Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Boombastic banana bread

I often find myself baking at 10pm. Dinner goes as planned; some protein, veggies, and I'm feeling healthy and pretty satisfied. But around 9pm, my sweet tooth sends me into the kitchen searching for a little something.. I find nothing. I give up, only to return 45 minutes later, but there are still no goodies in the pantry.

At that point my imagination kicks in as I take stock of the inventory. Chocolate chips, apples, raspberries, a tiny amount of ice cream, granola and nuts are assembled into a giant chocolate chip cookie; chocolate dipped raspberries; an apple crisp and ice cream; chocolate and almond bark... are all among the creations that are great to devour at 10:45 with limited ingredients. When I'm really desperate and out of groceries, I melt chocolate and pour it over popcorn.

Two nights ago it was bananas. 4 very black, over-ripe bananas. I always get excited at the first signs of an aging banana. The freckles and bruises that mean I'm just days away from being forced to bake something delicious. So I had to make banana bread before a fruit-fly family flew home from wintering in florida and moved in on my bunch.

I looked around in some cookbooks and online, and this was the final product, a combination of a few recipes, and quantities that sounded right. It was the most amazing banana bread of all time. I'm sharing it, because what's worse than a great recipe hoarder. Not much. A great idea to make in smaller loaf pans and give as gifts for the holiday season, and in my opinion a great hostess gift (who wouldn't want a moist and delicious banana bread?). I made 6 large loaves and gave them to friends & family.

Please note that I put “1/2 teaspoon of vanilla” in the recipe, but I only used 1/4 teaspoon because I was using pure bourbon vanilla from Madagascar, and it's some very concentrated stuff. I really recommend the stuff for baking, but you need to be careful to adjust the amounts accordingly. Good luck!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

T'estimo, Barcelona.

Barcelona was an awesome city to visit, explore and eat in. The food in itself was an adventure, so many different styles and tastes to be had in one city, I could have eaten my way through Barcelona for another 6 months.

While planning our trip to Barcelona this fall, I was so excited to truly experience spanish tapas, and of course, did as much research as possible to ensure only the best eating experiences during our short visit.

My eating plan included doing everything in my power to get reservations at El Bulli (often called "the greatest restaurant in the world"). I decided to go in strong. I sent them an email, begging and pleading, complete with a photo of me holding "a day at el bulli"- the restaurants coffee table book that right now holds the top spot on the ottoman in my sun room.

They kindly responded no. (actually, they kindly responded in broken english, explaining they are currently "living a big problem" with the amount of requests that they can't fill, but that they "will take care full time to see if there are changes that permit us to find some solutions more", which I found very authentic and cute for a restaurant with such an international following).

In order to keep it in the family (literally), I planned for us to have lunch at inopia, opened by Albert Adria, the brother of the esteemed owner and chef of El Bulli, Ferran Adria. The restaurant also came recommended by a friend who lived in Barcelona and worked in the kitchen at El Bulli a couple of years back - I'd say that’s a pretty strong source for a recommendation. I also made us a resi at the well-known and critically acclaimed Commerc 24, and since the chef used to be the sous chef /kitchen manager at el bulli, I felt like we were keeping it close to the mothership with this call too. It was going to be our fanciest, most expensive meal there, and also the most anticipated of our trip to 3 cities.

Those two restaurants delivered extremely opposite impressions and each deserves a full review below, If you only have time to read one, scroll down to the inopia review, don't miss it. I’ll list some of the other worthwhile places we visited at the end.

Lets Start with Comerc 24.

Giddy with excitement, we pulled back the big glass and metal doors and were greeted by a guy who was all business, decked in black, with perfect hair and trimmed stubble. The place was subdued, dark and modern. We were led to our velvety seats by Senior Eurostyles, past the waiters (dressed like ninjas) and the empty front section of the restaurant.

Our waiter arrived, and we ordered a couple of cocktails and were presented with menus. The host stopped by to go over the menu and encouraged us to order the taster’s menu as most customers do. There were 2 options and we ordered the basic “festival” tasting menu, which is designed to be customized to your individual tastes and preferences, and served tapas style… in 12 or 13 separate courses including dessert. Sounds yummy.

