Monday, November 30, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Blendertec blender

Another gadget post this week, it's been a good two week recharge, full of catching up with stuff and gathering new ideas for the coming year. I only have a few more bentos for the year with the holidays and all but I promise to bring you a food post next week.

This week's gadget is the Blendtec blender that's right, from the folks that bring you "Will It Blend" (I can practically hear a studio audience chant the phrase as I type it). I decided on this purchase based off of my inability to blend my broccoli soup to the consistency I needed it to be, unacceptable. I spend so much time in the kitchen that I've made it a point to try to always buy commercial grade equipment, ultimately only two made the final list. I was trying to decide between a Vitamix or this Blendtec blender, it turns out what was available at my "local shop that allows me to use my handy-dandy coupons" only had the Blendtec so there we have it. I understand the Vitamix is also a great blender, but I've only got the hand I was dealt. Although I'm not doing a proper review and compare, it would have been nice to see how the Vitamix performs side by side with the Blendtec.

Enough yammering down to the features. What came in the box: blender base, blender jar, dvd, instructions and recipe book. Pretty basic stuff here. The thing to note is that the blender jar is actually a one piece, there's no unscrewing, or opportunities for leaking (yet). Cleanup consists of sponge cleaning and a thorough rinse, I've not yet had any issues with "gunk" in the jar from not being able to clean it. Another nice feature, instead of rubber teeth that lock into the base it's a solid metal peg with teeth. In practice this should lead to better long term performance, since rubber will tend to degrade, my recent trip to the local restaurant supply store, shows they stock bins of replacement "blade units" telling me that it's one of the first things to wear out.

I haven't really looked at the recipe book, but apparently this is a new item added into the package previous reviews that I read online had a lot of negatives on how Blendtec doesn't provide a recipe book. I'm not certain why this would be a problem, it's a blender, it does what blenders do. Anyhow, anyone that was on the fence can rest assured that now it has both DVD and recipe book.

The Blendtec has a fairly straightforward button menu each button denotes a special program for creating soups, smoothies, batters, milk shakes. You can control the speed via the up down buttons, although I think I'd rather a dial here. I'm intrigued by the Ice cream/Frozen Yogurt setting, not quite sure what that's about I'm sure it's on their dvd/recipe book. I've only managed to use the pulse button which is pretty much all I need. Note the nice LCD panel, when you hit the programs it tells you what it's doing, it also counts your usage and for note, it did keep the usage count despite being unplugged.

Well? How well does it work? Can it pulverize? Will it leave you with weird chunks? How about dead space? The actual performance of the blender is really an explaination of what "power" means in a blender. Your regular run of the mill blender will run at 500 Watts, you're nicer ones tend to get you about 700 watts. This thing runs at a blazing two horsepower (roughly 1490 Watts). Zounds! Pictured above is a before and after shot of a bunch of ice cubes before they met their demise at the hands of this Tasmanian devil. The resulting fine snow powder took about four seconds. Right, four, no jiggling, no shaking, no tamping down, I simply held down the pulse button, and something akin to a jet engine went off.

Ok, ice is fine and good, let's make soup with something chunky. As before in my quickfire post, I made some broccoli soup, very simple whole broccoli florets and a bit of water. This took a little longer, something like ten seconds, but as you can see there is no trace other than the bright vibrant green that would hint at broccoli. In fact, once again, if held longer it actually whips the soup with air and brings about a fluffy texture.

So what do I think? I'm pretty happy with my purchase, it's the same blender the local coffee shops use to make their iced coffee drinks and smoothies. Good enough for the daily use of a coffee shop, then plenty good enough for me. On the off chance I need to blend some golf balls or rubber mallets, I have the option to do so. No real seems or buttons to get messy or stick over time, so cleanup is really simple on the base unit. The only real complaint I have about this blender is that it's louder that a regular blender but I expect loud noises out of blenders, especially ones that are as powerful as some lawn equipment.

I've got a few more pieces of equipment queued for review during the dead spots this holiday. I also have noticed quite a few travelers coming in looking for my orion cooker post, I'm going to chronicle smoking a thanksgiving turkey being that I didn't get any left overs from home this year, so look for the details and recipes on making that turkey I did last year.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Obentec's Laptop Lunches 2.0

No lunch this week or next so you'll have to suffer to through some of my "yammering" posts. As usual for my off posts you'll be seeing some of the tools that I use to produce lunch.

