Dim Sum — Food for the Point of Your Heart

Tom and I had the good fortune of being introduced to dim sum by friends from Malaysia who were anxious to guide us on this culinary experience. When we arrived at Bo Ling’s on the Plaza early on that Sunday afternoon, our friends had already settled into a cozy booth and started their own footnotes on a dim sum carry-out menu for our reference. The menu with its little photographs and descriptions was a great help as we eyed each cart loaded with delectable dishes.

In our wide-eyed anticipation, we mentioned craving some frosty Tsing Taos to accompany our meal. We hadn’t ordered a single plate yet, and we’d already committed a faux pas. Our gracious hosts explained that dim sum is traditionally served with tea. Shame on us for not doing our homework beforehand and learning how dim sum has evolved from the tea houses along the ancient Silk Road where travelers and farmers would stop for tea and nourishment.

Since our debut dim sum meal many years ago, we’ve enjoyed dining at Bo Ling’s on Saturday or Sunday numerous times. I’ve come to crave my favorite plates, such as Chinese broccoli and all the steamed dumplings. On our most recent trip, we ordered whatever made us salivate as the carts trundled by, and we were well into indulging when we noticed the number of large and special plates tallied up on our ticket already. We quickly asked our waiter for a menu so we could estimate just how much damage we’d done so far.

Dim sum is particularly enjoyable with a group, so you can order copious plates of various sizes and enjoy the great Cantonese tradition of a leisurely meal accompanied by fun conversation.

Literally translated, dim sum means the point of your heart, and after every fun and savory meal at Bo Ling’s I’ve always felt my heart (and belly) well-enlarged.

Tofu skin with cilantro and peanuts on the left and seaweed salad on the right

Tofu skin with cilantro and peanuts on the left and seaweed salad on the right

Steamed shrimp dumplings

Steamed shrimp dumplings

Crispy shrimp balls in the foreground and taro cakes in the background

Crispy shrimp balls in the foreground and taro cakes in the background

Steamed seafood dumplings with chives

Steamed seafood dumplings with chives

Bo Ling's on the Plaza

Bo Ling’s on the Plaza

© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com 2013

Bo Lings on Urbanspoon

Bread-Baking for the Slothful Baker

It was 35 years ago on Easter Sunday that I first attempted to bake something that involved bringing yeast to life. For the 35 years since then, I’ve lived in fear of recipes that required yeast. I remember that first encounter with yeast clearly because I was a senior at Kansas State University, my family was coming to Manhattan for Easter Sunday, and I wanted to impress them with a homemade pastry for brunch.

As a cook, I have to confess that I tend to be impatient, impetuous and a tad lazy. Those are not qualities that serve you well if you aspire to master pastry and bread. Early that Easter morning 35 years ago, I cavalierly and callously mixed the yeast with hot water, thinking to myself what’s the big deal? Later, when I pulled my braided cherry pastry from the oven, it looked actually looked quite lovely and artful. But when I sliced it, it had the consistency of a rock. What’s the big deal? Murdered yeast. That’s what.

So, yes, on that springy Easter Sunday, I was duly traumatized and rarely have attempted mixing yeast and water since. I’m chagrined to say that my son had to learn the art of bread baking from my mother-in-law, rather than from me. I may have taught him how to make cheesecake, chocolate trifle, and other various family recipes, but his skills as a bread baker are from his paternal grandma.

That said, proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks–in the last couple of months I’ve overcome my fears and learned to make bread! I was poking around Pinterest one day and came across a pin to Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois’ lovely web site on baking bread in a crock pot. Their technique is perfect for slothful and impetuous aspiring bakers like me because there’s no kneading involved, and the dough rises right in the crock pot. Ingenious!

My first attempt at crock pot bread was a recipe for cheesy dill bread that turned out moist and dense. It required about an hour and a half to bake and looked best after a few minutes under the broiler, as Jeff and Zoe suggest. It was good, but didn’t quite give me the foodie endorphin rush I’m always seeking.

