Friday, January 29, 2010

Best of Jacksonville Party @ MOCA

If you weren’t downtown last night for the Best of Jacksonville Party at the Museum of Contemporary Art, well, you missed the best party in town. The event was a combination of my some of my favorite things: interesting and creative artwork, prime people watching, and food from the best restaurants Jacksonville has to offer. A Marilyn Monroe look-alike greeted guests at the ground floor entrance to the party, foreshadowing the diverse Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe exhibit running until April 4th on the third level of the museum. The prime people watching can partly be attributed to the photo booth and cover model search organized by Jacksonville Magazine. Lots of beautiful ladies hanging around hoping to be discovered. I don’t think many of these tall and trim gals enjoyed sampling the food offerings as much as, ahem, yours truly. Over 25 restaurants from across Jacksonville, in from the beaches, and up from Saint Augustine turned out to offer samples to 500 hungry guests. I expected each booth to serve an amuse bouche, a tiny little one-bite palate tickler, but most of the restaurants were dishing up full plates of food! Here are the restaurants that catered the event (in alphabetical order) and the dishes they served.

Aqua Grill, Ponte Vedra Beach – Fire-roasted dynamite shrimp finished with a caramelized sweet chili aioli, served over a cold Asian rice noodle salad.A chef from Aqua Grill cooked the spicy shrimp to order over hot stones. Biscotti’s, Avondale – An assortment of glossy pastel-colored French macarons. I had a heavenly peanut butter-flavored macaron, but there were also pistachio and oreo, among others. Bistro Aix, San Marco – Duck spring rolls with pineapple “ketchup.” These were wonderfully crispy, hot, and subtly flavored. Blue Bamboo, Southside Blvd – Asian noodles served in mini Chinese take-out boxes and an Asian slaw. Café NOLA, in the MOCA downtown – Shrimp in a creamy white wine porcini sauce with a smoked cheddar grit cake. Rich and divine. The Casa Marina, Jacksonville Beach – A take on ceviche: lime and chili marinated shrimp, scallop and fresh fish accompanied with avocado and a cilantro cucumber emulsion topped with crispy tortilla strips. Good contrast of textures and a perfect dose of citrus. Chew, downtown – frisee aux lardons salad and bacon and white bean cassoulet. Frisee was an excellent choice for a catering event – the hearty lettuce remained crisp and peppery in its vinaigrette, and the lardons were perfect little cubes of salty, chewy goodness. Joseph’s Italian, North Jax and Atlantic Beach – Stromboli and baked ziti. Matthew's, San Marco – Seafood soup with mussels, shrimp, and bay scallops. Top-notch seafood in a flavorful broth, served with a side of handsome chefs! Metro Custom Cakes – An assortment of cupcakes in flavors such as almond cream cheese and vanilla with raspberry filling. Mezza Luna, Neptune Beach – Braised short ribs with swiss chard, black currants and compressed apples. MOJO Barbecue – BBQ ribs, chicken wings, and pulled pork sandwiches. I could have just eaten at MOJOs and been full and satisfied – two ribs, two chicken wings, and a sandwich! Love this place, the ribs were especially tender. Morton's The Steakhouse – Mashed potatoes with prime rib. This was a real crowd-pleaser. Nineteen @ TPC Sawgrass - Pan-fried risotto cake and Kobe beef finished with a demi glace and crispy fried leeks. Probably the best plated presentation of the night, served with a beautiful, friendly smile. The beef was a perfect medium rare and extra salty, just like I like it. One Ocean’s Azurea Restaurant, Jacksonville Beach – Crab claw and crab salad over whipped avocado. The photo is atrocious but the crab claw was an especially clever idea for a cocktail party – one bite with a built-in handle. Genius and delicious! Orsay, Avondale – Shrimp and Anson Mills grits topped with roasted corn and Eden Farms bacon relish, served with a huckleberry scone. Again, this could have been a meal in itself. Love the sweet roasted corn and salty bacon topping.Pastiche, Avondale – Shrimp in a tangy remoulade sauce. A single bite that made me want to go back for more. The Reef, St Augustine – Seared scallop tostada with black bean and fresh salsa. River City Brewing Co., downtown – Salmontini: house-smoked salmon with crème fraiche, capers, and a quail egg. Twisted Martini, downtown – I tried the white grape martini which according to their website is made with white grape vodka, triple sec, sweet and sour, and a splash of Red Bull. 619 Ocean View Restaurant @ Sawgrass Marriott, Ponte Vedra Beach – Creamy bisque with truffled popcorn. There is a limit to even what I can fit into my tummy, so unfortunately I was unable to sample the offerings from the following restaurants: Deco Bistro, Riverside; JJs Bistro (they had a lovely table full of pastries like pecan tarts); North Beach Bistro, Atlantic Beach; Sliders Seafood, Neptune Beach; and Zaitoon Mediterranean Grill.

