Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Griddle Cafe: My Forever Favorite

I'll never forget that first bite. It was Sunday, March 18th, 2007, and my good friend and I had impetuously decided to grab brunch that morning. He had been raving about the Griddle Cafe for months, but whenever I planned to go, there was always something that seemed to get in the way. A quick text message exchange that morning sealed the deal, and minutes later we drove off in his BMW with visions of French toast and unnecessary white sugar carbs dancing in our heads.

As we pulled into the parking lot behind the Rite Aid at the intersection of Sunset and Fairfax Blvd., my friend instantly regaled me with his enthusiasm for the "find-a-parking-spot" game. He sped around the lot, zooming in and out of the aisles, his eyes peeled for tell-tale red headlights. I laughed at his exhuberance, but I secretly thought he was crazy. Who actually enjoys searching for a parking spot?

Once we won "the game," we trooped through the back door of the Griddle, my senses immediately awakening with the intoxicating smells of savory scrambled eggs, crispy bacon and fluffy buttermilk pancakes. I grinned in delight as we passed by the closely packed tables covered with plates of gargantuan portioned food. Cheesecake Factory has nothing on this place -- a full stack of three pancakes easily weighs 2-lbs. My friend leaned in conspiratorially. "You can actually order just one." He whispered. I nodded, glad to be popping my Griddle cherry with someone so "in the know."

My friend put our name in with the affable host Alex whose ability to keep the crazy hordes of waiting customers at bay is truly remarkable. He called me pretty, and with that single phrase, I was at his mercy -- completely unconcerned about how long I might have to wait until he called our name for a table. Fortunately, the morning was slower than usual, and twenty minutes later, we were seated.

Multiple-paged menus were dropped by our table for two, and my eyes bulged as I read over the descriptions. "The Golden Ticket" with golden brown sugar-baked bananas, caramel, walnuts and streusal, topped with real whipped cream, caramel and streusal ($10.95) beckoned me with the promise of a food coma. The "Tis the Season" with pumpkin pie filling and whipped cream and powdered sugar ($9.95) promised to make me nostalgic for Thanksgiving. And the "Saturday Morning Fever" with Bailey's and Kahlua ($9.95) assured me that this would be no ordinary brunch experience. I looked up at my friend with perplexed eyes.

"Get the French toast." He said, immediately understanding my pain.

I nodded, too hungry and confused to question his suggestion and ordered the original "Mom's French Toast" described in the menu as "egg-dipped bread griddle cooked to perfection, Mom's old fashioned way!" ($9.95) I added on sides of fresh strawberries and scrambled eggs and my requisite order of a pot of green tea, and then the waiting/anticipation began.

When my French toast arrived at the table, my heart was beating so fast I could hardly breathe. It was love at first sight. And then... love at first bite. It really was griddle cooked to perfection. Soft but not too soft, moist but not gooey, sweet but not cloying -- it was like I was Goldilocks and the French toast was my "just right" bed. The sweet strawberries and real maple syrup only enhanced my pleasure, and I was equally smitten with my buttery scrambled eggs. As I moaned with ecstasy, forking thick pieces of the French toast into my mouth at rapid-fire pace, my friend looked on in amusement.

"See?" He said.

"We have to come back. Like every weekend. We have to come back!" I enthused, syrup dribbling down my chin.

While I have not been able to frequent the Griddle as often as I would like, over the course of my half-dozen+ visits to the perpetually bustling Hollywood cafe, I have only discovered more reasons to love the purveyor of my all-time favorite French toast. Like the "Peanut Bubba" Crunchy French Toast ($10.95), the thick slabs of meaty bacon ($4.50), the "Gone Shrimping" egg scramble ($11.95), the real whipped cream that tops many of the pancake dishes, and Sergio, the adorable waiter who keeps my pot of Stir Fried Green Tea ($2.95) always brimming with hot water.

The Griddle Cafe is what dreams are made of. And my dreams are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. They look kind of like this... (except in my head, they are not half-eaten)

"Hear Me Roar" Pancakes - Frosted Flakes and Strawberries

"Peanut Bubba" Crunchy French Toast

Monday, September 29, 2008

Trader Joe's Soy Creamy Vanilla Mango Ice Cream: Yes, it's good.

I don't know where I heard about it first. It might have been the Chowhound message boards, it might have been in a Trader Joe's review on Yelp.com, or it might have been both. It seemed too good to be true, but the words kept catching my curious eyes -- Trader Joe's Soy Creamy Vanilla Mango Ice Cream. The rumor around foodieville was that it was really tasty, and I knew that sooner or later I would have to perform an investigation of these claims.

While I normally surrender to chocolate when I crave something sweet, when I gave up chocolate for Lent a year and a half ago, I needed to find an alternative fuel source for my sugar highs. Insert Trader Joe's Soy Creamy Vanilla Mango Ice Cream.

The odds were stacked against the frozen dessert. It wasn't chocolate, it didn't contain cream and it came from the freezer section of the store that created an offensively grotesque spinach lasagna. I was fully prepared to hate the soy-based ice cream.

Except I didn't hate it. I loved it. I loved it so much that even after Lent ended, I continued stocking my freezer with the bright cartons of fake ice cream. Today, 18 months after my initial encounter with the soylicious wonder, I can't go a few days without a fix. Fortunately, with only 130 calories and 4 grams of fat per half-cup serving, I don't have to break my diet to make it a repeat offender in my post-dinner dessert line-up. I normally can only make the 8-serving size container cover 5 evenings, but have been able to stretch it to 6.

The beauty behind the faux ice cream is that it doesn't melt as rapidly as true ice cream, so I can savor it for a good 15 minutes as I swirl it around the bowl with my spoon. When it first comes out of the freezer, it can be a bit hard, but once it softens up, it takes on the consistency of a creamy frozen yogurt. I like to eat the mango first, and then finish up with vanilla, but they do pair nicely together as well. The taste of the flavors combined is reminiscent of the orange-vanilla 50/50 bars.

Strangely enough, while the vanilla in the Soy Creamy mango vanilla concoction is as creamy and sweet as a traditional vanilla frozen yogurt, the vanilla in the plain Soy Creamy vanilla carton is a completely different bird. Icy and devoid of any perceptible vanilla flavoring, it was a severe disappointment when I tried it this past summer. I didn't make it past more than two bites before I defrosted the rest of the carton in my sink.

As much as it pains my inner-chocoholic to admit it, the vanilla mango wonder is one of my favorite treats. So much so that I may need to rethink my Lent strategy this year --2009 may very well be the year I give up soy ice cream.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Mahvelous Maron Chocolate Truffles

The best thing about birthdays are the unexpected surprises -- the phone calls from old college friends, the Facebook shout-outs from random colleagues and past acquaintances, and the United Postal Service packages that arrive unannounced at the doorstep.

When I arrived home from work on my birthday last Monday, I wasn't expecting any telling brown parcels or envelopes. I charged into my apartment on a mission to shower, primp and glamify myself to an extent that would make me the most striking person at my party at Fraiche restaurant in Culver City. As the birthday girl, I felt it my prerogative to be the center of attention. With my eyes narrowly focused on Mission: Make Diana Fabulous, I barely noticed the bulging US Postal envelope that my roommate had set on our coffee table with the rest of the mail.