A short conversation with the host ensued about what type of food we would each prefer to see and things we’d like omitted. We’re told the chef will use this information to prepare items from the menu (or off of it) to that most suits our tastes. How delightful. I was excited for the meal but tense from the cold, uptight vibe in the place. There was a lot of buildup to this meal so I had high expectations, and I was trying to take in everything I was seeing, smelling and hearing.

The bread service arrived and it was top notch. Safe to say that when the only part of the meal that even comes close to being top-notch is the bread, you're in trouble. Light, fresh, country style breads with 3 choices of olive oil. Amazing. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.

I cannot recall every serving that followed, because around the time that I realized I was actually feeling nauseous from the food, I stopped taking photos, and have been blocking the experience out of my memory since. I will only go through my menu, but I can tell you that Eric was equally (if not more) disappointed.

First course was an avocado and vegetable roll. Tasteless, textureless. literally plain avocado. I went with it and figured maybe they were giving us very bland and natural ingredients to prepare us for some very interesting tastes on the way? Wrong.

Next came a cold cauliflower vichicoise soup with truffle infusion. I like a cold soup, but this was starchy and thick, and the truffle taste was overpowering and not balanced. Gross.

Third course: gold dust covered hazelnuts. Again, tasteless. Well, they tasted like nuts. I appreciated how beautiful they were so I tried not to complain. I looked over at Eric and faked a "how are you liking the meal?" I thought maybe he was having an entirely different experience than me so far, and I think I was faking it to myself too. "it's goooood" he said, unconvincingy, and I just said "ya". Neither of us wanted to ruin the other’s Comerc fantasy meal, yet.

Then, the meal turned from plain bad, to terrible. A cold "ramen soup" broth arrived to be poured over flowers. Again beautiful to look at, but no taste. There was a vague ginger taste to the broth, other than that it was tasteless. One of the exotic flowers makes your entire mouth go numb and tingle for 3 minutes... interesting, but I was sure I was going into allergic / anaphylactic shock, which is really, really not cool. It scared the shit out of me. I said "Ric! My lips, they are swelling! my tongue!", and when I called the waitress over to ask her if there was perhaps some lobster in the soup I might be dying from, she explained the whole "electric flower" thing. I made Eric try it to show him how not nuts I am, he did not like the sensation about as much as me. How about a little, “here is your soup, enjoy the sensations from the wild flower". Or “here's your soup and, oh ya, you may feel near death while your tongue seizes up for 3 minutes.”

Little hairy wildflower- eating the entire thing could cause days of tingling & numbness

Next up, another soup (again – if you’re keeping score that’s 3 soups in 4 courses)... it was a broth with three types of "yolks" floating in it. One was a quail egg, one was a truffle yolk, the last a parmesan yolk. I’m not yolking. The waiter told me to put them in my mouth and essentially let them explode. Interesting, because eating them one at a time does not blend the tastes, but rather overpowers you with one strong flavor at a time. Also, there was nothing interesting about the texture. It was slimy and the liquid had no pulp or texture. The yolks were also way too large. When they opened up in my mouth I wanted to gag. It was too much liquid, and an unpleasant taste. Eric claims I sprayed one back into the bowl by accident – just by purge reflex. The thought of getting through this soup made me ill.

Next course was called a "kinder surprise", like the chocolate egg with the helicopter toy you have to assemble inside. Only this was an egg in brown shell that had been laser cut at the top and refilled. The bottom was egg white pieces, cooked in small slivers in raw yolk, with black truffle, and potato mousse on top. The mousse fell after 10 seconds, and this quickly became a slimy cold, sludgy, yolky substance - what's the DEAL with the eggs and soup consistency and overpowering truffle in every dish? I am into egg, and truffle of course, but this was done like a bad joke.

