Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I Went Beyond the Kebab for Thrillist

So excited to share the fun piece I wrote for Thrillist on LA's best Persian food.  Since I expect my fellow Angelenos to all to be pro ethnic eaters, I decided to skip the obvious kebab choices and find some of the more obscure Persian eats around town.  Really delicious to research, so fun to write.  Check it out!

Thanks to Robert for the photo.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Coconut Caipirinhas

Two words:  coconut zeitgeist.  For reasons beyond my understanding, there is a force at work that keeps pushing coconut under my nose.  First it was the intriguing story of the strange San Francisco woman with tattooed-on freckles and a severe psychological disorder, whose Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club introduced us to the term "hipster toast".  Trouble's menu features an item called Build Your Own Damn House, consisting of a coffee, a piece of cinnamon toast, and a young coconut served with both a straw, for its water, and a spoon to scoop out its soft meat.

Lately, similar young coconuts have been on offer at the juice truck outside the Saturday Silver Lake Farmers Market, and I can't get enough of the young coconut juice slushy at Wat Dong Moon Lek.  Even the über-cool Ace Hotel is in on the game:  at a rooftop event called Discostan (after my own heart) a few Sunday afternoons ago, the frozen drink of the day was piña colada, and everyone had a glass of the frosty stuff in their hand.

It transcends food, though:  I swear by the somewhat hippy-dippy coconut body lotion I've used for years, but lately I've been hearing talk of using straight coconut oil, right from the food aisle, as everything from a hair conditioner to a facial moisturizer, and I gotta say, I'm not mad at the results (anyone else trying this?).

Not that I'm complaining.  I love all of this.  For me the smell of coconut is everything summer:  suntan lotion on the beach, tropical islands with swaying palm trees and pale blue waters.  I'll take it all.

So, you can imagine my delight when last month Smitten Kitchen featured a frozen coconut limeade.  In May, I spent some time in New York (same trip as Montreal), and a good friend introduced me to his adopted neighborhood of Inwood, a forgotten bit of upper-upper-upper Manhattan with old growth forest, Hudson River views, and undeniable Dominican flavor.  We had dinner at a place called Papasito, a Dominican-owned Mexican restaurant*.  No hipster minimalism here; people were here to smoke hookah, eat supple, well-spiced food, drink big pink cocktails, sway to the tropical music, and flirt.  I ordered a coconut caipirinha -- a frosty take on the Brazilian national cocktail of cachaça (Brazilian sugar cane liquor), lime, and sugar -- here mixed with coconut milk and served blended.  It was perfect.

So, In this weekend's killer heat, I invited myself over to the gorgeous home of my good friend Stephanie Alpert, who runs the killa vintage shop Rummage and Hollow, and pretty much forced her to make cocktails with me.
We started with the Smitten Kitchen recipe, doctored it to our liking, and spiked it with cachaça.  In the midst of serious summer heat, we were cool as a coconut.

Coconut Caipirinha
Inspired by Smitten Kitchen.
Makes 6 glasses.

I find it especially fitting to be posting this Brazilian cocktail on the heels of Brazil's pitiable defeat and elimination at the hands (and feet) of Germany yesterday.  If Neymar's tearjerker of a message didn't melt your heart, that game surely broke it.  Thanks for not rioting, Brazil.

5 cups small ice cubes or crushed ice
1 1/2 cups full-fat coconut milk
juice of 4 limes (about 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups cachaça
lime slices for garnish

You can go about this two ways:  you can keep your pitcher virgin and add cachaça to the individual servings, or you can go all in from the get-go.  If you choose to do the former, add 2 ounces of cachaça to each glass of limeade mixture, and stir well.

Add all ingredients (save for cachaça, if you're adding it later) to blender and blend until frothy and slushy.  Pour into glasses, and garnish each with a straw and a slice of lime.

