Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving from the past

I was looking through my pictures and found the origins of my big Thanksgiving extravaganza. I've basically become the Turkey master in my family. Every year, my family comes over to my house to get a taste of my awesomeness.

My first turkey was in 2005. Look how happy I look that I didn't burn the apartment down. As you can see, the turkey was the traditional type, and needless to say, it wasn't that popular.

As soon as this Thanksgiving was over, my family members came forward to tell me how dry the turkey tasted. I did some research and found that stuffing a turkey takes away all the juice, plus it's not that sanitary.

So I vowed that the following year, I'd make the juiciest turkey ever. This got me started on a quest. The internet was full of tips from all over the world to make the most tender, juicy turkey. Everyone thought their idea was the best. So, I combined everything I read into my own special "Juicy turkey" recipe.

For Thanksgiving 2006, I decided to brine the turkey in a zinfandel cranberry apple cider mixture, and cook it in champagne.

First, On Wednesday night, I brined the turkey and set it in a gigantic pot inside the fridge overnight.

On Thursday morning, I got two sticks of butter and sliced little bits of it off and rolled it into balls to stuff it between the skin and the muscle. I then added two cored and halved apples inside the cavity to add more juice. Then I put the entire turkey inside an oven bag and poured a bottle of champagne inside the turkey and inside the bag. I tied up the bag and poked holes at the top because the liquid will boil. You're allowed to put some veggies inside the bag if you'd like. I put some carrots in there but then realized no one ate them.

This is how it came out. if you look closely, you can see the champagne gravy inside the bag. Check out the video below to see how tender the meat turned out!

I can't say much for my brother's carving skills but to his defense, it's pretty difficult to carve a turkey when the meat is falling off the bones.

As for sides, I never forget the basics for our family: garlic cheesy mashed potatoes, bacon pecan stuffing, stir-fried green beans with almonds, bacon wrapped asparagus, coleslaw, corn bread, sherry caramel yams, etc. The stuffing below is one I've been making since 2006 and has been a hit every year.

I also make sure to make a lot of Bolivian side dishes, like empanada de queso (cheese empanadas), sopa de mani (peanut soup), cunape (cheeseballs), and my favorite, the sonso (cheese and yucca casserole, pictured below).

I love cooking but I hate cleaning up. This is how one side of the counter looked last year. The other side was just as bad.

This year, since the economy isn't that great and food prices are freaking high, I've decided to try the dry-brining technique instead of the cranberry zinfandel apple cider brine. I just can't bear to buy all those ingredients for the brine only to throw it all away after the turkey's been chilling in it overnight. I'd rather buy those zinfandels to drink.

On Monday night, I went and got a free-range 15 pound turkey and decided to try the "Judy Bird" technique, which is perfect for this economy as it consists of just kosher salt, turkey, and a bag. I will upload a short video of how I prepared it. Every night, I'll be massaging the salt into the turkey until all the salt disappears and basically the turkey will be brining itself with its own juices. I'm not entirely sure how it works but I'm hoping for the best. I will still be cooking it in champagne though, just in case the brining doesn't work.

If you're a big spender and want to try my compilation for the best juiciest turkey ever, try the following recipe that I found on seattlepi.com. An awesome recipe!

The Juiciest Turkey Ever.
Brining Ingredients:
    • BRINE:
    • 2 (750 ml) bottles zinfandel
    • 4 cups apple cider
    • 1 pound fresh cranberries
    • 1 cup honey
    • 1 cup kosher salt
    • 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
    • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
    • 4 sprigs fresh sage
    • 2 sticks cinnamon
Cooking Ingredients:
    • 1 (18-pound) turkey, preferably free-range and hormone free, neck and giblets removed
    • 3 large carrots, coarsely chopped
    • 6 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
    • 3 onions, coarsely chopped
    • 1 stick of butter, cubed
    • 2 apples, cored and halved
    • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
    • salt and pepper to taste
    • 2/3 (750 milliliter) bottle champagne
    To prepare the brine:
    Combine the wine, cider, cranberries, honey, salt, rosemary, peppercorns, sage and cinnamon in a large pan over high heat and bring to a boil. Let the brine boil for about 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, let cool and refrigerate until it reaches about 40 degrees.
    Place the turkey in a very large container, then pour the chilled brine over to cover. Refrigerate at least 24 hours and up to 48 hours.
    To roast the turkey:
    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
    Remove turkey from the brine and drain well; discard brine.
    Rinse turkey, and pat dry. Gently loosen turkey breast skin, and insert pieces of butter between the skin and breast. Place apples inside the turkey's cavity. Sprinkle with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Combine carrots, celery and onions in a roasting pan inside roasting bag. Set turkey on top of the vegetables (do not season turkey with salt and pepper, as the brine has seasoned it).Place turkey on top of the vegetables in a roasting bag, and pour champagne over the inside and outside of the bird. Close bag, and place turkey in a roasting pan. it's best to situate the turkey with the legs up, not breast up, as it takes longer for dark meat to cook than light meat. put foil around the legs though so it doesn't dry up or burn. you can take the foil off in the latter process of the cooking.
    Roast turkey until it reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees, when measured in the meatiest part of the thigh. tenting it with aluminum foil if it starts to brown too much, about 4 hours.
    Let the turkey rest 5-10 minutes before carving. Carve and serve warm.
Adapted from "Caprial and John's Kitchen: Recipes for Cooking Together," by Caprial and John Pence (Ten Speed Press),