So with my additional eaters I went ahead an invested in six more obentec boxes. I've been eyeballing the 2.0 system for some time now and am pleasantly surprised at some of the modifications they've made. The new gear seems more robust, "refined" and grown up than their first iteration. I'm glad they've incorporated some of the changes that seemed to answer for some of the minor gripes I had.

Let's start with the containers. They beefed up the outer box and thinned the walls of the inner containers. This has quite a few major benefits. The outer box snaps shut a lot tighter than the original box and initial tests shows it doesn't suffer from the upper lid "warp" from dishwasher wear and tear. Also, the thin segments in side the outer box (to keep the inner boxes from sliding around) have made room for one "super large" inner container (sold separately). It's a fabulous option to allow for a large sandwich or pizza slice. The inner containers have thinner walls and can actually nest inside one another, the old boxes would, at best, sit on top of each other forming a precarious tower of containers. This make storage a lot easier and consumes a lot less space in the cabinets. I think the trade off is that some of the inner containers show a bit of warping from time spent in the dishwasher even from sitting only on the top racks. The slightly larger box and the thinner inner box walls actually provide more space for food which is very noticeable when I fill a 1.0 box versus a 2.0 box.

Next up, some nice to have features got added to this box. First, three out of the five containers now have lids. I confess I have yet to use them as it's easier to use press and seal on everything rather than half seal and half lids. Previously, the two containers that had lids would have a hard time sealing (or staying sealed) after a while due to dishwasher warpage. I still need to do some testing on the new lids to see if they've managed to fix that problem.

Second upgrade was the silverware, it's full metal no more half plastic. Most of my eaters preferred that I left out the cutlery because the plastic handle tended to break off the metal and thus they would feel bad for breaking them (minor peeve as I kept buying silverware for a while). The new upgrade to full metal is pretty nice, I'm sure this will last longer in the hands of grade school students.

Overall I love the new color scheme, no bright yellow or orange to sting the eyes. Very subdued colors which makes for nicer photos on the blogs. I love the improvements they made, it's clear they either listened to feedback from their customers or asked for advice on their redesign of their product. My only possible gripe is now i've got two different sets of boxes so the parts aren't interchangeable, but I think the changes are all for the better, so I'll clam up. As always their support people were really helpful in processing my order and I even got a nice email dialogue with the President, Amy Hemmert. It's always nice that they make time to speak to their customers directly it makes me feel good about buying their product.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Quickfire bento

Super sweet, I had motorcycle class so I can get a license for my new scooter, the only downside is that it left me very little time to prepare a lunches. I really needed to find a set of dishes that would be either very easy to put together or extremely quick. Hence my quickfire bento, ok not quite the same quickfire as in the TV show, but I had to call it something and quickfire has a catchy ring to it.

Like him or hate him, Gordon Ramsay is an accomplished chef and researching his "fast" and "easy" books as well as watching a few youtube videos I was very inspired by his methods and philosophy of letting ingredients speak for themselves. I will say there will probably be some future inserts of his dishes because both books had some very tasty looking stuff, but for today we're sticking with the fast and easy.

We have two quasi mains today we start with Curry dusted shrimp with Corn Salsa. I made a slight modification in using shrimp instead of scallops to trim some costs, I think overall it didn't make a huge difference. The shimp was tossed in with some curry powder and quickly sauteed with some olive oil. The corn salsa was as quick as I could prep the vegetables and simple heat up on the stove. The salsa was quite delishious it had a good zip with the lime and a really nice aroma from the sesame oil. From the picture you can see just how colorful and eye catching everything was. I think this dish *might* have been the most time consuming, which is saying a lot because it really didn't take any time at all to put together. If I actually use my food processor for prep work (which I never do), i'm sure this would have take no time.

Main/major side number two: Fusilli pasta salad with sausage, olives and sundried tomatoes. I cut all the corners here, I bought julienne sundried tomatos, I found pre-chopped mixed olives in the olive bar, and used the oil that was packed with the sundried tomatos to cook the sausage and toss in with the pasta. I really think this took about eight mins to put together since I had to wait for the pasta to boil, everything else was easily sliced and cooked to be tossed together. I didn't really add any salt to the final salad both the olives and the sausage carried enough salt to help offset the blandness of the pasta. That said, you do need to take a bite of every component to get the full effect. I think the real beauty of this dish is that you could easily have all the components on hand (buy jarred olives) to make an impromptu meal for surprise guests and whip it out quick.

