Monday, July 18, 2011

Ottolenghi at animal

What do you call it when you know everything about a person and that person has no idea you exist?  Oh, stalking.  I don't remember where I first read about Yotam Ottolenghi, but that name pulled me in immediately.  I tried to make sense of it:  last name is definitely Italian, first name sounds Hebrew.  I want more info.  (I was similarly intrigued when I first of Adriano Goldschmied.  What can I say?  I love a pizza bagel.)

Needless to say, I got a little stalky.  I started scouring the internet for information.  I learned that Chef Ottolenghi is an Israeli of Italian and German descent, with a grandma who recreates her own little Tuscany there, down to the imported espresso she drinks every morning (though I am partial to the Elite brand instant coffee served in yellow mugs ubiquitous in Israeli households, I can't begrudge Ottolenghi's Italian grandmother her real-deal coffee).  I also learned that with head chef Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian who, like Ottolenghi himself, is a handsome young gay man in stylish nerd glasses, he owns a series of vegetarian restaurants in London, with huge spreads of irresistible baked goods and menus based on fresh seasonal vegetables, prepared simply to bring out their best.

There was so much to love here, and in the sunny vegetarian recipes that Ottolenghi posts on the Guardian, with their constant nods to Italian and Middle Eastern Mediterranean cuisines, that in my head I entertained ideas of going to London just so I could try his restaurant (and take pictures, and blog about it, obvs).  The food, and the stories, resonated with me in a very personal way.  So, when I found out Chef Ottolenghi was hosting a dinner right here in Los Angeles, at beloved animal, I jumped on it.  Five courses, all vegetarian fare, eached paired with wine.  (Note: four of those five were rosés, two of which where sparkling.  Wine for a summer night after my own heart.

goat cheese ravioli with turmeric and pink peppercorns
The preparations were simple -- not unlike the kind of food I like making for myself on a weeknight -- but were executed really well, with perfectly fresh ingredients.  Plates were easy to deconstruct.  Nothing was trying to be meat.  Really, nothing was trying to be anything other than what it was.  All of the dishes came from Ottolenghi's new vegetarian cookbook, Plenty, and for each dish, the focus was a vegetable: eggplant was cooked over open fire until it was totally soft and smokey, zucchini grilled, and tomatoes roasted to bring out their sweetness (the latter for a dish called 'tomato party'.  Who doesn't love a tomato party?), or left raw -- after all, in some cases it's best not to mess with natural beauty.  Flavor was heightened with a variety of cheeses, lemon zest, toasted nuts, and torn fresh herbs.  Everything tasted bright and alive.

tomato party!
Having said that, I have to admit: the food left me wanting a little.  Somehow the dinner's presentation -- small, sparse plates -- didn't meet up to the festive abundance you see in images of the restaurants.  Though a salad of watercress, orange blossoms, and toasted pistachios seemed to bounce off the plate with flavor, this kind of fare is a little too delicate overall to satisfy on its own.  (Fortunately, we knew a place across the street.  Please don't tell Chef Ottolenghi that we topped off his meal with a big bowl of fries at Golden State.)

milk pudding with toasted coconut and almonds
But maybe the real prize here is the chef himself: he's totally charming in person, and as you see in the notes above every recipe in his book, he's also chatty and generous with stories and tips.  We discovered that his sister lives in the same suburb of Tel Aviv as my uncle, and he mentioned to us that he went to Joan's on Third that day for lunch, and Joan wouldn't stop feeding him (she must have been thrilled at the chance to indulge in her motherly overfeeding instinct).  This latter fact makes perfect sense:  she probably sensed a kindred spirit in this Italian by way of Israel who came from London all the way to Los Angeles to teach us a thing or two about vegetables. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

All I Need is Bread and Cheese

 The concept of naan-va-paneer-va*... was a beloved one in our kitchen growing up, and when the weather is as sunny as it's been lately, the simplicity of this kind of meal is especially appealing.  You might recognize those foreign words from your local curry shop's menu, but they are the same in Persian as they are in Hindi:  naan is bread, and paneer is cheese.  Take those two -- typically it was lavash, sangak, or some other Persian flatbread, and salty feta cheese -- and add some things:  some sliced tomatoes, a few pistachios or walnuts, some cold cantaloupe, or maybe just some fruit preserves.  Something about this combination is deeply satisfying.

