Friday, January 31, 2014

Culinary Trend: Blood Oranges

Every so often, various ingredients and dishes go into vogue. Recently, foods such as kale and chia seeds made their way to the culinary forefront by way of blogs, magazines, and health fads.

Now, I'm noticing a previously obscure fruit that is gaining popularity in the foodie world– that is to say, the blood orange. Popping up in blogs and grocery stores alike, this underrated citrus is finally finding its way into America's kitchens.

Photo Credit

Blood orange gets its name (unsurprisingly) from its dark, blood-red fruit that distinguishes it from its cousin, the navel orange. In terms of taste, the two are relatively similar; though personally I find the blood orange to be a little more on the sour side (a subtle distinction from the navel orange's acidity) with a unique aftertaste. Of course, the taste is contingent on the orange's specific cultivar. When in season, many blood orange varieties boast a noticeable sweetness defining their taste.  

Now, I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to citrus fruits– I love to eat my oranges and grapefruits raw and unsweetened, or freshly pressed. However, these blood orange inspired recipes and foods are good enough to make me break my rule:

Talenti Blood Orange Sorbetto

Blood Orange Cake 

Recipe here.

Blood Orange Sangria

Recipe here.

Blood Orange & Clementine Galette

Recipe here

Goat Cheese Crostini with Blood Orange Marmalade

 Recipe here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Restaurant Review: Haru Aki Café

As a food nerd, it's tough going to college in farmville (literally) and not a city. UConn doesn't exactly boast a diverse culinary scene like NYC or Boston.

The lack of food culture at UConn especially makes itself known when I want to try new things. For example, I read about Bubble Tea in a blog and immediately wanted to try it. (Bubble tea can come in many forms, but it's usually found as a tea-based iced drink mixed with fruit syrup, milk, and tapioca pearl boba.) I searched on Yelp, and I saw a Chinese place just off the UConn campus offered bubble tea. But when I ordered my tea there, I watched in horror as they boiled some water, added some really artificial-looking powder to it, then shook it with ice. Even worse– it tasted more artificial than it looked. No thanks!

Luckily, less than a year later, the Haru Aki Café opened right next to my apartment building. "Haru" and "aki" mean spring and fall in Japanese, which speaks to the café's ethos concerning seasonal cuisine. But more importantly, they offer an amazing bubble tea menu.

Images from the Haru Aki Facebook page

Unlike other Asian-fusion restaurants in the area, the Haru Aki Café utilizes actual tea in their bubble tea (and not that synthetic powder). So far, I've tried the green tea with honeydew, peach, and lychee, and they've all been delicious. I could drink their bubble tea all day if my wallet allowed it.

In addition to the great bubble tea selection, they have delicious savory offerings as well– sushi, donburi (rice bowls), scallion pancakes, salads, and croquettes. 

Scallion Pancake

One day as I was buying a Honeydew bubble tea, I was lucky enough to run into Ron Liu, who is co-owner of the café. I asked him a bit about his background, and it turns out that he was a business student at UConn who had always dreamed of opening a restaurant. A few years after his graduation, he found himself in a financial position where he had the means to open Haru Aki.

Ron told me that while he is one of the main sushi chefs at the café, his girlfriend (who is also a co-owner and a fellow UConn alum) is the main force behind the menu. I told him how glad I was to have such a great restaurant nearby, and assured him that I would be back.

- - - 

This post really exemplifies why I love discovering new eateries and writing about them– because every small, locally owned restaurant has a unique story to tell. Food isn't just food... it's humanity. It's history. It's memories of your mom teaching you how to cook, or your grandmother sharing her secret recipe. And above all, it provides the medium through which people of different cultures can connect and learn from each other. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Club W

One of the hardest things about food blogging is figuring out what to write about next, especially where wine is concerned. It's fine to go to the liquor store and pick up a new bottle at random, but I like a more systematic way of picking out wines.

Enter Club W. I first saw them in an ad on Facebook (of all things) but decided to check out the website.

To start your Club W membership, the site asks you to take a Palate Profile quiz.

The quiz includes questions about your preferences for different types of flavors, like citrus fruits and earthy flavors (like truffles or mushrooms). Then, based on your answers to the questionnaire, the site gives you personalized recommendations from their curated selection of wines.

