Wednesday, June 28, 2006

needs improvement

I was really excited for dinner tonight, and I'm still excited for the concept of dinner, but it didn't quite work out as planned. Dinner gets an E for effort, but this recipe's going to need some extra credit before it can get to the top of the class.

All the talk of Sephardic cooking this weekend had me craving a few things: Middle Eastern flavors, ground meat, stuffed vegetables. On top of this, I had some of the fresh mint from Auntie Mohtaram's garden. Decided to put it together and make stuffed tomatoes and zucchini. It came out good, but could use a little help. Things to improve:

  • Do not start cooking after 8 pm. Stuffed vegetables are labor-intensive!
  • Do not attempt to rinse grains in the plastic bag you bought them in, in order to dirty one fewer dish. How exactly do you expect to get wet grains off the sides of the bag?
  • When Whole Foods' Bulk Basics pamphlet tells you to use 2 parts water to every 1 part quinoa, then tells you it will expand by 4 times, do not get the numbers mixed up and drown your quinoa. (Also, Whole Foods: you give it only twice as much water, and it expands fourfold? Really? I'm not convinced.)
  • Do not get a surprise phone call from a friend in New York while chopping onions, the distraction causing you to chop them so big you probably couldn't stuff a watermelon with them, let alone a zucchini.
  • Do not leave your baking dish at the home of the last book club host, forcing you to use a bowl, and forcing the zucchini to stand on their ends.
  • Do not assume that zucchini standing on their ends will fit in your toaster oven.
  • Really Tannaz, lose the ego and use a recipe!
There is nothing authentic about this recipe, it's all made up, mostly from ideas I have in my head about stuffed vegetables. I sauteed the insides before stuffing them; I thought it would taste better, cook faster, and be more foolproof (although as you can see, plenty of foolishness occurred anyway). I used ground lamb to feed that craving for Middle Eastern flavors -- ground turkey or beef would probably work just as well. I had intended to add some bulghur, but at the market quinoa ended up calling my name.

And in spite of all the 'constructive criticism' above, the end result ended up pretty delicious. The vegetables got pleasantly lenient and soft, the flavors on the inside blended together for something savory and slightly spicy, and all of my cravings were met. So, hey, teachers -- leave us kids alone!

Stuffed Zucchini and Tomatoes

1/4 C quinoa
2 zucchini (the kind with pale green skin and a fat bottom... mmm sexy)*
2 medium roma tomatoes
olive oil
1/4 C onion, finely minced
1 clove garlic
1/4 lb ground lamb
2 Tbs cumin
dash crushed red pepper flakes
2 Tbs fresh mint, finely minced

Bring the quinoa and 1/2 C water to a boil in a small pot. Lower heat, cover, and simmer for 10-12 minutes, until water is gone.

Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables. For the tomatoes, make a cylindrical cut about 1/4 inch in from the skin of the tomato, careful not to pierce the bottom. Using fingers or spoon, pull/scrape out tomato flesh, discarding juice and seeds (you might want to do this over the sink -- it can get messy). Chop tomato flesh.

For the zucchini, make a similar cylindrical cut. Then using a small spoon (a serrated grapefruit spoon would be great) or melon baller, scoop out the insides, leaving a shell about 1/4 inch thick. Chop zucchini flesh.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a pan. Add onions and cumin, and saute over medium heat until slightly browned, stirring. Add garlic; saute 1 minute more. Raise heat to medium-high; add meat, breaking up chunks with spatula. After about 2 minutes, add zucchini and tomatoes, continue cooking and stirring for another 4 minutes. Remove from heat; add quinoa and crushed red pepper, season with salt and pepper, stir to combine all ingredients.

With a spoon, fill vegetables with meat mixture. Place in a small pan and bake about 15-20 minutes, until vegetables have softened.

Makes 2 servings.

So, here they are. I know, they look a little dejected. But they've just had a minor blow to their self-worth. Be nice to them -- it's been a rough day!

* It should be noted that the site this image comes from is pretty great. A website in French, called Mon Mexique, all about Mexico, with a page devoted to fruits and vegetables?! YUM! And another devoted to that dream town, Guanajuato?! I don't speak French, but still!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Book, Auntie Mohtaram, and One Last Category

I have a personal project, to which I've only barely alluded on this blog. It's just the beginning, and I'm a little nervous about saying things like "I'm writing a book," when I'm not totally sure it's gonna happen (in the same way, when you're 16, you don't tell your friends you're taking the driving test until the license is in your hands... too scary!). As usual, it's a long story. Here we go...

This past Hanukkah, my friend Rachel got me a book called "The Book of Jewish Food", by an Egyptian Jewish woman named Claudia Roden. It's amazing (to me) in that about one-fourth of its 600 pages are devoted to Ashkenazi food, and the rest is Sephardic. It contains tons of recipes, but also a great deal of history, photos, personal stories, etc. about many different Jewish communities around the world. On top of all this goodness, the names of all the recipes are in their native languages (Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Ladino, etc.) which totally feeds my obsession with linguistics and the connections between languages. It's a very impressive tome -- so much research, so much information, and so much heart.

