Xanga Meet Up Dinner at Island Tang

Over the new year’s holiday we were in Hong Kong, in part to take part in the second annual Xanga meet-up or, more accurately, the Xanga alumni meet-up. This year’s group was roughly the same as last year’s and once again a nice venue was chosen for dinner: Island Tang.
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Island Tang’s owner is Sir David Tang (of the Shanghai Tang retail brand) whose restaurants include China Club, which I wrote about two days ago. The interior of the restaurant is every bit as elegant as China Club but many degrees subtler. As Time Out Hong Kong described it, Island Tang is Hong Kong of the 1940s compared to China Club’s Shanghai of the 1920s.

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In fact, it isn’t too much to describe the space as gorgeous. There was tremendous attention to detail in everything from decor to menu design to place settings. It felt elegant from the very start.

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The menu is primarily Cantonese food. The pictures here are a selection of what we ordered, although not everything. Above is the wok-fried jumbo garoupa fillets with Hangzhou pepper, garlic, and preserved black beans. Tasty dish although the fish was a bit overwhelmed by all the other flavors.

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A traditional braised duck with “eight treasures” – additional ingredients which can vary by recipe but in this case included shrimp, scallops, and mushrooms among other things. Very tasty dish.

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We tried several different soups, most of which were similar to what I showed from China Club. One unique offering was a casserole boiled bean curd (tofu) stuffed with minced pork and mushroom. This was a very nice, subtle dish.

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One of the non-Cantonese dishes, a very tasty pan-fried Welsh lamb belly seasons with cumin. The skin was crispy, the fat was properly rendered, and the cumin gave it an earthy flavor that was delightful.

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Quite an interesting dish was the wok-fried papaya with honey bean and fresh lily bulb. Most of the time in Thai cooking, we use green papaya, so I was caught a bit off guard to find ripe papaya used in this stir-fry. The most interesting ingredient was the lily bulb, something I don’t think I’ve had before. The combination was light and flavorful.

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For some more vegetables, we had wok-fried kale with crushed ginger and rice wine. A simple dish, well executed.

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We ordered a variety of chilled, pudding-like deserts that were tasty but did not photograph well. The only item I did photograph were these glutinous rice and sesame balls, which thankfully weren’t as oily as I had expected.

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A final shot of the dining room. We started eating at 8:30 and by the time we left, were pretty much the last diners. These ladies left before us.

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The obligatory shot of the current and former Xangans plus four non-blogger guests. Will let you figure out who is who.

An Umami Birthday Dinner

Trying to catch everyone up on my recent activities, in November I celebrated my birthday by cooking a dinner for some of my friends. One friend had recently remodeled his condo and was itching to have a dinner party to show off the new open-format kitchen. Never shy about messing up, err… cooking in someone else’s kitchen, I accepted his offer and started planning a meal around the theme of umami.

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Umami is the fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). A Japanese word, it describes the “savory,” “meaty,” or “fulfilling” quality. Umami is tasted through glutamates, a type of amino acid that is found in foods such as mushrooms, anchovies, fish sauce, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and MSG.

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The appetizer course featured three umami-rich items: a Parmesan and wild mushroom custard, miso and bacon glazed eggplant, and whole grain toasts with avocado and soy-sauce dressed sardines. This was probably a wee bit ambitious as there ended up being so much food that this course was almost a meal in itself.

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The “soup” course was a bit clever, if I say so myself. I borrowed a friend’s ice cream maker and turned a roasted tomato soup into a granita and served it with Parmesan sorbet on top. It really had all the flavors of a tomato soup (plus a little spicy as I added dried chilies) with cheese sprinkled on top, but it was frozen.

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The main course was balsamic vinegar marinated roast chicken with green olives. This excellent choice of a marinade makes for rich, flavorful, and moist meat. Will definitely repeat this recipe.

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Accompanying the main corse were garlic and black truffle infused mashed potatoes with more Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

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We concluded the meal with a salad course, a Caesar salad with homemade dressing. This is the first time I’ve made Caesar dressing from scratch and it is incredibly easy and really much better than from a bottle. Served with homemade croutons with truffle salt.

