Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cilantro corn rice (and thoughts on food critiques)

I've become that person. A person I hoped growing up I'd never become: an ajumma. Ajumma in Korean means "married woman" or "middle-aged woman" - and like many Korean words, is perfectly fine when used in certain contexts and carries a negative connotation when used in others.

When I think of the word ajumma, I think of opinionated middle-aged Korean women who tell you what's up, even if you never asked. And that's exactly what I've become.

On a recent visit to one of HK's hottest newly opened restaurants, when one of the owners came to ask how the food was, my dining companions all answered as they were expected to, with assurances of "everything's delicious." I answered with a half-hearted "'s good." pause. "I mean, some things could use some work, but generally the food was ok." I'm sure my friends wanted to hide under the table. But honestly, I thought I was being kind because: (1) the food was actually terrible, and I at least softened my response by saying it was ok, and (2) if a new restaurant wants to stay open in the long run and their food sucks, they need to fix it - but if people keep telling them that their mediocre food is good, they'll never know they have anything to fix.

The owner actually seemed interested in my response and asked what I would suggest. I told him their albondigas were too dry and needed to be made with fattier meat and that the potatoes in the tortilla espanola were undercooked, as were the onions, which should reach a caramelized state before the eggs are added. I could have gone on, but I thought I'd stop with the two most glaring shortcomings. The owner took my comments graciously and even sent a round of drinks our way. I hope the restaurant improves their food and succeeds, because I am a huge supporter of anyone trying to start a new food business, especially because I know how hard it is. And really, I'm trying to keep my ajumma comments to myself because I don't want to be that annoying opinionated customer!

When I opened love at first bite in Berkeley, I listened to people's suggestions, whether they were good or bad, reasonable or farfetched. Because as a business owner, that's what you have to do - you have to be open to both customers' praise and complaints. Sometimes, even when you want to tell people to go away, you have to smile and listen. And then you have to make a judgment call - whether their suggestion is worth taking into account or not. Sometimes, it's not.

One day, in the early days of the bakery, a person walked in and asked if we had any items that did not contain any of the following: gluten (which is in wheat), eggs, dairy or sugar. Um, an item that doesn't contain any flour, sugar, eggs or butter? In my head I screamed: "We sell cupcakes! What the hell do you think cupcakes are made of?!" But to the lady, I answered with the nicest smile I could muster: "I'm really sorry, we currently only have cupcakes and cookies that include those items, but you know what, we really should look into developing recipes that don't have any of them." She nodded in agreement and left the store. And I mentally checked her suggestion into the box called: NEVER.

Which is not to say that someone out there shouldn't open a bakery that is wheat-free, sugar-free, dairy-free and egg-free. Especially in Berkeley or the SF Bay Area, where there is certainly a market for it. But it just wasn't going to be me. In fact, one of the main reasons I decided to open love at first bite was because I felt that the area didn't have an old-fashioned American bakery - fancy French patisseries, artisan sourdough bread bakeries, vegan collective bakeries, yes. But not a good old-fashioned American bakery specializing in exactly what the woman didn't want: butter, sugar, flour, eggs.

However, in order to be successful, you have to take your customer base into account. And having lived in Berkeley for awhile, I knew that meant that I'd have to come up with at least a vegan cookie. But I refused to compromise on taste, or specifically, the down-home comforting taste of a lovingly made cupcake (which normally requires copious amounts of butter and sugar). In the end, I fiddled around until I came up with a recipe for vegan chocolate cake that was still sinfully rich and chocolatey, as well as a flourless almond orange torte that was moist and decadent. But I never could come up with a decent baked item that managed to be gluten-free, sugar-free, egg-free and dairy-free, which is why we never offered them (and to my knowledge, still are not offered at love at first bite). It's just not possible: it will not taste the way a cupcake should, in which case, you're better off not eating it.

Happily, the majority of my wonderful customers were perfectly content with what we were offering, and the niche we were trying to fill in otherwise vegan, hippie Berkeley (as a side note, I have absolutely nothing but respect for vegans and maintain a vegan diet myself, except that it includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and lots of dairy).

These days, I cook mostly for my husband and myself, and the occasional dinner guest. And as fate would have it, I married a person who has an extremely sensitive palate. I've never been as nervous that someone would like my cooking or baking as I am with my husband. Mostly, because he's always right (don't ever tell him I said that).

