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Harvard bound with new restaurants and recipes for you

The Solo Cook will cook and eat her way through Boston

I'll be walking by this statue of John Harvard every day.

I’ll be walking by this statue of John Harvard every day.

I have amazing news. I have been chosen for the Nieman Fellowship program at Harvard. What that means is that I get to take a much needed mid-career break from the newsroom and embrace being a student again in Cambridge. With 23 other fellows from around the world, I will soak in all the information I can this upcoming academic year through classes at Harvard, MIT and Tufts as well as collaborate and bond with the other journalism fellows. I’m honored and grateful to be part of this prestigious program.

Most say it’s a life-changing experience. I welcome this adventure with my mind, body and spirit, knowing that time away from work as an investigative journalist will be transformative. I ask that you come along for the ride as I continue to write about recipes perfect for one, restaurants and bars that are hot spots and gardening tips.

Boston rivals Seattle with amazing sushi restaurants

Smoked sea urchin and quail egg with Osetra caviar

Smoked sea urchin and quail egg with Osetra caviar

After I interviewed for the Nieman Fellowship, I decided I needed to treat myself to an amazing dinner. I thought, hey I am in Boston for two days so why not enjoy a fantastic meal regardless of if I get the fellowship. I chose Uni, in the Back Bay neighborhood and located in the Eliot Hotel. Under the leadership of Ken Oringer, this small, pricey sushi restaurant takes bold, creative steps that play with your palate. Each of the courses had the freshest fish and unique presentation and ingredients.

These photos best explain the amazing experience I had at Uni, and I have no doubt I will visit again.

Cheers

Christine

Scallop, Candied Bacon, Maitake Mushrooms, Chinese Chives

Scallop, Candied Bacon, Maitake Mushrooms, Chinese Chives

Lubina (Bass, Spain) Green Charmoula, Sultanas, Preserved Lemon Gremolata

Lubina (Bass, Spain) Green Charmoula, Sultanas, Preserved Lemon Gremolata

Chef Tony Messina is the mastermind behind the combination of flavors

Chef Tony Messina is the mastermind behind the combination of flavors

Chef Tony Messina sears the foie gras for this spicy tuna dish.

Chef Tony Messina sears the foie gras for this spicy tuna dish.

Spicy Tuna & Foie Gras Tataki with Cranberry, Goat Cheese, Black Walnut

Spicy Tuna & Foie Gras Tataki with Cranberry, Goat Cheese, Black Walnut

Best Happy Hour Tacos and Margaritas In Seattle

El Borracho in Ballard Delivers $1 Tacos

Tacos at El Borracho are just a $1 each during happy hour. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Tacos at El Borracho are just a $1 each during happy hour. Photo by Christine Willmsen

When you need a break from a dreary work day, El Borracho Taqueria is the Hot Spot I recommend that is a great place to grab some cheat eats and drinks for a 4-7 p.m. happy hour Monday through Friday. With the design of the room and the large rectangular bar at 5465 Leary Way, it’s simple to spark up conversations with others sipping their margaritas.

It's easy to have a couple margaritas when they are only $4 each. Photo by Christine Willmsen

It’s easy to have a couple margaritas when they are only $4 each. Photo by Christine Willmsen

There is a vibrating energy in the room, with tables packed with people laughing and chatting. It’s easy to embrace its motto “El Take it Easy,” after ordering a homemade margarita aptly named El Cheapo for just $4.  But the crowd pleaser at El Borracho is the $1 taco. I recommend the cochinitas pibil tacos made of orange achiote pork with pickled red onion and the carnitas tacos, both packed with flavor. If you’re downtown, El Borracho has another Hot Spot, located at 1521 1st Ave., between Pike and Pine streets.

Cheers

Christine
El Borracho Taqueria y Cantina on Urbanspoon

Creamy Cauliflower Fennel Soup Recipe

Quick and Easy Velvety Vegetable Soup

Cauliflower soup with fennel adds depth to this dinner. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Cauliflower soup with fennel adds depth to this dinner. Photo by Christine Willmsen

This is a healthy, yet rich tasting soup that takes minutes to cook and has only a couple of ingredients. We often crave something hot and filling during these cold nights, so this soup hits the spot. Cauliflower is a powerful vegetable known for its vitamin C and K. I added fennel to the soup for a twist that gives a hint of licorice flavor. To ensure any soup maintains a flawless white color, use white pepper. This will make two bowls of soup, because we always want seconds when it’s this good.

