Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Oinkster

Several months ago some friends told me about a restaurant in Eagle Rock called The Oinkster, which they praise for its high quality "slow fast food," its renowned chef, and its affordable Happy Hour prices.  I took advantage of my sister's and brother-in-law's birthdays to invite them out to a meal at The Oinkster (don't all food enthusiasts make opportunities for trying new food with friends?), where we sampled the fare.

I had heard much about the Belgian fries (= twice fried!), so I made sure that we had plenty for each of us.  The others had made their selections through the website ahead of time, so we ended up with a variety of plates, all served in a timely and friendly manner.

1/4 rotisserie chicken, dark meat.  Sides were completely customizable, so here you see the Belgian fries, garlic aioli sauce in the background for dipping, and fried plantains.  The plantains were lightly fried but warmed all the way through, and even-textured - not mealy.  This was ordered with a chocolate shake, which was very chocolaty.

Oinkster Pastrami sandwich.  The pastrami is cured in-house, and here is sandwiched with Gruyere, caramelized onion, and red cabbage slaw.  The pastrami was meaty, smoky, and salted just the right amount.

Classic Burger 1/3 lb.  Juicy fresh ground Angus beef with house-made thousand island dressing, caramelized onions, crisp lettuce, and house-cured pickles.  Is there anything this restaurant doesn't make for itself?  This was my choice, and I didn't share one bite with the others.  I even ate all of the onions, which I normally remove at least in part.

We were too full to take on any of the desserts, but the cupcakes looked sprinkle-licious and the sight of the root beer floats almost had me reaching for my lactose pills (they were served in a large glass of 3 scoops of ice cream, bottle of root beer on the side).  Premium beers and wine are available as well, along with a unique soda selection.

While this place falls into the category of high-quality but less healthy and mostly non-vegetarian food (except for the veggie burger and beet salad, which I'm sure they make themselves), it certainly is a great treat for the occasional fast food meal.  Apparently breakfast is served on the weekends, so that will surely merit another visit...

The Oinkster
2005 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock, CA  
Orders also taken through the website

Happy Hour: 3-6 pm Monday-Friday

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Green Food for Earth Day

As a belated recognition of Earth Day - and because Earth Day should be every day, right? - I'd like to post on the green foods I ate this week.  To start with, these wonderful Anjou Pears I bought at Lake Produce: I was enthralled by how the green of the pears matched one of my new plates.  They were juicy and firm, and a great treat with a bit of soy cheese (cheese enthusiasts groan here, but lactose intolerants rejoice).

I also made an avocado vichyssoise (in French, this can be read to mean either "avocado vichyssoise" or "lawyer vichyssoise") from one of my new favorite cookbooks: Paris in a Basket.

So far I have made madeleines and a great chocolate-almond cake from that book, and both were wonderful recipes.  This avocado soup also turned out well - and matched another of my new dishes - although I must admit that cold soups are still growing on me, and I did tire of it after eating it for several days.  Lesson learned: make this soup when there are people to share it with.

This soup is another lactose-less option; vichyssoise in its typical leek and potato version is heavy on the cream, while this soup gets it creaminess from the avocados.  Much healthier!

Vichyssoise D'Avocat, taken from Paris in a Basket
  • 2 Haas avocados
  • 3 medium boiling potatoes
  • 4 C chicken stock
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin
  • salt and pepper to taste
If making the chicken stock from scratch, prepare ahead of time and let cool.  Remove the congealed layer of fat before adding to the soup.

Peel and boil potatoes, quartered and well covered by water, until well cooked.  Let cool.

Combine avocado pulp, potatoes , cumin, and 1 C cold stock in a blender or food processor.  Blend to form a smooth puree, adding the remaining stock gradually.  The consistency of the soup should be thick and creamy.  Make sure your blender or food processor is large enough to handle this amount of liquid; an immersion blender may work well in a large pot, although I have not tried this.  I was forced to whisk in the final bit of stock in a pot because my 11-cup processor was too small, but it will be better incorporated by a blender.