Later that evening, after a delectable two-hour meal with six of my closest friends, I returned home to my apartment in a fuzzy, half-tipsy stupor. Filled to the brim with excitement over my lovely night spent with wonderful companionship and food, I was bursting with happiness and didn't want the night to end. It was then that I remembered the package on my coffee table.

I changed into my jammies, brought the envelope back to my room and sat down cross-legged in the middle of my bed. I smiled when I saw the small neat letters on the outside. I'd know that hand-writing anywhere -- it was from my dear friend and former college roommate Caroline. As I pulled out the paper-wrapped box inside, my heart tugged with emotion. It was a box of Maron Chocolate truffles from Philadelphia, the same truffles that Caroline had brought me this past January when she came to visit.

While I am normally not as fond of truffles as I am other forms of chocolate (namely chocolate that covers nuts and/or caramel), Maron's are different from any I've had before. These are a lady's truffles -- pretty as can be, a proper size for delicate ingestion and surprisingly light on the palate. My biggest beef with the confection is how heavy and cloyingly rich they can be, but Maron's focus more on creating unique flavor profiles like Chai tea, Amaretto and Strawberry Cheesecake, rather than death blows to the stomach. I was surprised at how much I loved them, and after devouring the entire box, profusely thanked my dear friend for bringing me such a delectable hostess gift.

Sitting on my bed last Monday night, I was overwhelmed by Caroline's thoughtfulness in remembering how much I enjoyed the truffles nine months prior. As I peered down at the carefully crafted chocolates, my feet swaddled in purple bedroom slippers and my face devoid of the make-up I had piled on earlier in the evening, I felt like a queen. I hadn't needed to curl my hair or don a fancy new dress. All I needed was a box of pretty lady-like truffles from a dear friend.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Massimo's Mudspot: Shhh it's a Secret

I was going to keep my mouth shut about this one. The last thing I want is for my new secret coffee shop to become overrun with obnoxious laptop-carters and industry pontificators. It's all very well and fine if I am the one parked at one of the several tables inside for several hours, but if it's some scruffy-haired mongrel reeking of stale cigarettes and ego, I start getting huffy.

As of now, Massimo's Mudspot, the new coffee shop just west of Wilshire Blvd. on La Brea, appears to be devoid of characters who are "too big for their britches." I'm not quite sure that anyone actually calls their pants, "britches," but I am quite sure that I'm going to be planting mine at the casual little local spot on many a weekend afternoon in the future. With free wifi for paying customers, ample seating, a friendly waitstaff, and a Tiger chai latte that is so spicy, it makes my mouth tingle, Massimo's Mudspot meets most of my coffee shop requirements. Plus, it's really quiet -- shockingly so.

I have heard rumors on Yelp.com that they offer delectable pastries and cupcakes, but when I visited the shop this past Saturday afternoon, I only saw some suspect Bagel Broker bagels in a display case on the counter. I was more intrigued by all the other non-coffee beverages available -- including my favorite "healthy" soda, Izze Sparkling Juice. They even have Peach -- a flavor I've never seen before.

There is one crucial component that is left to be determined with regards to my continued appreciation for the local spot. No, not outlet plugs (though that is important too). Just not as important as men. Attractive men.

I'm kidding, of course. Because no one goes to coffee shops to get hit on. Right?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Chocolate Soldier: I Salute You, and My Dad

Last year on my birthday, my family and I went to Sapphire Laguna Restaurant for a celebratory dinner. As we waited for our table at the bar, sipping glasses of a refreshing Pinot Grigio, my dad snuck off into the crisp Southern California night air. Ten minutes later he returned with a small white sack which he tucked into my hand with a shy smile. I peered inside and grinned when I saw its contents -- a single milk chocolate almond turtle from the Chocolate Soldier, a high-end chocolate shop hidden away in the shopping complex next door.

That night, even though I had already devoured a sizable piece of my mom's chocolate ice cream roll cake with raspberry puree, I couldn't get the image of the glistening turtle out of my head. I got out of bed, stumbled across the room and tore off a piece of the two-inch diameter confection. The lustrous Guittard chocolate snapped in my mouth, decadently coating my tongue with a layer of creamy sweetness. The ample chocolate covering was perfectly married to the slightly resistant caramel and crunchy whole almonds inside -- I was in heaven and could scarcely keep from finishing the rest of the exquisite treat.

When I opted to stay at home for my family birthday dinner this year, I didn't imagine that I would be receiving any white paper sacks from the Chocolate Soldier. South Laguna Beach can be a significant trip from my parents' home in Newport Beach, and with gas prices fastened to a rocket ship to the moon, I doubted my dad would want to make the trek down PCH.

Clearly, I underestimated the power of love. (And the power of my princess-esque sensibilities.) As I walked into my parents' living room the Saturday before my birthday, I was delighted to discover not just a white sack, but a telling white box. Unable to resist a sneak peek at my favorite turtles, I carefully removed the pale pink ribbon and peered inside. Three large turtles (one dark, two milk chocolate) and two square chocolates stared back at me. I squealed in delight, refastened the bow and spent the rest of the day dreaming of the coming work week when I would enjoy them.

Today, as I near the end of my box of chocolates, I feel slightly melancholy. Not just because I have to go back to my standby Trader Joe's milk and dark chocolate cashews, but because the chocolate turtles remind me of my dad's softer side. Every time I pull out the box from its place in my desk drawer, I think of him driving down PCH to procure my favorite turtles for me. Even though our relationship has had its opens and downs over the years, he still loves me enough to buy me over-priced chocolate on my birthday. It's almost better than the hot pink iPod Nano my brother gave me.

Almost, but not quite. Or as my dad would say with a shake of his head, "Close, but no cigar."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chicken Piccata: Easy to Make, Easy to Love

I don't have a long-winded or funny story about this one, kids. The recipe is pretty standard (aside from my addition of vine ripened tomatoes), and it doesn't call out for embellishment from any fancy oils or seasonings. Simply put, chicken picatta is a delicious, nutritious and uncomplicated dish that is easy enough for beginning cooks, yet is anything but easy on the flavor. There is no special trick other than to "Keep it simple, stupid," a lesson that Ryan from the fourth season of "Top Chef" can truly appreciate after his breaded picatta disaster in the season opening episode.

Chicken Piccata (for 2)
1/2 lb chicken cutlets
Flour for dredging
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon capers
1/4 cup white wine (I use Pinot Grigio)
1/2 cup chicken broth/stock
1 clove garlic, minced
1 vine-ripened tomato, chopped (optional)
Salt and Pepper
Olive Oil
Cappellini or Angel Hair pasta

1. Season chicken cutlets with salt and pepper and dredge lightly in flour. Shake off any excess. Heat olive oil in frying pan, and once the oil begins to dance, add the chicken cutlets. Brown the chicken on both sides over medium heat, and then remove and set aside.

2. Reduce the heat to low, add in the garlic and white wine (to deglaze the pan). Scrape up the browned bits of chicken -- they will add flavor and color to the sauce. After 1-2 minutes, add the chicken stock, lemon juice and capers. If the wine has run dry, pour in a little extra. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat, add the chicken, give the mixture a few good shakes of pepper, and then cover. Simmer for at least 15 minutes to allow the flavors to develop and the chicken to tenderize. (Flip the chicken half-way through so both sides get some saucey love.)

3. Cook pasta according to package instructions. (Be sure to use plenty of water and don't forget to salt it!)

3. Five minutes before you are ready to serve, uncover the pan and add the tomatoes. If the sauce needs thickening, try adding a splash of the pasta water. The starch from the pasta works as a thickening agent.

