Sunday, August 24, 2008

More Five-Minute Artisan Bread

The mania over freshly baked bread has slowed to the point that I have some dough still in the bucket coming close to the two-week mark. It really does improve over time! The later loaves have a nicer chew to them, and a much improved sourdough type flavor. Since I just baked off the last loaf of a batch, I started two more batches: One is a full size batch of the European Peasant Bread, which replaces some of the flour in the regular loaf with rye and whole wheat flours. The other is the Brioche, which both the roomie and myself are greatly looking forward to trying.

Quick Review: Culver's, Mesa AZ

After hearing much ballyhooing from homesick Midwesterners, I went to the fairly new Culver's over on Country Club just south of US-60 for the first time earlier this summer. The dining room doors were locked 10 minutes before posted closing time the first time I went, leaving me just the drive-thru. I know that Mesa and Gilbert practically roll up the sidewalks at 9 PM, but come on, if you're going to say on the door that you're open til 10, STAY OPEN TIL 10! It was certainly not the best first impression. At least the girl at the drive-through was perky. Burger was... salty. Onion rings were OK. Root beer float had not nearly enough root beer for the ice cream, er, I mean frozen custard. Fast forward to tonight. I got a patty melt and cheese curds. The patty melt was one note: Bland. No, wait, two notes, it was greasy as hell too. The bread used was allegedly rye, but didn't taste much like rye and the caraway seeds were just there for looks. The cheese curds tasted more of salty breading than cheese. Neither was worth the calories. A return trip is highly doubtful at this point, especially with In-N-Out and Chick-Fil-A two exits down the road.

Monday, August 18, 2008

One of those things about living in the Phoenix area is dead obvious to anyone who lives here: It's damned hot in the summer. Sometimes, you just have to get out of town. Las Vegas has awfully tempting hotel rates, but there had best be a great pool where you stay since it's going to be just as hot. San Diego has tons going on, but with gas prices where they are, one gives pause to travelling there during their peak hotel season. Northern Arizona looks more and more tempting, doesn't it? I've had friends and family up in Prescott for all my life, so when someone from up there called to catch up on things, I jumped at the chance to pay them a spontaneous visit. Two hours later, I found myself up there under a blanket of stars, with lightning flashing further north on the rim.

Something I have noticed about Prescott is that while it's still a sleepy little town, the quality of restaurants up there has dramatically improved in recent years. Case in point is Esoji, a relatively new restaurant on Gurley just a stone's throw west of Whiskey Row. I never would have guessed that one of the best Japanese restaurants in the state would open its doors in such a picture-perfect slice of small-town Americana as downtown Prescott.

My friend J (no relation to Seth Chadwick's J., congratulations to you both on the wedding!), his wife Keely, and their kid Kidlet had a great time catching up on things as we strolled around the square under the blazing hot 85 degree sun. As we approached Whiskey Row, we all noticed it was about time for lunch. We were all disgusted by the presence of a Quizno's franchise at the south end of Whiskey Row (It's great when a downtown area is completely dominated by independently owned shops and eateries like Prescott!). We nearly stopped at a new hole-in-the-wall Mexican place on Whiskey Row called Annalina's, but in the end Esoji won out for getting a visit this time. Annalina's looked like it would be a promising little place, so I'm looking forward to giving them a try the next time I'm up there.

When we entered Esoji, we were given the standard table-or-booth choice. We were a bit torn; booths always have a more intimate feel, but with Kidlet along and his need for a high chair, it would be a lot easier to sit at a table. The hostess quickly offered a banquette at the end of the row of booths, and it turned out to be a great idea. For some reason, the inside edge of the booth side of the banquette was considerably more firm than the rest of it, leaving yours truly sitting off-kilter.

We perused the menu, and went with relatively basic choices. Keely hadn't been to a Japanese restaurant before (J is working on opening her up from her once sheltered life diet), and went with teriyaki chicken donburi. J and I both selected the bento ($13.50), a combination of grilled meat, shrimp and veggie tempura, vegetables, California or spicy salmon roll, miso soup, and green salad. I went with teriyaki salmon, J had the teriyaki chicken, and we both had the California roll. If I was thinking about it, I would have selected the spicy salmon so we could have some of each. I'll have to do that next time. J is allergic to shellfish, so I offered to eat his shrimp tempura, but alas having the crustaceans touching something else on the plate would set him off, so he requested no shrimp tempura.

The waitress went off to place the order, and a few minutes later arrived with my and J's green salads. An added surprise was a little teddy bear face made out of sushi rice and veggie bits for Kidlet! Kidlet couldn't enjoy it as much as the itamae hoped since Kidlet isn't quite up to solid food yet, but it was still a very welcome touch. The salad was unusually good; there was some traditional iceberg for crispness, mixed in with spring mix for complexity. The dressing was an eye opener, definitely not your usual Japanese ginger dressing that I swear doesn't change no matter where you are. It was vibrant and citrusy, with ginger, a little soy, and goodness knows what else. You could tell that they made it there. You could also tell they were very proud of it since they sold it by the bottle. Miso soup was executed just as it should, with flavorful broth and a couple of small bits of seaweed and tofu.