Taste, adjust seasoning, and cool for a couple of hours before serving.  Stir the soup and serve in four chilled bowls, garnish with a few pink peppercorns and cilantro leaves, or chili powder and pepper as I did here, and serve.  If you are going to store this soup for a day or more, beware of the oxidation effect - the surface of it will grow dark as it's exposed to the air, which is unattractive although still edible.

Ways to make this food truly "green": buy all organic produce, go shopping with reusable bags, compost the peels and cores, and unplug the appliances when you're done with them.  Not that hard to do!  Happy Earth Day!

Guimauve: Beginnings of an Obsession

I have been developing an obsession with marshmallows of late, and especially with handmade marshmallows in the French guimauve vein.  It all started with a purchase at Downtown Disney of a stick of chocolate-covered marshmallows, from a candy shop where you can watch through the window while they dip the skewered marshmallows into chocolate.  When I bit into this carnival food-ish delight, I was surprised by a lovely layer of creamy caramel under the chocolate, and was ecstatic at the sugary complements of smooth chocolate, soft caramel, and mallowy marshmallow.

Following this experience, my mother tried Martha Stewart's recipe for homemade marshmallows, which turned out well but had her stand mixer piping hot after 30 minutes of intense mallow-mixing.  I enjoyed eating Martha's version, but thought it sounded too cumbersome to make them myself, not to mention bad for the kitchen equipment.

So I put the idea of making marshmallows out of my head until I encountered this post on my favorite food blog.  My imagination was captured as it made the connection between my previous marshmallow tastings, my affinity for all things French, and a random phrase I remember from the movie Amélie that references a malaxeur-guimauve at the foot of the Montmartre steps, and it was decided: I would make this recipe.  In spite of the fact that it was a two-day process, it looked doable and had the added attraction of using natural agave syrup instead of glucose or corn syrup, which are required by most marshmallow recipes.  These rose and chocolate-flavored mallows looked too light and whimsical to resist.

I discovered a whole section of agave syrup at Whole Foods (later to find out that it is now available at Trader Joe's as well), and went at it.  I feel rather sorry for the people I fed this first batch to, because they were biting into gelatinous cubes.  Chocolaty, yes, but not exactly the whimsical delights I was aiming for.  I had been a bit uncertain about substituting Knox gelatin powder packets ounce-for-ounce for the gelatin sheets* called for in the recipe, and was not sure how long to mix it, so I was determined to try again for a more successful batch.

Before that first batch was completely consumed - because I could not wait longer to try again - I made my second attempt, feeling more confident about how to make the gelatin powder bloom, and with great (but unfounded) faith that it would turn out well this time.  I decided to try mixing it longer, and magically the mixture became mallowy after a good 10 minutes of mixing.  I knew by looking at it that something had gone right this time, and I finished the process to happy results of plain and mint-flavored marshmallows that I dipped in chocolate.  The dipped mallows looked like elephant feet, but tasted fantastic, especially the mint.  My family devoured this batch, and I felt content that I could make them again.

This lead to a foray into kosher marshmallows, to be exposed in a later post, but also to my most recent non-kosher batch: strawberry and mint mallows.  For my sister and brother-in-law's birthdays, I told them they could choose the flavors they wanted, and this is what came about.  I think the strawberry are my favorite ever, although mint dipped in chocolate is a close second: the strawberry ones get their flavor from pureed strawberries, with the puree cooked down so as to condense the flavor and reduce the amount of liquid I was adding to the recipe.

