Monday, February 28, 2011

Soba

SP's birthday was this past Saturday. In mid-February, SP's Big Burrito Birthday Coupon arrived in the mail. The coupon is just too good to pass up: up to $30 off an entree. With that offer, it's a given that we'll be celebrating our birthdays with a meal at a Big Burrito restaurant. But which one? Usually we opt for Eleven or Casbah. But SP felt like something new - so he chose Soba.

Our reservations were for 5:30 pm on a Sunday. Why so early? We wanted to go to Te Cafe after our dinner since we hadn't been there in quite some time. And, it was a 'work night.'

In a sign of the approaching spring time (which can't get here fast enough for me), we arrived when it was still light out! We were seated right away. I was seated facing the windows:I'm not sure if I like the hanging string kind of look, but... I'm not an interior designer! I prefer to either have a clear view out a window, or no view, not a partially obscured view. To my right was a wall of stones and behind that, off to the right in the photo, is bamboo.It's very dark and cool when you first enter the restaurant, almost as if you're suddenly underground, and there's Asian-y decor (like Buddha figurines, bamboo walls, etc.) and then when you enter the dining room, it's brighter from the windows and you don't feel underground anymore. Off to my left was the waterfall wall. The darkest tiles show where the very light waterfall cascades down the wall. The chairs are chocolate brown, one of my favorite colors, and there are softly glowing orange-ish glass candle holders on the tables.In keeping with the cool, dark, watery/rocky kind of feeling, the chopstick holders are small black rocks. Unfortunately, mine was very round and I could not get my chopsticks to rest atop the rock. I spent a not inconsiderable amount of time attempting to get them balanced on top while reminiscing about my time in Japan and the numerous times I was asked by my junior high students if I could pick up M&M's candies with chopsticks (yes, I could back then).SP's chopstick rock was a much better shape for balancing chopsticks.

I was excited to see a viognier on the wine list. That has quickly become my favorite wine but our liquor store carries only 2 'meh' kinds (or at least that's all I saw when I looked) so I always look for it when we are out. This particular one was from Lodi, which is the same region in which other viogniers I've enjoyed are grown. SP was excited to have some ozeki nigori (unfiltered) sake. I've never much enjoyed sake, but he likes it a lot. It looked a bit like he was drinking milk!

Soba is an Asian fusion place. It features a lot of flavors I do not enjoy. Let me recap some of the flavors/food which I do not enjoy: raw fish, chili, garlic, miso, seaweed, cilantro, tofu, corn, coconut, beans, pineapple, curry. Now take a look at Soba's menu and you'll find that it is not the easiest place for me to find a dish I'll enjoy. The menu is chock full of very friendly SP flavors, and that's why he chose Soba, and it was his birthday, and I try to be a good wife, but I think I would have needed the entire bottle of viognier to choke down anything with tofu or cilantro or coconut while anything with chili or garlic would upset my stomach.

I decided to have a medley of 'small plates' for my dinner. First up, Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes (sweet miso sauce, lemon aioli, seaweed):SP shared this appetizer with me. He ate the seaweed salad and part of one of the crab cakes. I carefully scooped my crab cakes off the sauces. The crab cakes were very crabby. I don't think there was any filler besides some chopped scallions.I did try the sweet miso sauce. There was not a lot of it, and it wasn't overpowering; it tasted OK. The aioli was very tasty, but I didn't scoop it all up because aioli contains garlic.

SP started with an order of Seaweed Salad (Hawaiian seaweed, yuzu-mustard vinaigrette): He certainly got to enjoy a lot of seaweed! He said it was very tasty. Definitely not my thing - I tried enough seaweed during my 2 years in Japan to know that I just don't like the stuff.

For his entree, SP chose Roasted Duck Breast (celeriac, sweet potato, brussels sprouts, confit, arugula, miso duck jus):He really enjoyed the duck. Our server said the chef recommends the duck be cooked medium, and SP agreed that sounded good. It looked to me to be a wee past medium, but then again, I'm not very good with raw-medium-well distinctions. SP ate everything on his plate.

