Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Best Bites of 2008

Cue obnoxious "Auld Lang Syne" song that most people hate and nobody with a pulse knows the words to, and break out the bubbly! With 2009 mere hours away, it is that special time of year when everyone and their Yorkshire terrier starts breaking out their top ten lists for the passing year. While I enjoy jumping on band wagons about as much as I enjoy eating olives (wink, wink to Esi), I would be remiss to not acknowledge all the wonderful things my mouth has encountered during the past 364 days. (Lips and olives not included)

Without any further meaningless filler, here (in no particular order other than how they popped into my head) are my "top ten" favorite bites of the year.

1. Baby Beet Salad from Fraiche - The only time beets have ever made me say "wow." The crunchy hazelnuts and luscious ricotta may have something to do with my reaction, but regardless, this first course plate is one of my favorites in the city.

2. Clams, garlic, oregano, parmigiano & pecorino pizza from Pizzeria Mozza - There are no words to describe my feelings for this pie -- just moans of approval.

3. Albacore carpaccio with diced chili ponzu warm olive oil from Bar Hayama - This dish may need to steal M&Ms' tagline. While I didn't attempt to eat it with my hands (I'm a lady like that), it definitely melted into my mouth like a creamy chocolate candy.

4. Arroz negro with squid from A.O.C. - I am still thinking about the last kernels of rice my roommate and I left in the pan.

5. Beef Brasato with polenta & horseradish gremolata from Osteria Mozza - Consumed pre-blog, this sensuous entree is the ultimate form of comfort food.

6. Tempeh Madras wrap and kale side salad from M Cafe de Chaya - Who knew kale could taste this good?

7. Peanut Butter Bubba French toast from the Griddle Cafe - Sweet, salty and dripping with calories, this breakfast of carboholic champions would put even a linebacker in a sugar coma.

8. SusieCakes' June Cupcake of the Month - A vanilla cupcake studded with strawberries and white chocolate chips, and covered with vanilla butter cream frosting. Red velvet, what? Red velvet, who?

9. NY Times Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie - Eaten approximately 90 minutes after it came out of the oven, this cookie had me swooning with its crisp edges, soft center and loads of chocolate chips.

10. Open-faced asparagus sandwich - So craveably good that I made it six times in the course of an eight day period.

Special mention to the following restaurant repeats:

Lamb spezzatino and monkfish francaise entrees at Fraiche, Nancy's Chopped Salad from Pizzeria Mozza, the Liberty Ranch duck from A.O.C., Papardelle with oxtail ragout from Osteria Mozza, the Whoopie Pie from SusieCakes, Spicy tuna on crispy rice from Bar Hayama

Here's hoping that 2009 brings my belly just as bountiful a feast (without the ill effects to my thighs).

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Appeasing the Beast: Chive Risotto Cakes and Oven Roasted Chickpeas

When my brother and sister-in-law invited my parents and me over to their condo for "pizza night," my first thought was, "I better not leave hungry this time." Last year my brother made a delicious chicken parmesan for us, but underestimated the size of my stomach, serving me a small breast and negligible amount of pasta. Too embarrassed to go back for seconds, I scraped my plate clean and attempted to convince myself that the measly serving was the appropriate amount. I was eating like a French woman!

Until I got home and raided the fridge.

This year I was not going to be embarrassed to eat until I developed a food baby large enough to rival my pregnant sister-in-law's. I'm a tall girl, I exercise more than anyone else in my family and my metabolism is still zipping along like my eldest brother's fancy new BMW that I still can't identify by model. My stomach is a beast and the only way to keep it from emanating embarrassing gastric noises is to feed it. A lot.

After accepting my brother's invitation, I did what any gracious guest (with an ulterior motive) would do. I offered to bring something. When my brother said they were fine, that my sister-in-law would "make a salad," I knew it was do or starve time. I insisted on bringing two appetizers and their favorite peanut butter paisley brownies for dessert.

It didn't occur to me until later that my recipe box wasn't exactly well-equiped with appetizers.

As I started scouring my favorite food blogs for ideas, I suddenly remembered the chive risotto cakes Esi from Dishing Up Delights made last month. At the time she posted the recipe, I thought, "Golly gee, these would be great for a dinner party!" Or at least I thought they would be if I threw dinner parties. And said things like "Golly gee." I didn't know when I would have the opportunity to try the arancini-esque cakes, so I was excited when I realized they would go perfectly with the Italian-themed pizza night. Cheese + more cheese = One happy family (and one happy "beast").

I also stumbled upon an oven-roasted chickpea recipe on the Kitchn and decided to tack the gasam masala spiced beans on for good measure. Between the two appetizers, my brother's pizza and salad, and my brownies, I knew my stomach would be covered.

The risotto cakes were surprisingly easy to make -- especially after giving the "batter" plenty of time to chill in the refrigerator before molding them into patties. They actually proved to be easier than the chickpeas which took considerable time to peel in order to ensure they crisped up right. The frustration wasn't really worth it. While my mother described the crunchy peas as "addicting," and my dad seemed to enjoy the few handfuls he took, my sister-in-law and brother seemed less than impressed. I didn't exactly shun the bowl, but the chickpeas aren't something I'd covet or let the beast gorge on. They were good, but no where near as appetizing as the luscious risotto cakes.

I was nervous about the potential consequences of transporting the pre-made, panko-crusted cakes down to my brother's condo, but they held up nicely over the 30-minute drive, and were a memorable way to start the evening. Everyone loved the juxtaposition of the creamy, cheese-filled center with the pan-fried crispy exterior, and the five of us easily went through the twelve cakes. Because my eldest brother was not yet in town, I decided to double the amount I made that first day and make them again on Christmas Eve, and then again on Christmas to use up the leftovers.

While the chive risotto cakes began as a form of insurance to guard against a starving belly, I can see them becoming a tradition at my family's future get togethers. My dad and brothers are already discussing what sauces might go well with them.

As for the beast? She's got no compliments. Sauce, cheese, cake -- bring it on.

Chive Risotto Cakes

(Adapted from Ina Garten via Dishing Up Delights)

Makes approx. 12 cakes

Kosher salt

1/2 cup uncooked Arborio rice

1/4 cup Greek yogurt

1 large egg

1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

3/4 cup grated Fontina cheese

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


Extra-virgin olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt and the Arborio rice. Cook, stirring occasionally for 20 minutes. Drain the rice in a sieve and run under cold water until cool. Drain well.

Meanwhile, whisk together the yogurt, egg, chives, Fontina, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper in a medium bowl. Add the cooked rice and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight, until firm.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Spread the panko in a shallow dish. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Form balls of the rice mixture using an ice cream scoop or large spoon. Pat the balls into patties 3/4 inch thick. Place 4-6 patties in the panko, turning once to coat. Place the patties in the hot oil and cooking. turning once, for about 3-4 minutes on each side until the risotto cakes are crisp and nicely browned. Place on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and keep warm in the oven for up to 30 minutes. Continue cooking in batches, adding oil as necessary until all the cakes are fried. Serve hot.

Spicy Oven-Roasted Chickpeas

(Adapted from the Kitchn)

Makes about 2 cups

1 15 ounce can organic chickpeas

1 tablespoon of olive oil

Sea salt

1 teaspoon gasam masala

Heat the oven 400°F.