4. When the pasta is ready, drain, toss in some of the sauce, and then plate. Ladle the chicken and remaining sauce over the top.

Serve with fresh steamed veggies and a large glass of that white wine you used to cook with. It should be good enough to drink -- if your mouth isn't willing to do business with it, your chicken shouldn't be doing business with it either.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Aroma Coffee and Tea: One Trip, Two Experiences

I've had Aroma Coffee and Tea on my radar for a few months now, but because I live in West Hollywood and Aroma lives on Tujunga Avenue in Studio City, up until Sunday, I never connected the dots between my apartment and the cozy Valley cafe. I'd perused the extensive menu on-line, read the rave reviews on Yelp.com and heard the glowing endorsements from close friends. I knew that it was only a matter of time before Aroma and I came together in perfect harmony, and I became hooked on making mad dashes over the hill to spend a lazy weekend afternoon or morning there.

When my two Sunday brunching partners insisted I pick our Valley-centric brunching location for this weekend, I immediately knew I wanted to go to Aroma. Their enthusiastic "yum" responses sealed the deal, and we descended upon the bustling bakery cafe at precisely 12:45 pm yesterday. While I was somewhat leery about breaking my Aroma seal during primo brunching hours, the cafe was decidedly less chaotic than Toast, Urth Caffe or Coral Tree Cafe in West LA/Hollywood. Unlike 3rd Street, parking near the restaurant was a non issue, and the line that wound out the door moved quickly. Before I knew it, my friends and I were already at the counter placing our orders. I was grateful for the time we did have to wait, because it took considerable effort to read through the tantalizing descriptions of hot pressed paninis on focaccia bread, customizable omelets, heartily-topped salads, and the other delectable sounding breakfast and lunch fare.

I went back and forth between my options -- salivating over one table's buttermilk pancakes topped with strawberries and bananas, and engaging in a staring contest with a prosciutto and chicken panini that oozed provolone cheese. Fortunately, my two brunchmates were both in the mood for salads, and because girls always order (and pee) in packs, I settled on the Goat Cheese + Walnut Salad with herb encrusted goat cheese rounds, candied walnuts, tomatoes, and cucumbers on a bed of mixed baby greens served with balsamic vinaigrette ($10.95). I requested that grilled chicken ($2.95) and beets be added on, and then I spruced it up further with the orange slices that a delightful little gnome was guarding in the garden for diner's water glasses.

Without the oranges, the salad might have been a bit pedestrian for my tastes (and its $16.13 total price tag), but I was ultimately pleased with the end product. The combination of the creamy goat cheese, crunchy walnuts, tangy vinaigrette, sweet oranges, and warm lean pieces of chicken was incredibly satisfying, and I devoured every morsel in my heaping bowl. Aside from the dry as a sponge sesame roll, and one and a half of the three goat cheese rounds. It was a little too much goat for me, but I suppose if I didn't have chicken, I'd be happy to ingest all three of the sizable pieces that together, approximated the size of the baseball-sized roll.

My friends seemed equally pleased with their salads (the Classic Cobb Salad and another amended Goat Cheese + Walnut salad) and by the time we'd cleaned our bowls (and ignored our rolls), we were "too full" for dessert.

Or at least they were.

It's a well known fact that if one person orders dessert, all others at the table will break their diets and cave in for a sugar coma as well. So when my two friends shook their heads at a slice of one of the over half-dozen cakes in the bakery case inside, I knew that I wasn't going to be shocking my insulin levels either.

Yet as I walked out of the restaurant after a quick trip to the bathroom, I couldn't help but be drawn back to the cash register. My friends were already gone, but my desire for a sweet ending to my Aroma experience was not. Before I could convince myself to be "good," I ordered a chai latte and a chocolate chip cookie. As I waited with my cookie plate in hand for my latte to be mixed and foamified, a gal in line said to me, "You are going to love that."

"What?" I asked, somewhat mystified by someone in LA speaking to me without prompting.

"The way you are holding it." She explained. "You look so happy."

I smiled. I was happy. And even happier when I dug into the freshly baked cookie and creamy, sweet chai latte moments later.

Instead of heading back out to the patio where tables were speckled with groups of friends and couples enjoying the nice day, I selected a small table inside near the attached bookstore. I nabbed a section of the NY Times from the empty table besides mine and settled into my cozy corner seat. Not only was the chai the best I've had in Los Angeles (more sweet than spicy, but not sickeningly so), but the cookie was impressive as well. I loved that they used a dark bitter chocolate for the chips and found the textural contrast of a soft interior with a slightly crisp exterior, equally pleasing. I would have liked the cookie to have a more caramelized flavor rather than a shortbread quality, but it was certainly better than the chocolate chip cookies I've encountered from Milk, Clementine, Susina Bakery, and the industry favorite, Snookies.

As I left Aroma yesterday, pausing to peer in the windows of the neighboring shops and restaurants, I had the distinct feeling that I would be connecting the dots between my apartment and the cafe some time again soon. Maybe for a casual and relaxed lunch with some friends, maybe for a quiet conversation over tea, or maybe for a chai and cookie, eaten solo with just the companionship of a really good book.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Taste Test: M&M's Premiums

Just like I have my neurotic chocolate-related rituals (see Trader Joe's Dark and Milk Chocolate Cashews), my mom suffers from her own ritualistic behavior. As long as I can remember, she always caps off her night with a mint-flavored chocolate. While her favorite version is made by Abdallah Candies in Burnsville, Minnesota, she often has to resort to other sources to get her fix.

A few weekends ago when I was homing visiting my parents, she pulled out a plastic bag filled with pretty green gem-like candies. She gleefully extracted a small handful and began munching on the odd-looking chocolates that somewhat resembled the rock candy she used to put on our birthday cakes when we were children.

"What are those?" I asked, my curiosity (and appetite) officially peaked.

"The new mint M&M's Premiums. I got them at Pavilions this week."

"Are they good?" I pressed her, slightly skeptical about just how premium M&Ms could be.

Her eyes bulged with appreciation. "Yes." She moaned. "Try some."

I reached my hand into her precious supply of after dinner treats and carefully selected two pieces. I admired the exotically colored shell before popping one into my mouth. My initial hesitation was immediately silenced as I savored the creamy mint chocolate. It was perfectly balanced, and I loved that the M&M was larger than the ones in their ordinary line. My hand wandered over to the bag again -- unable to keep myself from stopping at two. Or even four. Or even...

After my positive experience with the mint M&M's Premiums, I was eager to try the other flavors in the line which include chocolate almond, mocha, triple chocolate, and raspberry almond. Because I fear that anything containing coffee will keep me up at night and have other ways of getting my share of chocolate covered nuts, I selected the triple chocolate variety. I bristled a little at the cost of $4.99 a box (though I purchased mine on sale for $3.99 at Rite Aid), but since the package does come with more than just a bag of old school M&Ms, I figured it was a worthy investment. Plus how could I go wrong with something called "triple chocolate?"

Note to future chocolate-buying self: A fancy box and fancy name and fancy price do not necessarily equate to a fancy product.