I ordered 2 other 'small plates' to complete my meal. One was Mushroom and Spinach Dumplings (red pepper dipping sauce):These were steamed. The dumpling dough was so tender, not tough or gummy like some dumpling dough. The dumplings and sauce were very, very good. There was a bit of heat to something, maybe the sauce - ? It could also be that one of the tiny, crunchy things inside the dumpling was actually a wee cube of ginger, which can taste kind of spicy/add a kick, for me. We couldn't decided what the crunchy little things were - ginger? Bamboo? I feared for a minute garlic, but after sniffing, I ruled that out!

I also ordered the Pork Dumplings (sweet vinegar dipping sauce):It was an evening of dumplings! The pork dumplings were fried. They were so good! The sweet vinegar dipping sauce was very tasty. I flipped that dried chili thing out right away and happily, it didn't seem to contribute much flavor/spice to the sauce.

For his birthday dessert, SP decided on Blood Orange Panna Cotta (candied kumquats. whipped coconut gelée, ginger-almond tuile):Isn't the candle cute?! Here's a closer view of the dessert:I tried a bite of the panna cotta with a bit of candied kumquat and it was very tasty. Smooth, cool, firm, lots of orange flavor. The tuile was tasty, too. I avoided the coconut and that azuki crud.

Surprise, surprise. I opted for the dessert of chocolate, coffee, and caramel flavors! Chocolate Vietnamese Coffee Torte (dulce de leche cream, chocolate sesame cookie, Vietnamese coffee sherbet):This was very good. I didn't even mind the sesame flavor! Sesame flavor is OK to me, but I was afraid it would ruin an otherwise good cookie. But the sesame taste wasn't as strong as I expect from sesame and in fact, much to my surprise, it really kind of complimented the cookie flavors!

I had dined at Soba before, but that was a very, very long time ago. Like 9+ years ago. I personally would have preferred Eleven or Casbah BUT that is only because of my personal flavor preferences. Asian, Asian fusion, it's not really my thing. SP, who does really like Asian flavors, really enjoyed his meal, and for a different atmosphere and change of pace from our usual, this was quite nice.

As expected and as has always been our experience at a Big Burrito restaurant, the service was very good. We didn't feel rushed. There were no long lapses in between plates of food. It was a really nice birthday dinner! After the birthday coupon, our bill (including tax & tip) was a tad over $100, so it's a special occasion place.

We also were pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a Soba parking lot next to Soba. It is to the left, and it is small, but it helped make parking a little easier since we were expecting to have to park along the street or in a public lot and then walk to the restaurant.

After dinner, we went to Te Cafe and relaxed with some tasty tea. I tried a new kind: pomegranate clementine. It was quite good. SP had a white tea. We also bought some more loose leaf tea since our supplies are dwindling.

Soba on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 25, 2011

Vanilla Pastry Studio

Earlier this week I wrote about being crabby and having the winter blahs. One night, I was sitting in my office, talking on the phone, feeling kinda crabby, and gazing out the window. All of a sudden, I heard THUNK behind me.

I barely reacted. All I could do was sigh heavily, shut my eyes, and think, oh great, what now? What fell? And then I realized, well, what could possibly fall? We moved the extra bed out of my office in January so that we could put a project table in my office. The table is loaded with boxes of photos, but nothing that could fall. It wasn't a photo frame. Not a lamp. So, after a few minutes, working up the 'courage' to see what had happened, I finally swiveled around. And saw this:And I burst out laughing. That, dear readers, is a stuffed animal. Specifically, a stuffed beaver. Who the heck has a stuffed beaver? Me. I attended an elementary school whose mascot was Bradford Beaver. One day, during one of my many eye exams when I was in 1st or 2nd grade, we were at yet another hospital (Children's maybe, maybe Eye & Ear Hospital) and 'wasting' time in the gift shop. My mom & I saw this stuffed beaver. Mom told me it was Bradford and if I was a good girl and didn't freak out when they put drops in my eyes and examined them for the umpteenth time, she'd buy me Bradford Beaver. I said OK. I think I really wanted a stuffed frog or teddy bear, but the way my parents raised me, if you were offered a stuffed beaver, you gratefully took it, you didn't plead for the frog instead.

And that is how I ended up with Bradford Beaver, who is 30 something years old now.

