Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Las Vegas: More than just Casinos

As far as we could see, there was desert. Not a single tree in sight, only miniature cacti and the occasional wildflower. The sun was setting, projecting the hills behind us as larger than life shadows on the wide expanse of earth in front of us. The wind was blowing, we couldn't tell from which direction, and the air was getting chily. Is this possible? I regretted not bring a coat or even a scarf, but then again just ten minutes ago it was ninety eight degrees. We sat there in silence for a few more minutes, as if to absorb as much of the solitude as we can. For before long we would be back, lost among the crowds of the Las Vegas strip.

Four years ago, my opinion of Las Vegas was a city of casinos, showgirls, topless caberets, and, well, where "anything goes." After five trips to this desert oasis, I have found that 'Vegas is all that but so much more. Broadway musicals, variety shows, five star restaurants, and world class shopping are just some of the newer attractions on the 'Vegas strip. Some of my most memorable shows have been here. Blue Man Group, Le Reve, and, on this trip, Mamma Mia! This is not to say that there isn't much to see or do off that famous piece of real estate. After all, the majority of the population of Las Vegas does not live on the strip, although they might have jobs there. Once you get off the strip, you see a side of 'Vegas that is rarely seen, except for the morbid and soemtimes exaggerated glimpses on CSI.

Which brings me back to where my story began. Approximately twenty five miles west off the main strip is the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a small but no less beautiful canyon with almost eleven trails that can accommodate any fitness level. Each trail is different and takes you along unique rock formations and rewards your endurance with beautiful vistas. If hiking through the dessert in hundred degree heat is not your cup of tea, then do not despair. The thirteen mile loop through the park offers a scenic drive with many opportunities to pull off the road and take pictures or just sit and take in the expansive, unadulterated views. If you opt to do one of the trails, however, I would suggest doing so during the early morning or late afternoon/evening hours, when temperatures are much cooler, which is not to say that it would not be hot.

Back on the strip, there is always something new to explore, see or do. This time, it was the Palazzo. A gorgeous hotel casino in the style of a stately venetian castle, which is not surprising since it is connected to the Venetian Hotel and Casino and owned by the same parent company. The Palazzo offers the type of shopping that has become synonymous with the city: Cartier, Barney's, etc. Not to mention its plethora of restaurants. Carnevino, Dal Toro, Solara, just to name a few. As enticing as these were, we had dinner reservations to honor at another restaurant.

The Palazzo

Inside the Palazzo

It was our on our third trip here when we stumbled upon the best Korean barbecue I have ever had. Directly opposite the Hard Rock Hotel on Paradise Avenue is San Toki Korean Restaurant. From the outside, it doesn't look like much. In fact, had it not been for our ( and I say this with much bravado) adventurous spirit, we never would have ventured inside. The interior is a startling contrast to the outside: modern, colorful and welcoming. Interestingly, on both visits, there were hardly any customers; we were the only ones that first time. Needless to say, this was good news for us: quick and personalized service with the assumption that our meal would be paid greater attention to. The waiter quickly took our order and began brining out plate after plate of meats, vegetables, sides dishes, soups and salads. For anyone who has never had a Korean barbecue before, the format is such that your table is fitted with an electric grill so that you can cook thinly sliced pieces of meat and vegetables table side. Depending on the restaurant, sometimes the waiter monitors the grilling or you do so yourself. Either way, once the meat is cooked (this usually takes about five minutes) the feasting begins.

Waiter preparing Korean barbeque

There was one more thing I discovered here: frozen yogurt. Not the type that looks and tastes like soft serve ice cream and is infused with hydrogenated oil. This was literally frozen yogurt. If there has ever been a chain restaurant after my own heart, the Red Mango was it. Here, you can get yogurt that has been prepared to look like ice cream, with a similar texture, and without an immense fat content but will all the goodness of milk. I almost didn't believe it. This changes everything. Dessert that is good for you? Was it even possible? It is, in Nevada (as well as in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington.)

Frozen yogurt

As our vacation ended, I reflected on an incident that night at Red Mango. Just outside of the store, a man, possibly in his fifties, stood with a bucket, a dirty piece of cloth and some sort of scrubbing instrument. Let's call him Jim. It was evident by his clothing that he might have been homeless or, at the least, going through a though time financially. He stood, offering to wash the windscreen of any car that pulled into the parking lot, for a couple dollars of course. One by one, his offers we declined. Then a young man approached him. They talked for a few minutes, entered the store and approached the counter where the young man bought Jim some yogurt. A kind gesture; this might have been dinner for Jim or all he had eaten for the day. However, it didn't stop there. The young man was joined by three friends; they clearly had planned to meet but instead of moving on with their own plans, they sat down with Jim and the five of them talked like old friends. Then it struck me: For all its glitz and glamor, its sultry attractions, and its notorious behavior, the core of Las Vegas is much like any other city in the US: a home for many and a place where people of all walks of life are embraced. Maybe the saying "anything goes" was coined to reflect the side of the city that judges no one but embraces, and is accepting of, individuality. If so, this is just another reason to consider a trip to Las Vegas.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Garlic and Lime Shrimp with Riesling Sauce

