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.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

they're onto us

From Heeb magazine's food issue's Fifty Best Foods in the Whole Wide World:

33. Homemade Persian Food

Tell one of your Persian friends you want to have dinner at their parents’ place. And while you’re at it, insist that they serve gondis (spiced meatballs), sabzi kuku (“all things green” pancakes) and pilau khoresh (rice-based stew). And then, ask them how they make those Persian miniatures so damn miniature.

That's right.

(thanks propagandin for the heads-up!)

Monday, November 27, 2006

C&C: La Maison du Pain

Knowing how I stalk the Wilshire Vista neighborhood, someone turned me on to an LA Times article* about a year ago: two Filipino (Filipina?) sisters had opened a French bakery on Pico, just east of Hauser. Their experience was in accounting and bookkeeping, so this certainly wasn't the obvious path, but they had a dream and wanted badly to make it happen. The article was interesting because as it was written, they were in the thick of the struggle. They juggled debts while scrambling to fill orders for Beverly Hills hotels; they had nephews and cousins helping out in the kitchen; they lost sleep and hoped and prayed, but they were not out of the woods. It was almost like the author was using the article as a plea, to get people to go to the bakery and make sure they thrive.

It appears to have worked. A year later, I (finally!) made it into this friendly bake shop, and I must say, you are pleasantly knocked out by the sweet smell of the place the minute you walk in. Its style is minimalistic, but the gorgeous baguettes, financiers, tarts, and fresh loaves of all sizes, coupled with the smiling faces behind the counter, are decoration enough. One wall is a large window on the shop's prep area, revealing a pair of Kitchen-Aids standing side-by-side, one black, one white, like the bride and groom atop a wedding cake. Beside them sat a cast-iron pan filled with apples, waiting eagerly to become a tarte tatin.

Although there is no coffee on the menu (in fact there is no menu, other than the display case itself), cappuccino is indeed available. Mine came presweetened, and I took it and my croissant to one of the small tables outside. The croissant was a hefty thing, and this concerned me: large ones are often reminiscent of the Costco variety. It had a little dampness going on inside, but the crust had some body, and it definitely had that taste, the subtle but amazing flavor of browned butter that, in the world of croissants, separates the hommes from the garçons.

The cappuccino was similarly virtuosic. The espresso was strong, but not bitter, and the milky foam tasted straight off the farm. People go to fancy avant garde restaurants in Barcelona, make reservations 2 years in advance, to experience foams flavored like carrots or nutmeg. But here it was on Pico, sitting scooped on a rusk of croissant: airy froth with just a mellow afterthought of coffee flavor.

As I sat and had my breakfast, a steady stream of people walked in and out of La Maison du Pain. It's inspiring to know that with a lot of hard work and a loving support, and a generous nod from the local paper, the sweetest of dreams can come true.

La Maison du Pain is at 5373 West Pico Boulevard, 1 1/2 blocks east of Hauser.

* That article is no longer available for free, but here is another one from the about same time from the Phillipine News Online.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


And thus begins a series on a simple but transcendent topic: cappuccino and croissant. It's a small breakfast that, for me, fulfills a need for both indulgence and utility. The indulgence is a balanced one: granted a good croissant is a miracle of layer upon flaky layer of buttery pastry, but it's not too sweet. There are no extraneous flourishes like chocolate or marmalade, no chintzy accessories to stand between me and that perfect crisp of browned buttery deliciousness. And the cappuccino, lightly sweetened, is similarly fundemental: the foamy head is just enough understated luxury. There's no need for saccharine syrups or heavy whipped cream when you get to savor the rich flavor of espresso. The combination is simple sustenance, elevated to sophisticated refinement.

This breakfast's utility comes from its accessibility. Nearly anywhere you might go in the western world, you can get some local version of this combination. I have been lucky enough to enjoy this little treat at a funky hotel in Montecatini Terme, Italy, and at a stylish cafe in the Munich airport (punctuated by a petite square of dark chocolate... What? I had to fill the 6 1/2 hour stopover somehow!). But the classic case was in London.

I was there for a family gathering, and in fact, much of said family -- at least 8 people, as I recall -- were staying in my aunt's smartly decorated, but modestly sized home in the city. It was really fun to be with all these cousins and aunts and uncles, but nights of party after party at my uncle's house, followed by restless jetlagged sleep on air matresses that deflated in the middle of the night, were taking their toll on all of us. I was going a little crazy, and needed to get out. I had noticed a building a short walk from our surrogate home that looked intriguing. It was a bizarre marvel of architecture, with a wild combination of brightly colored brick, tile and stained glass, all contributing to an unlikely theme: the Michelin Man*.

I walked over one morning, and still a bit bewildered by the building and what it was doing there, was dazzled by what the airy, sunlit ground floor held: a high-end florist stand churning out huge chic arrangements flanked a sparse, modern coffee bar. It's been a few years, but what stays with me about the place is that everyone seemed to know exactly what they were supposed to be doing: there was an overwhelming sense of order. It was like the essence of a perfect cafe was plunked down from the heavens to be my personal Zen retreat.