* Far be it from this Angeleno to deign to eat New York Mexican food (shudder); I managed to find a decidedly non-Mexican dish on the menu:  plátano relleno.  A plantain roasted in its skin, split lengthwise, and filled with seasoned stewed beef.  This Angeleno chose wisely.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Dizi at Nersses Vanak

Let's expand our knowledge of Persian cuisine a bit, shall we?  Dizi, also known as ab-goosht, is a Persian soup dish that my mom used to make when I was a kid.  I haven't had it in well over a decade. I returned to dizi after this gaping hiatus, last week, at a strip mall Armenian Persian spot on San Fernando called Nersses Vanak, and I'm extremely glad I did.

Let me tell you about the dish.  Dizi is a tomato-based soup, long-simmered with chunks of lamb meat, chickpeas, and potatoes.  It's got a dark acidity that sometimes borders on intense bitterness, from limoo amani -- small limes boiled in brine then dried in the sun until they're hardened and black in color.  Just a few ingredients, but the magic is in the eating.  After everything's cooked together, the meat and chickpeas (and sometimes the potatoes as well) are strained out of the broth.  They're pounded together to make goosht-o-nokhod, a dense, nearly-spreadable mash that's served alongside the broth.

As we entered Nersses Vanak, we walked into a smallish, slightly fancy dining room with red and pink walls with a bit of ornate trim.  On the far wall, World Cup was playing on a flatscreen, and as the lunch crowd rolled in, every diner was a minor variation on my own dad.  

The young guy manning the whole room -- speaking English to us, Persian to another table, and Armenian to the guys in the kitchen -- started us off with bread. It was the restaurant's spin on taftoon, and it was excellent: fresh from the oven, thicker than lavash, less dense than Indian naan, softly pillowy, and especially delicious when we sandwiched in a bit of the fresh basil and sweet onion that accompanied it.  

Then he brought out my dizi, and I felt a little hesitation. There is a bit of ritual to eating the dish, and as much was I wanted to appear real-deal Persian, I was a little rusty.  At Nersses Vanak, you can have them make the goosht-o-nokhod for you, or you can opt to mash it yourself.  I'd gone with the latter, curious about the unusual gadget they'd give me for the job.  

So, he brings out my dizi in a very old-country looking metal mini-urn, along with a bowl for serving and the masher, something like a round meat mallet, but with its handle up-and-down instead of sideways.  (I didn't ask, but I'm pretty convinced that both of these contraptions come from Iran.)

He also brought out a basket of yet more bread, in this case lavash that had been dried in the oven until crisp.  "For tellit," he said in an adorable mix of English and Persian, the idea being that you break up the bread into pieces and throw it into the hot broth, oyster-crackers-in-clam-chowder style.  

He graciously strained the broth from the barrel-thing into my bowl for me, saving my fingers from the burning hot vessel. I got to mashing, getting hungrier by the second, the scents of the soup wafting up as I worked.  I threw in my lavash bits, scooped in some of my meaty garbanzo-y mash, and dug in.  

My dizi was comforting and delicious, and for the first time, I really got it:  you start out with a bowl of somewhat insipid broth, but the lavash melts into and thickens it, the goosht-o-nokhod slowly spreads through, getting moistened by the broth, and the texture of the whole thing changes completely.  Each element gives to and takes from the others, and you end up with a singular, fully integrated food, hearty and filling.

Nersses Vanak is at 6524 San Fernando Rd., just south of Western in Glendale.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


It's been a while.  I missed you.  We have a lot to talk about.

I spent about a week and a half in New York and Montreal, and the entire trip was a dream.  In New York, I witnessed (and sang at!) the Central Park wedding of two old friends, discovered the magic of Inwood (aka upper upper upper Manhattan), walked mile upon glorious mile every day, shared an afternoon cocktail with the delightful director of the Daily Meal's Culinary Content Network, spent lots of time with friends, and ate terribly well.  