After that I cant remember anything. A tiny serving of salty chicken arrived (finally – solid food), but Eric and I were too busy figuring out the least embarrassing way to escape this meal. The plan was all about approaching the waiter because everyone in the place spoke in a whisper and we didn't want to make a scene or insult anyone, or have the tables near us overhear. I was feeling nausous from the amount of slimy and raw egg that I had consumed, I had yet to eat one solid thing the entire night. Erics food was partly different but equally horrible. It deserves a column to itself – it really does, but this has run on long enough I think. We called over the ultra chic maitre D and explained in hush tones that the food was making us nauseous and we wished to end our adventure now please. We took the cheque and left before the final few courses. The ambiance was lame, the food was a disaster and I couldn’t sit there any longer. In the restaurant’s defense, the service was excellent and we got the impression they were more embarrassed by the situation than we were upset by the food. They refused to charge us for all but the wine. Classy, considering we were prepared to pay for the whole "festival" in order to bust out of there asap.

Altogether, a major disappointment. No taste, basically one texture, one big catalan flop. We could not believe it. I have met, spoken to and read about handfuls of people who were just as disappointed.


We rented bikes at the bottom of las ramblas (where I contemplated buying a pet bunny for ten euros 15 times in 3 days, seriously) on a beautiful sunny day, and mapped out our journey through some local neighbourhoods in search of Inopia. It is definitely a “drive-to” destination, off the tourist path. After (luckily) not getting killed on our bicycles on some fairly busy Barcelona streets, we arrived just before the lunch rush and were seated immediately.

The menu was all spanish, and the waiter was very helpful in explaining each dish, and making some recommendations. Everything is delivered to the table with just the right amount of style and attention to detail, without taking away from the real amazing part - the food.

The place is awesome. Casual, unpretentious and so styling. The very cool and easy going Albert Adria whizzing past us every two minutes, adjusting the volume of the music, reworking his playlist, bopping his head to the vibe, and hugging and kissing and welcoming every patron that walked in. It was like Cheers, times ten thousand. He smiled over at us, picked up one of our empty plates, and said thank you (the only english word the guy speaks). We shared a no-english moment with him, acknowledging the food and the great scene unfolding at his ultra happening spot. This guy was beyond cool (I sat watching him greet his friends and work the restaurant and sort of fell in love on the spot).

Albert Adria, you're cool.

First up came our beers and fried eggplant with sugar cane molasses. Seriously, unbelievably, amazing. Perfectly cooked. Crispy on the outside and cooked through on the inside.

Then came Russian Salad: I didnt take part (tuna), but Eric says it was potato salad, tuna, and "other stuff". Very descriptive so thanks Ric. He said it was good, not his favorite, but here is a pic in case you happen to love Russian Salad.

Next (as per the waiters suggestion), was the inopia croque monsieur. A very basic, but tasty dish, I would give it a thumbs up, but relative to the rest of our meal, it was just OK.

Next up, The bomb. A delicious little ball of deep fried sheperds pie (basically), sitting in tomato sauce with a dollop of sour cream on top. The meat was well spiced & out of this world hot and amazing. Truly the bomb.

Chicken fingers, with spanish potato chip batter and mustard sauce (the chips are sold in bags behind the cash), were the highlight for me. They were so mind blowing that in looking at the photos I see that I became slightly cross-eyed with shock and excitement. My favorite junk food has always been chicken fingers - but this dish was from another galaxy.

Dessert was figs and yogurt. Perfectly ripe and juicy figs (figs like that could only grow in the mediterranean sun), and a light and fresh way to end the meal (and head out drunk and full on our bikes). By the time we left there was a lineup to get in, and as I saw a couple deciding to leave, I told them to wait it out, big big mistake to pass up that kind of food.

Inopia was one of the best meals of our trip, and one of the most delicious and fun spots of all time (I wish we had gone for every meal)

Other great spots & stuff

Cerveceria Catalana: We hit this spot the first night we arrived at 1:15am- perfect for your first pitcher of sangria. It was jamming with people, a great fun vibe and bar scene, and very decent tapas. We loved it! Be sure to eat Padrones peppers at every meal while in Barcelona!

La Bodegueta: very authentic and local dive - great padrones peppers and other classic catalan bites. A good, cheaper option.