I sat down with a book at the corner of the bar, and ordered my usual. I pulled off pieces of the rich croissant, and with each sip from my cappuccino, I gradually regained my sanity. By the end of my little escape, I was steeled and ready to face the challenge of family togetherness.

So, obviously these simple coffee and pastry moments are quite special. So with this I'm going to begin documenting them. The menu out of the way, I can focus on details: the hard crunch of coarse raw sugar embedded in the glossy golden crust at one place, or the two men at the next table going through an agonizing break-up at another. Basically, I get to focus on two of my favorite things: coffee culture, and minutae. I think this will be fun. And verbose.

*Thanks to the magnificent Internet, I now know that that peculiar building was commissioned by the Michelin Tyre Company [sic -- hey, it's Britain] in 1909, and now houses a restaurant called Bibendum. Apparently Bibendum is the Michelin Man's real name (who knew?).

Saturday, November 25, 2006

new links

so, finally my OCD beat my laziness (really a tough fight to call), and i cleaned up the links. there are now 3 lists of links on the site's sidebar: food blogs, los angeles, and else. i'll let you figure out what it all means. i've also added a few links to the lists here and there. it turns out there are some amazing websites out there on them thar internets. it's still a relatively small list, and that's because they are hand chosen: either because they are awesome, or because their proprietors are my friends... and sometimes, both. let the clicking commence........ NOW!

(start here)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Happy Turkey Gruel Day

Turkey and kuku sabzi: we've come a long way

Many years ago, I recall reading an article about a man whose parlor trick was this: tell me your Thanksgiving menu, and I will tell you where you are from. It's true, in our melting pot of a nation, there are as many variations on the most traditional American meal as there are families to share them. From sticky rice and Korean barbecue to tamales and tequila (a tradition I'm particularly enamored with), plenty of families have some serious multicultural flavor sitting alongside their turkeys.

For my family, it's been a gradual process. We've always rounded up the relatives for a meal, but at first it had very little resemblance to what most Americans are used to. Of course we had turkey, but not the gloriously bronzed bird sitting proudly in the center of the table. For our earliest Thanksgiving holidays in this country, our turkey came in the form of halim, a gruely porridge of turkey meat and barley. It's traditionally served for breakfast on a cold day, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, but hey, it's Thanksgiving, so we're supposed to have turkey. And so we had turkey. Out of a bowl, with a spoon.

We eventually got hip to actually roasting the turkey, but our Thanksgiving table held many other things too: huge mounds of herbed rice, perhaps a smoked fish, sometimes even a khoresht, an elaborately spiced stew of vegetables and meat. But one year, some cousin discovered mashed potatoes. Then another integrated a bizarre, sweet, egg-based beverage: egg nog. Not tied to any traditions, we went by taste alone, and spiked our nog with Kahlua -- a tradition that persists to this day.

Adopting a new heritage didn't come without missteps. We had heard about these yam things, and finally got a recipe from the mom of one of my classmates (the same mom who had earlier introduced me to another tropical delicacy: bagel and lox). This bizarre concoction looked like something out of outer space: some deep orange, pre-cut vegetable out of can, mixed with apples, butter, and spices, and covered with a layer of marshmallows, which, upon baking, turned into a charred dimply cloud covering the whole thing. It was weird, but we ate it, and marveled at how normal and American we were.

Eventually some of our family's cousins fell in love, and brought a couple American men into the mix. They charmed every woman in the family by helping out with the dishes -- a task our own uncles would never touch. But they also brought with them American appetites. And so, we got cranberry sauce, cylindrical and gelatinous. The advent of my brother-in-law also brought in the most crucial addition of all, stuffing (this particular dish having pretty much changed the landscape of Thanksgiving, and my life, forever).

In recent years, we'd all go to a cousin's house where, with the help of her in-laws, she'd provide the rice and other Persian dishes, while putting my sister in charge of all those "exotic American" dishes like stuffing and mashed potatoes. We've come a long way since the gruel days, and outer-space yams have made way for my sister's delicious sweet potatoes with streusel topping. Fresh cranberry orange relish has replaced the jelly canned cranberry sauce. We've even gotten experimental -- instead of a plain old pumpkin pie, I make a two-layer pumpkin pecan pie with maple syrup instead of corn syrup.

This year, we've stuck with some of the old traditions: there was a big mound of barberry rice on the table, as well as kuku sabzi, a frittata of herbs and greens. But we also had a first: gravy. Turns out it's really good with mashed potatoes. Who knew?

Pumpkin Pecan Pie with Cinnamon Whipped Cream
Adapted from this recipe

The original recipe includes instructions for home-made pie crust, which I tried one year, then decided it's not worth the mess. Maybe I'll revisit it one day when I have a bigger kitchen and a KitchenAid. This year, I made it with canned pumpkin puree, but 2 cups of homemade puree can be substituted, and any sweet winter squash would work great. These portions are for a 10-inch springform.

1 prepared store-bought pie crust for a 9-inch pie

Pumpkin Filling
1 - 15 ounce can pumpkin puree
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs, beaten until frothy
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 pinch ground nutmeg

Pecan Filling
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup maple syrup
2 large eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 generous teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
1 pinch cinnamon
1 cup pecan halves

Cinnamon Whipped Cream
1 cup whipping cream, chilled
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pumpkin Filling: In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine all ingredients.