Pour the chickpeas into a colander and drain and rinse very well under running water. Pat dry and peel off the outer skin.

Toss the chickpeas with the olive oil and salt, and spread out on a large cookie sheet. Roast for 30-40 minutes or until brown and crispy. Turn and stir every ten minutes so they don't burn.
Take out and toss to taste with gasam masala and additional salt if desired.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Trattoria 174: A Parade of Pizza

The dough soared into the air, and I held my breath until he guided it back on to his hand. Our prying eyes were no match for the expert flick of his wrist, as he tossed the pliant dough to the proper thickness. We applauded his skilled demonstration, then turned our attention back to our glasses of Petite Syrah. The spicy wine warmed our stomachs on the cold night, and as I nestled back into my high-back chair, I felt perfectly content to sit and absorb the cozy atmosphere created by the candlelit table and the quiet laughter of my parents and sister-in-law.

While the smell of melting mozzarella toyed with our senses, the man with the expert hands presented us with delicate field greens topped with avocado, grapefruit, green apple slices, walnuts, red onions, dried cranberries, and a homemade balsamic vinaigrette dressing. The light starter amped up the motor in our bellies for the impending pizza, which subsequently arrived at the table hot from the oven mere moments after our salad plates were cleared.

"Save room." He instructed us, as he doled out slices of the spinach pie -- a sensual marriage of Bechamel sauce, Popeye's favorite vegetable, and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.

So rapt with pleasure, we scarcely heard him when he told us there were two more pizzas coming. My mom marvelled at the crispness of the crust, I appreciated the lack of grease, my sister-in-law mooned over the toasted cheese and my father lunged for the last piece -- unable to heed the warnings of our server and personal chef.

Up next was the heartiest of our three pies of the evening -- a chicken asparagus version of the spinach pizza that was also topped with the decadent Bechamel sauce and an ample blanket of mozzarella and Parmesan. The grilled chicken and tender bits of asparagus were a welcome contrast to our first pie, and as I tore through my second slice, I could see why it is the house favorite.

Despite already devouring two-three slices each, no one at the table could resist the allure of basic Margherita pizza. The tangy homemade arriabiatta sauce, shreds of fresh basil, and pock-marks of crusted cheese is always a winning combination, and I immediately lambasted myself for my inability to leave the last slice of the chicken asparagus pie on the platter. Undeterred by my nonverbal (nonexistent) protests, our server opened a third bottle of wine and poured into my glass with a leaden hand. With alcohol by my side, I knew I could fool my stomach into thinking there was room for one more piece. I proceeded on, content to end the evening with a slice of the simple, rustic pizza.

We topped off our over expanded bellies with freshly baked peanut butter paisley brownies, and then bid each other adieu as we stole into the brisk Orange County "winter" air.

"Thanks for coming!" He said from the door of Trattoria 174. He leaned in to place an arm around my sister-in-law, who stood shivering beside him.

"We'll see you tomorrow!" I responded to my brother and waved at them from the car.

As we exited their complex to head home, I mused to my parents. "It was just like eating at a restaurant."

"Nah," My mother said. "It was even better than a restaurant."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Zinc Cafe: Batting Two for Two

It's happened more times than it should. I go to a restaurant, fall madly in love with it and the food, and make immediate plans to return. I look forward to the subsequent visit, building up the anticipated experience in my head like I am running a personal public relations campaign for the eatery's cuisine. Of course, when I actually get back for round two, it isn't nearly as good as I remembered, and I am horribly disappointed. It sours the restaurant for me, and I start wondering if maybe it wasn't even that wonderful to begin with -- that there is something to that "hindsight is 20/20" nonsense and I am suffering from cognitive bias.

I was slightly concerned about that same possibility when my mother and I returned to Zinc Cafe this past Tuesday for a light lunch. Newport Beach had reached a blustery 50 degrees, and chilled to our cores by the "frigid" winter temperature, my thin-blooded mother and I were craving soup and other warm savory items. We descended upon our new favorite cafe primed for something as delectable as the lentil soup and open-faced asparagus sandwich we'd sampled on our first visit two weeks prior.

After discovering that the soup of the day was spinach potato and not the lentil that we had mooned over before, I was even more concerned about Zinc's ability to maintain its placement on a pedestal. Spinach didn't sound nearly as appetizing, so I opted to get it with the quiche plate that came with the quiche of the day, an artichoke red pepper concoction, a mixed greens salad, and a cup of the aforementioned soup. I'm not a big fan of eating a grease-bomb-pastry for lunch, but was too hungry to play the indecisive (or healthy) game. The rest of the menu would have to wait.

As soon as I laid eyes on the cute little quiche, all my concerns about cognitive bias, thickening thighs and the deliciousness of Zinc Cafe disappeared. While I did prefer the lentil soup to the spinach potato, the day's offering was warm and comforting with thick chunks of tender potato that gave the spinach-streaked broth the substance it needed. The surprisingly greaseless quiche was light on the tongue, and didn't land like a sledge hammer in my stomach. My mother and I were equally smitten by our follow-up lunch, which we washed down with steaming mugs of loose leaf tea -- green for her, and a mixture of green and peach for me.

Our mid-day nosh break was the perfect way to calm our Christmas-frayed nerves from battling one too many malls, visiting one too many grocery stores (approximately four) and spending one too many hours in the kitchen. It was a pleasure to end our second visit to Zinc Cafe still feeling as though we'd just unwrapped an unexpectedly delightful present.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

"Sticky Rolls": A Very Merry Way to Start Christmas Morning

My mom's recipe for "Sticky Rolls" is not going to win any awards for difficulty, but the ooey gooey rolls still taste sinfully delicious. Christmas morning wouldn't be the same without them -- a point I reiterated to my poor mother after she had visited several different grocery stores to find the right frozen rolls for the recipe. At the time, I felt a little bad that I had made such a big deal about maintaining the sanctity of my family's gluttonous holiday tradition, but as soon as I tasted the luscious caramel-coated dough, I no longer cared how inconvenient it was for her. I polished off my plate (topped with a ripe banana to cut the sweetness) with the same gusto as my older brother who doesn't need to fret about fitting into his "skinny" anything. And then I texted my friend Ashley whose family also celebrates Christmas morning with "Sticky Buns" to let her know what had transpired at our dining room table.

Her response?

"Me too! Uhmazing!"

Thank goodness for my persistent mother. (And to Stater Brothers for having the right rolls.)

"Sticky Rolls"


Bridgeport frozen dinner rolls (approximately 24)
3/4 cup chopped pecans
1 (3 oz.) package buttterscotch pudding (not instant)
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

Grease bundt pan and line the bottom with the chopped pecans. Place frozen, unbaked rolls on top of nuts, and sprinkle with butterscotch pudding packet.

In a small saucepan, melt butter with brown sugar. Let cool for 15 minutes before drizzling over the rolls. Cover, and let stand for 6 to 8 hours at room temperature.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, or until nicely browned on top. Immediately invert the rolls on a plate. Serve alone, or topped with a ripe banana.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Peanut Butter Paisley Brownies and Chocolate Covered Cookies: The Last Cookies Before Christmas

It's the day before the day before Christmas, and all through the house, the scents of vanilla and sugar are wafting about. The oven is warm for cookies to bake, and I in my apron am wide awake.

