Picture of the day: after the rain

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It has been raining in San Diego for the past few days.  I love rainy days like these when you can curl up on the couch, wrapped in a warm blanket, and immerse yourself in a good book. I snapped these pictures right after the rain stopped. 

Passion Fruit Cheesecake v.3

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cheesecake.  Oh how I miss you!  It has been years since my last attempt at baking one.  The cheesecake landed in the trash and I got a nasty burn on my arm while removing it from the oven.  Since then, I stayed away from cheesecake.  Well… Until a few weeks ago!  I finally found what I was looking for.  A recipe for passion fruit cheesecake!  

My first try turned out quite tasty and garnered compliments from my colleagues at work.  But, I was not satisfied and decided to muck around with the recipe.  I substituted the mascarpone cheese for all of the cream cheese and it turned out too much like a mousse.  The consistency was all wrong!  

So I mucked around some more.  Version 3 resulted in my idea of a perfect cheesecake hence the name for this post.  I could not contain my excitement as I removed it from the springform pan.  The passion fruit pulp gave the cheesecake a beautiful pastel yellow color.  Tasting time! Light. Creamy. Almost like a cloud!   Crunch! Oh wait!  I had forgotten that I used all of the passion fruit pulp including the seeds leaving nothing wasted.  They added a nice texture.  A little surprise for your bite!  If you prefer your cheesecake smooth, make sure you strain the passion fruit pulp.   

The unique flavor of passion fruit shined through.  Passion fruit is very fragrant and blessed with a hint of floral, citrus, and a lightly sweet flavor.  The more I work with passion fruit, the more I fall in love with it.  I was in cheesecake heaven.  Forget about those cheesecakes at Cheesecake Factory and make your own.  Better yet, experience a passion fruit cheesecake!  

Passion Fruit Cheesecake v.3 (adapted from Domain Chandon Cookbook)

For the crust
¾ cup Graham crackers crumb
¼ cup sugar
3 tbsp butter, melted

For the filling
8 oz cream cheese
8 oz mascarpone cheese
1 ½ cup powdered sugar
2 tsps vanilla extract
3 eggs
¾ cup passion fruit pulp
¼ cup sour cream

For the top
1 cup sour cream
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Passion fruit syrup
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 passion fruit pulp

1. Preheat the oven to 325˚F.
2. In a large bowl, combine the crumbs, sugar, and butter and stir until well blended.  The mixture should stick together when squeezed firmly in your hand.
3. Transfer the Graham-cracker mixture to a 9-inch springform pan and press the mixture firmly onto the bottom of the pan.  Bake until golden brown, about 8 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let it cool.
4. For the filling, in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the cream cheese, mascarpone cheese, powdered sugar, and vanilla extract until thick and creamy.  Add the egss, one at a time and continue mixing until the mixture is well blended.
5. Add the passion fruit pulp and continue beating, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Add the sour cream and beat for another 5 minutes.
6. Pour the filling into the springform pan and bake in the oven for 45 minutes.  It might still jiggle a bit.  Let it cool for 10 minutes.
7. For the topping, combine sour cream, sugar, and vanilla extract and beat until the mixture becomes creamy.  Pour the sour cream mixture on top of the filling and bake until the top is firm but still soft to the touch, about 15 minutes. 
8. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and let it cool for 30 minutes.  Transfer the cake to the refrigerator and chill overnight.
9. For the syrup, place the sugar, water, and passion fruit pulp in a saucepan over low-medium heat and boil until the mixture volume is halved or until syrupy, about 20 minutes. 
10. To serve, run the edge of a warm knife along the inside edges of the springform pan.  Remove the cheesecake and top with passion fruit syrup.