Cheesy dill bread right after going into the crock pot

Cheesy dill bread right after going into the crock pot

For my next challenge, I wanted to find a recipe that included flaxseed. I don’t know exactly why, but I love those shiny little brown seeds. They provide a crunchy texture, add visual interest and contain lots of omega-3 fatty acids, lignans and fiber. I found plenty of recipes that called for flaxseed meal, but none that used the whole seed. So, I decided to be brave and do some experimenting. I’m proud to announce the arrival of a lovely loaf of whole wheat flaxseed crock pot bread!

Recipe

1 1/3 cup warm water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 tablespoons honey

1 ½ teaspoons salt

1 ½ cups all purpose flour

1 1/3 cups whole wheat flour

½ cup flaxseed

1 package yeast

½ teaspoon sugar

Dissolve the yeast in 1/3 cup of warm water. Add ½ teaspoon sugar and let the yeast get foamy. Mix all ingredients until thoroughly incorporated. Turn the dough onto parchment paper and shape it into a round loaf. Place the dough (on the paper) in a crock pot and bake on high. Cooking time can vary depending on the crock pot. Mine required an hour and a half. If your bread looks a little anemic and you like a crunchy crust, brown the loaf under the broiler.

Whole wheat flaxseed bread

Whole wheat flaxseed bread

© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com 2013

Happy Seollal! (Korean Lunar New Year)

Warmest wishes for a year filled with joy and good eats on this auspicious day—Lunar New Year!

In Korea, and throughout much of Asia, Lunar New Year is a day for showing homage to your elders and ancestors and, of course, a day for great food shared with family and friends. In Korean tradition, we grow a year older on Lunar New Years Day, not on our individual birthdays. Some traditions even say that you gain that year when you eat the traditional dish–duk gook (white rice cakes). The bright white little cakes represent a clean, fresh start and are served in a light soup that sometimes also contains meat dumplings (mandu). As with almost all Korean dishes, lots of spicy panchan (side dishes) are served, so you can dress up your soup to suit your palate.

The Korean side of my family had a quiet and peaceful little celebration this year. We gathered around the kitchen table to fix our bowls of duk gook, poured some makolli (Korean rice wine, homemade by my aunt) and sat at the table or on the floor around a traditional Korean table. Once we were all sated to sleepiness, we lounged around and watched New Years Day celebrations on Korean cable. It was a luxurious day of food and family, and I send good wishes for just such times to all of you. Happy New Year!

A simple bowl of duk gook

A simple bowl of duk gook (rice dumplings) and mandu (meat dumplings)

Cousin A adds spicy kimchee and other panchan to her soup

Cousin A adds spicy kimchee and other panchan to her soup

© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com 2013

A Foodie’s Bucket List Evening at Lidia’s Italy

Lidia’s Italy Kansas City is the first restaurant that chef Lidia Bastianich opened beyond the streets of New York. She chose Kansas City for its history of Italian immigrants who arrived in the heart of the Midwest to work on the railroad. It’s in keeping with that history that Lidia selected the historic freight house for her restaurant.

Lidia's Italy in the Kansas City freight house

Lidia’s Italy in the Kansas City freight house

Lidia’s Italy opened its doors 14 years ago, and all these years it’s been on my foodie bucket list. Why it’s taken so long for me to make my way there is without explanation. We finally decided that for our 26th wedding anniversary, the day had come at last. Perhaps we were exceptionally anxious to make this a special event, as a year ago, for our 25th, thousands of miles separated us due to my 4-week work stint in India. We celebrated our silver anniversary with lots of I miss yous on the phone, and then I went out to dinner with my coworkers, who were thoughtful and generous and splurged on a bottle of champagne.

It was with much anticipation that we took our seats at a cozy table for two in the cavernous freight house. Coincidentally, Lidia’s cooking show on television earlier in the day featured her Kansas City restaurant, and I watched with pleasure as Lidia recommended traditional Italian prosecco for a perfect accompaniment to all courses in an Italian feast. I’m a pushover for sparkling wine and have been known to select an evening’s dining destination based on the fact that one restaurant over another serves sparkling by the glass. So, all Lidia had to say was prosecco, and I was in.