Having said that though, the amount of the book that is devoted to the Iranian Jewish community is pretty slim. Most of the Persian recipes are not specifically Jewish, but general Iranian dishes, and it appears her primary source is the Sisterhood recipe book from a synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.

This got me thinking -- there is *much* culture, history, heritage in the Iranian Jewish kitchen. So many stories and delicious recipes among my parents and grandparents alone. Additionally, it's a culture that's dying -- the number of Jews who still live in Iran is steadily decreasing, and those of us outside the country simply don't have lifestyles that can maintain the culinary tradition our moms and grandmas practiced on a daily basis. I felt there was a book to be written here. And I felt that I was in a unique position to write it. Granted I have no formal qualifications. But I am completely obsessed with food, and have access to many many Iranian Jews. And I am certainly well-versed on the consumption side -- I've read tons of cookbooks, and have eaten a LOT of food.

I mentioned it to a few close friends and family. Friends were excited and supportive. Family was mixed: sister and Mom thought it was a little crazy, but surprisingly, Dad was really excited. He started rattling off stories about about how the Shah of Iran would, on Saturday afternoons, go into Tehran's Jewish ghetto, where some elderly widow would make him the traditional Shabbat meal (not for any religious reason, just because it was delicious), and about how Iranian Jews have a battery of 'mezze' dishes, since theirs were the only households in the Muslim nation where you would find alcohol. Wow, I had no idea! Since then, I've started interviewing people -- people of my parents' generation and older, because they have memories of the foods/holidays/traditions from Iran.

Sunday, I visited my eldest aunt. At 77 years old, she is the oldest of 6 siblings, nearly 20 years older than my mom, the youngest. The two hours spent at her house were a truly memorable experience. First of all, before the storytelling even began, there was the hospitality. We (my mom and I, as well as my 4-month-old nephew who lives across the street) got there and she immediately started feeding us, and continued to do so over the course of our time there. First, she cut up a cantaloupe, and brought some wheat lavash bread to have with it ("I can't eat melon without a bit of bread", she told us). Next, an orange, then an apple, peeled and sectioned at the table, followed by a cucumber. Then tea, which she topped of with hot water halfway through because it may have gotten cold ("Water has to be cold, tea has to be hot"). Then pumpkin seeds and raisins, and finally a small container of cookies and sweets.

So we talked and talked and talked. She has a million recipes at the tip of her brain, measuring things in spoons and cups, but also in 'the size of two hazelnuts', or 'the shape of an egg'. Her perspective is different from my parents' -- her late first husband was from a town called Kermanshah, which is not far from the border with Iraq. Both of his brothers had wives of Iraqi Jewish descent, so she has a set of recipes for typical holiday dishes that varies considerably from what my mom, or her mom, would make. Sweets for Passover, all sorts of homemade preserves, 3 different types of halvah. She gave us the recipe for gondi torshi, sweet and sour rice balls that were the traditional Yom Kippur fast-breaking meal for her in-laws. Little did I know that she brought my mom gondi torshi in the hospital on the night after I was born to break her fast (yes I was born on Yom Kippur, and yes my mom fasted on her delivery day)! She started tearing up when she recalled memories of her own marriage at age 15, the tribulations of being away from her childhood home and being in charge of dinner for 6 in-laws, all the while nauseous with morning sickness (yes, I have cousins older than my mom). This woman has been through a lot, and she's eager to tell her stories. She was asking me if they make cassettes that are 2 hours long, so she can just get it all out. I think we can make this happen for her.

Before we left, she insisted that we do not leave empty-handed. You see, her backyard is an extremely well-kept garden. Surrounding her lawn are fruit trees, herbs, flowers, pots, trellises, and much to her dismay, gopher holes. She brought out a giant knife and hacked off fresh mint, rosemary, 2 types of lemons, and grapefruits for us to take home with us.

So thus begins the saga of the book. It's just the beginning, and I know I'm prone to starting projects I don't finish, but I really hope I can push through with this one.

figs are here!

A few weeks ago, I was tasked with making a cheese plate for a dinner party. I really wanted to include figs in it, because they are so evocative of summer and the Mediterranean and everything good in the world. I went to Whole Foods, Ralph's, and all 3 produce stands in the Farmer's Market, and there were no figs to be found. Even though I had declared that the Best Summer Ever had already begun, Nature wasn't quite in agreement with me.

Today I had bookclub, and I was in charge of 'some sort of fruit something'. So I went back to the Farmer's Market this morning, and lo and behold.. figs! Nature has caught up! It's about time Nature, it's about time.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

from meatballs to hazelnuts

A while back, I was in some ethnic market, and saw a can of beans that said alubia on it (as part of the spanish text). I was really excited because lubia is the word for bean in Persian. First of all, I had never heard this word -- the only word I knew for bean in Spanish was frijol. Secondly, it's rare to find connections between Persian and Spanish. Because of the 'a' at the beginning of the Spanish, I assumed in this case that the link was Arabic.