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For dessert, I served an interesting Sicilian orange olive oil cake with homemade cardamom ice cream. The cake was interesting because it is made by quartering and boiling oranges (unpeeled) in three changes of water and then pureeing the oranges, rind and all, and incorporating it into the batter. The result is a moist, intensely flavored cake. The cardamom ice cream was an excellent compliment to the cake.

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While there were some friends who weren’t present, the dinner itself was a success. I was very happy with the dishes and while I would probably not be as ambitious next time, I think many of the recipes are worth visiting again.

 

Christmas Dinner 2012

Even though Thailand doesn’t officially recognize Christmas, we still had the opportunity to celebrate, gathering at the house of friends for a 16-person dinner. It was several days in the making and, of course, I was in the kitchen, too.

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This was the third or fourth meal that Nat and I have cooked together, supported by his staff. I’m definitely the sous chef in the operation, responsible this evening for only the soup and appetizers, although insert myself in plenty of other tasks. Left, looking a bit like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld, I call people over with their bowls for a serving of cioppino. Right, Nat and I share a laugh while cooking. (Thanks to Nat’s cousin Kik for the pictures.)

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Simple canapes: white bean hummis with roasted red pepper and sundried tomato chutney, and shredded roasted beetroot with fresh mozzarella and a drop of balsamic and black truffle syrup.

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My latest version of cioppino, the classic San Francisco Italian style seafood stew. This recipe is from chef Michael Mina and is even nicer than the previous recipe I used.

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A beautiful foccacia bread sprinkled with flaked sea salt – perfect for sopping up the broth from the cioppino. One of our two stuffings, this one made with mushrooms and the other with chestnuts.

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Potatoes dauphinoise, thinly sliced with a rich and creamy interior. Sous video turkey, super moist and perfectly cooked, dropped in a deep fryer at the end for a crispy exterior.

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Carrots roasted with maple syrup and sprinkled with corriander. Creamy Brussels sprouts with roasted pine nuts.

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Desserts are served! Angel food cake with whipped cream and strawberries – elegant – and a coconut cake with fresh coconut in both the cake and the buttercream frosting. Served with homemade peppermint and pineapple ice creams.

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Bee, Doug, Oates (former Xangan), and Tawn pose mid-way through dinner, trying to pace themselves so there is room for the cake.

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After our dinner, half the group stuggles to remain upright. From left, Linda, Doug, Bee, our hosts Nat and Cha, Tawn, and me. Hope you and yours had a happy celebration, too!

 

Food in Shanghai – Part 2

As I mentioned in my previous entry, a large part of our trip to Shanghai was focused on eating. Let me share some more of our delicious discoveries with you. (When I say “our delicious discoveries,” I really should credit the friends and family on whose recommendations we relied.)

 

The Grumpy Pig

Located on Maoming Luu in the Jiang’an district, the Grumpy Pig features a pork centric, pan-Asian menu that invites you to nosh, chill, and enjoy the hip vibe.

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Pork steamed buns were a winner with fluffy buns, braised pork belly, and a cucumber and red cabbage slaw. The pork was sweet, sticky, and tender.

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Pork street toast, a play off the shrimp toast snack food common in Thailand and elsewhere in east Asia, features pork and grated sweet potato slathered on baguette toasts which are then battered and fried and then topped with sweet chili sauce. Good, but a little underseasoned.

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Several dishes are served over rice, making for a perfect meal for one. This was the teriyaki pork neck rice bowl with flavorful pork neck, sweet peppers, cabbage, and sansyo (the ground, dried leaves of the prickly ash tree) with a nice, tart teriyaki sauce. 

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The pork rice bowl features the same pork belly as served with the fluffy buns, served over rice with a poached egg, bok choy, and roasted onion. Mix it all together and you have a healthy and happy meal.

 

Di Shui Dong

Our first evening in Shanghai, Tawn and I were left to our own devices as Tawn’s cousins had to go to a social event. We wandered to the French Concession, another district in Shanghai, and ended up stumbling into a Hunanese restaurant that we later discovered is written up in Lonely Planet. Turns out that the recommendation was well-deserved.

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As you can see, the restaurant is popular with a mixed crowd of people. Many of the foreigners appeared to be expats, which I take as a good sign. Hunanese food is similar to Sichuan foods in terms of spiciness, but instead of relying on the tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, more traditional chilies are used. 