500 guests + over 25 restaurants + 1 Marilyn = 1 heck of a party. Looking forward to next year.

MOCA Jacksonville
333 North Laura Street, Jacksonville, FL

Jacksonville Magazine

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sourcing ingredients for an authentic Thai meal

Most of my friends think I’m an awesome cook. But I have a secret for them: really, I’m just an awesome shopper. Memorable meals are all about the ingredients, whether they be incredibly fresh, unique, difficult-to-find, expensive, local, organic, or exotic. As long as you make an effort to find excellent ingredients, all you have to do is follow a good recipe to produce an impressive meal... and anyone can follow a recipe!

Most of my dinner parties follow a regional or ethnic theme. I thought I’d share with you my sources here in Jacksonville for the specialty ingredients needed for a recent Thai dinner party. The menu included Penang chicken curry, a spicy dish with a coconut-based sauce; vegetarian pad thai, a sour-sweet-spicy-salty noodle delight; stir-fried sugar snap peas with shrimp; and steamed Jasmine rice. For dessert, we had coconut ice cream with mango and a warm ginger sauce. All of these recipes are ideal for a dinner party. As long as you make your curry pastes and sauces and do your prepping and cutting and slicing ahead of time, you can quickly pull everything together in about 20 minutes right before it’s time to eat. Scouting out ingredients is half the fun of cooking. There are a few items in these recipes that you won’t find at your neighborhood Winn Dixie or Publix. Let’s start with the Penang chicken curry (my recipe at end of post). Penang curry gets its kick from the tiny red dried Thai chilies, sometimes called bird chiles, used in the curry paste. I felt like I hit the jackpot when I discovered the friendly Thai lady at Jacksonville’s Beach Boulevard Flea Market selling huge bags of dried bird chiles for $2 – a real steal, considering they’ve lasted me almost six months, and I put these chiles in EVERYTHING. (You can read a previous post I wrote about the Flea Market here.) You can find a number of Thai and other Southeast Asian ingredients at the Beach Boulevard Flea Market. For my Thai meal, I found whole tamarind, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, bags of rice and heavy knobs of ginger – all at excellent prices. Since I'm still relatively new to town, there are many Asian grocers that I haven’t been able to visit, and I’m sure Whole Foods carries some Thai ingredients. I haven’t been there yet either, but I did get a chance to visit the Vietnamese grocery shop on the 5800 block of Normandy Blvd, near Big Lots and World Gym. They carry a lot of ingredients that are also used in Thai cuisine, such tamarind paste, Sriracha, fish sauce, and fresh lemongrass. One ingredient for the Penang curry paste that I haven’t been able to find in Jacksonville is shrimp paste (if anyone knows where to buy it, please let me know!) I’ve found that a suitable substitute is dried shrimp which I pound to a paste in a mortar and pestle. You can buy little bags of tiny dried shrimp in the Latino spice section of WalMart. I would never shop for fresh veggies or meat or dairy, or, really, much of anything at WalMart, but I was surprised at their Asian and Latino dry goods sections. The ingredients for pad thai are a bit easier to come across than those for Penang curry. I adore this recipe for vegetarian pad thai from Gourmet magazine. You might be surprised to learn that you can find almost all of the dry goods for this recipe at World Market. I recommend you check out their food section if you haven’t already, as they carry Sriracha, fish sauce, bird chiles, chili-garlic sauce, coconut milk, Jasmine rice, and spices at good prices. Most important, they carry the dried flat rice noodles called banh pho that are crucial for pad thai (at right in photo). I’ve also used vacuum-packed pre-soaked rice noodles under the “Kame” brand that you can find in the ethnic foods section at Publix. As you can imagine, the texture isn’t nearly as good as the dried noodles and they don’t soak up the sauce as well, but they’ll do in a pinch.

