Presenting The Faux Gourmet!

The Faux Gourmet has been on hiatus for a while. I began this blog as a creative outlet during law school. After law school, I started other blogs on other topics and no longer needed this as a creative outlet, not to mention my diminishing free time.

But I kept cooking, kept taking food pictures and garden pictures, kept wanting to share the little tidbits of what I'd made. I occasionally did this on my personal blog (to which, I'm sure, people yawned and wondered when I'd post another cat picture). But I started to miss this space. Of all the blogs I have, this format, culled over several dedicated years and incorporating that adorable illustration by Sam Wedelich (see info the left) is by far my favorite.

So I'm back!

Expect short and sweet posts. Less food porn, more recipes and tips. If you want food porn you can look at any of the 5000 million existing food blogs. I don't have good lighting in my apartment and don't have time to style plates. I just want to make something yummy and eat it. If that sounds ok with you, stick around.

Looking forward to being back in touch!


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    Thursday, January 31, 2008

    Thank you:

    I owe carving credits for the chicken in the entry below to my brother, who was a magnificent assistant in my French Chicken-in-a-Pot endeavor. Coming soon, recipe for killer French Onion Soup, which I highly recommend eating with French Chicken-in-a-Pot. I shall take this opportunity to thank in advance my brother for his skills stirring the onions. Let this be a lesson to us all, teamwork- what is it good for? Absolutely everything.

    Tuesday, January 29, 2008

    Restaurant Week outing #1: Mercer Kitchen, January 21

    What's in the Pot at Mercer Kitchen?

    NB: Restaurant Week is a (two week) semi-annual chance to visit some of New York's finest restaurants for a prix fixe menu of $24.07 and $35.07 for lunch and dinner, respectively. This is the first of several outings I plan to make.

    Taste & See: It is a good thing I'm not the most knowledgeable source on where to "see and be seen," or my higher expectations for Mercer Kitchen, might have been disappointed. Sorry to say, unlike half the reviewers on Yelp, I didn't spy a single celebrity. Neither was I overly impressed with the entrees available for the restaurant week menu: a hamburger, roast chicken, and salmon. That's church picnic food, not what I want from a trendy New York celebrity-chef celebrity hangout.

    Perhaps I'm biased. I'm not the biggest fan of "American Provencal," the cuisine celebrated at Mercer Kitchen. If deep down we associate eating out with an exotic treat, something we do not make for ourselves, an excursion to a new world-- perhaps it is natural I would be less thrilled with a renditions of the staples I grew up on, dressed up for the big city. Even when the chicken is tender, the hamburger patty is made from the highest quality beef, the mashed potatoes are infused with truffle oil, it still seems a little plain jane to me, especially at these prices. Tasty, well prepared, yes. Exciting, inspiring . . . not so much.

    At least the appetizers and dessert were fabulous. I had tuna spring roll with soy bean puree ($15), a lightly fried spring roll stuffed with enough raw tuna to fill my mercury quota for a month. (Let this serve as the warning label for my tuna enthusiasm.) The soy bean puree was light and subtle, nothing like the baby-food mush the name conjured up. The plate was dressed with a soy sauce I suspect was caramelized with a bit of balsamic vinegar. The sweet but not cloying tang providing a nice contrast to the saltiness of the soy.

    I sampled my friend's steamed shrimp salad with avocado, mushroom and tomato in a champagne vinaigrette ($15), which sounded a bit mundane. However, the unexpectedly full flavor of the light buttery sauce brushed over the jumbo shrimp made me raise my eyebrows in surprise and delight.

    My slowly baked salmon, Brussels sprouts and truffled mashed potatoes ($24) was no competition for my dad's own salmon, grilled over a bed of onion rings in brown sugar, olive oil, butter and lemon juice. The portion was rather small and sad on the big white plate, a pale piece of salmon on pale mashed potatoes, enlivened only slightly by shreds of pale green brussle sprouts. As Franz Ferdinand says, you could have it so much better . . .

    [I admit, now that I revisit this photo it doesn't look so bad, but it left a bland impression, which says something.]

