The Friendly Toast

>>  Friday, February 26, 2010

Friendly Toast
Funky.  Tacky.  Retro.  Kitschy.

A neighborhood icon in Portsmouth, New Hampshire since 1994, The Friendly Toast has been a hit there, commanding long waits for its creative breakfast items, huge portions, and great food.  This past spring, owners Melissa and Robert Jasper finally opened a second outpost in Cambridge.  They worked hard to make sure that the second place embodied the character of the original one, down to the knick knacks that adorn the walls, the bright green paint, and the wacky menu items.

The Friendly Toast serves a variety of food, focusing mostly on brunch-like items (pancakes, French toast, eggs, and the like), but also serving sandwiches, burgers, and milkshakes (frappes, they're called in New England).  It's sort of a chi-chi hippie granola version of a diner -- diner-like food with a twist:  creative ingredients, vegan-friendly choices (tofu scramble anyone?), and wacky names (mmm . . green eggs and ham).  Honestly, Cambridge is the perfect city for this type of place.

Lines are super long on weekends, especially during brunch time.  Fortunately, they open until 1 AM, one of the few places in Cambridge to do so.

Check out some of the dishes we've enjoyed!

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Chinese Egg Puffs

>>  Thursday, February 25, 2010

I know you must be wondering why there's chocolate powder on top of a "Chinese" egg puff.  And you're right, a traditional Chinese egg puff does not have chocolate. I'll explain later, I promise.

First, some background.

What are Chinese Egg puffs?  Translated roughly as "Chicken Egg Cake" (literally), it's a popular street snack that you can find in Asia.  Typically, the street vendor has this HUGE circular waffle-like iron with little holes in in.  He fills it with batter and then cooks it, turning the iron 180 degrees halfway through.  When he opens the huge waffle iron, out pops dozens and dozens of perfectly formed little round egg puffs.  They are so good.

Of course, I don't have a huge waffle iron with tiny circles in it.  But I do have an Æbleskiver pan that I received from Aunt Else's a few months ago.  When I wrote a post about making Æbleskivers and Japanese takoyaki a few months ago, Joy from Cooking of Joy suggested that I try making Chinese Egg Puffs.

I recently brought these to a dinner party and the guests ate them up.  I can't guarantee that they are 100% authentic, but they do taste delicious and definitely remind me of Chinese egg puffs.

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>>  Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It seems like just yesterday that I was telling you about my favorite type of restaurant - the cozy, ethnic family-owned joint that produces fantastic food.  They are usually cheap, a great value, and they have really unique atmospheres.

Cambridge is full of them, and I'm still slowly discovering them one at a time.

Izzy's is not much to look at from the outside.  It looks like a run down sub shop.  You enter, and the place looks like it hasn't changed since it opened 18 years ago.  The decor is very eclectic, from colorful vinyl table coverings to a huge Puerto Rican flag hanging at the counter.

Oh but the food.  The food belies the humble decor.  It's vibrant, flavorful, and all around very satisfying. I can't believe it's taken me this long to try this place.

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Red Bean Mochi Cake (nian gao)

>>  Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's dangerous to have these mochi cakes lying around the house at midnight while I'm blogging.  Maybe it's their addictive chewy texture. Or the deliciously sweet red beans strewn throughout the cake. Or maybe I secretly think it's low fat, so it's OK to eat at night.

Whatever it is, I can't just have one. In fact, I can hardly keep from eating the entire loaf.  It doesn't help that I love red beans and anything made with mochi flour.

Mochi cake (or "nian gao" 年糕 as it is called in mandarin) is a classic dessert that is especially popular during Chinese New Year.  The term "nian gao" sort of has a double (or even quadruple) meaning in Chinese.  In Chinese, the pronunciation "nian" sounds like the word for year (年)and sticky (粘). The word "gao" sound like the word for cake (糕) but also sounds like tall or high (高).

You can imagine the combinations:  New Year cake!  Sticky cake!  Reaching higher with the New Year!  Sticky tall!  (ok, that last one doesn't make that much sense).  But you get the point.  This dessert is popular during the New Year  because it symbolizes all these wonderful ideas about wishing each other good health and fortune. Chinese people love those double meanings.