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Skaf's Lebanese Cuisine

If you've been keeping up with my entries, you know that I've been obsessing over hummus lately. Not just ANY hummus, but the kind that usually has other shizz on it. I'm not about the plain hummus - whatever, I can make that at home. When I go out and pay for hummus, I want them to be worth my money. That usually means I want some meat with it. When I first discovered the hommos kawarma at Sunnins Lebanese Cafe in Westwood, I had hope that this might be something that is served elsewhere. After the last trip to Sunnin, I told myself I needed to find myself a better Lebanese place preferably closer to me, that is more spacious and has better service.

I yelped about this and of course within an hour, someone messages me and tells me to check out Skaf's Lebanese Cuisine. I actually heard of this place before but I had thought it was in N. Hollywood. Apparently, a second location opened up in Glendale. YES! That's like, off my uncrowded freeway on my way home! This is a sign from above that I'm supposed to continue my hummus-on-steroids quest.

So I decide to swing by and pick up dinner for my brother and I to share. I have a feeling the portions are going to be hella big so I just order the skewer combo and then I look at the appetizer to see if they have some glamorous hummus and lo and behold, they have hummus with shawarma. I choose beef so I can compare it to Sunnin's. I wait until I get home to take pictures of it since I don't want to ruin the presentation by sticking my finger in the hummus and smearing it on my face.

The spread, from top to bottom:
The Hummus with Beef Shawarma, onions, pickled radish, jalepeno, tomato,
a side of garlic paste
The beef, chicken, ground beef skewers with a side of salad, hummus, and pita

The quality of the meat was just eons above other places.

The hummus with beef shawarma

The mountain of beef hit the bottom of this plate.
Beef to hummus ratio is about 3:2.

I snagged myself a take out menu so I can call in my orders from now on. I have a feeling I'm going to be a regular at this clean, spacious, and friendly place. I ended up talking to the woman there for a bit about Lebanese cuisine. They're friends with Sunnin so I couldn't talk too much shizz but anyway, this place has way better quality food, and it's a nicer place to eat at. The biggest bonus is that it's so close to me.

The skewers were as delicious as the hummus. The beef skewer was my favorite. It reminded me of the pacumutos in Bolivia. Very clean grilled taste. The meat was pretty tender and not fatty. The salad that came with it is surprisingly refreshing and the hummus on the side was really creamy. The ground beef skewer was a bit tougher than what I'm used to but it was more densely packed so if you like a lot of meat, you will like this version.

My brother and I devoured as much food as we could but there was still a lot left.
I decided to go work out, and come back to eat some more. Oy... never work out right after you eat Lebanese food. I was burping it up everywhere and people were looking at me funny. Interestingly, the burps made me hungry for it again so I got home and ate some more hummus.

This place makes you do disgusting things like that.


Skaf's Lebanese Cuisine
Neighborhood: Glendale
367 N Chevy Chase #A
Glendale, CA 91206
(818) 551-5540

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Bolivian Battle

Mi Bolivia
(says "International Restaurant" outside)
Neighborhood: Queens/Sunnyside
44-10 48th Ave
Woodside, NY 11377


Tutto Bene Italian Restaurant
(Bolivian food served on the weekends)
501 N Randolph St
Arlington, VA 22203
(703) 522-1005

vs.My Bakery(always Bolivian, all the time)
3508 Courtland Dr
Falls Church, VA 22041
(703) 933-7332

One of the most important things on my east coast trip was to be able to hit some Bolivian restaurants. Sadly, there aren't any Bolivian restaurants in Los Angeles (the closest being Peruvian if they don't specialize in seafood - like Pollo Inka, etc).  *edit* There are a couple Bolivian restaurants in Los Angeles but most of them serve food traditional to La Paz, the capital, and not so much the foods I get homesick for, the food from the low lands. However, they are still great in a pinch and I know I can get some salteñas in when I am in dire need of them.