    Neither did the Roast Chicken with French Beans, Baby Carrots and Mashed Potatoes (not even with truffle oil!) nor the Niman Ranch Cheeseburger with Toasted Brioche Roll and French Fries ($18) thrill me.

    If you want to make a fabulous roast chicken, try the recipe in last month's Cook's Illustrated. I assume you do not have this recipe,or you would have already stopped reading with a yawn, knowing Mercer Kitchen's roast chicken could not possibly compare. I shall print it, with photos of my own rendition, below.

    Desserts were a much happier time. Never in all my life have I been known to resist a Warm Valrhona Chocolate Cake with Cocoa Bean Brittle and Vanilla Ice Cream ($10). The cake is a haughty little tart, a velvety dense outer layer that gives way to a gooey center, perfect for spooning up with melting vanilla ice cream.

    The creme fraiche cheesecake with blood orange sorbet ($9) looked lovely with the shocking pink of the sorbet screaming against the fresh cheesecake. I must assume it was also delicious, because my friend finished it all without sharing.

    The raw oyster bar was not included in the prix fixe menu; I can't imagine why?!

    And now, the lovely French Chicken in a Pot, as presented by Cook's Illustrated. For those of you unfamiliar with CI's methods, their recipes involve extensive "scientific research" into the perfect techniques, ingredients and utensils for each step along the way. It is perfectionist cooking at its best, not something at which I excel. Yet for CI, I do my best to follow the directions to the letter.

    However, their recipes look more like treatises and are far too long to reprint in their entirety. I can only hope this pared down version will not lead you astray on the path to tasty chicken:

    NB: Chicken prepared this way is about flavor, not aesthetic beauty. It looks a little pasty because it is dry-cooked but the meat is incredibly rich and juicy.

    Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat to 250 degrees.

    Pat dry 1whole, high quality roasting chicken of approx 5 lb, giblets removed & wings tucked under back, and season with salt and pepper.

    Chop 1 small onion and 1 small celery stalk into medium pieces.

    Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in large Dutch oven [Dutch oven-less as I am, I used a big metal pot] until just smoking.

    Add chicken breast upside down in pan.

    Scatter onion, celery, 6 cloves garlic, 1 bay leaf, and 1 sprig rosemary around chicken.

    Cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes, and turn over.

    Cook until chicken and vegetables are well browned, about 8 minutes.

    Remove pan from heat and cover with foil and lid [the goal is to cover tightly to keep in the liquid.]

    Transfer pot to oven and cook until a thermometer reads 160 degrees in thickest part of the breast and 175 in thickest part of thigh, about 80 to 110 minutes.

    Transfer chicken to carving board, tent with foil and rest 20 minutes.

    Strain juices from pot into fat separator and extract solids.

    Allow to settle 5 minutes, then set in saucepan over low heat.

    Carve chicken, adding additional juices to saucepan.

    Stir lemon juice into juices in pan to taste and juse as gravy as chicken is served.

    Enjoy your very chicken-y chicken!

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008

    Second Stop: Kuala Lumpur

    An assault on the senses, in the best possible way.

    Taste & See: I will ever associate Malaysia's food with, as my traveling partner A put it, "an assault on the senses-" power food, if you will:

    Malaysian cuisine incorporates tastes from China to India, and the myriad places in between, including predictable regional staples like flaky roti, fried noodles, curries and rice, but with distinct notes of flavors you don't expect. It's as if the Malay chefs at an ancient culinary convention sampled the best their neighbors had to offer and said, "that's nice, but wouldn't it be better with a dash of . . . ."

    The food as a whole looks like fall in the Northeast, with healthy doses of vibrant spices like nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves turning piles of rice bright yellow and infusing chunks of meat with a rich earthiness . . .

    And making soupy curries in crayola shades like burnt umber, pumpkin and saffron.

    Kuala Lumpur, or KL, with its 1.6 million people, felt small compared to Bangkok's sprawling urban jungle of 12 million. This, despite the presence of the famous Petronas Twin Towers, currently the tallest twin buildings in the world.

    However, KL definitely won top prize in the "Inventive tropical Christmas decorations" category. And in a city (country, really) where no use of twinkle lights are spared, and no tacky decoration is turned away, this genius Santa depiction surely takes the cake.

