Monday, May 25, 2009

Further Fenneliciousness

My neighbor Jackie bestowed me with another bulb-and-a-half of fennel recently, so I once again hit up the e-waves for an interesting recipe. This one, an Apple & Fennel Panzanella courtesy of bitchincamero, was a winner. A winner as in, I made a huge batch of this as a side dish to go with an otherwise large meal, and three of us wiped out the entire batch. I absolutely loved it, and would make it again in a heartbeat. I fiddled with the quantities a bit, so I'm reproducing the recipe as made by me (at least, to the extent that my increasingly free-form kitchen exploits can be reproduced) below.


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Apple & Fennel Panzanella

• 1/2 loaf stale Ciabatta bread
• 1 medium to large apple, thinly sliced (bitchincamero suggests Macintosh; I like Red Delicious, so I used one of those, instead)
• 1 medium sized fennel bulb, thinly sliced (if you're a novice fennel user like I am, this guide for prepping fennel may come in handy)
• 1 handful of salad greens (optional - I did not include this - although I might next time and cut out some of the bread to make the recipe less carby. An herb salad or mixed green mix would work well.)
• 1 small bunch chives, snipped into small pieces
• 1 tsp poppy seeds

Dressing (NOTE: I like more dressing, so I doubled this):
• 2 T olive oil
• 1 T Dijon mustard
• 2 tsp white wine vinegar
• 1 garlic clove, finely minced (I used two cloves per 2 T olive oil)
• pinch of salt

Preheat the broiler. Slice the bread into 1/2-inch by 1/2-inch cubes. Arrange them on a cookie sheet and pop them under the broiler for a couple of minutes until they completely dry out and begin to brown slightly. Keep your eye on the bread - it burns quickly.

In the meantime, whisk together the olive oil, mustard, vinegar, garlic and salt. Toss the bread with the apple, fennel, greens, chives and poppy seeds, then drizzle with the dressing and give it a good toss, making sure everything is evenly coated. If you like the flavor of fennel, you can chop up some of the fronds and throw those in the mix, as well; they make a pretty - and tasty - garnish.

As with most salads, the quantities aren't set in stone, and you can really fiddle with things to taste.

Crisp and hearty with a nice, tangy zing from the dressing...definitely a keeper.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dai Due at Montesino Farm

I've long been wanting to try one of the Dai Due dinners, but was having difficulty justifying the cost to myself. So I was thrilled when the opportunity arose to attend one of their dinners in conjunction with our friend Greg's birthday celebration. I love it when my friends give me an excuse to eat well.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Dai Due, it's a supper club run by a young couple, Jesse Griffiths and Tamara Mayfield. Attendees pay a per-head fee which varies depending on the dinner; in exchange, they get a 4-10 course meal made from locally produced, sustainably-grown, seasonal ingredients + an aperitif to kick things off. This particular dinner was to be held at Montesino Farm, an organic CSA farm near Wimberly, Texas.

Montesino is about an hour's drive from Austin, so four of us set off early, toting four (!!) bottles of wine selected by my favorite retail wine expert, Michael McGovern at Central Market North. If you live in Austin and need a wine pairing, go see Michael - he can nail a pairing like nobody else, and he is a super-cool guy, to boot.

About an hour later, we arrived at our destination.


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We pulled up to this pretty little barn and tumbled out of the car.


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OK, maybe "pretty big barn" is a more apt description.


Almost immediately, we were offered our aperitifs. This one was made with fresh strawberries, fresh blueberries, brandy, and um...something else that I don't remember. I do remember that it tasted really good, though.


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Refreshing and light; a perfect preview for our meal.


Before dinner, we took the opportunity to wander around the farm a bit.

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A few of the farm's Rouen ducks - love their little mohawks

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Onions hanging to dry

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I found these paintstick-like markers charming.

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The resident cow, Belle, came to greet me.

After a bit of wandering, everyone congregated around the giant table that had been set in the barn. The setting was absolutely fantastic; it was a lovely, cool, spring evening, the air was fresh, and there was a nice buzz as everyone looked forward to sharing a meal.

