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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cooking: Got Old Bananas? It's Banana Nut Muffin Time!

You know when you buy a big bunch of bananas and by the end of the week, they're looking way too black to make you want to eat them? When that happens, I either peel them and stick them in the freezer to make smoothies later, or make banana muffins!

I used to make a whole loaf of banana bread, but let's face it. It's a pain to have to slice them every time (I know. Woe is me). So I now use my trusty muffin pan and I love how those little paper cups fit right in and make my muffins look oh-so professional -- except they taste home-made!
My go-to recipe is, of course, Tyler Florence's, except I substituted vegetable oil for butter and it came out just as moist and delicious.

I love the texture of pecans to the muffins and the banana flavors are all nicely blended into the mix, with a hint of sugar, which I substituted with agave and reduced the amount too. It doesn't need a whole lot of sweetness as it's already fairly sweet.

I didn't have a lot of batter so the muffins were a tad guilt-free -- and muffin-top-free in more ways than one. I'm not a baker by any stretch, but these babies are super easy to make and will hold you over those busy mornings you run out of the house to go to work. Great while driving!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wando Fish BBQ Restaurant: Excellent Fish, Kimchi and Pickled Garlic

Barbecue joints serving ribs or pork belly may reign supreme on the streets of Koreatown, but tucked away in a nondescript mini-mall is a rare establishment where the flame touches only seafood – grilled, braised or simmered into a spicy stew.

Wando Fish BBQ Restaurant has just 11 tables and could easily be missed if it weren’t for the smoky aroma tickling your nose from the main strip on Western Avenue. The restaurant’s traditional grilling method using charcoal instead of gas gives its dishes their enticingly smoky flavor and charred skin that keeps the mostly Korean clientele coming back for more.

Wando refers to a port city that is one of South Korea’s biggest Meccas for seafood and hometown of restaurant owner Chang Ryul “Bulldog” Oh. As a former professional boxer back in the day, Oh often loaded up on lean protein from the day’s catch that his mother would expertly prepare. “I’ve always been more of a seafood guy than a meat guy,” he says. Hence his restaurant’s singular emphasis on seafood was born. He is also obsessive about his ingredients, shopping at the markets himself at the crack of dawn six days a week.

The menu offers items that are staples at most Korean households’ dinner tables, such as grilled fish, whose selection alone number more than 13. The charcoal-grilled mackerel comes sizzling on a hotplate topped with minced green onions and a lemon wedge on the side -- lightly salted and reveling in its own natural oils to perfect juiciness and crispy edges.

For heartier fare, the braised sable fish (among 16 kinds offered) is laden with soft daikon radish and tofu chunks that have absorbed all the red-hot, garlicky, spicy and sweet sauce after simmering in it for hours. The sauce is made from a broth that includes dried baby anchovy, onion, daikon radish, green onion, dashi, ginger, bonito flakes and surprisingly, pineapple. The broth has refreshing notes of radish and bare hints of sweetness and tartness.

All the soups and fish stews are made from that broth and the depth of flavors attests to the attention and care put into it. The cod fish stew is a cornucopia of vegetables such as daikon radish, green onion, bean sprout, enoki mushroom and tofu dotted with thin slices of bone-in cod fillets. The Korean word for the stew, Mae Woon Tang, as listed on the menu, translates literally to “spicy soup,” so those ordering this should be prepared to sweat profusely and take intermittent digs into the bowl of burgundy-hued rice – the color a result of white rice peppered with black rice -- and peas that is at once mild and nutty like rice that has formed a brown crust on the bottom.

The squid japchae (only found on the Korean-language menu) is a winning, feistier cousin of the classic glass noodle dish stir-fried with soy sauce and sesame oil with carrot, green chili pepper and green onion, replacing the standard beef strips with squid to chewy effect. This japchae is best washed down with a drink, as it packs a punch from an addition of Korean red pepper paste, or kochujang, which the original japchae lacks.

An added uniqueness to this four-year-old establishment is that all orders come with a starter salad of greens, pineapple, strawberries and blackberries, smothered with a mango-pineapple dressing that is sweet and sour.

In many Korean restaurants, the quality of the banchan, or side dishes, is sometimes more important to patrons than the house specialty itself. Wando’s banchan are varied, fresh and at any given time feature at least four kinds of kimchi, the fiery and garlicky national dish of fermented everything: from napa cabbage to radish. Standouts include moogeunji, a type of napa cabbage kimchi that is aged for longer than the normal fermentation of a few days between the making and consuming of kimchi. Despite a longer fermentation period, the kimchi is crisp and isn’t pungent in a way that says the kimchi has seen better days – ideal as an accompaniment to milder dishes or a base for kimchi stew.

Another must-have is the garlic jjang-ajji, raw garlic that has been pickled in a mix of soy sauce, vinegar and water for 17 months until each clove has sucked up the liquid, taken on a darker tone and transformed into priceless gems. Bite into these extra-crunchy suckers that are salty, tangy and decidedly subtle in their pungent garlic flavor, and you’re hooked. Thankfully, pickled garlic mutes any lingering smell in your mouth, so proceed with confidence.