Traditional Chinese new year cake is steamed.  This version has been modified for the Western kitchen - it's baked in an oven!  I personally like this version better, as it has a nice browned crust that doesn't exist in the steamed version.  The best part?  This simple recipe has a short ingredient list and only takes 10 minutes to prepare.

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Kabocha Squash Gnocchi

>>  Sunday, February 21, 2010

pan fried gnocchi
Kabocha has peaked my interesting lately.

There's been a lot of blog posts about kabocha squash  - from No Recipe's award winning kabocha pumpkin cream cake to Gourmet Fury's Canadian Chimichurri Pork Cheeks with Kabocha Parsnip Puree.  I've never had kabocha, so when I saw it in the local market about a month ago, I decided to pick one up.

I then proceeded to forget about it . . . for weeks.

The beauty of this squash is, it lasts forever.  So, even after several weeks, my squash was as good as new.  Inspired by a butternut squash gnocchi recipe from Saveur, I decided to try my own version using kabocha squash.  You won't believe how easy and how few ingredients it takes to make your own gnocchi!

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Kabocha Squash Gnocchi with Meat Ragu

You'd be surprise how satisfying a simple meat sauce poured over handmade gnocchi can be.  This meat sauce is nothing close to complicated.  Throw together ground beef, onions, and canned tomatoes, and you got yourself a pretty tasty sauce.

I think the key in this case are time and quality of ingredients.  I used more expensive San Marzano tomatoes (I bought mine at Whole Foods), which I'm sure made a difference in the flavor of the final sauce.  You also caramelize the onions for about 20 minutes, which really gives them a beautiful sweet flavor.

Though the meat sauce is relatively easy, the entire recipe is rather involved, as it also includes handmade kabocha squash gnocchi (tutorial here).  Of course, you can always take a shortcut by buying the gnocchi if you are short on time.  Definitely add a drizzle of white truffle oil and a dash of sea salt to make this dish outstanding.

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>>  Friday, February 19, 2010

Clio beet strip
It's been years since I've actually gone out to a nice restaurant on Valentine's Day.  Bryan and I live in the city, and thus we have ready weeknight access to popular restaurants.  So why fight the crowds when we don't have to?  We learned our lesson early in our marriage.  Our first Valentine's Day together as a couple, we foolishly decided to walk out to Harvard Square and just show up at Finale (one of the most popular fancy dessert places in Boston) on Valentine's Day.  Ha!  Guess what?  We ended up wandering aimless around Harvard Square that night, looking for a bite to eat.

So it's unusual, but this year, on February 14th, right on Valentine's Day AND Chinese New Year, Bryan and I actually enjoyed a nice meal out.  We snagged a last minute early reservation at Clio, a place we've been meaning to try for some time now.  We enjoyed a nice, relaxing, and exquisite meal along with an amazing bottle of wine.

Join me in pictures as we re-live Clio's special Valentine's Day dinner.

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Blog Away Hunger - Haiti Campaign

>>  Thursday, February 18, 2010

Some of you might remember that I joined the Blog Away Hunger campaign back in January.  What is it?  A group of bloggers coming together and agreeing to donate a portion of their ad revenue towards the Haiti Relief effort.

In my previous post, I pledged to donate 5x my ad revenue for the months of January and February to the American Red Cross.  Furthermore, the company I work for has offered to match my donation dollar for dollar (if made by Feb. 12, 2010), resulting in a total effective donation amount of 10x my ad revenue for the months of January and February.*

Thank you so much for all your support!  I couldn't believe it, but my traffic these last two months has been higher than it has ever been.  Thank you!

I am pleased to report that I donated $750 to the American Red Cross on February 11, 2010.  My company is offering to match that amount, equaling a total of $1500 to the Haiti Effort.

If you are a blogger and want to donate your ad revenue as well, check out the Help Haiti Campaign over at Blog Away Hunger.  The campaign has been extended since Haiti will need help for months to come.  