Of course, I went to the trusty intertron to corroborate. And I found a great Spanish etymology site. And along with more on alubia, I found another one that kind of blew my mind. Albóndigas. As in the little meatballs in the soup. As expected, also comes from Arabic. But. Arabic for what? Apparently, bunduqa or something like that is the arabic word for hazelnut. The small round shape of the meatball is like a hazelnut. But. The Persian word for hazelnut is fandoq. Clearly related to bunduqa. How random -- a connection between the Spanish for the little meatballs you get with the stiff/cheap/delicious margaritas over at El Coyote on Beverly and the hazelnuts my mom has been drying, roasting, and salting herself every year for Passover so as to be absolutely sure that outside processing has left them with no trace of leavening. Pretty cool -- to me anyway...

Anyway, here's the site:

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Tokyo Redux

The visual effects studio I work for recently finished working on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. This movie takes place in Tokyo, but much of it was shot in downtown LA. Our job was to digitally turn downtown into the Shibuya station intersection and its surroundings. This weekend, I managed to turn LA into Tokyo in my own right.

One day last summer, 5 of us took a long lunch and went to Venice Beach. We sat ourselves down at On the Waterfront, a beergarden on the boardwalk with sidewalk tables overlooking the ocean. Somehow between the setting and the company, the conversation bypassed day-to-day small talk, and became introspective. But in a fun supportive way -- we reminded each other how young we were, and how important it is to do stuff. Five sandwiches, many fries, and two pitchers of Erdinger (make sure you've got your speakers on when you click the link) later, Team Tokyo was born. There was this sense of urgency and excitement -- we had to go to Tokyo. For one thing, Brian studied Japanese and lived in Japan for 3 years -- not going with him would be missing out on the chance of a lifetime. In the end, one of us had to bow out due to work obligations, but on November 2, the other 4 of us giddily and groggily boarded a jet to Tokyo.

In 10 truly action-packed days, we walked and hiked miles, experienced culture shock, had silly interactions with Japanese club girls, witnessed the awe of the Giant Buddha, purchased everything from beer and canned hot coffee and a peculiar drink called Dakari Life Partner to scantily clad school-girl action figures straight from vending machines, navigated the labyrinthine subway system (thank God we had Brian to be our collective brain!), were overwhelmed with an inexplicable euphoria as we experienced a bustling, clapping, joyful local festival, and of course, we ate everything. We giggled so much on this trip -- there is so much in Japan that, to western eyes, is just so cute and humorous! The comic book and cartoon mentality that is generally limited to children here in the states infiltrates Japanese pop culture and lends a sense of childlike cuteness to everything! Add to this an entire culture of mistranslations -- earnest but somewhat misguided attempts to imitate western culture, that lead to a hilarious and distinctly Japanese hybrid style that makes its way through advertisement, junk food, convenience stores and more.

6 months later, here we are in Los Angeles, and it's Brian's birthday. In addition to his superhuman knowledge of geography and cheese, a large part of Brian's brain is devoted to Japan -- pop culture, music, food, slang (not to mention an exhaustive knowledge of military craft that I for one will never understand). So, this year for his birthday, he decided to pay homage to an authentic reverent Japanese tradition: sake bombs.

Before all the fun though, I needed to get him a gift. I tend towards consumable gifts, in an effort to minimize clutter. I decided to give Brian a taste of Tokyo, in the form of snacks! There's a market called Nijiya in a strip mall on Sawtelle Blvd. (LA's 'nanotokyo'), and I had a little shopping spree in there. It was so fun to be reunited with some of the tastes from our trip.

Among the loot were:
  • Men's Pocky dark-chocolate-covered biscuit-sticks
  • matcha flavor Collon snacks
  • 'Ebi Flower' shrimp snacks (reminiscent of the 'Ebi-Filet-O' -- the fried shrimp sandwich at McDonald's in Japan)
  • Pokari Sweat sports drink
  • Calpis sports drink (they change the name to Calpico stateside...can't imagine why)
  • Crunky chocolate
I also sneaked in a pint of green tea ice cream and some fresh melon popsicles for myself. I still search for Meltykiss -- truffly squares of chocolate with a green tea center -- no joy at Nijiya on that front.

OK, gift is good to go. On to the next chapter of the Tokyo deja vu weekend: the birthday party. Brian and 15 of his closest friends alit ourselves on Sake House Miro, a tiny unassuming spot on La Brea at 8th Street. They're going for a 70s izakaya feel, with dark wood walls and lots of old Japanese movie photos. The decor is funky, the crowd is hip but understated, and the cozy place gets pretty crowded. We were greeted by the ultra-friendly proprieter, a man we always think of as the Japanese Tim Curry, who led us to the back room, which is designed to be like an old alley in Tokyo -- complete with lit-up beer signs and laundry hanging from a balcony.