Two of our three bedrooms have a shelf running along the top of one wall. In his office, SP uses his shelf to display his amusement park mug collection. I decided to put my stuffed animals on my shelf. My Raggedy Ann from when I was a little girl, one of my grandmother's teddy bears I got when she died, my Mickey & Minnie from my 2 trips to Disney, and several others. Including Bradford Beaver. He fell from quite a height:Poor guy. I guess he can't take the winter anymore, either. I figure he either tried to commit suicide, the stink bugs are getting really aggressive, or Eddie the Cat got mad at him and pushed him off. The end result: Bradford did a face plant into the floor.

And it cracked me up. For some reason, I thought it was so funny to see him planted face down on the floor. Bradford and my laughing snapped me out of my crabby funk.

Good news: Bradford survived. I hugged him and made sure he was OK. No burst seams or stuffing spills. SP put him back up on the shelf.And then I went in the kitchen to eat a cupcake! The cupcake might have helped improve my mood, too. SP decided I needed a special treat, so he brought home a cupcake from Vanilla Pastry Studio. A chocolate-chocolate cupcake.
Oh. My. This cupcake was so moist. The icing so wonderfully rich and chocolaty. This blows away the Dozen cupcakes. Soooo good.Of course now SP has created a monster. I've been pestering him about when I'm going to get my next Vanilla Pastry Studio cupcake. I highly recommend trying one, if you haven't yet.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Double Ginger Sour Cream Bundt Cake

It's time again - time for me to bake a cake all by myself! I used to bake by myself all the time, and cook all by myself, but since the start of life in the wheelchair, I find I need a lot more help. My solo kitchen efforts are definitely 'easy' dishes and usually, SP helps me with a bit of prep before he heads out in the morning. The exception is SP's birthday cake. He does not get to help at all. It's supposed to be a surprise. Step 1, as soon as he leaves for work, gather all the ingredients:And there's some not in that photo -- like the strawberries -- and the flour/sugar were already measured and in the metal bowls.

Our first year living together, I made him a carrot cake with cream cheese icing. In addition to peeling and grating all the carrots, the recipe used 4-5 spices. It took me a long time to gather/measure/make and I made quite the mess that I then had to clean up myself! The ingredients were staples in our pantry plus the carrots (I simply told him to add carrots to the grocery list because I wanted cooked carrots for the dinner veggie) and the cream cheese (of which we had lots leftover from holiday baking and then a Super Bowl dip). It was a total surprise when he got home from work that evening and saw his cake on the table.

Last year was the lemon cake with lemon curd and lemon icing fiasco. That was an easy surprise, too, because we always have lemons and the other ingredients were pantry staples.

This year, it was tough to surprise him.I kept wanting to make cake recipes with 'special' ingredients. I kind of think a birthday cake should be a layer cake so my first choice was the Chocolate Stout Cake. But I couldn't figure out how to sneakily get the chocolate stout. Since I no longer drive, I couldn't just go buy it myself. I don't drink beer, so I couldn't be all, hey, I want to try some chocolate stout this week, can you grab some at the store? I already know that the chocolate stout 6 packs sold at Market District are sold cold, so it would have to stay refrigerated (the recipe uses 1 bottle, so a whole case seems extreme, if they even sell chocolate stout by the case). A 6 pack of chocolate stout in the refrigerator would be noticed, no matter how much I tried to pile stuff in front of it! I could ask a friend to buy it and keep it for me, but they probably couldn't bring it over on the day of baking after SP left for work (he can set his own hours and usually goes in late enough to avoid the worst of rush hour) but in time for me to bake before SP got home. So I abandoned that idea and we made the Chocolate Stout Cake for the Super Bowl.I decided to bake Double Ginger Sour Cream Bundt Cake with Ginger Infused Strawberries. It's from the April 2009 issue of Bon Appetit. It's a bundt cake, which somehow seems un-birthday-cake like to me, but a bundt cake would save me from layers falling off one another and SP really likes ginger.Of course I needed sour cream, fresh ginger, and strawberries. Not staples in our house. I couldn't figure out how to add them to the grocery list but make it look like they were dinner ingredients. So I just put them on the list. And when he asked why, I said, oh, none of your business. Like that didn't send up any red flags.I was happy it used a 1/2 cup of raw sugar/demerra sugar/turbinado sugar since we bought a huge box at Christmas time for just one recipe - and that recipe called for maybe 2 tablespoons of the sugar! The raw sugar is used in place of flour for 'greasing & flouring' the bundt pan. I thought I did a pretty good job coating the pan with the sugar.The most annoying part of this cake was chopping the crystallized ginger.This was my first time actually chopping crystallized ginger. Usually, SP chops it when we make the Triple Ginger Cookies. I think I will leave all future crystallized ginger chopping to him. Did I mention it was the most annoying part of this cake?!Somehow, the stuff manages to be softish yet still difficult to cut through. It's sticky. It's more fibrous-y than I expected. It took me a long time, I agonized over exactly how small to chop it, and I got frustrated with the stickiness and chopping difficulty.