Pecan Syrup: In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine all ingredients.

Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease a 10-inch springform cake pan. Take pie crust out of packaging; allow to come to room temperature, then unfold.

Carefully place the dough in the greased cake pan. (If this isn't happening: Cut away pieces of the dough a bit at a time, and press them together against the bottom and sides of the pan to assemble the crust. Make sure there are no openings). Press firmly in place and trim the edges. Chill for 15 minutes.

Pour pumpkin filling into crust; spread evenly. Gently pour pecan filling over pumpkin filling. Bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare cinnamon whipped cream. Using electric mixer, beat in a medium bowl until soft peaks form.

Remove pie from oven, allow to cool. Run a knife around the edges of the pie, between crust and pan, to separate it from the pan before releasing the clasp. Slice and serve with cinnamon whipped cream.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Match Made in China

As a business gift one year, my dad got a charming pair of Chinese tea mugs. We've talked about my tea obsession, which extends to all of tea's accoutrements, so it's no surprise that I promptly made off with the mugs. Aside from their homey looks, they also had a particularly utilitarian component. Each tall earthenware mug came with 2 additional items: a strainer that sits neatly in the lip of the mug, and a matching lid, which can fit atop either the mug or the strainer. The mugs are designed with tea for one in mind: put some tea leaves in the strainer and fit it in the mug, add hot water, and cover with the lid to keep warm. Later you can use the lid as a tiny plate to hold the strainer while you sip. The whole system is quite brilliant.

Except it didn't work.

Whether it was the heady Darjeeling I had brought back from London, Violet's magical wonderful perfect tea blend, or my exotic Gypsy Love tea with its pink rose petals, the shriveled tea leaves would seep out the holes in the ceramic strainer into my tea. They would get stuck in my teeth as I sipped, and what was supposed to be my serene tea ritual became jolting and unpleasant. Highly upsetting.

After initially being so enamored with the ingenious tea-for-one system, I now wrote it off as a plain old mug. The once-alluring strainers just sat in the cupboard, deflated and dejected. Until tonight, that is.

My parents just came back from a trip to China. They managed to get a little shopping done while there (which is to say, they came home with 2 more suitcases than they had left with), including a generous mass of souvenirs and gifts for my sister and I. They also had the opportunity to visit a tea factory, where a purported "Dr. Tea" schooled them on the benefits of green tea and on proper brewing techniques. So, among my stash of Chinese goodies was a lovely red box packed to overflowing with high quality green tea.

These tea leaves are like none I've seen. Vibrant green, long unbroken leaves that, in spite being dried, still seem like they were picked yesterday, and simply frozen in time. It occurred to me that maybe these brawny things are what my strainers were made for.

So, I boiled some water and let it sit until it cooled off the boil (per Dr. Tea's instructions), meanwhile filling one strainer with a spoonful of my green tea leaves. I poured hot water through the leaves and strainer into my mug, covered with lid and waited. After a few minutes, the leaves had rehydrated to a gorgeous mass of green, and when I lifted out the strainer, not a single leaf had sneaked out into my pale, pleasantly grassy tea!

So, basically, in spite their unpretentious appearance, my Chinese tea mugs are not useless, they're just refined. They don't waste their skill on any old tea leaf. Only the best for these guys.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A New Knife, A New Squash, A New Cookie

Every year about this time I get the urge to make pumpkin bread. It comes with sweaters and scarves, and the wind picking up (ahem, let's not mention that it was 84 degrees in LA this weekend). Something takes over me, and like clockwork, I pull out my recipe, tried and true, with lots of spices and a can of pumpkin puree plunked into the mix. It's fine, but this year changes were made.

For one, a new book came into my life. I got Elinor Klivans' Big Fat Cookies as a birthday gift this year, and there is a recipe for big fat pumpkin cookies in there. So, out with the bread, in with the cookies.

For another, I got ambitious. Whenever I look at recipes on Epicurious (an activity that takes way too much of my time, I'm afraid), I pore through the reader comments on the recipe. This is the most important part to me: not only do I learn how the recipe holds up in real home kitchens, but I also get to see what people have done with it. When it comes to pumpkin recipes, I'm always impressed with those people who snub the can and roast their own gourds. Something came over me this year and I decided I'm going to join the legions of too-cool-for-the-can roasters. Basically, it's because I'm an elitist.

For a third, the best produce stand I know is a short walk from my work. Marina Farms, on Centinela at Jefferson, is currently carrying a wide variety of winter squash, and there's a particular one I've been wanting to try. I first learned about red Kuri squash here, where the charming little guy is known by his French name, potimarron, the 'marron' in the name because it tastes like chestnuts. Marina Farms had them, and so I took one home with me to meet its fate as delicious cookies. I know it's not much, but to me it's kind of cool that I can learn about an ingredient on the internet that is prevalent in France (and Japan, apparently -- they are also known as Hokkaido squash), wonder to myself about the chestnut flavor, but give in to the fact that I probably won't be trying one anytime soon, then find one at the local market. I love instant gratification.

