Sunday, December 31, 2006

Cheese on Horseback

A weird cheesy-etymology coincidence happened yesterday. I received Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene's Sicilian Home Cooking for Hanukkah, a great book which couples simple, delicious-sounding recipes with saucy stories from the Tornabene family's matriarch (more on that soon, no doubt). Poking around in the book yesterday, I kept coming across recipes contain the ingredient caciocavallo. I kept thinking it's some cabbagey product only available in Italy, like cavolo nero, but quickly figured out it was cheese.

Then, unrelatedly, I found myself on the website of Alcazar, a Lebanese restaurant in Encino (whose name, incidentally, was the source of another etymology revelation long long ago... ah the geeky memories). There it was on the menu, k'llej kashkaval: kashkaval cheese grilled in pita bread.

First of all, yum. Secondly, the very reason Sicilian cuisine interested me was its connection to the Middle East, and here it was -- obviously these words are related. Thirdly, when we made the cheese map, we had noticed that while most of Mediterranean Europe use a cheese world inherited from the Latin caseus, Italy uses formaggio, relating to the fact that its cheeses are often formed in a mold.

Well, not so with caciocavallo. It apparently means 'cheese on horseback', and clearly the 'cheese' part is a caseus-related word. It's not formed in a mold, but in cheesecloth, in teardrop-shaped pairs. And it's on horseback, either because it hangs on a 'saddle' to dry, or because of how it was originally transported. Cute.

It's funny, I was thinking the other day how I hadn't come across any fun etymology items lately, and one found me.

Happy New Year everyone! Here's to a 2007 filled with peace and cheese! (Unless you're lactose-intolerant, or vegan. In which case, peace and chocolate!)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

C&C: Little Next Door

I've never been to Paris. But of course, I'm taken in by its mystique thanks to countless filmmakers, novelists, artists, and even food bloggers. I've never had the cliched Parisian experience of languishing for hours at a sidewalk cafe, sipping wine, smoking cigarettes, writing in your moleskine, and finding yourself. Or rubbing elbows with quotidian fashionistas as a charming grocer hands you the perfect peach at a sidewalk market. I mean, this is the land that inspired Annie and Eric to smuggle no fewer than fourteen cheeses (imagine that gloriously stinky suitcase!) back home. Of course I'm smitten.

Paris is a little far away for a day trip, but I can play pretend. The other day as I was sitting on the patio at Little Next Door, enjoying the perfect breakfast, Parisian cliches came to life before my eyes! There was a woman sitting behind me, wearing hot pink stilletos and smoking her cigarette through a slim black holder. There was an unreasonably handsome man in a beret humming loudly to himself.

The cozy shop is appointed perfectly to be the quintessential Parisian cafe, plucked from the streets of Montmartre (or so I imagine). One wall is lined with jars and jars of homemade preserves and pickles: fig jam, preserved lemons, pickled pearl onions, and tiny jars of harissa with cheerful orange rubber washers. The opposite wall houses the extensive wine collection, and in between are pastries, chocolates, charcuterie and cheeses, fresh-baked breads, and more. Everything beautiful, everything evocative.

Even my croissant was a bit of a gamine. The flirty thing came on a vintage plate adorned with roses and hummingbirds, and somehow its twists and curves were a bit more curly, a bit prettier than usual, and it had the lush taste and texture to go with it. It really was a gorgeous thing. And its golden crust was the perfect scoop for the rich foam atop my bowl of cappuccino.

As my neighborhood slowly turns into pretend Europe, it gets easier to get lost in the illusion. Or maybe I just am getting more willing to make believe.

[Incidentally, this character is spending New Years in Paris and Amsterdam. Hopefully he'll share some stories so I can swoon over the city even more.]

Little Next Door is at 8142 W. Third Street, one block west of Crescent Heights.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The I-Am-Grateful Breakfast

The other day, I made myself the simplest breakfast. Nothing, really -- some crackers, some yogurt, a couple slices of tomato. But, the fact that it was so simple, but packed such a intense deliciousness struck me deeply, and just made me feel really grateful. It's kind of an amazing world we live in.

Sit down with a few simple, good items, make yourself a little morsel, and take a few slow bites. For me the perfect combination was Ak-Mak crackers (whole grain wheat, barely sweetened with honey, sprinkle of sesame), yogurt cheese, a couple slices from a farmers' market heirloom tomato (wow), and a sprinkle of zaatar. How can euphoria come so easily?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Gift in a Jar 3: Dried Apricots in Cardamom Syrup

(The other 2 gifts in a jar are here and here.)