Okay, that's enough of that rhyming business. I'm here to post about the last cookies of Christmas -- not some Tasha Tudor-illustrated bedtime story! That's not to say I don't enjoy the occasional trip down memory lane with The Polar Express or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but at the moment, I prefer eating my memories rather than reading them.

The two cookie bars I made yesterday for my family are two of my favorite recipes. My mother and I discovered the Peanut Butter Paisley Brownies a few years ago in her Great American Favorite Brand Name Cookbook. I still remember when we sat down at our family room table to sample the decadent bars. We moaned, groaned and immediately cut off two more bars to eat. Despite the rich ingredients -- two cups of sugar, chocolate syrup, chocolate chips (our addition) and peanut butter -- the treats do not provide too much of sugar shock. As such, it is terribly easy to eat two (or more) in a sitting. The combination of the ooey gooey syrup, slightly salty, peanut butter cookie batter, and chocolate chips makes for an irresistible dessert.

The second cookie I made is my mother's favorite - a chocolate-covered shortbread-type bar that is topped with toasted pecans. My grandma used to bake the bars for my mother, and a few years ago I took over that duty. While the recipe uses only a few basic ingredients, the process of making the cookie bottom takes time and patience. There is a lot of love that goes into each batch. There has to be -- I don't know that I'd endeavor to take on the recipe if I didn't love the recipient as much as I love my dear mother!

The effort is always worth it though, as is the case whenever I bake something for my family. There is something wonderfully satisfying about creating something special for the people I love most in the world. The careful measuring, the arm aches from mixing the batter to fluffy perfection, and the sticky hands are all a part of the joy of the season. Christmas wouldn't be the same without baking up a frenzy of frustration in the kitchen. It is a blessing to be able to fray away at my nerves for the blessing that is my family.

Chocolate Covered Cookies
From my Grandmother's Kitchen

1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla

2 large Hershey milk chocolate bars
1/2 cup pecans, chopped and toasted

Mix together the butter, brown sugar, egg yolk, and vanilla. Fold in the flour. Spread batter on bottom of a standard-sized, greased cookie sheet.

Bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.

As soon as the cookies come out of the oven, use a double broiler to melt the two chocolate bars. Spread over the cookie bottom and top with pecan pieces. Cut into squares while still warm.

Peanut Butter Paisley Brownies
From Great American Favorite Brand Name Cookbook


1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup HERSHEY'S Syrup

Heat oven to 350°F. Grease 13x9x2-inch baking pan.

Beat butter and peanut butter in large bowl. Add sugar and brown sugar; beat well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in vanilla.

Stir together flour, baking powder and salt; mix into peanut butter mixture, blending well. Stir in chocolate chips. Spread half of batter into prepared pan; spoon syrup over top. Carefully top with remaining batter; swirl with metal spatula or knife for marbled effect.

Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool completely in pan on wire rack.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Marshmallow Cookies: My Favorite Holiday Cookie

When I was growing up, my family and I used to spend three weeks of every summer visiting my grandmother in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We would arrive at her three-story, modest-sized house (a "mansion" compared to our one-story home in California) late in the evening, and would be starving from a long day of traveling. She would always greet us with hugs and a sly wink, as she beckoned us into her kitchen for the unveiling of the cookies she'd baked for us. There were ginger cookies, date pinwheels for my mother, shortbread cookies, sugar cookies, and our favorite, the marshmallow cookies.

The marshmallow cookies that, incidentally, don't contain any marshmallows, are made by mixing chunky peanut butter with rice krispies, powdered sugar, and butter. The "batter" is then rolled into balls that are subsequently coated in either white or milk chocolate. They were always the first cookies that my brothers and I dug into when we arrived at her home, and today, are still the most requested of my grandmother's recipes.

While my grandmother has since passed on, the marshmallow cookies have remained a staple in my family. We serve them at holiday parties, gift them to friends, and hide them away in individual containers labeled with each of our names. They are best when refrigerated -- and even better when enjoyed with a million childhood memories intact.

Marshmallow Cookies
From Grandma Yetta's Kitchen

1 1/2 cups Rice Krispies
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup crunchy peanut butter

Mix ingredients together and roll into small balls.

Dip balls in 11-12 ounces of melted almond bark (we use Candy Quick), and set on wax paper to dry.

Store in or out of the refrigerator. (I prefer mine cold, but they are enjoyable at room temperature as well.)

Monday, December 22, 2008

A.O.C.: Something to Talk About

A.O.C. Even the name sounds prestigious. Like it's an exclusive diner's club that only A-list celebrities and well-pocketed VIPs can access. I can see them pulling up to the West 3rd Street restaurant in their black town cars, decked out in chic Audrey Hepburn dresses and Emenegildo Zegna suits that have been firmly pressed and steamed by someone else's hand. They approach the muddled sand-colored building with an air of belonging on their shoulders -- this is a typical Friday night for them, an inconsequential event in the greater scheme of their week. The experience of dining at one of LA's finest is nothing out of the ordinary for these men and women of Hollywood who don't understand the meaning of the phrase "on a budget."

Or so I imagine in the scene that plays out in my head.

Of course, the real experience of dining at A.O.C., Chef Suzanne Goin's famous tapas and wine bar, is decidedly less surreal. While it is one of the tougher reservations in town and the price points on the small plates do lend it an air of exclusivity, the restaurant is still accessible to the "lay" folk who want to pretend for at least one night that they too can whittle away their rent money on little bites of exquisitely prepared food.

This past Friday evening, my roommate and I were lucky enough to be the pretenders.

Dressed in tall boots and stylish wrap dresses, we descended on A.O.C. primed for bacon-wrapped dates and bold red wine. We'd been planning the evening for the past month and were excited to have a "Girl's Night Out" to celebrate the holiday season. We didn't care that we couldn't really afford the $17 duck or the $14 arroz negro with squid; on a night like this, the prices weren't the point. We were there for the shared experience of enjoying good food and wine. The memory was the point.

In the spirit of recklessness, I started out the evening with an assertive move -- I tried one of the black olives proffered alongside the somewhat questionable harissa that accompanied pliant slices of yeasty bread.

Despite my best intentions to expand my foodie horizon, the putrid black orb soured my mouth like curdled milk, and I was immediately reminded why it is I loathe olives. While some might find the offering a delightful way to pave the way for the impending meal, I much preferred marinating my mouth with the fresh bread which was a worthy way to absorb the alcohol from the Hocus Pocus Syrah my roommate and I selected to drink.

The engine of the evening's food train came in the form of tender slices of speck, dressed up on a plate with apples and unruly pieces of arugula. The decorative arrangement was reminiscent of a Pollack painting, but without the sensational impact. The oversized pieces of arugula were distractingly large, and my roommate and I struggled to wrap it around our forks as we fought through the weeds for each succulent slice of speck. The apples were merely superfluous as well, and the effort of consuming the dish in a tidy, lady-like fashion did not seem worth the rather ho-hum performance delivered to the tongue.