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The “Shef’s Special!” (per the menu’s spelling) was the Hunan style cumin spareribs, which were so good that my mouth waters just writing about them. The pork ribs are grilled and finished with a healthy dose of chilies and spices, mostly cumin seeds. The flavor is spectacular and they are not as spicy as you might expect. Cumin is one of my favorite spices, so I was in heaven. Almost ordered a second plate.

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The balance out the meat, we ordered a dish or stir-fried eggplant and French beans, which in addition to some chilies had some smoked pork belly. The little bit of bacon elevated the dish. If your children don’t like to eat vegetables, may I suggest you add some bacon to them?

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Since there were just the two of us eating, we ordered only three dishes, settling on something the menu called “distilled water egg”. We assumed this was a custard similar to the Japanese chawanmushi and were correct, kind of. The egg itself was flavorless and the dash of soy sauce didn’t season it sufficiently. Worst of all was the film of vegetable oil on top, which made the dish unappetizing. Two successes and one failure, but overall we were very happy with the food and service.

 

More Di Shui Dong

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As coincidence would have it, we ended up eating at another branch of the same restaurant two days later, when Jason and his husband Daniel took us to lunch. It wasn’t until we sat down and I looked at the name of the restaurant on the hand wipe packets that I realized we were at the same place. The good news is that we had a chance to further explore the menu.

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Hunan original bacon and smoked tofu spicy hot pot (“Recommended!”) brought together all the flavors we associate with Hunan cuisine in a single dish. It was tasty but seemed like a large portion for four people and I soon tired of it.

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An excellent, if simple, dish was the stir-fried cabbage with cayenne pepper. The cabbage was very sweet and despite the chilies, was a refreshing counterpoint to the other dishes.

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Mr. Mao’s favorite fried shrimps are small shrimp fried in their shells, covered in a mountain of fried garlic and chilies. Such a tasty combination. My only complaint was that the shrimp were not very large so the effort of peeling them was not rewarded with a lot of meat. I ended up eating the shells, which were crispy, but you still end up with the pieces that need to be picked out of your mouth. Not very graceful to eat!

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A steamed fish head, split open and topped with two types of chilies. The green chilies were pickled and had a nice vinegary flavor. The red chilies were fresh. Fish head is under appreciated in the west, but there is some really tasty, firm meat to be had.

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A soup made with pork bone and wax gourd, a flavorful, clear broth that made for a nice break from the spice of the meal. After two meals at Di Shui Dong, our appreciation for Hunanese food was even more solid than before.

 

Xin Ji Shi

One evening we went to the Xiantindi branch of Xin Ji Shi, a well-known Shanghainese restaurant chain. The restaurant, located in an upscale dining and shopping district, has a quaint interior that was formerly a row house. The modern exterior doesn’t prepare you for what might best be described as a step back in time, and a tasty one at that. 

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This is one of several “new” branches of the original “Jesse” (an Anglicization of “Ji Shi”) restaurant on Tianping Luu. Since the original is too small to reliably get a table in, the owners have opened these other branches. Depending on whom you speak to, the branches serve food that is as good as, or a close approximation of, the original.

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Before ordering, you are served a few small dishes of appetizers – pickled vegetables and spicy roasted peanuts. Enough to whet your appetite.

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A specialty is the crispy dried fish. Exactly as described, it is a dried fish that is then deep fried, making almost all of the bones edible and adding a nice crunch to the concentrated fishiness.

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The hong xiao rou (red braised pork) is perhaps the most famous dish in Shanghainese cuisine and is certainly the restaurant’s showstopper. Simmered for hours in a sweet soy sauce, the pork belly turns into a meltingly tender mass of goodness, a flavor that appeals to everyone except vegetarians. 

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Another very typical Shanghai dish was the bean curd skin with crab meat. This dish is deceptive. It looks unassuming at best and, more likely, unappetizing. It is profound, though. The thin strips of tofu are scrambled with crab meat. The first taste, before adding the all-important condiment of black vinegar, is relatively bland. But the vinegar unlocks so many levels of flavor and the dish is elevated to something much more than the sum of its parts. 

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A very simple dish of broccoli fried with garlic provided a nice serving of vegetables, helping to ensure a healthy, balanced meal lest we fall too into temptation with the pork belly.