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This dining table would have given the one in "Batman" a run for its money.

The menu actually listed 12 courses, but they were served in waves. The first thing that arrived at our table was a wonderful plate of cheeses and housemade meats. There was a Baby Caprino from CKC Farms, a Farmer's Cheese with guajillo honey and thyme, three types of saucisson sec (dried sausage), an antelope sausage, and a duck blood sausage and duck liver mousse, both made with ducks dispatched specifically for this meal.


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Next came a salad fashioned from artichokes, goat's milk feta, and some absolutely fantastic Arbequina olives from Sandy Oaks Orchard:

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Followed by these delicate and beautiful fried squash blossoms, served with marinated onions:

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They gave us a little space to give us time to finish this round before bringing out the soup course. The soup was made with wild redbreast sunfish, bluegill, Rio Grande Cichlids, and channel catfish that they had caught themselves for the occasion in Cypress Creek. The preparation was wonderful; there was a substantial piece of fish in each bowl, and I think it had been pan fried, as the texture had a bit of crispiness despite the fact that it was soaking in broth. The fish was topped with a bit of aioli, which was an unexpected - but delicious - surprise in the context of soup.

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Following the soup, another break before round three. I wandered outside and watched the sun setting over the fields for a few minutes.

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And then the dishes started coming again. Bitter greens topped with grilled duck breast (again, Rouens from Montesino) and fresh blackberries. A duck confit tossed with potatoes, green beans, and grilled onions. Boudin blanc and wild boar sausage over a sauerkrautish braised savoy cabbage. A vegetable tian made with squash and tomatoes. And a heaping pile of dinosaur kale with elephant garlic. It just kept coming.

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For dessert, a duck egg and myrtle custard with blackberries. I think these folks secretly had an Iron Chef competition going, here, with duck as the secret ingredient. Fortunately, I LOVE duck.

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Based solely on the food, I don't know that this Dai Due supper quite stacked up to our Sushi Samba splurge just a week earlier - and Dai Due was actually slightly more expensive. But the experience of eating so simply yet so well, in the heart of this charming little farm with a little barn cat peering at us from the stairs and the air whispering of spring, made it worth every penny.

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Sometimes, a little step back in time is good for the soul.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Return of the Food Bloggers' Potluck

The First Commandment of Food Bloggers' Potlucks is: thou shalt not arrive late.

Perhaps this means I am a sinner, but I simply was not able to get it together to arrive at the second Austin food bloggers' potluck, which occurred this Sunday, on time. In fact, I was nearly two hours late, which meant that not only were the best food photos long gone, but also that much of the best food had already disappeared into the gullets of hungry food bloggers.

Fortunately, there were still a few savory pickin's to be had, a few other bloggers also made late entrances laden with delectables, and the dessert table was still groaning under a myriad of fantastic-looking desserts. I still managed to stuff myself silly, and had a great time.

One of my favorite bites was the remnants of three Cajun-stuffed chickens cooked up by host David Ansel of Soup Peddler fame. These chickens, which had been purchased by a friend of the Ansels in Lafayette, LA, were stuffed with various combinations of such delights as shrimp, mushrooms, beef, pork, crawfish, and jalapeno cornbread (cue collective swooning). Maybe there's a completely valid reason that 27.4% of Louisiana adults are obese, according to this 2007 report.


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Quite possibly worth tipping the scales on state obesity statistics.

Another meaty star was this duck confit boudin (yes, duck confit boudin!!), handmade by Adam of Cissi's Market. God how I love food bloggers potlucks!

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Eat it and weep.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention the amazing lengths to which Ryan of Nose to Tail at Home went for his potluck offering. He bought an entire pork leg from MT Supermarket, brined it for 15 days in a 5 gallon bucket, then boiled it in hay before bringing it on by. Which is why he had a perfectly valid excuse for being later to the potluck than I was.

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Ryan carving up his creation

Although the spotlight and the camera lenses are always focused on the food at any food blogger event, the people are what make it fun. Despite the fact that I was feeling tired and sort of quiet that day, I really enjoyed visiting with Jennie Chen of Miso Hungry Now (and devouring her fantastic Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes); getting photography pointers from incredible photographer and fabulous woman Penny De Los Santos of Appetite; and meeting Michael Chu of Cooking for Engineers, who recently relocated to the Austin area.

