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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Great Mexican Supermarket Grub

Vallarta Supermarket, a Latino chain with a cluster of branches in the San Fernando Valley, has been expanding like a pack of Gremlins. Dirt cheap but scrupulously clean, they’re smart enough to branch out a little bit from the “Latino grocery store” stereotype, so that gabachos can do normal grocery shopping there too, says Das Ubergeek.

Hounds in the know have long headed to Vallarta for awesome aguas frescas, fresh tortillas and cheap produce, but the newer stores (like the NoHo one, having its grand opening) have counter service restaurants, too.

The prepared foods at Vallarta put other supermarket fare to shame. It’s easy to put together dinner for home with luscious carnitas by the pound, corn tortillas freshly made on the spot, tasty frijoles and fresh salsa. Chile rellenos, caldo de pollo and albondigas soup are excellent–all are freshly made and very inexpensive.

You can also get carne asada to grill at home–they’ll squeeze an orange over the meat before wrapping it up–and chicken milanesa.

Make sure to get some tres leches cake for dessert–it’s light and springy, soaked in milky deliciousness and topped with fresh strawberries. Bread pudding is another sure thing. Chongos and arroz con leche are supposed to be good too, but pan dulces are dry, dry, dry–with the exception of the guayaba (squares with guava jelly in the middle).

Serious sweet tooths should try some fresh dulces (Mexican candies).

Vallarta Supermarket [East San Fernando Valley]
13051 Victory Blvd., North Hollywood

Vallarta Supermarket [East San Fernando Valley]
6807 Woodman Ave., Van Nuys

Vallarta Supermarket [East San Fernando Valley]
16107 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys

Vallarta Supermarket [East San Fernando Valley]
10950 Sherman Way, Vineland, Burbank

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Vallarta Market–Everything AND MORE!
Dinner at Vallarta

Storing Apples

Apples like it cool, so don’t store them on the kitchen counter. Not many of us have root cellars these days, but that’s about the climate you want: cool and dark. A garage or basement would do, so long as the temperature doesn’t get below freezing.

The crisper drawer of the fridge will keep apples fresh quite a long time, if the drawer contains some humidity. Don’t store them with the onions, though; they’ll pick up off flavors.

You’ll get good results by putting the apples into a plastic bag with a few holes poked into it. Refrigerate.

Buy the freshest apples you can find. Before storing, check each apple for any damage. It’s true that one bad apple will spoil the lot.

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what’s the best way to store apples?

Candy at Target Stores

Target’s house-brand chocolate, called Choxie, is pretty to look at, but hounds say it tastes waxy and greasy. Hatless has found that some of the solid bars are OK. The Mexican-style dark chocolate bar, flavored with chile pepper and cinnamon, is pretty rich with a nice mouthfeel.

Txmasjoy goes to Target for the Turtle Doves. “These babies are lavishly packaged caramel and pecan hunks dipped in Dove milk chocolate and swooshed in Dove dark chocolate.”

They do have a large selection of old-fashioned candies that are hard to find elsewhere, adds BabyBee.

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Target’s store brand chocolate

No-Boil Lasagne Noodles and Permutations Thereof

No-boil lasagne noodles can work really well, provided you follow a few key steps in preparing your lasagne. Use plenty of sauce, make your sauce a bit thinner than you normally would, and make sure to cover the entire surface of the noodles with sauce. Cover your baking dish tightly with foil to keep all the moisture in the dish, removing the foil only at the end to brown the cheese on top. hbgrrl broils hers briefly after it’s fully cooked to brown the top. Karl S notes that no-boil lasagne sheets can come close to capturing the soft and silky feel of lasagne made with fresh pasta–but because they tend to be thinner than standard lasagne noodles, no-boil noodles may not stand up to overloaded, multi-layered American-style lasagnes. Many hounds favor Barilla brand no-boil noodles.

Some use the no-boil method–thinner sauce, more sauce, tightly covered dish, and more time in the oven–with standard dry lasagne noodles, using the same principles, and swear by the results. Others use a compromise method credited to Ina Garten of “Barefoot Contessa” fame: soak dry lasagne noodles in very hot tap water for 10-20 minutes before assembling your dish.

kate used to be 50’s secret is assembling her lasagne the night before, with either type of uncooked noodles, and refrigerating. Bring to room temperature and bake as usual; the finished dish is never watery and servings come out neatly.

hbgrrl points out that it’s always a good idea to let your lasagne rest for 15 minutes before serving to firm up and absorb some of the juices, or it will be a sloppy mess.

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Lasagna Noodles

Garlic – Slice, Mince, Press?

