Food, Books, and FoodBooks

Musings on food, books, and books about food, from a self-described "foodie" and aspiring librarian.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


Just a quick note to let everyone know that I have not abandoned my blog! I have had a miserable cold (which turned into bronchitis) for the last 3 1/2 weeks. I have managed to drag myself to work and to my library internship despite illness (other than the one day I was so bad that I had to call in sick to work), but have had no time or energy for anything else.

I finally got to the doctor a couple of days ago, so with antibiotics I am finally in recovery. I am hoping that in about a week, I'll be back in tip-top shape and ready to cook! I took Stephanie's advice (The Happy Sorceress from Dispensing Happiness) and ordered Kaffir Lime Leaves online. So, homemade Beef Panang is in my future (along with photos for this blog).

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Searching for Kaffir

A couple of years ago, inspired by some great Thai food that I had at a little strip-mall restaurant called “Long Beach Thai Restaurant” (listed in the Yellow Pages as “Long Beach Restaurant”), I decided to try my hand at Thai cooking. I picked up a terrific cookbook called “Simply Thai Cooking” and decided to make Panang Nuer (Beef Panang), my favorite dish at Long Beach Thai. Made with sliced beef (I used flank steak), red curry paste, coconut milk, fish sauce, and finely chopped peanuts, this is a spicy, silky, absolutely yummy dish. I found most of the ingredients easily (it seems like the supermarkets here in Southern California are carrying many more Asian ingredients than in the past). One ingredient, however, required a trip to an Asian market – Kaffir lime leaves.

I don’t recall how, but at the time I managed to find an Asian market not far from my home in Torrance. They carried the Kaffir lime leaves, so I picked up a packet of about 5 – 6 leaves. I tried Panang Nuer, and it was a huge success. It was fairly simple to make, and both James and I loved it. Since I only need 1 or 2 of the lime leaves for the recipe, I was able to freeze the remaining leaves after my initial try, and made Panang Nuer several more times after that. Then, I ran out of the Kaffir lime leaves, moved to San Pedro, got busy, and haven’t made Thai food since.

For the last month or so, however, I have been dying to make Panang Nuer. The problem is, I can’t find the Kaffir lime leaves. I bought the red curry paste, coconut milk, and fish sauce at Cost Plus. It will be easy to pick up a flank steak and peanuts at the supermarket. But no luck on the Kaffir. And, in my opinion, Kaffir is essential to this dish – it adds an unmistakable fragrance and flavor without which it just wouldn’t be Panang.

Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name or exact location of the Asian market that I found Kaffir at two years ago. It might have been on Hawthorne Blvd near Manhattan Beach Blvd (I guess that area would be considered the city of Hawthorne), but I'm just not sure. I've searched the Yellow pages and online and, though I have found a few Asian markets, each specialized in an Asian culture other than Thai (such as Japanese or Korean) and none carried Kaffir. I even stopped at an Asian supermarket in Gardena that I noticed while driving back to work from a meeting yesterday, but again I had no luck.

I am sure that there are many sources for Kaffir lime leaves in Southern California, particularly in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I am limited to how far I can travel for this quest (as well as when I can shop). This Fall is a particularly busy time for me – it is my last semester in grad school prior to receiving my degree (Master in Library and Information Science), and I am doing an internship, working full-time, and working on my ePortfolio (the Masters candidate culminating project, required in my program rather than a thesis). I am gone 8 – 10 hours per day, Monday through Saturday, just between work and the internship. So, I’ve got to either find a source in the Torrance/Carson/San Pedro area, or an online source, or just wait until next year when I have more time.

If anyone out there can recommend a source, I’d love to hear about it!

If you’ve never tried Panang Nuer, I can highly recommend it, and “Simply Thai Cooking” is a great cookbook for those like me with little or no experience in cooking Thai. And if you find yourself in Long Beach, check out Long Beach Thai.

