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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    Sunday, July 27, 2008

    Wolfgang, do your thang.

    If only all jobs came with
    a six course Wolfgang Puck tasting menu . . .

    I was privileged to attend a work dinner at a co-worker's (lovely) home recently. (Scroll down for photos.) Her husband is a chef and somehow through his cheffy connections arranged to have the dinner catered by the famous Wolfgang Puck. A normal entry would insert some P(l)uck-y trivia here but I don't have internet connection at home these days. Instead of my usual impeccable research, this entry will have to stand on my own musings.

    I do have a WP memory: he had an pan-Asian restaurant in Seattle called ObaChine when Asian-fusion was hip and I drug my parents there once. It felt too trendy for them, but I was utterly enamored with the quirky presentations and magical flavor combinations-- and have associated the WP brand with them every since. (Even though the concept did not turn out to be one of WP's best.) I was 16 or so at the time and had no idea the breadth of places I'd be lucky enough to eat later in life, but I was certainly old enough to appreciate the food.

    I've become a bit cynical of chef-cum-brand names since then. Mario Batali spatulas? Really? Am I going to make better Italian food by using his endorsed spatula? I'm still a little skeptical but I will say this much: WP's catering company rocked a pretty fabulous six course tasting menu. I don't know if WP is always this good, or if he was just on top of his game as a favor for a friend, but I like it. Wolfgang, do your thang.

    In fact, I have an idea. Wolfgang, you are a brand, you need to market yourself. You can't just let Mario Batali outsell your cookware with his spatulas. Besides, do you really want to demean your culinary genius by plucking down your name and caricatured image on stray kitchen utensils? You need something to truly showcase your art . . .

    I have just the thing: "My Year with Wolfgang." You cook, I'll follow you, eating and photographing my way through a year of your creations, and I'll write it all up in splendid form. My extensive blog readership will be your loyal following. We could even do a little Food Network special, get Ruth Reichl to get us a column in Gourmet . . . sounds good, no? Call my people and we'll work out the details.

    Ahem. In the mean time, would you, my loyal readers, like to see what WP whipped up for us? (It got dark by course three, and my camera was on its last legs of battery power, but I managed to eek out photos with the aid of some candlelight.) Try saying the names of the dishes out loud to amplify the mystical deliciousness . . .

    Appetizers: I hit the tail end of some passed appetizers when I arrived. They were the kind that make you nervous as you approach, unsure exactly what portion is meant to be eaten and what is the the proper procedure. Usually I think experimental art food of this kind a little more pretentious than anything I'd want to subject on friends, but a (very handsome) waiter was only too happy to explain no, the parmesan cheese shreds fluffed like clouds on the plate do not go atop the tuna tartare in a sweet-sesame cone, and no, you do not eat the cucumber wheel in which the cones are perched.

    First Course: Hamachi with Heirloom Tomatoes, Avocado and Cucumber Gazpacho Consomme'

    Normally you think of gazpacho as kind of a V8 smoothie, thick and full of texture. This gazpacho was nearly clear, belying the punch of flavor it packed. Tricky, tricky.

    Hamachi is also known as yellowtail, a fish often used in sushi. Notice also the little purple flower adding a nice splash of color. Part of the magic for me in WP's food is the extraordinary care given the arrangement, the perfect placement of tiny splendid garnishes.

    Second Course:
    Hand Formed Sweet Corn Agnolotti with Mascarpone and Summer Truffles

    People at my table liked this course, a signature dish at WP's restaurant Spago, best. (There WP also does a sweet pea version.) The corn pasta bits were light and sweet indeed, reminiscent of cream of corn soup but with a sublime rich texture (mascarpone) and incredible flavor (summer truffles).

    Agnolotti means "priest hats" in Italian. They're a little pasta ravioli with a meat or vegetable stuffing from the Piedmont region of Italy. Unlike the traditional semicircle agnolotti, ours were rectangular. They're usually served with a simple sauce, like browned butter (or in our case, mascarpone & summer truffle) so as not to detract from the flavors inside.

    Third Course: Butter Poached Turbot with Carrot Ginger Puree and Citrus Yuzu Foam

    The baby food-esque puree had a nice spicy tang to it, a good counterpoint to the frothy lemon foam atop.

    Turbot--pronounced TUR-but--is a funny looking fish indeed, flat and wide like a sting ray. It's from the Atlantic (as opposed to the Hamachi, from the Pacific) and tastes a little like halibut. It is prized for a delicate flavor and bright white flesh.

    Yuzu is a hardy East Asian citrus fruit that looks like an undergrown dimply grapefruit, but makes for zesty garnishes or sauces. The strong fragrance makes it a favorite for bathing as well; sometimes hole fruits are left in a cloth bag in a hot bath so the steam takes on the aroma.