In Montreal, homebase was an apartment in Mile-end, an area once old and modern, neighborhoody and super hip.  The area felt so comfortable to me that I found myself thinking I could live there. (Then I remembered the merciless weather nine months out of the year.  Yeah, no.)  There's so much I could say about this trip:  I watched as people breakdanced to French hip-hop in front of the Contemporary Art Museum downtown; I saw amazing street art everywhere; I trekked through green at gorgeous Parc du Mont-Royal, I had an ice cider tasting with local cheeses; I marveled at the sheer density of inviting cafes, and walked, walked, and walked some more.  Here are some more highlights: 

I should start out by mentioning Fitz & Folwell, the awesomest bike shop in the land.  They offer a culinary walking tour (we like those here) of Mile End and Little Italy, and many of the stops below are from the tour.  It's a fun way to spend a few hours, eat some good food, and walk lots.  Our guide, Danny, was a doll, and they offer various bike tours in Montreal as well.

At Alati-Caserta, a decades-old Little Italy bakery across the street from a church funded by Mussolini himself, we tried their signature cannoli, and they were perfect:  shatteringly crisp shell, and a rich ricotta filling dotted with tiny chocolate chips and a light orangey flavor, barely sweet.  Giant bags of ricotta filling sat unassumingly in the fridge in the plain sight of shoppers.

Pagaille! was my local coffee shop, and it was perfect.  They provided me with needed breakfast protein in a land of pastries, along with delicious homemade rillettes and jams.  Free wifi (through Montreal's awesome Île sans fil program) and available plugs, incredibly friendly service (oh, Canada), a few seats outside to enjoy the sun.  But the best thing about Pagaille was the petit pagaille, the café's signature espresso drink:  somewhere between a macchiatto and a cappuccino, espresso measured meticulously by weight, served in a dainty tulip glass.  Perfect.  I brought back bags of beans as a souvenir, much to the delight of the owner.

When visiting Schwartz's, the historic Jewish deli (or as the sign charmingly read, "Charcuterie Hebraique") known for its smoked meat sandwich, we went with the classic, along with addictive fries and a fine pickle.  (I bucked tradition and skipped the cherry soda.)  Before walking in, I reminded myself: this isn't pastrami, don't compare it to Langer's, appreciate it on its own merits.  And with that pep talk firmly in my brain, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Fell in love with the buildings in Old Montreal. So fun to get lost walking through the streets.

Wilensky's Light Lunch has been sitting on the same friendly corner in Mile-End since 1932.  At Wilensky's, you order the Special, you don't ask questions, and you don't make substitutions.  (Though these days, you can add cheese to your Special -- but that's a pretty new innovation, only available for the last 30 years or so.)  What you get is a flattened, fried baloney sandwich with mustard that satisfies the most little-kid part of your appetite.  And if you're lucky, Sarah Wilensky (Moe's daughter) will make you a fluorescent lemon-lime soda to wash it down.
In Little Italy, I visited Cafe Italia.  This place is a old school Italian cafe, complete with cute old men sitting with their newspaper, Barbisol sold behind the counter, and deep, rich, strong espresso drinks.  Legit.

Juliette et Chocolat.  Just ridiculous. So decadent, so delicious, and open until the wee hours of the night when absolutely no one needs to stuff more food into their body.  But, my God, that fondant au chocolat, topped with both chocolate sauce and fleur de sel caramel sauce, and served with ice cream, was from another planet.

Arts Cafe was recommended to me by my Airbnb host, and was the hippest café I've ever encountered.  Sunny patio, excellent peoplewatching, a perfect little macchiatto in a robin's egg blue cup, and a little revelation called breakfast poutine:  potatoes and other vegetables, excellent white cheddar melted over top, a poached egg, hollandaise, duck confit.  Across-the-board swooniness.

Travel for me always leads to lessons.  My last day in Montreal was a Sunday, and I spent it walking through the streets of Mile-End.  It was truly a glorious day: the sun was shining, maybe for the very first time this year, and the streets were luminous.  Everyone was out: walking dogs, making impromptu banners for Mother's Day, crowding into café terrasses on every street corner for brunch.  Beautiful young hipsters feigned nonchalance as gaggles of Orthodox Jewish moms pushed strollers and chatted in Yiddish.  This scene felt so familiar, and so dear to me, that as I walked through, I was bubbling with happiness.  With slight differences in flavor, this could have been Williamsburg, or San Francisco, or more to the point, my own neighborhood of Los Feliz.  I felt it then, and I've tried to bring it home with me:  I am exactly where I should be.  I just need to soak in it a little more:  More walking always.  More cafe time.  Fewer items per day.  Montreal couldn't be more charming.  What's better than a trip that reminds you how good you have it at home? 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Three Items

I have some items.