Prosecco by Candlight

Prosecco by Candlight

I had studied the menu well earlier in the day, so I was quick to order the Stellina di Notte prosecco, a Caesar salad and gnocchi with braised duck ragu. Mr. Sushipoet also ordered a Caesar and quail stuffed with mushrooms, which is served with Luganega sausage, cannellini beans, Swiss chard and tomato.

Our Caesar salads were absolutely wonderful. The portions were dinner-size, with freshly torn romaine, a creamy, garlicky dressing, generous slivers of Parmesan and flavorful, crisp croutons. The anchovy was just a subtle hint and not overwhelming. The salad along with the Italian breads, bread sticks and dips alone were satisfying, and I could have left at that point and been a very happy foodie.

But then arrived one of my great foodie loves—gnocchi. How I do love gnocchi. At Lidia’s, these luscious little potato pillows are house-made and delectable. Coupled with a rich braised duck ragu, they are something close to perfection. To passersby, it may have seemed liked I was celebrating a special anniversary with gnocchi, rather than with my sweet husband. Sorry, Hon.

But, it’s all right, as he was pretty infatuated with the two quail swimming in a stew of tomatoes, Swiss chard, and cannellini beans. It wasn’t long until his plate was clean and all that remained was a little mound of bird bones. Rest in peace, little quails.

Our maiden voyage to Lidia’s was a wonderful candlelit evening, filled with savory, rich flavors and sparkling prosecco. We won’t let 14 years go by before we return. I’m sure of it.

Gnocchi with braised duck ragu

Gnocchi with braised duck ragu

Quail stuffed with quaglie mushrooms, served with Luganega sausage, cannellini beans, Swiss chard and tomato

Quail stuffed with mushrooms, served with Luganega sausage, cannellini beans, Swiss chard and tomato

© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com 2013

Lidia's Kansas City on Urbanspoon

Gyros and Dolmas in the KC Suburbs

Mr. Gyro’s Greek Food & Pastry has been an Overland Park landmark for over 25 years at the corner of Metcalf Avenue and 83rd Street. Mr. Sushipoet and I ventured into the original unassuming little restaurant for the first time back in 1988 and have savored their delectable fare at least once a month since then. (That totals about 300 dining experiences, which is a low estimate given periods when every Friday evening found us there.)

Back in the 80s, Mr. Gyro’s was located across the street from its current location, in a repurposed fast-food spot. Soula and Ted Jovaras (the owners) were always there to take your order at the tiny counter. Tables were crowded together in a friendly and intimate arrangement (and often full on weekend evenings), and philodendron and other vines hung from humble pots in the copious windows.

A few years ago, Mr. Gyro’s moved across the street into a custom building with Greek architectural influences. I’m happy to see a family-owned restaurant succeeding so spectacularly in the shadow of chain restaurants, but I have to tell you I miss the original little box of a restaurant. Sure, it could be crowded, and you might have had to beat back an encroaching philodendron to get a table. The new spot is shiny and new, while the first location was modest and worn around the edges and lived-in. Maybe that’s why I prefer it; it was a bit like me.

But, regardless of the exterior trappings, Mr. Gyro’s fare has remained consistently delicious. There are so many tasty offerings that I’ve made the combination plate my habit, so that I can enjoy a bit of everything. The combination plate comprises horiatiki (Greek salad), gyro meat with pita and tzatziki sauce, pastichio, spanakopita and a dolma. It’s more than a single meal, and if you have some odd eating habits like I do, Greek leftovers make a great breakfast the next morning!

Everything on the combination plate satisfies some deep, primal craving for me. The flavors in the pastichio are cheerful, and the creamy topping is luscious. Spinach is one of my favorite leafy greens, and phyllo dough has an ethereal quality, so spanakopita approaches perfection in my food diary. A mini gyro with meat, pita and tzatziki is a combination of soft, warm bread, savory meat, and cool, creamy sauce–a gala of flavors and textures for your palate.