    Fourth Course: Lacquered Duck Breast with Celery Root, Cherries and Szechwan Pepper Honey

    I've never had celery root in this form before; it was pureed, like a pile of wasabi but with an unexpectedly sweet taste, again a nice light contrast to the rich, syrupy duck lined with crunchy bits of fat and skin. "You sure lacquered that duck!" doesn't really sound like a compliment but when Wolfgant does his thang, a lacquered duck is fine by me.
    (Apologies for the bad photos from here on down, but I wanted you to at least see it.)

    Entree Course: Snake River Farms New York Strip, Summer Onions and Yuzu Kocho Reduction

    I was surprised this was steak and not lamb, it was so tender and perfectly rare. It was served with half a browned baby bok choy, very tender as well. I really liked the Yuzu Kocho reduction, a lemony gel, to cut the grease. (A friend with more knowledge of Japanese cooking than I have takes issue with my description of Yuzu Kocho as a lemony gel. It is, she insists, a delicacy, a citrus pepper that often comes blended as a paste (from which the reduction was made) and used in sushi.)

    Dessert Course: Warm Chocolate Souffle' Cake with Spun Sugar, Whipped Cream and Fifty Bean Vanilla Ice Cream

    Ok, come on, do we really need to know the ice cream has fifty beans? Does it really taste better with fifty beans? Sometimes I think gourmet food naming goes a little overboard. But it doesn't really matter because I was pretty focused on the chocolate by that point. And either I am hallucinating, or it had a little bit of blueberry in the melting part inside- a nice version of souffle' for summer. (See also, chocolate with salted caramel.)

    Saturday, July 12, 2008

    Thrice All American, Take Two

    Funky buildings, stellar steamed milk,
    & a cafe where first-time visitors feel like friends.

    The other weekend I had the chance to go back to Tacoma, site of my previous entry Thrice All American. I went with a few friends who had never seen the side of Tacoma I've come to love- the funky coffeehouses and thrift stores, the great restaurants, the lovely public spaces. We took a long walk through downtown, where I had a great time introducing them to my Tacoma highlights.

    Taste & See: We stopped by Cutters Point Coffee and enjoyed the big open space, light and airy and perfect for enjoying the Scrabble and Trivia Pursuit games handily tucked in the bookshelf behind us.

    A barista's signature drink, the marshmallow fluff Divine Sunshine latte, sounded too sweet to me but I'm all for creativity in coffee drinks. And top marks for cheerful presentation.

    We also liked the nautical theme; who doesn't want a sail and some fishing nets with their coffee?

    And best of all was the hidden treasure, Quinn. Quinn makes the best, I mean, THE BEST, foam from steamed milk (even soy!) both my friend & I have ever tasted. We trekked back to Cutters Point Coffee every day just to taste another heavenly spoonful. Go to Tacoma. Go to Cutters. Have Quinn make you coffee. You will thank me. (And hopefully Quinn, with a big, big tip.)

    After getting your perfect coffee from Quinn, wander through another old fave, UrbanXchange. I picked up some more fabulous finds, and I wanted to give another prop for superior customer service. Everyone working there was super-patient and helpful, they let us store our massive bags of goodies there as we wandered downtown, and best of all-- I've gotten about a hundred compliments on the sunglasses the woman behind the counter identified as the perfect pair for my face.

    One other Tacoma coffee shop I mentioned last time was the mysterious locale adjacent to Grand Cinema. Our collective confusion is over: it is conclusively the (rather delightful) One Heart Cafe.

    Love it for the lawnchairs lining the sidewalk outside, the art by local painters (including my friend!) adorning the walls, the impromptu music being played & sung (with no small amount of original expression) on the piano inside, or the array of treats on the colorful menu . . .

    Or, like everyone else there, love it for the people. One Heart Cafe seems to be the kind of place where people camp out all day on a regular basis. And while I have yet to be one of those people, Jamie, pictured below, certainly made me feel like one, inquiring after the Strawberry plants I'd purchased at the downtown farmer's market and my impressions of Tacoma.

    The decor in One Heart Cafe was just one expression of the artsy vibe I get all throughout the city. One of my favorite new finds is a back lane called Opera Alley.

    Reminded me a little of the brightly colored buildings in some old cities in Italy, with a slightly hipper, more modern, palate.

    No opera to be found, but (duh) you can do yoga . . . if you can find a way to hoist yourself up the not-quite-to-street-level stairs . . . what yoga move would one use for that?

    I have some more photos from the walk, including our lunch stop at Galangal, the great little Thai place I mentioned last time. Look out for Take Three, coming soon.