Long Beach Thai (aka Long Beach Restaurant)
3320 E. Anaheim St.
Long Beach, CA 90804

Located between Cherry Ave and Redondo Ave, just west of Redondo.

BBM - My package has arrived!

Yesterday I received my Blogging by Mail package. My package was from Georgia in Sydney, Australia. What fun and interesting foodstuffs she included. For my sweet tooth, there are several chocolate items – Violet Crumble, Giant Caramello Koala (both candy) and Tim Tams (cookies/biscuits). I am a chocolate lover, so I know that I’ll enjoy these. I have actually tried Violet Crumble before – my boss is from Australia and was excited to find the full-sized bars at our local Cost Plus last Christmas. I’ve never tried TimTams, though I have heard raves about them (I think it was in a novel I read recently). And who wouldn’t love caramel and chocolate?

Georgia also included packets of some interesting spice mixtures from Australia. One is “Native BBQ Spice Mix”, to use on meats before grilling. The other is called “Ockkah – Aussie Dukkah,” and the packet says that to dip bread in olive oil and then sprinkle this spice on the bread. It can also be sprinkled on cooked fish, chicken or lamb. Both of these spices mixes have some ingredients that are mysterious to me – akudjura and wattleseed. I’m looking forward to researching these ingredients as well as trying out the spice mixes.

I am also going to enjoy the reading material that Georgia included. It is called “Good Living,” published by the Sydney Morning Herald, and at quick glance, it appears to be either the newspaper’s food section or perhaps its magazine section in which this particular issue focuses on food. I love to read English-language food magazines from other countries – I’ve been picking up “Good Food” and “Olives” (British food mags) at Borders for a few years now, and after hearing about Donna Hay in the blogs I picked up one of hers (from Australia) last month.

Lastly, Georgia included a jar of something that will be a great addition to my cocktail experiments – Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup. On the side of the jar is offered this suggestion of use – “Simply place a whole Wild Hibiscus Flower in the bottom of a champagne flute, pour in some syrup and fill up with bubbly. All the bubbles stream off and open up the flower. You can eat the flower; it has delicious raspberry and rhubarb flavour.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, Georgia didn’t include the name of her blog (or a link to it), so I can’t take a look at it. However, she mentioned in her postcard that she has read mine, so I’m hoping she reads this post – Georgia, if you are there, thank you so much for my package. I can’t wait to try everything – and I’d love to read your blog also – send me a link!

Addition to post: Stephanie, the Happy Sorceress at Dispensing Happiness and the organizer of this BBM, gave me the scoop on Georgia's blog - it is Mocktale, and I am having a great time reading it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Tasting the Infusions

In my research on infusing vodka, I found differing opinions on how long to leave the infusion going before straining the concoction. For basil, the prevailing opinions ranged from 2 days to 4 days, and for blueberries from 4 to 6 days. So, when I started the infusions on Monday afternoon, I planned to do a taste-test on the basil infusion on Wednesday and then a taste test on the blueberry infusion today.

Well, Wednesday evening, I was exhausted and didn’t get around to tasting the basil infusion. Big mistake. When I finally tasted it yesterday evening (3 days of infusion, just in the middle of the recommended 2 to 4 days), the infusion had turned a slightly brownish yellow-green, and the flavor wasn’t quite right. Instead of the bright basil flavor that I was expecting, it tasted strong and somewhat muddy. It reminded me more of the flavor of basil that is well past its prime, when the leaves get limp and brown. I went ahead and strained out the basil and put the infused vodka back into the mason jar.

I’m not willing to give up on it yet – it has about $15 worth of Ketel One Vodka in it, not to mention the basil – so I am going to try it in a Strawberry Balsamic Basil Cocktail. I’m hoping that, if I use just a little of the basil vodka, along with some plain unflavored vodka, it might be OK. We’ll see. I’ll try it this weekend and post the results next week.