If you want to make a much more direct impact, please donate directly.  I urge you to give unrestricted funds (instead of earmarking them for Haiti specifically).  This allows the organizations as much flexibility as possible to use the funds where they needed most.

Thanks so much for your support.


*Because my company had a deadline of Feb 12, 2010 for the match, I projected what my revenue would be for the entire month of February (based on current activity) and then I rounded up, factoring for potential growth. :)

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Sapporo Ramen

>>  Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sesame flavored "Tan Tan Men"

Imagine you're walking down a busy street at night.  In Japan. The sidewalk is slippery and your hood is drenched.  You're cold, hungry, and desperately wishing for something warm.

You turn the corner into a dark alley and stumble upon a tiny restaurant.  You push the door open a crack.

Inside, five cooks shout out in a chorus "Irrashaimase!" as you enter the tiny space, a warm oasis from the harsh elements outside.  The cooks are hard at work, hand-kneading ramen noodles.  Steam rises from  countless pots of water boiling the fresh noodles.  You tentatively request "the most famous dish" (your Japanese is lacking and that is all you can muster). The noodle soup that emerges is perfect: fat chewy noodles, piping hot broth, and deliciously tender slices of fragrant roast pork.

If only I could relive that moment again.  That was me, back in April, stumbling upon Suzuran in a dark alley in Shibuya, Japan.  Since then, I have not stopped in a ramen restaurant in the States, fearing it would be nothing like that experience.  Well, nine months later, I finally tried my first ramen place in Boston after leaving Japan.

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>>  Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My favorite kind of restaurant is the small, cozy, family-run ethnic restaurant that has incredible food at a very reasonable price.  This is why Muqueca is also invariably one of the places that I will recommend to out of town visitors whenever they come visit Cambridge.

I love this place!

Unlike your typical Brazilian restaurant, which focuses on various cuts of meat on skewers, Muqueca focuses on cuisine from coastal Brazil. They specialize in a very particular type of dish, called a moqueca, which is a stew full of seafood (typically fish, but can also be mixed with mussels, claims, shrimp, etc) sauteed with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro and served in a clay pot.  No additional water is added, and thus the liquid in the "stew" is rich full of flavors from the vegetables and the seafood.  Moquecas come mainly from two coastal Brazilian states: Bahia (Moqueca Bahiana) and Espírito Santo (Moqueca Capixaba).
The resulting dish is beautiful, with the fresh aromatic flavors of the vegetables and the seafood - absolutely divine, and relatively rare here in the States.  Because we were entertaining an out-of-town guest, we ordered all of our favorite dishes.

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Savory Asian-style Steel Cut Oatmeal

>>  Sunday, February 14, 2010

I love the chewy texture of steel cut oatmeal. It's hard to go back to regular oatmeal once you've tried steel cut.

What's the difference? Well, both are oats.  They differ in the way that they are processed.  The first step is the same. Wheat berries are cleaned and their hulls removed, leaving the inside kernels (called the groat). For steel cut oatmeal, these groats are then cut into small pieces with steel blades. For regular oatmeal, the groats are steamed, flattened, and then dried.

Because steel cut oats are much thicker than rolled oats, steel cut oatmeal takes A LOT longer to cook.  On the stove top, steel cut oats take about 30 minutes, although you can buy "quick" steel cut oats that cook in about 6 minutes.

I decided to do a twist on traditional oatmeal by making mine savory and Asian style.  I find this dish comforting and very satisfying in the morning.  It reminds me of Chinese congee but healthier!

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Pomegranate Martini

>>  Friday, February 12, 2010

Pomegranate Liqueur

I got a cocktail shaker as a wedding present 8 years ago. I really meant to pick it up and try to make something. But somehow we got lazy. Instead of mixing our drinks, we would just keep the vodka in the freezer and make dirty martinis by mixing the really cold vodka with some olive juice and an olive. It seemed to work OK, actually.

Finally, about a week ago, the folks at PAMA offered to send me some samples of PAMA Pomegranate liqueur.  I was intrigued.  I'm not a huge drinker, but I do love the tart, refreshing taste of pomegranate.  Furthermore, pomegranate is chock full of vitamins and antioxidants.  I decided to try to make a simple pomegranate martini, since I generally don't like drinks that are too sweet.