    Most of the good food I had in KL came from poorly-lit, undecorated, cafeteria-esque restaurants with unwiped tables and aluminum trays. The fancier places I saw tended to serve foreign food. I wonder if this steakhouse is halal? Most food in Malyasia is, as to be "Malay" is to be Muslim, though there are substantial (non-Muslim) Chinese and Indian populations as well.

    Each of these groups represent a specific strain of Malaysian cuisine, which also include Mamak, or Indian Muslim food; and Nyonya, invented by the Peranakan people of Singapore and Malaysia and combining Chinese and Southeast Asian ingredients (Inter-Asian fusion!). But the purpose of this particular entry is not to give you the history of Malaysian cuisine, especially when people more knowledgeable than I am have already compiled such a guide. The purpose is, rather to make you hungry, so let's get to the good stuff.

    If you see this:

    You can expect you'll soon be eating this:

    Those pudgy white balls become roti canai when grilled in massive amounts of oil, a flat, stretchy bread served with a small bowl of a curry sauce as a dipping sauce, eaten with the right hand. The tea in the photo above is teh tarik, or pulled tea, a Malaysian tea-cappuccino. It gets a frothy, foamy top (though not visible in the picture above) as it is poured back and forth between two containers, which also conveniently mixes the (usually thick and gooey) condensed milk into the tea. Teh halia is another delicious version, adding ginger for a bit of a kick. I had at least one, sometimes two, steaming, foaming glass at every meal.

    Roti canai is so tasty, it is eaten twice a day in Malaysia- for breakfast, and after nightfall, for the fourth meal. Take that Taco Bell.

    These photos are from a very satisfying respite eaten at Restoran Shukran, one of the unpretentious cafeterias, on New Year's Day after a long day trekking to Hindu caves and shoving my way up and down Chinatown.

    Most of the restaurants of this sort offer a little of everything, from stir-fried rice or noodles . . .

    To buffet trays of veg, chicken and mutton (here, goat, not lamb) curries splashing exuberantly overboard.

    The roti-maker takes a break:

    As does this satisfied customer:

    The next day, while exploring Masjid Negara, the national mosque with a bright blue jaggedy rooftop symbolizing loyalty, an 18-point blue dome representing the 13 states of Malaysia and the 5 pillars of Islam, and purple choir robes available for rent to improperly dressed visitors; & the lovely Islamic arts museum nearby, I was pleased to discover a tidy little cafeteria directly opposite the mosque itself, saving us from the white-linen, embossed menu cafe at the museum. How to choose from such a feast?

    For my traveling partner A, mutton curry, saffron rice, and pickled cucumber salad + iced milo= the picture of happiness:

    For me, mee goreng, fried noodles with chicken marinated in thick red sauce, doused with a bit of lime:

    I'm continually amazed by how the most beautiful dishes, full of life and color, come from the dowdiest restaurants, the humblest chefs. Malaysia is definitely an sensory assault I'd like to keep coming back to.

    More to come- next stop, Penang.

    Saturday, January 19, 2008

    Packing Light

    Turn a couple easy dishes into a week of meals,
    the culinary version of packing light.

    The other day I was un-self-consciously promoting this blog, as I am wont to do, excitedly telling a friend about all the photos I'd taken in Asia. "Sounds great," he replied, with bitter sarcasm, "I'll have to check it out next time I need to figure out where to eat in Asia." His point being, if he's going to waste his valuable time looking at pictures of food (he's clearly not a foodie), it better be food he can eat. Fair point. So interspersed with the pointless but delightful entries I plan to bring you stuffed with photos of food you probably won't be eating any time soon, I'll try and provide some things that will be of a bit more practical use.

    Taste and See:
    Two of my most popular entries to date have been the seared tuna steak and its variation, which are easy enough for even my non-foodie friend, so I thought I'd update with my new tuna obsession.

    I found a stunning photo of a sesame-encrusted tuna steak in Gourmet Magazine a few days ago, and while I was far too lazy to make it to the letter (fry strips of zucchini for garnish? are you mad?), tonight I am sitting down to my fourth serving of my own faux-gourmet version of sesame-seed encrusted seared tuna steak in a week. Overkill? Perhaps. But it is just so good, and so easy . . .