We enjoyed large amounts of beer and sake, in addition to many small plates (sweet crab tempura is delicious), lots of sushi (the sashimi combo and caterpillar roll were highlights), and even some Korean favorites (the menu includes a kalbi plate and steaming sizzling bibimbap). By the end of the night, if you would have told us we actually were in Tokyo, we'd probably believe you. Besides, our Tokyo trip may be long gone, but Team Tokyo lives on in our hearts... and definitely in our bellies.

Nijiya is at 2130 Sawtelle Blvd # 105, 1 block north of Olympic, in the strip mall with Curry House.
Sake House Miro is at 809 S. La Brea Ave., at 8th Street. A reservation is not a bad idea: 323-939-7075

Sunday, June 18, 2006

the world in cheese

I have a minor obsession with languages, and have been lucky enough to find friends who are also obsessed. For me, it's fun to find connections between different countries' words -- I can sit for hours and find cognates between Persian and Arabic (and have done just that on many many many occasions!). I get thrilled when I discover new ones (some examples: the 'an orange'/'naranja'/'narenji' connection, and the 'aubergine'/'berenjena'/'badenjan'/'bitingan' one). There are even a couple that are so cool and run so deep that they deem their own (eventual) post.

So you can imagine my excitement when, at work a few weeks back, the lunchtime conversation turned to the words for bread and cheese in every language. Between the 5 of us, we were able to come up with English (doy), French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog, Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi. Interrogating some coworkers (is it weird to randomly go up to someone and ask them how they say cheese in their native language? probably. oh well), we added Turkish, Armenian, Flemish, and Dutch to the list. That's 18 languages!

But this was just the beginning of the fun. We came back to our desks, and my friend Brian made a stop at mine. Apparently 18 languages was not enough for him. He started rattling off many others (basically all the European languages), and I diligently scoured google for the cheese word in each one. Meanwhile, Brian was drawing a map, freehand, of Europe -- a glorious cheesemap! It was really impressive -- kind of a genius document. There might truly be world peace if we could just put away our differences, and focus on our amazing common ground -- cheese (sorry lactards).

Some things we learned:
  • Much of Mediterranean Europe's cheese word is in the 'queso' vein (like 'cheese' itself). Makes sense, the Latin for cheese is 'caseus'. BUT -- what happened to Italy and France ('formaggio' and 'fromage', respectively)? Turns out, this has to do with 'shape, form, mold' -- perhaps because these countries were actually making cheeses in a mold, as opposed to just curds in a bag?
  • Hebrew is 'gvina', Arabic is 'gibn'. Stands to reason they would be related. (Also, come on people! You guys have the same word for cheese -- can't we all just get along?) BUT -- the Gaelic word is 'gobin'. Wha?? Why would they be related?
Anyway, here is the cheese map, complete with coffee stain. Study it well and meditate on world peace through cheese.

Also: Here's a comprehensive list of cheeses the world over, and a fun etymology page.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

blogspot should allow categories

that would be really cool. in the meantime, in a fit of classic tannaz neuroticism, i've gone and categorized all the posts so far. the categories:
- dining in: all sorts of home cooking, whether it's me or others doing it, and whether it's actually eaten in or not (some of the best home cooking is eated outside!)
- dining out: restaurants, bars. emphasis on my neighborhood, but really anywhere noteworthy.
- events: in the broad sense. goings on about town.
- etymology: language stuff
- random stuff: the uncategorized miscellany that has finally found its home on the internet
- meta: analyzing the alanysis


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

born again green beans

Trader Joe's has revolutionized the way I eat. You see, I have a very delicate produce situation. It hasn't always been this way. Back in college, I lived in an apartment with 3 other girls, all of whom put great importance on cooking and eating well. So there was ample produce in the fridge at all times. Back at home, my mom cooked every night, and there was salad pretty much every night, so there, too, the fridge was always filled with a wide variety of vegetables and fruits.

But now, while I live with a roommate, she doesn't eat very much (not to mention, lately she's in love, so she's rarely even home!). So, on an average weeknight, I cook for one. Actually even that's not true -- since I've moved to the city, my job has taken away from my time at home -- both because of longer work hours, and because the many great people I've met there have filled up my social life. It's not a bad problem to have. But it means that on that average weeknight, it's just as likely I'll be out for dinner as that I'll be in.

Say I've got fish in the fridge, along with cucumbers and tomatoes bought over the weekend. I was supposed to eat them last night, but then suddenly at 5:59 pm, oy, queued streamdumps started failing for no reason, and by the time I got home, I had no interest in cooking anything. So, I'm on my way home from work, planning in my head what I'm going to do with the lot -- maybe sauteed in a cast iron pan with some lemon and saffron, with the vegetables in a chopped salad. Yum, downtime and a chance to cook. Maybe I'll even clean my room -- oh boy! (it's the little things, don't make fun). But then the phone rings. Q&A with Dangermouse in the Hammer Museum courtyard, starts at 7. Free. Crap. The Hammer Museum courtyard oozes of BSE. And this Dangermouse character has piqued my interest over the past year. I can't not go.