In making these cookies, I've decided that roasting a red Kuri squash is one of the most gratifying culinary experiences ever. For one, cutting one is much easier than last month's butternut hack-fest. Due to the spherical shape, no part of the squash is solid all the way through like the neck of the butternut (this also means they cook more evenly). The flesh is only about an inch thick. It also helps that I just got myself my first fancy chef's knife (a Wüsthof Grand Prix (that's right, my knife's got an umlaut), for those who care about these things), and it's pretty much changed my life. It's quite an improvement from the Ikea starter set knife I've been fumbling with until now.

The squash comes out of the oven with the skin glowing bright orange, and makes your home smell cozy and warm. The golden puree has a mellow seductive flavor, and because the cookie recipe only calls for a cup, I have a bowl of pureed squash happily waiting to be turned into something exciting. I fear I may just eat it straight from the bowl though -- it was that good. Will power, don't fail me now!

Roasted Red Kuri Squash Cookies With Chocolate Chips
Adapted from Elinor Klivans' Big Fat Cookies

These cookies have a light, cakey texture and aren't too sweet. You can substitute butter for some or all of the oil. And you can substitute canned pumpkin puree for the pureed roasted squash.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
1 cup dark brown sugar (I used Billington's molasses sugar)
1/2 cup vegetable, canola, or corn oil
1 cup pureed roasted red kuri squash
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Line 2 baking sheets with foil; butter the foil.

In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a large bowl, beat eggs and brown sugar together until smooth. Add oil, squash, and vanilla, and mix to thoroughly incorporate. Add dry ingredients; mix to incorporate. Mix in chocolate chips.

Drop batter onto prepared baking sheets in 1/4-cup scoops. Bake cookies until edges just begin to brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of a cookie comes out clean, about 19 minutes.

To roast the squash: Preheat oven to 375. Cut squash in half lengthwise, and scoop out seeds and stringy flesh. Bake cut-side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet, until flesh is soft, about 1 hour.

Makes 15 cookies

Saturday, November 11, 2006

debauchery and tea

someone in england came to my site from a google search for 'debauchery and tea'. i feel i'm doing something right.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Odd Beverages in Green Packaging

Tonight we spotlight two bottled beverages, one aimed towards those lovably wacky Japanese schoolchildren, the other made for overpaid yuppies who spend more time in the gym than the kitchen (also lovable). Little in common between these two aside from a green theme in their packaging. Here we go.

When I first discovered Japanese markets, it was easy to be taken in by the packaging of little kid food. Bright colors, frantic graphics, and on a good day, sexually inexperienced cat-like robots. But I quickly learned that they are often filled with way too much sugar, fatty friedness, and all sorts of artificial ingredients. Turns out junk food is junk food, wherever you go. So, I usually walk past the kid stuff.

But when I saw Senoby Melon Soda on the shelf, I could not keep walking. I've had muskmelon popsicles from various Asian markets in the past, and they are pretty exquisite -- you feel like you're biting into a frozen chunk of the perfect melon. So I had high hopes. I also couldn't resist the bizarre packaging: a metal bottle covered in cartoony smiley-faces. I knew in the back of my head I'd regret this, and yet I had to try.

Senoby Melon Soda is fizzy. And also milky. Fizzy and milky. Why would you do that?

Metromint is neither milky nor fizzy. In fact it's not much anything-y. Except minty. It's very minty. And it's a marketing coup that somehow makes sense. Under its metro-cutesy packaging, it's got two ingredients: water and mint. So, water hardly counts as an ingredient -- I mean, it's just water. And the mint: well it's not like you can see actual mint leave floating around in there, it just looks like water, which we already established is not an ingredient. So basically it's a bottle of nothing. Yet they sell this minty bottle of nothing for a buck-forty-nine at your local Whole Foods, it has its own fan club, and Michele, Metromint's Wellness and Outreach Director (photoshopped mint in hand) offers you Metronothing recipes and book recommendations. They've built quite a culture around a very simple product.

But it's good! With packaged food and beverages I always try to look for less. Less sugar, less caffeine, less artificial stuff. And it's harder to do than you think. Metromint offers a little treat: no sugar at all, but a satisfying fresh flavor that cools your mouth, and may actually put a spring in your step (especially if you happen to really like mouthwash).

It's sad to me that so frequently when it comes to food, the simplest things are the luxuries. Metromint is no exception, but I will choose this skinny overpriced bottle of cool minty nothing over a fizzy milky melon soda any chance I get. Or maybe I'll just skip both and pour a glass of water, simple and free.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

game on

after a week and a half without the laptop, it's back with both a vengeance and a new hard drive. things are still a little off-kilter, but we're getting there. i missed the little guy. so.. I'll be back to this posting business shortly. i hope to do some baking this weekend, so there's that; and i have a cookbook to discuss, which i'm really excited about, because it's rad. stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Brazen, Shameless Plug: Veggie Holiday Meals

Of course this plug is shameless: I stand wholeheartedly behind what -- er, whom -- I'm promoting. I plug with pride and confidence. She's good. Really good.