Shrimp is possibly the most effortless seafood to prepare. It cooks quickly and pairs wells with many herbs and seasonings. This recipe is quite simple but requires at least two hours in the refrigerator for the seasonings to meld; best if left over night. Fill them into endive spears and you'll have an enticing appetizer or side dish. Alternatively, serve over savory polenta for a satisfying entree. Whichever way you choose to serve this dish, you will come back to it time and again, whenever you need a simple but gourmet idea for shrimp.

2 lbs raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
5 gloves garlic, minced finely
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
2 large limes
1/4 cup dark maple syrup
1/3 cup Riesling
1/4 tsp corn starch
endive spears for serving, optional

1. Add garlic, salt, pepper and cilantro to shrimp.
2. Squeeze limes and add juice to seasoned shrimp. Limes should yield about one third of a cup.
3. Cover bowl will plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least at least two hours, preferably over night.
4. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add two to three tablespoons of olive oil.
5. Using a pair of tongs, remove the shrimp from its marinade. Reserve leftover marinade to prepare sauce.
6. Cook shrimp for 3 to 4 minutes until pink and cooked through. Remove from skillet and transfer to a heat proof bowl; cover tightly with aluminum foil.
7. Pour reserved marinade in skillet and add wine. Cook over medium heat until reduced by half, about 15 to 20 minutes.
8. Strain wine reduction and return to pot. Add corn starch and cook for an additional two to three minutes until slightly thickened.
9. Serve shrimp in endive spears and drizzle with Riesling sauce.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Chocolate Chiffon Cake

What is it about cakes that can turn us from serious-minded, strong, independent adults to salivating, oogling, impatient eight year olds? Typically, cakes are not regular fare in my kitchen for the simple reason that we would have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My fiance is a little more well disciplined than I am; it is easy for him to just say "no." Not the same with me; in a diabetes-free, high cholesterol-free world, cake would be my meal of choice. When it comes to dessert, I lose all sense of decorum.  

Cooking is my avenue of expression, a beautiful kitchen always catches my attention, I have an addiction to shopping for kitchen appliances, but putting together a beautiful cake takes the cake for me, pun intended. Suffice it to say, the ability to create a a breathtaking, delicious, double layered cake that is actually healthier than a similar looking cake at your neighborhood bakery is the icing on my cake, pun intended again. Healthier because no butter, only a quarter cup of oil and two egg yolks constituted the bulk of its fat content. The secret to obtaining the moistness and lightness in my recipe was brewed coffee and fluffy clouds of egg whites.

Chocolate Chiffon Cake

1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
8 egg whites
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup brewed coffee
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 egg yolks

Berry filling:
1/2 cup mixed berries
1/2 cup fat free whipped topping

Cream cheese maple frosting:
2 cups fat free whipped topping
1 cup low fat cream cheese
3 tbsp maple syrup

1. Set oven to 325 degrees F. Spray two 9" cakes pans with cooking spray and flour well.
2. Sift together cocoa powder, flour, baking powder and baking soda. Set aside.
3. In a standing mixer, beat egg whites. Once soft peaks have formed, add cream of tartar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
4. Meanwhile, in a double boiler melt chocolate chips. Add cream as soon as the chocolate begins to melt and mix until chocolate and cream are totally combined. Remove bowl from heat and add sugar. Mix until combined.
5. To sugar chocolate mixture, add coffee, vanilla extract and canola oil. Mix well.
6. By this point, the chocolate mixture should have cooled enough to add the egg yolks without scrambling them. Add yolks and combine well.
7. Add flour mixture to chocolate mixture in two installments. Make sure flour is totally absorbed.
8. Mix in 1/3 of egg whites to flour and chocolate mixture, stirring until no white streaks are visible.
9. Fold in second third of egg whites, again until no white streaks are visible. Finally, fold in last third, this time being careful not to deflate the batter.
10. Pour into prepared cake pans and bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
11. Remove cakes from oven and set pans on wire rack for 5 minutes. Invert cakes unto the wire racks ad allow to cool completely before assembling.

To prepare filling:
Puree berries, then fold in whipped topping. Set in refrigerator until ready to assemble cake.

To prepare frosting:
In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients.

To assemble cake:
1. Place one cake layer in the middle of a cake stand.
2. Spread berry filling unto bottom cake layer, making sure that it does not run down the sides.
3. Place second cake unto first. Pour all of the frosting unto the top of the cake. Working with a thin slanted spatula, spread frosting over the top and down the sides.
4. Decorate with fresh berries and sliced almonds if available. Sprinkle with cocoa powder.