Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Photography Therapy: A Cry For Help

They say that obscenity is the crutch of the inarticulate motherfucker.  As for me, I can put words together fine, but I can't take a picture worth a damn.  My crutch?  Hipstamatic.

Seriously though, can we talk this through?  I'm having an issue.  See, I am MTV generation through and through.  I have the shortest attention span of them all.  So I totally get that, for a food blog to actually be read, you could write like David Foster Wallace himself (still makes me sad), but you better have awesome pictures.  Hello, it's called food porn.  And, the fact is, people are actually doing professional-quality photography out there.  I look at blogs like Gastronomy or Sinosoul, and they go to restaurants, with their unpredictable and often low light, with the stigma of being that guy taking pictures of his food, with the fact that you are actually there to enjoy your food by ingesting it, before it gets cold (and clearly they do), and yet their photos are mouthwatering -- delicious things bouncing off the screen in vibrant technicolor, fancy depth of field focusing your eye on just the right bit, blurring out all the rest.

I have a little Canon point-and-shoot.  (Before that, I had a little Sony point-and-shoot, which I think I may have liked better, but then I got mugged.)  And my photo processing consists of little more than hitting the 'Enhance' button in iPhoto.  Sad, but it's all I know.  My only saving grace is that my kitchen at home gets quite bright.  Now you know why there are never dinner posts around here.

I am very interested in improving this situation.  I would love nothing more than a dslr camera, the know-how to wield it honorably, and the photoshop (or whatever) skills to take its photos to the next level.  But I don't even know where to begin.  Furthermore, there is the catch-22 of the inability to learn how to use  a dslr without having one, but the hesitation to commit to a very expensive piece of machinery without the foggiest notion of what to do with it.  On top of this, I guess there's this whole lens thing?  Evidently, you shell out for a fancy camera, but you can't actually use it without a lens as well?  This is a strange and confusing world.

So, you can see that I need some help here.  I'm standing at the bottom of the hill, looking way up.  I need a mentor, I need handholding, I need advice.  I need a photography sensei.  Tell me people, what's a photographically-remedial food blogger to do?

In the meantime, I have discovered Hipstamatic.  It's a cop-out, and it's amazing.  A 2-buck iphone app that takes my crappy photography skills, and seals them over with its own flavor of untouchable I-meant-to-do-that coolness.  It eschews the invasive world of gigapixels and high-def and gives us the beautiful retro-sexy blur that we crave.  I know it's splashed all over facebook so much it's a cliche, but the fact is, it's pretty awesome.

So for now, you're gonna see some Hipsta-shots in these parts.  Because it makes my blog pretty.  But, really, I want to learn the ways of the true masters.  Someone, please, show me the way.

Incidentally, if we're going to talk LA food blogs with amazing photography, we really need to mention eat drink & be merry -- he really elevates it.  For one, I can attest that his Sunset Junction photos are a lot more beautiful than the real thing.  And he does all these actual professional photo shoots at local restaurants, butcher shops, bars.  Lovely stuff.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

me and my beach

(that's my niece.  isn't she amazing?)
The beach is my natural habitat.  I used to think everyone loves it as much as I do, but spending time with charmingly water-timid Chicagoans in Puerto Vallarta and a few other choice friends and relatives, it turns out there are some weirdos who just aren't into it.  Bizarre, I know.  For me, it started early.  Summer would hit and my parents and their friends would round up the kids, pick up sandwiches (from Agoura's own Italia Deli if my sister had anything to do with it -- Bay Cities ain't got nothing on these sandwiches), and trek off to Zuma.  It was perfect.  The first glimpse of the ocean fills me with so much euphoria that it bubbles over and I feel like I might overflow.  I am about two shades darker in the summer.  And I must say, all that sand and salt make my hair amazing.  I could lie in the sun until it sets.  And nothing is better than that feeling when you've swam past the crazy waves and feel like you've mastered the ocean, you lean your head back until your ears are under water, you close your eyes, and the world disappears.  I really, really love the beach.

So, it was 80 degrees this weekend (That's right folks, 80 degrees in January.  Yeah, keep hating on LA.), and I had an extra day off.  I basically forced a beach day to happen.  Oh my.  So good.  Admittedly the one-and-half-hour drive back to the east was not so good, but it was worth all 90 minutes.  So, here's how we did it:

malibu seafood

We had everyone from grandparents to little kiddies in tow.  Lunch was at Malibu Seafood, because it's super casual, has a beautiful view of the water, and the kids can run around.  Now, don't show up famished because that'll just lead to grumpiness. (Admittedly, grumpiness might happen anyway, but we do our best.  As stated, some people don't love the beach like I do.  Let's focus on the positive.) You order at the counter, but it's a tiny shack of a place, so you stand in line a good long time, then have to wait for food a while after that.  But, it's great.  Far less of a scene than Neptune's Net a little ways further up PCH, and the fish is really fresh and tasty.  There are plenty of fried things, which are all delicious, not least of which is perfectly cooked steak fries, but there's also shrimp cocktail, scallop ceviche, steamed shellfish, chowder, and a whole set of grilled fish plates.  (There's also an ahi burger, but it's just ok, which is what you get for ordering an ahi burger.)  No alcohol is sold on the premises, but as the lovely woman at the counter will tell you, the 76 gas station a quarter mile up the road sells wine and beer.  You kind of need a Corona or Pacifico to go along with your fried fish and ocean view.  You're on your own for limes, though.  One family brought their own tablecloth and champagne flutes.  Charming, if a little weird.