I'm in a book club. We get together roughly once a month, cook up a potluck meal, and discuss a book we all read. I knew some of the members before I joined, but some have become my friends solely through these meetings. Jenny Goldberg is in the latter group. She's a sweet smiley character with a twinkling personality. When we first met, she was working at Tree People, but getting ready to take the LSAT. She was taking the plunge into law school, and she hated it. I can totally recall the utter dread in her voice whenever she would talk about hunkering down to study.

Then one day, everything changed. She told me that she was chucking off the law school idea, going to culinary school, and becoming a vegan chef. I've rarely felt such elation than I did upon hearing this. I was so excited for her, and knew she would be great. She had always provided amazing vegan dishes for our book clubs, really turning me around on the possibility of delicious vegan food. From sloppy joes to stir-fry, everything she makes is tasty, hearty, and satisfying.

I recall a specific meeting where two people had provided sweets: dueling desserts. One of our members had brought a traditional tiramisu, all creamy and mascarponey, and Jenny had made a pumpkin cheesecake. Except it was a pumpkin 'cheese'cake -- nary a drop of dairy in this thing. Yet it was deceptively rich and creamy, with a strong pumpkin flavor and crumbly graham cracker crust. At the end of the night, the tiramisu sat sadly on the table, hardly touched, while the empty cheesecake dish sat there smugly, gloating silently about how much everyone loved it. A soy-based dessert beating out tiramisu? Obviously this girl is talented.

You can now experience her culinary talents firsthand -- you can Chef-Jenny-ify your holidays! Jenny is offering her services for small vegetarian and vegan holiday get-togethers. Additionally, she can provide a pre-made Thanksgiving feast, with truly mouthwatering courses like twice-baked mashed yams with coconut milk and roasted garlic (Jesus.), and shallot and mushroom gravy with white truffle oil, along with main course, stuffing, and seasonal fruit cobbler for dessert. She'll deliver them a few days before Thanksgiving, with instructions to heat them up and make your home smell delicious and cozy.

It's exciting to see someone following their dream, and thriving. Especially when that dream involves food. But especially when it's someone as warm, and talented, as Jenny. Check out her website -- you'd be lucky to have her cook for you. Oh, and tell her I sent ya.

Monday, October 30, 2006

down for the count

my hard drive is revolting against me, and so my computer is somewhere between here and that mysterious and magical place the purported geniuses ship these things off to before they come back to me in working order (hope hope). so my hands are somewhat tied on the whole posting thing. i'll do my best to fit it in, but the fates are making me take it slow for a few days. there are pressing things to talk about -- this kind of hurts.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

New Link: The Hunger Site

I mean, let's face it. This blog is a pretty gluttonous endeavour. I write, you read, about ingredients available year-long, an overwhelmingly vast number of restaurants where we can have the luxury of choosing large portions of food for very cheap, or spend tons of money on a few extravagant bites. On a day to day basis, each one of us eats far more than we need to, and while we might worry about the menu for our next meal, we don't have to worry about there being a next meal. We're so very lucky.

It's not much, but I added a link to The Hunger Site to the sidebar. Click on it every once in a while, then click the big yellow button on the resulting page. It's the simplest thing in the world, and for each click, The Hunger Site donates staple food to people who need it most both here in the United States and around the world.

So... click the link now. Here, I'll make it even easier for you. Click anywhere in this whole sentence. Or this one. Do it. Now! Go!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Drowning in the Farmer's Market

The office where I work is about 2 doors down from the Gehry Building, the home of Frank Gehry's architectural firm. Within the last year, much to our excitement, they added a tiny food stand to the front of the building, simply named delicious. It's small, but quite pleasant -- the name of the cafe wraps around the cheery blue building in chubby mint green letters, and there is a small sunny patio with Gehry-designed chairs to enjoy a few minutes away from work. The food options suit Gehry's stylish, worldly workforce: sushi and salads, Orangina and Acqua Panna.

On afternoons when staring at the computer screen is making my eyes glaze over, and it's all I can do from falling asleep at my dark desk, pressing fifty keys at once as my head hits the keyboard, I know exactly what to do. I sneak away to delicious for an affogato: a scoop of vanilla ice cream 'drowning' under 2 shots of espresso. Aside from the caffeine kick and the sugar rush, the contrasts of the affogato get me going: sweet and bitter, cold and hot.

On a groggy weekend, I had walked over to the Farmer's Market, and while there, needed a kick (figuratively speaking). I couldn't decide what I wanted at first: a snack or a drink? Sweet or savory? I was kind of sleepy after all -- thoughts were kind of hazy. But then it hit me: affogato! But... how? No fancy cafes here, and an blended coffee drink would just be too much sweet, too much powder, and too much air. In a someone-put-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment, it hit me. I calmly walked over to Coffee Corner*, and ordered a double shot of their espresso from the nice kinda-goth lady behind the counter (have you noticed that Coffee Corner, as well as the bakery behind the crepe place, always have nice kinda-goth ladies behind the counter?). I took my real espresso glass, and walked a few feet to Bennett's ice cream. Ordered a scoop of their homemade vanilla bean ice cream.

I took my ingredients to a table, and started mixing. I paid no mind when people looked at me kind of funny as I mixed my beverage with my dessert (or perhaps they were looking at me funny because I was taking pictures of my food. Wow, I really am a weirdo). After all, with a little creativity, I linked two great Farmer's Market establishments, to create a custom concoction just for me.

