Monday, September 27, 2010

Grilled pork chops

Over the past ten years or so I've been an avid user of our gas grill. I tried cooking all the standard staples of the barbecue: seafood, steak, skewers, chicken, burgers, hot dogs and polenta. With little question, though, my biggest challenge over the years has been the unassuming pork chop. Unlike, say, for drumsticks, an unforgiving minute or two with chops on the grill can take you from being underdone (and posing a health risk) to chewy. Having grilled chops scores of times over the years, here's my best known method.

1) Use chops that have never been frozen or are thoroughly thawed. A frozen core compromises temperature uniformity throughout the meat. Cooking the center properly forces the exterior to be overdone.

2) Apply your favorite seasoning or rub. As for resting time before cooking, consult your recipe. I've found that giving at least four hours for a rub to settle enhances flavor. Our family favorite, the mustard seed rub, is pictured below and is taken from Weber's Big Book of Grilling:
-1 teaspoon each of mustard seeds, celery seeds, thyme
-1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt
-1/4 teaspoon of ground black pepper and cayenne (we used chili powder instead)

3) Drop your chops onto the grill, directly over a medium flame. Close the hood. After about four minutes, check to see that the surface is completely cooked (that is, nothing raw showing). If not, give the chops another 60 seconds and look again. Once the surface is free of any pink, it's time to flip. Again, after about four minutes, check the surface for doneness.
4) With both sides browned, you're now ready for indirect heating (two photos below). Keeping the flame at the same level, move your chops to a section of the grill that isn't directly over a flame. Flip after about four minutes.

5) Check for doneness. This is the hard part, even with the cheating that I'm about to recommend. Find your thickest chop. Make an incision, about a half an inch long, midway down the thickness of the chop. If you see juice that's at all red or pink, you need more time. Flip the chop over to let the incision heal up (for aesthetics). Check every 90 seconds or so, making sure that both sides of the chops get equal time facing the grill. Once the juices are clear, you're done!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chez Mayflower--Milpitas, CA

Heading home on the 880 through Milpitas Sunday at dinnertime, the four of us stopped for a bite at the predominantly Chinese mall, anchored by a 99 Ranch, in Milpitas on Barber Lane. Short on time and unable to wait in line, we threw caution to the wind and tried the eerily empty (just two other tables were occupied despite a nearly full parking lot) Chez Mayflower.

I ordered the fish congee, which over the past year or so has become a standby of mine. The bowl came piping hot and stuffed with tender fish--I counted six four-inch fillets. The flavor, however, was watered down compared to congee at, say, Joy Luck Bistro. Our younger twin loved the wonton noodle soup, especially the noodles. I ended up eating the wontons, which were fine, albeit oversized.

The fried rice packed a lot of shrimp and for eight dollars it was a good size--so good, in fact, that we were unable to finish.

We stopped at this restaurant out of convenience. There were many other options in this mall alone (and several more at the mall next door), but with Chez Mayflower we could get a table immediately. So, for what it was, a quick hit and run, Chez Mayflower served its purpose. I walked away not quite understanding why Chez Mayflower was so empty and the surrounding restaurants so full. Given the same set of rare circumstances (that is, in a hurry on the 880 at dinnertime), we could very well return.

Chez Mayflower accepts cash only.

Chez Mayflower
416 Barber Lane
Milpitas, CA 95035
(408) 894-9171

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Athena Grill--Santa Clara, CA

Those in my department at work choose Athena Grill in Santa Clara more than any other venue to celebrate welcomes, farewells and returns (I chose Athena Grill for my pre-sabbatical good-bye a few years ago). And, why not? The food has been predictably good and reasonably priced. Also, perhaps due to the dearth of Greek restaurants in the Santa Clara area, Greek cuisine prepared well around here never gets trite or boring for us. Conveniently, our often large groups have also had the flexibility to move tables together to suit our numbers.

I dropped by Athena Grill earlier this week to order up an Arnaki Pita, which features sliced lamb grilled with onion and roasted peppers. Providing an outstanding temperature contrast for this sandwich were the cold ingredients: spring greens, tomato, feta cheese and tsatziki. Although Athena provided a fair amount of lamb, the pita wasn't bursting throughout with meat as the photo might indicate. It must be said, though, that the lamb was tender and flavorful. The sauce, the tomatoes and the too-generous volume of bell peppers combined to have the pita leaking onto the plate when first handled. Moreover, the sheer thickness of the sandwich would prompt even the biggest mandible to open as wide as possible, forcing one to grab a full mouthful, resulting in a wet experience if not a drippy one. The feta was duly sharp and caused enough pucker in my mouth to stop me from eating lunch too quickly. Overall, I left full and satisfied. One difference maker was a big basket of bread, which included an olive-oil-based dip.

