Monday, August 29, 2011

End all, be all banana bread

It's not like I haven't made banana bread before—and I've tried my hand, too, at a unique Vietnamese (or Japanese) banana cake. But now that I've found this recipe, I'm not sure I'll ever go to a different one.

Not only does it bake up a wonderfully moist loaf of banana bread, the recipe is based on ingredients that I usually have on hand: oil, flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, vanilla extract. As long as I have bananas and enough eggs—and typically I do—I can whip up a loaf or two without having to leave the house. The only tricky ingredient is the crème fraîche, but I've subbed in plain yogurt, vanilla yogurt, or milk on different occasions and the banana bread still bakes up beautifully. Taking after my dad, I usually cut down the amount of sugar in the recipe, and a few extra bananas never seems to hurt the loaves any, either.
Instead of walnuts, I've been adding in toffee bits that I purchased from Vern's Toffee before I left Fort Collins. The broken almond toffee kind of melts into the crumb, lending an overall richness and nuttiness to the banana bread rather than asserting itself in large chunks. The bits make a fine topping for muffins, too.

Banana Bread
adapted from Flour Bakery
yields 2 loaves or 24 medium-sized muffins

    3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    4 large eggs at room temperature for 30 minutes
    2 1/3 cups sugar [I typically cut this down to 1 3/4 cups]
    1 cup vegetable oil [I typically cut this down to 3/4 cup]
    3 cups coarsely mashed very ripe bananas [6 large, or more]
    1/4 cup crème fraîche [I sub in plain yogurt; if using sweetened vanilla yogurt, I cut down the sugar by another few teaspoons]
    2 teaspoons vanilla
    1 1/3 cups walnuts (4 ounces), toasted and chopped [or, 1 1/2 cups toffee bits, chocolate chips, etc.]

    Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour 2 (9- by 5- by 3-inch) metal loaf pans, or line several muffin tins with paper liners.

    Sift together 3 1/4 cups flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt into a bowl.

    Beat together eggs and sugar in bowl of electric mixer at medium-high speed until very thick and pale and mixture forms a ribbon when beater is lifted, about 10 minutes. Reduce speed to low and add oil in a slow stream, mixing, then mix in bananas, crème fraîche or yogurt, and vanilla. Remove bowl from mixer and fold in flour mixture and walnuts, toffee bits, or chocolate chips gently but thoroughly.

    Divide batter between loaf pans, spreading evenly, and bake in middle of oven until golden brown and a wooden pick or skewer comes out clean, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. If baking as muffins, bake about 15–20 minutes.

    Cool loaves (or muffins) in pans on a rack 10 minutes, then turn out onto rack. Turn right side up and cool completely.

    Friday, August 26, 2011

    Virtuous burgers at Larkburger

    Occasionally, I have a good meal at a restaurant but find that I never visit again. It's rarely a conscious choice, in that nothing turned me off—not bad service, not bad food, and not bad atmosphere, either. Usually everything is just fine…except maybe that nothing really turned me on, either.
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    That's where I am with Larkburger. Don't get me wrong, it's good stuff. When I went with MC for lunch at the Fort Collins location, the lightly seared tuna filet in my tuna burger was cooked perfectly, and complemented nicely by a toasted soft bun, fresh veggies, and a creamy wasabi-ginger sauce. MC liked her turkey burger. And we both dug the addictive thin-cut fries showered in truffle oil, parsley, and grated Parmesan cheese, which called to mind the ones I enjoyed at Big Al's Burger's and Dogs.
    Still, there was something that seemed to fall flat. Maybe it was the emptiness of the place when we went, or the slightly higher price tags on the menu, or the overly sterile-feeling atmosphere—but none of that really mattered, either. It didn't hit me until I read this quote about Larkburger from Sunset Magazine: "At last, a burger joint that makes you feel virtuous." You know what? If I'm eating a burger, I don't want to feel virtuous. Chances are that if I'm going out to get a burger, I want a big, greasy, sloppy one, and I want my fries hearty instead of dainty, my meal down-home instead of gourmet. Larkburger is a great option for a healthier fast food…I guess I just don't crave a healthy burger.

