Blog Archives

Picante, Berkeley CA

Mondays are the toughest night to find a restaurant open for dinner.  It’s even tougher for those with special diets, like vegan or gluten-free.  Any diner, special diet or not, can rest easier knowing there is a delicious Mexican restaurant in the East Bay that caters to all clientele – AND it’s open on Monday nights!  Picante in Berkeley is open seven days a week with extended hours on the weekends for brunch, so you’re bienvenido no matter what day it is.

tostada salad with manchamanteles

tostada salad with manchamanteles

August was recently working with some of her students on compound words, and manchamanteles is one of them.  It’s a style of meat called “tablecloth stainer” because the sauce of the chicken will surely make the linens dingy.  The tostada salad can come meatless and even gluten-free if you request it without the tostadas, even though it would no longer be a tostada salad if you didn’t have the fried tortillas; without the meat and tostadas, though, it would be one of the healthiest, most nutrient-packed items on the menu.  We love our vegetarian friends, but for ourselves, we had to try the special manchamanteles.  The sauce is made with a grilled pineapple red mole, so there was a deep earthiness from the array of chiles used, plus a mild sweetness from the caramelization of the pineapple.  Chunky pico de gallo had its own tomato-based tangy acidity, and the cabbage also was faintly sweet.  All together, those three elements on the sweet side fooled the palate into thinking it was a lighter meal than it really was.  In reality, it was super filling and beyond satisfying.  Fresh, crunchy greens, locally made Mexican-style cheese, and stewed and lightly spiced black beans completed this salad.  There was enough going on that we didn’t need the dressing, but it added a delightfully fresh bite.

sopa de mariscos

sopa de mariscos

Ordering is done at the counter before you seat yourself, and we asked our cashier lady what she would recommend.  August had already been eying the sopa de mariscos, so when the cashier said it was good, that finalized our decision.  There was a little bit of heat, but it wasn’t uncomfortable (although it may be for the timid).  At least the heat didn’t travel past the mouth, making our faces flush or throats burn.  Beyond the heat, it was a very rich broth with intense seafood flavor, tangy tomato, and a slight buttery quality.  Hunks of tender rockfish swam with lots of clams, mussels, and prawns, and it was a pleasant surprise that all the shellfish was very clean as well as fresh – prepared well, there was no hidden sand to grind our teeth.  That would be an unwanted texture, while the carrots, onions, celery, and potatoes were cooked just right so that they retained a touch of their natural textures.  With the fog coating this part of the Bay tonight, it was a wonderful way to warm up.

pork chile verde

pork chile verde

While ordering at the counter, we chanced an encounter with the manager, who offered us samples of different meats.  They all tasted great, but the pork chile verde was one of the most impressive.  It must have been intuition that that was the third item we ordered, before trying the meat samples.  The pork was fork tender, almost to the point of melting in your mouth.  Its sauce was made with tomatillo and Anaheim chile, marrying the flavors with the perfect balance to enhance the meat without overtaking the plate.  On the side came rice cooked with tomato, garlic, onion, and mild spices, and Zach called it “spot on with flavors.”  The pinto beans were both salty and smoky; the flavors were basic, but extremely well done for what they were.  Between the beans, rice, and pork sauce, this dish required the use of tortillas for sopping.  One of Picante’s claims to fame is their corn tortillas – GMO-free corn is used daily to make masa for the restaurant’s housemade tortillas.

The GMO-free corn goes into the tortillas as well as chips and masa for other dishes, so eat those corn-based items without worry.  For diners who appreciate in-house, scratch cooking, this restaurant will meet or exceed your expectations.  If you really love the food, catering is available for your next fiesta.  Picante nos place and we bet you’ll be pleased, too.