Not going to go into too much detail on this one, since I really didn't doctor the original recipe at all, other than double it up to fill a 3/4-liter jar. It came from The Improvisational Cookbook, my new best friend, and was a fitting gift for a particularly Middle-East-obsessed friend of mine. The method is pretty simple -- make a sugar syrup, throw some heady aromatic pods and beans in there, simmer in some dried apricots, pour into jar.

But let me just say that it did give me occasion to buy my very first vanilla bean, and my what a satisfying experience that was! The sticky shrively thing makes you marvel at humanity -- so ugly and unappealing from the outside, but take the time to open it up and there is an abundance of tiny seeds with the most delicious scent, gobs of the stuff hiding among its folds, waiting to be scraped out. I'm grateful for the person who took a chance that very first time.

I will also say that this recipe made my apartment smell like a casbah (ok i have no idea what a casbah smells like, and must sheepishly admit i have no idea what a casbah even is, but it smelled perfumey and aromatic and of all sorts of arabia goodness, and furthermore if my apartment were a casbah, whatever that is, this recipe would rock it).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

'Tis The Season

Hi all. It's the holiday season, which is to say, we're all caught up in purchasing a million gifts, making cookies and nog and all sorts of deliciousness, and filling our schedules with parties and celebrations where we get cozy with loved ones and stuff our faces. In the midst of all this joyful gluttony, it's a good idea to take stock of what we have (we are very lucky), and find ways in which we can give back.

Here are a few ideas:
  • The Menu for Hope fundraiser that I talked about a few posts down still has a few days to go. The proceeds go to the United Nations World Food Programme, and there are incredible prizes to be raffled off. Donate and get more info here.
  • Project Chicken Soup gets a bunch of people together in an industrial kitchen to make healthful meals, which are delivered around town to people with HIV. If you're in the LA area, they are always looking for volunteers to help prepare and deliver these meals. I volunteered this summer, and was really moved by the experience. It's great to spend a few hours chopping and mixing to help out with such a worthy cause. Cook dates and further info here.
  • Food Not Bombs LA: A coworker recently turned me on to a post-punk anarchist vegan movement, which I didn't really know exists. I'm not that post-punk, anarchist (maybe a little), nor vegan, but that doesn't prevent me from being really impressed with this group. Every Sunday, these friendly revolutionaries prepare vegetarian meals at a co-op in Silver Lake, then distribute them to people in Pershing Square and Skid Row downtown. If you're interested in volunteering, let me know -- I want to go with you. More info here.
  • It doesn't get easier than The Hunger Site. Just click the big yellow button, look at a few ads, and they'll donate a cup or two of staple food to people who need it around the world.
  • There was a great article in the New York Times yesterday about a chef on the Upper West Side who elevates soup kitchen fare in the basement of the Broadway Presbyterian Church with a hefty pinch of gourmet humanity (and is able to do it by taking leftovers from some of the finest restaurants around town).
Happy Holidays everyone.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Gift in a Jar 2: Pickled Pearl Onions

(The first gift in a jar, maple vanilla granola, can be found here.)

This gorgeous gift in a jar is perfect for the boozehound in your family.

No wait, let me try again.

This gorgeous gift in a jar is perfect for the refined gentleman in your family who appreciates the finest things in life. Like booze.

I was inspired by the availability of pearl onions in different colors in the market (and by our family's own beloved refined imbiber, of course). I'd not pickled onions before (in fact the last time I had attempted anything like this, it was Jamie Oliver's stuffed peppers, also as a cocktail-snack gift. Let's just say I had to sleep with my hand in a bowl of ice water that night because the capsaicin in the peppers burned me so bad.), so I gathered some knowledge from Zuni Cafe as interpreted by Molly, at Orangette, and from this boisterous recipe, and added some tweaks of my own.

I made mine with a mix of red and white pearl onions, and the result looks like an enticing jar of real-life polka dots! And the taste is even better than I expected. The onions kept their crunch and are satisfyingly salty, but pack an aromatic bite and light sweetness that sets them apart from their comparatively-paltry supermarket cousins (who literally pale in comparison).

They'll go fine with a glass of cheap hooch, but are certainly sophisticated enough to accompany a snifter of the most urbane spirits.

Pickled White and Red Pearl Onions

This recipe fills a 3/4-liter jar. The purpose of the initial brining step is fourfold: it aids in peeling, it soaks dirt off the onions, it helps maintain the onions' crunch, and of course, it adds a pleasant saltiness. This, along with cooking and cooling the onions 3 times, make the process somewhat time-consuming, but you have some free time in between (to read a book or clean your kitchen, perhaps?), and the end result is well worth the time investment.

