Sunday, July 27, 2008

My Seattle Experience

"Hello Seattle, I'm listening." Those were the famous words of Dr Frasier Crane as he began his radio program on the hit NBC series Frasier. Admittedly, I was a fan of the sitcom; still watch the re-runs on cable. Frasier was centered around the lives of the Crane family but also playing a starring role was the city of Seattle. The sitcom's portrayal of Seattle was one of absolute sophistication. In the mind of a Caribbean girl, this was the epitome of American life. (I realize now how grossly naive I was.) Thus, began my fascination with the Emerald City. Last month, i finally got the opportunity to visit the city. My college friend, Stephanie, moved out there two years ago and this trip also gave me the chance to visit her.
The Seattle Tacoma International Airport is 20 miles or so outside of the downtown area and, since this was where I had to meet Stephanie, I got the opportunity to see the famous skyline for the first time. Not a bad way to start my trip. The beauty of Seattle and Washington State in general is its greenery, lush vegetation and rolling mountains, not to mention Mount Rainier but more on that later.

Seattle skyline.

There is no better way to experience a new place than to go where the locals go and do what they do. In the Seattle, the locals drink a lot of coffee. To me, this was interesting because the climate does not permit the proper growth of coffee trees. Later, Stephanie explained that it was that very climate (cold, rainy and overcast) that necessitated coffee drinking in the first place. The best coffee beans, I was also told, were imported from Italy. "Once you've tried Italian coffee you will never go back,'' everyone said.
So, the following morning Steph suggested an Italian coffee shop, Cafe Senso Unico. Very unassuming from the outside - I almost walked past it- but relatively expansive on the inside with an additional living-room-like seating area at the back, equipped with a flat screen television. The barrister (clearly also Italian) greeted us warmly with that ever obvious European confidence. Being slightly a creature of habit, I ordered a "regular" which was good but only until I tasted Steph's Americano. Italian coffee is smooth and roasted in such a way as to retain the sweetness of the beans. Needless to say, I think I have found my new "regular." Like any cafe worth it's weight in beans, there was quite an array of edibles to chose from. Fresh, authentic, italian concoctions, both sweet and savory.
So impressed was I that I returned the following morning. To my amazement, it was crowded. And loud. I soon found out that the crowd was a group of transplanted Europeans taking advantage of the flat screen TV to watch the Euro cup. Did I mention that they were loud? Unfortunately, too much testosterone doesn't go well with my morning cup of Joe, so I grudgingly left and made my way to the Seattle Aquarium.

The serenity of this view of downtown, as seen from a pier at the Puget Sound, starkly contrasts the bustle of the Pike Place Market just two blocks away.

Colorful clam at Seattle Aquarium.

The aquarium sits on the edge of the boardwalk on Alaska Way and only last year had a $41 million face lift. Guests are immediately drawn to the 40 ft tall, 120 000 gallon tank "Windows on Washington Waters" which showcases marine creatures specific to state. There is a lot to be learnt here, for both children and adults. The most fascinating exhibits to me were Life on the Edge - a close-up look at the critters found in tide pools- and Marine Mammals - this was where all the action was. Sea otters, harbor seals, and fur seals are typically quite entertaining in their natural environment, a trait that is maintained even in captivity. Their antics are amusing, it's as though they know that they are entertaining us. I could have stayed there for hours but unfortunately hunger pangs got the better of me. The Pike Place Market is two blocks up hill and across from the aquarium and I knew exactly where to have lunch.
De Laurenti Deli serves up healthy, and not-so-healthy-but-delicious-nonetheless, hand crafted sandwiches, salads, pizza and desserts. It is a busy place with limited seating, mostly bars tools that face the window. Somewhat the feeling of eating in your kitchen, for me it felt more like eating in my grandmother's old kitchen. As busy as it was, De Laurenti's was a great respite from the crowds of the market itself and is a great place to regroup or refuel if you intend to tour the market.
A walking tour of Pike Place market is the best way to see everything but I would suggest starting early and going leisurely. As I made my way through the throngs of people, it soon became evident why this place became one of Seattle's most famous attractions. Stalls of all imaginable crafts and foods: pepper jelly, beef jerky, antiques, beaded things, art, not to mention all the fresh fruit and vegetables. The market is more than just a tourist attraction, however; this is where Seattle-ites do their weekend produce shopping. I couldn't help but wonder how convenient it must be living in one of the condos just a block or two from the market. Fresh produce, fresh seafood, vibrance, culture, entertainment, all within walking distance. (Just the mention of fresh produce makes me day dream.)

