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.