When my best friend told me that she found a Bolivian restaurant in Queens, I had to yelp it to make sure she was for reals. On yelp, the same address has two names. THE MENU SAYS "MI BOLIVIA" BUT THE SIGN OUTSIDE SAYS "INTERNATIONAL RESTAURANT." It's the same restaurant.

Contestant #1: Mi Bolivia, aka International Restaurant

Wow. we were finally here. I miss the taste of home so much. The closest thing I got to Bolivian food in LA is Peruvian and that is totally different because Peruvian cuisine is seafood heavy (ceviche, etc.) while Bolivian food is meat and potato and large white corn and plantains heavy (we are landlocked and live in the Andes mt's or the tropical plains).

I really hope that they change the name of their restaurant sign and menu so that it says the same thing or else people will overlook this place!

The menu has a brief description of Bolivian food.

Once we found our way in, the familiar aroma of saltenas and meat filled the air. I was so elated!! I sat down and opened the menu. A really friendly Bolivian girl, transplanted from Virginia (VA has the highest population of Bolivians in the U.S.) came and helped us out (I am assuming that she was the only English speaker and we were the only Asians there - another sign of authenticity).

She told us that the owner of this restaurant is from La Paz (the active capital of Bolivia) and how back at home, he was known for having the best salteneria (a specialty house dedicated to making the saltenas, a juicy version of an empanada that is so filling and full of meat, potatoes, eggs, spices, raisins, olives, etc that you literally feel full for three plus hours).

We ordered two saltenas (one beef, one chicken), and I absolutely loved the beef one because they used ground beef instead of beef chunks. This made it really tender and easy to bite into. However, the chicken is still my favorite. I think it combines better with all the other stuff inside and seems less fatty.

The saltenas, pristine in its shell
The beef saltena after I cut it open.
Usually, people hold it upright and eat it from the top but I cut it to share with my friend.

We also ordered a mocochinchi and a maracuya (no pic) for drinks (first one is a drink made from dehydrated peaches, cinnamon, sugar, and the second one is pureed passion fruit), my favorite childhood drink was the mocochinchi but i did not like this version too much because they didn't give me a bolita (no dehydrated peach in there). It was a bit too sweet here.

My mocochinchi without the bolita.
We also got a humintas, a dessert type corn concoction, which is basically a sweet tamale (like the elote) with no filling. instead, it's made with sweet corn, raisins, cinnamon, and there is a layer of burnt cheese on top, all wrapped in a corn husk.

The humintas doesn't seem to be steamed.
Inside the humintas. Note the burnt cheese and corn chunks and raisin.

Then came the sopa de mani. This soup is made of ground peanuts, usually with beef broth, vegetables, french fries, and meat -usually leftover chicken feet but in this case, it was just beef chunks.

The sopa de mani. Not too many chunks in this version.

One of our entrees was the
pique a lo macho. This dish is basically a mixture of french fries, beef chunks, onions, peppers, cheese, sausage, all sauteed together with a delicious sauce. It's really all about the sauce.

The "pique", pronounced Ppeeh-kkeh.

Our last entree was the chicharron de cerdo, fried pig skin with carbs. The meat is usually attached, along with the bones. However, people order this because of the skin. The best part of this dish is that it came with choclo - hominy - and purple potatoes, which is native to the andes.

Check out the size of those choclos.
This was a bit dry for me. I asked for some aji!

The best part of this meal was definitely the saltenas. The other dishes were good, too, but if you're Bolivian, you just CRAVE the saltenas. You can't find anything like that here. The other dishes you can try to make it on your own and come close to it in your own kitchen but dayam, the saltenas are hard to get right and right it got in this restaurant.

Contestant #2: Tutto Bene Italian Restaurant (Bolivian on the weekends)
Could you tell that this was a Bolivian restaurant?
Next stop on my Bolivian food marathon was Tutto Bene Italian Restaurant in Arlington, VA. A Bolivian friend of mine lives in VA and told me that this restaurant was second place only to this lady who hosts private dinners at her house on Tuesday nights. Since I was there for the weekend, I decided to check out Tutto, especially since they turn into a Bolivian restaurant over the weekend and purportedly have better Bolivian food than their weekday Italian food. I wish they'd just go full Bolivian especially since there are so many Bolivians there. I guess you gotta make money somehow. So this place was a bit more expensive than Mi Bolivia in NYC. However, the quality of most of the food was by far, a few notches higher. That is, except for the saltena, which I must admit was better at Mi Bolivia (perhaps the owner actually IS the master of all saltenas).