So, I go, meet my friends, watch the thing, and enjoy it immensely. And then we go out to dinner. I could hear the fish and vegetables nagging me. This is my produce problem. So, I learned pretty quickly that I should buy produce and fresh meat the day I'm going to eat it. Otherwise, in spite of my best intentions, it goes bad and I chuck it. It's a little inconvenient, but it's the only way.

This system works very well. But enter Trader Joe. He sells produce in packages. You can't just buy one tomato, or 2 apples, you have to buy 4 or 5. This ruins everything! Or...

It allows you to become a specialist. Ingredient of the week. So, today, I am in the middle of a green bean immersion program. I used to hate green beans. Even though my mother is the best cook I know, she did bad things to green beans. They were overcooked to limp puniness, they sometimes came stewed in a tomato sauce (this actually sounds good now that I'm telling it, but was repulsive at the time), and they squeaked against my teeth when I ate them. So, I've never really been a fan. But at a dinner party this weekend, Rachel made green beans and they were actually good -- crisp and just lightly heated through with sweet red onions. I felt it deemed more exploration.

So yesterday, I went to Trader Joe's and bought a single package of something like 50 pounds of green beans. Last night for dinner, I made a panzanella. Bread salad -- leftover baguette, leftover roncal cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, rosemary, green beans, oil and vinegar. I didn't cook the green beans at all. They were crunchy, super fresh, and delicious. This is a green bean renaissance!

So that took care of one handful of green beans. But there were so many more! So, tonight, more green beans. I considered a green bean casserole -- the ultimate starring role for green beans, and one of those exotic American dishes I've never eaten -- but I certainly didn't feel like baking, and besides, we're focusing on not overcooking them. So the goal here was simple fresh tastes. Dill, lemon, garlic.

And I still have leftover green beans!

Penne with Green Beans, Dill, and Preserved Lemon

If you're using preserved lemons, use salt sparingly as they are very very salty.

1 C dry penne pasta
2 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic
2 C 1-inch diced green beans
2 Tbs dried dill
1/4 preserved lemon peel, flesh and pith scraped away, finely chopped
(can be replaced with 1 tbs lemon juice + zest of 1/2-1 lemon)
small chunk goat cheese, 1/4-inch dice

Cook pasta according to package directions (or until just al dente).

3 minutes before the pasta is cooked, heat the olive oil and garlic in a saucepan over medium heat for about 1 minute. Add green beans, toss to coat. When pasta is done cooking, drain it and add to saucepan, lower heat, and add dill, lemon, goat cheese, salt and pepper. Toss to coat with olive oil and soften cheese; add more olive oil if necessary.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Dinner Party: The Morning After

Thanks to last night's dinner party, I had leftover really good cheese in the house. This is very rare and very exciting -- truly a gift from God. I had a little bit of each type left, but I really wanted to rip into the truffle-laced sottocenere.

There is a new restaurant on my Third Street, called Tasca. There's a lot to say about this place -- it's a small Mediterranean tapas place (immediately evident why I'd be in love with it), the decor is gorgeous, the proprietor and all the staff are warm and attentive, and they are in the middle of a stupid crisis because one person in the neighborhood is trying to prevent them from getting their wine license. But for now, I just want to mention one delicious dish: I first went there for breakfast, and swooned over the truffle egg toast. It starts with a thick toasty slice of brioche with a little indentation in its middle. In the indentation is a bit of cheese and a fresh fried egg. It is served with 2 spears of skinny asparagus, 2 spears of white asparagus. The intoxicating scent of truffle oil permeates the whole thing.

But today, I was eating at home. I wanted to recreate those flavors, using the sottocenere. The end result was fine -- the cheese melted very well, and baguette instead of brioche made an interesting texture constrast. But, with every bite that didn't have cheese, I was missing the truffle taste. You really need truffle oil to satisfy the intense desire for that taste. How are truffles so delicous?!

Fried Egg with Sottocenere

This recipe is made a lot simpler with a toaster oven.

2 slices baguette
extra-virgin olive oil
1 egg
3 thin slices sottocenere cheese
salt and pepper

Generously brush both sides of the bread with olive oil, and toast until edges are golden brown. Fry the egg in about 1 Tbs olive oil, on medium heat, until whites have cooked through. Place bread on a plate, top with the egg, and lay the cheese slices over the egg. Lightly salt and generously pepper the dish. Place plate into toaster oven, broil until cheese melts.

Or, just go to Tasca for breakfast: 8108 W. Third Street, just west of Crescent Heights.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Dinner Party, from Soup to Nuts (except replace soup with cheese and nuts with brownies)

A dinner party stirs up so much ado and excitement. Especially when the host and her company are utterly and completely food-obsessed. Last night I went to a dinner party where the conversation covered topics like the 'to die for' crispy rice with spicy tuna at fancy schmancy Koi ("Did you go with your parents?" "Of course!"), how silly Evan Kleiman sounded on the 'hippo food' story on Good Food yesterday, and the snooty sommelier on Top Chef ("It's not called Top Sommelier!"). I was in charge of the cheese course, and knowing what I knew about who would be eating it, the bar was high -- I knew it had to be outstanding.

