Thursday, August 28, 2008

Funked-up Fried Rice: How to screw with tradition

Last week, one of my favorite cooking websites, Simply Recipes, posted a piece about how to make the perfect Shrimp Fried Rice. The tantalizing picture and description left an indelible impression -- I knew I had to make (and consume) fried rice before I spontaneously combusted from soy sauce lust.

During college, fried rice used to be one of my staple dinners. It was fast, easy, nutritious, and most importantly, cheap. It also served me well during my years as an assistant in the entertainment industry. Since I typically got off work after 7 pm, making runs to the grocery store for fresh chicken breasts or salmon steaks just wasn't an option. More often than not, I would happily settle for eggs as my primary source of protein.

When I switched fields this past fall, and suddenly had more time to spend cooking and grocery shopping, my fried rice dinner lost some of its appeal. Getting home at 6 pm meant I could spend an hour making chicken risotto or chicken Marsala -- and still be settled down on the couch by 8 pm for the newest episode of "Gossip Girl." Why bother with boring old fried rice when I could be digging into succulent pieces of chicken and roasted shallots instead?

Elise's post reminded me that not every meal has to be either extravagant or frozen (like my Thursday night ritual). There is a middle ground. There is fried rice.

While a Chinese Grandma would cry foul at my version of fried rice, my Americanized tongue finds it more than acceptable. It takes what can be an oil-laden nutritional disaster, and transforms it into a healthy weeknight dinner that doesn't require a single trip to the meat counter. (Unless the butcher is really cute and the eggs are located nearby.)

Ingredients (for 1 serving):

1/4 cup short grain brown rice
1/4 cup red pepper, diced
1/4 cup onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
Sugar snap peas
Broccoli florets
1/3 cup edamame, shelled and cooked according to directions on package
1 egg
Soy sauce, to taste
Sesame oil
Red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon Soy Vey Veri-Teri Teriyaki Sauce
Slivered almonds, toasted (optional)

1. Cook brown rice according to preference, using either chicken broth, water, or a little of both. I prefer using a combination and generally stick with the 1 part rice, 2 parts liquid ratio. In this case, it would be 1/2 cup liquid. If at all possible, cook the rice the day before to allow it time to dry out, but it's really not going to break the dish too badly if the rice is fresh. (Doubters can refer to the picture above -- does that look like a mushy mess? I should most definitely think not!)

2. Heat sesame oil in saucepan over medium temp (to prevent the oil from burning). Saute onion and garlic until the onion is translucent, and then add the broccoli, sugar snap peas and teriyaki sauce. Do not overcook. Remove the vegetables while they are still crisp.

3. Fry the egg separately. When it is still slightly runny, but mostly cooked, return the vegetables to the pan and add in the rest of the ingredients -- the edamame, rice, red pepper, red pepper flakes.

4. Add soy sauce to taste. I typically go with 1 tablespoon, but some people may found that to be too much of a sodium overload and/or are concerned about their husbands' blood pressure, like Betty on "Mad Men." I don't have a husband and I don't have high blood pressure (I don't think), so I am fine and dandy to make my arteries do a little extra work.

5. Stir everything together until ingredients are well-combined and sizzling hot. Plate and sprinkle optional toasted slivered almonds over the top.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sage on the Coast: Lovely for ladies who lunch

In the weeks leading up to my mother's birthday earlier this month, I made a big to-do about taking her out for a fabulous lunch to celebrate her special day. It's always "her treat" when we typically go out to dine, and I wanted to return the favor by taking her some place with clothe napkins, wine glasses that double as water glasses and really really good food. This would be no ordinary lunch. It would be grand -- spectacular even!

Except I had no idea where to go.

Unlike Los Angeles, where there is a cute girly lunch place on virtually every Westside street corner (and every few streets or blocks in the Valley or Silverlake), Orange County is disturbingly devoid of locales for the ladies who lunch set. My mom and I used to frequent Tommy Bahama's Cafe for their Fandango Mango salad, but when they took it off the menu and did other ghastly things to the eatery's offerings, we stopped going.

Another of our favorite lunch spots was Zov's Bistro in Newport Coast. We craved their chicken tahini pita like nobody's business, and for a two-month period, we binged on Zov's interpretation of "Greek" food. Until they hired a new chef who didn't know how to make it the same way. Note to chef: The pita should be served warm, the chicken should be diced (not sliced in thick unwieldy pieces), and there needs to be ample amounts of tomato cilantro relish, shredded cabbage, and tahini sauce. Skimpy portions cannot be disguised by finger-sized strips of grilled chicken!

After such lackluster experiences at the eateries across town, I struggled to find a restaurant suitable for my mother's special day. I didn't want to experiment or try someplace new -- I wanted reliably good food in a pretty setting. I wanted... Sage on the Coast.

While we haven't always enjoyed Sage's outpost down south for dinner, and prefer dining at the original Sage in Eastbluff, I was confident that the eatery would shine during the daylight hours. As soon as we walked into the calming space of the patio, I knew that my confidence was not ill conceived. It was lovely. I couldn't help but think, "So this is where the ladies who lunch go." It was as though my mother and I had been let in on a special secret -- ours to keep for good (or until someone in the kitchen screws it up).