Little Italy Mercato

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Have I told you how much I love farmers markets? I LOVE LOVE LOVE farmers markets!!!  Growing up in Vietnam, my mom took me to the market just about every day.  The reason?  Most Vietnamese people are poor and do not own a fridge.  We grew accustomed to cooking with incredibly fresh ingredients, whether it is just butchered meat, fish caught from a nearby river, or locally grown produce so I appreciate the products offered at farmers markets.  Vu and I spent Saturday morning at the Little Italy Mercato.  Spanning 3 blocks, it has just about everything.  Local farms showcase their organic fruits, vegetables, and gorgeous flowers.  Food vendors offer everything from coffee, fresh juice, crepes, French and Greek pastries, pizza, panini, to fresh oysters and sea urchins.  You can also find honey, fresh pasta, tea, chocolate, and other gourmet products.  Two more things that I particularly love about the Little Italy Mercato are local musicians serenading us while we stroll through the market and no restriction on our furry friends coming along.  We cannot wait to bring Betsy next time!  The Little Italy Mercato is definitely the best farmers market in San Diego!  

Gochi Japanese Tapas

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When we visited the bay area last week, Vu’s sister, K, took us to Gochi, a very popular Japanese Tapas restaurant in Cupertino.  For a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was packed.  Hungry customers filled the narrow hallway, and I overheard the hostess refusing to take anymore reservation because they were completely booked.  With a group of seven, we were seated in one of the tatami rooms.  

  The menu was quite extensive but K had been to Gochi a few times so she knew exactly what to order.   

We started off the evening with the hamachi carpaccio.  The garlic-ginger-ponzu sauce complimented the subtle taste of the hamachi, and the fish was very fresh!  

 The crab croquettes came out next.  They were creamy and full of crab meat, definitely no filler there. 

K also ordered the monkfish liver pate.  This was probable my least favorite dish of the night.  It had the texture of pate but was too fishy for my taste.   

On the other hand, the beef tongue was very flavorful and tender.  The meat fell off with a light pull with the fork.  It tasted differently from the thinly sliced beef tongue that you can order at Korean BBQ.  I would recommend this dish if you have not had beef tongue before.  

 The boneless fried chicken with eggplant was delicious even though it reminded me of orange chicken from Panda Express.   

For the stuffed squids, they tasted bland, nothing exciting there.  This was probable my second least favorite dish of the night.   

Being a foie gras fanatic, I had to order the seared Foie Gras sitting on braised daikon.  This dish was surprisingly delicious!  Don't expect the same quality as the foie gras that are served at French restaurants.  

The last two dishes were the highlights of the night—unagi pizza and unagi claypot.  The unagi pizza was out of this world!  The crust was thin and the amount of cheese was just right.   I could have eaten the whole thing myself!  Considering that I am not a pizza fan and usually stop after two slices, this speaks volume.  

 For the unagi clay pot, our server mixed the rice, seaweed, veggie, and unagi for us allowing everyone to have equal portion of everything.  I loved the crunchy rice!  It reminded me of “com chay,” or burnt rice which is very popular in Vietnamese cooking.   

We ended the night on a perfect note with the green tea crème brulee. Very light and creamy!  I am looking forward to attempting this dish one day.  Overall, dinner was very good and I would come back to Gochi if we visit the bay area!

Crab Tower

Friday, November 18, 2011

TGIF!  My schedule has been a bit crazy.  I worked nine days straight, took one day off, and then plowed through seven more days.  Yay for Friday!  I managed to step foot in the kitchen today.  On the menu are crab tower and passion fruit cheesecake.  Crab tower?  You must be wondering.  A crab tower is a crab salad molded into a tower.  My inspiration came from America’s Test Kitchen but I kept my recipe simple.  I used the stone crab that  I had purchased from Catalina Offshore.  It took less than 15 minutes to make, and besides looking elegant, it tasted delicious.  The crab was very fresh and both the mango salsa and avocado heightened its sweetness.  I paired the crab tower with a glass of prosecco.  A perfect light lunch!  I exerted self control and managed to save some for Vu.  According to him, this was the most refreshing salad he has ever had! This would be a wonder appetizer for your dinner party.  As for the passion fruit cheesecake, you have to wait until my next post! 

