Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Finals Gloom

Limited postings until winter quarter finals and the MPRE are over. Here's to hoping I make it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Roasted Beets & Sheep's Milk Feta

No blog can get through the winter without sharing at least one beet recipe. Although warm, or even hot beets can be pretty darn delicious, I can't resist a roasted beet salad.

Typically, beet salads feature a goat cheese and are dressed too heavily. I like to lighten up the flavors with an orange and mint champagne vinaigrette. And thanks to Sitka & Spruce, I can't help but use sheep's milk feta instead of goat cheese, which I think helps to prevent the cheese from stealing the spotlight.

To offset the noticeably creamier sheep's milk feta, I like to use the bitterness of arugula. Finally, I use the sweet and salty nuttiness of salty candied hazelnuts (rather than the more typical plain toasted hazelnuts or strictly sweet hazelnuts) to round out the dish and add some crunch.

So here's my go-to recipe when I'm craving that tender earthiness that only beets have to offer.


Ingredients for four appetizer servings of Roasted Beets & Sheep's Milk Feta
4 small handfuls of arugula
4 small red beets
4 small golden beets
3 T extra virgin olive oil + extra to coat the beets
1 medium navel orange
2 T champagne vinegar
2 pinches finely chopped fresh mint
1 generous handful of salty candied hazelnuts (Whole Foods sells some of my favorites, or you can follow this great recipe from Smitten Kitchen)
4 to 6 oz of sheep's milk feta (depends on just how much you love the stuff)
Kosher Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Scrub all the beets and pat dry.

3. Coat the beets with olive oil, kosher salt, and pepper in an oven-safe baking dish or roasting pan.

4. Cover the dish or pan with aluminum foil.

5. Roast for at least 1 hour and 45 minutes until tender when pierced with a fork or knife.

6. In the meantime, squeeze the juices of the orange into a jar and add the olive oil, champagne vinegar, and mint. Shake the jar to emulsify. Add salt and pepper to taste. Put the dressing in the refrigerator until needed.

7. Crush the hazelnuts with a mortar and pestle or a similarly effective method.

8. Let the beets cool until you can handle them. Cut the beets into cubes (cut the golden beets first to avoid discoloring from the red beets) and place in the refrigerator until cool, but not cold.

9. Arrange the arugula onto a plate, followed by the cubed beets. Crumble the cheese by hand and sprinkle over the salad, along with the crushed hazelnuts.

10. Shake the dressing jar again to emulsify and lightly drizzle over the salad.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


ink. is the Los Angeles-based brainchild of Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio. It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of the Voltaggios. And if you've been following this blog for a while, you've probably already gleaned that bit of information from my 2011 Thanksgiving post.

On Top Chef, I loved both of the Voltaggio brothers' playful and focused approaches to flavors and textures, but never had the chance to try Michael Voltaggio's food at The Dining Room at the Langham Hotel and never had a way to justify a flight to Frederick, MD just to try Bryan Voltaggio's food at VOLT. When I first heard of Michael Voltaggio's new restaurant venture, I followed its development like a puppy follows treats.

After numerous opening date changes and several trips to LA that didn't coincide with the actual restaurant opening, I finally got a chance last November to sit down and eat to my heart's content. And let me tell you--he did not disappoint.

Note: I think I was too excited to take decent, non-blurry photos. Sorry for the quality, but hopefully they still capture at least a little bit of how delicious these dishes were. Also, it was kind of dark in there.

Naturally, the night started off with some drinks. I was particularly excited about the cocktail list because I recognized that a mixologist from The Tasting Kitchen was behind the bar. Unfortunately, the only drink that really struck a chord with the table was the Scotch with lemon, ginger, clover honey, and angostura bitters. Balanced, flavorful, and refreshing.

First up was the Kale. The crispy kale lost all of its natural bitterness with some well-timed roasting. The nutty toasted pumpkin seeds found its way into every bite. The bubbles of burrata were generous and silky. Chunks of Asian pear flanked the sides of this mountain of kale and added some tender sweetness.

At the base of this mountain was a layer of pumpkin butter, solidifying the nuttiness of each bite. A yuzu dressing brightened up the entire dish, ensuring the portion wasn't too sweet, creamy, or nutty. Definitely one of my favorites.

The Bigeye Tuna was a beautiful interpretation of a Hawaiian poke and a balanced Italian crudo. The tuna was rich, the grapefruit was refreshing, the soy gel was perfectly potent, the rye croutons brought the texture and flavor of a bold crostini, and the parsnip-sesame cream married the acidity of the dish with its light saltiness. A really great dish with a clear point of view.