So here is my American, non-kosher version of Chocolate and Zucchini's guimauve recipe:

Whimsical Marshmallows
  • 2 packets Knox gelatin (1/2 ounce total)**
  • 3 egg whites
  • 2 rounded tablespoons agave syrup (substitute honey or corn syrup)
  • 1 C sugar***
flavoring options (portioned for 1/2 recipe; double if you're only making one flavor):
  • strawberry: purée strawberries and boil down until purée is dark red and thickened, stirring frequently to prevent burning (10-15 minutes over low heat, time depending how many strawberries you do); I pureed 1 lb of strawberries, and used 4 heaping teaspoons of the purée to flavor a 1/2 recipe, which left me with about 3 tsp puree remaining.  The strawberry flavor comes through, but if dipped in chocolate the chocolate tends to overwhelm it.
  • mint: 2 teaspoons mint extract (any more and the mint flavor is VERY strong)
  • chocolate: 4 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder, dissolved in a small bowl with 1 T hot water.  This technique may be used with any powdered flavor you want to use.
  • rose: 4 teaspoons rose water (pairs very well with a coating of ground and chopped almonds)
  • other flavors of your choice: generally I try for the 4 tsp flavoring/half recipe ratio, but as with the mint, it is possible for that to be too strong.
  • liquid food coloring, if desired
To finish (choose any combination of these you would like to pair with your flavor):
  • powdered sugar (I often mix this with any of the options below)
  • unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ground/chopped nuts
  • sweetened grated coconut
  • other coatings of your choice!
Day 1:

Line 2 loaf pans with parchment paper or wax paper.  If only making one flavor, line a square 8x8 inch pan with paper.  Use a sieve to line the paper with a layer of powdered sugar.  This will help you to remove the sticky marshmallow from the paper later on.

Soften the gelatin powder by placing 3-4 tablespoons of water in a small bowl, and sprinkling the powder over the surface of the water.  Set aside to let it thicken.  If the powder does not all get soaked up by the water, you may sprinkle a teaspoon more of water on top, but not too much - you don't want to add much liquid to the mixture.  It is okay if your gelatin looks like a grainy, cloudy clump of gelatin in the bowl - just let it sit, and it will be dissolved when you add it to the rest of the ingredients.

Have the egg whites ready in the bowl of a stand mixer or mixing bowl if you're going to use an electric hand-mixer.

Combine the agave syrup, sugar, and 6 T water in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stir to dissolve, and keep at a simmer for 8 minutes.  Remove from heat.

Add the gelatin to the syrup, and stir with a wooden spoon until completely dissolved.  There will be an immediate foaming up when you add the gelatin, but that should die down as you stir.  Cover and keep warm.

Beat the egg whites until soft peaks just begin to form.  With the beater still on, add the hot syrup in a slow, steady stream, and keep whisking until the mixture cools down to just above room temperature.  You may stop the mixing before it cools down if it takes on a nice, white, lightly marshmallowy appearance and texture, which usually appears after 10-15 minutes of mixing.  The longer you mix it, the stiffer the marshmallows will be.  The mixture should not be stiff marshmallow consistency when you stop mixing, but it should be thick enough to be picked up by a spoon so that it follows the spoon on its own.  It will thicken more as it sits out for the next day.

Transfer half of the egg white mixture into a second mixing bowl, and whisk in the flavoring quickly.  Add the second flavoring to the remaining mixture and whisk it in without overbeating.  Add a drop or two of food coloring if so desired.

Pour each of the mixtures into a different prepared loaf pan and even out the surface with a spatula.  Sprinkle some powdered sugar over the surface to enable easier handling later, and cover lightly with a sheet of parchment paper (without pressing on the surface) and let stand somewhere cool for 24 hours.

Day 2:

Place the coatings of your choice in wide, shallow bowls.

Have a mug/glass of hot water ready.  Lift the parchment paper to remove the marshmallow from the pan, and place on a cutting board.  Carefully peal the paper off the sides of the marshmallow by pulling on the paper and using a knife to push the marshmallow off.  Cut the marshmallow into squares, dipping the knife in the hot water between cuts.