Over the eleven years I've eaten at Athena, this was my first experience alone. Indeed, it has been a while since I've eaten here. Our hiring freeze over the past four years has prevented welcome lunches and the current employment environment in the Bay Area has forced people to stay where they are, so there haven't been many farewells either. Nevertheless, Athena still packs them in, as it has a grip on the employees of its restaurant-starved industrial park. So, if you want a table, get there early (at 11:30) or get there late (after 1:00).

Athena Grill
1505 Space Park Dr
Santa Clara, CA 95054-3433
(408) 567-9144

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Grilling a thick salmon fillet

One tried and true piece of advice on how to grill a salmon fillet is to lay it flesh side down over direct medium heat. The slab is ready for flipping, so it's said, once the flesh loses its grip on the grill. One then grills skin side down for about half again as much time. For a standard fillet, such a recipe works exquisitely. But, what if the meat is more than an inch thick? The risk is either an underdone core or overcooked exterior.

Sunday at the grill we tried a recipe ("Grilled Salmon with a Pineapple, Mango and Strawberry Salsa") from Emeril Lagasse as found on the Food Network website. A key difference, however, is that when it came to the actual grilling I deferred to Weber's Big Book of Grilling, the one book I would take with me to that proverbial island. But, since the Weber instructions were tailored for standard fillets, I needed to improvise. Here's one way to grill a thick slab of an inch or greater (and remember to close the grill for each step!):

(1) Grill with the flesh down on the grill over direct medium heat until the fillet no longer sticks to the grate. This will take anywhere from four to seven minutes, depending on your flame. Check every 90 seconds or so. Note the time for this step--it will govern timing for the following three steps.
(2) After the flesh slides cleanly off the grill, turn the salmon over so that the fillet is skin side down. The length of time for this step is the same as that for the flesh side down in the first step.
(3) Over low direct heat, flip the salmon back to flesh side down for half the time in Step (1)
(4) Again, over low direct heat, cook the salmon skin side down for until done--roughly the same amount of time as in (3).

The low heat in steps (3) and (4) allow the center of the fillet to be cooked without charring the exterior. Don't be afraid to cheat and check the salmon for doneness while it's on the grill. With a fork, pry open two neighboring flakes. If the salmon isn't yet flakey or if the flesh is at all translucent through the thickness, it'll need more time. Unless the undone portion is biased toward the surface of the flesh, the downside is lower by completing with skin side down. Why? Aesthetically, burned skin is forgiven much more easily than charred flesh.

Emeril's recipe worked out well! I found the salsa to be more critical to the success of the dish than the "Emeril's Essence" or seasoning.

Friday, September 10, 2010

HC Dumpling

HC Dumpling had gone through a long downward slide ever since we first ate there about five years ago, when it served perhaps the best Shanghainese food south of San Francisco and north of Los Angeles. Located in the Cupertino Mall near the intersection of Homestead and Wolfe, it went through a few changes in management, staff and food selection. All that remained constant was the name.

The food quality got worse with each reincarnation of HC Dumpling, all the way up until a few months ago. However, lunch today signaled a turn for the better. Arriving first was the litmus test of any Shanghainese restaurant, the xiao long bao. We ordered ours with a crab filling. The dumplings were excellent. They the xiao long baos that could be had here five years ago, but excellent. Each dumpling screamed "Crab!" with every bite. The only aspect that suffered in any way was the skin, which was a touch too elastic to be considered truly authentic. The skin reminded me a little of a wonton wrap that lost some of its moisture.

The vegetable rice (below) was excellent and reminded me of the glory years of HC. It came this time with bacon, providing a welcome twist. The fish soup should have had more fish, but it was hot. The fresh ham (Tung Po Pork on the menu) was tender and it came with buns, an unexpected bonus. My only complaint is the ham was cut against the grain of the meat, so the sides of the slices were a tad rough.
Going to HC over the past few years was like one long fall off a cliff--with eacCheck Spellingh visit the food quality was much lower than the one before. Nevertheless, I'd go every several months or so just for old time's sake. When I walked into HC today I braced myself for the worst. But, instead, the experience brought back fond memories of the HC of long ago.