The Beef Tartare was like no other I've had. The precisely shaped rectangle of mouthwatering beef acted as a base for a punchy blizzard of horseradish snow. The small crimson red stones of puréed pickled red onion contributed just enough acidity, and several tender stumps of hearts of palm topped with a balanced sea bean chimichurri added some beautiful notes to the dish.

The next dish was one of the more deceptive dishes of the night. The Lamb Neck acted as a hearty base for chickpea fritters. Chickpea fritters? Yup, those thick, carrot-like sticks are chickpea fritters. Crispy exterior and smooth, hummus-like interior. The lamb stew, tart yogurt curds, and bright chive purée effectively transformed the dish into--as the menu suggested--a well-balanced, chickpea poutine. By far one of the more filling dishes of the night.

The only dish that the table couldn't finish was the Brussel Sprouts with crispy pig ears, house-cured lardo, and apples. The brussel sprouts were almost too burnt and the apple didn't carry enough tartness to balance out the heaviness of the ears and lardo. Good for one bite, but passable after the second.

The Hot Mushroom Cereal was another one of my favorites. Steel cut oats, duck tongue, duck egg, and matsutake and hon shimeji mushrooms. Appreciate the intoxicating aroma and mix.

I loved the marriage of the earthiness of the clean and flavorful matsutake and hon shimeji mushrooms with the comforting steel cut oats. The oozy duck egg and appropriate melt-on-your-tongue duck tongues added just the right amount of fat and salt. Hot mushroom cereal for breakfast every day of my life? Yes, please.

The Spaghetti was clean and refreshing, but unfortunately lacked flavor. The noodles themselves were made of giant squid, which is a great low-carb alternative to pasta, but the whole dish was missing salt and umami. The hazelnut-ink pesto fell off the slick noodle too easily, which made it difficult to appreciate the full effect of the sauce. The dish could have also used some more punch from the piment d'espelette and the zucchini could have had more of a presence. I loved the concept, but I hope this dish has been redeveloped to maximize its flavor potential.

The perfectly executed Beef Short Rib with tamarind barbecue sauce was succulent and sweet. With each bite, the morsels of beef surrendered to the tooth. The tender turnips and crispy potato pirouettes were a successful nod to a traditional plate of steak and starch. If you're craving some beef, this isn't a bad option at all.

While the beef was delicious, I preferred the Berkshire Pork. The pork itself was nowhere near as tender as the beef, but its powerful flavor and its addictive charcoal crust made this dish much more dynamic. The crispy leeks were simultaneously sweet and bright and the trunk-sized tubes of rigatoni stuffed with a creamy cheese was another successful nod to an American standard--mac and cheese.

The beef and pork were the two clearest references to traditional American mains. The Sea Bass closed the dinner with a return to the refined, Asian-influenced, flavorful, focused, and creative food that Michael Voltaggio does best. Incidentally, the sea bass was one of my absolute favorites of the night. Actually, the sea bass had one of my favorite components of the night--kelp pasta. Pasta dough combined with wakame and mustard, rolled and haphazardly ripped apart like maltagliati. The dark green pasta looked like it came straight from the ocean, and the taste and texture accented the briny fennel-and-saffron mussel broth. The shishito peppers packed a well-controlled punch and of course, the buttery sea bass was perfect.

Our decision to get two desserts for our table of four quickly became an obvious decision to get all four desserts on the menu. First up was the Peanut Butter. The peanut butter took the form of a cigar, accompanied by intensely sweet and concentrated bananas, rich milk chocolate, and a healthy portion of a creamy, yet still light, sorbet. Tasty and not too sweet.

The Apple dessert was one of the more interesting desserts, with a crème caramel, burnt wood sabayon, and a sprinkle of walnuts. The apple was refreshing and tart, the sabayon was like a campfire custard, and the walnuts brought just a slight touch of nuttiness. The overall effect was like a heavily applewood-smoked, and almost savory, cream.

The Chocolate dessert was a balance of bitter and sweet. The coffee and spice crumble rounded out a thoughtful dose of chocolate and was a refreshing take on a classic combination. Again, tasty and not too sweet.

The absolute best dessert was the Grapefruit Curd with avocado cream, cilantro sorbet, and a charred maple-lime mallow. The grapefruit curd was like a delicately firm grapefruit parfait. Grapefruit and avocado is one of my absolute favorite combinations, and here, the mellowed out tartness of the grapefruit was perfect with the orbs of avocado cream. The mallow solidified the presence of acidity and sweetness, and the cilantro sorbet was refreshing, creamy, and simply addictive. The sorbet was so amazing that we asked the kitchen to snag us another scoop. The scoop came with a base of avocado cream, which was heaven.