You’ll be shocked there’s no butter or cream in this decadent dinner when you taste it. Enjoy it with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

Hot in the Kitchen – Cauliflower Fennel Soup

Ingredients:cauiflower

3 tablespoons of olive oil

1 small head of cauliflower cut into large chunks

1/2 cup chicken broth or water

3 green onions chopped

1 teaspoon white pepperfennel

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon garlic paste

1/2 cup sliced fennel or half of a fennel bulb with center core removed

1/4 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh or dried chives

cookIn a medium pot, heat olive oil to medium high heat. Add cauliflower, chicken broth and green onions. Sprinkle in white pepper, salt and garlic paste and stir ingredients. Boil ingredients for five minutes. Add fennel and continue to cook at medium heat for five minutes. Put all ingredients into a blender such as a
VitaMix and add 1/4 cup milk. Blend on variable speed for blended soup15 seconds and then on high for 15 seconds. If using a blender, mix ingredients until thick and whipped.  Serve in a bowl and sprinkle chives on top.

For vegetarian soup substitute water for the chick broth.

Cheers

Christine

 

 

Dinner at a San Francisco restaurant worth the hefty price

Benu – an Asian-influenced restaurant takes me on an 18-course food journey

Salmon with cherries and sour cabbage. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Salmon with cherries and sour cabbage. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Rarely am I speechless. Rarely can I find the words to describe food. But when I stepped into Benu, a restaurant that combined Asian flavors with European techniques, I immediately knew it was going to be a rare experience. After attending the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in San Francisco, I needed a food fix. Benu, located in a historic building in the SOMA district, only took reservations. But like most journalists I had to try to get in, and so I walked to the restaurant and asked if they had any cancellations.

Cooking staff at Benu create 18 course dinners. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Cooking staff at Benu create 18 course dinners. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Keep in mind most places like this offer fine dining and a price fixe menu but they don’t cater to just one person. There is no bar or lounge and no solo seating. But the Benu manager said “let me see what I can do.” While I thought there was no way I was going to get into this coveted 3-star Michelin restaurant, the staff whispered back and forth for several minutes.

Soon, and to my surprise, I was whisked to a table, set for one in a dining room with dark wood and grey and black walls. Only a few simple art pieces hung on the walls ensuring there would be few distractions from the food experience. I bubbled with excitement not just because I got a seat at this restaurant, but because I was going to be there for hours. Yes – hours of pure indulgence, because what awaiting me was a theatrical performance of service and food presentation.

I wasn’t intimidated by the price – $195, but I had to pace my stomach. Why? Because 18 courses awaited my taste buds. Some of them were just bite-size explosions of flavor but others were substantial portions on the plate. Knowing the price tag, I savored every bite.

A night full of unexpected flavors colliding

Quail egg, potage, ginger for the first course. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Quail egg, potage, ginger for the first course. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I’ve been to several high-end restaurants with interesting combinations of flavors, but rarely have I had an experience like Benu, where I couldn’t find words to describe the food. After several courses I realized I was tasting food that this Midwest girl had never had before, so there was no frame of reference to convey flavors, ingredients and spices.

Luckily staff was there to assist in describing the ingredients and how they were prepared by Chef Corey Lee and his team. While each of the 18 courses was unique, there were several standouts that showcased the chef’s creativity and skill.

The night started with a thousand-year-old quail egg, potage with ginger that had an undescribable yet enjoyable flavor with a silky texture.

The beggar's purse of treasures from the oak combined earthy flavors. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak combined earthy flavors. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The surprising dish of the night was the “beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak,” a pouch of earthy juices and flavors that combined truffles, mushrooms, egg yolk and Iberico ham that melted on the tongue. They presented this on a glass disc that was flipped into different shapes as the courses progressed. Often times the food appeared to be floating above the plate.

 

 

Nestled in a fish boat, salmon roe, eggplant, buckwheat and perilla resembled an abstract painting more than another course. The buckwheat cracked with a crunch like cereal in my mouth.

A hearty helping of wild summer salmon with cherry and sour cabbage, reminded me a bit of the Northwest. The salmon was cooked perfectly to medium rare and the cabbage provided a contrasting texture.

The fragile lobster coral xiao long boa melted in my mouth. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The fragile lobster coral xiao long boa melted in my mouth. Photo by Christine Willmsen

The lobster coral xiao long bao was memorable with its feminine paper-thin pockets of pillowy liquid lobster broth disintegrated in my mouth instantly, with no need to chew.

And then there was what I like to call – lick the bowl moment – when I sipped the faux “shark fin soup,” with dungeness crab and Jinhua ham custard.

