Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Good News for Food Karma

Three bits of heartening news I read today:
  • San Francisco is the first city in the nation to outlaw regular plastic bags at large supermarkets. Apparently the petroleum-based ones are difficult to recycle and are taking up all sorts of landfill space, but stores can instead (albeit at a higher cost) use compostable bags made from corn starch (of course, readers of Omnivore's Dilemma will immediately see this as a dastardly conspiracy led by the corn lobby, but i digress), or stick exclusively with paper bags. I'm curious, and hopeful, to see how this turns out.
  • Wolfgang Puck has announced that he will stop serving foie gras, and that his veal and eggs will only come from cage-free animals. It's actually a pretty big deal: according to the article, in addition to Puck's handful of high-end restaurants around the country, he's got "more than 80 Gourmet Express locations and 43 catering venues across the country as well as the licensed food division." The decision to clean up the animal act seems to be mostly business-related, but this, to me, is a good thing: it means that we, as a nation, are making our voice known through our wallets. Yay us.
  • Burger King has announced its own slew of strides towards more humanely treated chicken (and eggs) and pork -- specifically ones that aren't confined in crates and cages, and in the case of chickens, ones for whom the practices surrounding slaughter are more humane. Granted this only affects 2% of their eggs and 10% of their pork for the time being, but nonetheless this is a huge step. As we learned in Fast Food Nation, the fast food industry has a sweeping influence -- over commerce, over government, over the whole country's farming practices. And with Burger King being "the world's second-largest hamburger chain", well, you do the math.
[thanks churl for the photo!]

Monday, March 26, 2007

C&C: Euro Caffe

[i must disclaim, not only is there no picture for this one, but also i'm writing it from memory, from a day over 6 months ago. but still, it really was the quintessential cappuccino and croissant experience, and must be documented.]

I've passed by Euro Caffe a million times, but never gave it much thought. I don't spend too much time in Beverly Hills, and besides, the name sounded kind of uninspired to me. Then came my niece's birthday party. Driving down Little Santa Monica on a Sunday morning last July, I saw a crowd of guys in Italian soccer jerseys congregated outside one of the shops. I'd been following the World Cup, not because I'm a huge sports fan, but for reasons best demonstrated by this adorable Adidas commercial. Charmed by the internationalness of it all, and taken by all things Italian, as I am, it was a very exciting sight indeed. I made a point to go back to this place soon.

I made it over there on a weekend morning a while later, and I was not disappointed. The moment I walked into the nook of a cafe, the magic began. Sitting on the ledge of the bar, in the shadow of a giant copper espresso machine, a tray of croissants was cooling. They were perfectly browned and not too big. No crescent curve in these, but each had a sprinkle of coarse sugar baked into its crust. I breathed in the warm buttery scent, and stepped inside.

The tiny place was furnished in sharp Italian stylings, with the walls plastered with soccer paraphernalia. A flat-screen television buzzed some soccer game in the background. Behind the counter, someone was throwing oranges into a juicer. And one of the few small tables inside, a couple regulars were chatting with each other and the proprietor. They were older men -- one wore a hat -- and while not all of them were Italian, all had ties to the country, as their conversation revealed.

As I sat down and tasted my croissant, swooning over that taste, that caramelly taste of burnt butter, a couple walked in. It was actually someone I knew -- a distant relative, Iranian, but grew up in Italy -- and his fiancee. Both of them dashing and perfectly appointed (popped collar, designer shades, the whole nine), they greeted the crew warmly and sat down to what was clearly their regular Sunday breakfast.

I quietly eavesdropped on the little gathering (not that it was difficult -- they pretty much took over the place) and savored a perfect cappuccino. Served in a warmed cup, the coffee was rich and almost chocolaty, without being too bitter. I scooped up a bit of dense foam with the crust from my croissant, and watched the convivial scene unfold in front of me. For an Italophile wannabe like myself, Euro Caffe, unassuming in the middle of Beverly Hills, was perfetto.

Euro Caffe is at 9533 Santa Monica Blvd. That's Little Santa Monica, between Camden and Rodeo in Beverly Hills (and yes, as its location implies, it's a bit spendy. But so, so lovely).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Happy Norouz to You!