Despite my favorable reaction to the mint M&M's Premiums, I feel somewhat "meh" about the triple chocolate variety. The package purports each M&M to contain rich layers of milk, dark and white chocolate, but the flavors are fairly indistinguishable. It essentially tastes like an extra-large M&M without the crunchy coating. While the chocolate is smoother than the chocolate in a regular M&M, I found it a bit chalky and non-descript. I don't dislike it, but it's been six weeks since I bought the box, and I still haven't finished it. I tried adding some chopped up pieces to my Ben & Jerry's Lighten Up! Cherry Garcia Frozen Yogurt last night, but when frozen, the M&M becomes even more like it's less premium cousin. As the chocolate pieces hardened in my bowl of yogurt, I felt like I was eating an M&M Blizzard from the Dairy Queen.

I may be inclined to hit up my mom for some more mint premiums the next time I'm in the OC, but I think I've reached my premium of purchasing my own supply of upscale M&Ms.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Anything Goes Shrimp Risotto

Risotto sounds like it should be really hard and complicated to make. While it is true that all the stirring and monitoring can get tedious, the dish itself is fairly straightforward. The ingredients can be as simple or as complex as desired, and the end product is almost always delicious (barring under or overcooking the sticky Arborio rice grains).

What I love most about risotto (aside from the cheese and warm and fuzzy feelings I get when eating it) is how the dish lends itself to experimentation, allowing my inner chef to come out. Once I mastered the basic formula of how to cook risotto, I began improvising to come up with my own creations (often dependent upon the contents of my refrigerator/cupboards).

My most recent success story (pictured above) involves shell-on shrimp, white wine, chicken broth, edamame, shallots, pepper, salt, lemon/lemon peel., and the requisite Parmesan cheese. Some chefs/foodies frown upon the addition of cheese to seafood, but in Chez Diana's kitchen, there is cheese on everything. Except on ice cream. That would be just gross!

To recreate my "Anything Goes Shrimp Risotto" (for one), abide by these following rules/steps. Or create your own rules.

1/4th - 1/3rd lb. medium shrimp with shells
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon peel
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup shallots (diced)
1/4 cup cooked edamame (shelled)
1/4 cup arborio rice
1/3 cup white wine (I used Pinot Grigio)
1/3 cup chicken broth
Parmesan (optional)

1. Wash and de-shell shrimp. Reserve shells.

2. Heat olive oil in pan over medium heat. Cook shrimp with 1/2 teaspoon of lemon peel, saving the additional teaspoon of lemon peel to add to the dish at the end. Season with salt and pepper. When the shrimp turn pink remove them from the pan and set them aside. DO NOT OVERCOOK.

3. Combine wine, chicken broth, lemon juice, pepper, and shrimp shells in a saucepan, and heat the liquid on low.

4. While the broth/wine mixture is warming up, saute the diced shallots in a splash of olive oil. When the onions are translucent, add the rice and reduce the heat to medium/low. Once the rice grains are slightly white in the middle, add some of the broth mixture to the pan*. Cover to expedite cooking process.

5. Simmer rice and broth until the liquid is absorbed and then add more as needed. Stay fairly close to the kitchen to monitor the pan situation and to make sure it doesn't run dry. Once the rice begins to look creamy, remove the lid, and add the shrimp, shelled edamame, and extra lemon peel. At the last minute before serving, add in the Parmesan to give it an extra boost of creaminess.

6. Post a comment on my blog telling me how wonderful it tastes.

*Note: Do not add shrimp shells to the rice pan -- discard them from the saucepan when you have used all the liquid up.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

CiCi's: I See Pancakes (but no raspberries)

CiCi's Cafe: the Valley what the Griddle Cafe: West Hollywood. That's right I nailed my verbal SATs in high school. It's too bad that this simple analogy doesn't quite nail the tail on the donkey with regards to the food served at these two popular brunching restaurants. CiCi's is good, but as hard as it tries, it's no Griddle Cafe. (And not just because the wait for a table is substantially less)

I've had the opportunity to dine at CiCi's three times in this past year, and have ordered the Pink Lady pancakes with raspberries & macadamia nuts mixed in buttermilk pancakes topped with raspberry sauce & whipped cream, and the Wheat Berry pancakes with strawberries, blueberries and almonds on wheat bran pancakes. The first time I tried the Pink Lady pancakes, they were a revelation. I loved how the thick pancakes were both studded with fresh raspberries and macadamia nuts, and covered with them as well. With the raspberry sauce on the side (and a request for no whipped cream), I was tickled "Pink" by the dish. I couldn't wait to come back.

On my next visit I was pretending to be healthy, so I opted to try the Wheat Berry pancakes. The berries were fresh and sweet, and I loved the crunch from the almonds, but the pancakes themselves were overwhelmingly dry. The syrup helped some, and I made a decent dent into the short stack of cakes (2 as opposed to 3), but I couldn't help but wish that I had stuck with the more nutritionally-defunct buttermilk cakes instead.

This past Sunday, on my third visit to the Valley's breakfaster oasis, I knew without out a shimmy of a doubt that I wanted the Pink Lady pancakes again. I knew they were good, I was in the mood for some antioxidants via raspberry form, and I didn't want to spend an hour quizzing the waitress about the virtues of the Say "Trick or Treat" pumpkin pancakes vs. the CoCo Green Tea pancakes vs. the CiCi's French Toast. Sometimes I just want to relax and not get all neurotic about the ordering process. Of course, that didn't stop me for putting in my usual cadre of special requests for no whipped cream and the raspberry sauce on the side. I just hate when my pancakes arrive at the table all soggy! I want to be the one responsible for the soggifying!

When my short stack of Pink Ladies arrived at our table, I immediately knew something was wrong. There were no raspberries on top. And upon closer investigation, I discovered there were no raspberries (or macadamia nuts) in the pancakes either! My plate was stacked with two plain buttermilk pancakes with a side of raspberry sauce, syrup and small cup of macadamia nuts. I politely got the attention of our waitress and asked her if they had forgotten the raspberries. She said she'd check, and when she returned with my plate of still-raspberry-less cakes, she told me that they only had frozen raspberries, so just used them in the sauce. Despite the description on the menu and my previous experience a year ago, they were not abundantly heaped on top, and were most certainly not in the pancakes themselves!

To make the most of this most unfortunate of circumstances, I asked for a bowl of fresh strawberries instead. It improved matters some, and the pancakes were actually quite good, but I couldn't help but feel a bit soured by the experience. Shouldn't the waitress have mentioned that the pancakes were going to come sans berries when I ordered them?

While I will probably return to CiCi's again to try some of their other offerings, my initial favorable impressions of the sweet-toothed carboholic's dream restaurant have been somewhat mitigated. I see pancakes in my future, but those pancakes will most likely be coming from the kitchen at the Griddle Cafe instead.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cilantro and Ginger Baked Tilapia: A Birthday Party on a (Fancy) Plate

I recently read in the October issue of Women's Health magazine that in Japan it is considered polite to slurp up soba noodles. As I noisely chowed down on my Cilantro and Ginger Baked Tilapia with soba noodles and stir-fried veggies last night, I was glad that my roommate wasn't around to witness my "polite" behavior. The dish, which I found on the Kitchn site and have improvised upon with my addition of the aforementioned soba noodles and veggies, is one of the best and easiest home-cooked meals I've ever tasted. It was the perfect way to test out the brand new Crate and Barrel square plate my brother and sister-in-law gave me for my birthday so that my blog pictures could look more artistic.

Of course, with food this pretty, who even needs a plate? Or fork for that matter?