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Homemade Hob Nobs?

Hob Nobs
Have you ever had a Hob Nob?  For someone who loves the nutty, crunchy, goodness of whole grains, it can be quite addictive.  I've loved McVites Digestives for years (discovered them when I first visited the UK back in 1999), but more recently discovered Hob Nobs and immediately switched loyalties.  Apparently there are fierce loyalty battles between the Hob Nob Camp and the Digestives Camp.

Unfortunately, Hob Nobs are not distributed here in the US, which means you have to buy them from an import store.  A canister of my beloved Hob Nobs cost close to $6 at Cardullos in Harvard Square.

So when I kept seeing the same recipe pop up again and again and again on the internet for Hob Nobs, I knew I had to try it.

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I'm going to Napa Valley!!!!

>>  Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Napa Valley 1-1
I can't believe it! I have been given the incredible opportunity to attend the 8th Annual S. Pellegrino "Almost Famous" Chef FINALS Competition in Napa Valley next month (March 5-7), thanks to Foodbuzz and S. Pellegrino.  (For those of you who are curious, here is the "winning" entry).  I cannot even begin to express how thrilled I am to be going. They have given me VIP access to the kitchen, where I can rub shoulders with top chefs and food editors from media channels such as Food & Wine and the Today Show. I'm getting nervous already!

I have never been to Napa Valley, although I have always wanted to go.  It really is a food lover's paradise.  Any one have tips for how to land a reservation at the French Laundry?  ;)

I will be blogging and tweeting about this event the entire weekend that I'm there.  Of course, if I happen to try any interesting restaurants, I will share tons of pictures from all those places as well.

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Chinese New Year Recipes

It's all about what they symbolize . . .

tea eggskong xin tsai
mustard greensmeat sauce
Because Chinese New Year is coming up, I thought I would compile some useful posts related to various Chinese dishes and the reasons behind why they are popular during Chinese New Year.

Happy Chinese New Year! And I hope you find these useful!

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Jo tsai (Chinese chives) with 5-spice tofu [updated]

In the spirit of the upcoming (Chinese) new year, I am reposting this recipe with updated photographs (it's still embarrassing to look back at my old photos!).  Click here for a compiled list of other Chinese New Year recipes!

Flowering chives are popular during Chinese New Year because they symbolize eternity.  This is one of my all time favorites dishes to make because it's super fast, easy, delicious, and healthy.

This dish takes longer to chop than to actually make.

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Lion's Head Casserole [updated]

>>  Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Chinese New Year is coming up this weekend!  This year we usher in the year of the tiger.

There are many traditions associated with Chinese New Year.  My most distinct memory from childhood is, of course, receiving red envelopes full of money. We always looked forward to that, and it was always fun to go shopping afterwards.  Also, you're supposed to wear new clothes on Chinese New Year, which is also pretty fun.

All those things aside, of course, is the FOOD!  There's also plenty of feasting on all sorts of traditional dishes. One of my favorite classic New Years dish is the Lion's Head Casserole.  Succulent and flavorful pork patties are stewed for an hour with napa cabbage, resulting in a rich, flavorful dish brimming with the sweetness of napa and the savory goodness of pork.

A Shanghai tradition, this dish is called "lion's head casserole" because the greens look like a lion's mane while the meat ball looks like its head.  This dish is popular during New Years because of what it symbolizes.  The lion symbolizes power and strength, while the meatballs symbolize family reunion.

Though it might look complicated, it's really not that hard to make!

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Rendezvous - n. - an agreement between two or more persons to meet at a certain time and place.

Rendezvous is a casual yet upscale restaurant that opened in Central Square in November of 2005.  Along with places like Craigie on Main, Mariposa Bakery, Salts, and Central Bottle, it is really transforming this little corner of Central Square into a dining destination.  Funny thing is, it took over a space that was previously occupied by a Burger King.  Of course, they completely re-did the insides, but I still chuckle sometimes when I walk by because it still reminds me of Burger King.