HC Dumpling
10877 N Wolfe Rd.
Cupertino, CA 95014
(408) 873-4813

Monday, September 6, 2010

Santouka Ramen--San Jose, CA

It's funny how one thing causes another. Yesterday, a hole in my jeans prompted me to make a trip to Old Navy in San Jose to get a new pair. Since we were in the area, we tried Santouka Ramen in the nearby Mitsuwa Marketplace. And that, in turn, introduced me to fermented soybeans--a sight and taste I'd never experienced before and won't soon forget.

My wife and I each ordered the Ramen and Fermented Rice Bowl. Mine was salt flavored and Jenny's flavor was soy sauce. Even though we ordered the same combinations (but different flavors) the ingredients were slightly different. Topping my bowl (pictured below) was black fungus and Jenny's had the seaweed. All four of us truly enjoyed the ramen (the twins shared a bowl of soy sauce ramen). The pork was very tender in both bowls and my broth was flavorful, hot and creamy. I was quite thirsty shortly afterwards, though, suggesting the broth was high in sodium.
The fermented soybeans on rice were difficult to eat. They were slimy (below note the mucous strands hanging from the fork) and rendered my chopsticks permanently slippery. And, the consistency seemed to change with time, with the soybeans even bubbling near the end of lunch. To be fair, fermented soybeans, or "natto", are reputed to be healthy, loved by many and were once all the rage in Japan. However, they're not for everyone.

The food court at Santouka was crowded and I needed to clean my own table. Also, even well after 1:00 on a Sunday, the line was very long (at times more than twenty people for a single cash register). Making things worse was our cashier, who was very impatient, rudely drumming his pen loudly to show his disapproval that Jenny and I took more than a few seconds (but less than ten) to get our order straight.

Going to Santouka is asking for a stressful experience. It's stressful to find a parking spot in Mitsuwa's crowded lot, to stand in a long, makeshift line to order, to deal with a rude cashier, to find a table and to clean it. Why put yourself through this? Go to Orenchi instead, where food is brought to your clean table, the bowl of ramen is the same price as Santouka's, and both the broth and noodles taste better.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Thaibodia--Santa Clara, CA

With Jenny in Santa Clara for an appointment Wednesday, we met at Thaibodia near the corner of Scott and El Camino Real. Wanting something to prevent me from gorging to quickly, I ordered the spicy noodles "hot" with shrimp. Despite the spiciness--it was indeed on fire--I could still taste the slightly sweet flavor of the sauce. I could have had the dish with shrimp, beef, pork or chicken, but chose shrimp because they didn't charge extra for this option. But, as with my wife's, my plate came with just four shrimp.

Jenny's dish was over-sauced and came out soupy. The restaurant was loud and she would have liked to eat at one of the far quieter Thai options on Castro. Moreover, neither of us thought our lunch particularly distinctive. Both of us left thinking we ordered the wrong thing (how else to explain that it was so crowded?). However, I doubt we'll ever go back to find out for sure.

Of note: Thaibodia is that rare Asian restaurant that accepts American Express. Each of our entrees was $7, which included soup and a small salad.

2155 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95050
(408) 248-8868

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pho Hua--Santa Clara, CA

I met an former neighbor for lunch very close to where I used to live--and not far from where I currently work--at Pho Hua, which sits in a mall at the southeast corner of Lawrence and El Camino. I ordered a large bowl of the steak, flank and tendon. The steak was fatty and delicious. They offered a fair quantity, too. The flank was a little tough but flavorful.

There wasn't a lot of tendon in my soup by any means, but that's all forgiven due to the vermicelli. In many pho restaurants the noodles are a mere afterthought--a sideshow compared to the meat and broth. As such, often the noodles aren't given due care. In my experience, they usually clump together at the bottom of the bowl and turn out hard. At Pho Hua, however, the noodles were delightfully soft and swayed freely in the broth, each one assuming a life of its own rather than locked into the other noodles like a thick woven fabric.

I also got a strawberry tapioca smoothie. One lap around just about any mall featuring Asian food will reveal tapioca balls are commonly found in teas, cold or hot. But, just how do the squishy spheres fare in a smoothie? While it was flavorful and obvious that Pho Hua used fresh strawberries, the tapioca balls could be consumed through a straw for only the first few minutes. After that, they collapsed and stuck together under the weight and frigidity of the ice. I ended up needing to pop the cover off and dig into the tapioca--now a single cold brown mass--with a soup spoon.

If you're interested in pho, there are a number of suitors competing for your business in Santa Clara. I would have to say, though, that Pho Hua offers the best all-around pho in this stretch of El Camino and I look forward to a return, especially during the cold winter months.