But, I have to say, when it comes to dolmas, Mr. Gyro’s is the only place to eat them in Kansas City. The filling is the perfect balance of meat, rice and savory herbs, all rolled into a firm little packet of deliciousness in a succulent grape leaf.

One of 300+ combination plates I've consumed from Mr. Gyro's

One of 300+ combination plates I’ve consumed from Mr. Gyro’s

Mr. Gyro’s has opened a second location at 119th and Blackbob Road in Olathe. I admit I’ve never been to the new location, as the Overland Park spot is en route from work to home, making it one of our favorite carry-out places.

A discussion of Mr. Gyro’s wouldn’t be complete for me without mentioning my feline soul-mate, Shakti. (They say every feline-loving writer succumbs to writing about a cat sooner or later.) Shakti was a tame kitty when it came to eating–she was relatively satisfied with dry cat food and enjoyed an occasional tortilla chip for fun. But, that said, she was insane for Mr. Gyro’s Greek salad dressing. She rarely misbehaved by jumping onto kitchen counters or tables. The exception was when a Mr. Gyro’s carry-out box was to be found. She would bat at the top of the container until it popped open or even knock it to the floor. We would find her, eyes closed in foodie ecstasy, licking away at the salad dressing.

Over the 20+ years of Shakti’s life, I swear she could sniff out Mr. Gyro’s when we pulled into the garage with carry-out. As we stepped into the house, she would be darting about like an excited pooch (she was a little mixed up in the head that way). At least I can say my little feline soul mate had a discerning palate.

My Greek-food loving kitty protecting our boy

My Greek-food loving kitty protecting our boy

Mr Gyros Greek Food & Pastry on Urbanspoon

© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com, 2013.

Saturday Night at the Pupuseria

If you’re looking for some culinary exploration on a Saturday night, try venturing out to El Salvadoreno in downtown Overland Park. Yes, it’s deep in the heart of the Johnson County burbs, but it’ll taste like a trip to Central America, and it’s so worth it.

I had tried cuisine from El Salvador on just one other occasion quite a few years ago, so I still felt like a newbie as I studied the menu. Many things sounded familiar–enchiladas, fried yucca, tamales. Many things didn’t–pupusas, pastels and curtido. Mr. Sushipoet and I both opted for the El Salvadoreno Sampler, so we could try as many things as possible. As we waited for our dinners, I tried the Saturday night drink special–homemade sangria. It was good…and strong. The pour was moderately sized, but strong enough that I was feeling pretty mellow pretty quickly. Half a glass down, the bright overhead lights didn’t seem all that harsh, and I grew giddy anticipating a delicious tamale and pupusa.

At last our sampler plates arrived, loaded with a pork, bean and cheese pupusa; chicken tamale; yucca frita; beef pastel and an enchilada. The server brought two bottles of Salvadoran salsa–one hot and one mild.

Let’s start with the pupusa. Think of it as the Salvadoran version of flatbread that’s found in many cuisines around the globe. It’s made with masa and has a fluffier texture than most. It reminded me most of an Indian paratha. It’s stuffed with cheese, pork and beans, but these ingredients are in a paste-like form, giving the pupusa a very creamy, luscious texture.

The beef pastel is a crispy little meat pie, reminiscent of an empanada, and was quite flavorful. The chicken tamale is different than the tamales you’re accustomed to at local Mexican eateries. The masa is white corn and has a softer, creamier texture. It’s filled with chicken and potatoes and is delicious with Salvadoran hot salsa.

Another departure from what you may be accustomed to is the enchilada. Rather than a corn tortilla filled with cheese or meat, these enchiladas have a crisp, fried flatbread on the bottom and then are piled high with beans and salad.

If you’ve never had fried yucca before, you’re in for a treat. At El Salvadoreno, they’re fried in vegetable oil until they’re pleasantly crispy on the outside and smooth and buttery on the inside. I think I could eat a plateful. I think I shall. Soon.