The bread basket is a revelation -- chock full of cheese crisps, nutty brown bread and warm sourdough. Served with a craveably good hummus spread, the basket is practically a meal in itself. (If, according to my dairy-loving mother, they brought cheese with it as well.) Entrees and small plates are equally appealing and make it hard for the indecisive orderer (me) to make a selection. Chinese chicken salad, a fig and prosciutto pizza, the infamous Gorgonzala & granny smith apple salad -- everything sounds like (and is) a winner.

In the mood for something warm, I selected the Chopped grilled vegetable salad ($15) with chopped greens, balsamic grilled vegetables, feta, avocado, basil, red wine dijon vinaigrette. With the addition of grilled DICED chicken ($5) it is the perfect mid-day meal. Light, yet hearty with chunks of flavorful vegetables like corn, zucchini, red pepper, and mushrooms, the salad is so good that I insist my mother and I return when I'm in town a few weekends later.

Note to chef: The salad tastes even better when someone else is paying. (Just go easy on the mushrooms next time.)

Until further notice (or mushroom and chicken slicing transgressions), Sage on the Coast is the new Zov's/Tommy Bahama's.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Whole Foods Cranberry Tuna Salad: Mercury Never Tasted So Good

I've had a turbulent relationship with tuna salad. When I was much younger, I enjoyed it as an occasional sandwich topper, but somewhere along the line, I lost my taste for the lunchbox stink bomb. Through most of my childhood and post-childhood years, I snubbed canned fish sandwiches, choosing the more mundane turkey instead.

Then, the summer before my senior year of college, a switch flipped. After over a decade of tuna sandwich avoidance, I suddenly had a ravenous craving for tuna salad. I was standing in line at Potbelly's Sandwich Works in Evanston, Illinois, and all I could think about was how badly I wanted their tuna salad rather than the turkey sub I usually ordered. I apprehensively made my selection, still unsure whether I could stomach the mercurious mayo-based salad, and settled down at a table with my friends. One bite later I was hooked on tuna once again.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

After my sublime tuna experience at Potbelly's, my best friend Ashley insisted that I try the cranberry tuna salad from Whole Foods. She knows a thing or three (her favorite number) about food, and because I have trouble saying "no" to her when she really wants me to do something, I complied with her request. I'm not exactly a pushover (except when she's around), but after tasting that cran-tastic tuna salad, all my free will was lost. I was hooked. (And she gloated.)

Four years after my first bite of Whole Foods' cranberry tuna, I still can't go more than a couple weeks without getting my fix. At first glance, it doesn't look like anything particularly special, but there is something intoxicating about the popular deli case item. The combination of the sweet dried cranberries, red onion, restrained use of mayo, sugar, and other secret ingredients is simple, but addicting. If I wasn't worried about limiting my intake of tuna to 8 ounces a week, I'd be cramming it down my throat at a much more frequent pace. Plus, at $9.99/lb, I can fill my Orowheat whole wheat bread slices for around $2.50 (the price for a quarter pound).

While the amount of mayo, cranberries and red onions, appears to fluctuate from day to day, I can always rest assured that it will be present in the deli case should I get a craving. Just like the reruns of Friends that my roommate and I love to watch after work, Whole Foods cranberry tuna salad is always there for me. Lord, help my future husband when I get pregnant. And Lord, help my future fetus when I pump him/her full of mercury.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sweet on Baked Sweet Potato Fries

When I was wearing a little more padding on my behind as a college student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, my friends and I would regularly gorge ourselves at our favorite local diner, Clarke's. Aside from their fluffy egg white omelets, thick chocolate chip buttermilk pancakes and indulgent "Charlie Brown" brownie sundae, we loved to dig into the casual eatery's sweet potato fries. They were the perfect texture - crisp, yet never greasy, and bursting with flavor. Hangover food never tasted so good -- even if I did have trouble zipping up my jeans by the end of my four years spent on the North Shore of Chicago.

In the three plus years since graduating Northwestern, I have yet to encounter a sweet potato fry that rivals Clarke's. Of course, I haven't really been looking that hard. Fries don't have the same allure that they did when I spent my Thursday nights perfecting my flip cup skills and dancing to Justin Timberlakes "Rock Your Body" on the beer-soaked hardwood floors at the "Swimmer House." Today, I get my kicks from cupcake dates with my girlfriends, sharing bottles of fine wine with my family and dining at restaurants that would turn their noses up at my former collegiate self. As par the course with getting older, my tastes have grown more refined, my temperment (aside from the whole neurotic bit) has mellowed, and I actually pay attention to those articles that tell me to take care of my body.

One way that I "take care of my body" is through eating healthy home-cooked meals to ensure that I do balance out the chocolate chip cookie runs and frozen pizzas with nutrient-rich items like oatmeal, edamame, salmon, and sweet potatoes. Instead of enjoying my 'taters fried up in a vat of oil like before, I now prefer my sweet potatoes baked. (My heart is quite fond of them that way too.)