So, yesterday afternoon, I took a walk to Joan's. In addition to my beloved chocolate bouchon (and countless other delicious items), Joan's on Third also houses an incredible cheese counter, and a very knowledgeable cheesemonger to navigate through it. He suggested going with a cow, a sheep, and a goat cheese. I had some ideas about accompaniment -- I wanted to have one with honey, I wanted there to be fresh fruit (although, alas, no figs in the markets until next month). So, he gave me a few to taste, formally presenting each sliver of cheese on a square of white paper. Every cheese I tasted was distinctly delicious. We ended up going with:
  • sottocenere -- literally means 'under ash', an Italian cow's milk cheese, aged under ash, with specks of black truffle (oh my God, the truffle taste was so strong and so good, this did not need honey, fruit, or anything at all)
  • roncal -- a Spanish sheep's milk cheese, that the cheesemonger described as the 'loud older cousin' in the manchego family. Sound like my people. He suggested this one would be good with honey as the sweetness would contrast well with its sharp loud flavor. (I also learned that blue cheese and honey is a classic pairing for the same reason)
  • tomme de ma grand-mére -- literally means 'my grandmother's tomme' (tomme apparently refers to the type/shape of cheese), a French goat cheese, rich and creamy, and evidently, good with slices of crisp pear.
I also tried a cheese flavored with saffron and black peppers that I will have to get a chunk of one of these days -- so saffrony and delicious! He wrapped them up for me, writing a detailed description on each butcher-paper-wrapped package, and I was on my way.

So, along with the cheese went slices of baguette, slices of Asian pear, heavy bulbous red grapes, marcona almonds (note to self: the ones at Trader Joe's are too salty), and wildflower honey drizzled over the roncal. I had to put it all together as soon as I walked into the dinner party, so in the rush of getting it to the table and getting myself to the guests in the living room, I didn't get a picture. Which is a bummer because it was really pretty. It was a hit on the hors d'oeurves table, alongside sweet and savory crostini -- the former with manchego, apple, and fig preserves, the latter with corned beef, basil, tomato, and kalamata olive spread. yummy.

This was just the beginning of the gluttony. For much of the night, you could find up to 5 guests in the kitchen hustling and bustling to get all the food prepared. Dinner consisted of green beans, moist and flavorful Moroccan couscous with roasted vegetables, and really exciting chicken. Rachel made lemon roasted chicken with croutons from one of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. She dices a baguette into croutons, stirs them around in a pan with some butter, then after the chicken is cooked, places it and all its juices over the croutons so they absorb all the goodness. I could eat five hundred of these croutons. The recipe is pretty simple, only about 5 or 6 ingredients, but the chicken is so moist, and the croutons are SO good.

Finally dessert! Back to Barefoot Contessa -- Ina Garten had quite a fanbase at this party -- for brownies. Heather (who will surely be posting her own account of the night shortly)made these huge bricks of the most decadent deep fudgy chocolate, served warm with vanilla ice cream. We hadn't really saved room for dessert, but somehow managed to continue stuffing our faces with these.

So, a delicious night was had by all. I spent the rest of the night alternating between chatting on the porch and trying to chat, while slowly giving in to food coma, on the couch. Yes, this dinner party was a success!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

for a good time, follow these instructions

  1. Walk to El Carmen, step through the thick red curtain, and immediately make believe you are in the movie Desperado. Dim red lighting, paintings of Mexican wrestlers on black velvet, hundreds of varieties of tequila. The ambiance is slick and stylish, but muy misterioso.
  2. Take seats at the end of the bar, in order to maximize interaction with cute bartender.
  3. Order chips and salsa with your drinks -- they come fresh and hot, and so thin and crisp that they're translucent.
  4. When cute bartender brings over a round of unsolicited tequila shots and emphatically commands, "Don't argue", don't argue!
  5. When the jukebox plays the Violent Femmes' "Please Don't Go", do a silly little barstool dance.
  6. Order a glass of their pineapple-infused tequila on the rocks. Steal a glimpse of the bartender as he pulls it from the tap of a giant jug filled with hefty chunks of fresh pineapple. Sip slowly and enjoy the subtle hint of bright fruity flavor, knowing that for this drink alone, you'll no doubt be returning to the bar this summer.
  7. Swoon a little bit when cute bartender nochalantly calls you 'baby' while closing out the tab.
  8. Hobble back home, immediately fall into a deep sleep, dreamless save for sweet visions of luchadores sweetly tucking you in.