ladybugs in the sand
After lunch, we crossed the street to the glorious beach.  Water was icy of course, but who cares?  It's a Monday in January, and my feet are in the Pacific Ocean.  Stones were skipped, shells were collected, anomones were poked.  Bizarrely, a million little ladybugs swarmed through the sand and tickled our toes.  And two children got completely soaked.  What's better?

Malibu Fish and Seafood is at 25653 Pacific Coast Hwy in Malibu. (It's way out past Pepperdine. Plan accordingly.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Friday, January 14, 2011

Yuzu for What Ails You

Let's talk about one of my best friends.  I've known Jessica for fourteen years.  We met in my sophomore year of college.  We lived together during my senior year.  We've traveled together, watched countless romantic comedies together, gone out, stayed in, gossiped, processed every life event of the last decade and a half together.  We've laughed a lot and cried some, too.  And I am thrilled to report that when Jessica gets married this summer, I will be her maid of honor.  I really do feel honored -- she's that kind of friend.

Jessica's mom, a source of much folklore in our circle, is Korean, and so since my formative college days, Jessica has been responsible for initiating me into the world of Korean food.  It started with packages her mom would send her:  giant 70s orange tubs of brown, swampy fermented bean paste inhabited our fridge.  At odd hours, Jessica would heat dried fish -- small whole fish pounded flat and dried like jerky -- directly on the stove's burners.  The pungent reek would take over the apartment.  It got better though -- Jess also introduced us to delicious sheets of crisp toasted seaweed, and smushy little Korean mochi with a bit of sweet bean paste in the middle.  Later came all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, fancy Korean coffee shops, and short rib soup you eat with scissors.

So, you can imagine my excitement when for once, I had a new Korean food to share with her.  I was introduced to Korean yuzu honey tea, or yujacha, a year ago, and instantly fell in love with the stuff. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit with all the familiar and beloved brightness of our own lemons, but with a novel flavor -- a little sweeter, and a bit more complex.  You make the 'tea' (not really a tea at all, more like an emulsion of sorts) by scooping a bit of yucheong, a honey yuzu marmalade, into a mug, then adding steamy hot water. 

The next time I saw Jessica, I was jumping over myself to tell her about my amazing Korean disovery.  And Jessica, all cool, was like, "Yeah, I have a jar of that stuff in my fridge right now."


Fourteen years and bff status, and she's been holding out on me.

Despite my rage, we got over it, and while I'm a little sad for the lack of yuzu tea in my life the past 14 years, I'm happy that I have it now.  It's delicious always, but particularly perfect when you have a cold, as I did last week.  When you've finished the tea, you're left with a prize of slightly bitter yuzu rind at the bottom of your mug.  As if the steaming cup of hot beverage and the citrus contribution weren't healing enough, the pith (white part) of citrus rinds contain bioflavonoids, which, according to an old doctor of mine, break up congestants.

Most of you don't have a Jessica, but you have a Tannaz.  (And I mean, Jessica wouldn't have told you anyway.)  Your Tannaz is telling you, go have some yuzu tea.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

question marks and gondi kashi

I think that one of the reasons I stopped writing here was that I've been unsure.  When I look back at the early early posts here, it was all so confident.  I go to rad clubs in Chinatown!  I drink margaritas by the beach!  Barbecues galore!  I attend dreamy dinner parties and pasta dinners!  This is, empirically, the way life should be lived.  A little obnoxious, maybe, but ahh, certainty.

There were lots of exclamation points.  But lately, nothing seems so cut and dry.  There's a lot more grey area.  You look at things more closely, and those exclamation points sure start looking like questions marks.  As much as I try to deny it, there is most definitely a difference between your twenties and your thirties.  Things slow down a bit, and now that you stop to look, what seemed like obvious answers aren't so obvious anymore.

So then there was this one:  I'm going to write a cookbook!  You may recall some grand plans to finally document the recipes passed through the hands of hundreds of moms and grannies in an Iranian Jewish cookbook.  It seemed obvious: this project needs to be done, and I'm the one who needs to do it.  Well, it turns out that publishing a cookbook is not a side project.  And I already have a life, and a career, and a full-time job.  This could be a story of give-up-the-desk-job-and-follow-the-dream (exclamation point), but for now, it's not.  My job is good! Though I didn't get here via "when I grow up I want to be a..", lately there are many moments that remind that there's a reason I do what I do:  I'm good at it, it's satisfying, and I'm really lucky to have the work environment I have. (despite current work schedule of 8-pm days and working every other saturday.  curse you, puss in boots.)