The sampler plate is a generous introduction to the many dishes at El Salvadoreno. I was stuffed halfway through and happily brought home a to-go box. Just a few hours later, though, the siren song from the fridge was irresistible, and I found myself munching down the rest of my dinner.

I’m planning my next visit to El Salvadoreno already. An intense craving for pupusas, fried yucca and tamales has me obsessed.

El Salvadoreno Sampler (clockwise from top): chicken tamale, enchilada, beef pastel, pupusa, and yuca frita in the center

El Salvadoreno Sampler (clockwise from top): chicken tamale, enchilada, beef pastel, pupusa, and yuca frita in the center

El Salvadoreno

7926 Santa Fe Drive, Overland Park, KS 66204 913-871-6165
El Salvadoreño on Urbanspoon

© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com, 2012.

Thanksgiving — for my Mentor in the Kitchen

Experimenting in the kitchen has been one of my hobbies since I was a little kiddo. It all started with an Easy Bake Oven, progressed to children’s cookbooks and eventually to recipes from the newspaper and real cookbooks. While my parents and grandma seemed to enjoy my concoctions, my mom was less than thrilled with my impact on the grocery budget. Our collection of spices grew, but, alas, many of the little jars were used only once, hardly justifying the expense.

Over the years, I had fun experimenting in the kitchen, but I didn’t have a real culinary mentor. I learned from cookbooks. If one cookbook called for a can of cream of mushroom soup, and another required a roux, I didn’t really appreciate the difference. Then, in my late twenties, I found myself on a plane, flying to San Diego, to manage the monastery kitchen for a community of Benedictine nuns. (It’s a long story that I won’t delve into just now.)

Sure, I liked to cook and putter around in the kitchen, but feeding 30 nuns three meals a day was daunting. By definition, monks’ lives aren’t exactly filled with sensual pleasures. Their days stretch out in silence, solitude, self-denial. The pleasures of the palate are one of the few indulgences in their daily routines. Serve them something unpalatable, and you’ll have some cranky ascetics to console.

I arrived in San Diego in late summer, which meant that within a few short months Thanksgiving and all its culinary challenges would descend upon my shoulders. God help me. Which She did–in the form of a tall and lanky angel named Sr. Mary Salome. Managing a kitchen is a physically challenging job, and Sr. Salome was ready to hang up her apron and hand the spatula to someone younger. She promised, though, that she wouldn’t retire until she had taught me the ways of the monastery kitchen.

We spent hours huddled over cookbooks in the tiny kitchen office as she taught me menu-planning basics and pointed out the nuns’ favorite recipes. We toured the pantry, refrigerators and freezers, and she taught me how to use the industrial food processor, mixers, meat slicer, bread slicer, and enormous gas range. With all the heavy lifting that managing a kitchen demanded, I developed some real biceps and overcame my fear of schlepping giant pots of boiling potatoes from stovetop to sink.

Was I ready for the daunting task of a Thanksgiving banquet for 30 nuns and their guests? It didn’t matter. Thanksgiving week was upon us, and it was during this week that Salome’s passion for the art of cooking from scratch infected me completely.

We baked whole pumpkins and scooped out their savory innards for pies, experimenting with the delicate balance of spices. Chefs knives in hand, we cubed and chopped bread, onions and celery for stuffing. Salome instructed me to use celery with lots of fresh leaves and explained how those leaves, coarsely chopped, would add flavor to the stuffing. We simmered industrial-sized skillets of butter, onions and celery until the fragrance wafted down all the monastery halls and permeated us from veil-covered head to monk-sandaled toe. We trussed turkeys and made cranberry relish by grinding cranberries and oranges, skin and all. I was in awe of Salome’s culinary wisdom. The flavors and textures she created were magical. I vowed never to use prepared foods again. Ever. (That would be one more vow I haven’t quite kept.)