El Carmen is at 8138 W. Third St., just west of Crescent Heights, next door to Doughboys.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Addiction: it's better with friends

I have a problem. I am addicted to late night fast food. It is practically a given that if I go out for a drink, on the way home, I will stop at a greasy drive-through, order something disgusting (that at the time sounds like the most delicious thing ever), scarf it down before I get home, and eliminate the evidence before I step inside the apartment. About 20 minutes after I wake up the next morning, the realization of last night's gluttony hits. Ugh.

I never eat fast food in daylight. Ever. Not even tempted to. But my self-control turns into a pumpkin at midnight. I try to keep driving, but never succeed. It's kind of embarrassing. Saturday night was no exception, but it kind of was.

There's something special about my friend Geoff Oki. He can get away with things that most people can't. An example, at a friend's Christmas party a couple years ago, he arrived with a big box of T-shirts. They were designed like the ubiquitous "I Heart New York" tees, but instead said "I Heart Oki". Now, a man distributing T-shirts professing love for himself to his closest (and not-so-close) friends would generally tip off the megalomania alarm full blast. But the thing about Oki, if you know him, you do heart him. He's a hardworking and accomplished animator and music video director. He hobnobs with DJs, filmmakers, and all sorts of tall blonde characters. But, there is not a whit of ego to this boy. He manages to gracefully toe the line between ultra hip and genuinely nice like few others can.

He also likes to throw parties. Big parties. Most of us, if we were to invite our friends to a bar, might come up with 5, maybe 10 people. This year for his birthday, Oki took over Mountain Bar, a gorgeous 2-story bar/club in Chinatown, and filled the place. As Downtown LA tries to rebuild itself into an actual downtown with nightlife and culture, Chinatown's walking streets have become home to a growing cluster of art galleries. Mountain Bar sort of grew out of this artsy scene -- red walls, high ceilings, funky lighting fixtures. A dance floor and bar on each floor, and upstairs, the added benefit of cozy loungy couches. So, between the great venue and Oki's great people and great vibe, it was a fine night out.

It got even better. Sitting outside at one point, friends mentioned plans to go to El Gran Burrito afterwards. Sweet Jesus, enablers! The post-bar food run was actually preplanned! Genius! So as the night was winding down, we trekked to the corner of Santa Monica and Vermont, 6 people in total, for the late-night fix. But somehow it was different.

El Gran Burrito is currently my favorite taco stand in LA. Not so much for the food (the asada is decent, but not amazing), but the atmosphere. 1 indoor and 2 outdoor stands, long benches for sitting, extremely well lit. A crowd of after-bar kids like myself, but also at least 2 groups in various mariachi outfits, men in suits chatting with colorful weirdos, and various others who just felt the need for a taco at 2 am. The line moves fast, and Spanish is the preferred language of discourse. Fortunately, I have it down to a mantra: "Dos tacos de asada y una horchata, por favor." There's a salsa bar, with green, red, and avocado, along with spicy pickled vegetables. The tacos are simple here: 2 corn tortillas, and meat. So the salsa bar also provides onions and cilantro -- kind of nice if you don't want to overdo the raw onions.

I got my tacos, the rest of my group got their burritos (dense, substantial) and fried plantains (perfectly golden, just off-sweet, served with refried beans and lots of sour cream), and we took over a table. And we talked, and laughed, and ate. This is the way late night eats should go. No sneaking clandestine fries, no dripping grease in the car, no run-ins with seedy scary late-night charcters. As I sat with friends and ate food that came directly from actual vegetables and meats instead of freezer bags of prefab nuggets infused with artificial everything, my shameful late night ritual felt almost wholesome. (Does this mean I've broken free of the addiction? Um, probably not.)

El Gran is at 4716 Santa Monica Blvd, just west of Vermont Ave.
Mountain Bar is at 473 Gin Ling Way, which is a walking-only street off of Hill.

file under: dining out

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Helping others have the Best Summer Ever

Well, probably not the best summer ever. Some of these 'others' in question are probably hoping they make it through the summer at all. This morning I volunteered for Project Chicken Soup, an organization that provides meals for people with HIV. I'm so glad I did.

Last week, my mom asked if I was free for a few hours today. Rochelle, a woman at my parents' synagogue, had befriended her, and knowing that Violet (mom and I are on a first-name basis) is always eager to help anyone in need, Rochelle asked her if she was available to help out with this project. Violet was busy today, but got me to volunteer in her stead. I was excited to help out -- I've definitely been caught up in my own problems lately, and could use a reminder of how good I have it, not to mention a chance to get my hands dirty and help out some people in need. Also, they were preparing the meals at the Hirsch Family Kitchen on Fairfax, a building about 5 blocks from my apartment that I have passed a million times, but never seen inside.

It was a 4-hour commitment, from 8 am (yeesh) to noon. By the time I got a coffee and drove over there (yes, I drove. Pathetic, but every snoozy moment counts in the 7 o'clock hour on a Sunday morning), they were already in full swing. The front room was filled with volunteers in hair nets and nametags, filling out forms and waiting to get their assignments. Some of these people have been doing this for years, some were newbies like me. There was a handful of high school students, fulfilling their community service requirements. The rest were older -- the same characters you'd see at Sisterhood and Men's Club meetings. A dearth of kids my age though, sadly.