    But woman cannot live by tuna alone. In fact, while I normally eat very little meat, my mom was chiding me about iron over the holidays so I bought some beef for a change. And SE Asia has little in the way of fresh greens, so I also picked up some broccoli, a big bag of washed salad leaves and some random salad toppings. After having been out of town for a month my fridge has mostly remnants of nearly-expired fruits & veggies, but my well-stocked cupboard has plenty of dried carbs, like couscous and rice noodles.

    In the true faux gourmet spirit, I turned all that into a couple of dishes that can complement each other in a couple easy combinations. About one hour total cooking produced several interesting, and totally different, meals. Think of it as a food-parallel to an expert traveler who packs light and still manages to come up with a different, fabulous outfit every day.

    First, the individual dishes:
    1. Left-over Veggie Couscous
    2. Fried Soy-Sauce Rice Noodles with Broccoli
    3. Beef Fajita-Filling
    4. Sesame Seed Encrusted Tuna Steak
    5. Mixed-greens salad with various toppings

    Second, the meals I made of them:

    1. Pepper-beef Couscous over Mixed Greens [1 + 3 + 4 + Hummus]
    - Top a bed of mixed greens with a scoop of couscous and 1/2 the fajita filling
    2. Sesame Tuna Steak and Noodles [2 +5]
    - Serve 1/2 Tuna Steak over a small portion of broccoli-accented soy-sauce rice noodles
    3. Fajitas [3 + tortillas]
    - Fill tortillas with remaining fajita mixture
    4. Phat Siew & side salad [5 + 2 + peanuts]
    - Top remaining noodles with peanuts and add a side salad with toppings of your choice
    5. Tuna Steak Salad with Couscous [1+ 4 +5 + Sesame Soy Dressing]
    - Adding strips of seared tuna steak to wild greens, orange slices, cashews, and a soy sauce dressing and finish off the couscous

    Now for the recipes, if you can even call the simple steps "recipes." More important than that are the time-saving tips at the end. I really made all that in about an hour, and you really can too- it is just a question of doing things efficiently.

    What you'll need to cook the five meals above for 1 person:
    1. 1/2 lb tuna steak
    2. 1 pack sesame seeds
    3. 1 pack dried rice noodles
    4. 1/2 cup couscous and a little butter
    5. Bag of wild greens
    6. Various salad toppings, such as: roasted nuts, dried berries or other fruit, sun dried or fresh tomatoes, oranges, apples, shredded carrots, green or red onions. A great way to use up leftover veggies!
    7. 1/2 lb meat you like (I used beef)
    8. Tortillas
    9. The random odds and ends of leftover veggies in your fridge. You can use almost anything in the couscous, pad siew and fajitas. You'll need a little over 2 cups total.
    10. Salt, pepper, garlic & whatever spices you have on hand
    11. Soy sauce & a few other Asian sauces
    12. 1 egg
    13. Tupperware, because you're going to have leftovers!

    This is essentially Almost-Instant Couscous, only using whatever leftovers your fridge has to offer. The couscous box should also contain easy microwave directions, but if it doesn't,
    - Mix 1 tbsp butter, 1/2 cup couscous and 1/2 cup water in a microwave safe bowl.
    - Cover and microwave 3 1/2 minutes.
    - Fluff with fork.
    - Stir in any toppings, approx 3/4 cup.

    You can eat it plain, of course, but I almost always use couscous as a vehicle for using up the random bits of things in my fridge that would otherwise go unloved. This time that meant some chopped up celery, which I briefly sauteed in butter; the few not-yet-moldy spinach leaves from a pack purchased weeks ago with the best of intentions, sauteed briefly with the celery; a few stray sun dried tomatoes, and a handful of dried cranberries originally purchased to top salads. I seasoned with a bit of salt, pepper and cumin. Try mixing in a bit of plain yogurt to add moisture without adding fat (thank you Barefoot Contessa), and other toppings like pine nuts, green onions, eggplant cubes, mushrooms, or dried cranberries. Briefly saute vegetables if you don't want it too crunchy.

    If you're a big eater double the recipe and save yourself the trouble, but use a big bowl, because the couscous plumps up quite a bit when cooked.