Admiring the view from rooftop patio, before The Saint.

I just so happened that Stephanie's birthday was also that weekend. We celebrated at a tequila bar called The Saint. A relatively small, crowded and noisy watering hole on Olive Way. It's hard to miss since it is the only bright blue building in the area. Besides their excellent tequila cocktails, the menu also carries delicious appetizers. Pulled pork and the freshest ceviche I've had this side of the Mississippi are a couple of the notables. Another restaurant worth noting is Wild Ginger, a satay joint in the middle of downtown. Here, you can find all sorts of meats and vegetable skewers paired with tangy sauces, as well as traditional Mongolian and Vietnamese dishes. I would suggest making reservations because this is quite a popular restaurant especially on the weekends.

At The Saint, despues de los tequilas.

On the last day of my trip, I made it to that quintessential Seattle landmark: the Space Needle. Having done that, I will be honest with you: the line was long, the observation deck was crowded, the coffee was way overpriced and one can only truly appreciate the view on a clear day. Thankfully, that day was gorgeous and my patience was rewarded with a stunning view of Mount Rainier and the Puget Sound. Mount Rainier pierces the horizon, just beyond the downtown skyline, in a dramatic reminder of nature's power and beauty. Although I was unable to actually make out there, I am now inspired to start preparing for my second trip to Seattle, specifically to hike the mountain or at least part of it.

View from the Space Needle; look carefully and you can see Mount Rainier in the background.

Although Frasier's Seattle was often lofty and unrealistic, it surely stoked my interest and ultimately brought me here. Once you visit, you will soon see that Seattle is one of the most beautiful American cities. From it's greenery, its majestic snow-capped mountains, its location on the Pacific, its glamorous skyline, and its mix of influences, this city will charm you.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thinking outside the grain: a recipe for cream of wheat bread.

My mother makes the best cornbread hands down. Hers is a very simple recipe, the main ingredients being cornmeal, milk and raisins. I have never asked her for the actual recipe nor do I want to. As I have mentioned a couple times in this blog, I prefer certain foods to remain specific to certain aspects of my life. That way, these meals have a greater meaning for me and the people I dine with. For example, I have creamy Lipton tea only in New York with my relatives, roasted turkey I like to have only at Thanksgiving, and mummy's corn bread I like to have whenever I go to Trinidad. It gives me something to look forward to. And I'm sure mummy derives some joy from knowing that I enjoy her cooking.

As life would have it, I have no immediate plans for a trip to Trinidad so I created my own corn bread recipe. However, recently I have been experimenting with different grains in my cooking. I found that cream of wheat works well if substituted for corn meal in some recipes. Here, it produces a bread that is moist yet crumbly like corn bread. This recipe is slightly sweet and therefore can be eaten as a side dish with meat but also as breakfast. We had it this morning, toasted and topped with scrambled eggs and lox. Kudos to whomever declared breakfast the most important meal of the day.