Happily, making the cake was pretty straight forward, so there's no photos of that. The hardest part, aside from chopping the crystallized ginger, is separating an egg, but I've become pretty good at that.

After I put the cake in the oven to bake, I made the ginger syrup.I had fun using a very sharp knife to very thinly slice the fresh ginger.It's just like when we make simple syrup for iced tea, only ginger infused and the ratio of sugar to water wasn't 1:1.I loaded all my messy bowls and utensils into the dishwasher while the cake finished baking and the syrup boiled. I don't usually toss measuring cups in the dishwasher, but in a sign of just how blah I've been feeling, EVERYTHING went in the dishwasher. Even the bowls that just had flour or sugar in them. Only the extra special/extra sharp knife got washed by hand.

It's always a happy cake day when the cake easily slides out of the bundt pan:Look - no sugar! And very little cake residue.But where were the pretty sugar crystals that were supposed to sparkle on my cake? It was bald!It's supposed to look like this:I was annoyed. Was I destined to have another birthday cake fail? I wasn't super surprised - I had been wondering how exactly the sugar would not melt and not be absorbed into the cake. The sugar was between the moist/melty smeared butter and the moist, wet batter. So I threw caution to the wind. I grabbed the box of raw sugar, poured some into my hand, and started trying to press it onto the cake.It worked OK. I got a lot of sugar all over myself and the kitchen, which was annoying. But at least the cake looked kind of sparkly. Of course my preoccupation with having a sparkly cake meant I neglected the boiling of the syrup and 'reduce to scant 1 cup' turned into 'reduced to scant 2/3 cup.'Whoops. For this syrup, the ginger slices stay in the syrup while it cools. They are not strained out until you're ready to pour the syrup onto the strawberries.After the ginger slices were strained out, I was left with a 'scant 1/2 cup' of syrup. Oops. So I used a bit over 4 cups sliced strawberries instead of 8 cups. I also quartered the berries instead of halving them. I don't have a huge mouth so I don't like trying to fit large chunks of food in it! It's much more manageable to me if the berry is quartered.SP was surprised when he got home. For one thing, he didn't know which day I was going to bake. Plus, he didn't know the exact cake I was going to make, just that it somehow involved fresh ginger & strawberries.The strawberries really complement the cake. I would not make the cake and omit the strawberries. The cake is deliciously gingery. If you don't like ginger, you won't like this cake! The cake crust was quite nice and the interior was moist. We both really liked it.

I'm happy that this year, his birthday cake looked as good as it tasted. I definitely wanted to redeem myself after last year! And I think I succeeded -- SP had 2 helpings of dessert last night!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Crabby

Crabby. That's what I've been the past few days, Avoiding the blog. Not really wanting to do anything. And certainly not dealing with anything - just letting things go. Crabby & frustrated & just... really crabby. I think SP might be having late meetings at work on purpose... or maybe he's just saying that...?!!

We haven't done any exciting food things lately. This past weekend, after our hair appointments, we had a quick lunch at Panera (our usual: asiago cheese bagel with plain cream cheese for me; whole wheat with vegetable cream cheese for him).

