Thursday, November 29, 2007

Viet Love

Guys, I'm really excited about this one: I've found more to love in already-beloved Atwater Village. You know how the neighborhood where you work sort of becomes your second home? Well, I now work in Glendale, but I've found close-by Atwater to be more my speed. It has a hip, somewhat big-city sensibility, but there's a sense of community that you don't often find around these parts. People strike up conversations and introduce themselves by name -- everyone seems to be glad to be there, and glad that I'm there too. Since I started taking an awesome belly dance class at Heart Beat House, and discovering Kaldi coffee house and Tacos Villa Corona, not only do I discover more great spots in that bit of town each week, it actually gets better itself. The latest addition to Atwater's stretch of Glendale Blvd., Viet Noodle Bar, has taken the goodness to new levels.

I have so much good to say about this place. Every detail seems so thoughtfully handled, from the clean minimal decor warmed up with brown leather chairs and beautiful flowers, to the soft classical music playing in the background, to the rows of books piled down one long white wall of the restaurant. The menu is small, but every item on it is interesting. Viet Noodle doesn't try to take on a lot, but it takes its small charge seriously, and elevates casual dining. As you take it in, you get a sense of the place's unpretentious sophistication (I mean, I got to browse Hip Hotels Italy while dining on my summer rolls. Doesn't suck, right?).

I stepped in to the long white room and seated myself at one of the two communal tables stretching the length of the cafe. Sparse crowd, but then it was only 6ish, and it is a new restaurant after all. The lone waitress affably engaged me immediately -- describing every item on the menu (not that huge of a feat: there are about eight right now), asking about the studio up the street where I dance, offering her name (Melissa. Go say hi to her.) and a friendly handshake. Then she moved to the next party, where one guy gave her a copy of his book. Yep, this place fits into the neighborhood just fine.

So, what's on that little menu? Three small plates: Vietnamese 'tamales' of banana leaves filled with shrimp and a soft rice pancake; summer rolls with jicama, carrots, fried shallots, tofu, and basil; and some sort of salad involving jackfruit and I-don't-know-what. Two noodle dishes: one with whitefish, one with soy skin. Ginger soy curd for dessert. Pho coming soon.

The beverages are not an afterthought: Offerings include homemade soy milk, plain or with various flavorings. The roasted sesame soy milk is delicious -- just be sure to stir up the specks of black sesame seeds before each sip or risk gentle admonishment from the owner. The prize is a swirly combination of the most fresh, clean-tasting soy milk and a grown-up recall of the taste-memory of childhood sesame candy. Delicious, but I can't want to try the mint flavor next time. There is also a black bean 'tea', and one made with lo han fruit (not familiar with the fruit? Ask the owner -- he'll bring one out to show you).

So, yeah, Viet Noodle satisfied on many levels. And after class, as I walked out to my car around 8:45, I passed by again, and every seat was filled. It looked like a cozy, vibrant dinner party in there. See, I told you Atwater Village was friendly -- news travels fast around here.

Viet Noodle Bar is at 3133 Glendale Blvd., between Glenfeliz and Edenhurst. And at the moment, it's cash-only.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

It's Hard Out There for a Turkey

Two fascinating/disturbing takes on how turkeys come to make baby turkeys in America today. Glad you asked?

[The backstory here is that turkeys are bred for obesity, so they get fat really quickly, so they can turn them around faster.]

Turkeys today grow so fast they they find it impossible to mate naturally. They simply cannot get close enough to physically manage. As a result, all 300 million turkeys born annually in the US are the result of an act of artificial insemination.

(How, you may wonder, is this done? Suffice it to say that there are people, some of whom have Ph.D.s, who have become adept at handling male turkeys in just the right way. The procedure is called--with delicacy but without anatomical accuracy--"abdominal massage." After the semen is thus collected, and then mixed with a myriad of chemicals, there are other "experts" whose job it is to inject the material into the females, using an implement that looks, rather ironically, remarkably like a turkey baster.)
- From John Robbins' The Food Revolution

If there’s anything more American than a nice glass of milk, it’s a turkey dinner. It’s the centerpiece of Thanksgiving and the cornerstone of festive dinners and lunchbox sandwiches everywhere. As a matter of fact, the turkey is such a part of American culture that Benjamin Franklin lobbied for it to be the national bird! Happily, cooler heads prevailed.

Just as dairy farmers wanted more milk, turkey farmers wanted more meat. Specifically white breast meat, which Americans favor over dark meat. Enter selective breeding. In a feat that would impress even a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, farmers have been able to significantly increase the size of the average turkey breast. Not with silicone or saline, but just by breeding the turkeys with the most breast meat. In this case the plan worked almost too well. Male turkeys now have such large breasts that they cannot successfully mount females. Their giant chests get in the way! This renders them completely unable to mate and, as a result, farmers have had to step in. Every Thanksgiving drumstick, turkey sandwich, or turkey pot pie that you eat comes from a turkey that was created with artificial insemination. Selective breeding has given us the big-breasted turkeys we need to satisfy our national hunger for white meat and, in the process, completely eliminated turkey sex.
- From Alon Ziv's Breeding Between the Lines

Happy turkey day everyone!