These next two come courtesy of youtube, first we have Marinated Button Mushrooms. I'm a little mixed on this one, but probably because by the time I was tasting this, it had just come off the stove and had no time to let the mushrooms marinate. I'm curious as to how it tastes today, I have no leftovers, so I'll have to rely on my eaters. I can say that it smelled wonderful! The mushrooms were first browned in olive oil, some shallots were tossed in, a healthy splash of vinegar, and finally added in some freshly torn tarragon. Again a very simple dish, the tarragon was wonderfully fragrant and definitely helps infuse the vinaigrette. I had to eyeball the ingredient measurements since I basically transcribed the directions from the video, I think I got it right.

Here it is, Gordon Ramsay's famous Broccoli Soup. I first heard about this from one of my friends that had said it was his favorite soup. When he told me about the preparation I was a bit skeptical. I found the youtube video online showing Gordon Ramsay preparing this soup and had to try it myself. So, while I was making bentos last week I demoed this soup for myself. First off, I discovered that my blender sucks, I could not get it to the consistency that you see to the right. There were still bits of broccoli "leaves" (?), but it was still amazingly tasty. You want the run down? Basically, you get some boiling water, blanch the broccoli for a few mins, drop it in the blender add a bit of the water from the pot, salt, and pepper (I used white pepper I like the result better) boom you're done. Yes the video adds a couple more things, but the basic soup is awesome, best ever? Well maybe not but it's up there. Again, I eyeballed serving sizes and got it just on, which is unfortunate for me since I have no leftovers.

Now you're asking yourself, "but he just said he wasn't able to get it to the right consistency". Yes, after uncovering that I had inferior technology I decided I had to upgrade. The monster blender I ended up with will be a post in the next couple of weeks since I have some downtime due to Thanksgiving, so hang on I'll get to it. It is so powerful the resulting soup actually got some air whipped into it making for an interesting almost "creamy" texture to the soup.

Finally for dessert we have Blueberries with Honey Almond Yogurt. How do you make it? Honey + yogurt, add blueberries, toast some almonds and toss on. Yeah, it was that easy and yeah, it's some tasty stuff. The honey really lends a nice sweet but distinctly honey perfume to the yogurt and resulted in a nice creamy texture. This was a nice backdrop for the blueberries and we finish it all off with the aromatic crunch of toasted almonds. Even my normal dislike for dessert was moved by this little combo.

Amazing. That's really all I have to say to sum it all up. Normally preparation for making my bentos include a complete battle list made up of inter-twined steps from all of the final edits to my recipes. This week's list was non-existent since there were virtually no multiple steps for these recipes, once you started on the dish, you were finishing it at the same step. A usual lunch rollout for me is most of a Sunday, and that's with heavy thought and preparation to make it as easy and fast as possible. This week took four hours, from starting the clock to finishing (boxing) and the kitchen completely clean. That's twelve lunches that contained five items each, so that's 70 dishes. I don't think it could have been any faster. I'll admit when I was only cooking for six it was usually much faster but for twelve it's been a real time sink. I'm going to take a closer look at the dishes I produced to see if I can take something from this experience and modify future dishes/recipes for this kind of speed. Thank you Gordon Ramsay, I never followed you in the past, but you've made me a believer (don't worry Alton, you're still my hero).

A brief hiatus from cooking over the next two weekends due to Thanksgiving, I'll be filling in with gear other yammering posts in the mean time. Thanks for stopping by!

Box Contents
  • Curry dusted shrimp with Corn Salsa
  • Fusilli pasta salad with sausage, olives and sun dried tomatoes
  • Marinated Button Mushrooms
  • Broccoli Soup
  • Blueberries with Honey Almond Yogurt

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Yogurt Bento

So last week's dessert was an assortment of fruits which was originally to be served over yogurt. It turned out I had so much extra fruit that I just went with serving the fruit and left the yogurt unopened. What to do with a giant tub of plain yogurt? Well, why not get more yogurt and do some investigation on cooking with yogurt. There's a whole lot of applications for yogurt, a lot of them center around middle-eastern and Indian cuisine, but as an ingredient I was shooting for using yogurt in every dish for the bento and trying not make it an "obvious" use of yogurt, like a parfait or something.

Except for dessert everything manages to be gluten free. Despite not following that lifestyle anymore, I still like to look in to see how gluten-free-friendly my boxes/recipes are just incase.