 

 

Faux shark fin soup with Jinhua ham was rich, silky and aromatic. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Faux shark fin soup with Jinhua ham was rich, silky and aromatic. Photo by Christine Willmsen

An unidentifiable smell hovering below my face, with the broth having numerous ingredients including chicken, garlic, ham, ginger and carrot. But the texture of the Jinhua ham had a remarkable, creamy texture that I’d not experienced. The server said they finely grade the ham from eastern China while it’s still frozen to create the texture. In the end out of courtesy for other guests, I refrained from licking the bowl.

 

 

Rely on Sommelier to choose your drinks

Chocolates hidden in wood boxes surprise the guests. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Chocolates hidden in wood boxes surprise guests. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I stayed away from adding the beverage pairing for an additional $150. Instead, I relied on the sommelier to choose just a couple of beverage pairings that would last the evening and hold up to multiple courses.

I started with a glass of Chablis for the first few courses, then a bone-dry Junmai sake with flavors of lychee and unripened Anjou pear. I completed the night with a Pinot Noir to match my salmon, roast quail and braised beef.

The night ended with a server opened and spun wooden boxes in different angles to offer hidden chocolate desserts.

Not once during the evening did I feel uncomfortable sitting at my table alone. I walked out of the restaurant with a dreamy smile and a bulging, satisfied stomach. The exploration of flavors was worth the price.

Cheers

Christine

Benu on Urbanspoon

For the best Caribbean sandwiches in Seattle, eat at Bongos

Adiós Paseo’s, Bongos Caribbean Cafe has a sandwich worthy of a cult following

Bongos offers sandwiches and Caribbean plates that are hefty and tangy. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Bongos offers sandwiches and Caribbean plates that are hefty and tangy. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Enough whining about Paseo’s. For me, Paseo’s was never a religious experience like so many others claimed when the doors abruptly closed. It’s time for you to move on to my favorite Hot Spot, a hidden spot that offers Caribbean sandwiches and plates that I think are BETTER than Paseo’s. Yes, I said it.

My critique of Paseo’s is that its sandwiches were too wet and messy, with the ingredients often sliding out of the bun and landing on the saturated paper before you caught them in your mouth. The problem – you couldn’t enjoy the combination of flavors with each bite. It just wasn’t worth the long wait that took up half of your lunch hour before you’d even placed an order. The media craze when Paseo’s closed was over the top with television coverage, numerous newspaper stories and blogs describing eaters coveted the restaurant and mourning its closure.

Even before Paseo’s closed in Fremont and Ballard neighborhoods about a month ago, I had found my favorite hot spot this summer called Bongos, at 6501 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle.

Bongos is a causal joint full of character and color. The restaurant is actually a food truck connected to a building right off Aurora Avenue, across from Green Lake. Step inside for a sandwich and be surrounded by bright colors or sit outside on patio chairs in the sand once summer returns.

I ordered the 1 a.m. sandwich, that costs $8, and plunged into the large saba roll with citrus braised pork, ham, swiss cheese, cucumbers, cilantro and stone mustard aioli. The sandwich is loaded with flavor, tender pork and the crunch of cucumber.

But if you want to order the total package, I recommend the BART, which is technically not on the menu. It’s a combination of the Desi and the 1 a.m. sandwiches. It’s named after Bart, a pastor who orders the combination of two sandwiches during his weekly visit to the restaurant. Each bite has a hefty amount of pork and ham with pickled jalapenos and banana peppers that are tamed by cucumbers and carmelized onions.
Quench your thirst with a bottle of pop, beer or cider and then let the owner tell you about his world travels.
I recommend maduros, ripened sweet black plantains, as a side if you have a large appetite. The staff is friendly and helpful.

Open for lunch and dinner everyday except Mondays.

Paseo’s is set to reopen soon with a new owner, but I say forget about it and embrace Bongos. Compare them and tell me your favorite.
Bongos on Urbanspoon

Cheers

Christine

 

Dump the old spices and start fresh

Replenish your spices and seasonings

Cocoa for baking had expired four years ago. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Cocoa for baking had expired four years ago. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I have something embarrassing to admit. Although I think I’m not alone in this cooking faux pas, I must confess I have old spices in my cupboards. Now you might think they are a couple of months expired, but I’m ashamed to admit some of them are several years old. My baking cocoa was four years old – yikes. I found another half dozen items that had to go. Some dried and whole spices have a short shelf life while others can last up to three years. Although you won’t get ill by eating expired spices and herbs, they will lose their flavor profile, aroma and intensity. Now it’s time to for us all to purge those expired spices and replenish our seasonings and spices.