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Penny De Los Santos and Mando Rayo of Taco Journalism strike a pose.


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Leo, son of Jam from Thai Cooking With Jam,
checks to see if I'm safe to eat.


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Julian, son of Addie Broyles of Relish Austin, thought this was a potLICK.

The rest of the photos I took at the potluck can be found here.

Thanks for another great event, Austin food bloggers. You put the luck in potluck.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Las Vegas, part II - Sushi Samba

Have I mentioned yet that our dinner on Saturday was epic? It was. It was E-P-I-C.

My brother had been to Sushi Samba twice on a recent business trip to Vegas, and both times he had indulged in their tasting menu. When he told me how fantastic it was, we agreed we'd splurge on that instead of coughing up the $165 per person to see Love, for which my parents had received a couple of free tickets. So Larry, his wife Roseanne, Chris and I headed on over to Sushi Samba on Saturday night to find ourselves a little Vegas dining experience of sorts. And find it we most certainly did.


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Sushi Samba is a fusion restaurant, blending the cuisines of Japan, Brazil, and Peru. I personally don't balk at fusion so long as it's done well, and I think Sushi Samba falls into this category. While I don't think everything we ate necessarily melded together to create a cohesive whole, I also thought everything we tasted was outstanding; for me, that's enough.

Like most of the upscale Vegas dining institutions, Sushi Samba is located in a hotel on the Strip - in this case, the Shoppes at the Palazzo. After all I'd heard about SS, I was surprised that the decor seemed just a little thrown together; for example, the sign outside appeared to be a non-permanent banner. The interior combined edgy design elements with judicious use of bright color to interesting effect, but the presence of several large television screens ruined it for me. I never, ever, ever want a television screen in the dining area of a restaurant. Ever. And that is doubly - no, triply - true when I'm paying a chunk of change for my meal.

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The cool, sans-television portion of the decor.

We had reservations and were promptly seated. There was a little scuffle when we asked our server if we could move to another table (with nicer lighting so I could better photograph my food - although we did not confess this to her) and one of the other servers got cranky, I think because we were encroaching on her territory. However, she eventually huffed off and we were left with our original server, Vanessa, who was fantastic.

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See, this lovely shot of the menu would not have worked at that other table.
It was just too dark.

I started my meal by ordering a Chu-cumber, which is basically a cucumber martini (or, as SS calls them, "Chu-tinis") made with Japanese shochu rather than vodka. This particular cocktail was made with iichiko and fresh cucumber mixed, inexplicably (but tastily) with St. Germain Elderflower (apparently, Japan, Brazil, and Peru don't have a good enough selection of liquor, so France had to get in on the game, as well). Odd mix that it was, my Chu-cumber(s) were downright delicious - not too sweet, refreshingly light, and far too easy to drink. A very nice accompaniment to my meal.

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Don't-chu think this looks good?

Sushi Samba's tasting menus come in two varieties; a 7-course traditional omakase for $100 per person and a 7-course meal comprised of signature items selected by the server in conjunction with the chef from SS's regular dinner menu for $80 per person. Larry had tried the $80 version on his previous visits and had thought it superb, so the two of us went with that (note that all the photos below show both of our portions combined).

The first course that arrived on the scene was a pair of taquitos made with yellowtail, avocado, and roasted corn miso served with fresh lime and a sauce made from a Peruvian red pepper called aji panca. The raw yellowtail combined with the avocado made for a lovely, smooth texture that contrasted well with the crispy taco shell, but I thought the strong corn note in the shell overpowered the yellowtail a little too much. Tasty, to be sure, but at $6 apiece for a pretty small taquito, I don't think I would order these again.

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When you live in Texas, even yellowtail taquitos have
a high standard to live up to.