A short while later, our entrees arrived. As you can see in the pictures, they were nearly works of art. Colors played off of each other beautifully well, shapes were attractive, and everything just looked well thought out. The teriyaki sauce was definitely not the sticky sweet bottled glop used at so many places, and was applied with a modest hand. It truly complemented the meat instead of taking center stage. Vegetables were all cooked to a perfect degree of doneness whether sauteed or tempura. Speaking of the tempura, I have never had a tempura this incredibly light. My shrimp was tender, juicy, and tasted like... shrimp. We have some wizards of the deep fryer where I work, but they don't hold a candle to the person manning it at Esoji. Since J passed on the shrimp, he instead received tempura sweet potato slices, and they were so good that he didn't miss the shrimp one bit. A small nest of noodles were dressed in a light sauce that took me by surprise. I had a feeling they would be a little spicy since you could see flecks of togarashi, but there was also a contrasting sweetness with a hint of tart that I'm pretty sure was provided by a splash of citrus. The California roll was a good California roll; nothing to write home about, but even the best California rolls play second fiddle to pretty much every other kind of sushi out there. The sushi rice was perfectly balanced; not too much rice vinegar, nor too little.

I had already planned to stop by the crêperie on Gurley for dessert, but that plan was dashed when our waitress mentioned green tea crème brûlée. It came attractively presented, along with a surprise of a miniature scoop of green tea ice cream, presumably for Kidlet. We were all enthralled with the crème brûlée. I thought that the crust could have been thicker (I like mine to crack when hit with a spoon, this one didn't), and I would have appreciated it if the sugar on top had been melted by blowtorch instead of broiler; the custard part had started to cook more than it should from the broiling. Still, it was delicious and creamy, and the green tea paired well with the creaminess of the custard.

The total bill for three lunches and one dessert came to just over $56. This is pretty pricey by Prescott standards, but very well worth it. Esoji is head and shoulders above any other Asian food I've had in northern Arizona, and is easily in the top tier of Japanese restaurants in all of Arizona. Indeed, Esoji may well be the best traditional Japanese restaurant in the state.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Croque Monsieurs made with the master recipe bread from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day absolutely ROCK.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Love Great Bread? Of Course! Get This!

I love making homemade bread. So much of the whole process just connects on a deep level. It feels great, from the smell of the yeast getting started, to the feel of kneading dough, to the incomparable sensation of biting into a slice of bread still barely warm from the oven. However, for something that is so simple (just flour, water, salt, and yeast), fresh home-made bread is an absolute pain in the ass to make. Even though you don't have to proof the yeast (thanks to quick-rise yeasts) and knead the dough for 15 minutes (thanks to the trusty Kitchenaid on the counter), the dough takes quite a bit of babysitting, and somehow the entire kitchen ends up covered in flour.

In November of 2006, cookbook author Mark Bittman released a recipe for something new called No-Knead Bread. In normal bread, kneading is what develops gluten, which gives the bread its structure. In No-Knead Bread, kneading is replaced by a very wet dough (87 percent of the flour's weight in water; a traditional recipe is closer to 55 percent) and a very long rest (at least 18 hours in the fridge). There is an Achilles's heel to the No-Knead Bread, and that is that you have to start the bread 18 to 24 hours before you actually want the bread.  What's a bread lover to do?

Enter Dr. Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François1, authors of the new book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. He's a bread-loving physician, she's a CIA2-trained baker and pastry chef.  Boy, that sounds like a movie waiting to happen, doesn't it?  They realized that a wet dough not only doesn't require kneading, but also keeps for a good long time in the refrigerator... up to two weeks.  Now all you have to do is mix up the dough, let it rise, and then toss it in the fridge.  When you're ready for bread, you just shape the loaf, let it rise, and put it in the oven.  That's it.  The only part of your kitchen that gets dirty is a spoon to mix the ingredients.

The bread is wonderful stuff... nice crumb, crackling crust, and great flavor.  Apparently, the longer you let it sit in the fridge the more complex it tastes.  I'm looking forward to finding out, but I don't know that I have the willpower to let the bread dough just sit for that long!

1) Just have to say I love how easy it is to do accented characters on a Mac... option-c gets you the ç, where on Windows it was Alt-some four digit number.
2) Culinary Institute of America.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I Call It Spaghetti alla Fata Verde

I had some friends over for dinner tonight. I was in the mood for spaghetti and meatballs. I started out with the Cook's Illustrated recipe, and CHANGED IT! Yes, Christopher Kimball, I didn't feel like buying ground pork, so I made meatballs with (gasp) all BEEF.  They were better that way.  And since I didn't have basic white sandwich bread, I used sourdough.  Then, I thought that their Quick Tomato Sauce could use a flavor boost.  I remembered my favorite thing to add... red wine.  Nice meaty Cabernet, to be exact.  Then, that got me thinking about what else I could add to give it a twist.  I remembered the nice new bottle of absinthe sitting on my extensive bar shelf.  Italian sausage often has lots of fennel in it, which gives a bit of a licorice-y flavor.  Absinthe has similar notes to it.  So, in went a little splash into my tasting bowl along with a little of the sauce, and... magic.  The two went together splendidly.  I added a couple of ounces of the infamous spirit, and everyone was thrilled.  Try it the next time you make spaghetti sauce.  I'd give you my recipe, but I already know you have your favorite and not much is going to sway you from it.