While I was at it, I decided to taste the blueberry vodka last night as well. It is looking nice, with a deep blue-purple color. The flavor is still a little light, though, so I’m giving it another day or two to steep before I strain out the blueberries.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Cocktail Experiments, Takes 2 & 3

Last night I made two more attempts at replicating the strawberry balsamic basil cocktail (James joined me in taste-testing). Unfortunately, neither was quite right.

For attempt # 2, I essentially duplicated the recipe of attempt # 1, except that I doubled the amount of Basil Essence to 2 ounces and added a dash of balsamic vinegar. There wasn’t a noticeable difference from attempt 1 – the basil flavor was still nearly non-existent. For attempt # 3, James reduced the amount of strawberry puree to just 1 ounce and added a little more balsamic. This time, the drink was a little less sweet, and the balsamic stood out just a wee bit, but the basil flavor was still lacking.

I have high hopes for attempt # 4, which will use basil-infused vodka. On Sunday, I picked up what I needed to make my own basil-infused vodka. Cost Plus had one-quart mason jars for about $4.50 each, so I picked up a couple of those. My local Vons Market had the large bottle of Ketel One Vodka (1/2 gallon, I think) on sale for just slightly more than the regular price of a fifth, so I snapped it up. I already had a large bunch of basil at home.

Monday I started my basil vodka infusion. I filled one of the mason jars with freshly washed basil leaves, covered them with Ketel One Vodka, and sealed the top. According to my research, the vodka should be infused within 2 to 4 days, at which time it can be strained and poured into a bottle. So, I’ll taste it tonight (the 2-day mark) and see how it is doing. I am hoping that using a basil-infused vodka will give the Strawberry Balsamic Basil Cocktail the kick of basil that has been missing in my experiments to date.

While researching vodka infusion, I got inspired to try some other infusions as well. So, on Sunday, I also picked up a couple of baskets of blueberries. On Monday, those went into the second mason jar and were topped with the remaining Ketel One Vodka. That infusion should take slightly longer – my research said 4 to 6 days. My idea for that is a Blueberries and Cream Cocktail – blueberry vodka, a bit of vanilla syrup, and a bit of half and half, shaken with ice and poured into a chilled cocktail glass. The final touch will be a garnish of a cocktail pick on which will be several fresh blueberries.

Anyway, I’ll keep you up to date on my experiments, as they occur.

Recipe: Strawberry Balsamic Basil Cocktail, Take 2

3 oz Absolut Vodka
2 oz Finest Call Strawberry Puree
2 oz Stirrings Summer Basil Martini Cocktail Essence
1 dash balsamic vinegar
1 large fresh basil leaf

Place all ingredients except basil leaf into a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with the basil leaf. Makes one large or two small cocktails.

Recipe: Strawberry Balsamic Basil Cocktail, Take 3

3 oz Absolut Vodka
1 oz Finest Call Strawberry Puree
2 oz Stirrings Summer Basil Martini Cocktail Essence
2 dashes balsamic vinegar
1 large fresh basil leaf

Place all ingredients except basil leaf into a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake until very cold. Stain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a basil leaf. Makes one large or two small cocktails.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Strawberry Balsamic Basil Cocktail, Take One

Last night, I made my first attempt at the Strawberry Balsamic Basil Cocktail that I tried at J’s Tapas. The drink was delicious, but not quite right. First of all, I didn’t realize until I was getting ready to make my drink that I was out of balsamic vinegar. So, at the very least, the drink was simply a Strawberry Basil Cocktail. Second, the basil flavor was much, much too subtle – almost imperceptible. I used a bottled “basil essence,” which is, from what I can tell, essentially a basil-infused simple syrup. It may be that I didn’t use enough of the basil essence. However, I was concerned with the drink being too sweet, with both the basil essence and the strawberry puree, and that the slight tartness of the strawberry puree would be lost. For my next attempt, I’m going to risk it, however, and try it with more basil essence (and remember to get some good balsamic vinegar). However, at the same time, I’ll be preparing for my third experiment, which will use basil-infused vodka (I’m going to make do the infusion myself, and I haven’t started it yet, so I can’t make this my next experiment).

