Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Eat Mickey's Face

So, your family's smiley almost-2-year-old is obsessed with Mickey Mouse (not that he would turn his nose at 'wubby' (Wow Wow Wubbzy), 'hanny manny' (Handy Manny), 'wubbub' (Spongebob, obviously), 'giggo' (The Wiggles), or my personal favorite, 'Talioola' (Charlie and Lola, which you should really check out, regardless of your age, because they are adorable). Obviously, when his birthday comes around, there's gonna be a Mickey Mouse party.

For the party, my sister thought it would be fun to have her son's munchkin friends decorate Mickey Mouse cookies. And why buy cookies when you (or rather, me, along with my mom) can make them at home? My sister loaded us up with recipe (Martha Stewart's amazing sugar cookie recipe from her Baking Handbook (a really gorgeous and comprehensive book, by the way)), ingredients, Mickey cookie cutter, and shiny red KitchenAid, and we went to town. My sister's kitchen became a cookie factory: while Mom cut out one batch of cookies, I checked the ones in the oven, and another hunk of dough chilled in the fridge (I dare you to make this recipe without eating any of the raw dough, by the way: totally impossible).

Well, love Martha or hate her, the cookie dough was irrestible, and the cookies were perfect: not overly sweet, crispy around the edges of the ears with that delicious brown butter flavor, but tender and buttery in the middle.
They were a hit with the kids, whose artistic renderings with frosting and sprinkles and little Hershey's Kissables (have you seen this cute M-n-M-like things in Hershey Kiss shape?) were quite avant-garde, and I'm pretty sure the grownups snuck a big circular ear or two when no one was looking -- I know I did.

an esteemed guest and her masterpiece
Martha's recipe happens to be posted online here. Our tips: be generous with vanilla. Be generous with flour on your work surface and rolling pin: makes the dough much easier to handle. Do not overlook the chilling step between cutting out the cookies and baking them. Roll the dough thicker if you want chewier cookies, thinner for crispier ones.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Auspicious Beginnings

I have it on good authority that Langer's pastrami is something very special. By good authority I mean more than one lovable nebbish, and believe me, these boys know their pastrami. Staunch east coast partisans have called it the best stuff in the country. I love pastrami, and love when Los Angeles wins any food-off (especially something this sacred), so I had to get there.

sweet macarthur park mural #1 (note our hero's ak-47)

Los Angeles is at its most magical around Christmas. While the rest of the country is shoveling snow, we enjoy some of the most beautiful days of the year. The gloominess that will take over towards the end of winter hasn't set in yet, and the city is so clear and bright that it's sparkly. And so many people are home for the holidays that traffic is actually a non-issue -- a serious LA miracle.

December 31 was pretty much made to round up a few sandwich friends and go to Langer's. In the sharp winter sunlight, you totally forget that MacArthur Park is a crack park; it just looks like the lush verdant promenade it once was. Even the murals on neighboring buildings of Selena, the Pope, and other esteemed subjects seemed particularly vibrant.

gone, but not forgotten

So, you'll already be smiling by the time you walk into the deli, but when you are greeted by wood paneled walls, fake plants, and a portrait of someone's adorable 70s-era grandson, you'll be positively joyful. This is good stuff.

The menu is really long but it becomes very clear from the moment you walk into the door that you're supposed to order the #19: the renowned pastrami, with cole slaw and Swiss cheese, served hot on rye. I went with a slight variation, the #1, which has all of that except the Swiss. Good lord. The meat, in unorthodox thick slices, is so richly flavorful that it might bring a tear to your eye. Its moist, meaty deliciousness is incredibly satisfying. The bread defies logic: it's fresh and very soft, but the crust is perfectly crisp (it might be the perfect sandwich bread: toast-like crust without cutting up the roof of your mouth). Even the cole slaw and not-too-sweet cream soda are transcendent. And the sleeper hit of the day? Sweet-and-sour cabbage soup. I'm telling you -- try it. (But seriously though, the pastrami. Wow.)

So, a good time was had by all, everyone was deeply impressed with their lunch, and we knew that with such auspicious beginnings, 2008 simply can't go wrong. On the last day of the year, we reached new levels of pastrami bliss.