There's rarely a meal that I prepare where when I ask him how the food is, he doesn't reply with "You know what would make it better? If you added a little [sugar/salt/garlic/soy/cheese/etc.]" And I have to admit - almost every single time, when I really parse the flavors in my mouth, I realize he's right. So when I put something in front of him and he says "this is good" without any other comment, I feel like I've won the James Beard award. And I can count on my fingers exactly how many times that's happened.

One of the first times he asked for seconds without any suggestion of how to make the dish better was when I made cilantro corn rice as a side dish to blackened Cajun catfish. The catfish itself had a little too much spice (the recipe I found called for WAY too much cayenne, and I really should have known better than adding the whole amount!), but the cilantro corn rice was delicious, and is a regular on our dinner table, especially with Southern or Mexican food. And best of all, it's extremely easy to make. I tossed this together because I happened to have cold leftover rice in our fridge, as well as a fresh bunch of cilantro (or coriander, as it's called in these parts) and a cob of sweet corn. It was a happy accident of flavors that compliment each other perfectly.

Leftover white rice - preferably long grain and at least a day old and refrigerated
Cilantro - chopped fine (I usually use just the leaves, but it's fine to throw in some stems too)
Lime or lemon
One ear of sweet organic corn (if you don't have this, you can use canned corn, but the results will be noticeably poorer)
Sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Butter (optional)

  1. Heat a glug of olive oil in a pan over medium high heat (about 1 tablespoon for each cup of cold rice). If you want a richer flavor, add a pat of butter.
  2. When the oil begins to form small bubbles, thrown in the cold rice. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, break down any clumps of rice.
  3. Squeeze lemon or lime over the rice (about 1/4 of a lime or lemon for each cup of rice).
  4. Sprinkle a generous pinch of sea salt over the rice and mix. Add the chopped cilantro.
  5. Using a sharp knife, cut the kernels of corn off of the ear and add to the rice. Mix and continue to cook a minute. Ideally, you want the heat high enough that some of the kernels will start to brown but not burn. Turn off heat and serve immediately.
This dish goes well with fish and Mexican food, especially with burritos or tacos.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Ginger molasses cookies

I've probably baked these cookies more than any other item in my life. While studying at Starbucks in law school about 10 years ago(!), I came across a chewy ginger cookie in the pastry case. I'd never had a ginger cookie before, save for a stale ginger snap offered by a classmate in elementary school which had basically turned me off of the entire institution. But the cookie behind the glass case at Starbucks looked so inviting - you could just tell it was going to be chewy and hearty. I fell in love with the cookie at first bite. It was everything that a generic ginger snap is not: fresh, moist, buttery, chewy, sweet, and paired with a glass of cold milk, possibly the best afternoon snack imaginable. I was instantly addicted.

I can be a bit OCD, so when I love something, I become absolutely obsessed with it. When I discover a new food that I love, I basically eat it again and again and again until I get sick of it. The problem was, I wasn't getting sick of the ginger cookie at Starbucks. And they were $2.75 a pop, and I was a poor law school student. So I decided one day that I was just going to learn how to make it at home.

It took a lot of trial and error. There are hundreds of recipes for ginger cookies out there, but I was very specific about what I wanted. It had to be thick and chewy. It had to have exactly the right combination of ginger, cinnamon and cloves. It had to have a rich molasses flavor that reminded me of the South (even though I'm not from the South).

I tinkered and tinkered with the recipe. My boyfriend at the time, who was the taste-tester for all my recipes, ate batch after batch happily, but still, I tinkered some more. The first time I finally got this recipe right was probably when the first seed of opening a bakery got planted in my mind. I wanted to share these cookies with everyone - friends, family, classmates, strangers. It's probably where I got the name for the bakery too, now that I think about it: love at first bite, because at least for me, it was.