    Fried soy-sauce noodles with broccoli:
    This is essentially Phat Siew recipe, pared down-
    - Soak dried rice noodles in hot water (a bunch about as big as your fist can grab)
    - Chop about 3/4 cup broccoli into bite-sized pieces and fry briefly with some garlic; set aside
    - Mix equal parts soy sauce, oyster sauce, sweet soy sauce and rice wine vinegar + a dash lime juice and sugar, totaling about 1/2 cup total sauce; in a pinch you can always stick to watered down soy sauce (so it doesn't get too salty but still has enough liquid) + sugar
    - Fry rice noodles in oil, adding sauce as they soften
    - Crack egg into pan and scramble as it cooks, stirring into noodles
    - Add broccoli to noodles
    - Season to taste (add chili flakes, sugar, lime juice, or soy sauce to adjust flavor)

    Beef fajita filling:
    - Fry a few cut up pieces of garlic in oil
    - Add about 3/4 cup vegetables and saute til soft; set aside
    - Slice meat into strips and place on very hot pan to sear, turning once

    I cut up the remains of two aging bell peppers for my filling, though mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, or even potatoes would be tasty as well. For flavoring I used a jar of sauce from Trader Joes (Cuban Mojito sauce), adding to the vegetables about midway through cooking them. You could use any pre-made sauce you like, but if nothing else, salt, pepper and garlic go a long way.

    I also like my beef a bit rare, so a minute or so per side was enough to cook it perfectly. If you need to cook it all the way through it will take a bit longer.

    Sesame Seed Encrusted Tuna Steak:
    - Toast sesame seeds til a bit darker than golden brown in large, flat pan
    - Rinse & dry tuna steak
    - Coat each side of steak with a small amount of oil (I used the lovely Lime Reisling Grapeseed oil; the subtle flavor of the lime sneaks through perfectly) and cover in sesame seeds
    - Sear in very hot pan for about 1 minute on each side for very rare tuna or longer (3-4 minutes per side) if you want it more done; see here for technique tips

    Saving Time:
    - Buy salad toppings that require no chopping- cashews, cranberries, pre-shredded carrots; making a salad takes all of 2 minutes.
    - Start by soaking the rice noodles in hot water, as it takes a while.
    - Toast the sesame seeds for the tuna while the couscous is in the microwave, then keep them in an airtight container in your cupboard for future use- you'll definitely have leftovers.
    - Do all the veggie chopping in one fell swoop and set aside the veggies in small bowls; you'll feel just like a TV chef pouring them in with grace and ease
    - Only once the vegetables are all chopped get out the meat; it makes cleaning much easier
    - Mix sauces, such as the one required for fried noodles, before you begin cooking the noodles, so you're not trying to add separate ingredients and stir at the same time
    - Saute
    at the same time, but in two separate pans, veggies for couscous and those for the fajita filling. Re-use the fajita pan without cleaning for the fajita meat; re-use the couscous pan for the tuna after rinsing briefly and letting the burner evaporate the water as the pan heats.


    Sunday, January 13, 2008

    First Stop: Singapore

    My dear reader,

    Thank you ever so much for your patience as I scurried about Southeast Asia photographing (and let's be honest, eating) quite a bit of food. The good news I have more SE Asia material waiting to be posted than I know what to do with, not to mention the backlog from the holiday season. The bad news is, well, I have more material than I know what to do with. But food photos tend to be more interesting than all this talk, talk, talk, so let's make a deal to help us both: I'll keep things a little more photo-essay, a little less essay-essay and you just enjoy mountains of photos. Of course, I'll still include recipes when I can so you can enjoy mountains of food as well.

    Sound good? Then shall we begin?

    First stop: Singapore, land of hawker centers and self-proclaimed "Food Capital of the World".

    Taste & See: The Lonely Planet makes hawker centers look like raucous snacking Bacchanalia, full of rowdy people stuffing faces in crowded, hectic fashion. Not so. The centers I visited were all spacious and organized, with English menus and numbered tables.

    One contained an enormous sign boasting in both English and Chinese the top 10 Singaporean dishes one must try: chili crab, char kway teow, carrot cake, chicken rice.