We were one of the last few diners in the restaurant and were lucky enough to meet and speak with Michael Voltaggio. He even took the time to draw a goofy little picture in and sign a copy of the VOLT/ink. cookbook for my friend. When we mentioned we were the ones who requested the extra scoop of sorbet, he laughed and sportively told us he scooped it with his own two hands. My friends and I jokingly responded with some "oohs" and "ahhs." Except I wasn't joking.

Who's a fanboy? This guy.

Some say the restaurant's name may stem from Michael Voltaggio's affection for tattoo artistry, but I'd say the name comes from a certainty that you won't leave his restaurant with at least one new tattoo--in the shape of, say, a cilantro sorbet or kelp pasta--written on your heart. Period.

8360 Melrose Ave
Suite 107
Los Angeles, CA 90069
(323) 651-5866

GET: Kale; Bigeye Tuna; Beef Tartare; Hot Mushroom Cereal; Sea Bass; Grapefruit Curd (the menu changes pretty frequently, but if you see any of these or something close on the menu, get it).

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tra Vigne

Tra Vigne is a great, classic Italian spot in St. Helena that was recommended by two great friends in Seattle. They said they've tried to make it a point to go here every time they've been to Napa, and I can definitely see why.

The interior is huge, with vaulted ceilings, well-spaced seating, and a couple lifted booths that overlook the entire dining room. People come dressed as casual or as formal as they want, and nobody seems to mind.

The atmosphere outside is just as friendly as it is inside, except the diners outside get to enjoy Napa Valley's clear, warm nights. And eating among the lush vegetation outside makes you feel like you're in Italy, eating tra vigne, or between vines (thanks, Google Transalte).

My family's meal's meal started off with a beautiful set of bread and olive oil. The bread was crisp and the interior was light. The olive oil was top-notch and rich in flavor.

Our first of two appetizers was a well-executed Classic Caesar. The creamy garlic dressing was punchy, the forno-roasted croutons were crunchy and rustic, and the boquerones, or anchovies, were briny and amazingly flavorful. The cheese was filling, generous, and just sharp enough to complement the crisp, refreshing romaine lettuce.

My favorite of the two appetizers was the Mozzarella Cheese "Al Minuto". The mozzarella is handmade to order, and comes with table-side service. The waiter sliced up the humungous ball of mozzarella--smartly seasoned with Napa Valley olive oil, salt, and pepper--into six long slices.

The cheese is placed on six accompanying slices of grilled bread and briefly garnished with a couple sprigs of rosemary to transform the separates into bruschetta.

The first bite was heaven. The tempered mozzarella cheese melted at contact with my tongue. The outer rim of the mozzarella had just the slightest chew, while the interior offered the creamiest, purest, most refreshing mozzarella I've ever eaten. The light seasoning was perfect, and the amazing olive oil shone on its own as much as it bolstered the flavor of the cheese. Each subsequent bite was as heavenly as the first, and I was darn close to ordering another round.

Our table also shared a Wood Oven Baked Fig Pizza. The blistered crust was rustic and crispy, but the rest of the pizza dough was a little too chewy and moist for my taste. But that didn't stop me from enjoying each and every bite of this pizza. The toppings were fantastic. Sister Mercy's black mission figs, gorgonzola, arugula, and aged balsamic reminded me of a classic fig salad. The figs were gooey and the gorgonzola was sharp. The creamy funk of the cheese was balanced by the bitter arugula and sweetly acidic balsamic.

The best dishes I had at Tra Vigne, aside from the mozzarella, were their amazing housemade pastas. Six options made it difficult for the table to pare the options down to three, but thanks to the waiter's suggestions, the three we chose were outstanding.

The Sage Infused Pappardelle came out as green as soil. I guess I was just expecting the pappardelle to take on the same vibrant color that spinach-based pasta flaunts. But not to worry, the flavor of the actual pasta exposed the potency of sage. And you must know by now that sage is one of my top five herbs. Tossed in a forest of braised rabbit ragu, wild mushrooms, and grana padano cheese, this pasta exceeded my expectations. Despite being just a tad bit on the salty side, the ragu was hearty and lightly gamey. The tender rabbit was unforgettable and the meaty chew of the rabbit got along well with the perfectly al dente ribbons of pappardelle. The cheese was more of a garnish, which is usually something I'd disagree with, but in this case, I didn't mind the scarcity of cheese at all. The earthy portion of wild mushrooms rounded out the whole dish.

