Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fez, Phoenix, AZ

Fez Phoenix - Picture from their website:

We were welcomed by warmth as we walked in the door despite the concrete floor and frosted glass that greeted us.  The table was already waiting for our party of six, set in a modern style like the rest of the chic, low-lit restaurant.

First, drinks.  Fez has a large selection of unique cocktails and although they offered some interesting looking "wine fusions" we all went with cocktails.  I ordered the Go Green, a mixture of crisp cucumber and cilantro cut with lemon and vodka.  It was different and refreshing but a little sour for my taste.  My husband got the Key Lime Pie and was smitten - he's still trying to re-create it at home.  The drink was a foamy blend of lime and sugar flavors with a playful ring of graham cracker. A friend got the "Fez-Tini" which was a cherry red mix of champagne and other unique flavors - a celebration in a glass.  The biggest problem with the drinks was the decidedly limited wine list (27 unique cocktail creations but only 18 wines available).  If you are a wine enthusiast, Fez may not be your type of restaurant.

After drinks came appetizers.  We tried the "Fez Lettuce Wraps" which were a little dry but had great flavor that came from the dried pears, dates, and cherries that were scattered throughout.  Someone at our table was allergic to nuts and the kitchen gladly made the dish without the usual almonds (although I'm sure the almonds would have been a fantastic addition).

The main course was where the true genius lay.  I had the "Lamb Kisra" a grilled flatbread (more like foccacia than pita), topped with brilliantly seasoned lamb meat that resembled gyro.  On the lamb lay baby spinach which gave a great crunch and tomatoes and the whole thing was topped with crumbly and creamy feta cheese and a fantastic lemon basil dressing that I'll never forget.
Lamb Kisra

I also tasted my friend's amazing dish - the "Go Green Pasta" with chicken.  The real genius of this dish was the sauce - an incredibly tasty pesto that had just the right amount of salt and garlic to make it perfect.  The chicken on top was perfectly juicy and tasty as well.

Go Green Pasta with Chicken

One damper on the night was service, which was slow and confused. We waited quite a while after we were seated for our order to be taken.  We also had to sit around and wait for our server to appear with the bill for what seemed like an hour after we were finished with our meal.

Despite the flaws in service I'm looking forward to our next trip to Fez.  Not only did the restaurant have fantastic and unforgettable food and drinks, the prices were very reasonable.  The Fez menu can be found at

Monday, January 25, 2010

Magazine Mondays: Brownies

I finally have some time to participate in Magazine Mondays!  I want to thank Ivonne at Cream Puffs in Venice for coming up with the idea - I'm hoping to whittle down my stacks and stacks of magazine recipes this year (and make some great food in the process).

Last weekend we had a party and I decided to work on some sweet recipes I have stacked up.  It's better to share the love when you're making things like brownies instead of having a whole pan for you and your husband to tackle.  So I decided to make these Chocolate Cheesecake Swirl Brownies from Bon Appetit.

The recipe instructed to make them in squares like traditional brownies, but since it was a party I wanted them to look a little special and so I used a mini muffin pan instead.  It worked out well I think.  The only real problem I had is that the cheesecake layer and the brownie layer tended to separate (the tops kept coming off!) but I think it's because I didn't give them enough time to cool before I took them out of the pan.

Overall it ended up being a lot more work than I anticipated and while they did taste really good, I'm not sure if it was worth the effort.  Maybe in the pan form it would have been easier.  Also, I used crunchy peanut butter instead of creamy because that's all I had, and it made the texture a little weird.  I would definitely suggest going with the creamy peanut butter for these.

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Cheesecake Swirl Brownies
From Bon Appetit, January 2009 
Brownie Layer
nonstick vegetable oil spray
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped 
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt

Cheesecake Layer
8 oz cream cheese, room temp
1/3 c. creamy peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 Tbsp. heavy whipping cream
2 Tbsp. flour
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Brownie Layer
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.  Spray 9 inch square metal baking pan with 2 inch high sides with nonstick spray and line bottom with parchment paper.  Stir chocolate and butter in medium saucepan over low heat until smooth; cool 10 minutes.  Using electric mixer, beat sugar, eggs, and vanilla in medium bowl until very fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Beat in chocolate mixture on low speed, then beat in flour and salt.  Spread batter in pan.