The next course was the stuff fusion dreams are made of. It was a quartet of sashimi tiraditos (a tiradito is the raw-fish doppleganger of ceviche). There was a sake (salmon) in an orange and mustard miso sauce; a kanpachi (amberjack) bathing in a sauce made of yuzu, sea salt, and black truffle oil and topped with scallions; a hamachi (yellowtail) with red jalapeno and lemongrass in what I believe was a tomato-based sauce; and a maguro (tuna) with granny smith apple, serrano, and lime.

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Now this is fusion.

Vanessa suggested that we eat the tiraditos clockwise, beginning with the salmon. As I ate my way through the progession, I was reminded of Violet Beauregarde, the girl from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who met her fate while chewing a piece of gum that, flavor-wise, served up three full courses in a single piece. The flavors were all utterly unique, and just when I thought my palate understood each bite, the notes would suddenly shift, and develop into something completely different, yet beautifully complementary to that which had preceded it. After blissfully savoring the entire assortment, I tried mightily to choose a favorite, and eventually settled upon the kanpachi. Even now, four days later, the ocean-y fresh flavor of that fish - followed by the juicy yuzu, the hint of truffle oil, and the magically subtle finishing note of the sea salt - still lingers on my tongue. Marvelous.

We didn't have long to mourn the departure of the tiraditos before we were forced to turn our attention to the arrival of a pair of SS's interpretation of anticuchos.

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This photo does not do this plate justice at all.

This version was made with sea bass in a lovely miso sauce and served with the most amazing Peruvian corn I've ever tasted (OK, it was the only Peruvian corn I've ever tasted - quite possibly the best corn I've ever tasted). The kernels were huge and plump, and the texture was absolutely perfect - soft on the outside with a surprising, very fresh-tasting firmness on the inside that was just delightful. When corn is competing with sea bass on the deliciousness scale, you know it's good. And that is not at all to say the sea bass was at all bad; it's just that the corn was so startlingly good that it simply shone. It's all about expectations, isn't it?

It was at this point that I realized we had only had three of our seven courses. Could I make it? Oh yes, I could. We soldiered bravely onward.

And then. And then the sushi course arrived. I nearly fainted when Vanessa set this plate down in front of us.

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Oh sushi my sushi.

There were three rolls; the Samba Strip, which was Maine lobster with mango, tomato, and chives rolled in soy paper, covered in crispy rice and served with a peanut curry sauce. This was good overall, but oddly bland; I thought it was much better with my usual soy and wasabi blend than with the curry sauce that came with it.

Then SS's version of a spicy tuna roll, the Neo Tokyo - yellowfin rolled in rice with a bit of tempura flake, covered with a slab of maguro, and dotted with "eyes" of the aji panca sauce. Excellent, but not as special as some of the other parts of our meal.

Finally, there was a BoBo Brazil - kobe beef with avocado, kaiware (sprouted daikon radish seeds), shiso leaves, a smidge of red onion, and chimichurri sauce, of all things. The menu said the beef was seared, but it tasted very much raw to me (which is a good thing). This roll had my number. Again, fusion at its best - ingredients I would never have thought to put together but somehow, as a whole, it just worked. I think this may have been my favorite part of the dinner; there would probably be some sort of duel to the death between the BoBo Brazil and the tiraditos, and I'm pretty sure both the winner and the loser would be doomed to being eaten by me.

After we had had our way with the sushi course, the final savory course arrived - a wild mushroom toban-yaki topped with a wonderful, impossibly tender duck breast. Ohhhh so good standing alone, particularly the mushrooms, which, like the Peruvian corn, had that wonderful firm freshness about them, but I don't think the course quite held a candle to the I-just-might-order-this-for-my-last-meal status of the tiraditos and BoBo Brazil. And the rich heaviness of the duck in its creamy sauce was a little confusing after the wonderful lightness of the sushi.

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A bit more rich than I wanted at the moment...and yet, just look at that beautifully rare duck.

Before I tackle dessert, I should also mention the outstanding dry aged New York strip that Chris ordered in lieu of the 7-course feast. We all thought he was nuts for eschewing the tasting menu (because he is), but I have to admit that this was a damn fine piece of meat. And it came on a tray the size of Brazil itself that was literally groaning with the weight of the myriad of sides and sauces that accompanied it. Worthy of note: the mound of collard greens cut into neat ribbons and sauteed to perfection.