Check out the bulk section, there’s a pay off

I threw all of these spices away because they had expired years ago. Buy smaller amounts in the bulk section. Photo by Christine Willmsen

I threw all of these spices away because they had expired years ago. Buy smaller amounts in the bulk section. Photo by Christine Willmsen

As a single person, I often don’t finish spices in large containers before their expiration dates. I’m sold on the bulk section of grocery stores to buy smaller and fresher quantities. For spices you rarely use or need for a specific recipe, turn to the bulk section. You will save money when you buy two or three tablespoons of a spice like caraway seed, cardamom and turmeric in the bulk section, compared to a large container of it.

But be careful, when I was at my local QFC store, I found almost all of the bulk spices had already expired in their large tubs. That means that they’ve been sitting on the shelf for a long time.

Write the purchase date on your bags and jars of spices.  This will help you track how old they are. Store spices in a cool, dark area of your kitchen. Rub a spice between your fingers and taste it. Time to toss it in the compost not the saucepan, if it lacks an intense flavor kick.

Cheers

Christine

Conquering my Fears by Grilling Cornish Game Hen

A Recipe for Breaking my Fear of Fowl

Challenge yourself by grilling Cornish game hen. You'll discover just how easy it is to cook. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Challenge yourself by grilling Cornish game hen. You’ll discover just how easy it is to cook. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Most of us have foods we hate or food phobias. My friend Shannon can’t stand olives, and Patty believes beets taste like dirt. Mine has not been a hate of fowl, just a fear of it – fear of getting sick by eating undercooked poultry. What are your food fears?

Childhood memories can taint our palate

Let’s step back about 35 years to me as a child. My family had the philosophy of we eat what we cook, no arguments. I would whine, fight and hide my shriveled peas and the over-cooked, fatty, cheap steak that tasted like rawhide.

This cornish hen is the perfect size for dinner and leftovers. Photo By Christine Willmsen

This Cornish hen is the perfect size for dinner and leftovers. Photo By Christine Willmsen

Summer in Iowa meant juicy tomatoes, corn on the cob and grilled lemon chicken. When served a chicken breast and a leg, I took a big bite and discovered veins, tendons, bones and very pink meat. I complained to my parents that the chicken was raw and that I would get sick. My parents had no compassion, saying I had to finish eating the chicken, including all the meat near the bones. I don’t recall if I ever got sick, but since then I’ve had a fear of plunging my teeth into a piece of fowl.

In fact for years I couldn’t eat any meat on a bone, fearing the meat was raw and I would get sick. No BBQ ribs and no chicken wings. Boyfriends would cut the meat off the bone for me, and other times I would order boneless poultry. I was unable to cook a full-size chicken, let alone pick it up with my bare hands and take a bite.

Cornish Game Hen for one or two people

Marinate the hen in olive oil, fig and lemon preserves and other ingredients. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Ingredients include the hen, olive oil, fig, parsley, bourbon, cloves and lemon preserves. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Now it’s time to break my food phobia by getting to know the bird on a raw level and making my own recipe.

I bought a Cornish game hen, a small bony fowl that’s a perfect dinner for one or two people. I cut it in half, right down the breastbone, flattening it a bit with my hands, hearing the bones crunch. I marinated the two halves in a combination of fig and lemon preserves, parsley, cloves and other spices.

I can finally say I broke my fear of cooking small fowl and eating it. But you still won’t catch me gnawing on chicken wings. I hope this helps you take risks with food.

Hot in the Kitchen: Grilled Lemon and Fig Hen

 

Marinated the two halves of the hen for two hours in a mix of oil, fig preserves, parsley, lemon juice and preserves and cloves. Photo By Christine Willmsen

Marinate the two halves of the hen for at least two hours. Photo By Christine Willmsen

Ingredients:

1 Cornish game hen

¼ cup olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon to season grill

For side vegetables, add a sweet potato and half onion to the grill while cooking the hen. Photo by Christine Willmsen

For side vegetables, add a sweet potato and half onion to the grill.

¼ cup fig preserves

¼ cup chopped parsley

3 tablespoons bourbon

2 tablespoons lemon juice

4 slices of preserved lemons chopped

½ teaspoons ground clove

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

Cut the hen in half, rinse with water, pat dry and flatten with hand. Mix all the remaining ingredients together and then marinate the two halves for at least two hours. On a two-burner grill, heat to medium or 400 degrees and set the other burner on low. If using a charcoal grill, put coals on one side of the grill to create the same effect. Coat the grate with olive oil. Cook skin side down for 6 minutes on medium, then move it to the low temperature area of grill for 8 minutes. Flip the two pieces and cook on medium for 6 minutes and then 8 minutes on low. Total cooking time should be about 28 minutes. The internal temperature on the thigh should be 165 degrees and juices should be clear. Let the hen rest for several minutes before taking a bite.

Cheers to conquering our food fears

Christine

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