2 tablespoons salt
12 ounces red pearl onions
12 ounces white pearl onions

Pickling Solution
4 cups distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
5 juniper berries
about 20 black and/or red peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 star anise
crushed red pepper, to taste

In a medium bowl, dissolve salt in 2 cups water. Repeat the following for each onion: Cut the top and bottom off the onion. Dip it in the brine for a second or two (this helps the skin come off more easily). Peel off the skin and any leathery outer layers. Return peeled onion to the brine. Allow onions to sit in brine for at least 1 hour.

Meanwhile, prepare the pickling solution. In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining ingredients over high heat. Separate the red and white onions onto 2 plates. When the mixture comes to a boil, add the white onions to it and stir. As soon as it begins to simmer again, about 15 seconds later, give the onions one more stir, then remove them from the heat back to their plate (a spider or slotted spoon makes this easy). Place the plate of onions in the fridge and repeat the process with the red onions.

Once the onions have cooled, repeat the process 2 more times, allowing them to cool between each dunk into the boiling pickling solution. Allow onions and pickling solution to cool. Place onions in a jar (be sure to mix the reds and whites at this point -- much prettier presentation). Pour pickling solution over the onions to fill jar. Be sure peppercorns, bay leaves, anise, etc. make their way into the jar. Discard remaining pickling solution or save for salad dressing or other recipes.

Note: As this recipe ages, the flavors mellow and meld together. Unfortunately though, so do the colors. If you are going to give this as a gift, your best bet to maximize both would be to make it about 3-7 days before presenting it.

The Bounty of the Farmers' Market

Last Sunday, I made my way to the Hollywood Farmers' Market, then immediately over to my parents' house. My sister and brother-in-law and their kids were coming over for dinner (takeout kabob, natch), and I told mom I'd provide the pre-dinner snacks.

There is an overwhelming amount of goodness to be found at the farmers' market. The debonair man with dreads and smiling eyes banging his drum and singing "This Old Man" for the kiddies, the friendly Thai lady preparing fluffy coconut sweets in a hot dimpled pan, fresh flowers on either end, and endless winter produce. Well, California winter anyway: gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, all manner of fresh herbs, huge avocados, and tons more.

I ended up leaving with wax beans, baby bok choi (leafier and darker that what I've seen before), radishes (I don't even like radishes! But these were so pretty and unusual: long finger-shaped guys, each one half white and half bright pink. They went to my parents.), teeny spindly carrots in several colors, a bunch of thyme, a hunk of sharp gouda from the 'yummy yummy cheese' lady, and loaf of whole-grain Moroccan olive bread with thyme and orange zest.

I saved the beans and bok choi for myself, but the rest made a pretty spread for the hungry family. It also led to the following revelation, compliments of my 3-year-old nephew, Ethan: "Dad, these are carrots, but they are special carrots, which are called purple and orange carrots." (Except that Ethan pronounces 'purple' more like 'fuffay'. Try it. It's pretty damn cute.) Our budding horticulturist.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

On Raging Hormones and Rubber Chicken

[i'm warning you now, this is a weird one]

On most days I am a vital, outgoing person. On a good day, one might even say I'm perky. But Friday night, I just sat there, a lumpy lump on one side of the couch, taking in nuggets of Fortune West spicy orange chicken and spitting out wads of some bizarro form of spicy-orange-chicken-flavored chewing gum. Something despicable was afoot.

Fortune West always seemed depressing to me. A newish Chinese restaurant on Fairfax, it was always mostly empty, save for a few apparent vagabonds and outcasts: the shriveled up man with his Amazonian wife, the dour-faced woman in soccer mom jeans and a floral-print purse that looked straight out of 1987. But then I noticed Soccer Mom stealing a kiss from her husband as he waited for the bill, and heard the waitress cheerfully call Shriveled-up Guy by name. So maybe the depressingness was in me, not in the restaurant.

I've only gone to Fortune West at low points. Times when I'm exhausted, bitter, grumpy. This was only the second time I had visited the restaurant, and both times, I've been completely boring and ordered the spicy orange chicken. In those moments, I lack the energy to even consider being adventurous. The first time I was there was on a rainy drive after a late night at work, harried and miserable and feeling entitled to Chinese takeout. Friday night, I sank to an even lower low point.

It was raining, I had just picked up my beloved laptop from having a complete brain transplant (that's right, kids, hard drive and motherboard), and was faced with the harrowing task of recovering the empty hard drive to its prior glory, one file, folder, application at a time. Friday nights are never good for this kind of thing -- a weeks' work leaves me spent, but there are times in a woman's month when everything miserable is compounded. I was a sad sack.