For those of you who are interested, here is last night’s recipe. It is definitely tasty – somewhat like a strawberry daiquiri, but without the slushiness factor.

Recipe: Strawberry Basil Cocktail

3 oz Maxim’s Vodka
2 oz Finest Call Strawberry Puree
1 oz Stirrings Summer Basil Martini Cocktail Essence
1 large fresh basil leaf

Measure the vodka, strawberry puree, and basil essence into a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with the basil leaf (makes one cocktail).

Note: I decided to use bottled strawberry puree for my experiments for two reasons. First, the strawberries that I have seen and purchased this summer have been pretty lackluster and flavorless, and second, it was my impression that J's Tapas used a purchased puree.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Art, Tapas and Faux Martinis

My husband James is an artist (though he has a day job to pay the bills). Recently, a friend and fellow artist featured one of James’ drawings in his show at the Upfront Gallery in Ventura, during the town’s annual “Art Walk” festival, so of course James and I had to go up for the show (for those outside of Southern California, Ventura is an artsy beach town about an hour or so north of Los Angeles, below Santa Barbara). In the past, we have gone up to Ventura for art shows and then driven home the same day, but this time we decided to book a hotel and make a weekend of it (since, with the Fall semester starting, this is our last opportunity for a weekend away until December). Saturday evening, after seeing the show at the Upfront Gallery, we checked out a couple of other galleries and then went for drinks and tapas (i.e. dinner) at J’s Tapas, an off-shoot of Jonathan’s at Peirano’s Restaurant (located next door). J’s offers a variety of hot and cold tapas, soups, salads, and desserts, along with a full bar featuring some very interesting “martinis”. I put martinis in quotes for the purists out there, as most of these are called martinis simply because of the glass. They should rightly be called cocktails, I suppose.

The food at J’s was mixed – some of the things we tried were very good, others not so good. However, I loved the imaginative cocktails that J’s offers. J’s has a large “martini” menu, which includes drinks with interesting flavors and intriguing combinations (unfortunately, though J’s posts its food menus online, they do not post the cocktails or wine lists on their website). We tried four different “martinis” (two each) and enjoyed all four. The cocktails included combinations such as: vodka and single malt scotch, garnished with a sprig of fresh thyme; Vodka, rosewater, and rosé champagne, garnished with fresh rose petals; and vodka, lavender, and geranium, garnished with a sprig of fresh lavender.

My favorite, though, was the Strawberry Balsamic Basil “Martini,” and I am determined to reproduce this cocktail at home. Luckily, I have a pretty good handle on the ingredients, though the basil element will require some experimentation. So, this past weekend, I picked up some supplies at BevMo and am ready to start experimenting. For the next few weeks, I’ll periodically post the results of my experiments (and the recipes, if they turn out well, even if different from the original). My first try is tonight - wish me luck! If this works out, I may try to replicate more of the cocktails from Mr. J’s (the rose cocktail was quite tasty as well).

Monday, August 14, 2006

In Search of a Rare Hamburger

James likes his hamburgers rare. To him, cooking a hamburger any more than rare results in a dry, flavorless burger. This didn’t used to be a problem. Most places (other than fast food joints like McDonald’s) were happy, upon request, to cook a burger rare.

About a year or so ago, however, we noticed the beginning of a trend. It started with chain coffee shops. We used to frequent our local Coco’s relatively often for a quick lunch or dinner, especially when the kids were with us. We could get a decent burger and fries – cooked rare for James, medium rare for me and “Ace” (his teenaged son) – and Snuggie was a fan of their kids menu, particularly their chicken fingers. On one visit, shortly after ordering, we were surprised when the manager stopped by our table to inform us that, based on company policy, the restaurant would now cook all hamburgers medium-well. After that, James refused to order burgers at Coco’s, and although we did not stop going there altogether (it’s not easy finding a restaurant that a picky 9-year-old will enjoy), we did drastically reduce our visits.