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Here is where the Brazilian part of the fusion comes in handy.

Just when we thought we couldn't eat another wafer thin mint, the dessert course arrived. Or, I should say, the dessert courses. There was a warm chocolate banana cake with maple butter, banana chips, and ice cream; a Choco Duo - dark and white chocolate custards layered with hazelnut croquant and finished with a bit of gold leaf; and a pair of taquitos stuffed with banana, doce de leite, and Peruvian chocolate in a crispy taco shell drizzled with honey.

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Oh baby

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Yes

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YES

The chocolate banana cake was the star of the show (the attention-getting sparkler on the plate didn't hurt), but all were terrific. I think the Choco Duo was my least favorite, but that's probably in part because it was the least unusual, despite its gold leaf adornment.

I probably ought to wrap up this post before it takes as long to read as our seven courses took to eat. Overall, I was very pleased with our dining experience at Sushi Samba. The food was truly outstanding, and although I sometimes had a little trouble marrying the courses to one another to create a unified experience, each course standing alone was wonderful enough that I didn't mind a bit. Service was excellent, and I thought the price was not at all bad considering the quality and quantity of our meal. Now if they would just do away with those televisions...

Nonetheless, definitely worth a visit. If you get a chance, samba on over to Sushi Samba and see for yourself.

Sushi Samba
3327 Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas, NV 89109

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Las Vegas, part I - Living (and Eating) Large

We just spent the last three days in Las Vegas with my family, celebrating my dad's 70th birthday, my sister-in-law's birthday, our 10th anniversary, and Mother's Day. Since the Cheng family doesn't know any other way to celebrate than by eating good food, the long weekend was an eatfest of mammoth proportions.

The smorgasbord kicked off with my dad's birthday dinner at Todai, an "all you care to eat" seafood and sushi restaurant chain that has a location in the Planet Hollywood Miracle Mile shopping center (my 2007 Yelp review of this Todai location is here). I was introduced to Todai many years ago in Houston and was an avid fan for a long time; however, I think the quality of the food has declined somewhat in recent years. Nevertheless, the sheer indulgence of a mile-long, self-replenishing sushi bar from which you can eat all you want still holds a certain charm, particularly when you're in the Gross Indulgence Capital of the World. Plus, the Las Vegas location offers birthday diners a free meal while accompanied by at least three paying customers, which appealed to another dominant Cheng family trait: we love a deal. So, my dad dined free for his birthday and the rest of us endeavored to get our money's worth by stuffing ourselves silly.


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The only photo I got to take at Todai before I was politely asked to put my camera away. Apparently, their food constitutes some sort of trade secret.


On Saturday, after gently dissuading my dad from his plan to brunch at Denny's, we ended up at the Vegas offshoot of New York's Carnegie Deli. Unfortunately, my experience with these Vegas incarnations of old classics is that they generally fail to live up to the originals; the Carnegie was no exception. Not that it was really bad; it just didn't merit "old classic" status. What they lacked in quality they certainly attempted to make up for in quantity, however, as evidenced by this corned beef sandwich my parents ordered.


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Just try to fit your mouth around this baby.

Since mutantly-huge things was the theme of this meal, we gorged on ginormous chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert. These chocolatey wonders were an anniversary gift from Chris, which he'd had delivered to our room by Edible Arrangements. If you ever want to send a woman a present that will make her swoon, I highly recommend a box of these.


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These beauties had me at hello.

Our dinner on Saturday evening was so epic that it deserves a blog post all its own, so I'm off to forcibly wrangle my body clock back onto CST. There should also be full Yelp reviews of every place we dined at some point; I'll link them back here when they're written. Sleep; who needs sleep?

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Fried Fennel, or "How I Turned Something Perfectly Healthy Into Artery-Clogging Goodness."