Okay, maybe I still need a fork, but only because I don't like to get my hands dirty. (Though I might make and exception for this killer recipe.) I followed the instructions fairly closely, but did omit the optional jalepeno pepper, and made extra broth so I could use some for stir-frying my veggies and noodles. I selected broccoli, snow peas, green onions, and bok choy for a festival of green, but think that bean sprouts would go well in the dish as well. For artistic purposes, I stuck with green on white. Because it really is all about the pictures right?

[Insert happy slurping noise here]

Err... maybe not completely, but now that I'm 25 and really grown-up, I'm quite alright doing my polite slurping off of fancy square plates.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Trader Joe's Milk & Dark Chocolate Cashews: Inspiring Neurotic Behavior

In the interests of curbing our recent pessimistic, woe-is-me sensibilities, the other day two of my girl friends and I started an e-mail chain listing the things we are thankful for. My list included Trader Joe's Milk & Dark Chocolate Cashews, the blogger who added my link to her blog roll and (because I'm a bit of a suck-up) the names of my two gal pals. My friend Caroline immediately countered with her own list -- TJ's trail mix, "Project Runway" and, of course, my name and our friend Ali's name. We are a very considerate lot, are we not?

After patting ourselves on the back for our seriously Oprah-esque positivity, we dove into regular chit-chat that culminated in an exposition of our quirky behavior during the ingestion of the aforementioned trail mix and milk & dark chocolate cashews.

Caroline wrote:

"I am so neurotic about the trail mix - I always eat all of the peanuts, raisins and almonds first, and then save the cashews and chocolate chips for the end. I have tried to just eat it normally, but I can't do it. "

As I read her confession, it occurred to me that I'm neurotic about my cashews as well. I always eat exactly five (unless I'm PMSing or cranky or just really really bored), and I have to alternate the milk with the dark (or vice versa). If I'm craving a bitter, harder shell, I'll start with the dark chocolate so I'll get to eat three as opposed to two. If I'm craving something sweeter and creamier, I'll start with the milk. Either way, I always stick to the pattern -- milk, dark, milk, dark, milk; or dark, milk, dark, milk, dark. I like to think that I am doing it because I enjoy the contrast of the two flavors/textures, but I fully recognize that there is some seriously crazy going on in my actions. I kind of fear getting to the end of my canister and only finding five dark chocolates, or even worse, five milk chocolates. A logical person would plow through the rest of the container without concern. But I'd probably sprint out to buy a new canister so the integrity of my ritual would be intact.

Of course, it's not completely insane that an individual would want to race out and buy another box of these truly addictive post-lunch treats. The chocolate may not be Guittard, and the cashews aren't always perfectly crunchy and robust, but they meet my chocoholic needs quite nicely. As far as my other "needs," I can always turn to my equally neurotic friends...

What foods inspire you toward neurotic behavior? Peanut Butter? Oreos? The always controversial cereal?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Nordstrom's Cafe: The Best Tomato Soup Ever

As often happens when traveling and subsisting on recycled air during a five-hour cross-country flight, last Monday I arrived home from DC feeling as though I was on the verge of something vicious. There is a reason people take Airbourne when they fly. Despite it's suspected ineffectiveness and potentially harmful properties, fliers like to feel like they are boarding the germ cesspool called an airplane with a shield against the hacking cougher in seat 11B.

In other words, flying the friendly skies is tantamount to licking a sick person's used Kleenex (I apologize for the unfortunate mental image), and on Tuesday morning I knew I'd been beaten down by a fellow passenger's cold bug. My throat glands were swollen, I was exhausted in the way that can only be attributed to disease or masochistic exercising, and I wasn't (gasp!) hungry.

For the next seven days, all I could think about was how much I wanted (and only wanted) soup. Of course, because I had already done my grocery shopping for the week, I had to make do with turkey sandwiches and other items that were completely unappetizing to me while my immune system was under siege. With the help of an exorbitant amount of green tea, Zicam and Trader Joe's Soy Creamy Mango Vanilla ice cream, I made it through the work week (and my perishable groceries).

On Friday evening, I drove straight home to Newport Beach so my mom could take care of me and feed me things that would actually soothe the ache in my throat. My first request? Nordstrom's Tomato Basil soup.

I know what you are thinking. Or actually, I don't know what you are thinking, but I will tell you what you should be thinking. Soup from Nordstrom's? Yes, they have a seriously awesome shoe department and a fabulous selection of jeans, but earth to Diana -- department stores don't serve good food!

Do they?

Yes, they do. Or at least Nordstrom's does. So good in fact that a quick Google of "Nordstrom's Tomato Basil Soup recipe" returns 3,900 hits. Including one from Recipezaar that allows an ambitious person to make 128 servings of the lusciously addictive soup. I try not to acknowledge the "heavy cream" ingredient, because I tend to avoid cream-based soups (ice cream on the other hand...), but it's in there and the soup still rocks my cute Nike running socks., so I really don't care. The cream actually seems to serve a purpose here -- adding a richness to the soup that cannot be achieved by chicken broth, water and loads of tomatoes alone. The texture is smooth, yet thick, and unlike many tomato soups I've encountered, is not too acidic. It is perfectly balanced, perfectly spiced, and at $4.50 for a bowl and $3.50 for a cup (complete with a tasty slice of Parmesan toast), it is perfectly priced as well.

Is it any coincidence that I'm back to be chipper, sunshine smiling self today? Nope, not a bit.

(Though it is entirely possible that the illness has run it's course too. )

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dreyer's Slow Churned Mint Karaoke Cookie Ice Cream: So Good I'll Get on my Hands and Knees for it

While most Americans are excited for "American Idol" because of the singing and performing and snide commentary from Simon Cowell, I get excited for an entirely different reason. No, not because I get to mock Paula Abdul's many wardrobe malfunctions (though that is fun too), but because from January to July Dreyer's/Edy's rolls out their Slow Churned American Idol flavors and holds a contest for one new flavor to be added to their regular line.

Last year, the almost sickeningly sweet "Take the Cake" flavor, described as yellow cake flavored light ice cream with a frosting swirl and multicolored sprinkles, won the popular vote. This year, the "Mint Karaoke Cookie" with mint light ice cream and chocolate sandwich cookie pieces beat out the "Cheesecake Diva," "Cookies 'N Dreamz," "Most Orange-inal," and "One Split Wonder" flavors for the crown. My two favorite flavors of ice cream are Cookies 'N Cream and Mint Chocolate Chip, so I couldn't have been happier with the selection.

Because I have difficulty restraining myself when there is ice cream in my own freezer at my apartment in LA, I have come up with a simple solution to reign in my consumption of the somewhat embarrassingly-named ice cream product. I force my parents to buy it for their freezer at their home in Newport Beach and only eat it when I am home for a visit.

My plan was brilliant (as most of my plans are), until my parents' freezer went on the fritz a few weekends ago. I have no idea how or when the unfortunate happenstance took place, but when I returned home one evening, I found my precious carton of "Mint Karaoke Cookie" stuck in a pack of ice at the bottom of the freezer. As I stared on in horror, I realized there was no way to extract the carton from the block of ice without defrosting the entire freezer. I would have to get the ice cream out myself.

Throwing all sense of dignity to the wind, I crouched down on the floor of my parents' kitchen and dug out a bowl of my new favorite ice cream. By the time I had secured my bowl, streams of melted mint ice cream and sticky bits of cookie covered my hands, but I had no shame. I licked the evidence off and proceeded to devour every creamy bite of my dessert. Simon Cowell might call my behavior "repulsive," Randy might say "Okay dawg, that's creepy," and Paula might say "The smile when I got a particularly large chunk of cookie sandwich lit up my face," but I know in my heart that I performed like a champ.