You can choose how many recommendations you receive (i.e. two reds and one white, etc.) in addition to browsing the other wines that weren't matched to your palate.

Club W's information about the wine is concise without being snobby. For each wine, they post a quick fact sheet that gives you the "vitals" of the wine, and a video where a sommelier describes the tasting notes.

I received my first Club W package in the mail a little while ago... more to come on my reaction to the wines!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

New Foods @ Whole Foods

What's great about Whole Foods is that they offer a lot of options (especially in produce) that aren't commonly found in traditional grocery stores.

This is what I picked up today:

1. Pomelo

Pomelos aren't very common in regular supermarkets, but I've seen them here and there at Whole Foods. I remember looking at them over in the produce section, just thinking they were some sort of mutant grapefruit. Little did I know that pomelos are the original grapefruit; and that grapefruit itself is thought to be a hybrid of pomelo and orange (who knew?!).

Admittedly, I had to google how to properly prepare the pomelo for eating (no shame here). However, going against internet advice, I just ended up cutting off the rind with a knife, then cutting the fruit into supremes (that is to say, cutting the fruit wedges away from the membrane), like so: 

Image Credit: Foodie Journey

Unfortunately, I wouldn't recommend the supreming technique for pomelos... the fruit segments aren't aligned in such a symmetrical way like the other citrus varieties.

The type of pomelo I bought had the ruby red colored fruit within, belying its similarity to grapefruit. However, most pomelos have a light green or yellow fruit. 

This is what mine looked like:

The taste of the pomelo was like a mild grapefruit, except with twice the work needed to eat it. While it was great to try a new citrus, I think I'll stick with grapefruit and oranges.

2. Challah 

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Whole Foods carried challah in their bakery. It's not something I usually see in regular grocery stores (to my chagrin).

Challah is a traditional Jewish bread that is chewy, eggy, and delicious. In accordance with Jewish religious law, it is not made with dairy. However, it still maintains a rich texture in a similar way to brioche (a French bread).

The Jewish religion and culture is to thank for a variety of delicious eats– lox, bagels, pretzels, and pickles, to name a few. But challah (in my opinion) is one of their best culinary achievements. 

3. Kombucha

Kombucha is one of the newest health fads, following in the footsteps of trendy superfoods like kale and kefir.

Kombucha is basically a fermented, effervescent tea drink that contains probiotics (like yogurt). As someone who's not a huge fan of yogurt (unless its frozen), I was hoping to get some good bacteria from Kombucha.

First, let me say that I really wanted to like this drink. I'm not discriminatory when it comes to tea at all– I can handle anything from the most pungent black teas to bitter green varieties. But when I tried the Kombucha, I almost gagged. It tasted like vinegar beer. I even checked to expiration date to make sure the vinegar taste wasn't a result of spoiling. But alas, the expiration date was many months away, leaving an inexplicable (and disgusting) taste of vinegar.

So I googled the method of making Kombucha, and it turns out its brewing process is similar to the way vinegar is made. Apparently Kombucha develops the vinegar taste as the fermentation progresses... if the tea is fermented for a shorter period of time, it won't taste as vinegar-y. So I'm not ready to completely cross off Kombucha (at least not yet), but I definitely won't be buying the GT's Multi-green Tea ever again.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Have an extra $40,000 lying around?

Sotheby's is famous for being an international purveyor of fine art, jewelry, and real estate; but they are less known for their dealings in rare and vintage wines.

And while I may not know a lot about vintage wines, I do know a bit about economics– that is, as supply decreases, demand increases... and as demand goes up, prices go up. (Especially at Sotheby's.)

For example, at their current "Finest and Rarest Wines" auction in London, a Montrachet 1996 Domaine de la Romanee Conti Chardonnay has been estimated at a value of $32,500 - $45,500


Once I saw the price, I immediately went online to research why the wine was estimated at such a high value. After all, the vintage is only 1996. It's not like they found this bottle floating around on the sunken Titanic (which actually happened a while back).

The only thing that would designate its quality as a wine on its label would be its title of "grand cru", which denotes its superior appellation in Burgundy, France (under AOC guidelines).