Baked sweet potato fries are laughably easy to make and are a great side dish for dinner frittatas, and proteins like chicken and pork. Simply peel the potato, chop it into 1/2 inch thick chunks, toss with a little olive oil (a little goes a long way), sea salt and pepper, and then pop them in the oven at 375 degrees on a nonstick baking pan. They typically take approximately 20 minutes, but be sure to check on them throughout the baking process. It's important to stir the potatoes so they brown evenly on all sides. The potatoes are done when they are slightly brown and crispy on the outside, and can be easily punctured with a fork.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pain du Monde: Crazy for Cookies (and really good lattes)

By now I have firmly established that I have a wee bit of a sweet tooth. I like to think it's the result of my sweet personality, but I am fairly certain that regardless of my propensity to say "please" and "thank you" and hold doors open for the elderly, I would still maintain an innate desire to devour anything that contains chocolate or sugar. Simply put, it's genetic. My mom is equally inclined to make dessert the most important meal of the day, and together, we do an excellent job of eating through the cookie supply in Orange County.

While our favorite cookie is currently the chocolate chip cookie at Vie de France at South Coast Plaza, we can't always fulfill our shopping needs at Santa Ana's pride and glory. We often get the Anthropologie itch, and in such circumstances wind up spending the afternoon at Fashion Island rather than the inland mega mall off the 405. Because shopping with my mother goes hand in hand with cookie ingestion, we have been forced to find another cookie that pleases our palates. That cookie is the Coco Loco at Pain du Monde in Atrium Court.

The sizable, thick cookie (the perfect size for sharing) is chock full of warm chocolate chips, toasted pecan pieces, coconut, oatmeal, and most likely, lots and lots of butter. Cookies are known to contain a cube or two. Fortunately, the decadent cookie is satisfying enough that eating half while sipping a cup of Mighty Tea Jasmine Spring tea is a fabulous way to break the diet without really breaking the diet. We don't really diet anyway, but it's fun to pretend to be virtuous. Like when I order one of their exquisitely foamy vanilla or mocha lattes and consider it "good for me" because it contains milk. My bones are going to be uber strong when I grow up to be my mom. I say "no" to osteoporosis!

And "yes" to Pain du Monde's Coco Loco cookie. I much prefer my cookies to be crazy than the chicken at that slightly disturbing El Pollo Loco place. Who wants to eat a crazy chicken? Just give me the eggs for my cookies and then go cross the road in front of another OC driver in a Hummer.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Amy's Single-Serving Spinach Pizza: My Thursday Night Ritual

I know that Thursday nights are like HUGE going out nights for the cool kids and people on The Hills, but I'm not really all that cool, and I get tired on week nights. Call me a wet blanket, but my ideal Thursday involves Patrick Dempsey, Rainn Wilson and Amy's Spinach Pizza -- not alcoholic binge sessions at Les Deux.

While I will make occasional exceptions for close friends and special events like Campanile's grilled cheese night (before it started to hate me), my Thursday nights are sacred. Nothing says "me time" quite like frozen pizza, and since discovering Amy's Spinach personal-sized pies last summer, I've been firmly committed to maintaining the integrity of my Thursday night ritual.

Nutritionists might shudder at the sodium levels (33% of the recommended daily intake) in Amy's organic spinach pie (though they do offer a lower sodium version), but with only 440 calories and 18 grams of fat (6 saturated) it's not a complete diet deathtrap like many of its counterparts in the freezer aisle. Compared to the 812 calories and 27 grams (12 saturated) in California Pizza Kitchen's small BBQ Chicken pizza, it is practically virtuous. Or so I tell myself as I devour the entire thing.

Amy's spinach pie comes topped with a blend of feta cheese, basil, organic spinach, and part skim mozzarella cheese, but because I have this strange compulsion to make things better, I like to perform my own Dr. McDreamy-type surgery on it. While the pizza begins to bake, I nuke half a chopped red pepper in the microwave for approximately one to one-and-half minutes and then squeeze the excess liquid out with a paper towel. Leaving the liquid intact will make the pizza a soggy, wet mess, and/or cause the crust to stick to the foil on the baking sheet. Once the pizza has been baking for a few minutes, I take it out of the oven, drop my excessive amounts of red pepper (I like to ensure I have at least one pepper piece in every bite) on top, and then sprinkle a little Parmesan reggiano over the red sea of peppers. Yes, I do realize the extra cheese decreases the virtuosity of the pizza, but it tastes good, and I do what I want.

I continue my reign of absolute authority over everything by ignoring the cooking time on the package. My oven is not calibrated correctly, so I always bake the pie at 350 degrees rather than the recommended 425 degrees, and similarly pay no attention to the other instructions on the box. I can tell it's done when the cheese has melted, the edges are golden brown and the bottom of the pizza is slightly crisp. If any of these visual indicators of proper doneness fail to meet my approval, Miss Amy goes back in the oven like those little brats Hansel and Gretal.

When the pizza does meet my standards, I cut it in half with a serrated knife and leave one half on the foil to return to the oven once I've finished the first half. Why? Because I like my pizza hot, and by the time I finish one half, the cheese on the other half has started to do that unappetizing congelation-type thing. Call me neurotic, but at least I'm a happy neurotic.

The final step to premier pizza satisfaction involves the uber-feminine move of "blotting" off the excess grease, followed by the addition of red pepper flakes. Amy is good, but is much better when she's got a little kick to her bite. Plus, it's as wild as I'm going to get on most Thursday nights. Unless I count the bowl of steamed broccoli I serve on the side. (Or the ice cream I may or may not choose to ingest whilst watching Dr. McDreamy save the day again.)