Because there ain't no block of ice large enough, there ain't no floor hard enough, their ain't no diet stern enough, to keep me from getting to my ice cream, man.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

26 Beach: Umbrellas, Crayons and French Toast, Oh My!

As a former OC princess, I quite often harbor pre-conceived notions about locales I am not familiar with. When I think "Palm Beach," I automatically think "Spring Break" and "STDs." When I think "Alabama," I think "fried food" and "poor grammar." And when I think "Venice (CA)," I think "trashy" and "touristy."

Despite my best efforts to eradicate all the stereotypical associations I accumulated during my ignorant youth, I can't help but conjure up visual images of tattooed and metallic-shirt sporting weirdos hobnobbing on the boardwalk by the germ-infested Venice beach waters. Yes, Abbott Kinney is cute, and I did find the most adorable teapot at a shop there one Saturday afternoon, but I wasn't so sure about the rest of the community...

When I first heard about 26 Beach, the popular Venice lunching and brunching eatery just west of Lincoln on Washington Blvd., I pictured a seaside restaurant overwhelmed with sandal-clad beachgoers. Of course, because I quite often put my stomach ahead of my neurotic phobias (sand near my food being one of them), I was willing to risk a potentially unsavory dining experience for a taste of their infamous French toast.

This past Sunday, with the help of my two girlfriends, I took a bite out of my comfort zone and made the long trek out to Venice. There are few things in life that excite me more than French toast, and with 13 varieties on the 26 Beach brunch menu, I was primed for carbohydrate overload -- regardless of the pains I might suffer to get there.

As it turns out, the OC princess need not fear the contamination of her food via sand granules. Nor need she fear close contact with a pesky sea breeze or suntan-lotioned tourists. 26 Beach is not a seaside dive. 26 Beach is a nice restaurant. With table linens and a valet station and umbrellas to shield waiting patrons from the penetrating UV rays! My heart skipped a beat at the novelty of the ladylike umbrellas. And it skipped another beat when I caught sight of the coffee canister and water jugs to make the 5-10 minute wait for a table even more pleasant. Toast on 3rd Street doesn't have free coffee. (Course they don't really have good food either...)

After my friends and I were seated at our cozy booth, we immediately zeroed in on the glass of crayons in the middle of the table. Giddy with excitement, I dove straight for the pink crayon and began writing my name in cursive letters on the paper sheet covering the table cloth. As we covered the paper with flowers and sunsets and bright colors, I found myself falling in love with 26 Beach. I scarcely cared whether my Very Berry French toast topped w/an assortment of fresh berries & pecan syrup ($13) would be as tasty as it sounded. For a moment, the environment and company was enough for me. I didn't even mind that my raspberry iced tea ($2.50) was exceedingly tart and unpleasant on my palate. (Though I did request to switch to the regular black iced tea when the server came by to refill my glass.)

When my much anticipated French toast did finally arrive at the table (thank goodness we had those crayons to distract us while we waited!), I knew my pursuit for French toast happiness would be rewarded. The three thick pieces of egg-battered brioche bread were exactly how I envisioned them in my head. The berries (and kiwi?) were fresh and sweet, and the pecan syrup only improved the already idyllic French toast situation. While I still maintain that the Griddle Cafe's Mom's French toast is the "toast of the town," 26 Beach's version is more than worth it's weight in gas. (And the neurotic musings I went through to get it.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Diana Takes a Bite of the District: Iron Chef Battle of the Dinners

Washington DC. Two nights. Two dinners. Two very different outcomes.

On Saturday night, Ashley, Ashley's boyfriend Elliot and I crossed a perilous length of sidewalk to dine at Rice, a trendy Thai restaurant known for its crazy flavors of sticky rice. On Sunday night, Elliot crossed a perilous length of sidewalk to bring back spices, lentils, naan and other assorted items for the preparation of a grand Indian-style feast. Whose cuisine reigned supreme? You'll find out. After reading the next eight paragraphs.

Rice started out as a fierce competitor. Despite their no-reservations policy, we were seated immediately at a nice-sized table in the corner of the somewhat noisy space. Wines by the glass were respectable and relatively inexpensive, and we all agreed that the Green Tea dumplings with shrimp, crab meat, pork, water chestnut ($7) were a pleasant way to begin our meal. I found them so pleasant that I hinted we should order another round of the girthy suckers. My plea fell on deaf ears, and I made do with my one and one/third dumplings until my trough-sized portion of Chicken Pad Thai ($14) served omelet Ayuthaya style arrived at the table.

I know what's coming. Shock. Horror. Severely raised-eyebrows condemning my choice of entree. Pad Thai may very well be the greatest foodie faux pas in Asian cuisine, and I suffered greatly for my ill-conceived order. While there was nothing inherently wrong with my dish, it lacked the flavor, spice and creative twist that I crave from Thai food. It was disappointment at first bite, and it was all my fault. As soon as I tasted Ashley's sauteed ginger tofu with mushroom and mixed vegetables ($14), I knew I had gone very wrong. Unfortunately, she didn't seem too keen on her dish either, and we were forced to salve our tongue wounds with dessert.

Elliot was satisfied with his overtly spicy special dish (something containing tofu, glass noodles that resembled rigatoni, and some other items that I can't recollect but that all packed a serious punch of mouth-burnage) and was too stuffed to partake in the glorious bowl of coconut ice cream Ashley and I ordered. Drizzled with a dollop of raspberry sauce, the ice cream was the perfect way to refresh our palates after our nondescript main courses. We especially appreciated the chunks of coconut laced throughout the full-fat ice cream.

The next night, Ashley and I returned home from a 4-mile hike at Great Falls, starved for sustenance. On our way back, we picked Elliot up from Whole Foods and proceeded to pepper him with questions about how long it would take for him to create his feast of Indian Dal and warm whole wheat naan bread using the recipe he found on the Whole Foods website. Seeing our hunger-crazed eyes, he answered "20 minutes." I immediately countered, "But doesn't it take at least 45-minutes for the brown rice to cook?" He fell silent for a moment, thinking. "Yes. So eat a small snack, but nothing too big because I'm making a lot of food!" He boasted happily. I nodded, satisfied by his comment about "a lot of food." (Plus he bought us Santa Cruz lemonade for a "treat.")

After returning to their apartment, I immediately set about making the brown rice. I prepared it using just water (fine for a dish that has so much flavor, but I typically use some broth when cooking rice), and then made myself useful by chopping and seasoning some okra to be roasted and served as a side dish. It didn't exactly roast right and may or may not have ended up in the trash can. (We blamed it on the okra -- house guests are never in the wrong!)

While the rice was busy ricing (and I was busy showering off the dirt I accumulated on the hike), Elliot chopped, diced, sauteed, and simmered. By the time my hair was dry, the apartment reeked of curry, onion and other things that made Ashley and my eyes bleed with tears. Windows were cracked, lemonade was poured, naan was dusted with olive oil and warmed in the oven, and the table was set for our grand stinky Indian feast. With no appetizers or dessert to compete with the dumplings and ice cream at Rice, the heat was on. Elliot's Whole Foods Indian Dal (sans the jalepeno peppers and cilantro) would have to be seriously tasty if it was going to win the battle of the dinners.