Cheesecake Layer
Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese, peanut butter, and vanilla in medium bowl until smooth.  Gradually add sugar, beating until fluffy.  Beat in eggs 1 at a time.  Beat in cream, then flour.  Transfer 1/3 cup cheesecake batter to a small bowl and reserve.  Spread remaining cheesecake batter over brownie layer.  Place chocolate in small microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 10 second intervals until chocolate is melted.  Mix into reserved cheesecake batter.  Drop chocolate batter by heaping teaspoonfulls on top of the cheesecake layer.  Using chopstick or skewer swirl chocolate batter in figure eights through white cheesecake layer.

Bake brownies until edges of cheesecake layer are puffed and center is set, about 40 minutes.  Cool in pan on rack.  Cover and chill at least an hour.  Cut into squares and serve cold.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On the Hunt: Tortillas Part 1: The Tortilla Transfer

I've decided to create a new series called "On The Hunt", to document my experiences trying to find obscure ingredients where I live.  I started thinking about this after we had so much trouble finding truffles for New Year's Eve, but after a friend called a couple of weeks ago to talk about tortillas I realized it would definitely be a good idea.

The call came about mid-day, and luckily I was at home so I had plenty of time to talk.  We talked a lot about food, and how hard it is to find good tortillas around here, which is unacceptable since we live in the Southwest.  He mentioned he was going to visit family in Tucson the next day and asked if I would like some empanadas and tortillas.  Of course I said yes - I would've been crazy not to take him up on the offer.  The catch - I had to drive out to meet him near the freeway on his way home from Tucson.

No problem - who wouldn't drive 30 miles late at night to pick up fresh Mexican baked goods in a gas station parking lot?

The transfer: Freshly made tortillas being handed off in the Circle K parking lot.  In the background one can see the large stash of Mexican fare in the trunk of the car.

Up to this point my friend hadn't really been exposed to the crazy blogger side of me. He was surprised when I ran up to him with a camera around my neck and asked him to pose with tortillas in front of all these strangers at the gas station. I guess I should have eased him into the zany world of being friend to a food blogger instead of springing it on him in such a public place.  The food blog Not Quite Nigella has a perfect introduction on what to expect from a food blogger called "10 Things You Should Know About Food Bloggers"- if you plan on being a friend of a food blogger you should definitely read it so you're not suddenly surprised by outrageous behavior.

I took the tortillas and empanadas home with me and with the help of my brother and his girlfriend, devoured most of what he brought us right away.  The food came from South Tucson - the Mexican barrio side of town - and were as authentic as I hoped they would be.  The empanadas were surprising - pumpkin and apple instead of the usual meat kind I've had.  They were fluffy and moist with excellent sugary yet spicy filling - like little pies.

Empanadas - two with a pumpkin filling and two with an apple filling

The tortillas were fantastic as well - you could tell they weren't processed by a machine.  Slightly uneven with that fresh tortilla smell, they were a perfect snack with the butter we smeared on them after heating them over the gas burner.  They even stayed fresh for a while - I was able to have real breakfast burritos for a few days.

Fresh tortillas, one of the best things about the Southwest.

Surprisingly the same friend that brought these tortillas to me has offered to bring me with him to some Mexican stores around the valley on a hunt for real, non-machine made tortillas.  Evidently my camera didn't intimidate him as much as I thought it had.  I guess I did neglect to mention to him that the camera would be coming with me on our next adventure.  Hopefully he's ready to be followed around by the paparazzi like the Mexican superstar that he is.  

Friday, January 15, 2010

Holiday Traditions

It started with Valentine's Day eight years ago.  My husband and I were still dating (although about two weeks away from getting married).  We couldn't decide where to go and what to do for the occasion and somehow ended up at Target buying a fondue pot, then on to the fancy grocery store for some good cheese, wine, and bread. We looked a recipe up online and ended up with a fantastic fondue dinner and a new tradition.

Now when it's just the two of us alone for a holiday, we usually end up making a really good meal, and sometimes hunt for new ingredients or buy new kitchen gadgets as well.  It makes the holiday a little more special, and being in the kitchen together usually brings us closer.

This New Year we were invited to a few parties, but ended up staying home to cook and watch movies.  What a fantastic idea it turned out to be!  We decided this year that we were going to try playing with truffles (after having truffled mac & cheese at Craftsteak in Vegas this summer we're a little obsessed with them).  We hunted for truffles (in the grocery store of course - I do live in Arizona) but finally settled on truffle oil.   I don't think the oil is as good, but it'll serve when you've had enough of the frantic New Year's Eve shopping.