    Korean style meat coma: Q Table BBQ Buffet

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    Got twenty bucks? Q Table BBQ Buffet in Northglenn, CO will trade you for unlimited access to assorted Korean banchan and main dishes, sushi rolls, and as much marinated beef, pork, squid, and chicken as you can grill and stuff in your gullet. ES and I were there after overhearing a server at Al Bae Nae mention their restaurant's affiliation with the place; always game for a new Asian restaurant, we took ES's parents with us to check it out. As with any buffet the key here is quantity, but the quality wasn't bad either…just be prepared for your clothes and hair to smell like grilled meat for hours afterward. But such is the sacrifice for all Korean BBQ, right?

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Now covering the 303!

    With a new zip code comes a new column. In the past few months I graduated from my MFA program and moved from Fort Collins to Denver—leaving behind restaurant reviewing for The Coloradoan, but taking on happy hours, dining, and food events for 303 Magazine's blog. Check out my first two posts, below, and if you want even more Salty / Savory / Sweet, be sure to subscribe to the Facebook page!
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    Fork It: The Über Sausage: "While Denver isn’t new to gourmet hot dogs, the recently opened spot The Über Sausage is bringing a new perspective to the table.…"
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    Happiest Hour: The 9th Door: "Enter The 9th Door’s darkened lounge, complete with flickering candles, lush red sofas, and sultry music in the background, and even the most stoic won’t be able to help but feel a tingle.…"

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    China Taipei, bringing home to the table

    In America, Taiwanese food isn't always easy to come by. Even a large city like New York has just about a handful of restaurants specializing in the cuisine, and not all of them are the best that they can be.
    So it was a great delight to discover China Taipei, a restaurant in Centennial, CO serving up reasonably authentic versions of some of my favorite Taiwanese dishes. Drunken chicken—chopped wings and drumsticks steamed with scallions and ginger and then marinated in wine—was tasty and flavorful,
    and so was ES's bowl of rou gen mien (pictured also at top), featuring thick wheat noodles and slivers of pork and bamboo shoots in a thick, savory broth.
    But it was the lu rou fan that really won China Taipei my unadulterated love. The mix of ground pork and chopped mushrooms had a meaty, deeply layered flavor and its rich juices soaked into the mound of rice below; the soy sauce egg was tender and perfectly marinated. The whole thing was a far cry from the version that had accompanied my fried pork chop at Tao Tao Noodle Bar. While it might be cliche to describe a dish as comfort food, I found each bite deeply soothing, homey, and familiar—and if that's not comfort food, I just don't know what is.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011

    New heights at New Saigon

    Early on, around when ES and I were first getting to know each other, he took me to have Vietnamese food in Denver. I'd been eating phở and bún at restaurants in New York City for years—plus similar meals in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—but when I sat down with ES and his friends at New Saigon, they steered me away from the standards and deep into strange new territory.

    I haven't looked back since.
    So with my parents in town, I knew that a meal at New Saigon was definitely on the list. I wanted to share with them 1) the insane and amazing "salad" I'd been ordering every time since, a hefty pile of shrimp, pork, squid, snail, jelly fish, thinly sliced pig ear, red onion, lotus stem, and slivered carrot and daikon, all scattered with peanuts, tossed in a sweet, pungent, fish sauce dressing, and served with puffy fried shrimp chips on the side;
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    2) the dish we simply call "that appetizer," though the portion size is anything but: grilled pork, grilled beef, grilled shrimp, and a crunchy, lacy, deep-fried shrimp paste concoction all meant to be wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, cucumbers, bean sprouts, carrots, daikon, and herbs—and then dipped in nuoc mam for eating;
    plus 3) canh chua cá hoặc tôm, a bubbling fire pot of bean sprouts, tomato slices, pineapple chunks, bạc hà, celery, and catfish fillets in a spicy-sour lemongrass broth, to be spooned over rice and consumed like some kind of sweet, tangy, fish-based porridge.
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    My parents loved their meal at New Saigon, just as I did when I'd first eaten there, and it wasn't long before I was back with ES and his friends again, this time valiantly trying to branch away from the dishes we were so used to ordering. So in addition to "that appetizer" we ordered thit bo luc lac, often known as "shaking beef,' plus a sweet curry with scallops, potatoes, and kabocha squash which tasted strangely like a thick pumpkin soup.
    Better was our order of nghêu hấp, a dish both undescribed and untranslated on the menu, but which names a platter of large steamed clams dotted with fried shallots, scallions, and herbs, and served with a sweet and spicy nuoc cham sauce. The clams were chewier and brinier than I was expecting, but the bright Vietnamese flavor profile made every bite both surprising and delicious.