First up, the entree: grilled mint beef kabobs and grilled cumin chicken kabobs. The acidic nature of yogurt does a great job of breaking down tough cuts of meat. I find that the marinade has to have some strong flavors to get past the yogurt flavor itself. Of course traditional Indian cuisine does this all the time with the Tandoori cooking. I actually produced a lot of kabobs and didn't anticipate the amount of food I had for myself (happy accident). A very simple dish and definitely tasty, I'll have to consider yogurt for other larger applications when it comes to marinades and grilling.

Here we have lentils and couscous with yogurt vinaigrette, show casing the use of yogurt in a salad dressing. Naturally the tartness of the yogurt fits well into a vinaigrette, in this case it's the ability of the vinaigrette to coat the lentils and couscous that was really yogurt's job. I love the textures in this dish, the lentils added a nice bite to the salad. I originally feared that the dish would be too bland, but after mixing in the dressing it came out perfect, no salt added or needed the yogurt really mellowed out vinegars so that the vinaigrette itself didn't over power the dish.

Much like the dressing we use yogurt as a sauce in this Asparagus with Orange Saffron Sauce. The yogurt was cooked in with the saffron and chicken broth base. I think next time I would use less broth as the resulting sauce was a bit too runny for my tastes. The use of orange zest and juice and finally the saffron really put some neat flavors together. I was a bit dismayed that all they had were the giant asparagus at the store as I prefer the thinner stalks, but I'll take what I can get considering it's not in season.

Finally we showcase yogurt's abilities in baking: Blueberry bread. I decided to cut the lemon glaze because it was an empty waste of calories. It's interesting in that I used low fat yogurt, a similar bread recipe required a whole lot of butter and vegetable oil. This version substituted a majority of that fat with yogurt. I didn't really lose anything except got a bit more of a chewy texture which was just fine by me. From my research it seems that the use of yogurt is commonly in place of oil or buttermilk. I like it, is a great way to lighten up a recipe.

I'm very happy with my dip into yogurt land. I learned a lot about the health benefits and various uses of yogurt. That's all for now, see you guys next week!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Foodblogger Event: Four Seasons Holiday Preview

Four Seasons invited me out to their holiday preview and man did they pull out the stops. They had a station for the food, drinks, spa and even tweet/blogging station. The designer for the event did a wonderful job. I'm lucky that my photo setup could still take pictures in the holiday lighting but with the decoration and flowers it made the event feel really special. Lots of pictures and things to say but I'll try to sum up everything.

So the theme was to showcase Four Season's Holiday offerings from spa services to bar drinks and food from Trio. To the left were the drinks and their labels, they were kind enough to give out recipe cards for the drink recipes. If you see one you wanna try write me in the comments I'll get it to you. My personal favorite was the Yule-Thyme martini, it featured thyme infused vodka which gives you this cool refreshing taste. Then they add a splash of Oban (scotch) and garnish of smoked shitake mushroom which finishes the drink with a nice smoky flavor. In fact, it was so good I headed up stairs after the event with Maggie and Ginny of MaggiesAustin to drink the full sized versions of what we sampled. That might have to be my happy hour spot for the holidays.

As you can see Trio is featuring a prix fixe menu of some really wonderful items. I didn't get to try everything, but I'll give you color commentary on some of the highlights.

Four Seasons brought out every level of staff to great us, pictured is Tom Seguesta (the general manager) and Todd Duplechan (head chef of Trio). Everyone was so welcoming and made the event extremely inviting. They really wanted to make the point that they are try to regionalize the experience and not make it a heuty teuty generic feeling four seasons. In fact their sommlier was not present because he was busy blending the wines for the hotel/vineyard exclusive blend (and by hotel I mean only Austin).

Above we have the brussels sprouts and the winter squash salad. I'm not quite sure what the cheese was (it's listed as farm cheese) I mistook it for goat cheese but the flavor was not tangy or salty enough to be that. I happened to like the texture from the salad, the roasted squash was sweet and had a nice texture. The brussels sprouts were cooked very well and someone even commented that they usually hated brussels sprouts and these were quite tasty. I think the sweet potatoes were a good complement in sweetness to the sprouts. Excellent side additions.

How do you pick a favorite from these three. I didn't get a picutre of the souffle but all of it was wonderful. The salmon was perfectly cooked the lingonberry sauce added a nice bit of acidity. The rib eye was melted in your mouth and the red wine sauce was subtle and let you enjoy the flavor of the meat without getting in the way. No clear winner here, I wished I had a chance to sample the pheasant (got roped into a conversation and missed out). I wasn't sure what kind of pasta it was served over, I did get a taste of that, it was spaetzle like but wasn't enough to let me decide on the full flavor so that one has a question mark until I can do some more investigation.