I skipped plans. I slumped into the couch, plunking files from the iPod onto the new hard drive. I watched an episode of Sex and the City, and then another one, and then another. I avoided with my chopsticks the frightening red chiles and strips of orange zest and picked out pieces of chicken. I chewed through each one, sucking out the pungent sauce -- addictive with citrus, spice, and lots and lots of garlic. The chicken is truly delicious, but I had managed to forget that the chicken is completely inedible. Turns out it's mostly skin, and when it's super-hot-wokked into orange chicken, it becomes a tough rubbery substance for which human teeth are no match. Realizing I would never chew through it enough, I started spitting out the remnants. (I know. Gross!)

The scariest part is that Saturday morning I woke up and started eating (well, gnawing) cold leftover spicy orange chicken and watching Sex and the City. Again! What took over me? The only explanation is that the small black plastic container that the diabolical chicken comes
in, is actually a black hole. Its infinite gravity sucks the life out of everything that comes near it. It turned me into a subservient zombie, powerless under its saucy pull. What I'm saying people, is that Friday night, I was abducted by extra-terrestrial chicken. Watch out.

Fortune West is at 418 1/2 N. Fairfax Ave., 1 1/2 blocks north of Beverly.

Incidentally, if you haven't already, please check out the Menu For Hope fundraiser for the United Nations Food Programme. More info here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Menu For Hope

So, as we've talked about here before, we are very lucky. Sitting here writing and reading about happily eating day after day indicates clearly how good we have it. It's good fun to coo over delicious meals, but there's got to be a balance. There are millions of people who are going to sleep hungry tonight. What's fantastic is that many many food bloggers the world over are banding together to do something about it.

This is the third year of the Menu for Hope fundraiser, and last year they raised $17,000 for the UNICEF. This year they are raising money for the United Nations World Food Programme. The idea is this: bloggers offer up raffle prizes, generous souls buy raffle tickets, at 10 dollars each, and then there are drawings, prizes are shipped, and the hungry are fed (well, sadly not all of them.. but we do what we can, right?).

The prizes are marvelous and many: delicious tastes from local regions, homemade sweets, schmancy Japanese chef's knives, exotic spices, a bento box starter kit, all manner of cookbooks, meals at extremely posh restaurants, and if you happen to be in Florence, a tour of that fabulous city's market (sigh...)! (Also, holy crap, someone's offering a Kitchen-Aid!)

Sadly I missed the boat on offering a prize this year, but I strongly encourage you to check out the selection: the whole round-up is here at the site of its founder, Pim, along with instructions on donating, and the west coast sector is here at Becks And Posh. Then open your hearts (and credit card numbers) and give generously to this very very worthy cause. Let's bring some light into someone's winter!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Gift in a Jar: Maple Vanilla Granola

[UPDATE: To see all of my 'gift in a jar' ideas, click here. Have fun with all the gifting!]

Yesterday for book club, I made granola. Pretty exciting. For the small amount of time you put in, the results are satisfying and impressive (not to mention abundant -- a couple cups of oats gives you granola for days).

I've run out of ziploc bags, so I decided to carry it in one of the charming wire-bail canning jars I bought to store a gift I plan to make. As I was pouring the dark amber mix into the jar, I realized that it's gorgeous, and would make a great homemade gift in its own right. What sets this granola apart from other seasonal gifts is its wholesomeness. While I'd never turn down Christmas cookies (and chocolates and rum cakes and bouches de noel and pannetone and pie and...), the amount of sweets eaten during the winter holiday season can get downright oppressive. This granola is delicious -- with lots of maple flavor and tangy dried cranberries, but it's not too sweet, and has lots of fiber and a little flax meal to show your recipients that you care about their hearts as well as their tastebuds. It also happens to be vegetarian, vegan, and parve.

To make it as a gift: the recipe makes enough for a 1 liter jar (you can get great Italian canning jars from Cost Plus stores for a few dollars), with a little left over to reward the generous cook. You can vary the ingredients to your tastes, but the dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds add some festive color (pistachios would be very pretty as well).

Maple Vanilla Granola with Dried Cranberries

This base recipe is great, but lends itself to much improvisation. Vary the nuts and dried fruit, try nutmeg, powdered dried ginger, or even Chinese five-spice powder or cardamom. Use honey instead of the maple syrup, or try a combination of fruit juice with 1/4 cup sugar. Orange zest would add some fresh flavor, too. I like serving it with unsweetened vanilla soy milk, but it'd be great with any milk or yogurt, or straight from the jar.