    Saturday, July 5, 2008

    Firefly Bistro

    Bistro under the big tent

    (NB: There's a great recipe at the end of this so if you don't have the inclination to read about Firefly Bistro, at least go learn about toasted walnut madras curry dipping sauce, accompanying the oregano honeyed butternut doughnuts, pictured below. Killer combo.)

    Taste & See: Firefly Bistro is a cute little restaurant in South Pas, a city in its own right, (as one would guess) just south of Pasadena, California. The chefs are the daughter and cowboy hat wearing son-in-law of the owner, who welcomed me in a hearty drawl as I entered. I'd expect nothing less than a family affair from such a neighborhood with such an "all American" feel. (In fact, the neighborhood, with its lack of palm trees and Spanish architecture, is often used as a filming location for Hollywood "middle America.")

    And Firefly Bistro is in a tent.

    Yes, the restaurant is in a tent. Genius, no? SoCal doesn't exactly have weather issues, and while it probably wouldn't stand up to an earthquake, a tent would be much easier to raise from the rubble than anything with real walls. And it adds unbeatable atmosphere.

    Live jazz music on Wednesday nights in the summer, courtesy Jennifer Robin:

    Lanterns swinging from the ceiling add ambiance:

    But charming as the atmosphere is, the real find is the food (and drink). Owner Carl Weintraub calls it "Modern American Bistro." Bistro, as you may know, comes from the French bistro/bistrot for tavern/tavern owner, and refers to an informal restaurant serving wine. (Do my dinner parties count?) So it is only right the restaurant not only has lovely mixed drinks, particularly "Soju-tinis;" two kinds of sangria (red, pictured below) and a couple great specialty beers, but a great list of wines available by the glass. (A must for a single gal.)

    The first time I was there, the restaurant had a lovely Spanish white special by the glass (a recent obsession), an albariño from Rias Baixas. Albariños are "perfumed, elegant wines . . . ", crisp and fresh with a full flavor, fruity notes but not too sweet. They're great with fish & seafood, but can also stand up to white meats. Apropos for an elegant lady on a cool summer night.

    Rias Baixas is the region where the sturdy grapes are primarily grown. (The better known Portuguese Vinho Verde ("cheap and good"), long available at Trader Joes & other fine establishments, are made from the Portuguese varietal of the same grape.)

    Most importantly, the importer was none other than Jorge Ordoñez (George Ordinary, as a mnemonic), the fabulous wine importer and "pioneer of an awakened Spain." Forget the year or the maker, if he's imported the bottle, I have been tipped, you will assuredly drink well.

    Most food I've enjoyed at Firefly has all been stunning, lick the last bit of sauce off the place stunning. The two appetizers below have been my favorites thus far.

    Cardamom Grilled Shrimp with warm bread and dried honeyed figs ($9.50):

    The shrimp had the perfect texture and went well with the spicy, buttery sauce the restaurant called sirsie, seen in the background. Firefly says sirsie is an Ethiopian spicy dipping sauce but I can't seem to find anything on it. Perhaps they made it up and figured yuppies would be more likely to buy something "Ethiopian"?

    Also delightful, Spicy Butternut Squash Doughnuts with oregano honey and toasted walnut-madras curry dip ($8.25):

    These recall the butternut tapas from Zaytinya I wrote about previously, but the accompanying sauce swings Firefly's version way out of the ballpark. Taste the sauce separately and it is so-so, a bit heavy on the spice. Try a bit of just the oregano honey and it is a little sweet. But dip a chunk of squishy butternut doughnut with its crispy shell laced with honey into the flavorful sauce and WOW. The combination is incredible, simply incredible, a perfect illustration of flavors that are just better together. See the recipe, straight from the chef, below.

    Some other dishes were not so great, however. They seemed to overstretch themselves, try too many quirky parings, spin off a classic in too many directions. But like classy stars who end up fashion's worst-dressed lists, it is only because they're willing to be creative and push the boundaries. When it succeeds, this is a beautiful thing, so we're willing to forgive the failures. We just won't order them again.

    Case in point, Calamari Relleno stuffed with chorizo, olives, and currants with caramelized sweet corn, black bean sauce and queso fresco ($9.50):

    Squishy calamari as the basis for a relleno-style dish was more creepy than delightfully inventive.

    Also not a fan of the (ill-coloured) Pecan Coated Catfish over sweet potato-andouilli sausage hash, with Firefly collard greens and mustard pan sauce ($17.50):

    Nice idea but the flavors kind of fell flat.

    Do it yourself: The toasted walnut-madras curry sauce with the honeyed doughnuts was more than enough to make a girl forget all her woes, squishy squid based or otherwise. Make some up for yourself, thanks to the waitress who thoughtfully handed the chef's secret.