Salome eventually retired from the kitchen, bestowing upon me the responsibility of nurturing a monastery of quiet, gentle monks with a little culinary happiness every day. I learned to brew up a pot of hot lemon juice and honey (with a little whiskey) during flu season, so the nuns could toddle off to bed with a steamy, comforting mug. I acquired a reputation for surprising the community with warm baked goods on Sunday mornings, but I never felt I quite filled Salome’s shoes.

A few years later, I would make a wrenching decision to retire in my own way–leaving the monastery for life in the secular world. But Salome’s passion for cooking had infected my soul, and as I made a little home for myself, I purchased many of the same pieces of culinary equipment that Salome had taught me to use (the nonindustrial version, of course). One at a time, I collected the cookbooks that contained her favorite recipes and eventually learned to prepare them in quantities that were more appropriate for a few dinner guests, rather than a monastic community.

As I chop and sauté onions and celery on Thanksgiving, I always send up heartfelt thanks to Sr. M. Salome for sharing her love of cooking with me. If you’ve ever had a culinary guru, take a break from the heat of the stove on this holiday and wrap him or her in a messy, sweaty hug of thanks, literally or figuratively.

The day of my monastic profession. Published with gracious permission from C. Bruce and J. Hong, my cousins.

© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com, 2012.

Be Fearless–Order Rare

My lust for raw hamburger started more years ago than I care to remember. I clearly recall the very moment when I first encountered its luscious flavor and texture, but most other facts about the occasion are pretty fuzzy.

I can picture standing at a professional gas stove with a young woman whose name has evaporated from memory. On the stove before us was an enormous cast iron skillet filled with hamburger and chunks of onion. We watched and stirred as the mixture sizzled. My cohort in the kitchen gave me a mischievous look and asked if I liked raw hamburger. I didn’t know, as I’d never tried it. She scooped a spoonful of hamburger and onion from the skillet, tutoring me on the perfect mixture of crispy, seared hamburger, raw hamburger and onion. To the mix she added a dash of salt, but sprinkled black pepper with a heavy hand. When I saw her penchant for pepper, I knew we were culinary cohorts. As she savored the spoonful, an irrepressible smile took hold of her face, and her eyes shimmered.

I grabbed a spoon of my own and nearly swooned at the mix of flavors and textures. The seared portion of the hamburger was hot and crunchy. The raw portion was cool and creamy. The onions and pepper added a bite, while the salt intensified the flavors and brought everything together.

Over the years I developed quite a habit of nibbling at hamburger in the skillet. If I was browning for tacos, spaghetti sauce or some other generic casserole, a little of the measured portion of hamburger never made it to the final dish. Sadly, though, with more and more news stories about food contamination, I’ve curbed my habit and indulge in raw hamburger less frequently. I’d like to blame the many microbiologists I work with for filling my head with microscopic fears.

Then Blanc Burgers + Bottles arrived on the dining scene in Kansas City. The very first time I glimpsed the menu, my eyes landed on the au poivre burger, I ordered it, and haven’t deviated in my many meals at Blanc since. A hamburger crusted in black pepper, served with watercress, green peppercorn sauce and grilled onions on a brioche bun–could there be anything more perfect?

The au poivre with truffle fries and Blanc’s homemade catsup and aioli

On one particular visit a couple of years ago, my foodie guardian angel whispered “rare” in my ear as I ordered my usual. I hesitated momentarily and then asked the server if I could have my burger prepared rare, to which he replied “of course”. As I waited for my rare au poivre, I considered the wisdom of my decision and then concluded that if there ever was a safe place to eat nearly raw hamburger, it was at Blanc. I was confident of their quality and kitchen standards.

By now I’ve eaten more rare au poivre burgers at Blanc than I can count. Combined with the truffle fries slathered in Blanc’s luscious aioli, this is one of my favorite meals in Kansas City. It’s comfort food that takes me back to that day when I leaned over a cast iron skillet, indulging in my first taste of succulent raw hamburger.
Blanc Burgers + Bottles on Urbanspoon

© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com, 2012.

