Saturday, November 29, 2008

Leftover Turkey Sandwiches: The Best Part of Thankgiving

I could care less about chowing down on the leftover sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, or cream corn casserole. I have no desire to dig into the rapidly rotting pumpkin pie. And the thought of dipping a finger back into the gravy boat makes my stomach churn like the ice cream maker my dad used to make mint chocolate chip ice cream with when my brothers and I were younger.

After a night of gorging on an absurd amount of simple carbohydrates, nuts, giblets and carcass drippings, the last thing I want to do is give my stomach a second food baby the next day. Of course, that doesn't mean I shun all the goodies that make it away from the table unscathed by my family's chompers. Every year, I find that the most enjoyable part of the Thanksgiving spread is the leftover turkey breast I get to use in a sandwich the following day. Topped with an ample dollop of my dad's homemade cranberry relish (made with fresh oranges and orange zest), it is a treat for my taste buds that are accustomed to mundane turkey sandwiches made with Boar's Head Maple Honey deli slices and Trader Joe's Sweet & Spicy Mustard. The difference between the latter sandwich and the former, made with fresh, succulent slices of my dad's barbecued bird, is almost disturbing. It's like I am using an entirely different kind of meat, and I look forward to it every year.

I love the sandwiches so much that I sometimes feel compelled to hide extra breast meat in the fridge so that no one eats it. Some may find that a bit selfish/crazy/neurotic, but "Friends" aficionados will understand. It still pains me to think of poor Ross' "moist-maker sandwich" that was stolen and eaten by one of his evil co-workers. While I think a gravy-soaked slice of bread sounds rather repulsive, fresh turkey breast is a precious commodity! It's Thanksgiving gold -- the center of the holiday, and the center of that glorious next day sandwich.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Top Chef, Season 5, Episode 3: "S'mores Boy is Gone"

It's one of the few shows that everyone in my family watches. Well, aside from my mom, who doesn't really enjoy it (she doesn't like thinking about food when she's not eating it), but she humors it when I'm in town and want to watch it. As for the rest of my crazy clan, we go nuts for Tom Collichio's bald head and critical tongue, and the lot of those often arrogant, potty-mouthed cheftestants.

While I normally enjoy the show alone in my WeHo apartment with only a bowl of ice cream to keep me company (looking at all the food always makes me hungry), this past Wednesday I was home for Thanksgiving, and watched it with my mom and dad. I knew what would happen even before my dad changed the channel to Bravo -- the hour-long episode would be similar to a pop-up video on VH-1. My parents, particularly my dad (my mom understands the golden rule of television-viewing, ie. no talking allowed), would not be able to resist adding in their commentary.

Part of me wanted to staple gun my dad's mouth shut so I could focus on all the sweat and steam and sauteing, but ultimately, most of what he said was spot-on. I agreed with his remarks, and feel it is appropriate to share his play-by-play analysis of the third episode rather than creating my own interpretation. Of course, since this is "Diana Takes a Bite," I do feel somewhat compelled to provide my own thoughts on his thoughts. (Especially since I abide by the no-talking rule and didn't get to verbalize them during the episode itself.)

Quick-Fire Challenge
The contestants each draw a recipe out of the Top Chef cookbook that they will have one hour to re-create. With fifteen minutes remaining, Padma informs the chefs that they must take the ingredients they are using to make a soup instead.
Pop-up commentary: My dad guffaws, his hearty chuckle startling me from across the room. "Fifteen minutes? It takes hours to make a good soup!" He chortles.
My thoughts: "Poor chefs. What a waste of all their pretty ingredients! The tuna tartar is going to be ruined!"
Pop-up commentary:
(Re: Carla and her shrimp, coriander, tomato soup) "I like her. She's good. She knows what she's doing."
My thoughts: "Yeah, when she's not busy channeling her spirit guides and meditating about love and light..."

Elimination Challenge
The contestants are divided into two teams, and each team is charged with the same assignment -- create a Thanksgiving dinner for the Foo Fighters. Using microwaves and toaster ovens. The winning team gets to attend the band's concert; the losing team has to clean up.
Pop-up commentary:
Dad: "What's a 'Foo Fighter?'"
Me: "They're a band."
Dad: "How does one get to be a 'Foo Fighter?'"
Me: "They're a band."
My Thoughts: "Foo Fighters? Really? That's the best Top Chef can get?"
Pop-up commentary (from my mom): (re: the "Cougar" team, their choice of name and mascot (Ariane)) "I don't like that term. It's derogatory toward women. They don't have a name like that for men who do the same thing."
My Thoughts: "I see your point. Until that older woman steals my boyfriend (if I had one...)"
Pop-up commentary: (re: Jeff who is running around the "kitchen" like someone dumped hot water down his pants) "He's trying to do too much."
My Thoughts: "Plus he looks like a pretty boy. I don't like men who are prettier than me."