Quick Tip of the Day: 8/22/08

Spotted: Rachel's Wickedly Delicious Yogurt on sale at Whole Foods for 5 for $3.00. That's 60 cents a carton, kids -- eat this deal up before it's gone gone gone!

Recommended Flavors: Pomegranite Blueberry, Peach Green Tea, Vanilla Chai, Cherry Black Currant

P.S. My sources (ie. the roommate) say that the Pomegranite Acai flavor is inedible.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Trader Joe's Chocolate Ice Cream Bon Bons

This one doesn't even need a fancy title. Just reading the description of these chocolate-covered chocolate ice cream bon bons with a chocolate cookie crust is enough to convince any chocolate-lover (or person with functional taste buds) that Trader Joe's has something seriously rockin' in its freezer section. I could probably end my post right here and completely abandon my usual blend of verbosity and neurotic-flavored snarkiness, but there actually is more to be said about these decadently delicious treats. Lots more.

Like how it is is necessary to wait approximately one-two minutes (depending on freezer temperature) for the bon bons to reach the optimal level of meltiness. And how when said bon bons are within that window of ideal defrostation the juxtaposition of the firm, slightly bitter chocolate shell against the softened cookie bottom and creamy chocolate ice cream is as dreamy as Dr. Shephard on Grey's Anatomy. It's certainly worth mentioning that despite the serving size that recommends the ingestation of three bon bons (at 60 calories a pop), two is always the perfect amount to satisfy any post-dinner chocolate craving whilst maintaining the sanctity of an acheless stomach.

At first sight, these bon bons may look on the small-side, but the richness of the chocolate shell and cookie bottom, combined with the sweet chocolate ice cream packs an Oscar de la Hoya-like punch of flavor. Trust me -- I'm not pulling a skinny bitch "I am satisfied by one peanut M&M" move to make people who are not satisfied by one peanut M&M feel inferior and gluttonous. Two bon bons really is enough. And with twelve per package, I can get through nearly a whole week of my nightly coo-coo for chocolate/ice cream/things-that-make-my-stomach-bulge urges without having to make any desperate runs to my local convenience store or ice cream shop.

Of course, that does still happen from time to time. Like when my bon bons are out of stock at Trader Joe's. Or when I have a really bad day and decide to reward my mouth with something that does not adhere to any sense of the phrase "recommended serving size." Bad moods happen. But for the rest of my moods, I've got my TJ's chocolate ice cream bon bons. Mary Poppins' measuring tape calls them practically perfect in every way. And I call them mine. So don't even think about taking that last box at my local Trader Joe's. Even if I'm not satisfied by one peanut M&M I can still be a skinny bitch if provoked.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Whole Foods and the Tale of the $5.49 Lunch

Wallet-conscious folks love to criticize Whole Foods for the exorbitant price tags that accompany their fresh and fancy organic fare. They loudly pontificate that the store should be renamed "Whole Paycheck" and roll their eyes when handed the excuse, "the prices are commensurate with the quality." While I have always maintained an allegiance to the "you get what you pay for" type of thinking, with the recent economic downturn, I'm starting to compose a different tune.

I love Whole Foods and will continue to shop there for certain essentials (ie. cranberry tuna salad, Peanut Butter & Co Smooth Operator peanut butter, Rachel's yogurts), but I do feel compelled to be a little pickier in my selections and shop for staples at grocery stores that don't make me feel like I'm slowly murdering the contents of my bank account.

On August 2nd, the NY Times published an article entitled "Whole Foods Looks for a Fresh Image in Lean Times." In the article, Andrew Martin describes how the upscale grocer is attempting to redefine itself as an economical place to shop. In the past, I have noticed that my Tazo Zen tea, Kashi GoLean Crunch Honey Almond & Flaxseed cereal and Rachel's yogurts are significantly cheaper than at my local Gelson's or Ralph's, but I've never thought to myself, "Hmm... I can't afford to get a pedicure, but I think I'll go hit up Whole Foods for lunch!"

Then, this past Monday, faced with a tight schedule and lack of time to make or construct my own midday meal, I succumbed to the allure of the Whole Foods salad bar deathtrap. I took stock of the inventory and was less than pleased with the selections. I knew the grape tomatoes and huge chunks of cucumber were going to add significant weight to my $7.99/lb salad and was loathe to spend more than $6 on a weekday lunch. As I walked aimlessly around the prepared food area, I noticed a special cooler bursting with prepacked salads for $3.65. I immediately zeroed in on the Beet & Kale Salad containing golden and red beets, red onions, feta cheese, dried cranberries, kale, a hearty portion of romaine lettuce, and a vinaigrette dressing. Because I can't subsist on dairy protein alone, I hopped my way over to the salad bar, dug through the roasted chicken breast until I found a quarter pound of favorable-looking white meat, and proceeded to the check-out. $5.49 later (unadulterated receipt below), I was on my way back to the office.

I emptied the salad onto a paper plate, added my chicken and poured the tangy dressing over my plentiful plate of greens. Biting commenced, I made some yummy noises over the succulent fresh beets and sweet dried cranberries, and tried my utmost to be ecstatic over my steal-of-a-deal. While the salad did taste fresh and the sparse ingredients were of the utmost in Whole Foods quality, I finished my meal wishing it packed a little more punch. I couldn't help but wish it came with orange segments and candied pecans or walnuts, and I felt seriously deprived of ample dried cranberry-age. I started to think that maybe I would get the salad again and just add more of my own goodies, but then I realized that in so doing, I would be compromising the most alluring part of the lunch-- its friendliness to my wallet.