We thought, however, that this trend was limited to chain coffee shops such as Coco’s. Better restaurants, we thought, would still cook a rare hamburger. A few months ago, we learned differently. We used to love to eat dinner in the bar at Kincaid’s (a nicer seafood and steak chain) at the pier in Redondo Beach. Food in the restaurant could be spotty – sometimes quite good, other times not so good (to the extent that we have sent food back) – so we rarely ate in the main dining room. The bar, however, was a favorite of ours. It had nice atmosphere with a view of the water, there was a pretty good selection of cocktails, and we could get good (though slightly pricy) casual food from the bar menu. James loved the burger at Kincaid’s and would order it every time we went. It was a 1/3 pound hand-formed patty of ground sirloin, with aged cheddar cheese on a sesame bun, served with crispy fries. Best of all, he could get it cooked rare.

We didn’t get over to Kincaid’s very often – maybe every couple of months or so – but we always knew that, when we did, we would get the same consistently good bar food. A few months ago, we decided to head over to Kincaid’s after work one night. As usual, we sat in the bar, ordered our cocktails, and then ordered – what else – our usual meals. The first hint of trouble came when the food arrived. James’ hamburger looked fine – until he bit into it and realized that it was medium-well. He called the waitress over and mentioned that he had asked for a rare burger. She said she would take care of it, and stepped away.

A few minutes later, the manager came to our table. She informed James that the restaurant now cooked all hamburgers medium-well, explaining that it was for our “health.” As he and I talked about it, James realized another difference – the hamburger appeared to be a pre-formed patty (such as you would buy frozen in a box at Costco). Coincidentally, my fish and chips were terrible – the thick moist fish encased in crispy beer batter had been replaced by thin dry fish in panko crumbs. We both sent our food back, paid for our cocktails and left. On the ride home, we lamented the loss of Kincaid’s bar as a casual dinner spot.

Last week, however, I read in a blog (I can’t remember which one, and I can’t find it now), as well as in Alan Richman’s article, The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die, that Houston’s not only serves a good burger, but will prepare it rare. We have gone to Houston’s a few times, but not often, because the Manhattan Beach location is about 20 miles from our home, and the other Los Angeles locations are even farther from us. We don’t mind traveling for a good meal, but we don’t generally consider a chain restaurant (any chain restaurant, no matter how good) worthy of a special trip. I did tell James, however, about what I was reading about the burger at Houston’s, and we decided that some time we would try it when we were in the area.

It just so happened that we found ourselves in Manhattan Beach on Sunday afternoon, exhausted from shopping and famished after missing breakfast. This was the perfect opportunity to stop by Houston’s for lunch.

Somewhat skeptical, James queried our waiter about whether he really could get a rare hamburger. When assured that he could, James (naturally) ordered the burger (as did Ace, who was with us). Not in the mood for a burger, I ordered the Thai Steak Salad instead. Both James and Ace loved the burgers. They were large, hand-formed patties of excellent beef, grilled to the requested temperature (rare for James, medium-rare for Ace) on fresh toasted sesame buns. They even grilled the onions at James’ request. James agreed that Alan Richman et al were right – Houston’s does make an excellent burger, worthy of a special trip. All the other food (including my salad) was quite good as well.

Our stop at Houston’s was a bit of a splurge for casual lunch – for the three of us, the bill came to about $100 (though that included some extras such as two glasses of wine, one soup starter, an extra side of sautéed broccolini, two desserts, and two cappuccinos). However, we had a relaxing time, all of the food was good, and James got his rare hamburger! Next time, though, we’ll probably forgo some of the extras. And we’ll keep our eyes out for more restaurants that will still cook a hamburger rare!