Today, recovering from maid of honor duties at an absolutely beautiful but extremely culinarily indulgent wedding last night (6 courses, catered by animal.  Need i say more?), I couldn't possibly stomach a lunch more substantial than naan-va-paneer.  Today's rendition included some special treats: for one, this insanely good goat's milk feta with sun-dried tomatoes purchased from at the Silver Lake Farmer's Market from the burnished old Greek man who once sang a song about my beauty while selling me cheese (I love the Greek).

Another was zaatar, a Middle Eastern blend of dried thyme and other herbs with toasted sesame seeds. You'll find zaatar in  Israeli and Lebanese food for sure; I've also had it in Jordan.  It's not a Persian ingredient.  I have a giant bag sitting in my fridge that I carried with me the last time I was in Israel (let's not talk about how long ago that was), but you can find it in Middle Eastern markets and spice shops here.

This doesn't really warrant a recipe, but here's the breakdown of today's naan-o-paneer lunch:

 - whole-wheat pita, perfectly toasted and spread with strained nonfat Greek yogurt, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with flaky salt and zaatar
 - a few slices from a really good tomato, sprinkled with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt
 - a few slices of cool, crisp Asian pear
 - marinated feta with sun-dried tomatoes

The perfect beverage to go along?  Sharbat-e-golab, sweet icy rosewater ade.  I'm going to go make some right now!

* That spelling is actually based on the 'formal' way of pronouncing those words, but in conversation you'd hear something more like noon-o-paneer-o....  And spoken conversationally, these phrases roll off the tongue in a particularly pleasant way:  noon-o-paneer-o-pesteh for pistachios, noon-o-paneer-o-talebi for cantaloupe.  If you've got an Iranian friend handy, ask her to say it so you can hear how it goes.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Our Bake Sale Family

The fifth annual No Cookie Left Behind bake sale came and went, and I'm still trying to make sense of it.  Five years in, we thought we could make this happen with our eyes closed, but actually we learned a few things this time around.  It was awesome, and a little humbling.

A personal lesson was that as much as I try every year to get an earlier start, it just doesn't work that way.  We kicked things off with an amazing brunch chez Heather Taylor, but we let it go slack from there.  Three months out, bake sale work is a slow slog, executed in a vacuum:  you get little feedback, and so there's not much to push you forward.  We're busy people.  Momentum is impossible.  But in those last couple weeks, the frenetic push to get everything done starts getting results, and that feels electric.

This year's bake sale was a little mellow.  It fell on Father's Day, so a lot of people were previously engaged.  And though we tweeted, blogged, and promoted like crazy, we didn't get the 'big press' that we usually rely on:  for various reasons outside our control, we weren't featured on Daily Candy or Good Food this year.  So, we learned.  Those things do make a difference.  Now we know.  (But don't worry: our network never lets us down and as of yesterday, we already have a connection to Evan Kleiman for next year!)

Despite the quiet though, it was a really nice bake sale.  We are so proud to have made over $3100 for Share Our Strength, and any baked goods left over from the day went straight to Hollywood's own Covenant House (note:  there is no better sight than a thuggish-looking teen walking down the street licking the frosting off a pink cupcake).

Year five brought us back a little.  Though we didn't get quite as many of those little thrills from strangers who'd heard about us from sources we didn't even know about (or New York Times photographers covering our bake sale for a story), we had a solid showing of "our people."  Friends stopped by to drop off homemade jams, or some very special popcorn, and stayed the whole afternoon, cafe-sitting and peoplewatching.  Others ate the day away, then left with a shopping bag full of even more desserts.  Our crew's enormous network of friends and family made up the bulk of the crowd, and it was really fun to see a slew of familiar faces, smiling as they enjoyed sweets, sunshine, and each other's company, all thanks to something we created.