The mocochinchi here is much better than at Mi Bolivia also because they did not skimp on the peach balls (bolitas). I didn't even get one bolita at Mi Bolivia but here, I ordered an entire pitcher (we had a large party) and there were seven bolitas in it. It wasn't too sweet and had the right dose of cinnamon in it.

I couldn't take a picture of the pitcher of mocochinchi before people devoured it.

Tutto's saltenas were good, but not as hot or juicy when it came out. The beef in the saltenas were in chunks, like it is made traditionally in Bolivia. However, My Bolivia's ground beef made it juicier and easier to eat. I will give the saltena prize to Mi Bolivia.

The saltenas at Tutto's. A bit colder and less juicy.
Clearly, the sopa de mani in Tutto's kicked Mi Bolivia's ass. Just LOOK at all the chunks of food in there! It was a lot more hearty with more taste.

Yum, the sopa de mani! Big enough to share.

The parillada includes steak, chicken, sausages, some guts.
Comes with salad, rice, and french fries!

The complimentary salad that I wished to take home.
The dressing is simply vinegar, salt and pepper but it tastes so refreshing!

Dood, these fries were freaking awesome.
They had a crispy outer shell - almost like they dunked the fries in batter before deep frying it.
The plate of rice that came with the sizzling meat platter.

Tutto has so much food that is easy to share. Here is an example of what comes with most of the orders. I didn't get a picture of the milanesa (breaded meat) but this is what came with it:

Sweet sides!

My true Bolivian friend ordered the Lengua (Beef Tongue). I felt a bit adventurous so I had a bite. I felt like I was french kissing a cow. Needless to say, I am not brave enough to enjoy the tongue. However, I am perverted enough to enjoy the cow udders (which sadly, none of the Bolivian restaurants in the U.S. had).

The Lengua, which comes in a spicy sauce, potatoes, salsa, and rice.

After we ate for two hours, we still had a lot of food left so we decided to pack it up and give it all to my Bolivian friend. He was pretty stoked.

The leftovers
Tutto's had better quality food than Mi Bolivia. However, the prices here are definitely a lot steeper. If you think about all the food you're getting it's not that expensive, but no one has the stomach space to fit all that food so I'd rather pay less for less portions. I also had no idea how much food was going to come with my meal so our group ended up ordering about three times more than we were able to eat, and we paid on average, $40 something per person. Next time I go, I think we'd only order one parillada to share between 4 people, a pitcher of mocochinchi, and some saltena's to share...and maybe some Pacenas (Bolivian beer).

Contestant #3: My BakeryOn my last day in Virginia, my Bolivian classmate told me that he had to take me to one final destination before I left.... "My Bakery". Situated on a corner, no one would guess this place was Bolivian. I mean, the sign doesn't say "My Bolivian Bakery". Maybe it should. I'm starting to notice a trend that all these Bolivian restaurants kind of want to remain incognito.

Inside My Bakery.

What I liked about this place was that it reminded me so much of the cafe's I used to hang out in and get large in when living in Bolivia. If only there were chess and a cloud of smoke and young, loud people chatting about their love lives...

I was having stomach issues and I had already eaten a little at Jaleo before coming here but I told myself I would still stuff some Bolivian in me before I had to leave to Bolivian-less LA.
I noticed that this place had cheese empanadas - the kind you get in Bolivia that are huge, stuffed with cheese, deep fried, and with powdered sugar sprinkled on top. This empanada is the epitome of how opposites work. The salty cheese vs. the powdered sugar. The melty soft inside with the crispy outside. It makes me want to cry it's so good.

The cheese empanada are called pastelitos here.
I tried to make some cheese empanadas (empanada de queso) at home a bunch of times to the discouraging reality that my empanadas were not as big and fluffy as I remembered them to be in Bolivia. Alas, I can fly to VA for these.

I also decided to get the tucumana because I don't remember ever eating this in Bolivia. Maybe it was a regional empanada. The insides were basically made of veggies, potatoes, beef. Tasted almost like a samosa (except for the meat part) and was just as dry. Not a fan.

The tucumana
They also have majadito!!!! My friend ordered this. The way to eat this is to break the yolk and smear it on your fried rice. Bonus = comes with fried plantains. I love any type of fried rice with egg on top, like is available in many ethnic cuisines.

The majadito is rice mixed with meat, sauteed with a tomato based sauce
(I think...that's just how it tastes like but I admit I've never made it before).