Crab Tower (adapted from America’s Test Kitchen)

Crabmeat Salad
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp champagne vinegar or white wine
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp mayonnaise
8 oz lump crabmeat 

Mango Salsa
1 ½ cup mango, peeled and diced
1/2 cup tomato, diced
1/4 cup cucumber, diced
2 tbsps diced red onion
2 tbsps lime juice
2 tbsps roughly chopped cilantro leaves
Salt and pepper

Avocado Salsa
1 Hass avocados (ripe), cut into ¼-inch dice
¼ tsp ground coriander
1 tbsp lime juice
Salt and pepper

1. Whisk the olive oil, champagne vinegar or white wine, mustard, and mayonnaise in a small bowl.  Add the crabmeat to the mayonnaise mixture and toss to coat.
2. Combine the mango, tomato, cucumber, red onion, lime juice and cilantro leaves and mix well.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Toss the avocado, coriander, and lime juice in a medium bowl and set aside.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. To assemble, place a 3-inch-wide round biscuit cutter in the center of an individual plate. Press 1/4 cup of the avocado salsa into the bottom of the cutter using the back of a soup spoon. Move the cutter slightly up and press1/4 cup of the crabmeat.  Move the cutter upward and press 1/4 cup of the mango salsa evenly on top of the crabmeat.  Gently lift the cutter up and away from the plate to reveal the crab tower. 
5. Garnish the crab tower with alfalfa sprouts.

Pan Seared Diver Scallops with White Wine Sauce

Friday, November 11, 2011

Seafood.  Lobsters, crabs, scallops, shrimps, oysters, clams, sea urchins… I love them all.  I would go to a buffet and eat plates after plates of seafood but feel full after a few bites of ribeye.  Seafood is a different story.  My friends claim that my stomach has a black hole for seafood.  Just a few days ago, my friend, Amy, introduced me to Catalina Offshore, a San Diego seafood wholesaler, where you can buy sashimi grade fish and shellfish for a reasonable price.  Many restaurants in San Diego get their seafood from Catalina.  You have to order in advance otherwise the good stuff runs out.  I got the U-10 diver scallops and stone crabs, not something that you can buy at your typical grocery store.  The "U" stands for "under," indicating that it would take 10 of these scallops or less to make up a pound.  I browsed through my cookbook collection to find a recipe that would showcase these wonderful scallops but failed miserably.  Most of the recipes were too complicated and required ingredients that were not readily available in my fridge.  In the end, I pan seared them and created a white wine sauce to highlight their subtle taste.  I was very happy with the result!  The scallops were sweet, juicy, and tender!  The key is not to overcook them so they do not turn tough and rubbery.  These scallops were absolutely delightful! 

Pan Seared Diver Scallops with White Wine Sauce

1 pound U-10 diver scallops
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsps unsalted butter
1 large shallot, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbsps chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/4 cup dry white wine
½ tbsp sugar

1. Slice the scallops in half horizontally and score them on one side.  Season with salt and pepper.
2. In a large skillet, heat the butter on high heat until you hear sizzling.  Lower the heat to medium and lay the scallops in a circle clockwise.
3. Pan-fry for 1 minute until golden at the edges, then turn them in the same order that you placed in the skillet and cook for another minute.
4. Remove the scallops from heat while you make the white wine sauce.
5. Add garlic, shallot, and parsley to the skillet and sautee them until soft. 
6. Add the wine and sugar, and cook for 5 minutes.
7. Place the scallops on a plate and drizzle the sauce on top. Serve while the scallops are still hot.