Bryan tried the restaurant right when it first opened in 2005 with his good friend Peter.  They both did not like it, citing over-sauced dishes and uncreative flavors.  Because of that first negative experience, it was hard for me to convince Bryan to go back there, even though I had never tried it.

Finally, right before Christmas last year, Bryan relented and agreed to go try it again.  We had consistently heard and read good reviews from all over. Even Peter had gone back and spoke highly of it.  Clearly, something had changed for the better.

So, on a cold winter night in December, we walked down Mass Ave. all the way to Rendezvous (10 min exactly) and landed a seat without much of a wait.

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Bina Osteria

>>  Monday, February 08, 2010

It looks like I missed the boat on this place.  Bina Osteria opened a little more than a year ago.  Executive Chef Brian Konefal (previously of Eleven Madison Park and L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon) designed the original menu.  Apparently, the food was phenomenal, with melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi and incredible spaghetti carbonara.  The space was modern, trendy, and perfectly located in the middle of downtown in between the Theater District and the huge Loews movie theater.  People raved about the food here.

But the economy went super sour.  And Bina Osteria struggled to keep patrons with its super high NYC type prices.  After half a year, the owners decided to change directions: price the restaurant to meet the current state of the economy.  But wait.  How could these new lower prices work with Chef Brian Konefal's upscale style of cooking?

Well, they couldn't.  Executive Chef Brian Konefal left Bina Osteria in June 2009.  One of the owners, Bina herself, took over as Executive Chef.

Lower prices.  New chef.  What's the restaurant like now?  We had a chance to find out just a few weeks ago.

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8th Annual S. Pellegrino "Almost Famous" Chef Competition Finals

>>  Friday, February 05, 2010

Napa Valley 1-1
Napa Valley.  Culinary mecca. Wine country.
Salmon Potato Blini 2
It's the home of Thomas Keller's legendary restaurants.
Napa Valley 2-2
And of course, the vineyards.  Beautiful vineyards that make some of the best wine this country offers.
What a perfect location to host this year's finals for the 8th Annual S. Pellegrino "Almost Famous" Chef Competition.

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Baja Style Fish Tacos (deep fried)

Fried Fish Tacos
Can something fried ever tastes worse than something grilled?

Well . . . maybe, but in this case the fried fish tacos won hands down against the grilled fish tacos I made a few days earlier.  Granted, I did use a less-than-ideal fish when making the grilled fish tacos.  But still, there's something about that spicy, crunchy salty coating in a fried fish taco that is just so satisfying.

The fish in these fish tacos are dredged in a mixture of flour, chili powder, salt, and pepper before being quickly pan fried for a few minutes.  What results is a golden brown, crunchy piece of fish with a kick that tastes fantastic in a taco.

Definitely add the spicy chili mayo and fresh pico di gallo! It really kicks this dish up several notches!

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Smoky Tomato Salsa

Smoky Tomato Salsa
Recently I made this smoky pureed salsa to go with fried fish tacos.  It worked deliciously well.  But honestly, this salsa is so much more versatile than that. It tastes good with tortilla chips, grilled fish tacos, and probably works as a general accompaniment many types of Mexican dishes.

The chipotle hot sauce gives this a nice smokiness which tames the spice that comes from the serrano and jalapeno peppers. Also, because the tomatoes are cooked, the salsa has a sweeter, more rounded taste than a pure raw pico de gallo.  Definitely a keeper.

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Chili Mayo Sauce

>>  Thursday, February 04, 2010

Chili Mayo Sauce
I love the types of "recipes" that aren't really recipes at all.  They are so flexible that, as long as you sort of have the right ratios in place, it really doesn't matter exactly how much you add.  It's all to taste, anyway.

This chili mayo sauce is just like that.  It's made up of just five simple ingredients and tastes fantastic on fish tacos.  I recently tried making fish tacos two ways: grilled and fried. This sauce livens up either kind.  I love how it's easy to make, and you can tweak the flavors depending on what kind of chili powders and chili sauces you have on hand.

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Grilled Fish Tacos

I guess I'm on a celebrity chef kick.