What we ended up with was far better than anything we would have eaten out that night.  Filet Mignon wrapped in thick cut bacon with compound butter, a potato gratin with white cheddar and truffle oil, and a little salad and beautiful champagne.  What a meal!

The filet was very simple - just salt and pepper, wrapped in a piece of bacon, and thrown on the grill for a bit, until cooked just right.

The gratin required a little more effort but was absolutely worth every second.  I haven't tasted anything so like perfection in a very long time.  Especially not out of my own kitchen.  It was perfectly crispy and bubbly on top when it came out of the oven.


White Cheddar Potato Gratin

4 medium potatoes
4 cloves garlic, crushed
½ clove nutmeg grated
pepper and salt
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
1 c. sharp white cheddar, grated
about 1 Tbsp. white truffle oil (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Slice peeled potatoes with a mandolin or food processor into thin rounds.  Place potatoes in large saucepan with milk, cream, garlic, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.  Bring to a boil, stirring well with a wooden spatula to keep potatoes from sticking togetherLet potatoes bubble for a minute or so after boiling then pour half into a buttered gratin dish.  Sprinkle with half the cheddar, add the rest of the potatoes, and sprinkle with remaining cheese and truffle oil.  Bake the gratin for about an hour until bubbly and crisp on top.  Let rest for several minutes after removing from the oven (so it can solidify a bit).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Birth of a "Foodie"

A message I received last week from one of my best friends got me thinking about when and how I really became a “foodie”.

For a long time now I’ve told people that I started getting into food when I met my husband and he made me try such unfamiliar things as sushi, Thai food, and falafel (can there even be existence without these things?!?). But the message made me reconsider. I started thinking about all my food memories from childhood.

I thought first about my grandmother, who died when I was six. She lived with us for a while, and was a true Southern woman. She drank sweet tea and thick black coffee. She made chicken and dumplings (the recipe to which I happily became the culinary heir to), and fried green tomatoes and Lobster Newburg. I don’t really remember cooking with her, but now whenever I eat or think about these dishes, my grandmother is all around.

My Grandmother - "nanny"

Then of course there are the food memories with my friend. One summer we decided to try selling candies (we always had some kind of project or scheme in the works). We spent most of the summer in the kitchen making huge messes trying to make our own peanut butter cups. They never worked, but oh how we tried! At some point we also began meeting early in the morning on weekends in her backyard to have breakfasts. That was my first experience making omelettes and pancakes and it truly cemented in my love for a good breakfast.

Breakfast sandwich with foccacia, ham, and eggs

I also have memories of cooking with my mom. I always remember a particular Thanksgiving with my mom. We were making pies the night before going to my aunt’s house. Lemon and chocolate cream pies have always been the specialty in our family – there aren’t many holidays without my dad demanding a cream pie of some sort.

I carry on the tradition of pies for the holidays every year - this one is apple cranberry

At times my obsession with food (what I like to call my "foodie-ness") feels a little silly to me. I think I could be doing a lot of other things with my time. But thinking about these memories has given me new insight into why food is so important, why it isn’t just some waste of time. Food is a part of the memories and the heritage of a person, a culture, a society. It connects us to one another, creates memories, and adds meaning. It makes us human. We are not some animal that just pecks or hunts around for any scrap we can find. If willing, we are gourmets, thoughtful consumers, passionate advocates and critics.

I don't know when exactly I became a "foodie" but all these little memories add up to create my life in food. They help define me and give my life beauty and I'm proud to wear the badge of "foodie".

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Belize Adventures

Last summer I took a trip to Belize.  We spent almost all of our time on the western side, near Guatemala, in and around a small city called San Ignacio.

San Ignacio

The place was gorgeous - very rainforest-like with beautiful plants I'd never seen before, strange creatures making noise all around, and Mayan ruins hidden in the jungle.

Xunantunich ruins near the border of Guatemala
The heat and humidity resembled a rainforest too.  I was hot  the entire time we were in Belize.  The lack of air conditioning almost everywhere certainly didn't help things.