Langer's is at 704 S. Alvarado at 7th St.
Note that they're only open 9am - 4pm, Monday - Saturday.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tea Fest

So, what did we see at the Kulov Tea Festival on Sunday? Let's see, the room that I've always known to house dance classes at the Electric Lodge was converted into a mini-convention of sorts, milling with people, and with a focus on all things Chinese Tea. From the ceilings hung decorative umbrellas and lanterns, and each corner of the airy space promised exotic flavors: samples of inventive flavored teas like after-dinner-mint (with chocolate chips somehow incorporated into the blend), caramel, or blueberry white at one table; iced greens and oolongs, sake and plum wine at another; the dim sum table, where we sampled crunchy-chewy sesame balls filled with a sweet lotus root paste.

And there was plenty to do (besides eating and drinking). There was the raffle drawing, where one lucky winner would go home with the DVD set of the latest season of China Idol. There was a calligraphy demonstration, a woman who would do some sort of herbal assessment, and a traditional tea ceremony with rare pu-erh tea. In the Electric Lodge's theater were musical performances (Chinese zither and the like). Interesting tea-minded adults and kids (some in adorable Chinese dress) filled every corner of the Lodge and sipped -- not a bad way to spend a bit of time on the summeriest winter Sunday of the year.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

open shop: grotesque ltd.

Last night I went to Open Shop, an art and music event at Grotesque Ltd., a purveyor of various 'objects of obsession & pop-couture fetishism'. Wine and beer and nosh, a sweet kittycat, a ramshackle studio space, and two old Apple computers chilling outside dressed like Spy vs. Spy. Local artist Evan apRoberts, among others, had some art on display, including his rad featherbeards (as seen to the right), then he and some others played some tunes -- a soft folksy harmony of acoustic guitar, trumpet, and flute -- damn near perfect for a balmy February night in Echo Park.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Tea Festival Sunday

Everyone knows how much I love tea. So you can imagine my glee upon hearing about a festival on Sunday devoted to tea. It's the eighth annual Kulov Tea Festival in Venice's Electric Lodge (which, ironically and awesomely, runs on solar power). Nestled squarely between Chinese New Year and Valentine's Day, everything about this event sounds great: tea tastings & ceremonies, dim sum & other food specialties, calligraphy & herbal medicine workshops, music & dance, plus art, interactive performances, installations, raffle prizes and other surprises.

It sounds like a great event. Rock down to Electric Avenue on Sunday, and I'll see you there.

the details:
Kulov's 8th Annual
Valentine’s Tea Festival

featuring teas & flavors of China

Sunday, February 10, 3 - 8pm
at Electric Lodge Performing & Visual Arts Center
1416 Electric Avenue, Venice, CA 90291

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The House Banana

I knew something was odd when the driver had us get out of the van to disinfect our shoes. We were en route from La Fortuna, a town in Costa Rica's central highlands, to Tortuguero, a tiny village on the Caribbean coast built on a soggy strip of land between a river and the sea, and accessible only by boat. We'd planned to take a private bus to a town called Siquirres, then catch the boat there. But the guy at our hotel offered to book us a bus/boat package that would afford us a hefty discount (I should note here that the 'guy at the hotel' is the driving force behind Costa Rica's burgeoning tourism industry: the constant planning, machinations, instant translations, phone calls that they put in -- well, we'd have gotten nowhere without them). The price was right, so without asking questions, we'd agreed.

So here we were, standing before a gate, pressing the soles of our shoes into an odd orange square that was saturated in a white liquid. Had we paid closer attention to our surroundings, we'd have realized that we passed the main port several miles ago. Instead, we were entering a banana plantation. Uniform rows of banana trees surrounded us, with their giant flat leaves and heavy clusters of fruit wrapped in blue plastic bags. Ominous signs with warnings to stay out during aerial pesticide drops alternated with signs prohibiting all photography.