The Red Car River Park, on the LA River, steps from Trystero HQ
After I posted about Trystero, Greg Thomas's Atwater Village home coffee-roasting operation, good buddy Jeff Miller, senior editor of Thrillist Los Angeles, caught wind of the story, and ask me to write up Trystero for Thrillist (!!).  I did; here's the post.  I'm happy to report that since the AKOY and Thrillist posts, Greg has gone on to quit his day job (!!!), and once he's back from a well-needed vacation, he's making Trystero his full-time gig.  Wishing him the best of luck!

rooftop view of Williamsburg

Speaking of vacation, forgive me for not posting for a bit.  I'm just back from an amazing trip to New York and Montreal (aka dreamland city of charming cafes).  I walked a lot.  I miss that.  Photos coming soon.

This.   This is an excerpt from an interview with Anthony Bourdain, in AAA's Westways magazine of all places.  We've seen Bourdain go full dick mode on Sandra Lee or Rachel Ray, but my favorite Bourdain moments are when someone's grandma makes him a meal at home, and you see this tall American television star's eyes soften as he's humbled by her warm, modest hospitality.  The sentiment expressed in this one paragraph is so important to me:  be interested, get past formalities, connect on a human level.  Just show up and be grateful.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Trystero Coffee: Atwater's Own Garage Roaster

There's something specific I hope to celebrate with this blog.  Well, it's a few things, but they swirl together, and to me, they're pretty inextricable.  It's what drives my obsession with outdoor spaces (why, oh why, can't we have plazas?) and motivates me to walk or take the train. It's the spirit of having a great idea, starting where you are, and using what you have to make a little magic happen.  It's that feeling you get when an opera slowly materializes around you as you walk through Union Station.  It's what attracted me to the rustlings around Frogtown and the LA River, it's the force that pushed me to organize five years of amazing bake sales, raising tens of thousands of dollars for charity and bringing an entire city together over homemade whoopie pies.  Really, it's the very thing I love the most about living on the east side.  I talk about food here, but I do so because food brings people together.  It comes down to community, and the glimmers of light that grow when people decide to bring something special to the table.

So, I'm excited about today's post, because the topic exemplifies this magical thing, maybe more than anything I've ever written about here.  Plus, this goodness I'm talking about is being generated by coffee!  After my own heart.  A few months back, I discovered Trystero Coffee:  basically a guy in Atwater Village, roasting coffee in his garage, delivering by bicycle.  Already an amazing story, right?

the esteemed roaster
Then, I tasted the coffee.  I'll just leave this here:  The city's best coffee comes from a garage in Atwater Village.  I've now tried several varieties, and across the board, coffee made from Greg Thomas's garage-roasted beans is never bitter, always rich, and balanced just right.

But there's more to Trystero than just great coffee.  Most Saturdays, Greg opens up the garage to visitors, so I went to say hello and pick up my beans in person this weekend.  He's set up the modest space like a bohemian living room: between unfinished wood walls decorated with eclectic posters and clippings, mismatched chairs and and a funky old couch make for a welcoming place to meet your neighbors over a smooth cup of joe.  And Greg creates a warm vibe between strangers -- shaking your hand as you come in, and introducing everyone to each by name.  It's pretty special.

Hospitality reigns in the Trystero garage: after we'd been sitting for a bit, Greg turned from the espresso machine and said with a smile, "Can I make you a cappuccino?"  Uh, yes.  Not surprisingly, it was awesome.  Sweet without sugar, and again, perfectly balanced.
a perfect cappuccino

On this particular day, Trystero's ad-hoc coffeehouse was host to some community organizing.  Greg had opened up the garage to a couple Atwater residents collecting signatures in favor of adding a pedestrian path to the nearby Glendale-Hyperion bridge.  I'd walked the bridge that morning to get to Trystero, and it's utterly treacherous for pedestrians in its current state (though the view of the LA River from the bridge is pretty sweet).  So, petitions were signed, and the morning's coffee klatch talked about the project, about the neighborhood, about great bars and the Portlandification of Los Angeles.

treacherous bridge, beautiful view

And in addition to coffee, Greg uses the Trystero website to organize small events surrounding other passions:  bicycle rides, loud fun music, analog photography,  good beer, and camping with friends.  So much goodness.