Homemade Mini Pizzas, Three Ways

Scratch dough for amazing pizza is not hard at all.  This recipe is perfect to portion out for three mini pizzas; use it for one big pizza, and it may reach about 20″ across!  But if the people you’re cooking for can’t decide on one pizza to share, explore our three recipes here for inspiration.  We had one that was vegetarian, a pepperoni with extra cheese and a few other extras, and “green eggs and ham,” a tasty tribute to Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

• For the dough:

3 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups of lukewarm water

3 tbs. of extra virgin olive oil

2 1/4 tsp. of dry active yeast

2 tsp. of kosher salt

1 tsp. of brown sugar

blooming yeast

blooming yeast

Bloom the yeast in lukewarm water by combining the yeast, water, and brown sugar in a bowl.  Whisk to dissolve the yeast and sugar.  Let sit for 10 minutes to activate itself.

on the hook

on the hook

In a Kitchenaid mixing bowl, mix the flour and salt.  Attach to your Kitchenaid with a dough hook.  Add the yeast mixture and olive oil to the flour, and mix on speed 2 for 5 minutes.

divided

divided

Transfer the dough to a cutting board (the board doesn’t need to be floured, the dough shouldn’t be that sticky).  Divide the dough into 3 parts with a knife or bench scraper.

placed for proofing

placed for proofing

Gently roll the dough into balls and place on a cookie sheet that has been lightly greased with olive oil.

covered

covered

Cover the dough with plastic wrap very lightly, to allow the dough room to expand.  You can even brush the dough with a little olive oil so the plastic wrap doesn’t stick so much.  Let the dough proof on a countertop or oventop for an hour to 1 1/2 hours until the balls have quadrupled in size; it’s okay if they touch each other when they rise.

• For the pesto sauce (used in two of the pizzas):

2 cups of packed fresh basil leaves

2/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup of BelGioioso Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup of toasted pine nuts

3-4 garlic cloves (to taste)

1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. fresh cracked black pepper

In a food processor, blend basil, garlic, and pine nuts together until coarsely chopped.  Add 1/2 cup of olive oil, and process until smooth.  Add salt and pepper and remaining oil, and pulse until well blended.  Put pesto in a bowl, and mix in cheese with a spoon.  Set aside.

Marsala wine can make a saute taste magical, and pesto has that wonderful earthiness thanks to the pine nuts.  This is a vegetarian dish with marvelous flavors, and August pictures it’s the pizza that woodland fairies and gnomes would eat.

• For the vegetarian pizza:

1 ball of dough

1 cup of shredded whole milk, low moisture mozzarella cheese

1 yellow zucchini, sliced in coins

1 chanterelle mushroom

2 brown mushrooms

2 morel mushrooms

3 tbs. of pesto sauce

2 tbs. of Marsala wine

1 tbs. of butter

1/2 tsp. of minced garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F, and preheat a pizza stone in the oven at the same time.

Slice all the mushrooms.  Melt the butter in a saute pan over medium heat.  Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds to awaken the flavor.  Add the mushrooms and cook for 3-4 minutes.  Add the wine, salt, and pepper and cook for 2-3 minutes more.  Taste at the end to make sure the alcohol is cooked out, and that it is properly salted.  Remove from heat.

shaping

shaping

Stretch out the pizza dough on a cutting board dusted with flour and finely ground corn meal, and form an outer ridge for the crust.  Spread the pesto across the dough within the crust, leaving a half-inch border between the sauce and the ridge.

arranged

arranged

Sprinkle on the cheese, then arrange the vegetables.  Bake on the pizza stone for 12-16 minutes – timing depends on your oven and preference of doneness, so keep an eye on it.

vegetarian mini pizza

vegetarian mini pizza

If we’re feeling really lazy, the pizza we order without thought or compromise is pepperoni, olive, and extra cheese (it pleases everyone in the house).  Zach’s homemade version will make us rethink placing future orders, because no chain pizza place can hold a candle to this recipe.