So I googled the wine, and found a specific article on Apparently, the average price for this exact wine is $4,999. (I wonder if the potential buyers at the Sotheby's auction know that....)

In any case, I'll be interested to see how much this bottle actually goes for. Undoubtedly there comes a certain prestige from buying through such an illustrious forum as Sotheby's, which would easily add a premium to the price.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Review: Extra Virginity

I recently just finished Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller; a book that dives into the "sublime and scandalous world of olive oil."

Before I read the book, I was aware that supermarkets were selling low-quality olive oils marketed at "extra virgin" quality. However, I was not aware how rampant the fraud was in Europe (where I thought quality really mattered to people), even in the Mediterranean, the home of the olive tree. 

In a book that reads like a novel, Mueller tells the story of Italian farmers continuing an art that goes back for generations; the story of honest Californian producers trying to stay competitive with the huge, fraudulent olive oil conglomerates; and the story of American entrepreneurs trying to reform USDA and International Olive Oil standards against all odds.

What's more, Extra Virginity reveals (or rather implies) the Mafia's involvement in the olive oil trade, in addition to incidences where critics or farmers were blackmailed into silence. Who knew that the production of such a commonplace commodity, one often taken for granted, was so fraught with danger!

I would highly recommend this book for anyone who is concerned about the food they consume. I would even go as far as to say all consumers of olive oil should be made aware of the contents of this book. If American consumers knew that companies like Filippo Berio and Bertolli were defrauding them, they could force dishonest olive oil manufacturers out of business (or at least force them to change their ways), and give room to honest, smaller-scale farmers trying to make a living. 

You can buy Extra Virginity here at The Gourmettes Store!

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Myths about Bertolli Olive Oil: Debunked

MYTH 1: Bertolli is an Italian Olive Oil.


While Bertolli olive oil is packaged in Italy, the majority of the olives come from Spain or other countries. Only about 20% of their olives come from Italy.
(Source: Extra Virginity, by Tom Mueller)

MYTH 2: Bertolli’s Olive Oils that are marketed as “Extra Virgin” are, in fact, extra virgin.


In a study conducted by the UC Davis Olive Center, the Bertolli “Extra Virgin” Olive Oil did NOT meet any of the three standards used to test “Extra Virgin” quality, including standards set by the USDA and the IOC (International Olive Council). Instead, the oil only achieved “virgin” grade status, which implies a much lower quality. This means that Bertolli has been defrauding the public with their misleading advertising. Frankly, I’m surprised that there haven’t been any repercussions for Bertolli. They are flat-out lying about the quality of their olive oil.
While the government has chosen to ignore this blatant, misleading advertising (which should be illegal if it isn’t already), you can do your part to stop food fraud by boycotting Bertolli brand foods.

I'm not just trying to pick on Bertolli, though. As you can see on the chart, supermarket megabrand Filippo Berio also markets its oil as extra virgin, when by two separate standards it should be labeled as just virgin. 

For the full report by the UC Davis Olive Center, click here.

MYTH 3: Despite all this, Bertolli is still a good-tasting olive oil.


I’ll admit, this one is mostly my own opinion. But if you’ve ever had good quality olive oil, you’d know that Bertolli is a tasteless, inferior “oil” (I wouldn’t even give it the word “olive” in its label) that should really just be used in oil lamps (called lampante in Italy).
As defined by the International Olive Council, the three main flavors in a genuine extra virgin olive oil should be (to varying degrees):
1.       Pepperiness
2.       Bitterness
3.       Fruitiness
A flavorless, bland olive oil is by definition not extra virgin. If you don’t believe me, go buy a bottle of Bertolli and taste for yourself. Is it peppery? Do you taste any hint of fruit? Is it bitter? While these terms are undoubtedly subjective, anyone with taste buds can tell that Bertolli olive oil has no clear taste of any of the three IOC flavor profiles.
If you're still skeptical, go online to McEvoy Ranch’s website. (They are an olive oil producer out of Petaluma, California; cultivating Italian olive varietals.) Purchase a bottle of their Olio Nuovo, wait for it to arrive in your mail, then taste it alongside Bertolli’s oil. I don’t think anything else needs to be said.

