Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Monsoon is a Vietnamese restaurant in the Capitol Hill district of Seattle. It's got a high-end look and sensibility to it, with a cool minimalist interior with lots of blonde wood, white walls, and a semi-open kitchen, and an interesting menu that combines traditional Vietnamese flavors with local produce and regional products. We had dinner there for the first time last night, and liked it a lot.

We started out with Beef with La Lot Leaves, which is a common item on a lot of Vietnamese menus. In this variation, the beef was wrapped around a stick of jicama, which gave it a nice crunch. I've seen beef wrapped around onions, where the onions squirt out as soon as you bite them, but this worked a lot better. La lot leaves are hard to describe. They stay fairly strong (in terms of shear strength) when cooked, and have an interesting flavor that's not quite minty but not quite something else. There were also some pickled shallots, which not too many Vietnamese restaurants in this area seem to serve, which is too bad because they're tasty. We also started with green papaya salad with grilled tiger prawns and rau ram. It was excellent. The prawns were not highly spiced, and were more of an undertone to the dish.

For entrees, we shared seared diver scallops, which were served with some rice and shallot nuoc mam (fish sauce). The sauce was somewhat sweet. This was a really good dish, great flavors.

We also had wokked venison with yellow curry, peanuts, and wood ear mushrooms. It was served mixed in with rice glass noodles. This was a good dish, maybe not as good as the scallops, but quite tasty, and the yellow curry was subtle but had a nice flavor and kick.

For dessert we shared a warm banana cake served with a coconut cream. The coconut cream was not sweet, but was instead salty, which was a nice contrast with the warm, sweet banana cake.

The wine list is pretty amazing. I never quite know what I'll like with this kind of food. They had a gruner veltliner available by the glass, which we both had, and it worked really well with the food.

It was full when we got there (7:30pm on a Monday night) so I was glad we made reservations.

Mexican Everyday

We have a couple of Rick Bayless's cookbooks. If you want good recipes for authentic Mexican food, it's hard to beat them. Bayless does the classics well, and his more original creations are also great. But we don't use his books as often as we'd like, because the recipes can be a bit...involved. I've made tortillas by hand and made an adobo out of a zillion ingredients with spices ground by hand, but sometimes I just want a quick meal. I guess Bayless has heard this particular whine quite a bit, and noticed on recent trips to Mexico that real people don't cook in the way that his cookbooks describe except for special occasions, just like us. So, Bayless put together Mexican Everyday, which has much simpler recipes, sometimes even using prepared ingredients (*gasp*), but with the same attention to taste and flavor that distinguished his earlier works.

I was jonesing for some Mexican food, and the options around here aren't so great, so I put together a meal of Chipotle Beef Tacos with Caramelized Onions, Frijoles Charros Rapidos, and Jicama Salad with Watercress, Romaine and Lime-Cilantro Dressing.
Mexican Dinner
The recipes were quite straightforward. You make the steak by taking one of those little cans of chipotle in adobo sauce and puréeing it, and then brushing it onto the steak--skirt or flank. I used flank, because the local market doesn't carry skirt steak (grr). Then you slice white onions 1/4" thick, and sautee them until a little caramelized but still a little firm. Then cook the steak on the same pan, about 5 minutes a side for flank steak, cut it up into edible slices, and serve with heated tortillas and some salsa. I used a higher-end store-bought chipotle salsa. I was going to make a caramelized tomatillo salsa in the book but got lazy.

The jicama salad was perhaps the best thing I've had with jicama. The jicama is peeled and julienned 1/4" (I think I did more like 1/2"), and added to some watercress (long stems removed) and 4 leaves romaine, chiffonaded 1/4". The dressing in the recipe makes way too much, so I cut it down by 1/3. It ended up being 1/4c olive oil, juice of 1/2 a lime, a bit of grated lime zest, about 1/4c cilantro leaves, and about 1/2 a chopped jalapeño. I blended it in the mini-food processor attachment to the stick blender. It came out nice and creamy. Toss and serve.

The "Quick Cowboy Beans" were amazing as well. I think they were the best version I've ever had, and were easy to boot. Cook 4 thick slices of bacon, chopped, in a saucepan until a bit crisp, add a couple of smashed garlic cloves and cook for a minute, then add 1/2 of a can of Muir Glen diced fire-roasted tomatoes (I used the ones with green chilis). Cook for a few minutes, add 2 15oz cans of pinto beans and simmer for 15 minutes. Add 1 seeded and chopped pickled jalapeño. You can sprinkle chopped cilantro on top. I used Hempler's bacon (the end bits, much cheaper) which really made the dish, I think. I don't know if it would be the same with Oscar Mayer bacon.

There's a recipe for Cochinita Pibil which looks great, and I'm going to have to try it. Instead of burying a pig in a dirt BBQ pit, which I'm just not going to do for a casual dinner (especially given how cold the ground is these days), you cook a pork shoulder wrapped in banana leaves in a slow cooker.

So far I'm impressed with the recipes--they are quicker but still capture what's compelling about a particular dish. The book was co-authored by Deann Groen Bayless.