*I like to repeat this story about Coffee Corner -- aside from their retro pricing, great coffee and tea, and the noteworthy servers mentioned above, it's yet another reason I always choose them over the Starbucks and Coffee Bean at the Farmer's Market: Several years back, one of their regulars was dismayed because the Farmer's Market was moving from silverware to plastic. So, just for him, Coffee Corner kept one real spoon. (This story came from this LA Weekly article, which came out back when the Grove was first opening.)

Friday, October 20, 2006

Astoria, Queens: It's A Big Hug

Due to business or laziness, I've not talked about the time I spent in Astoria, Queens while I visited New York. I hate to neglect this sweet little city though -- it was just so kind and affectionate to me. There seem to be two very different demographics to Astoria, but everyone is so damn nice that they coexist quite peacefully, and together they make a visit there as warm and comfy as a big hug.

I got a whiff of the first demographic the moment I stepped onto the street from the elevated train station at Broadway Avenue. The whole of Astoria smells like food. If you are of Greek descent, your grandma probably lives here. Your uncle might own the taverna on the corner where a couple old men are sitting at a table on the patio -- plastic chairs and blue checked tablecloth -- laughing over thick, bitter frappe. Seriously, there is a distinct savory aroma that permeates the whole town. A little bit lentil soup, a little bit moussaka. Even as you walk past Omonia's pastries, where, in the window they have a poster proudly stating to passersby that they made the wedding cake for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you still get the feeling you're in someone's living room, waiting for dinner to be served. It's a homey feeling: it just makes Astoria seem cuddly.

The second group has a bit more edge, but not that much more. Astoria has a substantial population of thirtysomethings (give or take a year). It's an interesting group -- not unlike our local hipster variety, they are into music, the arts, and their community. But somehow, they just seem nicer. They also appear to have the highest blog population density of any city ever. Their headquarters is the Freeze Peach, a local coffeehouse that actively contributes to the community. Residents seem to run into people they know everywhere, and, as far as my hosts were concerned, they knew the proprietors of every shop they frequented.

My perfect Astoria Sunday went like this: My warm, gracious hosts, Annie and Eric, who fall smack in the middle of the second group, started me off with a tiny apple cider donut. It should be noted that every item of food that comes into their home is special, and if it isn't, they will turn it into something special. This little nugget was no exception. Once we overcame the groggy inertia of Sunday morning, we got ourselves out of the house. Homemade dinner was in the works, so our first stop was Gary's. Or as non-regulars know it, D&F's Italian deli. So much cheese in one space. Wow. Then to the Brooklyn Bagel Company for a bagel and scallion cream cheese (yes, they really do know some things about bagels in these parts).

It's About Time

The main event of the day was the twentieth anniversary of the Socrates Sculpture Park. The Park started out as an illegal landfill, and 20 years ago, a group of artists and community members turned it into an expansive park that hosts rotating exhibitions of large-scale artwork. The anniversary celebration meant live music, kids running around with beautifully-painted faces, and catering from Opa! (one of a bajillion local Greek restaurants) and a local Punjabi eatery. I felt like one of those kids as we frolicked around from installation to installation with the sun shining down on us. So far, so perfect.

A little more walking, a little more grocery shopping, then on to the day's real main event: dinner. On the walk home, we ran into a chef friend, who, when he learned I was visiting Annie and Eric, said, "You'll be eating well." No doubt. We got home and got to work. Annie was on kale duty, Eric was slicing potatoes, the cats were high on the nip, and me, I was logging it all from the 2-seater diner booth in their kitchen, sipping on bright Lambic cassis (I know, lazy, but someone has to document these moments!).

Finally time to eat. Eric had made a perfectly spiced potato and shiitake mushroom gratin, and Annie had sauteed some kale with pancetta, and chicken sausages we had picked up at Gary's. As if the food wasn't treat enough, we got to watch 3 hours of cable! Travel channel at that! Really these people spoiled me rotten. It feels so great to be with friends you miss, and to be reminded that there are people across the country that are on the same page as you. After binging on food and fine television programming, we went up on the roof for a breath of fresh air and a view of nighttime in their cozy little city. We came downstairs and had dessert: chocolate chipotle ice cream, homemade by Eric. Yeah, wow.

Astoria, thanks for your warm welcome -- give yourself a big squeezy Greek grandma hug for me!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

t is for Tannaz

We've discussed before how deeply I love tea. We also know I have an affinity for my neighborhood, Los Angeles' Fairfax district. So, imagine my delight driving down Fairfax Avenue the other night, just blocks from home, in seeing a new tea shop: t on Fairfax. Hello, they even named it after me! So thoughtful!

So, I strolled over on Saturday morning and checked it out. I'm a fan. Sparse decor, clean and industrial, but with little ornate accents -- subtle asymmetric frills painted onto the chairs, pretty filigree sconces on one wall. A non-threatening mix of familiar alt-rock like Weezer and Radiohead came through the speakers. A couple people on laptops capitalized on the free wireless internet. They are apparently open late -- until 11 on Sundays, midnight on weeknights, 1 am on weekends -- and even offer live dj's on weekend nights. They've also got a very reasonably priced afternoon tea on the menu -- this local spot is offering to cover a lot of bases.