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The most beautiful and extravagant dish, the toasted deep water fish head in a nest of fried shallot greens. The fried shallot greens hide the fish head when it arrives and the water carefully parts the nest at the table.

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The fish head, which is served split in half to make the meat readily accessible, is tender and succulent. The shallots prove the point that aroma is an integral part of flavor. You don’t eat the shallot greens but their perfume adds an earthy depth to the fish and fills the air.

Xin Ji Shi was a special meal and reinforced my love of Shanghainese food.

 

Qian Xiang Ge

Our final evening in Shanghai, Paul and Nicha took us to Qian Xiang Ge, a Guizhou style restaurant in Pudong, the eastern side of the city. Guizhou is a province in southwestern China that is relatively mountainous and one of the most ethnically diverse in China. It borders Sichuan province but has its own distinct culinary style, known as “Qian” (which is the Chinese diminutive for the province’s name). The food is known for its sour flavors and a distinct condiment, zao pepper, a fermented chili pepper paste.

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The interior of the restaurant is beautiful, with graceful courtyards and many seating areas for casual relaxing before, after, or during a meal.

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Sadly, despite most Shanghainese restaurants no longer allowing smoking, the common seating areas between the dining rooms was open for smokers, filling the room with the unwelcome scent of cigarette smoke. I’m fine with people making the decision to smoke, but when their smoke impedes on my enjoyment of a meal, that’s where I get upset.

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The highlight of the meal was a wujiang fish hot pot. A staple dish of Qian cooking is this fish in sour soup. Chunks of firm white fish are simmered in a spicy-sour sauce tableside for several minutes, before being served. The dish was similar to the Thai gaeng som, but without the tamarind flavor. It was enjoyable, but I think anyone trying the Thai dish might find the overall flavor of that to be richer and more satisfying.

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Seasonal greens stir fried with pork and an egg yolk. Served hot off the wok, you mix the egg yolk into the greens to create a pleasing sauce.

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Guizhou style fried chicken with cashew nuts in chili sauce. This tasty dish wasn’t as spicy as you might think, but had enough chili to get your attention and keep your taste buds awake. This dish is similar to one you might recognize from Chinese restaurants in the west – kung pao chicken – a dish which originates in Guizhou.

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I didn’t make note of the English name of this shrimp dish, which Google translate spits out as “Dushan hydrocloric acid flavored shrimp.” Appetizing, huh? It was shrimp in the shell with a garlic and chili sauce, very tasty and neatly arranged on the plate.

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Our final dish was a specialty called “Guizhou native chicken cooken in purple sand casserole.” It is basically a clay pot chicken. The unique design of the vessel allows steam to come up through the hole in the center of the pot, keeping the chicken incredibly moist and retaining all of its juices in the pot. The juices were too good to waste, so we spooned them on rice.

This was my first time trying Guizhou, or Qian, cuisine and I’ll definitely try it again. The food was very flavorful and not as spicy as Hunan or Sichuan cuisine.

Hope you enjoyed the culinary tour of Shanghai!

 

Making Dinner for Family

While visiting Seattle, my cousin suggested that perhaps I would like to cook dinner for the family at her new house. Of cousre, who am I to pass up an opportunity to cook in someone else’s kitchen?

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The spread – couldn’t get everyone at the table at the same time since my cousin’s three-week old daughter was demanding personal attention the entire time.

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Homemade kalmatta olive and rosemary bread.

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Grilled tri-tip of beef, marinated with soy sauce and ginger and served with two sauces, a Thai style green chili sauce and a tamarind sweet and sour sauce.

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Shredded Brussels sprouts with bacon and walnuts.

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Black beans with sofrito.

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Roasted yams with red onions, garlic, and rosemary.

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For dessert, a plum claufoutis, a French style baked fruit pancake.

 

Serving a Second Lavish Small Plates Dinner

A year ago, my friend Nat and I cooked up a storm, preparing an 11-course “small plates” dinner for a dozen friends. While it was a success, we lost sight of the “small” part of small plates and halfway through the meal, everyone was thankful that one of our dessert courses had to be scrapped. It took twelve months, but we worked up the courage to try again and this time we stuck to the original intent, keeping portions very modest so that by meal’s end, everyone was satisfied but not stuffed.