While the Rigatoni alla Carbonara wasn't my number one pick of the trio, it was a shining example of how an Italian classic can still make an unsuspecting impact on a meal. I also appreciated how light this rendition of a traditionally heavy dish was. The rigatoni was buoyant and textured, the salty guanciale and flavorful onions were still hearty, and the organic eggs, cracked pepper, and parmesan kept this pasta perfectly seasoned.

Other than the pappardelle, my favorite pasta was the Maltagliati Verde. The basil-and-spinach-infused pasta was the perfect way to lighten up the slow-cooked pozzi ranch lamb, and the sangiovese wine sugo gave the pasta some sweetness and heart, almost as if the slow-cooked ranch lamb was braised in a sweet red wine. The gaminess of the lamb really came through on this one and the maltagliati, like all the other pastas, had an incredibly satisfying texture.

I'm sure you can find great pasta at other places in Napa Valley, but from my experience with Napa so far, Tra Vigne's takes the cake. And if you're debating where to go to dinner for classic Italian food, Tra Vigne definitely, without a doubt, beats Bottega (I know, I know--those are fighting words). The food is traditional with some seasonal interpretations, the service and atmosphere are bright, and prices are surprisingly uninflated: a refreshing experience, to say the least, in a valley saturated with overly pretentious and expensive dining.

Tra Vigne
1050 Charter Oak Ave
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-4444

GET: Mozzarella Cheese "Al Minuto"; Sage Infused Pappardelle; Maltagliati Verde.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Julia Child's Classic Cheese Soufflé (1/24) Part One

When people think of soufflés, people tend to think of two varieties of soufflés: cheese and chocolate. And when people think of cheese soufflés, people tend to think of Julia Child, so naturally, this recipe was first up to bat. A chocolate soufflé is on deck.

The recipe begins with setting your oven to 400 degrees, steaming some milk, and melting some butter.

After the butter melts, you make what's essentially a roux by adding some flour.

Stir to combine for about three minutes, making sure not to brown the roux.

Once you add the steaming milk, whisk until smooth, almost like a creamy liquid cheesecake filling.

Add some paprika, salt, and nutmeg to make the end product more than just a cheese mountain.

The soufflé filling should feel somewhat thick and resistant at this point.

To finish off the filling, add in four large egg yolks. Add the yolks in slowly and whisk concurrently to avoid cooking the eggs and curdling.

Leave the filling out to cool to room temperature and prepare your 1.5-quart soufflé dish. Butter the base and sides and dust with grated parmesan cheese to prevent the soufflé from sticking to the dish.

To create the base of this soufflé, whip up some egg whites and grate some gruyere cheese. The egg whites should be whipped enough to be somewhat stiff, but not dry. If you don't know what dry egg whites look like (I definitely didn't before this), take an egg white and whip it to oblivion while observing how the egg whites transform. At a certain point, the whites will be so aerated that they lose all of their moisture.

Alternate between adding a layer of egg whites followed by a layer of gruyere. This base is what is, hopefully, going to lift the soufflé.

Finally, add the lukewarm filling on top and bask in your layering skills.

And with some nostalgia of many a roast chicken, send your dish off to the oven, and lower the temperature immediately to 375 degrees.

FAIL. The first time I attempted this recipe about a week ago, the soufflé didn't rise at all. It didn't even touch the lip of the dish. Basically, it sunk. Upon further reflection, I realized that I hadn't lowered the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Whoops. Luckily, the flavors were still all there, so my friends and I still thoroughly enjoyed this with some steak and veggies.

This past weekend, I made another attempt and I swear the soufflé rose. Unfortunately, it fell in about 20 seconds, so I couldn't get a picture of the soufflé in all its glory. I thought this picture would do, but next time I'll just assume that it's going to fall in five seconds and take the picture right when I take it out of the oven.

The end result, both times, was delicious. The creamy gruyere and comforting taste of parmesan hit me over the head with each bite. The egg whites hinted at a cheese quiche and the lightly toasted cap added the only texture to the soufflé. I think the recipe could have used a little bit more paprika and definitely some more salt. Next time, I'd probably also add some thyme in to give the flavor profile of this soufflé some kick.

Despite these needed adjustments, the soufflé was a great way to kick off this project. If anything, it set a baseline for the flavor profile of a savory soufflé. I'll probably do a spinoff based on this soufflé during the second half of the year.

I know I'm already behind, but soufflé number two went into the oven last night, so expect another post soon.

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