Whoever's behind this place knows a few things about tea, and displays of tea expertise abound. They have something like 100 varieties, available in 3 sizes of cup, 2 sizes of teapot. I ordered a small pot of Darjeeling, my favorite, after the guy behind the counter (the tea-ista?) helped me navigate the 3 different Darjeelings they offer. Someone else ordered jasmine pearl tea, and they explained to him that they only serve it in a 'display pot', a large clear glass pot that allows you to see the little 'pearls' unravel as it steeps. (If it were up to me, the teacups would be glass as well, instead of the pale green or black ceramic cups and mugs they offer, but I guess these guys are riffing off the British tea tradition.) And, when I went to refill my hot water, the tea-ista asked me what kind of tea I had been drinking. Why? Because they keep hot water at 3 different temperatures -- cooler for the delicate greens and whites, hotter for black teas. Talk about attention to detail.

The all-vegetarian menu is cute. The bulk of it is sandwiches based on afternoon tea offerings -- cucumber and cream cheese, or egg salad and watercress -- supplemented with salads and desserts. I had a blueberry scone, which was delicious.

So, the bottom line -- it's definitely a teahouse, not a coffeehouse. Although they offer wi-fi, there are no couches here. No one will scold you for failing to stick your pinkie out as you sip, but you might feel inclined to sit up straight and mind your p's and q's while you write your breakthrough screenplay in this place.

t on Fairfax is at 435 North Fairfax, between Oakwood and Rosewood.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Big Girls' Playdate

You know what's great about being a grown-up, and a female one at that? You know how, when you're a little girl, you like to have pretend tea parties? Some generous family member buys you a toy tea set: a tiny plastic teapot with matching cups -- dainty little things with pink flowers on the side. Then you line up all your teddy bears and dollies, and pour each one a cup of invisible pretend tea. You might drop invisible pretend sugar cubes in the cups, or lay a delicate invisible pretend finger sandwich beside each one. The guests don't really drink the tea: after all, they aren't alive and don't move. These stuffed animals are kind of lame guests actually -- they just sit there, they don't contribute to the discussion, and they don't really add any personality to the event. You take a pretend sip, you pretend taste the pretend sweetness, and pretend feel the pretend warmth flowing down your throat.

So then, what's great about being an all-grown-up big girl, is that you get to do it all for real. Real food, real flavor, real tea in your pink teacup, and best of all, real friends. And you can drink wine! Last night, me and 7 lovely ladies got together for a fall dinner party. My friend Rachel has recently come into her grandmother's china, an elaborate set in pastel pink and blue, straight out of Cinderella, and, in an email entitled simply "Food Love", she invited us all over to put them to use. In keeping with the seasonal theme, Rachel roasted a chicken with fennel, and her roommate Ashley made sweet earthy roasted beets. The rest of the girls contributed appetizers (almond-stuffed dates wrapped in prosciutto), sides (scalloped potatoes and an heirloom tomato bread pudding), dessert (homemade from-scratch apple tart), and a fall salad with apples, walnuts, blue cheese, and dried cranberries. I was in charge of soup, and so supplied a roasted butternut squash number, all dolled up with fried sage and Parmesan tuiles. Devotion to the cause came through in each woman's contribution: it was all really delicious.

So, decked out in our finest party dresses, we ate quite well, indulged in a little playing pretend, and talked about girlie topics: baby names, boyfriends and husbands, career paths, and the patron saint of delicious indulgence, Ina Garten. (Admittedly, mostly we talked about what we were eating, in minute and glorious detail.) We dutifully washed and dried and put away between courses, and mused over the fact that, had there been boys in our ranks, we'd certainly have fewer hands helping out.

all the man we need

In spite of the night's feminine bent, we did allow one male into our little coven: Mutty Pitu Burritu, the traveling stuffed wonder dog. Mutty was an exemplary ambassador for the two groups he represented: males and stuffed animals. Not only did he help with the dishes, he was the life of the party: drinking wine, tasting the roasted fennel, posing for pictures with the girls. The wild child that he is, he even ended up lying across the dinner table at some point. This charmer is a different breed from those tiresome teddies of tea parties past.

Sometimes it's rough being a grown-up, but playdates like these make it all worthwhile.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Fried Sage and Parmesan Tuiles

You know those movies where a somewhat inept regular guy somehow ends up with the task of taking a woman hostage, possibly even murdering her, but she manages to use her wiles to unravel his plans? I felt like that hapless anti-hero as I tried to cut the squash in half for this recipe. As I tried to stab through its flesh over and over again, I was basically bargaining with it -- groveling with the tough, unflappable squash for every inch of headway. In the end I got the last laugh, though: after splitting it open and forcing it into a four-hundred-degree oven for an hour, I pulverized the thing to a pulp. Revenge is sweet.