If you can’t make it to a specialty shop or just don’t have the motivation or time to seek out these items, you can still enjoy a Thai-inspired meal with ingredients you can find at any grocery store. I frequently whip up a quick dish of shrimp and sugar snap peas and serve it over Jasmine rice. Sauté a chopped shallot and some minced ginger in peanut oil until soft, then add shrimp, a spoonful of chile garlic sauce, and a squeeze of lemongrass from a tube (you can find it in the refrigerated herb section of the supermarket). Stir fry until the shrimp are almost cooked through, then add a handful of sugar snap peas and some red bell pepper strips. Allow shrimp to cook and finish the dish with and a dash of fish sauce and a squeeze of lime, and voilà! A quick, delicious, and healthy Thai dish. Penang Chicken Curry
Serves 2 if eaten as the primary course. I double or triple it for a party.

The paste can be made a day in advance and stored in the refrigerator; it also freezes well, so I often quadruple the recipe and store it in 1 /4 cup portions in the freezer. I used to spend well over an hour pounding the ingredients for the curry paste in a stone mortar and pestle – the “authentic” way – but I discovered that much of the pounding can be replaced with a spice grinder and a mini food processor without sacrificing the quality or texture of the curry paste. If you can’t find fresh lemongrass, you can substitute with lemongrass paste in a tube found in the refrigerated herb section of most grocery stores. When you get ready to assemble the curry, make sure you have all your ingredients lined up and ready to go – the final dish pulls together in 10 or 15 minutes. Adapted from Real Thai Recipes

1/3 cup dried Thai (bird) chilies
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 Tbsp peanuts
2 Tbsp lemongrass (white core only), cut into thin rounds
2 tsp galangal or ginger, cut into matchsticks
2 Tbsp shallots, minced
2 Tbsp garlic, minced
1 tsp shrimp paste or dried shrimp

1 can coconut milk, allowed to sit undisturbed for at least an hour
1 boneless skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced across the grain
1 Tbsp julienned kaffir lime leaves
1/2 tsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp fish sauce
Shredded lime leaves, lime wedges, and Thai basil (or regular Italian basil) chiffonade for garnish
Make the curry paste:
Place the chilies in a small bowl and cover them with hot water. Soak until they are pliable, 30 to 45 minutes, then cut them open and remove as many of the veins and seeds as you can. If you’re not used to handling chiles, you might want to wear latex gloves for this.
Toast the cumin seeds, coriander seeds and peanuts separately until fragrant in a small nonstick saucepan over medium heat. It should take about 3 minutes for each. Allow the spices and nuts to cool, then grind them to a powder in a coffee or spice grinder. Set aside.

Break out the mortar and pestle and add the chiles and a generous pinch of salt. Pound the chiles until the skins break down and they are transformed into a paste. Be patient – this takes some time and unfortunately you can’t cheat and do this in a food processor!

If you are using dried shrimp instead of shrimp paste, remove the chiles from the bowl of the mortar and pound the dried shrimp until they too break down.
Transfer the chiles to a mini food processor (you’ll need to use a full-size processor if you’re tripling or quadrupling the curry paste recipe). Add the lemongrass and galangal or ginger and process until smooth. You might have to add a splash of water to facilitate grinding. Add the cumin, coriander, peanuts, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste and process until very smooth. Now you have your curry paste!
Make the chicken curry:
Heat a well-seasoned wok or medium saucepan over medium-high heat. With a spoon, skim the coconut cream from the top of the can of coconut milk – you should see that the cream has risen to the top half of the can, while the coconut water remains at the bottom. Add the coconut cream to the preheated pan. It should bubble and sizzle. Add all the curry paste and fry, stirring constantly. If the paste seems too dry, add coconut water in 1 /4 cup increments. The paste should become fragrant after about 5 minutes, and you should start to see the solids begin to separate from the oil in the coconut cream.

Once you see the oil rising to the top around the bubbles in the curry, add the chicken and stir for 1 minute. Add the lime leaves, brown sugar, and more coconut water until it reaches a desired consistency (it should be a thick curry, not too watery). Simmer, stirring, until the chicken is cooked through. Season with fish sauce and taste the curry. If you’d like it more salty, add more fish sauce. If it needs a little more sweetness, add another pinch of brown sugar.