[thanks to CraftyGoat for the photo]

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Happy Turkey Gruel Day

[This is a repost from last year -- it's one of my favorite posts here. Happy and delicious Thanksgiving to you all!]

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.

2 prepared store-bought pie crusts for a 9-inch pie (you'll use about 1 1/2 pie crusts; reserve the rest for another use)

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 08, 2007

Izayoi: Come for the Food

Ok, now that we have pinned down the very nature of what izakaya -- Japanese pubs serving beer, sake, and small bites -- are all about in this post, we can talk about Izayoi in Little Tokyo. For me, the izakaya experience is usually as much about vibe as it is about food and drink. Izayoi, with its cool 80s-modern interior, doesn't offer quite the besotted, festive atmosphere I associate with izakaya, but the food is exemplary. So round up a couple fun friends, order a pitcher of Kirin, and make your own party.

First the homemade tofu. This is the dish to offer to those who say tofu doesn't taste like anything*. I feel a little bit like a commercial using the word luscious, but this cup of custardy tofu, dressed with a thin layer of light soy sauce really was luscious. And it was certainly flavorful: it tasted deeply tofu-y.
Other highlights included black cod with a miso and soy marinade -- buttery and perfectly cooked; garlic butter scallops, which came to the table sizzling and tasted more Euro than Asian (in a good way); sweet glazed eggplant like little chunks of candy; and tripe! Tripe is not something i would have ordered myself -- I mean, let's face it: it's a cow stomach -- but, simmered in a mirin and soy broth, it was soft, comforting, and oddly nostalgic despite my lack of former cow-stomach experience.

So, what's the take-home? If you're looking for post-frat debauchery, go elsewhere (Furaibo on Sawtelle comes to mind). If you want to have a mellower, but still very fun night, over delicious food, go to Izayoi.

(Incidentally, Little Tokyo is fun! There are lots of people walking around, a dense crunch of restaurants and interesting shops open late, and brand new funky-modern apartment buildings to imagine living in if life were Blade Runner. Go explore! Then go to ceFiore and fight the frozen yogurt war to a soundtrack of obscure 1990s pop hits!)

* On the subject of tofu's blandness, and the futility of adding sauces, a particularly eloquent friend once said (and I should note, I disagree), "It's like putting make-up on an ugly girl."

Izayoi is at 123 S. Central Ave., just south of 1st St.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Farmers' Market Marathon

FMFM: The lovely Food Marathon (FM) , who does exactly what it sounds like -- eats through a whole day of deliciousness, one restaurant after another after another, has alit upon the Third and Fairfax Farmers' Market (also FM). I admire his (her?) stamina, not to mention the cool old-school photo and postcard from the Market's past.

Speaking of eating marathons, stay tuned for 11 in 11: On the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a dedicated group of eaters visits eleven iconic and delicious eateries around town. It's totally awesome.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Pear Rosemary What's-It

My cherry vanilla spoon sweet having run out, I needed something new with which to fill my jar and top my yogurt at breakfast. This time around, I was feeling pears. When it comes to making cooked fruit things (preserves, compote, spoon sweet, whatever), I am motivated by laziness: I don't want to buy random ingredients, and I can't be bothered with all the boiling and gloves and tongs involved in preserving the proper way. So, due to a pretty impromptu preparation, what I ended up with is hard to pin down: with its big chunks of red pear, it's most definitely not a jelly, but is it a jam either? And just by virtue of the fact that it lives in a jar, it just doesn't seem like a compote to me. I guess we could go with spoon sweet again, but I feel a little uncomfortable using that term authoratatively -- I've not had much experience with them other than the ones I made myself, and we all know I'm not a stickler. If anyone's got any ideas for a better name here, send them along.

Whatever it is though, it's delicious. The combination of pears, brown sugar, and rosemary is comforting, with the woodsiness of the rosemary cutting the sweetness, all coming together into a sensation that feels great on a grey chilly morning.

Pear Rosemary What's-It

I used red pears, whose skin added a pretty rosy hue to the end result, but Bosc or Bartlett would work great too. I didn't want to use too much sugar, and I didn't want to cook it too long either, for fear the pears would get too mushy. So, the resulting 'syrup' didn't thicken all too much. The what's-it still works great in yogurt, on its own, or as a topping for a simple dessert, but I might venture into the world of fruit pectin for the next go.

3 red pears, cored and cut into 1-inch dice
1/2 cup brown sugar
juice of half a lemon
2 sprigs fresh rosemary

Bring all ingredients to a simmer in a small nonreactive saucepan. Cook until pears have cooked through and softened, but still have some texture -- about fifteen minutes. Transfer to a jar (including rosemary sprigs), and refrigerate.