A Dilemma of Too Many Favorites

I’m a habit eater, and by that I mean once I find a favorite dish at a restaurant, I order it 99.9% of the time. I associate that restaurant with my favorite dish there, so when and if I do stray from my habit, I inevitably have to return soon to satisfy that unfulfilled craving.

Blue Koi Noodles and Dumplings has been one of my favorite eateries for quite a few years, but it wreaks havoc with my single-favorite-dish OCD. There simply are too many delectable things to choose from. The dumplings, in all their varieties, always are spot-on delicious. The mix-and-match entrees (select a protein, select a sauce, select a starch) are wonderful in any combination. What’s a rigid person like me to do? The answer is to go back often and eat pretty much everything on the menu.

That said, I have narrowed down my favorite options at Blue Koi to two appetizers and two entrees. To solve my appetizer dilemma, I try to dine with enough people to warrant ordering two appetizers to share. (So don’t be fooled by what appears to be my generosity in ordering two appetizers; I’m merely satisfying my own food lust.) During my first few years of dining at Blue Koi, I didn’t have this problem, as my life was perfectly content with the crispy tofu appetizer. Then came a certain girls’ night out with my friend G, who introduced me to the scallion biscuit. Who would think a plain-looking disk of an appetizer could send your foodie world reeling? Don’t be fooled by its simple, brown-food appearance. A slice of a scallion biscuit, drizzled in its accompanying dip of soy sauce and scallions and topped with a little chili oil is a heady thing–a perfect mix of crunchy texture and savory flavors.

If the scallion biscuit has a humble appearance, the crispy tofu served with Awesome sauce (yes, that’s its name) has a brighter, more exotic appearance. The cheerful, bite-sized cubes of crispy, fried tofu are tossed onto a plate with sunny sugar snap peas. The bowl of Awesome sauce is just waiting for you to dip cubes of tofu. The server dare not assume we’re done just because one cube of tofu remains on the plate. Try to clear that plate from the table, and I’ll stab you with my chopsticks. This appetizer is too delicious to waste. There’s always room for one more piece of crispy tofu swimming in Awesome sauce and chili oil.

The scallion biscuit and crispy tofu

Just in case you still have room for an entrée after two delicious appetizers, my go-to dish at Blue Koi is the braised tofu with shitake mushrooms. With this entrée, like many at Blue Koi, you have a choice of white rice, brown rice or noodles. The noodles at Blue Koi are wonderful (albeit a bit unwieldy for chopsticks), and when combined with the tofu, mushrooms and crunchy cucumbers in this dish, are soul-satisfying.

Braised tofu and shitake mushrooms with noodles

On those rare occasions when I’m in the mood for something just a little different, Choice Number 2 is tofu with black bean sauce, served with brown rice. I’ve always been a pushover for black bean sauce, and the flavors of this dish at Blue Koi are far superior. The spicy, brown sauce warms your heart as much as your palate.

Tofu with black bean sauce

One of the many things I appreciate about Blue Koi is that there is something on the menu for everyone–carnivore, vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. If you want a slight twist on a dish, such as trading veggies for mushrooms, they are happy to accommodate your preference. Scott and Mindy Chang will do whatever it takes to satisfy your cravings at any given moment. Their warm, inviting presence in the restaurant is a sign of their pride and enthusiasm for their family recipes from Taiwan and China.

Blue Koi Noodles and Dumplings opened its first location in midtown Kansas City, Missouri, in January 2007 and followed with the second location at Mission Farms in Overland Park, Kansas, a few years later. The Mission Farms location is conveniently close to work and home for me, so I’ve dined there many times with coworkers, friends and family. I have to dine there often to satisfy my dilemma of too many favorites.

Blue Koi on Urbanspoon

© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com, 2012.

Primal Food Cravings Fulfilled–A Moroccan Tajeen

When you’re told you’re going Long Beach, California, on a business trip for a few days, you react to the news with the slightest hint of inconvenience and professional self-sacrifice. At least on the outside that’s how you act. On the inside, you’re pretty much singing and dancing. Is there such a thing as an undesirable foodie destination in California? I think not.