Mercat de la boqueria: the famous market just off of las ramblas is a must do. One of the most impressive food markets I've ever been to- A great choice for breakfast, they have prepared fruit cups, coffee bars & eating Jamón ibérico off the pig leg is good any time of day.

Chiringuitos: are restaurants on the beach, a fun way to relax and spend the afternoon.

Also be on the lookout for some amazing looking paella at nicer restaurants along the beach.

Montjuic: A great place way out of the busy bustling streets to relax in the afternoon, take some sun, have a glass of wine while a catalan artist plays music on the steps, and enjoy the fabulous view.

Vinoteca Torres: We had classic tomato bread app, apple tart, and then chocolate on toast with sea salt. one of the best desserts that has ever hit my mouth. A+++ for a late night glass of wine and snack, and the dinner food looked incredible too.

Cal Pep: Packed tapas bar is a Barcelona favourite. Beware the long waits!

Bunny rabbit I almost bought 15 times.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

You're going to love these nuts, Ottolenghi, & other stuff at home.

Ventured out to Amira headquarters this weekend. The company that makes nuts, dried fruit, olives & spices has an open to the public "cash & carry" near L'acadie and chabanel.

We went there to buy an assortment of nuts to assemble some pretty jars for chanukka presents. Also because we really love going to the freaky place with fresher-than-average nuts, and getting to the cash with a basket full of stuff for $6. Makes me wanna say Boo-ya!

We loaded up on 2 kinds of pistachios (sea salt & lemon, and good old "REGULAR IRANIAN"), large (but not jumbo) cashews, some dark chocolate covered peanuts, and almonds RNS (roasted, no salt - who knew there was a whole nut lingo I had to learn?).

We kept this visit pretty focused, I tried not to get lost in the olives & cheese. We grabbed some hot bread that looked like a whole wheat helium balloon, right out of the oven and off the "poker", to eat as we browsed. The place is crazy - they have all kinds of obscure middle eastern foods and knick-knacks with classic foreign packaging. They sell syrian drums and morrocan trays, small furniture and really ornate shesh b'esh boards (I had to hold back from buying one), and weird figurines of Egyptian pharaohs and sphinx. It's a trip (...somewhere stinky).

I headed to the back to pick up some spices. I needed falafel flour mix (the real deal homemade stuff, I'm going to try to emulate Taim's falafel balls), Za'atar, and some tea that I love. Of course I ended up picking up an extra 8 spices, none of which are labeled, so that should be a fun mystery to solve now that they are all sitting in my pantry in plastic bags. I have been trying to find some good Za'atar, to make a chicken recipe out of the Ottolenghi Restaurant cookbook. I rarely follow a recipe exactly, but I like to flip through nice cook books for inspiration to keep things fresh and changing. We visited Ottelenghi in London when we were there in September and I loved it. Beautiful spot and great food. I picked up this book from Bon Apetit Cookbooks. The recipes are original, and some feature ingredients and spices that aren't very common (at least not around here). But it's fun because it gives you an opportunity to try some new flavors, and then understand them for future use. Or something.

Anyways, there were 5 types of Za'atar: Algerian, Banini, Palestinian and Jordanian and another I cannot remember but I'm guessing Syrian. The recipe in the Ottelenghi book never specified which type and here I was very confused (and hung over - bad combo). I went with the smell test and picked 2 varieties that smelled the best to me. (They both had hints of armpit... but I know that'll just make a better end product.)

I tried out one recipe tonight with some friends and a good bottle of wine. Unanimously delicious.


Proscuito de Parma, endive, raddichio (tossed in a vinaigrette), parmesan & pear with tuscan bread.

Spicy Mediterranean soup with kale, cannelleni bean, vegetables and lemon.

Herb crusted Rack of lamb, mini cauliflower, roasted red potato.

Zaatar and Sumac chicken, with red onion & lemon.

The boys appreciated the carnivore's delight. The appetizer was excellent, the rack of lamb was perfectly done and the Chicken Za'atar recipe was delicious. It was tangy, juicy, and flavorful. I'm looking forward to having fun with this book. I will post the recipe tomorrow.