2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsps. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/3 teaspoon ground cloves
1/3 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 extra-large egg
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon regular unsulphured molasses (Brer Rabbit or Grandma brand)

Granulated sugar (for coating cookie dough before baking) 

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg together into a medium bowl. Set aside.
  3. Cream the butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl with mixer on high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. With mixer on medium speed, beat in the egg and molasses, then increase the speed to high and beat about 1 minute longer, until the mixture no longer looks curdled. Scrape the sides with a rubber spatula several times while mixing.
  4. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and with a spatula mix together. You can also use an electric mixer on low speed, but make sure you have a large enough bowl or the flour will splatter. Mix until the flour is well incorporated and you have a sticky dough. Refrigerate for at least half an hour, which will help the dough firm up.
  5. Using a large spoon, scoop some of the batter into your hand and roll into a ball about 1 inch to 1 1/2 inch thick, depending on how large you want your cookies. Roll the ball in a bowl of granulated sugar until fully covered with sugar, then place on cookie sheet. Make sure to space the cookies at least 1 1/2 inches to 2 inches apart, as they will spread a lot during baking. 
Bake for 12 minutes, or until the cookies have spread and are firm to the touch. Rotate the sheet 180 degrees halfway through the baking time. Remove from the oven, sprinkle tops with more sugar and let the cookies cool on a baking sheet. 

 Put the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl and sift together.
 Mix the butter, egg, brown sugar and molasses together. It will look curdled at first, but keep mixing.
 The butter-sugar-molasses mixture should look creamy and slightly fluffy when it's ready, as above.
 Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix together with a rubber spatula. The cookie dough will be sticky and a bit difficult to handle, but refrigerating for half an hour will firm it up and make it easier to form into balls.

After rolling the dough into balls, dip in granulated sugar and place on cookie sheet to bake.

 The finished cookie. Best eaten with a tall glass of ice cold milk.

General tips on baking:
- let your eggs and butter come to room temperature before using them, unless otherwise instructed.
- crack your eggs in a separate bowl before adding them to the butter. One stray eggshell can ruin an entire batch.
- when measuring drying ingredients, use a knife to level off the measuring cup so you get precisely the amount that the recipe calls for.
- use fresh ingredients - baking soda, baking flour, spices, flour can all go stale and ruin a recipe.
- mix your dry ingredients thoroughly first (I'm a huge fan of sifting, even if the recipe doesn't call for it).
- when making batter for cake, cream/mix the butter and sugar thoroughly until fluffy and creamy. You basically can't overmix at this point. The more you mix, the creamier and fluffier it will get.
- do NOT overmix the dry and wet ingredients together, or you will get a tough/chewy/non-fluffy cake.
- preheat the oven.
- invest in an oven thermometer.
- invest in a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of bowls.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Cerveceria Catalana - a perfect meal

To me, there's no place in the world that encapsulates joie de vivre as much as Barcelona. It's a city that doesn't start to wake up until 10 am, enjoys a long leisurely lunch followed by a nice afternoon siesta, then really starts to come alive after 6 pm. It's a city where wine is literally cheaper than water, where jamon refers to fresh slices of rich, salty Serrano or Iberico ham cut straight from the hindleg of a pig that sits on a counter, hoof and all (rather than processed, oversalty, oversweet Oscar Meyer American ham), and where even the humblest loaf of bread is made magically delicious with a little bit of tomato, olive oil and salt. 

What I love best about Barcelona is its approach to food: simple, fresh, pure in flavor. One of my favorite places to eat in Barcelona is Cerveceria Catalana, an insanely popular casual eatery among locals and tourists alike. If you get here after 9 pm, you will have to wait outside with legions of other people waiting to grab a seat at the counter or a table. If you're used to eating at more "normal" hours (i.e, dinner before 8 pm), you'll fare better and should be able to snag a seat at the counter. Cerveceria Catalana is also open for breakfast and lunch - you can't go wrong any time of day, but for some of the best tapas in Barcelona, try to fit in at least one lunch or dinner.

Montaditos (mini sandwiches) available at breakfast. The full menu is not available at breakfast, just sandwiches, pastries, fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee (and wine and beer, if you want)

Tapas offerings at the bar during lunch and dinner - if it's your first time, the best seat in the house is at the counter where you can simply point to the dishes you want (most of them are not listed on the printed English menu). You choose what you want, and the servers will start cooking/preparing your tapas - the green peppers above (pimientos de padron) would be fried with olive oil and sea salt, the goat cheese skewers covered with almonds would be deep-fried into a lollipop with soft gooey cheese covered by raspberry jam - decadent and delicious.

Pimientos de padron

 Marinated vegetables topped with goat cheese disc - the cheese is torched before being served so that it is soft and melty.

 Mini hamburguesa with cheese and caramelized onion - absolutely recommended!

Food rating: *****
Bang for buck rating: 5

The essentials:
No website
Location: 236 C/Mallorca, Eixample, Barcelona, Spain
Average price of meal for two (including drinks): 30 euros