Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I Went Beyond the Kebab for Thrillist

So excited to share the fun piece I wrote for Thrillist on LA's best Persian food.  Since I expect my fellow Angelenos to all to be pro ethnic eaters, I decided to skip the obvious kebab choices and find some of the more obscure Persian eats around town.  Really delicious to research, so fun to write.  Check it out!

Thanks to Robert for the photo.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Coconut Caipirinhas

Two words:  coconut zeitgeist.  For reasons beyond my understanding, there is a force at work that keeps pushing coconut under my nose.  First it was the intriguing story of the strange San Francisco woman with tattooed-on freckles and a severe psychological disorder, whose Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club introduced us to the term "hipster toast".  Trouble's menu features an item called Build Your Own Damn House, consisting of a coffee, a piece of cinnamon toast, and a young coconut served with both a straw, for its water, and a spoon to scoop out its soft meat.

Lately, similar young coconuts have been on offer at the juice truck outside the Saturday Silver Lake Farmers Market, and I can't get enough of the young coconut juice slushy at Wat Dong Moon Lek.  Even the über-cool Ace Hotel is in on the game:  at a rooftop event called Discostan (after my own heart) a few Sunday afternoons ago, the frozen drink of the day was piña colada, and everyone had a glass of the frosty stuff in their hand.

It transcends food, though:  I swear by the somewhat hippy-dippy coconut body lotion I've used for years, but lately I've been hearing talk of using straight coconut oil, right from the food aisle, as everything from a hair conditioner to a facial moisturizer, and I gotta say, I'm not mad at the results (anyone else trying this?).

Not that I'm complaining.  I love all of this.  For me the smell of coconut is everything summer:  suntan lotion on the beach, tropical islands with swaying palm trees and pale blue waters.  I'll take it all.

So, you can imagine my delight when last month Smitten Kitchen featured a frozen coconut limeade.  In May, I spent some time in New York (same trip as Montreal), and a good friend introduced me to his adopted neighborhood of Inwood, a forgotten bit of upper-upper-upper Manhattan with old growth forest, Hudson River views, and undeniable Dominican flavor.  We had dinner at a place called Papasito, a Dominican-owned Mexican restaurant*.  No hipster minimalism here; people were here to smoke hookah, eat supple, well-spiced food, drink big pink cocktails, sway to the tropical music, and flirt.  I ordered a coconut caipirinha -- a frosty take on the Brazilian national cocktail of cachaça (Brazilian sugar cane liquor), lime, and sugar -- here mixed with coconut milk and served blended.  It was perfect.

So, In this weekend's killer heat, I invited myself over to the gorgeous home of my good friend Stephanie Alpert, who runs the killa vintage shop Rummage and Hollow, and pretty much forced her to make cocktails with me.
We started with the Smitten Kitchen recipe, doctored it to our liking, and spiked it with cachaça.  In the midst of serious summer heat, we were cool as a coconut.

Coconut Caipirinha
Inspired by Smitten Kitchen.
Makes 6 glasses.

I find it especially fitting to be posting this Brazilian cocktail on the heels of Brazil's pitiable defeat and elimination at the hands (and feet) of Germany yesterday.  If Neymar's tearjerker of a message didn't melt your heart, that game surely broke it.  Thanks for not rioting, Brazil.

5 cups small ice cubes or crushed ice
1 1/2 cups full-fat coconut milk
juice of 4 limes (about 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups cachaça
lime slices for garnish

You can go about this two ways:  you can keep your pitcher virgin and add cachaça to the individual servings, or you can go all in from the get-go.  If you choose to do the former, add 2 ounces of cachaça to each glass of limeade mixture, and stir well.

Add all ingredients (save for cachaça, if you're adding it later) to blender and blend until frothy and slushy.  Pour into glasses, and garnish each with a straw and a slice of lime.

* Far be it from this Angeleno to deign to eat New York Mexican food (shudder); I managed to find a decidedly non-Mexican dish on the menu:  plátano relleno.  A plantain roasted in its skin, split lengthwise, and filled with seasoned stewed beef.  This Angeleno chose wisely.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Dizi at Nersses Vanak

Let's expand our knowledge of Persian cuisine a bit, shall we?  Dizi, also known as ab-goosht, is a Persian soup dish that my mom used to make when I was a kid.  I haven't had it in well over a decade. I returned to dizi after this gaping hiatus, last week, at a strip mall Armenian Persian spot on San Fernando called Nersses Vanak, and I'm extremely glad I did.

Let me tell you about the dish.  Dizi is a tomato-based soup, long-simmered with chunks of lamb meat, chickpeas, and potatoes.  It's got a dark acidity that sometimes borders on intense bitterness, from limoo amani -- small limes boiled in brine then dried in the sun until they're hardened and black in color.  Just a few ingredients, but the magic is in the eating.  After everything's cooked together, the meat and chickpeas (and sometimes the potatoes as well) are strained out of the broth.  They're pounded together to make goosht-o-nokhod, a dense, nearly-spreadable mash that's served alongside the broth.

As we entered Nersses Vanak, we walked into a smallish, slightly fancy dining room with red and pink walls with a bit of ornate trim.  On the far wall, World Cup was playing on a flatscreen, and as the lunch crowd rolled in, every diner was a minor variation on my own dad.  

The young guy manning the whole room -- speaking English to us, Persian to another table, and Armenian to the guys in the kitchen -- started us off with bread. It was the restaurant's spin on taftoon, and it was excellent: fresh from the oven, thicker than lavash, less dense than Indian naan, softly pillowy, and especially delicious when we sandwiched in a bit of the fresh basil and sweet onion that accompanied it.  

Then he brought out my dizi, and I felt a little hesitation. There is a bit of ritual to eating the dish, and as much was I wanted to appear real-deal Persian, I was a little rusty.  At Nersses Vanak, you can have them make the goosht-o-nokhod for you, or you can opt to mash it yourself.  I'd gone with the latter, curious about the unusual gadget they'd give me for the job.  

So, he brings out my dizi in a very old-country looking metal mini-urn, along with a bowl for serving and the masher, something like a round meat mallet, but with its handle up-and-down instead of sideways.  (I didn't ask, but I'm pretty convinced that both of these contraptions come from Iran.)

He also brought out a basket of yet more bread, in this case lavash that had been dried in the oven until crisp.  "For tellit," he said in an adorable mix of English and Persian, the idea being that you break up the bread into pieces and throw it into the hot broth, oyster-crackers-in-clam-chowder style.  

He graciously strained the broth from the barrel-thing into my bowl for me, saving my fingers from the burning hot vessel. I got to mashing, getting hungrier by the second, the scents of the soup wafting up as I worked.  I threw in my lavash bits, scooped in some of my meaty garbanzo-y mash, and dug in.  

My dizi was comforting and delicious, and for the first time, I really got it:  you start out with a bowl of somewhat insipid broth, but the lavash melts into and thickens it, the goosht-o-nokhod slowly spreads through, getting moistened by the broth, and the texture of the whole thing changes completely.  Each element gives to and takes from the others, and you end up with a singular, fully integrated food, hearty and filling.

Nersses Vanak is at 6524 San Fernando Rd., just south of Western in Glendale.