    The "must try" chili crab: there's no way you're staying neat and clean when you eat it.

    The always reliable
    dim sum: from left to right, cha siew bao (red pork bun), shu mai (pork and shrimp stuffed egg wrappers) ha gao (shrimp wrapped in translucent wheat starch). If you can't make it to a hawker center you can always buy these at 7-11 . . .

    The best food I had in Singapore, however, was not on this marketing-savvy list, but in far more colorful Little India.

    Drinking 'pulled tea,' chai, made frothy by pouring between the tin cup and accompanying bowl, and eating a dosa, a big crepe-like roll from South India filled with potatoes. Sources say it tastes best if you eat with your hands (right hand only!) . . .

    And from a banana leaf . . . I believe the white sauce is coconut based, though I'm not certain exactly what the other accompanying sauces are. It is lovely to watch them ladled with a splash from giant messy tins.

    Not everything was roses, however. On one of my last nights my traveling partner and I were stuck in the rain, desperate for (and not finding) a place to eat. We chanced upon a Malay cafe with lovely pictures of roti, and thought we'd hit gold.

    Not so. This was the "roti" we got: eggs in a baguette with chili-katsup on the side. Its like Malay food goes to McDonalds- not a happy instance of fusion. (I should take this opportunity to not only credit A for not complaining when faced with McRoti, but suffering through my constant food-photography.)

    Generally things in Singapore tended to be a big. Unlike Thai street food, which comes in tiny bites, the centers serve mostly meal-sized portions (dim sum, above, is one exception), preventing solo or short-term travelers from experiencing more than a few on the list.

    More endearing were the mangoes as big as my head:

    If I were a Western wedding, my ego would be smashed by the larger-than-life Chinese banquets served at the weddings I attended, one of which was choreographed to a light-and-music show.

    The appetizer plate: Prawns with fruit salad, Fried seafood toast, BBQ pork coins, Marinated jelly fish with chili sauce and sesame seeds, Smoked Chicken

    The rest of the menu consisted of Braised shark's fin soup with crab meat, bamboo fungus and fish; with vegetable crackers, Roast duck with vegetable crackers, Steamed red pearl garoupa with Superior sauce, Boiled "Live" Prawns with Chinese "Hua Tiao" wine; Fresh scallops with nameko mushrooms, Thai asparagus and Oyster sauce; & Fragrant rice with chicken and Chinese sausage wrapped in Lotus Leaf. The pile of shrimp heads left over after we'd all had our fill of "drunken-shrimp":

    Such a banquet calls for a magnificent wedding cake:

    We, however, were served double boiled white fungus with hashima and red dates. The cake was from a 'wedding exposition' onto which I stumbled in the Bugis area. I think I would have preferred the cake, culturally insensitive though it may be.

    I did try some tastier sweets in Singapore, however. First, at hawker stands- Ice dessert: piles of ice on doused with flavored syrups on top of various jellied bits, topped with beans. Not my cup of tea, but people love it. See also, a quirky Singaporean beverage in the back with Whatever? you never know what flavor you're going to get, kind of like the mystery Airheads we used to eat at the roller rink. Anyone feel me?

    Even better (call me a Western snob) was the red-velvet cake at a local cafe, Food for Thought:

    This cake and other goodies are made by local women- "Aunties"- in a bid to promote their independence via cottage industries.

    Food For Thought also lives out the values like "Help End Poverty" and "Build Community" proclaimed on giant posters on the wall opposite the kitchen by providing free drinking water in exchange for donations to build wells for the poor world wide, providing free tutoring classes to underprivileged kids.

    The coffee was good and the milk was nicely foamed, something I'm picky about in Asia (not a fan of sweetened condensed milk, as used in typical Asian coffees).

    Food for Thought is located at 420 North Bridge Road.

    Singapore has no shortage of good food and interesting culinary moments, and they're not limited to Hawker centers. Try as I might, I barely scratched the surface in the few days I spent there. Thankfully I had a second chance in neighboring Malaysia (see the next few entries), both a huge influence on Singaporean cuisine and a similar a mix of many different cultures. Ultimately, delicious though Singapore was, my love of Thai street food remains unchallenged.