Unfortunately I didn't get a very good sampling of the food.  I was doing volunteer work so most of the time we were fed by the group we were volunteering for (almost always American food - Wonder bread, bologna, Oreos) and when we did get to eat out, we were usually taken to Americanized restaurants.  It tortured me not to eat the delicious smelling chicken in the markets, or sample some strange new fruits.

 Grilled chicken for sale at the market

So many strange fruits that looked so good!

Eventually I did get to try a few of the truly Belizian foods.  On our last day, we had a barbecue by the side of a big lazy river, and our hosts made us the famous chicken I'd seen grilling in the markets.  It was completely amazing.  Perfectly juicy, nice and crispy with a red tint (thanks to the Belizian spice I came to love so much, Recado, which comes in big cubes like bouillon or powdered).

At the river, western Belize

I also had rice and beans and beans and rice (different things!), plantains, shrimp ceviche, Fry Jacks (kind of like a sopapilla but thicker), and Johnny Cakes which were fluffy biscuits usually made with coconut milk, giving them a sweet flavor.

I did get a chance to buy some seasonings at the market while we were there.  I picked up a nice big bag of the Recado and some good looking curry powder.

The yellow packet is curry powder and the two red are two types of Recado

I also tried termites straight off the tree.  We were lucky enough one day to have a tour guide to a Mayan ruin and along the way he talked a lot about medicinal plants and what the indigenous people used to eat.  We stopped at a big tree with a massive nest in it and he began picking off the termites and popping them into his mouth.  Eventually most of us on the tour joined in. 

Termite nest
They are actually pretty good - a little crunchy in a weird way, like roe on sushi, but they tasted a lot like carrots to me.  Not bad, but I prefer the chicken.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rainbow Chard and White Asparagus with Panko Brown Butter

This winter I decided to try growing rainbow chard in the garden. It was kind of a funny choice because up to that point I’d never eaten any sort of chard and had no idea what to do with it. I came up with this recipe one night after finding some sweet little white asparagus at the local farmers market. The result was a good mix of healthy and comforting, being enough vegetable to make it feel like a good choice and enough panko crisped in brown butter to make it feel a little bit bad.

Rainbow Chard and White Asparagus with Panko Brown Butter

Several large leaves of chard (rainbow or swiss), roughly chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced (depending on how offensive you choose to feel!)
1 bunch white asparagus, hard bottoms trimmed off and sliced into large chunks
olive oil
about ½ cup panko bread crumbs
3 Tbsp butter 

Saute the chard in olive oil on medium heat for several minutes until it starts to wilt. Add minced garlic and asparagus and cook until all the vegetables are cooked through but not soggy. Remove from the pan and add butter. Let the butter foam up and cook. It will turn slightly brown and begin to have a nutty smell. Add the panko crumbs and toss for a few minutes until they begin to brown as well. Pour over the vegetables and serve.

The only real trouble I had with this recipe was when I decided to serve it with panko encrusted salmon. I should have known better – it was just too much panko for one meal.

Both tasted excellent but overpowered one another when sharing the plate. Next time I might go with some grilled shrimp or roasted chicken.

As far as the chard goes, I am definitely a fan, especially of the homegrown variety. It’s a fun thing to grow – like basil, you cut a leaf off and it makes the plant grow even more. It looks so pretty out in the garden, soaking up the sunlight.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Year, New Blog

This post is a little late coming, I know.  I've been tweaking my blog to make it just right (which also included changing the name - I hope everyone enjoys it!)  Now I'm pretty satisfied and so the real blogging can begin!  This year I have some new plans for the blog and with school out of the way for good I'll be posting a lot more.  Here are some additions for the new year:
  • Magazine Mondays - I'll start participating in Magazine Mondays, which originated with the food blog Cream Puffs in Venice.  Each week I'll pick a recipe from a magazine to try and then blog about it.
  • Bread Wars - Bread making is the most difficult thing I've ever done in the kitchen so I'll start posting my struggles in a series called "Bread Wars".  Maybe this year I'll win the war and finally make the perfect bread!
  • More book reviews - not just cookbooks, but books about food, cooking, travel when related to food etc.  I think there is a wealth of excellent food literature out there and I aim to read it all (well, that might be a little much, but I'll do my best!)
  • More restaurant reviews - mostly be in the Phoenix area where I live, but when I travel I hope to get some restaurant reviews in as well
I hope everyone enjoys the posts and leaves comments for me.  Thanks for reading and I hope you all have a great year!