With the enhancement of red pepper flakes and salt (to taste), the Indian Dal exploded into my mouth like a car bomb. I groaned in appreciation, feverishly scooping the fragrant, chunky stew-like Dal onto the warm naan flatbread. There was no dispute on the outcome -- this was the perfect incarnation of hearty and nutritious comfort food. It was exactly what Ashley and I needed after our long day climbing rocks and channelling our inner nature girls.

In the Iron Chef: Battle of the DC Dinners, Elliot's cuisine reigned supreme. And in the course of my Washington DC visit, it was the moments spent with Ashley and Elliot that far superseded the Georgetown cupcake red velvet, Eastern Market crepe, Teaism salty oaty cookie, Potbelly's sandwich, and Chai I consumed over my two-and-a-half days of biting the District.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Diana Takes a Bite of the District: Potbelly's Revisted

During my four years at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, I ate an obscene amount of Potbelly's Sandwich Works' toasty subs. I couldn't go more than a few days without suffering a massive craving for their tuna with provolone on whole wheat with tomatoes, lettuce, Italian seasoning, and extra pickles, please, and would regularly make an appearance in the quaint and charming primarily Midwestern chain. The $4.40 sandwich was the perfect antidote for lackluster dining hall choices or a bare kitchen cabinet when I moved off campus for my junior and senior years, and it was with a heavy heart that I left Evanston in June, 2005. As I chowed down on my last sandwich the day before I had to fly back to Southern California, I knew that from that point on I would have to rely on (gasp!) Quiznos for my hot sub fix.

In the three years since graduating, I have been back to my Evanston Potbelly's three times, and each time, was filled with intense nostalgia as I devoured my precious toasty tuna sub. When I booked my trip to Washington DC (one of the few East Coast locales where Potbelly's resides) earlier this summer, I told my friend Ashley that it was compulsory that we visit Potbelly's at some point over the long Labor Day weekend. It had been nearly two years since my last experience, and I was primed for another taste of my favorite former lunch.

As I walked into the wood-paneled, old-fashioned style sandwich shop this past Sunday, I couldn't help but feel a bit giddy with excitement. It was like coming home. Ashley, a fellow Northwesterner Lisa, and I got in line to place our orders, and minutes later were seated at a small table with our subs. While it wasn't as good as I remembered (maybe the Midwestern locations are better?), Potbelly's still makes the best $4.40 sandwich I've ever had. The ingredients are fresh, the pickles are crisp and sweet, and the toasty bread maintains the perfect balance of a crunchy exterior with a soft interior.

The sandwich may not have left me dying for another fix, but I was more than happy to consume one again the next day while I waited for my flight at Dulles Airport. It wasn't perfect --in fact, the tuna was a bit dry-- but it filled me up. With my hunger pangs satiated, and my nostalgic heart finally satisfied, I flew back to Los Angeles feeling "okay" that I wouldn't be able to enjoy Potbelly's again any time soon.

The pictures help ease the pain. And so do my new favorite lunch eateries -- Joan's on Third, M Cafe de Chaya and Urth Caffe.

"Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other's gold..."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Diana Takes a Bite of the District: Teaism for Chai and the Chocolate Salty Oaty Cookie

My friend Ashley has been talking up the famous DC cafe, Teaism, for months. We'd be chatting away on the phone, discussing our latest shopping purchases or thoughts on "Gossip Girl," and suddenly she'd burst out, "Hold on, I have to go get a salty oaty cookie." I was confused by her enthusiasm over something so seemingly mundane. A salty oaty cookie? It didn't sound particularly appetizing. Or worthy of a craving that elicits a "have to have one" type reaction.

Despite my misgivings about the salty oaty cookie, I was thoroughly intrigued by Teaism's other offerings, specifically their Chai latte, which Ashley assured me was the best she'd ever had. My interest was further piqued when my roommate's boyfriend independently insisted that I go to Teaism for this so-called "best ever" Chai. I've never known him to drink anything other than alcohol, coffee and the occasional soda, so his admiration for a tea beverage was unexpected. Screw the salty oaty cookie -- I had to have the Chai latte!

This past Sunday morning, my Chai curiosity was finally put to rest. The verdict? Pretty gosh darn great. The latte is rich with spices rather than ample amounts of milk and sugar, so is lighter on the palate than the Chai's I'm more familiar with. While it is made with 2% milk (the only way it comes), the milk is more of an embellishment rather than the centerpiece of the latte. The spices are what come through -- this is an authentic version of the often sugar-saturated hot beverage. I'm not entirely sure it is the "best" Chai latte I've ever had (I am partial to sugar saturation), but it was the perfect way to perk up my senses as Ashley and I walked to church that morning.

At Ashley's insistence, I also ordered a chocolate salty oaty cookie to go. As I paid for the substantial cookie, I told her that she was welcome to partake in some when I ate it later that day. She smiled knowingly and responded, "Oh no, you are going to want the whole thing." I smiled back (equally knowingly) and countered, "It's a big cookie -- I can share!" Or so I thought.

That afternoon I carefully unwrapped my Teaism to-go bag and proceeded to carefully cram every morsel of that chocolate salty oaty cookie into my mouth. The chunks of salt on the cookie's exterior paired well with the intense cocoa flavor, proving to be an addicting combination that was only further enhanced by the layers of hearty oats. The secret is in the simplicity of the cookie -- it tastes like home, not like an overindulgent bakery treat that seems to be a vehicle for consuming a stick of butter. The cookie really is as craveable as Ashley and all those DC foodies insist that it is. I was so enamored by the somewhat crumbly treat that I forgot to take a picture until only one bite remained.

It was a good bite. Maybe not the best I've ever had, but I can see having to have it again. And again. And again. And again...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Diana Takes a Bite of the District: Georgetown Cupcake

After devouring our crepes at the Eastern Market on Day 1 of "Diana Does the District," Ashley and I had important matters to attend to. I'm not great at doing the typical lame tourist stuff, so "important matters" equated to shopping and taking pictures of ourselves rather than strolling through boring museums or looking at the Capitol. Not that there is anything wrong with the Capitol. We saw it, it looked nice, and then we high-tailed it to Georgetown to browse through Anthropologie and Cusp because clothes are like way more exciting then some big white building.

With all the walking and browsing and chattering, Ashley and I burned through our crepes like we burned through our savings at Anthro, and by 5 pm were ready for our second foodie destination. Because we are girls and like cute things that make our blood sugar levels spike, it should come as no surprise that our next stop involved cupcakes at the trendy Georgetown Cupcake.

I felt right at home as Ashley and I found a place in the short line outside the quaint shop. "Just like Sprinkles," I thought happily, amused to see that LA is not the only place where people go ga-ga for individual-sized cakes. I was slightly apprehensive that they would be out of red velvets by this time of day, but a peek into the bakery revealed cookie sheets full of all the cupcake choices available that day. I was also pleased to see a long list of beverages available for sipping, as well as one small table for customers who can't wait till they get home and want to consume their cupcakes on premises (ie. me, Ashley, and the attractive young man who devoured a chocolate cupcake and glass of milk while we waited in line).