But you know, one reason there were so few strangers is the bake sale itself.  Just as we set out, we've built a community.  In our first year, back when I was living in Miracle Mile, a new storefront was going up a block or two from me:  Kiss My Bundt Bakery.  With no knowledge of the business, I blindly sent a message to the email address on their site.  The response I got, from Chrysta Wilson, the proprietor of the shop, crystallized the vision for No Cookie Left Behind:  she came to baking from being a community organizer, and was grateful to find a way to give back.  It was that word: community

Chrysta donated that first year, and has every year since.  She hung out for a while this year, selling incredibly moist red velvet bundts in a jar.  So did Meg Taylor of Large Marge Sustainables.  Though her delicious catering company has blown up and is now craft services to the stars (including feeding the crew of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution -- a compliment if I've ever heard of one), she brought her amazing citrus herb shortbread as she has since year one, and stayed to chat.  Two days before the bake sale, I emailed Elizabeth Belkind of the wildly successful CakeMonkey Bakery.  Back in 2006, there was no CakeMonkey: only the dozens of dulce de leche cupcakes that Elizabeth made for No Cookie Left Behind.  This year, her business partner Lisa heeded the call, and I started the morning with a pick-up at their Burbank kitchen, wowed by the incredible smells and the trays and trays of cubed butter in their fridge! I like to think we've had CakeMonkey sweets at the bake sale since before CakeMonkey existed.  And of course there's Tai Kim.  Tai!  What can we say about this man who allows us to wreack havoc on his ice cream shop's tranquil patio year after year, then contributes generously to our cause to boot.  We love him.

And our community grows!  Between the raffle and the spread, we've brought in so many new friend-contributors over the years:  I was thrilled to meet Lauren Soloff of The Granola Project after crushing hard on her amazing kitchen when Heather did a visit for her blog (though I was more thrilled when I dumped the sesame-date-cocoa-nib granola I got at the bake sale in with some greek yogurt, cottage cheese, blood orange marmalade (another bake sale find), fresh apricot, and flax meal for breakfast yesterday.  Goodness).  Heather also introduced us to Full Moon Pickles, and I can't wait to try their Lady Marmalade, a concoction of meyer lemons and fresh ginger.  She also connected us to Holly Flora, who has been helping to make our tables beautiful with their so-special flower arrangements.  Our own Peggy contacted her friend Danielle, and a sweet hook-up occurred:  pastry chef Danielle Keene of Bittersweet Treats happens to be a Top Chef Just Desserts finalist, and kindly donated free seats in her dessert classes held on a family farm in Malibu to our raffle.  This year also brought in Cafecito Orgánico:  they've taken over the cafe next to Scoops, and were happy to caffeinate our sweets-loving crowd.  (It's all connected, by the way: the founder of Cafecito is a college friend of my friend Juan, they used to provide the beans for that old Kiss My Bundt storefront on West Third, Large Marge used to make food for this shop, and they provide my own morning coffee every Saturday at the Silver Lake Farmer's Market.  LA is not so large when there are bake sales.)  Our beloved friends at Golden State Cafe donated to the raffle for the second year running, and co-owner Jason Bernstein sent his girlfriend and his mother to buy up sweets while he worked.  See?  Family.

my personal take of jams and granola
This year, the sisters of SporkFoods were busy getting Jenny married off (the same Jenny who coined the name No Cookie Left Behind in my living room five years ago), so our vegan representation weighed a little heavy on my mind.  Then I met a smiley vegan named Amy at a party, asked if she had any leads, and an email later, Jesse and Mallori of JAM Vegan Bakery were standing outside Scoops with some of the most beautiful cupcakes we've ever seen.

That's pretty much how our bake sale goes:  if we know you, we will put you to use.  And trust us, you will like it.   Because once you're in, you're part of our No Cookie Left Behind family.  We may be a little dysfunctional, but let me tell you, our family reunions are something else.

First two photos by Alex De Cordoba via LA In Bloom, next two by Amelia Morris.