By the time we'd reached the half-way point in our battle with the greens, the most-hyped dish of the evening had arrived at the table. The bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with parmesan glistened like the stars that they are. The sweet-salty combination delivered on every level, and my roommate and I eagerly devoured three each.

The seafood courses followed -- sand dabs with cauliflower, raisins and Sherry, and my favorite dish of the evening, the arroz negro with squid and saffron aioli.

While the sand dabs were texturally pleasing with their crisp-fried surfaces juxtaposed against the Sherry creme fraiche and cauliflower, the flavor was less impactful. The dish is well-executed, but lacked the "wow" factor that I would expect from a restaurant of such high acclaim. The role of show-stopper belonged to the arroz negro -- a dish that neither my roommate nor I could stop eating. Even now, I struggle to come up with the proper words to describe the bold combination of flavors. My last memory is of the serving spoon, still blanketed with a few stray kernels of tender rice. I wanted nothing more than to scrape it clean with my tongue, but in interests of decorum, restrained my animalistic urges.

The waiter-recommended kabocha squash gratin with poblanos and queso fresco announced itself upon arrival. Still sizzling from the oven, the bubbling casserole held the promise of a bold statement. The poblanos attacked our taste buds with ferocity, nearly compromising our ability to taste the chunks of supple squash and luscious cheese. The dish --which can be considered the antithesis of the sand dabs-- depleted the level of my water glass, but was a welcome addition to our parade of plates.

Nothing, however, was more welcome than the final dish of the evening, the liberty ranch duck with roasted grapes and abbamele.

"It tastes like steak!" My roommate enthused, as we both marveled over the juicy morsels of pan-seared flesh.

With the crisp crust of fat, rosy interior and blanket of jus, the duck made me happy to be a carnivore.

At this juncture in the evening, my roommate and I were hearing the persistent calls from our stomachs to put an end to the revelry, so our glances to the dessert menu were more out of curiosity than interest in consuming its contents. We made the nod for the check and strolled to the exit, warmed by the contented feeling of eating something worth talking about.

It is restaurants like A.O.C. that make food fun. And make pretending to be a VIP all the more authentic of an experience.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

7 (More) Random Things!

My favorite East Coast blogger, Heather of Diary of a Fanatic Foodie recently tagged me to reveal 7 random things about myself. I'm not sure if the world can take any more of my randomness, but given that we are in the thick of the season of overindulgence and excess, I'm going to take a chance that "the world" can handle another dose of my crazy. Just consider it an early Christmas/Hanukkah present... ;)

1. I cannot do a somersault. Partly due to fear of breaking my neck, and partly due to my ridiculously uncoordinated limbs.

2. One year for Christmas my dad gave my brothers and I toilet seats for each of the three bathrooms in our house. Worst present EVER. Even beats out the wooden boards he gave me when I was five years old for the dollhouse he planned to make me. Twenty years later, I'm still waiting for the dollhouse. (I'm not sure what happened to the boards...)

3. I own a Christian rock CD that I did not receive for free (or as a bad Christmas gift), and actually enjoy listening to it. (Especially when sitting in LA traffic.)

4. If given the choice between a cupcake and a bowl of fruit for a snack, I would choose the fruit. Not because I don't like cupcakes, but because I really really love fruit. (And apples don't make my stomach hurt.)

5. When I moved to LA I sincerely believed that someone big and important would "discover" me and cast me as the star and his/her movie/TV pilot.

6. Someday I want to move back to Orange County, California (with my exceedingly attractive husband who more or less resembles Eric Bana), get paid for my writing, and work part-time as an assistant High School cross-country/track couch or physical trainer.

7. I am newly obsessed with my roommate's immersion blender. It makes me want to blend everything.

As far as who I am tagging, I'm going to go ahead and skip that step. :) Instead, I'm going to reveal one last random thing...

8. The past few months of blogging about all things food-related has brought me more joy than anything the jolly fat man could wrap and put under Charlie, my roommate and my Christmas tree. I truly appreciate all the support (and kind comments) I have received from my friends, family and new blogger friends like Heather, Esi, Meg, Kirby, Mike, etc. Thank you for giving me a reason to run to my computer every morning.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Williams Sonoma Blissful Brownies: Blissful Bites of Nostalgia

The brown package was resting against my door when I came home from work two weeks ago. With its "perishable" label and Williams Sonoma return address, it was like a siren singing a sweet song to lead me to stray from the diet I'm never actually on. Moaning to my friend who I was chatting with on my cell phone, I bent down to pick up the package.

"More food! How am I ever going to eat all this?" I cried in distress, my thoughts already turning to the Berger cookies still in my cupboard, the TJ's Dark Chocolate-Covered Peppermint Joe Joe's I still hadn't opened, the box of Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels I was still working my way through, and the Jell-o Pudding snacks I had to finish before they expired on December 24th.

He laughed at the ludicrousness of my complaint -- whining because I had too many delicious things at my disposal to eat. He was right. I should appreciate my chocolate bounty -- poor Madonna's children probably don't even know what sugar tastes like!

I tore into the package and smiled when I saw the contents: "Blissful Brownies."

"Only Ali," I thought fondly, tucking the box under my arm as I headed to the kitchen to refrigerate them to maintain their freshness (the brownies will keep 2-3 weeks, unopened in the fridge).

During my senior year of college, brownies were the glue that cemented my lifelong friendship with my two roommates, Ali and Caroline. Bad days could always be remedied with a box of Triple Chunk brownies, a carton of vanilla ice cream and the requisite romantic comedy a la Center Stage, Notting Hill or My Best Friend's Wedding. My fondest memories of living in our shoddy, three-bedroom apartment on Maple Street were the nights we spent planted on "heinous" couch (a leftover from the previous tenants), armed with the remote and bowls of brownie sundaes. The three of us could easily go through half a pan in a single sitting, and would subsequently bond over the inevitable belly aches that followed. On days when we weren't feeling particularly inclined to bake, we would walk the mile into downtown Evanston to get our fix with either Clarke's Diner's "Charlie Brown" or Flat Top's "Chocolate Storm." It doesn't surprise me that we were all 10+ pounds heavier during that year.

Tearing into my box of brownies a few nights later, my heart seized up with nostalgia for those times. While I am happy to be rid of the extra thigh bulge and butt jiggle that prompted a former cross-country teammate to describe (in detail) how it "swayed" when I ran, I miss what the brownies represented -- the fierce bond I shared with my roommates and college friends. I knew that no matter how delicious the Williams Sonoma Blissful Brownies tasted, they could never be as blissful as the brownies I used to eat when sitting uncomfortably close to Ali and Caroline on "heinous" couch while we "awwed" over Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant finally getting together.

After cutting off a restrained corner of the nearly two-inch thick brownies, I nestled down on my pristine, un-heinous couch with a cup of tea. I quickly turned the TV to that night's episode of "Top Chef" and dug into the brownie. As is the case with most brownies, the crust tastes the best and is a necessary foil to counterbalance the dense, fudge-like interior made from high-quality Guittard chocolate. The cocoa flavor is pronounced, coating the tongue with an almost chalk-like aftertaste that is not unpleasurable, but not necessarily agreeable either. My immediate reaction was one of indifference-- I couldn't help but compare them to the boxes Ali, Caroline and I went through back in the chubby days. I didn't think I could possibly eat my way through the entire 12-serving sheet.