Yes, Whole Foods does have the potential to overcome its "Whole Paycheck" image, but the irony in Mr. Martin's article title cannot be missed. With these "lean" greens, the path toward fiscal responsibility is going to be a path that leads to lean thighs too. (And a growling stomach to boot.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Little Swiss Cafe: Good things do come in "little" packages

I'm not much of a gambler. Las Vegas holds about as much appeal to me as owning a rabid dog, I can't watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire? without breaking out in cold sweats, and I seem to be lacking the crucial gene that dictates levels of March Madness enthusiasm.

While maintaining the integrity of my bank account is the most discernible portrayal of my reluctance to put something of value "on the line," maintaining the integrity of my stomach is (almost) equally as important. Ordering a dish I've never tasted or dining in unfamiliar territory can often be nerve-racking experiences for me -- how am I to be assured that it will be good?

When I'm in Los Angeles, I heed the advice of LA Times food critic, Irene Virbila and LA Weekly's Pullitzer Prize-winning, Jonathan Gold, or turn to the restaurant reviews of my favorite Yelpers on the reviewing website With their helpful hints and suggestions, I have been able to skate through the LA dining scene fairly unscathed by inadequately prepared meals. When I am traveling or on-the-go however, things start to get a little dark. In such unsavory circumstances, I am forced to conduct on-site research to make my dining decisions -- judging a restaurant or eatery by its name and outside appearance, and quizzing the server about the best or most popular items on the menu.

This past week, I took a business trip up to the Pebble Beach/Carmel/Monterey area for the Concours d'Elegance. As par the course with trips of the business variety, I had no idea when or where I would I have the opportunity to sniff out my own forms of sustenance, and I left the sunny skies of Southern California without an ounce of knowledge about the restaurants and eateries resting beneath the damp fog up north.

When a colleague and I were freed for lunch last Wednesday afternoon, we opted to explore downtown Carmel for a quaint place to relax our work-weary bones and quiet the rumbling noises in our bellies. We hit the small town with a map that notated the locations of various shops and restaurants, and upon reading the name of one eatery, the Little Swiss Cafe, we decided that any place with such an adorable name was destined to be simply wonderful.

I was slightly apprehensive as we entered the restaurant, but the little Dutch door, wood panel interior and cozy booths immediately silenced my inner Oscar the Grouch. It was everything the name portended it to be -- little, Swiss and judging by all the food on the tables, definitely a cafe. The eatery serves only breakfast and lunch, but items on the breakfast menu are always fair game, and it was this pivotal feature that sold the cafe on my colleague and I. After my usual line of questioning was completed, she ordered their specialty cheese blintzes with sour cream and homemade strawberry jam, and I settled on the crepe-like pancakes with fresh berries and a side of two scrambled eggs.

When I first spotted my pancakes, I was slightly dismayed by their somewhat ordinary appearance, but was immediately perked up by the sight of the abundant bowl of brightly-colored, perfectly ripe blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. I ladled some syrup over the thin 'cakes and took a tentative first bite (because apparently, I bite into things from time to time). Despite all my previous pronunciations that I am a thick buttermilk pancake kind of gal, the Little Swiss Cafe's thin version were a revelation to my tongue. I don't know how so much flavor can be packed into such a small package, but those Little Swiss folk made it happen. Even without the aid of the juicy berries, the pancakes were perfect. So perfect that I started to question my reluctance to make more gambles when dining out. If the results can turn out so delicious, maybe eating some place I know nothing about is worth the potential risk to my stomach and tongue.

The next day, we returned to Carmel for another midday noshfest with plans to mosey around to see if any other well-named eateries struck our fancy. After looking at two uninspiring menus, our pancake-hungry eyes met across the crowded street corner. Throwing caution to the wind is way overrated, but the Little Swiss Cafe's pancakes and scrambled eggs are not. They were just as good as they were the first time. As I'm sure they will be the next time I find myself with a hankering for carbs in Carmel.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

M Cafe de Chaya: I love you. I really really love you.

For the past three years, I have lived approximately 1.1 miles away from the casual West Hollywood eatery M Cafe de Chaya, a vegetarian's oasis for fiberlicious food and people-watching. Of course, one doesn't have to be opposed to the ingestion of flesh to appreciate the "contemporary macrobiotic food" proffered at this trendy cafe.

The brilliance behind M Cafe de Chaya lies with its ability to take potentially off-putting items like kale, tempeh and quinoa, and make them good. Really good. So good that I sort of hate myself for waiting 37 months to make the short trek down Melrose Avenue to give them a test drive on my tongue.

My avoidance of the cafe didn't make any sense. I'm not scared of tofu and its occasionally jiggly texture. I love tempeh. And I really love eating (hence the whole blog thing). I was acting like a school girl with a crush -- ignoring M Cafe de Chaya instead of declaring my love and devotion to his potentially scrumptious eats and "treats."

This past week, a Yelp friend of mine from Norwalk posted a glowing four-star review for the object of my future affection. I sent him a comment, telling him that even though I lived just down the street, I'd never been to M Cafe de Chaya before, and he immediately chided me for driving all the way to Silverlake for gelato , while "[passing] up my hood for some good veggie grubbin'." His response hit my undernourished belly hard. It was time to bite the vegetarian bullet. It was time to try M Cafe de Chaya.