The more you do to a clove of garlic, the more potent its flavor will be. Slice the stuff into very thin slices, and it will melt into a sauce. Mince it, and you’ll get more of a garlic punch throughout your dish. Put it through a press or puree it, and it has the strongest flavor. Which method you choose will depend on what you’re cooking, how much garlic flavor you want, and how long the dish will be cooked.

Some hounds prefer to use pureed garlic in preparations where it’s used raw, like dressings or spreads, despite its potency, because biting into a whole chunk of raw garlic can be an unwelcome surprise.

Beyond using a garlic press, there are a few ways to pulverize or puree garlic. The simplest is to use a fine Microplane grater. A classic method is to first mince the garlic, then sprinkle it with salt and use the flat side of a chef’s knife to crush the garlic to a paste. You can do the same with chopped garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle.

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Garlic: crushed or chopped?

Yahoo Courts Foodies

New niche-interest site Yahoo! Food launched yesterday amid media buzz. Rightly so, as the site boasts content from big names and major mags: Yahoo! has partnered with MarStew, who shows up right on the homepage with Thanksgiving tips, and with others including Rach, Food & Wine, and Allrecipes. Recipes are the site’s bread and butter—Yahoo! Media cooked up the idea partly in response to the fact that around 4 p.m. every day, its search engine was bombarded with queries for the terms “chicken” and “recipe”—but Yahoo! Food also features original material, including a multicity restaurant-listings section and Q&As with celebs (Morgan Freeman is up now).

The organization of the recipes is eminently user-friendly, with tags right on the main recipe page allowing users to search by type of cuisine (Indian, German, etc.), health requirements (dairy free, high fiber), and even “taste & texture” (with fun categories like “buttery,” “light and airy,” and “velvety“). These kinds of searches are a bit less intuitive on sites like Epicurious that require users to go to an advanced search page. Yahoo! Food will also ostensibly include images of each dish (though now there are only a few, with lots of placeholder drawings), which Epicurious doesn’t do (opting instead for text-only recipes).

Still, this new Yahoo! has quite a few kinks to work out, and it remains to be seen whether it can attract the hard-core foodophiles that flock to sites like Chowhound and eGullet. (Full disclosure: Chowhound and CHOW are tight— duh.) Take the restaurant-review section: As Time rightly notes, that department is way off-kilter, naming a hole-in-the-wall (though supposedly good) Vietnamese place as its top-rated Los Angeles restaurant (based on just one review) and listing Starbucks in the top five results for the writer’s neighborhood search. (I can also vouch that its New York and San Francisco guides are just as random and chain heavy.)

Also in need of some tweaking is the “Still Hungry?” section at the bottom of each recipe, which offers “extras” like this one from Rachael Ray’s Pepitapapas recipe: “Prepare to impress with this deceptively easy dessert.” Umm, OK, that was supposed to have satisfied my hunger for knowledge? Also, there’s no real intro to each recipe. When you see a list of recipes in a given category, there are thumbnail intros like this one: “The traditional Portuguese kale and potato soup inspired this delicious country-style dish. It’s especially welcome in the winter months when kale is at its … MORE”. But you don’t actually end up seeing “more” when you click—it’s just straight into the recipe.

As the site builds its database of recipes, I have a feeling it will become one of my go-tos for inspiration and meal planning. But I think I’ll stick to other sites for my restaurant recs and food learnin’.

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Digging Up (Chocolate) Truffles

This month’s Bon Appétit puts a highly useful arrow in its readers’ home-cookery quiver with a piece on DIY chocolate truffles.

Truffles—like bagels, fried chicken, sushi, and a host of other foods we’re used to buying, rather than making—are sometimes thought to be beyond the reach of the average home cook. But they’re shockingly attainable, given a bit of interest and some high-quality bittersweet chocolate.

“Getting into Truffles” features the recipes of Vosges Haut-Chocolat founder Katrina Markoff, who is pictured looking a bit like a trust-fund hippie, sporting a Grateful Deadesque “Free Yourself” T-shirt while lavishing highbrow truffles with artisanal care. Her concept?

‘Because it’s my company, I was able to create things that seemed far-fetched,’ she says. Out went super-sweet fillings, and in went pasilla chiles, Tuscan fennel pollen, and wasabi.

Fennel pollen aside, the recipes provided in Bon Appétit have their feet planted squarely on the ground. Building off of a solid basic bittersweet chocolate truffle recipe, readers can concoct truffles in the key of lemon and thyme, mango curry or balsamic vinegar.

Homemade holday gifts can be kinda touch-and-go, but I can vouch for truffles. Nailing the perfectly spherical fresh-from-the-chocolatier look can be tricky, but attaining smooth, rich flavor is surprisingly simple.

And anyone who doesn’t like rich dark chocolate is unlikely to be worthy of a home-baked gift to begin with. Because they’re objectively wrong.