• For the cheesy pepperoni pizza:

1 ball of dough

1 cup of shredded whole milk, low moisture mozzarella cheese

5 medium-thick slices of fresh mozzarella cheese

1 4-oz. can of tomato sauce

1/4 cup of sliced black olives

12-16 slices of pepperoni

8 slices of salami

1 tsp. of minced garlic

1 tsp. of onion powder

1/2 tsp. of dried oregano

A few fresh basil leafs, finely minced

Keep the oven at 425 degrees F, and reheat the pizza stone in the oven.  Mix the tomato sauce with the garlic, onion powder, oregano, and basil.  Stretch out the pizza dough on a cutting board dusted with flour and finely ground corn meal, and form an outer ridge for the crust.  Spread the tomato sauce across the dough within the crust, leaving a half-inch border between the sauce and the ridge.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sprinkle on the shredded cheese, arrange the sliced cheese, lay down the meat slices, and finesse with black olives.  Bake on the heated pizza stone for 14-18 minutes – like the first pizza, timing depends on your oven and preference of doneness, but this one needs to bake a little longer than the first one because of the extra cheese.

super cheesy and meaty mini pizza

super cheesy and meaty mini pizza

Since the 1940s, the works by Dr. Seuss have had an impact on early childhood development and education.  Few know that he also served in World War II, but even then it was as a commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit in the U.S. Air Force, writing wartime propaganda films (no kidding).  Some people, no matter where they are or what’s happening in the world, are resourceful and resilient and keep doing what they do no matter what because it’s what’s important to do.  Said Sam I Am.

• For the green eggs and ham pizza:

1 ball of dough

1 cup of shredded whole milk, low moisture mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup of diced pancetta

6 mini purple potatoes

3 cage-free egg yolks

3 tbs. of pesto sauce

Keep the oven at 425 degrees F for the final pizza, and heat the pizza stone in the oven once more. In a small pot, boil the potatoes in water over medium heat for 15 minutes; you want them to be al dente, not fully cooked.  Let cool, and slice in half.

Stretch out the pizza dough on a cutting board dusted with flour and finely ground corn meal, and form an outer ridge for the crust.  Spread the pesto sauce across the dough within the crust, leaving a half-inch border between the sauce and the ridge.

general arrangement

general arrangement

Sprinkle on the cheese and diced pancetta, and lay out the halved potatoes.  DO NOT place the egg yolks yet – we have done this purely for picture’s sake so you can get a visual of placement.

Bake on the heated pizza stone for 12-16 minutes – again, timing depends on your oven and preference of doneness.  However, the time to add the egg yolks is at the last 2 minutes of baking.  Gently make little wells in the melted cheese with a spoon and carefully lay the yolks in the wells.  If they bake on the pizza too long, they will harden and not be creamy.

green eggs and ham pizza

green eggs and ham mini pizza

Border Grill, Las Vegas NV

It’s hot in Las Vegas this weekend!  We are here for a short jaunt, and as we find restaurants in which to dine and beat the heat, we’ll share with you, as always, the spectacular food.  The last time we were here was for Vegas Uncork’d, and among the many chefs we met during those few days, Chef Mike Minor made a warm impression on us.  We saw him again, as well as Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, at Cooking For Solutions in Monterey, so we figured after running into them enough, it’s about time that we try the restaurant that belongs to all three: Border Grill.  Chef Mike is the executive chef, and chefs Mary Sue and Susan are the founders and creative heads.  It helps that we personally know one other member of the crew – Zach’s cousin Alex is a server’s assistant here but it was his night off, so the three of us went out to eat.