Today, the first day of spring, is Persian New Year. I'd rather actually enjoy it than write about it, so I'm going to point over some other sources. Above is my more modern take on haftsinn, the traditional table setting of seven ('haft') symbolic items that start with the Persian letter sinn.  You can learn more about each of these seven items in this beautiful post from Fig and Quince.

And if you're looking to make sabzi polo, the spring dish of four-herb rice that is, along with fish, the traditional meal of norouz, my recipe is here.

And now that you know what the haftsinn is about, check out photos of my mom's traditional version, and my own funkier version.

Here's to a sweet and happy new year to all!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fancy Patty

So, the more I read about Irish soda bread, I come to the conclusion that, for one, it's not that Irish, and for another, it's not that good. Evidently, the raisin and caraway seed combo that seems to be ubiquitous in these parts is not at all traditional. Irish soda bread is basically a simple quickbread, getting its leavening from baking soda (hence the name) and buttermilk or yogurt.


The problem is that, traditionally, Irish food is about humility, simplicity, homeyness. But, here in the states, St. Patrick's Day has transmogrified into something very far from that tradition -- festive, energetic, well-sauced. Even caraway and raisins are not that exciting to me. So I figured, if I'm going to be breaking from tradition anyway, might as well make it a little more exciting. I went with fennel seeds and dried cranberries, because I love both. And I added orange zest, because it's festive and smells amazing.

The bread was a great success, and the night turned into a dance party, but the highlight occurred on the way home. Driving up Fairfax, still in a great mood (miraculously the street was clear), I noticed that the driver and passenger in front of me were having a little dance party of their own. Inspired by them, I started rocking out in my own right (it didn't hurt that at that same moment, the radio started playing the B-52's "Strobe Light" -- after all, how can you not go into raptures when that goofy voice we all know and love for having a Chrysler that seats about twenty is calling out to you that he wants to touch your pineapples?). Then, the car next to me saw me flailing about, nodded his head in affirmation, and started bopping to his own beat. See that, people? Paying it forward.

Cranberry Fennel Soda Bread
adapted from Sheila Lukins' All Around the World Cookbook

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1/8 cup sugar
1/8 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup dried cranberries
zest of one orange, finely minced
1 1/4 cups nonfat plain yogurt
1 large egg
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Smash fennel seeds a bit in a mortar and pestle (no need to break them up finely, just enough to bring out the fragrance). Mix flour, sugars, baking soda, salt, cranberries, and orange zest in a large bowl with your hands. While mixing take care to lift and drop mixture to incorporate air (lazy man's sifting), break up any lumps of brown sugar, and separate any cranberries that are stuck together.

In a separate bowl, mix yogurt, egg, and butter together. Add yogurt mixture to the dry ingredients, and combine using a wooden spoon.

In a floured, ungreased baking sheet or other oven-proof pan (I used a cast-iron pan -- looked rustic and pretty), form the dough into a disk about 6 inches in diameter, dusting the dough with flour if it's too sticky. Cut a cross or other design across the top with a sharp nice. Bake bread until golden brown, about fify minutes.

Makes 1 loaf.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Opulent, Persian

Wow. This month's issue of Gourmet has a feature on an "opulent Persian feast", put together by none other than Najmieh Batmanglij. She is the foremost author of Persian cookbooks (her New Food of Life is the authority on Persian cooking), and kind of my personal hero, and these heady recipes, fragrant with rosewater, saffron, cardamom, pomegranate, all come from her latest book, From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table, and all are elegant variations on the traditional recipes mom makes. The photo spread is absolutely gorgeous -- richly textured, modern and ancient at the same time -- I get a little thrilled it when this favorable (and beautiful) aspect of Persian culture is captured and brought into the mainstream, and all just in time for Persian New Year. Definitely check it out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Power, Wisdom, Courage: Onigiri

I wrote a post for Wise Bread about onigiri - the magical, glorious, and cheap Japanese triangle of deliciousness. Check it out here!