So has the cookbook door closed?  Most definitely not.  I still have that database of 80 recipes waiting patiently to be shared with the world, and as of last weekend I have one more.  Gondi kashi is my absolute favorite food in the whole world.  It's a dish that you can only find in the homes of Jews from the Iranian city of Kashan, and my mom's rendition, developed under the tutelage of not one, but two Kashi grandmas (her mom and her mother-in-law), then perfected on her own over many years, is truly amazing.  People have waxed poetic about this particular dish for generations.  A grandma in our family tells stories of being able to smell her own mom cooking gondi kashi as she was walking home from school.  My grandfather had a little rhyme about it.  And I can eat plate after plate of it (and believe me, I have).

On Sunday, my parents came over to my apartment, and I watched Violet (Mom and I are on a first-name basis) make gondi kashi in my kitchen as I took copious notes.  She mixed basmati rice with ground meat, fava beans, beets, and 6 different herbs.  It's a heady thing -- the scent of the perfectly balanced mix of herbs and aromatic favas, along with the sweetness of beets filled the whole apartment.  And while it steamed, the bottom of the pot creating a perfect tahdig -- crusty brown and crackling with bits of beet caramelizing to candy-like sweetness, Saeed (Dad and I are also on a first name basis) sat down at the kitchen table, opened a bottle of red wine in the middle of the afternoon and started sipping it, with baguette and hot peppers.  Not that this at all dampened his appetite for gondi kashi.  Not that anything in the universe would.

I'd give you the recipe, but you're just going to have to wait for the cookbook.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


Drink From My Cup
Over at Food GPS, Josh Lurie interviewed a guy named Jay Murdoch, a very serious coffee guy currently shepherding all coffee activity at Kaffe 1668 in New York's TriBeCa district.  I don't know of the guy, nor the place (though if the awesome website is any indication, I really should), but when Josh asked him what inspires him about coffee, he had this beautiful piece to say:

"Hands.  Hands.  Coffee is all about hands to me.  It starts from picking the coffee cherry, and then that cherry has got to be removed.  The coffee’s got to be processed, sorted, graded, re-graded, cupped, re-sorted, dried and then it gets bagged.  Shipped.  Then it goes into the roasters’ hands.  They have to put their hands on it and control.   Finally, it will typically be hands of packagers, though that’s becoming a little more automated these days.  Then it comes into our hands.  We can only see a degradation along the line.  Coffee’s never better than when you pick the cherry off the tree.  The more that those hands care about what they’re doing, the better coffee will be.  That’s what’s it’s about to me." 

I love this.

Here's the full interview.

thanks to Ian Sane for the photo

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Sick Day Soup

Evidently, more than a week of vacation was not enough for this little worker bee, as I came home last night from work freezing and sweating at the same time, achey, tired, and miserable.  Sick day.  From the time I first had my own kitchen back in college, sick day meant soup day.  I've never been a fan of chicken soup, but today I managed to turn ingredients already in the house into a simple turkey meatball soup from that was nourishing and warming.  The vegetables add lots of vitamins, and onions, garlic, and turmeric have great antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.  Just what the doctor ordered.

Turkey Meatball Soup

As usual, this recipe is a guideline.  Feel free to swap out vegetables, meats, liquids, seasonings to suit your own taste and the contents of your own kitchen.

1/4 lb ground turkey
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1 Tbs chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbs bread crumbs
1 clove garlic
1/2 small onion
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
pepper to taste

1/4 cup diced carrots
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 Tbs white wine (optional, don't open a bottle just for this, especially if you're sick!)
3 cups broth (I used a combination of vegetable broth and water)
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
2 cups fresh spinach leaves (I used bagged baby spinach)

Make meatballs:  In a bowl, combine turkey, oil, parsley, breadcrumbs, salt, and pepper. Mince garlic, and add half; retain remaining garlic.  Grate in about 1 Tbs of onion; thinly slice remaining onion.  Smoosh together mixture with your hands and form into six meatballs.  Heat a small pot over medium-high heat and add olive oil.  Brown meatballs in the pot.  Note that browned bits will stick to the bottom of the pot:  this is okay.  Meatballs do not need to cook through at this stage, they just need to get some brown on the outside for better flavor.  Remove meatballs from pot and retain them on a plate.

Lower heat to medium.  Add onions, carrots, and turmeric, and cook until onions begin to get translucent, stirring occasionally to combine.  Deglaze the pot:  add wine (if you are using) or a bit of broth, and use a spatula to scrape up bits of browned turkey from the bottom of the pot.  Allow wine to simmer for 2 minutes.  Add broth and herbs, and return meatballs to the pot.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 5 minutes.  Add spinach, stir to incorporate, and cook until spinach is heated through, about 2 minutes. 

Note:  I used ground turkey that was 99% fat free.  If you are using fattier meat, omit the oil from the meatballs.