    Toast walnuts.
    Fry chopped onion, garlic, ginger and curry powder on a stovetop.
    Combine walnuts with onion mix and sour cream in a food processor or blender.
    Serve with a contrasting honey sauce for maximum pleasure.

    Tuesday, July 1, 2008

    Better Together

    Some foods were meant to be soulmates.

    Taste & See: I thought of about five different titles for this post about delectable food pairings, but I seem to keep entitling my posts after songs so I figured might as well continue the trend. (See also: Exhibit A, Exhibit B.) But really, that's the crux of the matter: some food pairings are as enduring as one night stands; others are meant to be food soulmates, each flavor bringing out the full beauty and potential of its other half.

    Caramel & fleur de sel is one such delectable pairing. Sweet, gooey caramel punctuated by coarse, grainy bits of salt is an unbeatable combination. (Gourmet mag, home of food photos glorious enough to frame, has a wonderful recipe. Oh Ruth Reichl, what must I do to make you want me?)

    Fleur de sel is a sea salt obtained by harvesting the crystals from the top of the pond, literally. It smells oceany and has a higher mineral content than table salts- and tends to come in coarser grains. (Read about it compared to other salts for different foodie needs here. Salted caramels are conspicuously absent, to my dismay.) It is expensive, about $20/lb. But you can use kosher(ing) salt or any other big grainy salt for a close second in a pinch. No pun intended.

    The prospects of the joyous combination
    tempted me to undertake the foolhardy feat of making caramels without a candy thermometer. The result was disastrous. Trying to "eyeball" when melted sugar and butter would, once cooled, become neither liquid nor hardened but a gooey, chewy cube of perfect caramel resulted in caramels with the consistency of peanut butter.

    This is what they should look like, as made by my Auntie Rachel for a recent party celebrating my brother's wedding:

    Auntie Rachel clearly has a candy thermometer.

    You can't really see the grains on the caramels above; they were smaller and faded into the melty caramel. On this truffle, however, they stand out beautifully:

    This is from Juliette et Chocolat, a gorgeous little chocolaterie in Montreal, (could be straight from the movie) with thick chocolate drinks and heavenly desserts.

    Another lovely format for the sweet-salty combination, also from Juliette et Chocolat:

    This is a single-serving molten chocolate cake with caramel sauce, sprinkled with fleur de sel. Joy! I copied this by adding a caramel in the center, which melted as the individual cakes (made in cupcake pans) baked. Super easy. (I won't reprint it here, but the recipe I used is available on

    I've been loving balsamic vinegar reduction & strawberries, which I've written about before, as well, often with a bit of chevre, a creamy goat cheese.

    This is a strawberry daiquiri (limeaid + frozen strawberries + rum + blender) with a modified version of "Beggars Purses," something I had at a great tapas restaurant in Brooklyn called Cafe Tapeo. (Great date restaurant. Lovely ambiance, not too pricey, and inventive culinary creations, all of which hit the mark. I wanted to steal their entire menu, and have been trying to recreate parts of my meal ever since my visit.)

    They stuffed wonton wrappers with goat cheese and crisped them up, topping them with a rosemary syrup. My local grocery store had only phyllo dough, and I mixed goat cheese with plain yogurt because I didn't have enough cheese. I also added honey, rosemary and chopped almonds for a sweet crunch.

    First couple tries with the phyllo were a mess. My stuffing was far too liquidy to hold up to the paper thin phyllo. I had to put my 'wonton' in a ramekin to keep it from imploding.

    My 'egg roll' attempt just bled stuffing all over the baking pan.

    Finally, I tried laying whole stacked sheets of phyllo dough on the baking sheet, topping with spoonfuls of filling in a grid, and pressing a few more layers on top with butter as glue- like ravioli. I gently slid a knife along to cut the big squares into single-serving pieces, baked about 10 minutes, and drizzled with rosemary balsamic reduction.

    Served with a bright strawberry daiquiri, tangy and sweet like the vinegar reduction itself- another winning pair.
    When making balsamic reduction try adding a sprig or two of rosemary, letting the woodsy flavor seep in. The sweet reduced syrup with a hint of a forest atop a pile of fresh strawberries incredible. It also works as a summer salad, with sliced
    strawberries atop mache or spinach, and pecorino or chevre. Or, again, with chevre with a spoonful of honey mixed in, as a play on strawberry shortcake. I ate mine atop polenta; you could also try a toasted whole wheat muffin if you're not the kind of chef who makes fresh biscuits on a daily basis.

    PS: I've always loved chocolate & chile as well. It is always great in mole, in winter as a hot drinking chocolate, or in the summer as gelato. Sadly I have no good photos in my repertoire and haven't cooked anything in this vein in a while.