Judge's Table
Team "Sexy Pants" (side note: lamest name ever) wins the challenge, and Team Cougar is sent to the chopping block. The desserts and potatoes are deemed the weakest part of the meal, and Richard's s'mores, Danny's undercooked mashed potatoes, and pretty boy Jeff's pumpkin mousse and fig stuffing, are immediately singled out as the worst dishes.
Pop-up commentary: (re: the initial line of questioning from the judges) "S'mores boy is gone."
My Thoughts: "Gosh darnit, Top Chef! Yet another predictable episode! I want a shocker! And not just one that involves Ariane actually cooking something good."

Stew Room
The chefs sit around and yell at each other.
Pop-up commentary: (Still looking at Carla) "I like her. She's good."
Danny eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Jamie yells at him for spilling peanut butter on the floor.
My Thoughts: "Since when does peanut butter drip? Is it warm peanut butter? Mmm... that sounds good. Maybe I'll have that for lunch tomorrow..."

Final Judge's Table
"S'mores boy" (Richard) is eliminated.
Pop-up commentary: "Hah! S'mores boy is gone!"
My Thoughts: "S'mores boy is gone. I want a cookie."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing...

Plus two glasses of red wine, a chocolate chip cookie and a sliver of pecan pie...

Thanksgiving Waldorf Salad: An Ode to My College Years

Considering the number of posts I have written that have in some way related to my college years, I'm beginning to think I need to change the name of my blog from "Diana Takes a Bite" to "This One Time When I was in College..." Of course, not everything I did in college involved food. Sometimes it involved beer. And margaritas. And (shudder) books with words I couldn't (and still can't) pronounce.

While I hate to be redundant, one of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes was introduced to me when I was in college, and I would be remiss to not share the story behind it. Because I chose a school located 2,000 miles away from my Newport Beach home, I didn't always have the luxury of joining my family for the turkeylicious holiday. My freshman and sophomore years, my dear friend Kyna was gracious enough to invite me and another friend into her home to celebrate with her family, and while it wasn't the same as being with my own crazy parents and brothers, it was nice to have a surrogate family in Illinois. It was also nice that her parents were amazing cooks and prepared a feast that made me almost forget about my dad's barbecued bird, and my mom's sweet potato praline casserole.

One of my favorite dishes from Kyna's family's Thanksgiving was her mom's mayo-less Waldorf Salad - a crisp and refreshing side that eased the heavy burden the heartier dishes heaped on our poor overwhelmed bellies. Kyna's mom insisted that I copy down the recipe to take with me, and I eagerly complied -- carefully writing down the recipe she'd found in an old newspaper article onto a tiny piece of paper that read "The Cow Jumps Over the Moon" at the top. While many recipes I use end up being relegated to the bottom of a stack of indecipherable notes, receipts and old junk mail, that piece of paper has never been far from my reach. I've made the salad for my family's Christmas party, for a Halloween dinner party with some friends, for a grilled cheese party/potluck, and for the past five Thanksgiving dinners at my parents' house. My older brother has made the salad for several of his dinner parties as well, and I continue to get requests for the recipe whenever I make it.

While the salad itself makes for a nice addition to my family's Thanksgiving table, part of why I love making it is because of the memories it evokes. As I chop the apples, celery and walnuts, I am reminded of my dear college friends and of the Thanksgivings I spent away from home -- of chopping the same Granny Smith apples in Kyna's parents' kitchen in Illinois. It feels good to bring part of those experiences into my post-collegiate Thanksgivings -- into the new memories that I create every year with my family. And it feels good to share the recipe that has brought me such joy, with my fellow foodie friends and bloggers.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Waldorf Salad
Courtesy of Kyna's Family

2 large Granny Smith apples, cored and diced
1/2 cup each: diced celery, coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
3/4 cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons each: honey, canola oil (I typically use olive oil and don't notice any difference)
1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar

Put apples, celery and cranberries in a bowl.
Combine honey, oil and vinegar in small dish - whisk and toss with apple mixture.
Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally to integrate dressing.
Let stand 30 minutes to lose chill.
Toss in walnuts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Best Coca-Cola in the Whole Wide World

I'd heard the rumors before. Mostly on Chowhound, but I'd heard them nonetheless. "Mexican coke is really good," they said. "Better than regular." They claim the difference is because Mexican coke is made with real sugar cane, while coke produced in the U.S. is sweetened with the evil, body-polluting corn syrup.