So, in about an hour's time, a small group of strangers shared some knowledge and some warm hospitality, worked towards improving the neighborhood, and created a major spark of community.  All because a guy decided to do a little something great.  It's amazing what can happen over an exceptional cup of coffee.

bridge still treacherous, view still beautiful

Trystero Coffee is at 2974 Glendale Blvd.  Check the website for ordering details and delivery schedule.

[Incidentally, if you're interested in signing the Hyperion Bridge petition, let me know!]

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Matzoh Brei, Liberated

When I think of matzoh brei, I imagine Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron sitting at a table, arguing about the "right" way to do it. One argues vehemently for jam, the other is resolute about salt.  One knows for sure soggy is the only way, the other stands firmly behind crunchy.

How to prepare matzoh brei is one of those food questions that brings out strong opinions, like who makes the best pastrami in the city (though we know they're looking in the wrong city), or whose grandma makes the best babka.  These inarguable opinions are rooted in childhood nostalgia.  And when it comes to childhood nostalgia for matzoh brei, I have none.

Matzoh brei is a breakfast food that's a cross between scrambled eggs, French toast, and something unlike both of those, because neither has hard wheat crackers mixed in.  I was first introduced to it by the same grade school friend who taught me about lox and Thanksgiving candied yams.  And like those two, I thought it was super weird, and also delicious.

Because I don't come from a heritage of matzoh brei, I don't have to decide between sweet or salty:  I choose both.  Unfettered by tradition, I go with simple flavors and quality ingredients: lots of butter, farmer’s market eggs if i have them, real maple syrup, Maldon salt.  Something hoydel-doydel humble maintains its comfort, but picks up grown-up flavor.

I'm curious how others make it.  How do you like your matzoh brei?

Matzoh Brei

This is a super simple recipe, so you can go crazy with variations.  A friend adds lox and dill with delicious results.  I can imagine it'd be great with some of that Hebrew National beef salami that was a Passover staple in my childhood home, or, well, sausage.  Sometimes I fry it in olive oil instead of butter, mirroring the amazing olive oil/maple syrup flavor combo of the best granola in the world.  But most times, simple is best.

Per serving:
1 egg
1 Tbs milk
1 matzah
3 thin slivers of butter
Flaky salt
Maple syrup

Beat the egg with the milk in a small bowl.  Run the matzah under water to moisten on both sides.  Break into bite-sized pieces, and mix into egg mixture.  Let sit for a few minutes.

Heat a sliver of butter in a small non-stick pan over medium-high heat.  Add the matzah mixture to the pan, and stir over heat to make sure all bits are cooked through.  After a couple minutes, add the second sliver of butter and mix through.

Serve on a plate, with a third sliver of butter, drizzled with maple syrup and sprinkled with salt.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Spicy Chocolate Tart with Ginger Almonds

I promised a spicy chocolate tart recipe, and have ever gone back on a blog promise (don't answer that)?  This tart is ridiculously good.  The texture is velvety, and its chocolatiness deep and rich, but it's cut with heat from cayenne pepper and crystallized ginger.

A simple gingersnap crust echoes the filling's spice, and topping it with ginger-cayenne almonds (I used Fat Uncle Farms' Ass-Kickin' Ginger Almonds) brings the whole thing home.  The filling recipe is based on a Mast Brothers chocolate-on-chocolate tart that appeared in Bon Appetit a few months back.  They topped theirs with maple almonds, but ours is better.

Seriously.  Make this.  You'll swoon.

Spicy Chocolate Tart with Ginger Almonds

The original recipe called for a 9-inch tart dish, but I did great with a 9-inch springform pan.