Two 2 1/2 - 3 pound butternut squashes
1/2 head garlic (about 6 cloves)
tiny drizzle olive oil
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup water
1/3 cup half-and-half
1 Tbs chopped fresh sage + 16 fresh sage leaves
3 Tbs maple syrup
2 Tbs butter
1/2 C grated Parmesan cheese

The soup:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Slice each squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and surrounding stringy flesh and discard (or, if you are my mother, save the seeds, wash, salt, dry, and roast them, and nosh on them to stay awake during Dancing With the Stars). Place them face-down on a baking sheet.

Slice about 1/2 cm off the top off each clove of garlic, and drizzle a small amount of olive oil over the exposed tops. Place the head on the baking sheet with the squash. Place it all in the oven and bake for 1 hour, or until the squash is soft, smooshy, and slightly browned. You can make the fried sage in the meantime.

If you have an immersion blender, scoop flesh out of skin, and place in large pot over low heat. Squeeze cloves of roasted garlic out of skin into the pot. Add half of broth, half of water, half-and-half, maple syrup and 1 tablespoon chopped sage. Use immersion blender to blend soup until it is a smooth puree. Add enough of remaining broth and water, blending them in with the immersion blender, to get soup to desired consistency. Melt in 1 tablespoon butter and season generously with salt and pepper.

If you have a food processor or blender, scoop squash flesh directly into its bowl in batches, adding garlic, broth, water, sage, and half-and-half in batches. Pour completed batches into large pot over low heat. Add broth and/or water to adjust consistency of soup. Stir in maple syrup and 1 tablespoon butter, and season generously with salt and pepper.

To plate, ladle soup into bowls, and top each bowl with 2 fried sage leaves and 1 Parmesan tuile.

Fried sage leaves:
Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add sage leaves, and saute until lightly brown around edges. Remove to a paper towel, to catch excess butter.

Parmesan tuiles:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Using a cookie cutter as a guide, sprinkle Parmesan into 8 3-inch diameter discs. The discs should be very thin and lacy. Place in oven until edges brown, about 5 minutes. Allow to cool before carefully removing tuiles from wax paper.

Notes: This soup was inspired by this and this. Be creative with the liquids to suit your fancy: replace the vegetable broth with chicken broth, apple juice or cider, or maybe add a splash of white wine.

Serves 8

Sunday, October 08, 2006

bye-bye summer breakfast

I haven't really talked yet about the fact that summer ended and fall began. It's a subtle transition here in LA -- you won't see too many leaves changing, and T-shirts and flip-flops won't leave you shivering quite yet -- but I still sense it. There's a change in what I feel like eating. As much as I love summer, and I actively loved this summer, I'm already at the point where I will pass up cool light summer salads, with their berries or nectarines or perfectly ripe tomatoes, for the cozy warmth of soup -- butternut squash maybe, or a rich mushroom chowder (wow, that sounds so good I wish I had some now!).

But for some reason, I'm still holding a candle for summer breakfasts. With the sun beating down through the open window on a weekend morning, a sweet summer fruit only needed a little yogurt, pita, and a cup of tea to make a light meal and bring a little of what was going on outside to my kitchen table. I'm still not quite ready to start the mornings with something warm and comforting, but I know it's coming. I had a breakfast the other day that was entirely satisfying, but I was a little sad to realize how, in a few weeks time, I would surely pass it up for a bowl of stone-ground oatmeal to help me ward off the autumn morning chill.

Anyway, here are a couple pictures of summer breakfasts past, and a recipe for the best scrambled eggs I've ever made -- which, unlike white pants or the perfect peach, can be easily accessorized to fit all four seasons.

simple and yum

polenta with heavy, oozy, supersweet peaches

scrambled eggs, dressed for summer (Mediterranean summer, apparently)

Scrambled Eggs

3 things inspired this recipe:
  1. My dear friend Rachel got me Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Parties! for my birthday. Ina manages to make everything more delicious than it would have been without her intervention, and scrambled eggs are no exception: she adds heavy cream and serves them with parmesan cheese. Duh.
  2. In a recent conversation with my friend Jason, truly the most gastronomically knowledgeable person I know, we traded fun facts we had learned from Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, a tome of endless nuggets about the inner workings of food. When I offered up the best way to cope with a wasabi attack (inhale through nose, exhale through mouth), he countered with McGee's method for perfect scrambled eggs: double boiler. I scoffed at this. Scrambled eggs are the humblest of breakfasts, at home in small town diners, dormitory dining commons, and even harried home kitchens. I simply can't get behind that kind of fuss for such a unfussy dish. But I got the point: slow cooking, constant stirring. The resulting texture is transcendent.
  3. I have a bag of cotija cheese in my refrigerator right now. What the hell am I supposed to do with a bag of cotija cheese? (This is not a rhetorical question by the way -- I am open to suggestions.) Anyway, it kind of looks like parmesan.
2 eggs
1/2 Tbs cream (half-and-half or milk will do)
1/2 Tbs crumbled cotija cheese (in a pinch, substitute parmesan or crumbled feta)
small pat butter
salt and pepper to taste

Whisk eggs, cream, and cheese in a small bowl. Melt butter in a skillet over low heat. Add eggs, and cook stirring constantly, until eggs have thickened, but not completely hardened. Season with salt and pepper.

Serves 1