Saturday, June 23, 2012

Land of Pioneer Courage / Molecular Gastronomy

Omaha, Nebraska

Why Omaha? Because anywhere can delight your senses, my dear readers. It's all up to you. Well, mostly.

Omaha had a lot to offer a business traveler with only a couple evenings to spare. I did my research in advance, choosing two places that would represent different slices of the dining scene (so I thought): The Grey Plume and Boiler Room.

The Grey Plume was first, and a taxi ride out of downtown in a swish new redeveloped neighborhood called Midtown Crossing.
It started with a surprise: an amuse-bouche consisting of apple-huckleberry mousse, coffee panna cotta, rye crumble, and pickled apple slice, sprinkled with coffee powder (not iocane powder, although...)
I didn't know I'd found the seat of molecular gastronomy in Omaha! But here it was, and compliments of the chef.
It was interesting, but when I asked about the coffee powder, I learned that it was basically tapioca starch that had been infused with coffee aroma- that doesn't seem so frou-frou, now, does it?
The next dish (this one I ordered) was duck fat fries with fried egg and aioli. Yes, loads of fat in this one, but I shared. I did!
The waitress recommended upgrading to the goose egg, but this place was already expensive enough without add-ons, so I declined the up-sell. It was deliciously salty, runny, umami and all as it was.

My 'main' was pork 3 ways, served with nettles: a piece of leg, slow-roasted on a puree of spaghetti squash; a piece of loin on a spaghetti squash 'coin;' and pork belly 2 ways: a meaty, pinkish cut, and the more traditional glazed classic pork belly, served with baby fennel.
Hot mama. I loved the slow-roasted leg and the classic fatty pork belly. I didn't love the chewy loin or other type of pork belly.

The next night I organized an excursion to Boiler Room, located downtown near the Old Market center.
***Here's a good tip when dining out in somewhere where you need to watch your budget but everything looks scrumptious: try two appetizers instead of an entree. This gets you more variety, hedges your bets if you end up not liking something, still fills you up, and for about the same amount of money.
Here I tried the octopus galette and the tagliatelle with goat sugo- these are things I will likely not see again, so they were calling out my name...

The goat sugo was very good, the tagliatelle vaguely disappointing (too al dente for my dente), but the octopus galette was my favorite. Basically a seafood pancake at any Korean restaurant, this was stood out because it used octopus, and marvelous flavors as accompaniments: pesto, hazelnuts, and 'claytonia' (which I was informed is 'like a lilypad', also known as miner's lettuce). Very tasty.
I also enjoyed the decor of the place: very 2000s-loft-converted-warehouse, but with the special touch of matching, facing staircases. The waitors were forever scampering down one and up another, their upper bodies not seen to be moving, which amused me very much for some reason. Perhaps it made me think of the octopus moving along...
--While in town, we also had lunch in Old Market, at a place called Twisted Fork: a bar-restaurant with its own cheeky and less pretentious fusion creations. I actually didn't get to eat much here, but I did grab a few of their fried pickles, and they were quite good. 
I'd say it's a tie between these and the fried pickles at Upstream around the corner. And I always appreciate clever menu phrasing, which Twisted Fork had in abundance (e.g. "Things You Don't Rope," including chicken and salmon dishes). God bless those cowboys with a sense of humor.

 And give thanks for that pioneer courage (a phrase from the monument above) too--
a swell place, Omaha.

Have you been to Omaha? Are you from another place with Pioneer Courage? Let us know in the comment section, so we can come visit!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Care and Feeding of a Distant Friend

Crackles, To Go
Just in time for her quick visit to the U.S., I am writing about my friend Jessica, and the care package I sent her in Beijing, China.
Having been advised that it might take a long time to arrive ('the long boat to China'), I did a little research to see which type of cookie might stay fresh the longest. Too much moisture might lead to mold, too much butter might make them go stale, and too delicate a structure would have them arrive in a thousand pieces. So I settled on these:

Chocolate Polka-Dot Mint Crackles (adapted from A Baker's Field Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies, a great book for all you want to know about cookies)

5 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
2 c flour (I used 1 c all-purpose, 1/2 c pastry flour, 1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour)
2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
4 eggs
2 c granulated sugar (I reduced it to 1 c white sugar, 1/2 c brown sugar)
1/2 t mint flavoring (I made half a batch this way, the other half with 1/2 t cardamom and 1/4 t black pepper)
1/2 c white chocolate chips (I despise white chocolate, so went with semi-sweet)
about 1/2 c granulated sugar for rolling
about 1/3 c powdered sugar for rolling

1. Place chocolate and butter together over low heat in a saucepan until mostly melted. Remove from heat and stir together until completely melted and smooth.
2. While that is cooling, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl.
3. Then in a large bowl, combine eggs, 2 c (or less) sugar, and your flavoring together (whether mint or cardamom or some other combination), and beat until thick and creamy. Stir chocolate mixture again to smoothness, then beat into egg mixture until it smooths out too. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the large bowl, mixing gently. Gradually add remaining flour, stir to combine, then add chocolate chips.
4. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill for several hours or overnight (it will thicken to fudge consistency).
5. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
6. Put the rolling sugar and powdered sugar in containers (I used an oval tupperware for one and a plate for the other- the tupperware with sides was handy to shake instead of handling the dough a lot).
7. Dip into the dough and roll pieces into 1-inch balls. Roll each ball in the granulated sugar first, then in powdered sugar to coat, shaking off excess. Place balls on cookie sheets 2 inches apart and squash tops slightly.
8. Bake until puffed and crackly in appearance. Since my oven is on crack, I rotated the sheets at 4 minutes, then baked for 5 more, but the book recommends 12 minutes. Only you know your oven well enough to judge.
8. Let set a minute on sheets, then take off with a spatula and place on wire cooling racks until firm and cool.
Makes 4-5 dozen.

They're a pretty cookie, but two words of warning. When you start dipping and rolling, your hands will get dirty. Like, mudcake dirty. And it would be ideal to have an assistant to open the fridge door or move the baking baking sheets around so you don't get little blobs of it EV-ERY-WHERE.
Second, if you are waiting between rolling the first batch and the next, put the dough back in the fridge. My first attempt showed quite a difference between those that went into the oven straight from the fridge, and those that waited around while the first batch cooked and cooled. Don't let this happen to you!
They come out very soft and chewy, and lend themselves to easy variation, so this recipe is definitely a favorite to keep in your back pocket... as long as you have 8 hours to chill!

Do you have a good story or recipe for sending cookies (that made it!)? Do tell! I would love to hear in the comments below.