Madras tempeh wrap and kale with spicy peanut sauce

This past Saturday, August 9th at approximately 1:15 pm, I took my first bite of M Cafe's Madras Tempeh Wrap ($10.75) with masala-baked tempeh, brown basmati rice, toasted almonds, raisins, frizzled onions, and crisp vegetables with curried soy yogurt dressing in a whole wheat lavash. Approximately 30 seconds later, I took my first bite of the kale with spicy peanut sauce. And approximately 30 seconds after that, I made my much belated declaration of love to the eatery that was right in front of me the whole time I was making mad missions across LA for inferior food.

And the best part? I know M Cafe's fresh, healthy fare won't ever break my heart.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Stanley's Restaurant: A salad-lovers dream (and an indecisive's worst nightmare)

I know it's like totally girly and silently screams to those in the vicinity, "Hi there, I'm on a diet," but I am a super big fan of the lunchtime salad. Not because I'm worried about my thigh-size or am trying to impress my friends by eating less than them, but because I actually enjoy vegetables and lettuce and things that can be grown in a garden. Tomatoes are like so hot right now that they've been exonerated from carrying Salmonella, and don't even get me started on beets. According to Martha Rose Shulman in her recent NY Times article, they are like so the new spinach.

Cheap Valley-girl impressions aside, feeding my body healthy things gives me loads of feel-good energy, and on a hot summer day, the last thing I want is a steaming plate of... well, anything. Sandwiches are fine for workday brown bag lunches, but when the weekend rolls around, I crave something that doesn't taste like a deli counter. I crave a salad.

But not just any salad. Oh, no. Don't even think of offering me a tired Caesar salad with stale boxed croutons and overly-dressed, wilted romaine lettuce. Not that I have anything against the romaine. Its dark green color is actually quite pleasing to my inner health nut, who is fully aware that darker greens bear the most nutritional value. I just don't want my romaine to be a vehicle for the unsanctimonious act of consuming more than my daily allotment of saturated fat grams in less than twenty minutes. Is that really so bad?

Judging by most restaurant menus that offer maybe one salad that features an ingredient other than bacon, cheese and fried things, the answer would appear to be "yes." When dining at those eateries, I have no problem making my salad selection -- most of the work has already been done for me. So, am I really to blame for my inability to make a decision yesterday at Stanley's Restaurant on Ventura Blvd. in the (gasp!) Valley when they boast fourteen entree-sized salads on the menu? Salads that don't just contain the aforementioned bacon, cheese and fried things, but that also come bearing fruit, veggies and fruits that some people think are veggies.

Despite being one of the first in our party of five (+ one adorable baby) to arrive at the nearly half-empty restaurant, after 30 minutes of menu perusing, I was still biting my lower lip in anxiety-ridden confusion. Should I get the popular Amy's Grapefruit Salad with butter lettuce, avocado, grapefruit, shredded chicken, cashews, and sesame dressing? Or did I want to get the salad I ordered last time -- the Honey Walnut with mixed baby greens, asparagus, carrots, crumbled blue cheese, raspberry vinaigrette, with grilled chicken added, please? I half-settled on Amy's salad after my friend Faye commented on its very favorable taste, but when another dining companion, Katie, announced that she was ordering the Summer Chopped Salad with chopped romaine, ranch dressing, diced grilled chicken, beets, tomatoes, avocado, turkey bacon, and Gorgonzola cheese, my head swam with another bout of anxiety. Matters were further complicated when the waiter told me that aside from Amy's salad, the other customer favorite is the Chinese Chicken Salad. Should I buck all concern for the whole "eat to live" movement and go for the wonton-laden bowl of nutritional hog-wash?

It was all very perplexing for someone (me) who lives in fear of catching a nasty case of orderer's remorse. Then I asked myself a question. What did I want from my salad, today? I wasn't really feeling particularly fruity. And butter lettuce isn't really my thing. Amy's salad was immediately rejected. I gave my craving the good once over again and finally concluded that I wanted vegetables, cheese (yes, saturated fat -- oh the shame!), grilled chicken, and some righteous avocado. I wanted the Summer Chopped Salad! But without turkey bacon, and with balsamic vinaigrette instead of ranch dressing. Please.

While our patient server playfully chided me for my indecisiveness, and my friends laughed at my furrowed brow, ultimately, my choice of salad was perfect and worth the effort that went into its selection. It paired nicely with my passion fruit iced tea and completed the picture of my totally girly (ie. obnoxious) lunch behavior. Plus chopped salads are like way easier to eat than unwieldy leaves of lettuce and big chunks of things that keep falling off my fork. An OC girl must always maintain proper etiquette when dining in public! Of course, all illusions of my grace and femininity were ruined the second I knocked my boat of vinaigrette all over the table. And ate a slice of the white (gasp!) sourdough bread that came by the table prior to our meal.

But not to worry -- carbs are like so making a comeback. I'm not ashamed. And I'm not ashamed to go back to Stanley's to quiz another waiter about their salads. Next time I think I'll order the Chicken Stirfry Salad...