Spiked Passion Fruit Sparkler

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I love lazy weekends, waking up late, trying to stay underneath the warm blanket just a tad longer, and not hurrying anywhere.  Even Betsy, our maltipoo, feels the same.  Work has been hectic for both Vu and I.  We sat on our balcony, enjoying the warmth of the glorious San Diego sun.  Sorry East Coast peeps!  The heat was making our throat a bit parched so I made a spiked version of the passion fruit drink we had in Vietnam.  So simple yet refreshing!  Vu and I enjoyed our drink while reminiscing about our Vietnam trip back in 2009, wondering when we will see the motherland again.  A trip shorter than three or four weeks would not be worthwhile but we cannot afford a vacation that long. There are many regions of Vietnam that we have yet to explored.  Oh well! Until then, we have plenty of memories, pictures, and passion fruit drink.

Spiked Passion Fruit Sparkler

2 cups club soda
2/3 cup vodka (more if you like)
1 cup passion fruit pulp
2/3 cup sugar
2 cups of crushed ice
Mint for garnish

1. Combine the club soda, sugar, and passion fruit together.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
2. Stir in the vodka.  Add ice.
3. Garnish with mint before serving.

Fudgy Chocolate Brownies

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Everything tastes bland when I am sick especially with a diet consisting mainly of soup and congee.  My taste buds are craving for chocolate and lots of it.  

I wanted something quick and simple so I made a batch of brownies.  

These chocolate brownies are dense, fudgy, and full of chocolate goodness.  

If you like your brownies cakey, this is not the recipe.  They taste amazing while still warm and paired with a glass of milk.  

This is the perfect pick-me-up!

Fudgy Chocolate Brownies

1 stick of butter and more for dusting the pan (you can replace this with applesauce for a healthier alternative)
8 oz bittersweet chocolate (I used Ghiradelli)
1 ½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
½ tbsp vanilla extract
¾ cup all purpose flour
¾ cup cocoa powder
½ tsp salt
Powdered sugar for dusting
Fresh raspberries for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
2. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan and line with parchment paper, leaving a 1-inch overhang on two sides.
3. Place the butter and chocolate in a large heatproof bowl set over simmering water.  Stir frequently until the chocolate and butter are melted.
4. Remove the bowl from heat and let it cool for 10 minutes.
5. Stir sugar into the chocolate mixture.
6. Whisk in one egg at a time.
7. Add the vanilla.
8. Shift the cocoa powder, flour, and salt into the chocolate mixture and whisk until everything is well blended.
9. Pour the batter in the pan and bake for 35-45 minutes.  When you insert a toothpick in the center, it should come out clean with only a few moist crumbs sticking to it.
10. Let it cool until the brownie is just a bit warmer than room temperature.
11. Run a knife around the edges of the pan and use the parchment paper to lift the brownie of of the pan.
12. Cut the brownie into the size that you prefer, dust with powdered sugar and garnish with fresh raspberries before serving.

Crab and Ricotta Stuffed Squash Blossoms with Lemon Truffle Vinaigrette

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My dad is an avid gardener and he has grown some of the most amazing red chili peppers, tomatoes, snap peas, pumpkins, squash, pomegranates, dragon fruits, and Vietnamese herbs.  As a little girl, I was fascinated with the squash blossoms from our garden and always wondered what they tasted like.  

When I saw them at the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market this weekend, I was super excited.  Squash blossoms are not utilized in Vietnamese cuisine and I could not find a recipe that I liked after a thorough web search.  After much contemplation, I stuffed them with some of my favorite ingredients—ricotta cheese and crab meat.  They were too fragile to be fried so I baked them in the oven.  I created a vinaigrette using truffle oil and lemon juice and drizzled a generous amount on the plate.  The combination was amazing.  The stuffed squash blossoms tasted fresh, sweet, and delicate.  The vinaigrette brought everything together.  I cannot find the right words to describe this dish.  You have to try it yourself!  