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup shelled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1/2 cup pecan pieces
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1/4 cup ground flax seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vegetable oil (or olive oil)
1 teaspoon water
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup dried cranberries

Line a baking sheet with foil and grease the foil (nonstick cooking spray would also work fine here). Preheat oven to 325F.

In a large bowl, combine oats, nuts, flax seeds, and cinnamon.

In a small pot, heat maple syrup, oil and water over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is thin enough to pour easily, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla extract.

Pour syrup mixture over oat mixture and stir to combine. Spread granola across prepared baking sheet. Try to get a single thin layer. Bake at 350 until the granola reaches the desired color. I like a dark, browned granola, which takes about 20 minutes. Stir the granola arounda bit about 10 minutes in. Lower heat to 250, and bake until granola is mostly dry, about 20-30 minutes.

Remove from heat, and allow to cool before packing in jar or bag (the last bit of moisture dries out as it cools). Stir in cranberries.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

old country food porn

Technical difficulties preventing me from posting with the regularity I'd like are about to be fixed forever (cross your fingers). There are about 5 million things i want to talk about.

In the meantime, check out this dreamy photo essay of fall foods in Iran. I've heard so many stories of this corn grilled right on the coals, and there are berries and fruits in this thing I've never heard about, and my God that bread!, and fresh pistachios, and those brined walnuts are enormous, and a photo of that elusive thanksgiving porridge, halim, and sweets, and so much rice, and pomegranate, and persimmons, and...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

What I'm Reading: The Improvisational Cook

I'm a big fan of paragraphs. Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate the efficiency of bullet points and itemized lists, but there's something about paragraphs that just speaks to me. With paragraphs, I know I'm getting the real thing: all the little details that get left out when you try to cut a topic into bite-sized rectangular morsels are there for the taking. With paragraphs, there's room for conversation, for discourse.

So you can imagine my delight when I started leafing through the copy of Sally Schneider's The Improvisational Cook that the kind people at William Morrow had sent me (that's right, take note, this is a solicited (but still very, very earnest) review). This book is not a series of dry, regimented recipes. It's far more: a kitchen philosophy based in trying new things, trusting your instincts, working with what you have, and being creative. There are ingredient lists, yes, but for each one, there are about 5 variations, written in simple conversational paragraphs. Each main recipe also has a page entitled 'Understanding', where Ms. Schneider gives you an idea of the ingredients, tastes, and concepts you're working with -- just the kind of knowledge that will empower you to riff off her ideas.

What's more, the first section of the book contains nary a single ingredient list. Decorated with gorgeous photography (sadly, the only photos in the book are in this first section), in paragraph upon glorious paragraph, Ms. Schneider acqaints you with your food, and how to prepare it: how to put flavors together, a primer on seasonings, and a very inspiring section on finding inspiration. Her tone is nurturing. Her deft tips act as improvisational training wheels, subtly guiding you as you develop your own balance. She gives you practical advice to get through the fear of straying from what you know (taste just a spoonful of your sweet potato puree with the experimental spice blend before adding it to the whole batch), and has a very cool attitude towards mistakes. Throughout the book, I feel like I'm in a chatty dialogue with someone who is both highly skilled and highly forgiving.

The food sounds delicious. Her recipes have a minimalistic aesthetic -- a few choice ingredients highlighted in simple preparations (with a strong lean towards Mediterranean, Southeast Asian, and Southern tastes), but they still turn out sophisticated, satisfying results. I enjoyed layering flavors as I prepared The Pasta With Baby Artichokes: a spring of fresh rosemary in the early stages, a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts and a splash of sherry vinegar towards the end -- these simple details really allow the flavors to shine. And two bites in, I was already thinking of my own improvisations: leeks instead of baby artichokes, additions like tangy olives, sweet onions, preserved lemons, toasted hazelnuts, and on and on.

I also tried one of the book's desserts. Unable to leave well enough alone though, I made some changes: I turned the Earl Grey Tea Cookies into a delicate saffron tea shortbread, and the book's instructions led me to a buttery, flaky texture.

I'm excited to have this book in my collection. I can't wait to try the slow-roasted tomatoes (followed of course by the slow-roasted tomato sauce, soup, tart, and jam), the boozy prunes (and other fortified fruits), and all her wildly creative ways with popcorn. But there is more to this book than individual recipes. I feel like, if someone were to go through this book cover to cover, they would come out of the experience a good cook. The techniques Ms. Schneider teaches and the vast knowledge she imparts help you develop your skills and find your own tastes.