Or wait! The Amy's salad! But only if I can sub mixed greens for the butter lettuce. Unless that will change the integrity of the salad, and then I'll just stick with the Chicken Stirfry Salad or get the Summer Chopped Salad again. Yeah, the Summer Chopped Salad was really good. I'm totally getting that!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Milk: Does a Bad Day Good

The foodie blogger version of Murphy's Law dictates that the best meals will be had when my digital camera is at home. Or in more mundane terms, good food can happen when least expected.

Approximately four weeks ago, Tiffany Toyota received a rude awakening when another car decided to drive right in front of her pretty silver nose. It was not exactly a pleasant awakening for me either. With Tiffany's bumper crunched, her right headlight shattered, and my nerves frayed like a poorly sewn hemline on Project Runway, I sat in my poor broken car and cried. After collecting myself enough for the requisite insurance information exchange, I did what any emotionally-sensitive gal would do. I called my mom to come rescue me.

The next day, my mother drove up from Orange County to help me sort out the mess of my first real accident. We went to Atlantic Tire & Auto Service in West Hollywood to get an estimate on the damage, I called my insurance company to provide my account of the wreck, we took pictures of the location, and then we went to Milk on Beverly Blvd. for a quick bite to eat.

I've been to Milk a half-dozen times before to sample the sweet side of their menu and have found the results to be, for the most, stomach-achingly delicious. Aside from the chocolate chip cookie that spreads a little too thinly for my tastes, and the dry cupcakes that are in need of some serious time with the Lubriderm bottle, I've been satisfied by Milk's decadent offerings. The banana dulce de leche ice cream makes me wish that I could always get my potassium via ice cream, the cookies 'n cream is loaded with sizable chunks of cookie sandwiches, and the ooey gooey chocolate cookie is everything it portends to be. When dessert is this good, who wants to bother with a boring salad or tired sandwich?

Of course, since I am of the healthy variety when I'm not busy "doing research" for my blog, I actually do attempt to balance my diet out with shocking things like lettuce and fruit. With growling stomachs and a tight schedule during our "Rescue Tiffany Day," it was prime time for my mom and me to check out the savory side of Milk's menu.

We descended upon the cafeteria-like eatery with nary an ounce of skip in our steps. The circumstances of our day were not particularly enjoyable, and I was fully expecting our trip to Milk to be a means to an end. Mom and me hungry. Mom and me find food. Mom and me eat food. Mom and me carry on with the rest of our loathsome tasks.

As we approached the counter to order, I was instantly pleased that I had my mother in tow so that I didn't have to make the challenging salad or sandwich decision. My favorite lunch buddy and I are excellent at sharing (she always gives me the bigger half), and after a moment spent perusing the lengthy menu of offerings, we settled on the Ham & Cheese panini ($7.75) with baked ham, Swiss cheese, peppery greens, and fresh tomatoes, and a salad that will have to be described via my own devices since it does not appear on the on-line menu. The unnamed salad bore arugula, succulent chunks of dates, caramelized walnuts, crisp apple slices, and manchengo cheese. As par the course with good meals that happen when cameras are missing, I have no idea what dressing the salad was wearing. I only know that my mom and I devoured the greens and ham panini amidst a sea of "yummy" noises. It was shockingly delectable for an eatery that specializes in desserts and uses an overabundance of neon lighting.

After our hearty lunch, we weren't much in the mood for an ice cream-induced brain freeze or a cookie coma, so instead opted for two mint chocolate "Milkies" -- Milk's version of a BonBon. The mint ice cream hidden beneath a thin chocolate shell was the perfect way to freshen our palates, and we left feeling rejuvenated and ready to continue Mission: Makeover Tiffany.

Milk's tasty treats and cheese-laden savory eats may not do the body as much good as my inner health-nut would like, but they certainly made my bad day good. If only they could do the same for my car...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

My Deep Dark See's Chocolate Confession

Growing up in Southern California, home to the See's Candies headquarters, the "Famous Old Time" white chocolate box was a permanent fixture in my family's home around the holidays. My mother is an elementary school teacher, and to the tired parents of her six-year-old students, nothing said Merry Christmas and thanks for teaching my child to read and add things" like a box of above average chocolates.

When we were younger, my brothers and I would immediately confiscate my mom's candy and proceed to fight over who got to pick the first piece. My brother Jimmy had a knack for finding the caramels, and my brother Richard had a knack for pushing me out of the way when I whined about getting stuck with the rum nougat. Again.

Though I have grown substantially more mature since that time (now I know how to distinguish the rum nougats from the caramels), I still feel a thrill whenever there is a See's Candies box within reach. Especially since it has become such a rare occurrence in my adult life. No longer a resident of my parents' one-story Newport Beach home, my ability to siphon chocolates off my mother has been severely constrained by the traffic on the 405 Freeway. Plus her students ' parents have become vastly more creative with their gifts, wrapping up silverware sets and fringe-lined lamp shades instead of chocolate.

Two holiday seasons ago, faced with the prospect of another See's-free Christmas, I did something desperate. When the order forms for See's Candies circulated around my office, I ordered a 1-lb gift certificate. For myself. A few weeks later, I walked into the See's headquarters on La Cienega Blvd. and picked out my very own box of chocolates. At the time, I was embarrassed by my boldness, my cheeks burning with color as I handed the prim lady behind the counter the certificate I filled out to read "To Diana, Love Nick." Today, nearly a dozen trips later, the unconventional practice hardly fazes me any more. Until I'm asked if I'd like it wrapped up. The question always causes me to hesitate. Should I have them waste paper on a gift to myself?