At the end of the meal, patrons can carry out a box of fresh mangos, blackberries or bell peppers that the owner will place by their tables as a token of his appreciation. Not sure what to do with 30 bell peppers? Maybe it’s time to do some pickling. I made blackberry jam for the first time thanks to boxes he gave me when I went one time.

Price: Grilled fish $8.99 to $19.99; braised fish $16.99 to $23.99; fish stews $8.99 to $15.99 (most dishes feed two or more); noodle dishes $8.99 to $12.99.

Best dishes: Grilled mackerel (Go Deung Uh Goo Ee), braised sable fish (Eun Dae Goo Jorim), squid chapjae (in Korean menu only) and cod fish stew (Dae Goo Mae Woon Tang). Also, extra-fermented kimchi and pickled garlic that are complimentary.

Details: Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Lunch specials are Mondays through Fridays until 3 p.m.). Beer, soju, traditional Korean liquors. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cooking: What To Eat On a Hot Day -- Korean-Style Sashimi Bowl

One of my favorite easy, simple and healthy meals when temperatures rise outside is hoedupbab, which is similar to a sashimi bowl (rice topped with sashimi) but with a Korean twist, aka spice.

I like to use tuna sashimi that's usually purchased from a Korean or Japanese market. I make some rice (I do regular white or brown rice when I'm feeling extra healthy). Then I top the rice and chopped sashimi with some sliced cucumbers and thinly sliced perilla leaves. Red leaf lettuce and another type of aromatic green often used in Korean cooking, sootkat, are optional.

The key is the sauce. Depending on your tolerance for spice, mix about one tablespoon of Korean red pepper paste (kochujang) with about 1/2 a tablespoon of rice vinegar, 1/2 a tablespoon of sesame oil, 1 teaspoon of sesame seeds (ideally toasted but not necessary) and a tablespoon of agave for sweetness. It should be the consistency of maple syrup.

Then work your arm muscles to mix, mix and mix evenly.

Here's a sample of what it looks like before and after you mix it up.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Congregration Ale House in LBC: Great Beer Selection and Juicy Burger

As many of you know, I love burgers. So when I perused the menu at this beer heaven, Congregation Ale House in Long Beach, it was a no-brainer. It was called a grilled rib-eye and cheddar burger. I confess my expectations weren't super high, only because I've been disappointed at other pubs many times before (York comes to mind. Village Idiot may be an exception).

This burger was very good. The patty was cooked medium rare just the way I like it -- slightly bloody but charred on the edges from the grilling. The works, including roasted tomatoes, grilled onions, arugula mixed greens and rosemary garlic mayo (although couldn't taste the garlic much), all blended together well. The bun was a ciabatta-type bread, which was not bad but I guess I just prefer a brioche bun with my burger.

The fries, both potatoes and sweet potato fries, were crispy, a bit on the oily side, but ok. I didn't love the dips they came with but maybe I should just try other ones as it offers a wide variety.

Speaking of variety, the beer selection is awesome. I, of course, had an IPA with my burger and the name escapes me. But part of the fun is trying new kinds of beer. The world is your oyster. Our group tried everything from a chocolate-flavored stout (sounds better than it tastes) and some pale ales that were very refreshing, to a "beer sangria" that mixed different kinds of beer to interesting results.

It got a bit hectic and crowded on a Friday night but worth a visit if you're a beer (and burger) person.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cooking: Who Needs Fries When You Have These?

I confess I'm a hopeless fries fiend. But there was a problem. Actually two problems. One, fries were too fatty. Duh. I knew that. But I needed a good substitute that were just as satisfying. Two, frying at home sucks. Truly. Plus, they never come out quite as crispy as at restaurants, most likely because restaurants may use lard or because they fry the potatoes like three times. Which goes back to the fat problem.

Anyhow, I tried making baked potato wedges a year or two ago and I haven't looked back since -- at least at home. I still order fries (a lot) when I go out, but when I'm home, these babies do the trick for me. And the recipe is ridiculously simple.

Preheat oven to 400-425 degrees depending on the strength of your oven. I use Idaho potatoes as they work well for baking. Peel skin off, cut them in half lengthwise. Place the flat part on the bottom and cut them into six wedges. Repeat with the other half. Place wedges in a bowl and toss with some salt, pepper and olive oil. Lay them out on a baking pan and bake for about 15 minutes. Try lifting the wedges to see if they're browned or toasted and flip them so they're browned evenly, for about another 10-15 minutes. Make sure you check on the oven frequently so they don't burn.

Potatoes must cool off a bit before biting into them as they are piping hot. One thing is these don't heat up well, meaning you "inevitably" have to consume them all in one sitting.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wa Sushi & Bistro: Sea Urchin + Truffle Oil = Oishii

I must say I was suspicious of a sushi place that called itself Wa Sushi & Bistro. Bistro? Does that mean the menu will feature weird concoctions that veer far away from the purist sushi that I love and cherish? But it is in my 'hood so we decided to try it (and also contribute to the environment by walking).

The short-end of it is that the sushi was way overpriced for what it was. Some of the sushi was not bad, but the price tags weren't justified by the quality of the fish.