Yet, three days later, when I curled up in my bed with my favorite holiday movie, Love Actually, and another hunk of the decadent treats, the brownies won me over. While my preferred rendition is still of the triple chunk box variety, on my second attempt, I was able to appreciate the more sophisticated taste of the Williams Sonoma version. As previously mentioned, the crust is superb, the interior is profoundly moist even after a week in the fridge, and the ample spattering of chocolate chips are intensely satisfying for increased textural contrast. The brownies pack a punch, and even with the help of Hugh, Keira and Colin, I was still unable to eat more than a small piece.

Apparently, I've come a long way since college in terms of my portion control. But I'd still give up my favorite pink-stemmed Riedel wine glasses if it meant I could spend one more night sandwiched between Ali and Caroline with a pan of brownies and the best that Julia Roberts has to offer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 6: The Coliccio that Stole Christmas

I don't consider myself a cynical person. I hold doors open for strangers, I befriend the cashiers at my local Trader Joe's, and I never hide my smile (unless I'm sitting in LA traffic). Yet as I watched last night's Christmas episode of "Top Chef" Season 5, my big softy heart shrivelled down two sizes. I became a Scrooge.

I call it the "opposite effect." (Or at least I do now that I've come up with the term.) Nothing irks me more than being told to do something. When I was a little girl and my dad commanded me to clean my room, it inspired me to want to do the opposite -- mess it up even more and let the stacks of toys and clothes fester like bacteria in a cesspool. While I have grown up in many ways since that time (ie. gotten really really tall), I have still maintained that innate desire to resist authority.

Within the first few minutes of last night's episode, I knew exactly what the"Top Chef" producers were trying to do. They were attempting to exploit my emotions -- to make me "aww" and sniff and cry into my hanky over the sentimentality of the episode. I felt just as I do when I'm listening to 103.5 FM during the Christmas season, when the radio DJs let people call in with special messages for their loved ones. It's nothing short of gag-worthy. Instead of drawing a tear to my eye, it makes me want to huff and puff and run over little puppies for sport.

Okay, not really. But I still find it exceedingly obnoxious.

Last night's "Top Chef" started off with a one-on-one moment with Boulder cheftestant Hosea, who revealed that his father was recently diagnosed with cancer. The intent was clearly to position Hosea as the "one to root for" in this week's episode, and while my heart did seize up as Hosea reflected on his personal struggle, the transparency of the moment felt like a cheap shot.

The quick-fire challenge where the contestants were charged to make a Christmas-inspired dish using only one pot, further amped up the focus on Hosea. While his paella ultimately placed second behind Ariane's filet and cauliflower puree, Martha's praise of his dish pushed him into the spotlight once again. By this juncture in the 75-minute episode, the producers had already force fed Hosea to the audience, firmly establishing him as the chef to watch during the elimination challenge.

Here's where things get really icky.

For the final challenge, the chefs were commissioned to make appetizers inspired by one of the lines in the "12 Days of Christmas" to serve to a crowd of 300 people -- "8 Lords of Leaping, "9 Ladies Dancing," et all. After they finished prepping their dishes, one of the overextended chefs left a refrigerator door open, and when the contestants returned to the kitchen the next morning, Hosea and Radhika discovered that their proteins were unusable. With nary a hint of concern for their own dishes, the other chefs lept to their rescue, pitching in to help them complete their appetizers in time for the party. Even the holier than thou Stefan got in on the altruistic action, attacking Radhika's duck legs with the passion of a man who has a heart. The only thing missing was the sappy "That's What Friends are for" playing in the background.

At first I was touched by the chefs' compassion, but as the episode dragged on (and on), I grew increasingly irritated by the sentimentality of it all. It reeked of the contrived Hollywood success story/happy ending -- particularly when Hosea and Radhika placed in the final three. I might have been fine swallowing that sucker punch of a storyline if there was something -- anything -- to counterbalance the saccharine taste in my mouth. I felt as though I was the one eating Eugene's sickeningly sweet Poisson cru, and I craved something salty or bitter to provide relief for all the sugar shock. Where were the insults? Why wasn't anyone being thrown "under the bus?" And where the heck did Stefan's pompous European accent go?

Starving for some anger and tears, I waited in rapt anticipation for the judge's table. "Let the blade fall!" I thought with miserly glee, hoping against hope that monotone Melissa might be sent packing. I'd have even been okay with Jamie going home -- mostly because I'm getting tired of hearing her whine about never winning. Boo frickin' hoo.

Yet as soon as Tom, Gail, Padma and, guest judge Michelle Bernstein started in on their deliberations, I know something was amiss. While I was satisfied by Tom's disgusted declaration that he didn't really feel compelled to get seconds of any of the dishes, the judges were acting a little too impressed by the great Hosea/Radihka rescue. The Christmas spirit stole into their hearts, and Tom charged into the stew room like the jolly old elf himself. He began by reprimanding the chefs for being "naughty" with their uninspired deviled eggs and crab cake offerings, but then praised them for their "nice" behavior toward their competitors. In the gaggiest moment in "Top Chef" history -- even gaggier than the dessert Pagma spit out in Episode 2 -- none of the chefs were eliminated.

It was a "Christmas miracle!" Or at least it was for Melissa, Eugene and Jamie.

For me, it was a sappy Hallmark movie.

Tom Colicchio -- the grinch who stole my Christmas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Rice Krispies Balls: I Washed My Hands, I Promise!

It didn't look good. It didn't look good at all.

As my hands became enrobed in a layer of melted chocolate, toffee bits, ooey goey chunky peanut butter, and marshmallow, I couldn't help but feel frustrated by the sticky process of executing the festive rice krispies balls for my office holiday party. When I found the recipe, I thought that the balls would be the perfect thing to serve to my hungry, slightly inebriated co-workers -- they looked super cute in the picture in Oprah magazine, I could make them ahead of time without compromising taste or freshness, and they don't require an obscene number of ingredients.

Yet, as I looked down at the golf ball-sized treats that were coated with unsightly streaks of melted chocolate, I couldn't help but feel deflated. They did not look like adorable little ornaments. They looked messy and imperfect -- like a four-year-old had been let loose in my kitchen.

My concerns about the balls were further punctuated the following morning when I stumbled upon an article in the LA Times Health section entitled, "Grossed out by holiday potlucks? Join the crowd." The piece focuses upon the ugly side of potlucks -- the potential for food-poisoning and the neurotic fears of people who don't like eating other people's homemade goods/casseroles because they don't know their standards for cleanliness in the kitchen. As someone who dreads potlucks and avoids questionable casseroles for this very reason, I became convinced that nobody would want to eat my treats. I imagined my co-workers wrinkling their noses up in disgust, as they pictured my grubby hands rolling the balls into a globby chocolate mess. They would go uneaten, unappreciated and unsung -- little heroes of goodness hidden beneath a shroud of ugly.