Once the travel arrangements were set, my only concern was whether my travel companions were adventuresome eaters, anxious to hit the streets in search of exotic flavors or cautious eaters who are happy with the safe fare of a predictable hotel restaurant. I discovered I was in for a good time when my coworker T. suggested Asha Moroccan and Mediterranean Kitchen for our first dinner in Long Beach. I certainly liked her before the trip, and now I liked her even more.

I think every TV foodie personality I’ve ever watched has covered the Moroccan tajeen. I’ve salivated from my couch as Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain each sat in intimate kitchens savoring the delicate meats, vegetables and flavors in this traditional Moroccan dish. When I found tajeens on the menu at Asha, I was beside myself with foodie joy. I was about to have a close encounter with a dish that’s long been on my culinary bucket list.

There are many, many delectable dishes on the menu at Asha, and it was really tempting to indulge in some vegetarian couscous, but I knew deep down that I couldn’t pass up this rare opportunity for a tajeen. Before departing for Long Beach, I had declared my trip to be a personal four-day seafood extravaganza. The options for tajeens included chicken, lamb and seafood–once again my foodie guardian angels had my back.

T. and I placed our orders enthusiastically and with great anticipation. The first little touch of flavorfulness arrived in the bottle of water our waitress brought. It contained a cinnamon stick, infusing an ordinary bottle of water with a hint of happy cinnamon. That was a nice touch. Next our waitress arrived with a complimentary assortment of wild cucumber pickles, laban (a yogurt-based dip) and pita chips. The cucumber pickles added good crunch and a salty, tangy flavor to our meal. The laban, which is sprinkled with sumac and other secret herbs, was cool and subtle.

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Wild cucumber pickles, laban and pita chips

When the waitress placed the shiny, white tajeen pot before me, I could hardly contain my excitement. She quickly removed the chimney-like lid, which made me a little sad, as I wanted to admire its graceful lines for a moment and uncover the contents with the pomp befitting a bucket-list event.

This lovely dish lived up to all the anticipation. The stew was a subtle yet flavorful soup, perfect for mixing with the accompanying couscous. The vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, green pepper and green beans) were delectably tender, as was the salmon hiding at the bottom, patiently waiting to be discovered. Asha serves tajeen with a very generous serving of couscous, so you can be sure to capture every bit of the stew.

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Seafood tajeen with couscous

When a server came by at the end of the meal to clear our plates, he started to ask if everything had been satisfactory, but he stopped midsentence when he caught a glimpse of my empty tajeen and how it looked as if I had licked it clean. I felt a big chagrined, but I didn’t need to–a plate that clean is a compliment to the chef.

T. and I both found Asha so wonderful that we swore we would return, and so, two days later, our palates led us back to our new food home for lunch. I took our waiter’s suggestion and tried the chicken tawook–a house favorite. His recommendation was a good one. The lunch portion was a single skewer of grilled chicken on a bed of basmati rice. For a side, I chose the Asha salad, which was a delicious mix of roma tomatoes, cucumbers, avocadoes, onions and cilantro tossed with lemon juice and lots of black and white pepper. Again, our every reasonably-priced lunches were served with the complimentary plate of pickles, laban and pita chips.

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Chicken tawook, Asha salad, and wild cucumber pickles

After this second meal at Asha, I knew that this great little restaurant in the East Village was the kind of place I could never get enough of. As soon as you waddle out the door, food endorphins flowing, you just want to turn around and go back in for more.

A few years ago I had genetic testing done by a direct-to-consumer testing company and was surprised to discover that my genes are 66% similar with people in northern Africa–specifically the early inhabitants of current Morocco. Perhaps my fascination with this part of the globe arises from something primal and basic in my nature. I consider my two wonderful meals at Asha to be appetizers–whetting my appetite for a trip I hope to make to wander the streets of Marrakesh with unknown relatives and dine on delicacies from a distant homeland.
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© Sherry Burns and sushipoet.wordpress.com, 2012.