Thanks roboppy for the picture!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Extreme Makeover

In the window of the wig shop on the corner of Wilshire and Hauser.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Project Chicken Soup Recap

As if 8 am on a Sunday isn't early enough, it had to be the first day of Daylight Savings Time too. But we pushed through the grogginess, I, my mom, and Ramos and Rachel, who graciously volunteered to help out, and really enjoyed the experience. As usual, everyone was wowed by the giant vats of soup, overgrowned mixers, and cakes made with 40 eggs and 26 cups of flour. And as usual, the food was delicious: turkey meatloaf, teriyaki chicken with sauce from scratch, a gorgeous pear cake with tons of fresh pears that I can't wait to replicate at home, and sesame noodles, which I did replicate at home, just last night.

Thanks again to Erin and Rach for coming along, and for those who don't know about this great organization, check it.

Asian Noodle Salad with Sesame Peanut Dressing

While I didn't have the magical slicer/shredder at home that you just throw vegetables at and they come out the other end perfectly sliced/shredded, the labor was worth it -- lots of vegetables make this a healthy summer dinner (I know, it's March. But really, it's summer.), and the dressing is slippery and nutty and yum.

6 ounces dried long thing noodles (I used chow mein noodles, but soba, somen, or even spaghetti would work fine)
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter, at room temperature (I use the peanuts-only kind)
1-inch-long knob fresh ginger, peeled and grated
crushed red pepper, to taste
4-6 green onions, thinly sliced
1 small head cabbage, shredded
2 carrots, shredded
1 English cucumber, peeled
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

Prepare noodles, according to package directions. Meanwhile, make dressing. In a large salad bowl, whisk together one teaspoon sesame oil, soy sauce, honey, and peanut butter. Add ginger, crushed red pepper, and green onions. Stir to combine. Drain and rinse noodles under cold water. Toss in colander with remaining teaspoon of sesame oil.

Add cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, and bell pepper to salad bowl and toss to combine with dressing. Add noodles, and toss to incorporate all ingredients together. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Serves 3-4 as a main course

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Fusion Upon Fusion

Bahn mi is a Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette, a fusion born of France's colonization of Vietnam in the nineteenth century. So, when I get my bahn mi from KP's in Silver Lake, which calls itself a Vietnamese-American deli, am I really getting a Vietnamese-French-American sandwich?
Maybe, but I don't really care. It was really good. I have a little personal dilemma when it comes to exploring ethnic foods in my city. I try not to eat too much meat for various reasons, but I also want to get the thing you have to get from these eating experiences, which, often is jambon or bulgogi, or tacos al pastor. But, there I was in Silver Lake, and it actually said 'American' in the name of the spot, so, in the spirit of fusion, I went veggie.

Everything about the experience was good. It's a tiny storefront in a semi-stripmallish spot, but the patio tables and smiling face behind the counter make it immediately friendly. There is a shelf stocked with Vietnamese pantry staples and specialties, a tray of sample shrimp chips, and a few cookbooks for perusing -- including one written last year by a new friend, The Little Saigon Cookbook. I passed over the traditional 'Kold Kut' combo of pate, pork, and jambon for the vegetarian bahn mi. As he made my sandwich to order, the man behind the counter filled the time with friendly chatter.

Now then, the sandwich and its tri-racial heritage. What's Vietnamese about it? A lightly sweet mixture of pickled carrots and daikon radish gives it refreshing crunch and moisture. Sliced cucumbers are layered atop a mixture of mayonnaise and Maggi seasoning (which, we learn, is actually Swiss! Add that to the mix!). What's French about it? The bread: a perfectly fresh baguette -- on the fatter side, sprinkled with sesame seeds -- really made the sandwich.

And what's American about it? Well, the deli-sliced tofu was slightly sweet, and actually felt meaty and satisfying. But the most American thing about KP's bahn mi was its gargantuan size. He placed the sandwich on a tray, swaddled like a baby in white butcher paper, and I was really shocked at how big it was. (This is actually important to note. In the bahn mi joints in Rosemead that don't have 'American' in their names, sandwiches run around three dollars. At KP's they're closer to six dollars, but they are much, much bigger.) I ate one half, and took home the rest for the next day's lunch. Next morning, I proceeded to spend the second half of my yoga class in zen-like meditation on the sandwich that awaited me at home -- which, somehow seems okay to me.