I arrived at Nat’s house at 9:00 and we started planning our menu before heading shopping. Here are some pictures from the day-long cooking process:

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Left: preparing the bread pudding for dessert. Right: steeping pandan leaves in cream to infuse the flavor.

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Left: making homemade chili oil as a garnish. Right: the salmon head left over from making fish stock.

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Left: lotus root chips cooked in the air fryer. Right: sauteeing rhubarb for a sauce.

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Left: braising daikon radish coins in a Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Right: testing the bread pudding.

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Left: deep frying the pieces of pork belly. Right: testing different consistencies for the kaffir lime foam.

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Left: individual soba noodle nests. Right: sauces and plating notes for each course.

After 7:00 pm, guests started to arrive and an hour later, with the help of Nat’s kitchen staff, we started to serve dinner. Here are the twelve courses.

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Spinach soup served with a garnish of creme fraiche. This soup had Indian spices and a bold, clean flavor. Made for a nice amuse bouche.

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Seared tuna slice with lemongrass jelly and chili oil, both homemade. The initial batch of lemongrass jelly was too weak in flavor so I had to make a second, stronger batch about two hours before dinner. Thank goodness for Nat’s super-cooling refrigerator. I think a leaf or two of microgreens would have complemented the colors.

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Third course was a very simple salmon stock risotto with salmon roe. Served as a single bite in order to keep servings small and allow our guests to enjoy a variety of flavors and textures throughout the evening.

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The next seafood course was a seared scallop (which didn’t get crispy enough as the surface wasn’t properly dried before frying) with a braised daikon radish coin served with kecap manis, a homemade Indonesian sweet soy sauce. I liked the concept of this dish and wish I could have properly cooked the scallops and served the dish warm. Unfortunately, we had no way to effectively warm the plates, so the sauce started to thicken and get sticky. Flavors were good, though.

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The final seafood dish was a slice of salmon, poached and then oven roasted, served with a nest of soba and a kaffir lime foam. Yes, I know that foams are so ten years ago but the flavor was interesting. Unfortunately, we got too much gas in the cannister and the cream came out like whipped cream rather than a true foam. We struggled with portion size here as I had to really twist Nat’s arm to convince him to cut the salmon this small – about two bites. He wanted to make it about twice as large.

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Mid-meal palate cleanser was a really pleasant cucumber gelato, the idea came from the dessert I had at Pollen in Singapore. We had to reduce the cucumber syrup by about two-thirds to sufficiently concentrate the flavor, but the results were worth it.  

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Twice cooked pork belly with a duo of sauces. The pork was poached until tender, then sliced and deep fried. The sauces were green chili and cilantro on the left and a rhubarb chili on the right. The sauces turned out nicely, one with a bite of heat and the other with a bite of tanginess. The pork was cooked too early and we kept it warm in a low oven, which dried it out. Would probably sous vide the pork in the future and then slice just before serving.

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For the chicken course, we prepared a Thai take on chicken Kiev. Chicken breast was pounded thin, sprinkled with curry power and wrapped around a green curry compound butter. It was then coated in panko crumbs and fried and then served on a shiso leaf.

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When you cut open the chicken, the butter runs out, leaving a green curry sauce on the inside of the fried chicken breast. It was an interesting dish to eat and tasted good, although a bit buttery.

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Recognizing a shortage of vegetables on our menu, we prepared a vegetarian course of two types of Thai vegetable blossoms stir fried simply and garnished with an air fried lotus root chip. Very clean and pleasing.

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The final main course was a take on nam tok nuea – Thai waterfall beef salad. The beef was cooked sous vide and despite the pink color is completely cooked through. It was meltingly tender, very flavorful, and served with lemongrass, chili, shallots, mint, and a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chili. Very strong finish to the meal.

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For the cheese course, we served a small slice of halloumi cheese grilled in a panini press and served with royal Bhutanese orange marmalade.  Yes, the marmalade actually came from the Bhutanese king’s mother’s royal project. This was a nice combination of textures and flavors.

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As it came time for dessert, I realized I hadn’t made the sabayon, a thick sauce of egg yolks, sugar, and liqueur. So I ran over to the stove and started to prepare it, absentmindedly putting in whole eggs instead of only yolks, so it took a lot longer to cook and never became as thick as I wanted. Instead of liqueur, I added the pandan flavored cream that I had prepared some ten hours earlier. It ended up tasting very nice. 