I didn't really think much about it. Coke is coke, right? Nothing particularly special -- a means to reach a caffeinated end.

Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy a coke from time to time -- mostly when I am sick, flying on an airplane, or am eating something like pizza or burgers -- but more often than not I prefer a frosty root beer or sparkling pomegranate Izze soda when I'm craving something fizzy. Despite the nostalgia attached to the red can, coke has been relegated to the back-burner for me. Once my favorite childhood weekend treat, coke is now something I associate with negatives -- empty calories, jittery nerves and teeth erosion.

Yet when I was preparing to go to Galco's Old School Grocery to collect obscure root beers for a good friend, I heard the rumors about the superiority of Mexican coke once again. This time from my roommate's boyfriend, who giddily requested that I bring him back one. He insisted that I also purchase one for myself, and I decided to heed his advice. He was so excited about the gosh darn thing, I couldn't help but be caught up in his wide-eyed enthusiasm. I bought myself a bottle of the $1.79 Coca-Cola, and the next day, proceeded to test out the highly tauted soda.

I could taste the difference from the first sip. It was better. Much better. The fizzy beverage didn't coat my mouth with that bitter aftertaste that I often experience when drinking a coke. It was sweeter (the sugar cane perhaps?), yet not in an off-putting way. While I normally cannot finish a whole can of coke, I couldn't imagine not finishing this bottle. I was enjoying it so thoroughly that as I neared the bottom, I felt compelled to do my own reenactment of those coke commercials where a young adult is walking through a New York City neighborhood chugging a bottle of coke. I picked up the bottle, still glossy with condensation, stood up, and downed the rest in one breath. "Ahhh." I moaned, smiling to myself.

It was exactly how I used to feel when drinking a coke as a child. It was a treat. A memorable experience. And one I am more than happy to have again.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Diana's First Egg Salad Sandwich

As I mentioned in yesterday's post for La Grande Orange, I spent the first 21 years of my life avoiding any egg that didn't come already baked into a cookie, brownie or cake. For years I told people that I couldn't stand the smell, or that the texture repulsed me. From time to time I would try to force down a hard boiled egg around the Easter holiday (I liked the pretty colored shells), but I never understood why people found the slimy orbs so appealing.

That all changed one Sunday morning during my senior year of college when I, cheered on by my favorite brunching partner in crime, Ashley, ordered an egg white broccoli omelet from Clarke's Diner in Evanston. Because the omelet came with a stack of buttermilk pancakes and substantially portioned side of "Northshore" potatoes, I figured that if I still hated eggs, I would have plenty else to eat. I ended up loving the fluffy, veggie-filled omelet, and after that day, I finally understood that "I love eggs" television commercial that always irked me so much as a youngster.

Of course, because I spent so much time waving an "anti-eggs" flag, I missed out on some pivotal childhood egg-based dishes, specifically deviled eggs and the egg salad sandwich. This past Saturday, I tried (and enjoyed) deviled eggs, and yesterday, I decided it was time to further my education with the egg salad sandwich.

While it may seem like a basic and easy lunch to prepare, I was incredibly nervous about the endeavor. Not only have I never eaten or prepared an egg salad sandwich, but I have never hard boiled an egg before. (Insert horrified gasps here.) After a quick consultation with my mother and brief study session on 101 Cookbooks, I submerged two eggs in a pot of cold water. I brought the water to a slow boil and then immediately removed the pot from the heat, covered it with the lid, and let the eggs "rest" for 15 minutes (my mother's suggestion for "well-done eggs"). When the timer went off, I placed the eggs in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process and then began preparing my egg salad fixings.

After perusing the comments for the 101 Cookbooks' egg salad sandwich recipe, I decided to dress my eggs up with Dijon mustard, a dollop of mayo, a squirt of lemon juice, chopped capers, celery, green onions, dill, and the requisite salt and pepper. With additions set, it was finally time for the unveiling of my eggs. I was slightly concerned that my mother's cooking time would result in the dreaded grey ring, but as soon as I began peeling my eggs, I knew they were perfect. Beginner's luck, I thought happily, as I began chopping up the silky egg whites and tender yolks. It reminded me of when I won a stuffed Colorado Rockies baseball on my first attempt at that horrid arcade game with the claw. I was thrilled. (My brothers were not.)