How Alinea Primps a Short Rib

I don't post links too often, but there's a slideshow at that shows the meticulous step-by-step process of preparing a bizarrely inventive short rib dish in the laboratory-like kitchen at Chef Grant Achatz's Alinea, Gourmet magazine's "Best Restaurant In America". It demonstrates the restaurant's whimsical ultra-modern approach to food, and it's pretty fascinating.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Wineries, Mariachis, and Tamales, Oh My!

It's kind of a random connection, but stick with me here: I get excited when I see the word 'featuring'. You hear a song by an artist you know and love, and then come to find out they're collaborating with another artist you know and love. Sean Paul is making music with Rihanna? The kids from N.E.R.D. are hanging out with Mos Def, De La Soul, Common, and Q-Tip? Good Lord! I love it when my friends are friends with my other friends (not that Q-Tip and Pharrell are my friends...I mean, if only...but anyway).

So you can imagine my elation when two of my favorite Los Angeles institutions, the San Antonio Winery and Mama's Hot Tamales, came together this weekend, and I was invited to watch it happen. Sadly my initial introduction to the winery was overshadowed by a little incident outside my apartment, but on that first visit I really fell in love at first sight: with the evocative space, with the warm people, with the rich history, and with the fact that this vital winery, with all the romantic associations that come with one, exists in the industrial backstreets of Los Angeles' downtown. And it's been existing there for 90 years, run by four generations of the same Italian family, and weathering the storm of Prohibition (by producing into sacramental wines for the Catholic church, natch) to be the last winery standing of over a hundred that used to be in the area.

What has persisted is an old-country hospitality that can't be faked, in a space where a tour of the aging rooms and bottling facility is just as eye-opening as a meal in their Italo-Californian Maddalena restaurant is charming. And then there are the wines themselves: they produce lines of varietals and reserves in addition to altar and cooking wines.

So take all this Italy-meets-California goodness, and add tamales to the mix. Mama's Hot Tamales is a unique restaurant overlooking MacArthur Park that is really making a difference in the fabric of its community. Tamales, in varieties spanning every country that traditionally makes them, are at the center of this non-profit co-op. It works like this: backstage at the tamal shop is actually a classroom, where neighborhood residents can get hands-on training on kitchen topics and business management. The idea is that they can come out of the training and open a tamal-centered business of their own, say a tamal cart in MacArthur Park. The benefit is threefold: a historically low-income area of Los Angeles gets a transfusion of local businesses from within its own population (which happens to have a lot of Central Americans); sprawling MacArthur Park which, sadly, has taken a turn downward from its pleasant past to a reputation for guns and drugs, is revitalized into a destination for a sunny walk and some street-cart vended heritage; and everyone gets to eat delicious tamales. Truly a win-win-win.

So Sunday's event was the best of both worlds. Tamaleros from Mama's had come to the winery with a vast variety of mini tamales, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, depending on their nation of origin. And the winemakers at San Antonio offered suggested pairings of tamales and wines: several of their own domestics, as well as a bunch from Latin America, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The event had a great turnout, and the cheery crowd was elated as they tasted a Mexican Chenin Blanc with a deliciously slippery bite of a Guatemalan tamal, or the winery's own bright Riesling with the fragrant guava and cheese dessert tamales.

There was even a live tamal-making demo, provided by Ana's Tamales, who specialize in Honduran tamales (think marinated chicken, peas, potatoes, raisins) and are proud graduates of Mama's training program. See? It's working. This makes me happy.

Everyone was so happy, but at one point, they got about a million times happier. Because out of nowhere appeared the best mariachi troupe I have ever seen. Booming voices, smiling faces, trumpets and giant guitar-looking things, endearing choreography, and as if all this was not enough, accidentally-hipster skinny pants! That's right people, we're talking cream of the mariachi crop.

So, what's better, a collaboration between Biggie and Mary J. Blige, or one between inner-city wine and tamales? Tough call, but could you hand me my glass of Riesling and that mole negro thing over there while I think about it? Yeah, thanks.

San Antonio Winery is at 737 Lamar Street, Los Angeles, California 90031.
Mama's Hot Tamales is at 2122 West Seventh Street, Los Angeles, California, 90057. They're only open until 3:30 so get there early!