Dessert was beautiful, I'll confess I didn't get a chance to sample it and I doubt my shots did it justice. However, I got it on good authority from Laura and Mariah from DiningInAustinBlog that the baked alaska was the winner and really hit the spot." The light dessert really complemented the tasting we had. The gingerbread cake was good, but not after all that stuff we just ate". There you have it folks Chocolate peppermint baked alaska is the thing to try.

Finally you have my tasting plate or as I call it, "everything I could manage to fit on the plate so that I can try everything but still not get any sauces mixed together". The souffle was quite tasty and that was without the seafood sauce which everyone else tells me was very good. The pop over was light and fluffy. And of course the star of the show in my mind was the Pork belly. The piece I had was not too fatty, it was crispy and delicious, the cranberry lent a nice sweetness to help offset the richness of the pork. Why is it that pork belly always wins? I mean always, every single time it is the favorite. Oh well why question such un-answerable facts of the universe one should just enjoy it for what it is, pork belly goodness .

A big big thank you to the staff at the Four Seasons Austin, it was a wonderful time, althought I didn't avail myself of the free hand massage (which I'm sure was delightful) everything else was fantastic. It was also great seeing my blogger friends.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Indian Bento Number Two

I have to say, I'm really enjoying my new camera lens and the more natural light looking shots I'm able to take with it. Hopefully you guys out there noticed the difference. (Ok the title shot was a little dark)

So, I needed to reel back this week the bentos have been getting a little pricey on the ingredients and the dishes a tad labor heavy. I also had to buy six new boxes to accommodate my new bento-ees, so I'm trying to cut back a little at a time to re-coop some of those costs. I've been doing quite well, last week's was only a little bit over the budget. It's been a fun challenge over all this time to make changes and tweaks to take advantage of sales or simply making a recipe cheaper without losing any of the flavor.

This week I bring you my second Indian themed bento. With the new audience it was tempting to dig up the old recipes, but there were a few things I wanted to look into and my trusty "future bentos" tag on my journal held some nice notes and ideas.

First up we have a Dal Murg. I had some extra lentils in the pantry and this particular version looked really good. You actually cook the Dal separate from the chicken. The chicken is braised in a lemon juice sauce to keep it nice and tender and merged back in with the Dal at the last moment so as not to diffuse the acidity of the lemon while it does it's job on the chicken. I mixed the red lentils (by accident) having split red lentils and plain red lentils, it turned out to be a "you got your peanut butter in my chocolate" kind of mistake. I got a differing texture in the dish, on the one hand mushy on the other lentils with a still a little bit of firmness.

Can't have Dal with out rice, of course not just any rice would do I put together this fragrant fried basmati rice. We have a little coriander, clove, cinnamon, and cumin seed, very fragrant and delicious. I think next time, I'd stick with using my standard rice cooker and re-tossing and frying the rice afterwards. Stove top rice is finicky for me (at best) and using the rice cooker method would have given me the anticipated texture as well as my intended flavor.

All of the dishes really showcase the amount of spices and complex flavors that go into Indian cuisine however this Khema Palak takes the prize. I used ten different spices to put this one together. The dish is ground beef sauteed with tomatoes, onions and spinach. Very flavorful and I could swear that despite my best scrubbing, I still smell it on me. Very tasty and colorful. I made it a point to tell my readers to close their eyes and taste the components. It had a lot going on.

For dessert, Indian fruit salad cocktail. Nothing particularly Indian about it, just a bunch of fruits that would normally go into the cuisine, papaya, mango, oranges, bananas with a lime based dressing to give it a kick (and to keep it from turning brown). Originally this was intended to be served over yogurt, but I had so much fruit I decided to try to pack as much in and use the yogurt for later.

Fun lunch to put together, not as labor intensive as some of my more recent entries (very happy about that). It's getting easier to cook for twelve, I think careful planning is helping me out there. Fridge space is another issue I'm trying to tackle but it's all getting sorted out. I think the break during the holidays will be nice, I plan on using some of my queued up experiments and gadgets posts to fill in.

Blogger event tonight look for a post tomorrow. See you then!

Box Contents:
  • Dal Murg
  • Fried basmati rice
  • Khema Palak
  • Indian fruit cocktail medley