Crab and Ricotta Stuffed Squash Blossoms with Lemon Truffle Vinaigrette

12 squash blossoms (you can substitue zucchini flowers)
½ cup of crab meat
¼ cub of ricotta cheese (more if you like)
Sea salt and pepper
¼ cup of truffle oil
2 tbsps of lemon juice
1 tbsp of olive oil for baking

1. Gently wash the squash blossoms in cold water. Carefully twirl to remove most of the water, then drain thoroughly on paper towels.  Remove the stamen from the male flowers.
2. Combine the crab meat and ricotta cheese.  Season with salt and pepper.
3. Gently open each blossom and spoon in about a tablespoon of filling.
4. Brush a baking dish with olive oil. Place the stuffed squash blossoms in the dish and bake for 15 minutes at 350˚F.
5. For the vinaigrette, whisk the truffle oil and lemon juice together.  Season with salt and pepper.
6. Remove the squash blossoms from the oven and let them cool for 5 minutes.
7. Place them on a plate and drizzle with the vainegrette.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta and Passion Fruit Pulp

Monday, October 10, 2011

It has been a week since I bought passion fruits from the Hillcrest Farmers Market.  I was happy to see the purple skin becoming brittle and wrinkly, which means they are ripe and ready to be eaten.  Passion fruits bring back fond memories of my rotation in Vietnam.  For lunch, I frequented a local restaurant walking distance to the pharmacy school, where I was introduced to passion fruit, or “chanh day,” for the first time in my life.  I still remember my first sip, an intense flavor, both sweet and sour, hitting my taste buds, unmatched by any other fruits.  I would enjoy a bowl of banh canh and a glass of “chanh day” while taking in the crowd, motorcycles zooming by, and the hot, humid weather of Saigon.  

Ever since I came back to the states, I have not been able to find passion fruits until this fall. Passion fruits are only available in early spring through summer so I definitely hit the jackpot.  I was wavering between passion fruit mousse, sorbet, or crème brulee.  In the end I went with something unexpected, panna cotta, an Italian dessert, and used the passion fruit pulp as the topping.  What an amazing combination!  The intense flavor of the passion fruit complimented the lightness and delicate taste of the panna cotta.  The seeds added a wonderful crunch.  It was a perfect dessert to end the weekend. I am looking forward to growing my own passion fruits one day!

Buttermilk Panna Cotta and Passion Fruit Pulp (adapted from Miette)
2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup of sugar
Vanilla bean paste
1 ½ tsp unflavored gelatin powder
2 tbsp warm water
1 cup of butter milk
Fresh passion fruit pulp

1. Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle gelatin over the surface.
2. Combine sugar and cream in a saucepan over medium heat and whisk until the sugar is dissolved.  Add in the vanilla bean paste.
3. Stir in the gelatin until dissolved.
4. Add the buttermilk to the cream mixture and continue whisking.  Allow the mixture to boil for 5 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and strain the mixture into a container.
6. Pour the strained mixture into jars just to the base of the neck and refrigerate for 6 hours or until set.
7. Serve with passion fruit pulp.

A Perfect Sunday for Hillcrest Farmers Market

Monday, October 3, 2011

After years of living in San Diego, Vu and I finally made it to the Hillcrest Farmers Market.  What a hidden gem!  It has an amazing assortment of fruits, produce, flowers, arts and crafts.  Let's not forget the food vendors.  You can find anything from Russian blinis, Thai spring rolls,sambussas, gyros, fish tacos, fresh oysters and sea urchins to gluten free pastries to satisfy your growling stomach.  The sea urchin got my attention!  I have never seen one splitted opened while the spiny halves are still moving.  Unfortunately, they were sold out when I got to the front of the line.  Next time! My disappointment soon dissipated as I moved onto the fruit and vegetable stalls.  Even though summer is over, everything looked fresh and ready to be transformed into an amazing meal.  I was ecstatic to find something I have been searching for a long time--squash blossoms and passion fruits!  I spent a fortune but it was worth every penny.  The Hillcrest Farmers Market has become one of my favorites, among Pike Place Market in Seattle and St. Lawrence Market in Toronto!  It was a perfect way to spend a beautiful Sunday.