For a list of great olive oil providers in North America, click here.

Note: While reading Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller, I read about how large olive oil companies would sue outspoken food critics (and even experts) for criticizing their products. So, despite the scientific evidence that points to Bertolli’s misleading advertising and obvious inferiority, I would like to state that this is my OPINION only. You can deduce the truth for yourself.
(Basically­ – please don’t sue me for libel, olive oil companies!)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Restaurant Review: Hana Sushi

Today I went to Hana Sushi, a kind of "hidden gem" near my hometown. I had personally never tried it before, but a friend of mine swore by their sushi.

When I say it's a hidden gem, I mean it– it's sandwiched in between an indistinct Asian grocery store and a cliché Chinese takeout place. Hana Sushi's interior was small, with only six or seven tables. But what they lacked in décor, they made up for in deliciousness.

For my sushi, I ordered:

  1. Black Dragon roll: spicy shrimp roll topped with eel and avocado (right); and
  2. "Year End" Special roll: spicy tuna and crab roll topped with smelt roe (left)
(If you haven't guessed by now, I like spicy foods)

For my main course I ordered a bento box:
  1. Teriyaki Chicken
  2. Vegetable and Shrimp Tempura
  3. Shrimp Shumai (a type of dumpling)
  4. And, of course, white rice

The tempura and teriyaki were pretty standard, but the shrimp shumai dumplings were amazing. But the star of the show was, without a doubt, the Black Dragon roll. It was the best sushi I've ever had. I hope to try more of their offerings in the future, but I'm sure the Black Dragon will always be my favorite!

Swirl It!

I recently read a blog post about Swirl It!, an app that recommends wines based on ones you've already tried. Naturally, I had to download it.

This is how it works: When you're drinking a bottle or glass of wine, you search for the wine on the app (whether you're at a restaurant or at home), or you add it if it's not already in the database. 

Then, once you've found your wine, you either "swirl" it (if you liked it) or "spit" it (if you didn't).

After you've swirled and spat a few wines, the app starts recommending wines it thinks you'll like based on your palate. 

Seeing as I haven't yet bought any of my recommended wines, I don't know how accurate the app is... but it's certainly a fun way to keep track of the wines you've tried!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Movie Review: Bottle Shock

Tonight I watched Bottle Shock, which tells the true (albeit dramatized) story of an underdog Californian Chardonnay that won the 1976 "Judgement of Paris" blind tasting.

Steven Spurrier, a British wine enthusiast living in Paris, decided to host a "blind tasting" of Californian and French wines. Traveling to California to select the American wines, he came across Chateau Montelena, a struggling vineyard in Napa Valley. 

A shot of the Chateau Montelena Vineyard from the movie
He chose their 1973 Chardonnay for the tasting, which was held in Paris with French tasters. Against all odds, Chateau Montelena's wine won the competition, beating some of the "best" French wines by the most well-known producers. 

While the movie apparently took many creative liberties with the characters and chain of events, the Judgment of Paris was considered the pivotal moment that put American (specifically Californian) wines on the international map. 

A bottle of the famous 1973 Chardonnay is now held in the Smithsonian Museum, as a testament to the American wine industry's ability to compete with one of the world's oldest wine producing countries.

Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's is one of my favorite grocery stores. In terms of offering quality foods for a great price, Trader Joe's is worth the half-hour drive every time.

What I like most about them is that they offer a lot of products that are hard to find in traditional grocery stores (not counting Whole Foods). For example, their Orange Muscat Champagne Vinegar is only $2.99, but is light and delicious on salads. Unlike grocery store-brand salad dressings that often taste processed and unnatural, this Champagne vinegar is extremely refreshing. What's more, Trader Joe's takes pride in their products, often writing brief blurbs on their website describing their products:

Trader Joe's Orange Muscat Champagne Vinegar is hand crafted for us by a small company in Northern California that specializes in "gourmet" products made with the abundant produce of the state's "farm belt" and wine country. Try this special vinegar with extra virgin olive oil to create a light dressing for a salad of sliced avocado, jicama and orange segments. Or pair it with sesame oil to make an original dressing for a Chinese Chicken Salad. You could use Orange Muscat Champagne Vinegar right out of the bottle as a marinade for chicken or fish. 