A few at a time, transfer the squares into the bowl of coating and toss in the coating.  They will be quite sticky, so handle them lightly (I use spoons or the knife to manipulate the squares), and make sure they are well coated before you set them aside to dry.  I like to put them on a baking pan lined with parchment or wax paper. 

Leave them out to dry for 2 or 3 hours, flipping them halfway through.  It is important to flip them, as the bottom side will remain wet if not exposed to the air.  I prefer to let them set out for a day or more, as this allows them to grow chewier the way I like them.  If you put them in an air-tight container after 2 or 3 hours, they will remain fairly soft.  You can place them in a fine sieve and shake them out in order to remove some of the extra coating prior to packaging them away.  I actually enjoy letting them dry with excess powdered sugar on them, as the sugar forms small crisp clumps of sugar on the surface of the marshmallow, which adds a little crunch on top of the chewy lightness.  These should keep for a few days in an air-tight container.

The last step is one of my favorites: chocolate dipping.  Once the marshmallows are dried to your preference, you can melt some chocolate (dark, white, whatever!) and dip the finished squares in it, again setting them to dry on parchment paper.  I usually melt chocolate in the microwave for convenience's sake, even though that is not the best for the chocolate, but you have to be careful to not heat the chocolate chips or squares in the microwave for any longer than 30 seconds at a time, and stir well between heating bouts.  It is easy to burn chocolate in the microwave if you heat it for any longer at once.  I've also taken to adding a splash of canola oil to melted chocolate to allow it to remain smoother and softer when it is coating something; just mix in approximately 1/2 teaspoon of canola oil per 4 ounces of chocolate after the chocolate is completely melted and dip away.  If you add the oil, it will take longer for the chocolate to solidify, so that process can be sped up by placing the tray of marshmallows in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.  This means also that the oil gives it a lower melting point, so that it will melt on your fingers when you pick them up.

Serve plated, package as a gift for friends with individual squares in candy papers, wack out your blood sugar and eat them all yourself, make a pyramid of guimauve, or otherwise get creative!

*gelatin sheets are available primarily in Europe, although apparently specialty stores in the States also carry them.  I will be picking up some sheets when I'm in Paris in two weeks, so stay tuned for my report on them!
**metric amounts for all the ingredients may be found in the Chocolate & Zucchini version of the recipe.
***I reduced this from 1 C 2 T sugar; C&Z says you can try to reduce it more, but try reducing it only by 1 T at a time.  I had to use raw cane sugar for about 3 T of this amount one time, and it turned out fine, although I normally use all refined sugar.

Foodie Redefined

Until recently, I always objected to being called a "foodie."  To me, it sounded pretentious and haute-cuisine-y, leaving no room for simple or popular food enjoyment.  I certainly enjoy exploring new and unfamiliar foods, which can include the foodie trend of the moment (agave syrup, anyone?), but I cannot hide the fact that McDonald's soft serve ice cream is a particular love of mine.  As I have started to become acquainted with more people in the foodie community, I am realizing that a foodie is not necessarily required to be a food snob, but rather may appreciate all manner of enjoyable tastes and textures.

That said, I would like to emphasize that I am a person who has a high value of foods that are fresh, flavorful, affordable, accessible, and beautiful.  I do think that there is such a thing as bad food, which is not fresh or is not prepared well, and there is such a thing as food you just don't like.  This fruit and cheese platter has a pretty face, but the apples were grainy, the grapes were not crisp and too tart, and the Brie was stinky when the guests would have liked it to be mild: not an ideal food experience in my book.

So, I write this blog in pursuit of fresh and well-made foods, hoping to expand my list of "likes" without denying my dislikes.  I would also like to share the experiments I attempt so that others may benefit from what I learn and be tempted to taste or make something new.

I am not a trained cook, but I hope you will join me on this adventure of culinary exploration as I try my own riffs on recipes I discover, foods I try, and all manner of foodie fun that has yet to present itself.