This year, it seems like ALL of my friends are participating in CSA and getting weekly deliveries of gorgeous, fresh goodies. Since my schedule is so unpredictable, or perhaps because I am secretly commitment-phobic, I haven't subscribed to one, but I've been jealously eyeing all the beautiful bounty gracing my friends' homes. So I was deeply delighted when my wonderful neighbor Jackie - who subscribes to CSA through Tecolote Farm - sent me an e-mail this weekend that said simply, "I have a big organic fennel bulb to give you if you'd like it." I've never prepared fennel and had no clue what to do with it, but I knew it would be fun to experiment with, so I gratefully took her up on her offer.

When Jackie presented me with the bulb, I was a little overwhelmed. It was gorgeous, sure, with it's long, feathery green fronds, but I was a little taken aback by the size of it. I started out by attempting to photograph it, but I couldn't for the life of me get far enough away from it to fit the whole thing in the viewfinder. Here's the part of it I captured:


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Pretty, isn't it?

I then spent some time poking around online looking for a recipe that was both irresistibly delicious sounding and was quick and easy, as I knew my schedule was going to be packed this week. But nothing jumped out at me. My good Midwestern upbringing (or was it my good Chinese upbringing? One of the two, or perhaps both) insisted that I not waste it, so I asked my friend the Delicious Libertine for ideas. DL can always be counted on for cooking inspiration; off the cuff, he named three different suggestions. When he got to, "dip in butter, a little flour with salt and pepper, and then fry...serve with a homemade mayo or aioli," I knew I had a winner.

So, this evening after a long walk at Ladybird Lake, I came home and fried up some fennel, whipped up some aioli, and had me a little fennel feast.

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So much for eating healthy this week.

I have to say, it was darn good. The texture was a little more firm than I expected - I sort of thought it would break down and really soften and sweeten up the way an onion would, but instead it retained a fair amount of its original crispness, despite being fried for a fair while on medium to medium-high heat. I was also surprised at how little of the anise-y flavor of the fennel remained. I sort of like that flavor, so I garnished it with some of the fronds, but I think folks who aren't that fond of fennel might nevertheless appreciate this preparation.

But then, who can resist something fried and served with aioli? Certainly not me; I single-handedly wiped out this giant bulb in one fell (or is that one fennel?) swoop.

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Peanut Butter Butterscotch Bars, or "Are You a Better Cook Than a Fifth Grader?"

Anyone who knows me at all probably knows that I am famous (infamous?) for being constantly on the go. But I'm well past the age where I feel totally comfortable showing up at a potluck with something store-bought (which is not to say that I don't do this, because I do - frequently). Yet, I'd much rather arrive with something homemade, even if it is something really easy to make.

This recipe falls squarely in the "easy to make" category. If the game show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" were turned into a cooking contest, and I was pitted against a fifth grader with this recipe, I would undoubtedly lose. Hell, a kindergartner could probably make it. But it's homemade, and it tastes good, so that makes it a winner in my book.

I adapted this recipe from this one for almond butter butterscotch squares. I really thought the bars needed a more crunchy texture, and for some reason, almonds didn't feel quite right. So I changed the nut butter to peanut butter and added in some raw peanuts. Then I multiplied the recipe times 1-1/2 so I could use a 9x12 pan and make more bars in one batch.

So, here's the recipe as adapted:

* * *
1-1/2 c chunky peanut butter
1-1/2 sticks butter
1-1/2 bags (11 oz) butterscotch chips
1/2 bag raw peanuts
1 bag (11 oz) mini marshmallows

Melt butter and peanut butter in bowl in 30 second microwave bursts until melted, mixing well between bursts.

Add butterscotch chips and continue to heat in 30 second microwave bursts until melted, again, mixing well between bursts.

Add marshmallows and raw peanuts and mix in thoroughly.

Line a 9x12 baking dish with wax paper along the bottom and up the sides.

Spoon the mixture into the dish and spread evenly across the pan and into all corners.

Refrigerate for at least two hours until firm (they will hold up better if you give them overnight).

Using the wax paper, lift the whole batch of bars out of the dish and onto a cutting board. Cut into squares.

* * *
Voila.


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Will you win any cooking contests with these bars? Nah. Will people eat them up and come back for more? I did.

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