The driver dropped us off at a rickety wood hutch on the riverbank and told us to wait an hour for the boat. The whole thing was quite odd, but what could we do? We trusted that everything would be fine, and we waited. In the meantime, I pulled out my trusty Lonely Planet -- maybe it knew about this odd La Fortuna to Tortuguero via banana plantation route? It didn't, but I happened on an article about the costs of Costa Rica's banana industry. Evidently, for the last century, bananas have been the country's second-largest industry (after tourism), but between noxious pesticides and poor working conditions, there's lots of room for improvement. These ubitiquous blue bags hold a chemical compound designed to protect the bananas from pests (after all, as all farmed bananas are clones, they are highly susceptible to infestation). One chemical pesticide, DBCP, has a particularly dastardly past: it's manufactured in the US by Dow Chemicals, and while it was banned domestically in 1977 for being linked to birth defects, sterility, and tissue damage, it was still sent to Costa Rica until 1990. It was distressing to learn that a fruit that is so integral to the country's economy, not to mention delicious to eat at home, was mired in so much trouble.

After all, bananas (and plantains) were everywhere on my trip. Most meals came with a pile of salty patacones: slices of savory plantain flattened into discs and fried. Our hotel in the Caribbean beach town of Cahuita offered unlimited bananas and coffee to its guests. A cheery batido of banana, coconut, orange, and pineapple led us back to Ingrid's restaurant more than once. And it was a banana daiquiri (ok, maybe two) that did me in one particularly boisterous night of our journey.

But the major winner was the House Banana -- a dessert whose name we couldn't resist at the Coral Reef restaurant in Cahuita. It was quite a number: a banana sliced in half, browned in butter and redolent of dark rum, served warm with chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, and a big scoop of ice cream. I wanted to recreate it at home, but there were pangs: after reading about the banana issues, and spending a weird moment at the very site where the troubles go down, could I in good conscience purchase and eat a conventional banana?

Today at Trader Joe's I discovered organic Dole bananas. Then at home, I discovered Dole Organic's website, and was fascinated. Granted, Dole is not producing organic bananas in Costa Rica, but they are doing so in 5 other countries, and -- this is the cool part -- there is a 3-digit code on each banana label that links you, on the website, to photos and information about the specific farm on which your banana was raised. Check out the blog: there's an adorable email exchange between a US consumer and a smattering of workers from her banana's farm. This pleases me immensely.

After an hour of anxious waiting, a tiny blue boat arrived. The curly-haired punk steering the thing didn't do much to quell my anxiety, but when a local man wearing a guayabero shirt and a semi-toothless smile walked confidently to the back of the boat, whistling a carefree tune all the while, I immediately felt silly for worrying. Our young captain got us safely to Tortuguero, and as Guayabero disembarked, he turned to me with a quiet "Buen viaje, reina" and went on his way.

You try snapping a pic of this stuff before it turns into an oddly suggestive mess!

The House Banana

This dessert is very sweet, and with ice cream, quite rich. One serving is plenty for two people, and a cup of strong Costa Rican coffee served alongside hits the spot. Go dark here: dark rum, a well-browned caramel sauce, and good dark brown sugar (molasses sugar is my favorite) will really deepen the dessert's flavor.

1 tsp unsalted butter
dark brown sugar
1 ripe banana (not too ripe though -- you don't want it to fall apart in the pan), peeled and halved lengthwise
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
about 2 shots dark rum
1 Tbs chocolate sauce of your choice
1 scoop vanilla ice cream
1 Tbs caramel sauce of your choice

Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. When butter is melted, sprinkle with brown sugar, and cook one minute. Place bananas halves in pan, cut side down. Sprinkle bananas with more brown sugar. Add vanilla to melted butter in pan. After about 2 minutes of cooking, when the bottoms of the halves are well-browned, carefully flip them, and cook for 1 minute longer. Meanwhile, spread chocolate sauce decoratively on the bottom of serving plate. Pour rum over bananas and allow to heat. Ignite carefully by pooling rum in one 'corner' of pan, and bringing a long lit match close to the rum. Swish the flaming rum around the bananas in the pan. When the flames subside, carefully remove the banana halves and place them in the plate, cut side down. Pour remaining sauce over top. Place a scoop of ice cream between the two halves, and drizzle the whole lot with caramel sauce. Serve immediately.

[Thanks brandonwilhite for the banana plantation photo.]