border classics

border classics

We couldn’t decide on a single appetizer, so Alex suggested that we try Border Classics, with three popular items on one plate.  Apparently some people who come here don’t know how to eat the tamales because they’ve never seen them before; being native Californians, we grew up with a distinct awareness of Mexican food so we take these kinds of things for granted.  Alex laughed about people not knowing to unwrap the tamales, freeing the naturally sweet filling from the corn husk.  The three of us really liked the tender and creamy masa, and while it was creamy, it was not blended.  There was still some corn texture in the mix.  The tacos arrived with huge dollops of creamy guacamole with the slightest bit of acidity.  The chicken in the tacos, made panucho style, was juicy and delightfully charred.  It was layered inside the slightly crispy fried tortillas with flavorful black beans.  The empanadas to the right contained plantains and black beans, with cotija cheese and a bit of chipotle salsa on top.  They were an excellent blend of sweet and savory, with a sharp bite from the cheese and still-crisp edges keeping the ingredients folded together.

watercress, jicama, and orange salad

watercress, jicama, and orange salad

Part of the philosophy at Border Grill is “good for the planet, good for you.”  Organic ingredients, hormone and antibiotic-free meats, and sustainable seafood are key elements of the menu.  Some items are made with at least 80% plant-based ingredients, like this salad.  The green mix of watercress, julienned jicama, avocado chunks, and green apple cubes was accented by toasted pine nuts and orange supremes with a toasted coriander vinaigrette.  The stars of the show, though, were the bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed with chorizo and blue cheese.  The sweet creamy center was balanced by the bite from the blue cheese, and the crisp, smoky, perfectly rendered bacon rounded it out.  Overall, the best word to describe this salad is “sharp.”

chicken poblano enchiladas

chicken poblano enchiladas

A creamy but not heavy green sauce had a mild roasted chile flavor with a very slightly spicy bite, just enough to let you know it was there.  The sauce covered and formed a pool for three enchiladas with an abundance of smoked chicken, grilled corn, wild mushrooms, and charred poblano chiles.  Like everything here, the corn tortillas are scratch-made, further attesting to the glory of real, hand-made food.  The corn brought an extra sweetness to the dish, working well together with the slight bite of the poblano chile sauce.

tecate carnitas

tecate carnitas

August got her own hand-made tortilla with her entree, perfect for wiping up the dregs.  Black beans surrounded a heap of cheesy grits, piled with pork carnitas and bits of jalapeño bacon.  The pork was moist and tender (no knife needed), and while it was tasty on its own, it was best in a mouthful with the grits, which were creamy and definitely cheesy.  Mexican food is stereotypically thought of as spicy, but this plate was far from spicy.  In fact, the perceived heat came from the thinly sliced red onion, which really added more of a zing than anything.  This is a great choice for someone who doesn’t want Mexican spicy, but appreciates all the rich flavor.  Alex made a burrito once with the dish’s three main parts, and he said it was one of the best burritos “evar.”

4 halves

4 halves

Akin to the appetizers, we couldn’t make up our minds between the three of us when it came to dessert.  We were lucky, then, that we had the option to get two or even four half-sizes (and of course we went for four, the more the merrier).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

August had never before tried a flan which didn’t have that weird rubbery skin as a result of caramelization.  She was so surprised, then, when this flan was super creamy in texture throughout.  The rich vanilla custard was made more awesome by the deep caramel.  For a tres leches cake that wasn’t made by an abuelita in her own cocina, this was very, very close to authenticity.  Moist, spongy, and creamy, it was a light cake with sweet milk and the ideal amount of whipped cream.  The Mexican chocolate cream pie was basically a semisweet chocolate mousse made with Ibarra.  Ibarra is not meant to be eaten like a chocolate bar, although it can be and August did so very often growing up (and admittedly even through college).  You can imagine her delight in devouring this particular cream pie, then, with semisweet chocolate and cinnamon.  For chocolate as we’re more familiar with it, we chose the flourless cake.  It was like a slab of rich ganache on a drizzle of tart prickly pear lychee sauce, so in a word, “delicious.”

Para un sabor bastante leal a lo auténtico, no hay otro restaurante ubicado en The Strip que sirva.  You would be hard pressed to find another Mexican restaurant on The Strip that offers food that tastes so close to authenticity.