    Since moving to Colorado, I've concluded that the Vietnamese food in Denver surpasses anything I've had in other American cities so far. New Saigon has long been considered one of this city's best, and it's dishes like these that make me understand why. Am I now spoiled? Am I now unenthused about a bowl of phở on Baxter Street in Manhattan's Chinatown? The answer to both questions is yes—and now you know the restaurant to blame.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    Diner favorites with a twist at Sam's No. 3

    My parents were arriving to Fort Collins so they could attend a reading I was giving, and I'd rented a car for the occasion. (Most students in my MFA program give a reading of their poetry or fiction in their final year, and mine was taking place the week before graduation.) As I've mentioned before, I'm not terribly experienced with driving, and after getting myself down to Denver to have dinner with ES before I picked them up from the airport, it seemed necessary to reward myself with a meal at someplace casual and low-key.
    Sam's No. 3 has a few different locations, one of which is not far from ES's house. It's a restaurant that combines a Mexican menu with Greek and American diner classics, meaning that you can get a burger or chili rellenos or pork souvlaki—or that chili-cheese fries will come drowned in a spicy, salty, pork green chili rather than a red one. One order is more than enough for two people, and really, it's probably best shared among three or four.
    ES was enticed to order the "One of Each" option under the Coney Island Specials menu—a quarter pound burger and a split, grilled hot dog each topped with mustard, onion, and a thin red chili. Not a bad deal for six bucks.
    Wanting something lighter, I went with "Mom’s Greek Salad": romaine lettuce, tomato, slivered red onion, cucumber, bell peppers, kalamata olives, and feta cheese in vinaigrette, served with pieces of pita bread. I added on gyro meat for another two dollars, not expecting the huge pile that showed up on the plate; while it seemed like typical mass-produced gyro meat with its uniform texture, flavor, and appearance (no twirling spit in the kitchen, here), it was nonetheless good with the fluffy pita and cucumber yogurt sauce that came with it.

    Thus fortified and suitably unwound from the drive, ES and I went back to his house until it was time for me to get in the car—again—to receive my parents at the airport, and bring them back to Fort Collins for a weekend in Colorado.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Salad as entree, not side: Sweet Tomatoes

    Sometimes I'm in the mood for a salad, but I can't think of a place where I can get a good one or not be tied to two or three options on a otherwise non-salad menu. A few times I actually turned to places like Old Country Buffet; I'd forgo the steam tables with cooked food and just hang out at the salad bar, mixing and matching my own vegetables and getting as much (or as little) as I wanted. Still, I did feel a little silly doing it.
    Enter Sweet Tomatoes, also known as Souplantation in some areas—a buffet actually focused on the leafy green stuff. For about nine bucks, the place allows you to fill up unlimited plates of either pre-mixed salads or ones of your own creation, making salad the star of the show, rather than supporting cast.
    On my first visit, I got two plates: one for the romaine lettuce I loaded up with tomatoes, chick peas, cauliflower, broccoli, chopped egg, butternut squash, and zucchini; and one for some of the different pre-made salads: an Asian chicken salad, a broccoli salad (sort of like my very merry broccoli salad), and tuna pasta salad. While I found the pre-made selections to be too heavy on dressing and somewhat too sweet overall, I was happy with the fresh veggies and add-ons in my own salad, as well as the dressings I tried. Obviously, at a place like Sweet Tomatoes there's a lot of control in what you create, so it's easy to come up with something to your liking.
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    And the place doesn't just limit you to salad for your meal—there are soup selections, a few pastas and hot dishes, a dessert section, and more. While the choices aren't extensive, there are just enough to complement rather than overwhelm the meal. And for what it is, the quality isn't bad, either—the last time I went, I sampled some okay fettucini alfredo, a perfectly fluffy baked potato topped with bacon, cheese, scallions, and sour cream (add your own toppings, of course), a downright tasty curried lentil soup, and a warm, gooey chocolate brownie/muffin. No sense of missing out on anything here, and more than enough satisfaction to last until the next meal.