaining ingredients (except the pasta, obvi). I added the mixture to the beef and let it come to a boil. It seemed too thick, so I eyeballed what looked to be an appropriate amount of beef broth to thin it out without making it too thin. As I let that simmer away, I boiled the pasta. Once it was done, I drained the pasta and served it up with big spoonfuls of beefy goulashy business on top!

I think the whole thing took 20 or 25 minutes. If I had let it simmer gently for a long time, it would have been even more delicious. But, if I had done that, I probably would have needed more liquid in the sauce. So keep that in mind if you decide to do faux goulash slow and low style. Also, you could add all kinds of things to goulash, like vegetables and potatoes. Nothing says Eastern Europe like starch on starch!

Happy eating to you!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Let's Eat! Holiday Successes and Scary Looking Failures

I did a decent amount of cooking and baking this holiday season, but not all of it was successful. For example, although the cookies to the right were pretty adorable (toot, toot! that's the sound of me honking my own horn), they were kinda chewy. I'm not sure if I overworked the dough or if I didn't wrap them well enough before I iced them. There was a day between baking and icing. In any case, it wasn't my best work. The recipes are great, and I use them every Christmas. I think this was a case of user-error, so don't hesitate to give the recipes a try. They are from an old issue of Martha Stewart Living, but you can find them here on my mom's blog.

I didn't purchase any fancy treat boxes or tins for the cookies this year, especially since my boo has instructed me not to bring anything into his mother's house that might create more clutter. Every time I pass by the baskets and tins from years past, I get what he means. So instead, I put the cookies on a paper plate, wrapped some tissue paper around the plate, and tied it up with ribbon from Michael's. Ribbon from Michael's brings me a very strange amount of joy. Inside that little package sits shortbread wedges, sugar cookies with royal icing, and a little bag of truffles. See below for the shortbread recipe.

I must say, the truffles were a huge hit. I didn't have the alcohol called for by the recipe, but I did have some Cointreau and cherry brandy. I decided to divide the batch in half and make two flavors. Unfortunately, my eyeballing skills are lacking, and I didn't divide it into two equal parts. The Cointreau batch didn't have enough Cointreau, but the cherry brandy batch was a huge hit. Very delicious. There's my boo to the left, carefully rolling the cooled chocolate into balls. It's messy work, and he did it all while I cooked for Christmas Eve dinner!

You might be wondering where the scary looking failures are. The sugar cookies were an internal failure (too chewy, oh, and my first batch, too done), and the truffles clearly a success. Well, before I get to it, take a look at the one cute-packing-purchase I did make. Striped treat bags! Those pictured are cookie bags for my coworkers, but the truffles were put in similar bags and tied at the top with a ribbon. For these, I folded the bags, punched holes in the flap, and strung pieces of ribbon through to tie them up. Now, the ugly.

The in-progress picture of my green bean casserole and scalloped potatoes is here. The image of the finished product is buried deep within the darkest depths of my memory. You will have to trust my description because I will never allow you to see it.

Look at those fresh green beans, cooking away in organic vegetable stock while the onions carmelized in the pan! Or take a look at the layers and layers of potatoes just waiting for boo to get back from the store with the rest of the heavy cream! What could go wrong? EV. ER. Y. THING. Within moments of snapping this picture, I noticed that the potatoes were rapidly changing color. They had only been sliced a short while before, and although I know that potatoes can turn all funky colors after being exposed to oxygen (I think that's the deal), I never knew it could happen so quickly.

By the time I got them in the oven some were grey. I also think we sliced them way too thinly. It's possible there were too many and the cream should have covered the top layer completely. This was my first time making these by myself, and let me tell you, they sure didn't look like my grandma's. I didn't quite have enough cheese to cover the top, so the ugly bits weren't covered up. Then I took them to my boo's mom's house where they were heated and reheated at least twice. The green beans were fine except for all the reheating. By the time we ate everything, the top layer of the potatoes looked black, they were oily, and the beans were completely shriveled. Such a fail.

I think my biggest success was one I didn't get a picture of, naturally. Chipotle Bacon Deviled Eggs on New Year's Eve. Everyone agreed they were bomb. I had little knowledge of how to successfully boil and peel eggs, so finding this was a big help.

Maybe I was like a Top Chef contestant cooking his protein three ways or making an extra dish when he doesn't have to. I did too much and ended up doing few things well. Bummer.

*Here is the recipe for the shortbread, courtesy of my mom and her good sense to hold onto that Martha Stewart Living issue from nearly 10 years ago.

Shortbread Cookie Recipe - Makes 3 dozen

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter (doesn't say softened but we think it should be)
1 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Heat oven to 275. Grease three 8-inch springform pans. (I have only one 9-inch springform pan, so I did it in batches. I only got two batches out of the dough.) In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add vanilla and beat. Add flour and salt, beginning on low speed and increasing to medium, until flour is just combined.

2. Divide dough evenly among prepared pans. Using a spatula, spread dough out to edges of pan, making sure the tops are smooth and level. (Know that "spreading" the dough did not happen for me. The dough is not super easy to work with, and I had to use my knuckles to press it into the pan. As a result, the whole smooth and level thing didn't really work out.)

3. Lightly score dough in each pan into 12 equal wedges. (My mom uses a 10" bamboo skewer cut to the width of the pan and pressed it into the dough. I do the same. However, I did 16 equal wedges. Since my pan was a little bigger, this worked out fine, but with an 8-inch pan it would probably be a stretch.) Prick a pattern into each wedge with the tins of a fork.

4. Bake until shortbread is dry and barely golden, about 50 minutes. (I think mine was a bit overdone.) Cool on a wire rack. Using a sharp knife, follow the score marks to cut into neat wedges.
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