Undeterred by the potential for public shunned-party-good humiliation, I decided to bring my balls to the gathering anyway. I stacked them up in the shape of a Christmas tree and prayed that my colleagues would not judge them like that snot-nosed Lucy judged Charlie Brown for his sad sack of a tree. Fortunately, my co-workers proved to be exceedingly less neurotic than I -- gobbling up the treats with nary a hint of concern about my hygiene. One girl asked me how I made them, and seemed genuinely taken aback when I stammered, "And then I rolled them into balls -- but, don't worry! I washed my hands really well before!"

She didn't seem particularly worried about my commitment to antibacterial products, but I suspect she may now be worried about my sanity.

I don't blame her. (I sometimes worry about it too!)

Regardless, the treats turned out really tasty. Chewy and almost caramel-like in texture due to the sensual marriage of toffee bits and chunky peanut butter, the balls have an addicting quality. If I hadn't made them myself, I might have wondered if the chef injected little bits of crack cocaine in the center. Of course, if I hadn't made them myself, I probably wouldn't have eaten four. Or any for that matter. I certainly didn't go near the other desserts at the party -- in particular the buckeyes that someone else had to shape in their potentially bacteria-ridden hands.


Nothing says "un-Merry Christmas!" like a nasty cold or bacterial infection. So wash well before gifting these upon colleagues, friends and family. They're only good until someone lands in the hospital with a nasty case of salmonella (or discovers a cat hair in the middle of their third one).

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Rice Krispies Balls
(Recipe from Oprah Magazine, December 2008)

Makes 16 balls (I doubled the recipe to make 32, but only did half at a time to keep them from hardening too quickly)

2 (1.4-ounce) chocolate-covered toffee candy bars (I used Skor bars)
2 cups Rice Krispies
1/2 cup chunky peanut butter
16 regular-size marshmallows
1/4 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips
Canola oil

Leaving candy bars in wrappers, use a rolling pin to pound and crush bars into small pieces.

Place Rice Krispies in a large bowl and set aside.Place peanut butter in a medium-size microwave-safe bowl; microwave on high until hot, about 45 seconds. Add marshmallows and microwave on high until softened, about 30 seconds. (Alternatively, place peanut butter and marshmallows in a heavy saucepan. Stir over low heat until melted, 2 to 3 minutes.) - (I chose the saucepan option)

Working quickly, stir to combine mixture with Rice Krispies. Stir until evenly coated. Add crushed candy bars and chocolate chips. Stir until combined.

Coat your hands with oil and shape mixture into spheres the size of golf balls, making 16 treats. (I made one batch with oiled hands and one batch without and didn't notice a difference -- I say skip it!)

The balls will keep up to one week at room temperature.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Gettin' Hot and Bothered for an Open-Faced Asparagus Sandwich

I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. My encounter with Zinc CafĂ©’s open-faced artichoke sandwich the Saturday before last lingered in my mind like a persistent asthmatic cough. I became obsessed with the notion of recreating the inventive sandwich -- visualizing the process in my head in much the same way that I used to mentally prepare for a cross-country or track race. This Saturday am, I knew the time of reckoning was upon me. It would be the day I attempted greatness.

Or at the very least, my version of greatness.

The facts are these: One slice of sourdough is spread with cauliflower puree, and topped with braised asparagus, melted white cheddar cheese, a poached egg, and bread crumbs. Sounds simple enough, right?

Perhaps it would be if I had any of the aforementioned ingredients on hand. (Or had any idea how to poach an egg.) As I started collecting my asparagus from Trader Joe’s ($3.99 a package), and extra large organic eggs ($2.99 for six), block of white cheddar cheese ($4.60), head of cauliflower (99 cents/lb), and sweet sprouted bread ($4.69/loaf) from Whole Foods on Saturday morning, I began to feel a bit apprehensive about the effort (and expense). While I knew I would most likely use up the common food stuffs throughout the coming week, I felt a bit foolish loading my fridge up for merely two weekend lunches.

"What am I doing?" I thought as a pleasant young man rung up my groceries. I was half tempted to return it all and pick up some of my favorite cranberry tuna salad instead, but the mental image of the sandwich strutted in front of my visual cortex once again. My mouth moistened at the sight of the luscious egg and tender asparagus.

With my stomach (and debit card) leading the way, I charged on.

While the process of both shopping and executing the various stages of the recipe were time consuming, as soon as I placed the sandwich on my white square plate, I knew it was worth the stack of dishes I had to clean up later. I eagerly took pictures of the hot sammy, pausing to capture every angle, curve and sensuous layer.

"Brilliant!" I cried out. "That's it! Work it, work it, baby, work it!"

If I were Paris Hilton, I might even degrade myself to say, "It was hot." (Which it was since it had just come out of the oven.)

It was also really good. Craveably good. Smack my thigh and pat my belly good. Or at least it would have been if my roommate and her boyfriend hadn't been present for the unveiling.

Open-Faced Asparagus Sandwich
(inspired by version at Zinc Cafe)

1 slice bread of choice (preferably a thicker slice that can stand up to the ingredients)
6 spears of asparagus
White cheddar cheese
1 egg
Salt, pepper
Olive oil
Bread crumbs (Grate a slice of stale/dry bread into fine crumbs. Toast in oven at 350 until light brown. Keep a close eye on them -- they only take a few minutes, which I discovered when I burned my first batch!)

Cauliflower puree
1 1/2 cups cauliflower florets
1/4 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup shallots, minced
Pepper, salt (to taste)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss shallots with olive oil, pepper and roast in oven until tender. Meanwhile, steam cauliflower florets until soft. Combine shallots and cauliflower in sauce pan with chicken broth, pepper and salt. Mash cauliflower with a fork, and then cover and simmer together for 10 minutes. Puree ingredients in a blender or using a hand-held immersion blender. Set aside.

2. Turn temperature of oven up to 400 degrees. Toss asparagus spears with olive oil, pepper and salt, and roast in oven until tender (approx. 15 minutes). (Can do this step simultaneously with shallot roasting.)

3. Lightly toast bread. Top with ample cauliflower puree, the asparagus spears and cheddar cheese. Place on a baking sheet and bake or broil until the cheese has melted.

4. While the sandwich is heating, use a nonstick pan to fry (or poach) the egg for the top. When egg is ready, remove the sandwich from the oven, place the egg on the top, and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.

5. Take pictures -- a sandwich this pretty demands to be shared with the world! (Or at the very least, the handful of people who are sweet enough to care about what it is you ate for lunch this weekend.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Holiday Hot Chocolate

Most people take pictures of other people in compromising situations/poses at parties. I take pictures of peppermint schnapps hot chocolate.

But who can blame me? Look how cute it is!

I know my friend who accompanied me to the Christmas party last night is mocking me in his head right now, but I think he secretly found my enthusiasm for the warm beverage charming. Everybody with siblings knows that teasing is most often practiced for the sole purpose of eliciting a reaction.

I did not react.

Okay, maybe I reacted a little bit, but mostly to defend the adorableness of my hot toddy. The hosts of the party were pretty brilliant with this one -- a big ole pot of hot water, a canister of Nestle hot chocolate, a bottle of peppermint schnapps, a can of whip cream, and green and red sprinkles to decorate the top? GENIUS. It makes me want to go out and find little children who I can make hot chocolate for.