Last but not least, they also have MOCOCHINCHI, my all-time favorite drink. They also do not skimp on the bolitas here. The best part was that it was served in a boba-like fashion, in a sealed plastic cup.
I got my own mocochinchi ball!

My Bakery is probably my favorite out of these three only because in Bolivia, I spent most of my time at cafe's and bakeries. I loved the Bolivian pastries and tamales and empanadas way more than the churrascos or grilled meat places. I loved them all but since I spent most of my time eating all the carbs, My Bakery was like a nostalgic visit back to my olden days. I can't wait to go back and not have stomach problems so I could eat more of their food.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The LA International Tamale Festival

The LA Int'l Tamale Festival on Sat, Nov 1.

The Jalapeno-cheese tamale with salsa from Mama's Int'l Tamale

The elote (sweet corn tamale)

The sweet corn (top) and the chilean humo (bottom), undressed.

The best thing about going to this festival twice (Sat Nov 1 & Sun Nov 2) in sketchy MacArthur Park area is finding out that there is an official name to my favorite sweet corn tamale. It's called "Elote".

The reason why I love Elote so much is because this is the only kind of tamale available in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where I grew up. Of course, the ones I had in Bolivia were much better, containing not only ground sweet corn, but ground hominy as well as bits of Menonite cheese to give the masa some stretch. It's the best balance of sweet and salty. In Bolivia, they just called this "tamale". They also had tamale del horno, which was a drier version wrapped in banana leaf.

The other tamales were okay. I was never a fan of tamales with meat. I think I prefer the cheesy ones. Hence, I really liked the jalapeno and cheese tamales and the elotes. I brought home 9 elotes and 4 jalapeno and cheese. 13 tamales for $25 (they threw one in for free).

Yeah, it felt like a rip off but I figure it's hard to get to MacArthur Park again just to buy tamales. I justified my splurge by saying that I was helping out the festival's longevity. Also, I tried making sweet corn tamales at home and I ended up spending over a hundred dollars trying to get the proportions right, and I still have over a dozen uneaten tamales in my freezer. When my family hears the word tamale, they freak out, asking me "Are you going to try to make them again?!" That's enough for me to just go out and buy some. I love cooking but I'm not good at making everything.

Damn tamales = my Achilles heel.

Hummus on Steroids

Behold the hummus as an entree:

(Hummus Place: mushrooms in the middle)

(Hummus Place: classic)

I admit that I didn't try that hard to find the best hummus in LA county. All I really wanted was a hummus that was on par with the hummus I had at Hummus Place in NYC (pictured above). If I even found hummus that was considerably better than the supermarket-bought Sabra brand that I have sitting in my fridge, I would have been okay with that.

One of the most annoying things about me is that I will search for something until I find the exact ingredient or taste I was craving for, and then eat it continuously, almost like an addict, until I get sick of it. I've been eating hummus non-stop since I got back from NYC and I couldn't stop because I was still searching for a hummus that beat out the ones I had in NYC.

So I asked some yelpers and researched chow hound for a place where they served hummus as more of an entree than as a side. I didn't feel like driving all the way to Glendale or the valley (I'm not lazy, it's just the economy) and asked for locations around LA. Some people pointed me to some hummus on steroids that were served at Sunnin Lebanese Cafe. Are you kidding? This place is across the street from where my BF lives. We could have easily walked there (but we didn't cuz we live in LA).

(Sunnin Lebanese Cafe: Hommos-Kawarma)

We ordered the HOMMOS-KAWARMA, which is basically hummus with beef filet chunks and pine nuts, and spices for toppings. This was the most delicious thing ever. No, seriously. I think it beats some of the hummus combination even at Hummus Place. The beef chunks were smoky and a perfect combination with the creamy, nutty hummus. What a great choice for a low-carb diet.

(Sunnin Lebanese Cafe: Hommos)

This is the HOMMOS (rushed chick peas with sesame paste, garlic, & lemon juice). This was delicious but I think I'm in love with the Hommos Kawarma and I'm sure this will be my go-to Hummus combo. Sunnin also had delicious Shawarma:

The Shawarma comes with marinated layers of tender beef cooked on a vertical broiler, served with tarator, rice, & Lebanese salad. The only real issue I had with Sunnin was all the styrofoam they use. Everything comes in styrofoam regardless of whether you eat there or not. I know some people find this convenient but hello, there are other alternatives that are not as bad for the environment.

Sunnin Lebanese Cafe
Neighborhood: West Los Angeles
1779 Westwood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90024
(310) 477-2358

Hummus Place
Neighborhood: Manhattan/East Village
109 St. Marks Place
(between 1st Ave & Avenue A)
New York, NY 10009
(212) 529-9198