Cream of Wheat Bread

1 1/4 cups cream of wheat
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup canola oil
1/4 cup fat free sour cream
1/2 cup skimmed milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
zest of one lime

1. Set oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Combine cream of wheat, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
3. Using an electric mixer or whisk, cream together sugar, oil, and sour cream until sugar has dissolved and the mixture looks slightly fluffy, about 5 minutes.
4. Whisk in the egg and slowly add milk while continuing to whisk. Mix in vanilla and lime zest.
5. Using a hand held whisk, incorporate dry ingredients to wet ingredients in three installments. Do not over mix; mix just to the point where each installment of dry ingredients mixes into the wet ones.
6. Pour into an 8" cake pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown and edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Place pan on wire rack and cool for 5 minutes before removing bread. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Apricot Chicken Salad

During the week, I sometimes grab lunch at Whole Foods. The hot foods and salad bars are extensive but I go there especially for two things: cabbage crunch and apricot chicken salad. Given the chance, I can eat these for lunch everyday. It really is hard to go wrong with chicken salad but adding sweet, juicy, dried apricots livens up this classic lunch dish. For my own recipe, I used left over roasted chicken but really any well seasoned pieces of chicken breast (pre-cooked) can be used.

Apricot Pecan Chicken Salad

3 cups cooked chicken, cubed
1 cup dried apricots, diced
½ cup pecans, chopped
1 cup chopped celery
3 stalks green onion, chopped
¼ cup chopped cilantro
¾ cup plain low fat sour cream
¾ tsp salt
¾ tsp ground pepper
In a large mixing bowl, combine the first six ingredients. Set aside.  Whisk together sour cream, salt and pepper in a separate bowl. Pour over first six ingredients. Toss well. Serve with dry wheat toast.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cracked Wheat Pilaf with Roasted Asparagus

Last night, we had Janet and Lindsey over for dinner. Unknowing to them, they have been added to my unofficial list of taste testers, my lab rats. On the menu were three of my tried and true recipes: guacamole, roasted chicken and avocado coleslaw; only this time I used all of the avocados in the guacamole so it was just coleslaw. The new recipe (this is where the lab rat part comes in) was a roasted asparagus pilaf. I have made this before with brown rice but this time I was inspired to use cracked wheat. I experiment with new ingredients often and have recently been trying to steer away from white rice and white flour. Cracked wheat is just one of many grains which can be substituted for white rice.
Cracked wheat looks similar to bulgur. In fact, they are both made from whole wheat kernels that had either been crushed or broken in to very small pieces. The difference is bulgur wheat kernels are steamed and toasted before being cracked; cracked wheat is not. Both are a good source of fiber and are both low glycemic (GI) index foods. Cracked wheat is quite popular in many Middle Eastern and North African countries and sometimes functions in the same way that rice does: as a base for savory meats and vegetables stews. Since it functions like rice, it works well in this pilaf. It also imparts an earthy, wheaty flavor. Remember, it is always a good idea to wash this type of wheat before cooking.
This recipe is so quick simple, it's perfect as for a week night dinner. Also, mix it up a little; try different types of nuts and dried fruit or a combiation of both.

Cracked Wheat Pilaf with Roasted Asparagus

1 bunch asparagus, washed and trimmed
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup cracked wheat, washed and drained
1 ½ cups vegetable stock
1 red onion, diced
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup shredded coconut, lightly toasted
1/3 cup pecans, toasted and chopped finely

1. Spread asparagus evenly on a baking sheet and coat well with olive oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Roast in a 450 degree F oven for 5 minutes. Remove from baking sheet. Once cool to the touch, cut diagonally and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, place a heavy pot over medium heat. Pour wheat and vegetable stock and cook until all of the stock has been absorbed and the wheat is soft and fluffy, about 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Add diced red onion, raisins, shredded coconut, chopped pecans and asparagus to wheat. Toss well. Serve warm.

Note: This recipe has been entered in Mansi's Healthy Cooking blog event at Fun and Food.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sauceless Shrimp Satay

Whenever I dine at a Thai restaurant, I try to order a different entree but must order the same appetizer. Satay. Chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu satay. It is brought to the table straight from the grill: hot and succulent. Typically, satay is served with a chunky peanut sauce which, honestly, I find doesn't do much for the taste.
Sometimes, the sauce can overpower the flavors of the meat itself. (Remember, this is just an individual preference, fostered by the fact that I am not a fan of peanuts.) My version of shrimp satay totally omits the needs for any sauce. By using strong spices and fresh ginger, and marinating for a couple hours, this shrimp satay can stand on its own.