Of course, I'd have to leave out the schnapps. And even then their parents still might find the whole scenario a wee bit creepy. So I'll just post about it. And imagine that someone out there will be inspired to create their own holiday drink art.

Merry Christmas to all! And to all a good night!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Bar Method: Taking a Bite Out of My Butt (and Bad Moods)

I smile as I walk through the swinging glass doors of the West Los Angeles studio.

"Hi Milo!" I say with enthusiasm, genuinely pleased to see my favorite Bar Method receptionist sitting at the front desk. It's been a rough week both romance and work wise, and my head is filled with neurotic rumblings about the guy who didn't call, and the economy's potential impact upon my future employment. Despite the rapidly approaching Christmas holiday, I'm not feeling particularly jovial.

Milo returns my greeting, his face spreading into a wide grin as he asks me about my day. I fill him in on my work woes, he fills me in on his Thanksgiving with the family back east, and ten minutes later, I am prancing off to the locker room to change for the 6:15 pm Bar Method class with Jenny Lind.

I'm excited as usual -- happy to be there and happy to be away from the mess of LA traffic, the chaos of the season, and the worries that pick away at my nerves throughout the rest of the day. While I started attending classes at the Bar Method because I was bored with my gym sessions and jogs at a local park, 18 months later, it has become so much more than just a way to slim my thighs and tone my rear end. It has become vital to my sanity and sense of well-being.

The two sessions of the popular one-hour "targeted body-shaping workout" class that I take a week are the only two hours that I am truly able to escape myself. Because the class requires so much focus to get through the various exercises that work "every major muscle group," there is no conceivable way that I could think about anything other than "ow," "ow," "almost done," "keep breathing," "ow, " "ow, "ow," "phew." I lose myself in the small, precise motions, and become completely in tune with my body. For a girl whose mind is constantly popping from one thing to the next like a bag of microwave Jiffy Popcorn, this is revolutionary.

Of course, that's not the only reason that I keep paying for those $22 classes (cheaper if bought in packages) week after week.

People often look at the pictures of brownies, cookies, cupcakes, cheesy pizza and omelets, and stacks of French toast on my blog and ask, "How do you eat all that and stay thin?" From all outside appearances, it would seem as though I whittle my days away eating cookies and highly caloric treats without any regard to my health or hip size. While I am loathe to give the "I just have a high metabolism" response like those stick-figure Hollywood actresses who claim to eat burgers and pints of ice cream on a daily basis, that is part of the equation. But only part. I do eat what I want, but in moderation -- balanced out by healthy homemade meals, brown sack lunches, oatmeal breakfasts, and lots of fruits and vegetables. And, I have Bar Method.

When I started regularly attending Bar Method classes in June 2007, I was already in good shape, but lacked tone, flexibility and a shapely derriere. The 45-50 hours a week I spent chained to an office chair had given me a bad case of flat butt, and I was not pleased by its droopy appearance in my "Honey" Joe's Jeans. After just a few weeks of supplementing my 30-40 minute jogs and gym cardio sessions with two classes of Bar Method a week, I began noticing a difference. 18-months later, it, and the rest of my figure has been transformed.

My posture is better, my arms are toned, my waist and stomach are trimmed from the killer ab sessions near the end of the class, and my flexibility has improved dramatically. I have never been stronger in my life -- including the eight years I spent running competitively in both high school and college.

Aside from the first ten minutes when the 15 or so participants complete arm work with small (typically, 2-4 lb.) weights, most of the Bar Method exercises, which are a more intense form of Yoga/Pilates, use just the body's own weight (and/or the assistance of a ballet bar). The encouraging instructors, who make a point to learn each student's name, guide the class through arm work, thigh work, butt work, core work, ab work, and elongating stretches, and provide individual feedback and encouragement throughout the entire hour. It is hard --really really hard, but the personable instructors find a way to make it fun, and many students, myself included, claim to be "addicted" after just a few sessions.

With new studio locations popping up all over the country -- most notably in San Diego and Chicago, the Bar Method is quickly becoming the hot workout. According to People Magazine, even Drew Barrymore is a fan.

But that's all meaningless to me. I'd still faithfully attend my two classes a week even if the only person who thought it was cool was my mother. To say "hi" to Milo, Jenny and my other Bar Method friends, to clear my mind of the clutter from the day, to get that firm butt that probably only turns my head, and to justify eating that extra big bowl of Soy Creamy Cherry Chip Ice Cream later that night.

Tip for Interested Parties: Bar Method is currently holding their once-yearly Holiday Sale -- for every five classes you buy, you can get one free. Buy classes here.

For the Coolest Blog...

The exceedingly fabulous Heather from Diary of a Fanatic Foodie recently received the Butterfly Award for her wonderful and amazing blog about "All Things Food and Drink," and was kind enough to pass it along to me. In the spirit of the season, I am passing it along to my good friend Hank for his truly spectacular travel blog, Without Baggage, which basically makes me feel like an inferior, less-insightful human being whenever I read it. (Truly remarkable since I'm neither inferior nor less-insightful.)

While I suspect he might cringe at the girliness of the award and butterfly image, I'm sure he'll secretly find it thrilling.

And if not, I'm taking it away and giving it my friend Ali. Because even if she doesn't have a blog, she is in the middle of law school finals and has a 30-50 page paper to write this weekend.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 5: I Can't Get No Satisfaction

I knew going in that the episode was going to be less enthralling than ususal. My East Coast friend even warned me that it was "not super exciting." Yet, I still maintained an ounce of hope that those crazy gaggle of cheftestants would captivate me with their silly foibles and ridiculous sound bites like they always do.

It was apparent from the first few minutes that something was missing from last night's episode of "Top Chef." Just like the Blue Team's uninspired sea bass dish, the 75-minute show lacked texture and pizzaz. It was bland, lifeless and revived only through the charming tool, Fabio, whose heavily-accented commentary was the saving grace of the episode.

Normally the QuickFire challenge gets things going with a bang -- pots are dropped as the chefs race around the kitchen (and each other) to create breakfast amuse-bouches or entrees made with Spam and Cheetos, and the resulting tension ramps up the level of audience excitement. Last night's tasting competion, whereby the contestants were asked to name the ingredients in various dishes like shrimp bisque and thai curry, did nothing to draw me into the episode. Instead of establishing stakes and setting up the scene for the impending elimination challenge, the only thing it accomplished was proving, yet again, that Stefan is pompous and tempermental. Nothing new there.

The episode continued to trudge along in the elimination challenge. The chefs were broken into four teams -- labelled "Something New," "Something Blue," "Something Borrowed, "Something Old," -- and charged with the task of creating a dish for Gail's bridal shower that was somehow inspired by the new, blue, borrowed, and old moniker. It was clear from the beginning that Eugene, Carla and Daniel were tying themselves to a rapidly sinking ship when they selected de-constructed sushi rolls for their "new" dish. Oddly enough, however, it was unclear who would come out on top. In past episodes, the winner and winning team are amped up in some way throughout the course of the show. Whether it be through extra time on camera, or subtle asides that receive undue attention, there is always some sort of play on audience emotion to get the viewers at home invested in the winning team and contestant. I was as shocked as Jamie was when they announced that Ariane's "perfectly cooked" lamb was the winner. Not because her lamb didn't appeal to me, but because the focus earlier in the episode was on Ariane's failure to put the lamb in on time -- a mistake that could have cost her team the win. Watching her be rewarded for her misjudgment of time was unsettling -- and not just because of the excruciating moment where Jamie revealed "I want this win," just as the judges were crowning Ariane the victor.