The biggest and perhaps sole revelation was having uni (sea urchin) sushi drizzled with truffle oil, which gave it a very interesting flavor combo that worked very well. At first glance, I didn't like the uni didn't come wrapped in seaweed like most of the other sushi joints.

There's something to be said for the texture mix of crunchy seaweed, warm rice topped with the creamiest and buttery uni. But I didn't get this here. It was a "naked" sushi, with no seaweed. As I was about to eat it, I realized it had an interesting aroma and realized it was truffle oil. This place, I must say, is a tad truffle oil-happy. With uni, at least, it worked. But more on that later.

The other sushi, including toro (fatty tuna), hamachi (yellowtail), albacore tuna and scallop were average to above average. The fish ok but my biggest beef with them was the craftsmanship. Yes, it does make a difference to get your sushi from a master or not. Sure, quality and freshness of the fish matter, but what if the freshest, best quality fish weren't cut properly and placed on top of some rice? It really alters the experience dramatically. At Wa, the fish was this big blob of an anemic rectangular-shaped thing that just didn't easily sit atop the rice. Some might say they like that because it's more bang for their buck, but it was truly cumbersome to eat (not easily pop-able in one morsel) and even when you're chewing it, it was a hassle.

The other one I liked was the sweet shrimp, which was very fresh and unlike the others, its size wasn't overwhelmingly massive as the other sushi. Actually, it was one shrimp turned into two pieces of sushi and two fishheads that were promptly fried and disappeared into our mouths. The shrimp flesh was sweet indeed and soft in texture. Truly a winner.

The one I had the biggest problem with was the fatty tuna sashimi pieces drizzled in truffle oil. Perhaps it was the fact that message boards raved about how amazing this dish was. But unlike the sea urchin, tuna, especially raw fatty tuna (what a waste!), was so clashing with the truffle oil that had such a potent smell and flavor that it not only overpowered the delicate sashimi but also didn't mesh with the tuna flavor at all.

The little red peppercorns didn't add much to the mix. All in all, not a good match but somehow got rave reviews. Perhaps all a matter of preference. It just didn't taste good to me.

I truly believe that such prized parts of the tuna such as fatty tuna should be consumed as they are. All manner of sauces and oils just distract from the essence of the truly amazing flavor of the fish.

You already know how I feel about fatty tuna, especially at a place like Hiko. Forget about it. It's my favorite sushi by far.

I lament that this tuna was not as good as Hiko and it also somewhat corrupted the purity of the fish by mangling it with truffle oil and other stuff that didn't enhance, in my opinion.

Not sure I'll be returning, when I know I could get far better sushi nearby at Jinpachi or drive farther to my trusty Hiko, which someone I know recently went on my recommendation and now can't get enough of it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cooking Udon at Home: Easy and Delicious

I've never been a big fan of udon, but one recent cold, rainy day, I decided to try making it at home. I'm so glad I did because it was really good, if I may say so myself. And it was easy.

All you need are konbu (dried kelp) and bonito flakes to make the broth. Add some chicken, shitake mushrooms, carrots, spinach and green onions and crack an egg at the end. You should also add some soy sauce, miri and salt to the broth for more flavor. And the udon noodles, of course.

The end result is a healthy bowl of udon with a ton of vegetables and delicious broth. Do you have a favorite udon recipe? I got mine from an old book called Japanese Cooking for Health and Fitness by Kiyoko Konishi.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Olio Pizzeria & Cafe: Good Neighborhood Pizza Joint

It's always nice to find a cute little neighborhood joint that serves decent pizza with fresh-made fruit juices. Olio Pizzeria & Cafe is that kind of place, almost invisible in the corner of Third and Crescent Heights. The place is pretty tiny, although seemingly child-friendly with a few bar seats and about five tables. We went there for a late lunch (or early dinner) around 5pm and found it fairly empty.

It makes fresh sodas and both the tangelo one and lemonade were very good -- refreshing and not too sweet.

We got a half Margherita and half pizza that had prosciutto, Swiss chard, cherry tomatoes and Parmesan cheese (it's usually served with Italian sausage but they had run out, which was better for me since I don't like Italian sausage much).

The Margherita was pretty good. The crust was crispy, charred well and chewy and substantial at the same time. I usually leave the crust out when eating pizza, but I readily ate all the crusts because they were tasty, like eating bread.

The other half was a bit too busy for my taste. Too much going on with the prosciutto cubes, greens and a ton of cherry tomatoes. I liked the combo of salty prosciutto with slightly bitter greens with sweetness of tomatoes, but just too many toppings was overwhelming. Think they should use toppings in moderation.

We started with a greens salad that had a very interesting mix of roasted apples and walnuts with a light dressing. The greens were good, but the roasted apple was my favorite part. A nice and different touch you don't see much in other salads. I'd seen raw apples in goat cheese, beet-like salads but rarely roasted. It helps because I've found myself developing an allergy to raw apples, which makes me really sad but just have to cope with it, I guess. Sigh.

Service was good. Parking is street parking. Think this is the kind of place that's going to get crowded during peak hours very soon. It also has a Santa Barbara location.