The crust:
40 ginger snaps
1/2 stick butter (1/4 cup), melted
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 300F.

Grind snaps in the food processor.  Add butter, process to combine.  Press into 9 inch tart dish or springform pan.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Allow to cool.

The filling:
1/2 stick butter, cut into pieces
10 oz chocolate (70% cacao or more), broken into pieces
1 1/2 C heavy cream
3 Tbs honey
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/3 C chopped crystallized ginger

Place chocolate and butter in a large bowl.  In a small saucepan, bring cream, honey, salt, and cayenne to a boil over medium heat, whisking to dissolve honey.  Pour cream mixture over chocolate mixture; allow cream to melt chocolate for about a minute, then whisk until smooth.  Stir in crystallized ginger.

Pour chocolate mixture into crust; chill for at least 4 hours.

The almonds:
1/4 cup Fat Uncle Farms Ass Kickin' Ginger Almonds

Coarsely chop almonds.

Before serving, top tart with almonds.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Fat Uncle Farms: Finding Joy in Almonds

Regarding almonds: they're the best.  I have a giant bag of roasted almonds at my desk at work and eat them pretty much every day.  Almonds are my constant companion and I love them.  So, you can imagine my excitement when my old friend Lisa connected with her old friend Nate, a man who spends his days dealing in almonds. Lovely reader, I'd like to introduce you to Fat Uncle Farms.

[Full disclosure:  Fat Uncle Farms gave me lots of delicious free almond products.  But, even if they hadn't, I'd still think they're awesome.]

I met Nate at Fat Uncle's stand at the Atwater Village farmer's market one sunny Sunday not too long ago, and he told me a bit of the Farm's story.  Both he and his wife come from almond farming families, and both were in more traditional day jobs before they decided to take on the family business.  For the past five years, they've been growing almonds in a lush orchard in the San Joaquin Valley and turning them into delicious specialty items, which they sell at farmer's markets around town.  They also have some impressive commercial customers:  Proof Bakery uses their almond flour in its sweets, and SQIRL Cafe uses their almonds for the almond butter they slather on morning toast with jam.

Back at the farmers market, Fat Uncle has a variety of products, all made simply and with wholesome, familiar ingredients.  I'm really enjoying my personal bounty.  I've been piling up rosemary blistered almonds (just three ingredients: almonds, rosemary, salt) on cheese boards and adding almond butter (one ingredient: almonds) to banana and date smoothies.  But my favorite has been to spread chocolate almond butter (two ingredients: chocolate and almonds) on a piece of wheat toast and topping it with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt -- a decadent little snack.  And this weekend, I made an insanely delicious spicy chocolate tart, topped with the aptly named Ass Kickin' Ginger almonds (five ingredients:  almonds, salt, sugar, ginger, cayenne.  Addictive combo of sweet, salty, and devilishly spicy).  The tart is so good, it's going to get its own post.

For the short few weeks when they're in season, Fat Uncle even offers fresh young almonds:  mouth-puckeringly tart, fuzzy green on the outside, with a bright crunchy texture.  They've even been known to feature house-made marzipan.

Fat Uncle Farms are strong believers in community outreach and sustainable farming practices.  In fact, Nate and his wife Bekki live on a working farm in Lompoc. They've recently renovated the the ranch-hand's quarters and are offering it as a getaway destination on airnbnb.  Guests can help out on the farm and enjoy its bounty at meals, explore nearby wineries and beaches, and take quiet hikes through the surrounding rolling hills to views of the Pacific Ocean.  Honestly, the place sounds like an absolute dream.

You guys know that I'm driven by a sense of community.  I love sharing stories of food connecting people, and when the blog itself makes that happen, well, it makes me beam.  I'm so glad to have met Nate.  The story of Fat Uncle Farms, the way they treat their staff like family, their choices in living close to the land, are all so inspiring.  And even better, now I know that their chocolate almond butter is always just a Sunday farmers market away.

Fat Uncle Farms can be found at several farmers markets around LA.  Check out their website to find the nearest one or order online, or find them on goodeggs.