Yes. And then I relish the giddy triumph of tearing the black and white checked paper off my very own custom box of chocolates that I don't have to share with anyone.

Future suitors take note -- my most recent custom 1/2 pound box: 3 Dark Nougats (honey nougat, coconut, vanilla, with almonds), 3 Scotchmallows (honey marshmallow and caramel), 3 Milk Chocolate Peanut Nougats (chewy peanut nougat), 1 Milk Chocolate Caramel (caramel with almonds), 1 Raspberry Truffle (rich buttercream with raspberries), 1 Dark Chocolate Truffle (rich chocolate buttercream with ground nutmeats on top).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Sapphire Laguna: A Diamond in Disguise?

It stands out from its PCH location like a beacon of light for the hungry OC foodie masses. Since its opening in February, 2007, Sapphire's "global cuisine" has been silently making waves next to the tranquil shoreline of South Laguna beaches. Despite the laid-back locale, chef/owner Azmin Ghahreman isn't afraid to kick his mashed potatoes up with curry powder, or deliver mushroom soup in a paper coffee cup to be poured into an over-sized bowl tableside. The restaurant's clientele may be stepping out in sandals, but Ghahreman is stepping out in black Gucci boots. His food announces itself on the plate, and in so doing, makes a substantial argument toward the growth of the Orange County dining scene.
Mushroom Soup
My two visits to the refined, yet relaxed eatery have given me ample reason to believe that I may need to amend my belief that Los Angeles is the only eater paradise in Southern California. While the service is not as flawless as it could (and should) be, the food itself is closing in on some of the finer restaurants in LA. The aforementioned mushroom soup starter is light on the palate and comforting to the soul, and the bacon-wrapped figs that no longer appear on the menu, are craveably good -- the perfect contrast of sweet and savory. The complimentary Asiago cheese rolls, served soft and warm, are noteworthy as well. They are worth sacrificing stomach space for.

Entrees read complex on the page, but are well-executed. The too oft-dry pork chop is done justice here, as is the lamb sirloin, accentuated with the aforementioned curry mashed potatoes on a recent visit. The menu changes frequently to reflect seasonal offerings, but the popular Hawaiian Style Steamed Barramundi with Ginger-Shitake Mushrooms, Cilantro, Green onion, and Shoyu has yet to retire from the menu. The flaky white fish is served with the tail and skin still on -- a presentation that is admittedly off-putting for the delicate diner, but is immediately forgiven after one taste of the succulent fish and its Asian-inspired accompaniments. The cilantro packs a surprising punch to the subtle ginger-flavored broth that is light on the tongue, and for the image-conscious lady, light(er) on the calories as well.

Hawaiian Style Steamed Barramundi

Reservations are strongly encouraged, and diners should indicate their preference for indoor or outdoor seating. Sapphire may be a "gem," but that doesn't mean their heat lamps have magical powers. Bring a sweater and a lackadaisical attitude toward the noise of PCH traffic, or make a reservation for the stylish space inside. Either way, rest assured that the food will be good. Diamond-in-the-rough (of OC) good? Perhaps. I may need to take a few more bites before I'm satisfied with my final answer.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Rachel's Wickedly Delicious Yogurts: A Friend for the Mouth and Thighs

Yes, that's a Friends reference. And yes, I realize I am strange, but I'm not as strange as the flavors that Miss Rachel is putting into her chic black yogurt containers. Plum Honey Lavendar? Pink Grapefruit Lychee? Pomegranite Acai? Rachel is either off her rocker, or exceedingly brilliant.

Of course, since most geniuses (ahem, ME) are misunderstood and/or under appreciated in their own time, I am going to label Rachel exceedingly brilliant. Especially after trying both the Pomegranite Blueberry and Vanilla Chai flavors. The description on the carton doesn't lie -- these 150-160 calorie yogurts really are "Wickedly Delicious." Creamy, yet not too thick, the texture is smooth and seductive on the tongue, and there is no gross film at the top like some yogurts I know (ahem Dannon, ahem Yoplait, ahem Cascade). The Pomegranite Blueberry is tart and tangy -- a palate perker-upper for any morning of the week, while the Vanilla Chai is more subtle and understated -- fitting for it's descriptor as inspiring the consumer to "relax."

With my levels of neurosis I think I might need a few hundred cartons to achieve a state of Zen, but I'm willing to do the research to see if Rachel's yogurts can get me there. It's all in the name of good health right? Minimum daily calcium levels can't be achieved by Dreyer's Slow-Churned Mint Karaoke Coookie ice cream alone, nor should they be considering my recent forays into the freezer. Rachel's low fat yogurts are 100% natural with no artificial sweeteners, and contain 30% of the daily requirements for calcium, plus those fancy schmancy live and active cultures that promote healthy digestion. There's nothing wicked about that. (Unless you like giving your intestines heck in a hand basket.)

At $1.09 a carton at my local WeHo Whole Foods (it's close to $1.50 at Gelson's), Rachel's yogurts aren't exactly budgetter-friendly, but for a quality gal like her, it's a steal. Think of it as an investment in good health. I bet even Miss Aniston would approve of my most recent fridge friend.