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Uniformed staff pick up desserts for delivery to the dinner guests.

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Our dessert, a coconut bread pudding served with pandan leaf sabayon and fresh berries. This was really nice, although I would have liked to toast the slices of bread pudding so they had a crisper exterior. All in all, it made for a pleasant conclusion to the meal.

As always, this was a lot of fun and a lot of work. It will probably be another year before we attempt it again. At least we have learned some lessons and it seemed a whole lot easier (and actually required less help from Nat’s staff) than our first dinner did.

 

Saturday Dinner Party

This past Saturday, Tawn and I had two couples over for dinner. All four of them are foodies, so I made a special effort to cook an elegant meal but something that wouldn’t require a great deal of last-minute attention. There are few things worse for a dinner party than having to be in the kitchen while your guests are sitting at the table.

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Amuse-bouche: To wake up the taste buds, I served a tomato water gelée topped with a tomato coulis. The tomato water, which is a bit cloudy because I rushed it along rather than waiting the twelve hours called for in the recipe, is made by blending fresh tomatoes and then straining them through cheesecloth. What happens is that the water in the tomato slowly drips out, full of tomato flavor but without any color. Of course, by squeezing the cheesecloth, I extracted a bit of the red coloring, clouding the water.

I added some gelatin to the tomato water and let it set in colorful shot glasses. I passed the remaining tomato pulp through a sieve to make coulis, flavoring it with some salt, sugar, and a little bit of balsamic vinegar. Not sure if it was the most exciting amuse-bouche ever, but I was pleased with it.

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I made two salads, both of which were based on dishes I had at Orris, a Los Angeles small plates restaurant that I’ve been to a few times. The first dish was thinly sliced roast beets topped with cheese and dressed with balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and dill. The original version of the dish is supposed to have manchego or another similar Spanish cheese. I ran out of time while shopping and had to settle for edam, which wasn’t nearly as good.

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Another Orris-inspired dish was an asparagus salad with a tarragon dressing, tomatoes, and pecans. I assembled it a bit differently than the original dish, but it came out very nicely. Visually, it is very appealing, and the taste was nice, too.

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To accompany the meal, I prepared a loaf of rosemary and black olive bread. This is one of my favorites and always turns out well.

The pasta course (which I didn’t get a picture of!) was a roasted vegetable lasagna with homemade pesto sauce. If I had had my way, I would have made individual servings of this. In the interest of minimizing time spent in the kitchen, I made a single batch and just served it at the table, family style. This dish was so tasty – the roasted veggies had lots of flavor – and I think I will make it my new standard lasagna recipe.

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For the main course, I prepared basil marinated snow fish en papillote. Steaming the fish and vegetables in their own individual parchment paper packets is easy, convenient, fancy, and produces excellent results. In this case, I marinated the snow fish in an olive oil, white wine vinegar, and basil mixture for 30 minutes, then steamed the fish with carrots, turnips, zucchini, and bell peppers. The fish was seasoned with a small bit of butter, a strip of lemon peel, and a kaffir lime leaf.

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I was able to cook the packets while we were eating the lasagna, so the fish was hot out of the oven when served. The picture doesn’t really do it justice, but it turned out very nicely. Snow fish has a high oil content, so it stays moist. Next time, I think I would cut the turnips a bit thicker and instead of including zucchini and peppers in the packet, I would serve them on the side.

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To celebrate the end of summer, I prepared a duo of cherry desserts. In the larger ramekin is a cherry clafoutis, which is a pancake like batter baked with a dish of fresh cherries. The smaller ramekin has cherries covered with a chilled sabayon, a frothy mixture of egg yolks, sugar, and amaretto liqueur. The sabayon is heated in a bowl placed over a steaming pot of water. It is whipped continuously, cooking the eggs and incorporating air. Once the mixture has cooled, I folded in some whipped cream. Finally, before serving the dessert I used a butane torch to brûlée the top. On the side is some more whipped cream and a cherry reduction sauce.

What I liked about these desserts is that I did not make them too sweet. Instead, they were satisfying without being sickeningly sweet. All in all, a meal well done.

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While cleaning the dishes afterwards, I was struck by the pattern the beets had left on the serving plate, so had to take a picture.