Below is a sampling of a few of my favorite TJ's products:

Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's / Trader Joe's Organic Kale / Trader Joe's / Trader Joe's / Trader Joe's / Trader Joe's / Trader Joe's / Trader Joe's / Trader Joe's

However, my favorite thing to buy from Trader Joe's is their "Mideast Feast" snack box. It contains falafel, tahini, hummus, pita, and tabbouli. It makes a great, light lunch meal that won't weigh me down at the office.

  1. Falafel: A fried ball of chickpeas or fava beans (but usually both), flavored with Middle Eastern spices (like garlic and coriander).
  2. Tahini: A paste made from ground sesame seeds; often served as an accompaniment to falafel.
  3. Hummus: A savory paste made from mashed chickpeas, tahini, and other spices (usually including garlic and olive oil).
  4. Tabbouli: A sort of pasta and herb "salad" made from bulgur wheat (or sometimes couscous), mixed with freshly chopped parsley and mint, with olive oil, garlic, and lemon.
  5. Pita: An unleavened flatbread made simply from flour, water, yeast, and salt.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Best Supermarket Olive Oils

Finding a high-quality olive oil in a supermarket is certainly a challenge these days. Many labels boast that their oil is "extra virgin", but all too often, that's not the case. (Don't even get me started on Bertolli....)

Extra-virginity refers to the amount of free fatty acids the oil contains. If the olive oil contains more than 0.8 grams of FFAs per 100 grams, it cannot be labeled as "extra virgin". But somehow, supermarkets still stock sub-par olive oils that called themselves extra virgin but are actually extremely defective. And while oils from speciality food stores are usually your best bet, they can be terribly expensive.

So here are my top three supermarket olive oil picks:

  1. California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil (can be bought here)
  2. Trader Joe's Premium 100% Greek Kalamata Olive Oil
  3. Lucini Reserve Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil
California Olive Ranch

Trader Joe's


P.S. For pricier (but higher quality) olive oils, I would recommend checking out Williams SonomaDean & DeLuca, and Sur la Table

Movie Review: Somm

Last night I watched Somm, a documentary following four experts as they prepared to take the world's most difficult wine knowledge test, and earn their Master Sommelier degree.

There are only 214 Master Sommeliers (or Somms as they are known colloquially) in the world. The test contains three parts: one part on service in restaurants and hotels, one part on theory, and one part in the form of a blind tasting test. Candidates must taste six wines and describe them accurately in less than 25 minutes, including the year it was produced and the region from which it came.

Watching the four men prepare for the test was incredible. From just a sip of the wine, they could tell whether it had traces of oak in it, what possible grapes it could have been made from, and the level of alcohol it contained. It's amazing that they could glean all that information just from one taste.

The four main candidates practicing the tasting portion of the test, supervised by a Master Sommelier
For those of us who are still learning about the various aspects of wine tasting (including myself), this tasting grid from Epicurious is a great way to get started. It's also great for parties!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Eve: Prosecco Cupcakes

For New Years Eve, I wanted to make a festive dessert that celebrated the holiday. Clearly, that meant Prosecco cupcakes.

As a fan of the Food Network show Cupcake Wars, I had seen the bakers make many Champagne cupcakes in the competition. However, I personally prefer Champagne's sweeter, Italian cousin– Prosecco.

Cupcake Vineyards produces quality wines at great prices. Unlike many other American-based wine manufacturers, they correctly label their sparkling wine based on the region from which the grapes were cultivated. Unfortunately, many American winemakers label their sparkling wines as Champagne, when in fact the grapes were not from the Champagne region in France.

But I digress... The Cupcake Prosecco was suited perfectly for my baking needs. And the name was quite apropos for the situation!

The result: perfectly fluffy cupcakes with just a hint of the grape-y Prosecco. Needless to say, they were a huge hit at the party!

P.S.– A word on the frosting: I hand-piped the frosting using a large Ziploc bag and a piping tip left over from my days as a cake decorator. The steps are really simple:

  1. Cut a hole in the bottom corner of the Ziploc bag that's just large enough for the piping tip
  2. Stick the piping tip in THEN fill the bag with frosting
  3. Go ahead and pipe!