Lemon Raspberry and Red Velvet Cupcakes

Aside from the line, it soon became apparent that Georgetown Cupcake is nothing like Sprinkles. The cupcakes are smaller, are not overwhelmed by a thick cap of frosting and the edible decal (a heart --not a nipple-- on the red velvet) actually tastes good. I am quite fond of Sprinkles (especially their red velvet and carrot cake cupcakes) so was surprised to see such a serious contender for the cupcake crown in DC. A contender that even threatens the supremacy of one of my favorite So Cal bakeries, Susie Cakes.

The red velvet cake is a deep rich hue --the sign of a true southern-style red velvet cake-- and the flavor and texture is impeccable. This baby cake pasts the moistness test with flying colors, and there is just the right amount of tart cream cheese frosting on top to allow each bite to contain an adequate cake to icing ratio. The size is perfect for an afternoon snack, and most importantly, did not leave me feeling slightly sick or remorseful after. Normally cupcakes coat my stomach in a sea of nausea post-ingestion, but Georgetown's take on the uber-popular treat left only the taste of sweet satisfaction on my tongue.

While it pains my inner LA snob to admit it, the Georgetown Cupcake red velvet may put Susie Cakes, Sprinkles and even Sweet Lady Jane to shame. Not just because the bakery serves up a fine iced Chai or iced Mighty Leaf Jasmine tea, but because their cupcakes are really good. So good that it makes me wish I didn't live 3,000 miles away. I think I would enjoy spending many a Saturday afternoon shopping and cupcaking myself into oblivion. Especially if it means ignoring the Capitol to shock my insulin levels and blow my abysmal salary with my dear friend.

DC - 1; LA - 0

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Tip of the Day: 9/2/08 - How to pack an airplane food survival kit

Traveling presents a problem for the picky-palated health-conscious individual (ie. me). Airports are stocked to the brim with fast food joints and nutritionally defunct chain restaurants like Chili's and California Pizza Kitchen, and like most Americans, I am loathe to spend $8 on an airline mystery meat sandwich (or worse). I've heard the horror stories about the inproper storage of food served at 35,000 feet and have a hard enough time accepting the ice that comes with my complimentary in-flight beverage, let alone the funky smelling cheeseburger the good-natured flight attendants peddle to starving flyers.

Despite my best intentions to keep my mouth clamped shut in the face of unworthy fare, my stomach demands a good-sized meal every four hours, and the prospect of a five-hour cross-country flight without food is about as appealing as a baseball bat to my forehead. Faced with either suspect in-flight dining, or a McDonald's "un-" Happy Meal, I solve the rumbling mile-high belly problem by packing my own food and snacks. I call it my "airplane food survival kit" and never leave LAX without it.

Kit Contents:

Purell Hand Sanitizer - Those dinky airplane bathroom sinks are a bacterial infection waiting to happen. I wash as well as I can, but then follow it up with a good dose of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer.
Napkins - Turbulence + brimming cup of Ginger ale = Wet jeans crotch. I don't trust the absorbancy of the cocktail napkin served with my beverage of choice -- I bring my own larger napkins and arrive at my destination without the questionably-placed stains.

Peanut butter & jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread - No need to refrigerate and packed with heart-healthy, filling fat? Ding ding ding, we have a winner! (As long as your seatmate doesn't have a peanut allergy.) I pack mine in some tupperware so it doesn't get squished in my fierce Tano carry-on bag.
Fruit - I prefer an apple, but grapes work well also. I try to pick something that is easy to eat and doesn't require half a roll of paper towels to catch the stray juices (ie. oranges).
Baby carrots - Because even on travel days, it's a good idea to get in at least 5 servings of fruit/veggies.

Snacks - Even if I have my meal in tow, I still bring plenty of snacks in anticipation of delays and more delays.

Energy Bars
  • Luna Bars for a heartier snack with 180 calories (Try Iced Oatmeal Raisin or Caramel Brownie)
  • Cliff Kids for a lighter snack with 120 calories (Try Chocolate Brownie)

Trail mix/Nuts - Almonds, cashews, dried cranberries, raisins

Chocolate - Handful of chocolate covered nuts or wrapped Dove squares. Just say "no" to over-priced in-flight snack boxes and cookies.

Topped off with a couple bottles of water and magazines from the newstand near my gate, and I'm set for the jet!

Diana Takes a Bite of the District: Crepes from the Sweatiest Man Alive

To celebrate the long Labor Day weekend (which to many people signifies the end of summer and ability to wear white clothing), I flew to Washington DC to visit my best friend from college. The celebration was more about spending quality time with my dear friend Ashley than spending time thinking about the end of summer and summer attire, but we did make sure to get in a solid shopping session at the Georgetown Anthropologie to purchase some bold colored clothing. We know how to commemorate a new season in style. And we also know how to commemorate a weekend with good food.

Because travel and eating go together like peanut butter and bananas, prior to my cross-country trek, Ashley prepared an itinerary that was chock full of activities and food outings. On Saturday, my first full day in the District, we would go to "Eastern Market for the famous crepe stand and good/interesting shopping." ("Good" equals funky jewelry hand-crafted by an artist, or adorable country-style tea pots and flatware. "Interesting" equals tacky clothing and earrings that look like they came from the bargain bin at Claire's Accessories at the mall.)

When I first read "crepe," I wasn't sure it sounded like a particularly enjoyable thing to eat in 80+ degree heat. It sounded even worse after walking a mile to the Metro stop that would take us to the bustling Eastern Market, and even worse after seeing the long line of people standing in the beating hot sun for their crepe fix. Of course, because I was raised right and know that guests should always be grateful for everything the host/hostess does for them, I tattoed a semi-permament smile on my face and prepared my belly for a steaming hot savory crepe.

As we settled into our place in the seemingly never-ending line, I contemplated the options on the make-shift menu by the side of the crepe stand. There were sweet crepes stuffed with walnuts, chocolate, oreos, and other cavity-creators, and savory crepes filled with cheese, egg, turkey, spinach, tomatoes, etc. The choices and combinations are enough to keep a person occupied the entire length of the line (unless you have an "in-the-know" friend who will tell you what to order). Without (much) hemming and hawing, Ashley and I both selected the #3 with egg, gruyere cheese, tomato, and basil for $8.

After putting in our orders, I kept myself entertained by watching the man behind the famous stand as he made each person's crepe. Though I was hot, uncomfortable and tired of waiting in line, it made me even more uncomfortable seeing how hard the crepe man was working. Lines of sweat oozed down his forehead as he expertly folded and flipped the delicate French pancakes. I squirmed thinking of how hot it must be to stand over the burners as a line of impatient hungry people watched my every move. I sort of hated myself for being one of those people. But not enough to stop me from taking a picture of the action.

When our crepes were finally ready, the crepe man handed them to us in paper cones, which we proceeded to cover further with paper towels. The scorching sun was no match for these scorching hot crepes that threatened to burn our hands through the flimsy paper. Ashley and I grabbed some beverages (an Orangina for her, an Honest Tea Mango Acai Iced Tea for me) from the Marvelous Market nearby and then settled down at a nearby table to eat our lunch.

As I bit into the soft folds of my crepe, Ashley's description of the famous Eastern Market fare echoed in my head -- "It melts in your mouth." Her words were so spot-on, I'll echo it again here -- the crepe truly does melt in your mouth. So much so that I'm inclined to make the crepe the new burrito. If there were enough crepe stands in LA to rival all the taco stands the police keep trying to shut down. And if I could transport that sweaty crepe man across the country. He'd be right at home underneath the California sun. (Until the Health Department shut him down for improper hygeine near the food preparation area.)