After a short orientation, Paul, the head of the organization, led us into the fully equipped industrial kitchen. Giant mixers, a bathtub-sized cooker for chili, vats of soup. Probably about 60 volunteers dicing vegetables, mixing cookie dough, cutting chicken into pieces. The process was very impressive. This was quality food -- fresh vegetables, ample seasoning, kosher meat. And of course, all the food was prepared with large amounts of love. Everything was very well-organized, with a few more experienced volunteers doling out tasks to the rest of us. I spent most of the day on chili patrol -- we had to pack 100 containers with rice, top it with chili, lid them (check all four corners, no air bubbles!), and send them off. Trouble came in the form of nasty rice. It had cooked totally inconsistently, and much of it had to be trashed. We did not have nearly enough decent rice for all 100, so Mark, our lead, had us go to Plan B: dump all the meagerly filled containers of rice into the chili. Genius.

Over the course of the day, I introduced myself to vivacious Rochelle, who in turn introduced me to her husband, her daughter, and her son, and made it very clear that now that she knows me (and "has fallen in love" with me), she will be contacting me for more opportunities to help mend the world. I met Rose, a smiley Stanford-bound 11th grader hoping to study international policy en route to becoming Secretary of State, who happened to be in the same history class as my cousin Justin (I beamed as she said, "He's such a talented filmmaker!"). I also ran into my own 12th-grade English teacher! I hadn't seen her since then, and was tickled that she still remembered me after all these years.

After 4 hours of thawing, rinsing, cutting, mixing, mopping, wiping, sanitizing, and packing, we had 100 paper-in-plastic bags filled to the top with:

- baked chicken with roasted potatoes
- pasta aglio e olio with fresh parsley
- chili with beef, beans, corn, peppers (and rice!)
- chicken soup (of course)
- minestrone soup
- steamed veggies
- cucumber salad
- fruit salad
- whole fresh fruit
- protein bars and juice boxes
- apple crumble
- peanut butter cookies

Special meals were even made for those with low-sodium, vegetarian, and diabetic diets. And as I was walking out at noon, a whole other set of volunteers was walking in: drivers, who would spend the next few hours hand-delivering these meals to households across Los Angeles County.

People. This is such a worthy effort. They do this twice a month, and can use all the help they can get. If you live in the area, I encourage you to help out. If you shop at Ralph's, you can have 5% of the cost of your purchases go to Project Chicken Soup. And of course if you can make a donation, that would be incredible -- they need knives and cutting boards, they need office supplies, and they could sure use a good rice cooker! (which is to say, they need money)

Sometimes you get what you need. For me, the swift kick in the pants and the reminder of how lucky I am that I got this morning were exactly what I needed. I will certainly continue to go on about beach days and glorified Hershey's kisses, but every so often, it's important to take stock. Chicken stock, that is.

(Note: I have no photos for this one. But there are plenty of them on the website -- check out the April 2006 newsletter, under "News". Also check out the "Webmaster's story" on the front page. Great story.)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

I've Found Mr. Right chocolate form that is.

I don't fall easily. Some might say I'm picky, but really I just have high standards. When it comes to chocolate, I have a few requirements, and if they're not there, the relationship just isn't fullfilling. Why settle, right? So what do I look for in an ideal chocolate? First of all, make it dark. Milk chocolate is sweet and friendly, but there is something about dark chocolate that really makes my knees weak. Slightly bitter, definitely complicated, it leaves you wanting more. Secondly, it has to be fudgy. I like my chocolate rich and dense (hopefully Chocolate Mr. Right's human counterpart will have at most one of these traits). So, I can go for a congenial coffee with a polite piece of chocolate bundt cake, but leave me with a flourless chocolate cake, and I will devour it.

This morning, I took a walk down my Third Street. The Cook's Library, a cozy little cookbook shop a few blocks down, was having a sidewalk sale, and I was eager to check it out. First though, I needed coffee. I stopped in at Joan's on Third, because I love that place and because, by 10 am, it was already 300 degrees outside and Joan's makes an incredible iced cappuccino.

Waiting in line, I gazed at the delicious baked goods on display behind glass. Through a sea of sugary cupcakes, something chocolatey caught my eye. A small cylinder, about the size of a mushroom. I had to have it. This little guy was called a chocolate bouchon (I later learned that bouchon is French for wine cork -- cute). I ordered, waited antsily, then grabbed my coffee and my bouchon, got myself out the door, and took the first bite. The chemistry was palpable. This chocolate was for mature audiences only. No saccharine sweetness here, just the depth of quality cocoa powder, the slightest tease of sweetness, and an incredible smooth rich texture. Two bites later, the whole thing was gone, but I firmly believe this is the start of a long devoted relationship. Je t'aime mon petit bouchon!