While I suspect my lunch might have been even better if I'd had time to let the egg salad chill for a few hours, I was pleased with the final results. Next time I might amp up the amount of lemon juice and capers, and perhaps chop my celery in slightly bigger chunks for greater textural contrast, but the flavor profiles did compliment each other nicely. I was excited about the whole experience -- as though I had just conquered something profoundly difficult like Turduckin.

Of course, who really wants to eat Turduckin? Eggs are all well and good, but a chicken in a duck in a turkey? It may take me more than 21 years to come around to that one...

Monday, November 24, 2008

La Grande Orange: It Smells Like a Chain... But it Tastes Like a Restaurant

I cringed at the bright orange sign that lit up the walkway like a Jack-O-Lantern on Halloween. The overtness of the signage reminded me of conversations I had with my brothers growing up, when we jokingly judged restaurants based on whether they had a neon "Open" sign. In our minds, neon "Open" signs were bad news. I couldn't help but wonder what La Grande Orange's ostentatious display meant. While I have dined at the original location in Phoenix, Chelsea's Kitchen, and knew the food was up to par, as I walked through the front door, I began to feel as though I was about to commit a serious foodie crime: eating at a chain restaurant.

The scads of families settled around several of the tables near my girlfriends and mine did nothing to assuage the uneasy sensation that was quickly descending upon my body. Families eat at chains, I thought warily, as I immediately began perusing the one-page wine list for liquid relaxation. I was pleased to see a lengthy list of wines by the glass, including some reputable names from the Santa Barbara region, but after placing my order for a glass of spicy Syrah, I was appalled to see kid-friendly trays filled with compartmentalized macaroni and cheese, fruit and fries making their way out of the kitchen. Fraiche doesn't have a kid's menu. Pizzeria Mozza doesn't have a kids' menu. This did not bode well for the future satisfaction of my belly.

The menu was further disconcerting. It read like it could have come from any American bistro in Anytown, U.S.A. The chicken nachitos, burgers, taco platters with rice and beans, NY strip steak, Dixie pan-fried chicken with mashed potatoes, and prime rib seemed to mock me with their ostentatious displays of foodie mediocrity. I wanted to crawl under the table and die a little, but reminded myself that I had been to the Phoenix restaurant before. It was good. My brother, a former NYer, even liked it. He raved about the brussel sprout salad with manchego cheese, dried cranberries, and bacon, and the swordfish tacos like he was raving about the gnocchi at our favorite Italian trattoria, Supper, in the Village. I took a sip of my hefty glass of Syrah and forced myself to think like the glass-half-fuller that I portend to be.

Upon seeing platter after platter of the deviled eggs appetizer emerging from the kitchen, my friend Brooke suggested that we order one as well. "With bacon?" I asked hopefully. She nodded with enthusiasm and the mental image of greasy fried pork strips calmed my apprehension. Minutes later my two friends and I were chowing down on the silky deviled delights. Because I spent the first 21 years of my life avoiding eggs like they contained anthrax, this was my first encounter with the '50s house party favorite. I don't have anything to compare them to, but I loved the two eggs I slurped down like I would slurp down oysters if I ate them. It was a fun dish, and my spirits were immediately lifted.

I followed up our egg-cellent (heh heh) appetizer with the now ubiquitous short ribs entree ($23) that came with tender new potatoes, asparagus and other indecipherable veggies. Topped with a fried egg, and surrounded with a red wine jus, it was the epitome of comfort food. I loved the textural contrast of the soft egg with the hearty shreds of surprisingly lean meat, and devoured the entire plate without hesitation. As I scraped up the last bit of jus, my friend turned to me and said, "Wow! You cleaned your plate! You must have really liked it." I nodded sheepishly, and watched her and our other friend feast upon the rest of their NY strips steaks with fries and sauteed asparagus.

Despite my desire to dine exclusively at local hidden gems, and to always challenge my palate with bold flavors and different tastes, La Grande Orange provides discriminating tongues with a different option. Affordable, simple food that is prepared well. It's a comfort to know that when/if I procreate, I can take my kids to a restaurant that will not require me to offend my mouth. (Just my eyes with that darn bright orange sign.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

6 Random Things

The uber-talented Heather from Diary of a Fanatic Foodie tagged me to reveal 6 random things about myself. I am having a sort of discombobulated, not-exactly-feeling-myself, kind of morning, so I figure this is the optimal time to dig deep, make some rando revelations, and get right back in touch with my crazy, neurotic self!

1. I have never been on an upside-down roller coaster and am completely content to spend the rest of my life without experiencing one.