1 tsp fennel seeds
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup chopped onion
1" fresh ginger, peeled
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp light soy sauce
2 lbs raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
short wooden skewers, cooked in water to prevent burning

1. Place fennel seeds, garlic, onion and ginger in food processor and pulse until chunky. Add turmeric, coriander, vinegar and soy sauce and puree to form a thick, smooth paste.
2. Pour paste over shrimp, mix well, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.
3. Remove shrimp from refrigerator. Allotting 3 or 4 shrimp per skewer, pierce skewers through shrimp. Cook under broiler, 3 minutes on each side. Serve while still hot.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Savory Spinach Strudel

Fusion cuisine has become tremendously popular over the last few years. It definitely is the craze here in Minneapolis. Restaurants like Azia, and Harry's boast menus that blend Asian, French, American, and even Hawaiian influences. Somehow, these chefs seem to achieve the right balance of flavors and textures to create distinctive dishes. Recently, I have begun dabbling in a little fusion myself. Greek and Indian. Essentially, I combined two signature dishes of these great culinary nations: spanakopita and samosas.

Spices, L-R: turmeric, mango powder, chili powder

Samosas are traditionally made with potatoes which I replaced here with butter beans. I found that beans added more flavor to this dish, not to mention the bonus nutritional content. Personally, the best part of creating this dish was being able to use this mix of spices, in particular turmeric. I used turmeric quite often in the Caribbean but seldom after I moved. Possibly due to the fact that while I was growing up I associated it with Indian-Caribbean culture, therefore I never ventured to use it outside of that cuisine. It also has a somewhat bitter flavor and distinctive odor which means that it does not blend well with most ingredients. However, with spinach and beans it works like an HDMI cord on a plasma TV. Ok, ridiculous analogy but it's all I can come up with at 11 pm. (We are shopping for a new home theatre system, so for the past month all the talk around here has been plasma this, surround sound that, 1080 p this, you get the picture.) What this means is that the turmeric enhances the spinach while adding that distinctive Indian flavor. Exactly what I wanted. I think this is just the beginning of my venture into the world of fusion cooking. Stayed tuned for more.

Savory Spinach Strudel 
Makes 3 twelve inch strudels

1 onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
3 tbsp olive oil plus more for brushing phyllo sheets
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp tumeric
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp ground mango powder (optional)
1 can white butter beans, drained and rinsed
1 lb fresh or frozen spinach
salt and pepper season
15 to 20 sheets phyllo dough, thawed*

1. Set oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Place a large skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the olive oil and cook onions and garlic until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add cumin, tumeric, ginger, chili, and mango powder. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons hot water to prevent sticking. Mix and cook for 2 more minutes or until water has evaporated and onions have softened further.
4. Add drained beans to onions, mix and continue cooking for 3 minutes. Using a hand held potato masher, mash beans and onion mixture thoroughly, making sure that no bean is left whole. Add spinach and mix well so that both beans and spinach are thoroughly incorporated. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. If using fresh spinach, cook until all the liquid has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Lay one phyllo sheet on a clean working surface and brush with olive oil. Place another sheet on top and brush that second sheet with more olive oil. Repeat until you have a stack of 5 to 6 sheets.
6. Spoon 1 cup of spinach mixture along the shorter end of the phyllo sheets, 2" from the edge. Place the 2" flap on top of spinach and roll up to form a log. Squeeze and tuck edges under. Place on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Repeat with remaining spinach mixture and phyllo sheets. Brush tops lightly with olive oil.
7. Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

* Frozen phyllo dough needs to be thawed for four to five hours before using.