We also went to SP's birthday dinner with his family. He chose Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon. I ordered the same pizza we had last time (prosciutto & arugula). SP had a very tasty chicken piccata. His dad really enjoyed a veal dish. Z had some gnocchi, Googer had a seafood filled pasta, ZF had spaghetti & meatballs, and SP's mom had an eggplant dish.

I didn't take any photos - partly because the place was crowded and my purse was wedged under the table and I didn't feel like trying to pull out my camera and partly because it was my first time seeing SP's mom since she moved back to Pittsburgh. Since she finds fault with pretty much everything about me, I didn't feel like adding fuel to the fire. "Can you believe she took photos of food in the restaurant? A food blog? Why the heck does she do that?" At least that's how I imagine she'd react.

Sunday we made the Lamb & Eggplant Moussaka that we made in January 2010. I can't believe it's been over a year since we made it because it's so darn tasty! It just didn't seem like it was worth a new post since I took lots of photos last time.Then there's the weather. Hard to believe that last week there were a couple of 60 degree days.Monday we planned to go out to dinner and use SP's Big Burrito Birthday Coupon, but if you live in Pittsburgh, you know what this past Monday was like. Monday's newspaper said 'little to no snow accumulation.' Just in case you can't see it in the above photo:Ha. Here in Robinson we got 8+ inches of snow. The ice pellets starting pinging off the windows at 2 pm. And then the snow started around 3:30 pm. And the grass and walkway and driveway were completely covered by 5 pm. So we cancelled our reservation and re-scheduled for next weekend. Monday's dinner? A frozen pizza for me and a frozen quesadilla for SP. With a side of this:Between his mom's return to town and the ensuing chaos/drama/vitriol against us plus the stress of starting a new job plus the stress of the upcoming home improvement projects, SP's stomach is in turmoil and he suspects his ulcer is making a comeback. So he stopped at Costco one night and stocked up on medicine.

We didn't even bake anything this past weekend. My dessert this week has been chocolate whoopie pies from the Giant Eagle Market District bakery.

While I am busy being crabby, I am also obsessing over 'Project New Flooring' and the assorted additional home improvements. As in freaking out over the cost, can we afford it, should we afford it, is this a wise decision, why the heck does this cost so much, maybe we should just move. I'm 99.9% sure I'm driving SP crazy with my obsessing over this project. I'm driving myself insane with it - -it's even invading my dreams. I need to just decide and then go with it and not second guess myself or worry. Easier said than done.

So that's what's going on - or rather, not going on - in our kitchen recently.

I am planning to bake SP a birthday cake all by myself later this week, so stay tuned for that, and we have reservations for Sunday at a Big Burrito restaurant neither of us has been to in 4+ years, so that's exciting. And plans for a Saturday dinner out.

Hopefully, the snow will be gone by this coming weekend. It took SP 2 hours to shovel the driveway this morning. Fun. He didn't bother with the walkway yet. I know I live in Pittsburgh and it's winter and Pittsburgh gets snow in winter, but when I moved back here out of necessity (I had just finished grad school and had no money and my only option for free housing was with family in Pittsburgh), my health issues were not as bad as they are now. I am really affected by cold temperatures and of course, the wheelchair does not roll through snow! It was in January 2002 and February 2004 - winter time - that I had the most significant declines in my health situation (broken hip and then broken femur). By February, I'm always feeling very beaten down and weakened by winter, so I start to get a little... crabby when the snow and cold keep on coming. I know, I could move south (but I hate humidity) or west (where they're going to run out of water and there's not much green and it's super hot & dry) but... Pittsburgh is where I grew up, where I returned to after 7 years away, and where SP & I have made a life together. Neither of us really wants to move away (though it is occasionally discussed) and we do love this city and everything it has to offer.

Hopefully I'll pull out of my crabby funk soon and start tackling some new and exciting dishes in the kitchen and planning some trips to 'new to us' restaurants!!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chocolate Souffle

Last Valentine's Day, SP made me chocolate souffle for dessert. It was really good and we often talked about making it again but never did. Until this past Valentine's Day. I guess maybe we're starting a Valentine's dessert tradition? Same recipe, same chocolaty goodness as last year. This time they puffed up more in the ramekins and spilled over the sides and then collapsed a bit more. But still yummy.