The only satisfactory part of the episode was watching Fabio charm Gail and her friends with his adorable smile and truncated description of the blue corn-encrusted sea bass dish. He may have served "old people food," but at least he knows how to captivate an audience. I wish I could say the same for the rest of his friends in the kitchen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Zinc Cafe: A Shining Star Behind the Orange Curtain

I was a little confused when I walked into Zinc Cafe on Saturday afternoon. Was this really the same place my mom and I had walked in and out of nearly three years ago? It looked the same, but something was different this time. This time, I actually wanted to eat at the health-conscious cafe on Pacific Coast Highway in Corona del Mar. This time, I found it exceedingly charming -- like a piece of Los Angeles had magically transported across the Orange Curtain.

Throughout the course of our quest to find new places to "do lunch," I have often whined to my mother that "there are no good lunch places in Newport/the OC." While we do have our list of usual suspects (Sage on the Coast, Quattro Cafe, Zov's), our area is seriously lacking those quaint, casual luncheries that are on every corner in Los Angeles. I would kill for an Urth Caffe or Little Next Door. I would maim puppies for a hot pressed panini. I would push little children into the street for an over-loaded chopped salad or bowl of butternut squash soup.

Well, maybe just the naughty ones.

Strolling into Zinc Cafe this weekend was like walking into a less-crowded hybrid of Joan's on Third and Le Pain Quotidien. The clean space, hardwood tables and attached marketplace were all reminiscent of my favorite casual eateries in LA. It was exactly what I'd been missing when I visited my parents and family in Orange County -- a neighborhood spot that offers quick counter service, fresh food and a pleasant ambiance. It's the type of establishment that I could spend hours in -- reading the newspaper at a corner table, sipping a cup of tea or chai, or just catching up with a good friend.

As my mom and I approached the counter to place our orders, I cursed myself for snubbing the cafe three years ago. At the time, I was put off by the mostly vegetarian menu and was still of the mindset that nothing good could come from food that did not contain anything that moo-ed, clucked or bahed. Yet, perusing the menu and board of daily specials on Saturday, I found myself torn between all the tantalizing options. The grilled cheese beckoned me to break my nonexistent diet, the egg salad sandwich promised to be satisfying on its La Brea Bakery whole wheat bread, and the special southwest salad sounded light and refreshing. After a few minutes of consultation with the enthusiastic girl behind the counter, I settled on a cup of their lentil soup of the day, and the asparagus sandwich, described as "an elegant open faced sandwich on toasted sourdough with pureed cauliflower, braised asparagus, white Cheddar cheese, a soft poached egg and toasted bread crumbs."

Soon after my mom and I were seated at our table for two, our cups of soup were placed before us. Steam rolled off the hearty stew, and as I lapped up the satisfying chunks of potato and pliant lentils, I almost wished I'd ordered a bowl instead of getting both the cup and the sandwich.

Almost. As soon as I tore my knife through the crust of the toasted bread of my sandwich, my previous "regrets" were immediately forgotten. The combination of the bitter roasted asparagus, sumptuous pureed cauliflower, restrained coating of melted cheese, tender poached egg, and bread crumbs was inspired -- I felt like I was dining at the bar at Osteria Mozza rather than a quiet corner of Orange County.

Almost. But, not really. In my jeans and and striped Splendid long-sleeve tee, I was way underdressed to be dining at an LA hot spot. And I was all the happier because of it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cafe Verona: A Salve for Many Wounds

My head, throbbing from the bottle of wine I'd drunk the night before, was no match for my throbbing heart. As I waited for my former roommate to arrive at Cafe Verona on La Brea Ave. in West Hollywood, I couldn't help but feel anxious. I pulled the sleeves of my honey colored sweater over my hands, wondering if it would be awkward, wondering if the interaction would feel forced as we both tried to pretend that it was normal to go seven months without seeing each other.

When my roommate moved out last March, I felt like I had broken up with a boyfriend. It was exactly like the episode of "Friends" where Joey gets his own apartment, leaving Chandler behind with crazy Eddie and his dehydrated fruit. While things had been strained between us in the months proceeding our "break-up," I still experienced a profound sense of loss. She was the girl I moved out to LA with. She was the girl who got frozen yogurt with me when I had a bad day at work. She was the girl who would blast '80s music and dance around the apartment with me while we got ready for a night out. It was a shock when she told me she wanted to live alone. I felt abandoned, betrayed and sad for the two girls who used to spend every second of the weekend together -- shopping for cheap clubbing clothes at Forever 21, laughing over "California" paninis at Corner Bakery, going to cheesy romantic comedies at the Grove, and moaning whenever Patrick Dempsey came on screen during "Grey's Anatomy."

After she left, I spent the next few months wondering if it would be possible for us to reconnect -- to rediscover the friendship that had become frayed toward the end of our cohabitation. Even though we had grown a part over the course of the two and a half years that we lived together, even at the end, we were still impossibly close, like sisters. Our relationship was strained, but because of everything we'd been through together, I knew it would never be fully broken. We both just needed time.

While we had run into each other at a party a couple months ago, this past Sunday was the first time we'd made plans to see one another since she packed up her things last spring. I was filled with nervous excitement and anticipation as I drove over to the moss-covered eatery -- like I was going on a date with a former flame. We had so much to catch up on -- so many questions to ask, and mutual friends to gossip about. When she walked into the half-full restaurant, her brown curls flowing freely from her head, I was almost overwhelmed with the familiarity of it all. Time had eroded the pain I felt when she left, and as we began chatting away about our weekends, it felt normal to be sitting there with her.

The throb in my heart finally gone, I was able to attend to other matters - ie. the slight hangover that was threatening to compromise my ability to sit upright. I ordered one of Cafe Verona's specialty frittatas, and heeded the suggestion of our prompt and courteous server who recommended I add roasted tomatoes to my goat cheese and spinach selection. Served with a small mound of sweet potato mash-- a cuddly blanket of starchy goodness, the frittata was the perfect way to mend the fuzziness in my head. Despite the diameter of the nearly plate-sized affair, the frittata was surprisingly light and devoid of the grease garment that many egg dishes wear. I eagerly forked my way through the ambitious serving, and was happy to see that my friend was as eager about the consumption of her panini.

I felt an incredible sense of peace when we said our goodbyes on the corner of 2nd and La Brea after our late brunch. She was headed right down the street to Trader Joe's, and I was headed left, back to my car to go about my Sunday errands. The irony of our positioning didn't escape me. Even though my former roommate and I are no longer travelling in the same direction, it doesn't mean we can't be friends. We can still trade tales of romantic woe. We can still laugh about how lame we were when we first moved to LA. And we can still have brunch. And really good frittatas.