Bryan loves fish tacos.  It's one of his favorites foods, really.  While he was in Mexico on a church missions trip back in high school, he and his friends ate dozens of fish tacos from street vendors every day.  It was so delicious, and you could get three tacos for a dollar!

Then all the kids came back to America and suffered digestive problems for like a month.
Amazingly, that has not turned Bryan off of fish tacos at all (you really would expect that it would!).  Instead, he still loves them, and often laments that you can't get good ones in Boston.

I have always shied away from trying fish tacos because it involves deep frying at home, which I was reluctant to do.  So, when I stumbled upon this simpler Bobby Flay recipe, I thought I would give it a try.  It uses grilled fish instead, marinated in lime juice, ancho chili powder, and cilantro.

Interestingly enough, within the same week (because I had so many leftover taco garnishes), I ended up making fried fish tacos as well.  I'll be posting on those soon, as well as which one we liked better.  Stay tuned!

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Pico de Gallo

Pico di Gallo
This classic tomato salsa is super versatile and can go on many different types of dishes.  I made them for fish tacos, but they pretty much go with most Mexican type dishes!

Pico de Gallo
2 vine ripen tomatoes, chopped
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
juice of 1 lime
1/2 red onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 jalapeno, chopped (optional)
Chopped salsa vegetables
With all the chopping, this salsa is a bit labor intensive, but it's sooooo worth it! Mix together and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.  Serve with fish tacos, fried tortilla chips, pita chips, over grilled fish, . . . the possibilities are endless!


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Simple White Bean Dip

>>  Wednesday, February 03, 2010

This is so easy, I almost wonder whether I need to put the recipe up.

I was feeling peckish after lunch the other day. I hate eating unbalanced meals. Unfortunately, all I had at home were pasta leftovers from Basta Pasta Cambridge. As much as I love that restaurant, I do wish they were more healthy - or at least balanced.

Anyway, I only allowed myself to eat half of the leftovers, since the dish was like 95% carbs.

Of course it wasn't enough food.

And I was hungry.

But I didn't want to eat MORE carbs! My pants were already a bit tight from the gorging I had done over Christmas in California and also in Las Vegas in the past few weeks.

So I rummaged around the empty cupboard, and found a can of beans.

Beans have protein right? Wouldn't they be considered a "meat"?

In any event, I quickly whipped up this dip and was surprised how flavorful it was! The combination of garlic, lime juice, oregano, salt & pepper combined with the white beans creates a simple, flavorful dip.

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Potato Blinis

>>  Monday, February 01, 2010

Salmon Potato Blini 2

This recipe is a part of the larger recipe, citrus marinated salmon, although you can make the potato blinis on their own and put any topping of your choice!

This recipe is based off of Thomas Keller's recipe for citrus marinated salmon with potato blinis and garden greens, but I was really short on time.  Thomas Keller recommends boiling the potatoes whole (which probably takes like 35-40 minutes!); removing the skins quickly while the potatoes are hot (ouch!); and then pushing the potatoes through a potato ricer or a sieve.

I only had like 20 minutes to prepare this before guests would start arriving, so there was no way I was going to succeed with that recipe.  Instead, I cut up the potatoes into smaller chunks, microwaved them (~7-8 minutes!), mashed them frantically with a fork, and then proceeded to make the blinis.

I'm sure my potato blinis are more "rustic" and textured, which I personally think gives them charm.  I'm sure they are not as smooth and silky as Thomas Keller's version, but I kind of like my blinis sorts of chunky.  And best yet, I was able to finish the blinis in time for my arriving guests!

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Citrus Vinaigrette

Citrus vinaigrette
It's all about the ratios.


That's all you have to remember!

Citrus Vinaigrette
1 part citrus juice (I used a mixture of lemon and lime juice)
1 part white wine vinegar
2 parts olive oil

Shake in a jar until you have an emulsion (temporary mixture of oil and water!) and use the dressing immediately. Add just enough to lightly coat the greens.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.  That's it!

This dressing is part of the larger dish - citrus marinated salmon with potato blinis and garden greens.

 Or , you can make a lovely salad with this dressing.  The possibilities are endless . . . orange slices, almonds, grilled chicken . . really, whatever you fancy.


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