Remove the curry to a serving bowl and garnish with shredded lime leaves, lime wedges, and basil.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sumo Sushi

Every neighborhood needs a good sushi joint. I have three options within walking distance of my place here in Riverside: Sushi Café, Sake House, and Sumo Sushi. I have yet to try Sake House, and because I had a less-than-memorable lunch at Sushi Café that included leathery pork katsu and a bowl of languid sashimi, I won’t bother to review it. (How has this restaurant been named Best Japanese Cuisine in the Best of Jacksonville awards?) But when some sushi-loving friends came in from out at the beach, we decided to hit up Sumo Sushi near the intersection of Park & King. A bamboo fence stretching the length of the windows prohibits sidewalk passersby from having a peak at the dining space, and I’d walked by many a time wondering what lay behind the screen. This element of secrecy heightened my curiosity, and the atmosphere confirmed my suspicions – subdued lighting, Asian décor in warm, natural tones. I especially appreciate that diners can sit at the sushi bar and that it is partitioned off from the main dining area by bamboo Roman shades – a particularly clever use of a small space. The bar is flanked by statues of the namesake sumo wrestlers who looked like they’d enjoyed a few pots of chankonabe in their day. As soon as we were seated, one of the two waitresses who attended our table presented us with a ridiculous number of menus. I believe there were something like ten pieces of paper floating around our small table for four, not to mention the daily specials listed on a whiteboard near the entrance. We were glad the servers allowed us time to shuffle through all the options and get our bearings before asking if we had any questions and taking our orders.

I ordered a bottle of Kirin Ichiban, a Japanese rice lager that is a standard at most Japanese restaurants in the States. It’s not a beer I would buy to bring home and savor, but I have yet to find a wine that I enjoy drinking with sushi and sake makes me nauseous (drank too many cheap versions from the 7-11 down the street when I lived in Kobe - oops). And, I do like Kirin Ichiban better than Asahi or Sapporo, the other big-name offerings you’ll find on Japanese menus. It doesn’t leave you with much of an aftertaste, just cleanses the palate with a crisp, dry finish… and goes really well with salty edamame. (Image from My sushi expert friends Jenn and Adam went all out on the rolls. From the standard sushi menu, they ordered (clockwise from top left in photo) rainbow rolls (California rolls with tuna, salmon, whitefish, and avocado on the outside); crazy rolls (shrimp tempura with smoked salmon on top and eel sauce); Boston rolls (shrimp, lettuce, and mayo); and tuna rolls. They were pleased with their choices and I was particularly impressed by the large piece of tuna in the tuna rolls – not a dinky pink speck you often get at many sushi joints. They also chose two items from the specialty sushi menu. All the sushi we ordered from the specialty menu was served on a bed of spicy mayo and nitsume (sweet eel sauce). Typically restaurants do this to cover up the taste of less-than-fresh fish, but the quality of fish is high at Sumo Sushi. If you’re not a big fan of the spicy/sweet sauces, you’d do well to request your sushi without them. The caterpillar roll consisted of shrimp tempura with spicy salmon and avocado on top. And, the mini me was a tempura sushi filled with crab and shrimp and topped with roe. I had never before tried tempura sushi and think it might get a laugh in Japan, but being the fried-food-loving, spicy-mayo-guzzling American I am, I really enjoyed it. Phil ordered the bento box so he could taste a variety of offerings. It included shrimp and vegetable tempura, fried gyoza, California rolls, and tuna, salmon, and yellowtail sashimi. The bento was a belly-buster and Phil enjoyed all of the items, particularly the tempura. In Japan, I developed a craving for noodles of all sorts – rich wintry ramen, cold summery soba, and especially fat messy slurpy udon (thick wheat-flour noodles). Most of your run-of-the-mill Japanese places leave noodles off the menu, so I was very happy to see tempura udon on the menu at Sumo. The noodles were swimming in a rich broth with mushrooms, broccoli, and squash, and the shrimp tempura was served on the side so it didn’t get soggy in the soup. In my mind, the Japanese are masters at deep frying and the delicate, airy tempura coating on the shrimp further confirmed this theory of mine. I am sure this will become my go-to takeout dish! I also ordered the Godzilla roll, and the waitress told me it was her favorite roll on the menu and an excellent choice. Well, it certainly was a treat, as much for the taste as for the creative presentation. The lobster and spicy crab rolls were topped with unagi (barbecued eel) and shaped like a killer lizard. Cool! I especially enjoyed the rings of octopus the sushi chef used for eyes.
As you can imagine, we were stuffed once we finished all this food and couldn’t even fathom dessert. The waitstaff presented us with complementary orange segments when they brought the bill – such a nice touch and a perfect way to end the meal. Sumo Sushi is an excellent neighborhood sushi restaurant and is one more reason I love Riverside. The atmosphere is cozy and warm, the fish is fresh, and the presentations are thoughtful and creative… certainly a step above the average joint. I look forward to returning!

Sumo Sushi
2726 Park Street, Jacksonville, FL
Sumo Sushi on Urbanspoon