2. I was born a month early and still weighed 7 1/2 pounds.

3. The highlight of my HS years was running a mile in 4:58 during my senior year track season.

4. Centerstage is one of my favorite movies, and I secretly wish that I could have been a ballet dancer. (Sometimes I even pretend I am one when I'm alone and blaring my iPod in my room.)

5. It makes me angry when perfectly healthy individuals use the elevator to go up or down one floor.

6. I believe in love at first sight.

I am tagging the following:

1. Meg from Futile Sniff

2. Esi from Dishing Up Delights

3. Kirby from Kirby Von Scrumptious

And 3-nonblogger friends... (you know who you are!)

4. Ali

5. Caroline

6. Ashley

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Schmerty's Cookies and the Quest for Ultimate Brownie Satisfaction

I blame "the Office." Even though I was enjoying a bowl of Soy Creamy Vanilla Mango ice cream while watching Thursday night's episode, all I could think about was how much I wanted one of the brownies the cast was devouring at the beginning of the show. Michael took two brownies that he claimed he was going to ration out throughout the day, but upon discovering that his HR nemesis Toby had returned from Costa Rica, he immediately inhaled both. I giggled at his reaction, but secretly wished I was the one gorging on the decadent chocolate treats.

I forgot all about the brownies until yesterday. It was a somewhat stressful day at work, as Fridays often tend to be, and I had a lot to accomplish before I left for the weekend. I am finally using up some of my vacation time, extending the Thanksgiving holiday into a full week away from the office, and needed to complete a lengthy to-do list before leaving for the day. Of course, as is often the case with vacations, they wind up creating more stress/work in the lead up and aftermath. As I sat at my desk yesterday, feverishly preparing excel documents and flooding my coworkers' Outlook inboxes with an obscene amount of e-mails, I started to feel a bit antsy. My head was suddenly thick with images of brownies -- luscious, cake-like chocolatey brownies. I knew that I wouldn't be able to get through the rest of the day without one.

My tongue glistening with moisture, I grabbed my wallet and charged across the street from my office to Schmerty's Cookies on Ocean Park Blvd. in Santa Monica. Entering the exceedingly cramped corners of the shop, I was immediately overwhelmed with the neat rows of cookies and brownies. There were chocolate chip cookies, chocolate chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin cookies with nuts and dried fruit, and four different kinds of brownies. I hesitated for a moment, completely flummoxed by the options in front of me. I asked the polite young man behind the counter if he recommended the brownies or the cookies, and he paused before extolling the virtues of both. His fervent praise of both baked goods did nothing to calm the war in my mind. It was at this crucial juncture that a woman working behind the counter (the owner perhaps) chimed in, "If you want something intensely chocolatey, go with the brownie."

At first, I took her advice to mean I should go with the chocolate cookie with white chocolate chips. I am often hesitant to buy brownies in bakeries because they so often are cloyingly sweet and taste more like fudge than a proper baked good. I prefer my brownies to be a bit more cake-like in texture -- slightly chewy, but not gooey in the center. Yet as the young man began to bag my cookie, I found myself asking him to switch it out for the brownie. I had come for a brownie, and I was going to leave with a brownie. In the moment, there could be no substitutions.

As soon as I bit into the 1/2 inch thick brownie, I knew I had made the right decision. The powdered sugar-dusted top was crisp in texture, forming a nice crust above the chocolate-chip studded interior. The inside was moist without taking on the dreaded ooey-gooeyness that I loathe, and the chocolate flavor was intense, but not overwhelming on my palate. It was exactly what I wanted and needed in that moment. I didn't ration it out. I didn't offer a bite to the friendly coworker in the next office. I sat there with my cup of chamomile tea, and I ate the entire thing.

And then I went back to my excel documents and e-mails, completely satisfied by my indulgence and the experience of eating exactly what I craved at exactly the moment I craved it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels: Let it Snow

There was something amiss in my local Trader Joe's last Thursday. It was all a flutter of activity -- and not due to the scads of overzealous patrons fighting over the last bag of dried cranberries. I had just stumbled into a glorious moment in the life of any Trader Joe's -- the moment when the store is restocked. Yet as I looked around the perpetually bustling grocer, I realized that this wasn't a normal restocking. The bare shelves were being refurbished with fresh products, specifically holiday products such as the ever popular Peppermint Joe Joe's. Ignoring the sight of the telling red and white striped Joe Joe's boxes (I find them rather lacking), I raced my way through the frozen foods' aisle, my eyes peeled for my favorite holiday treat.

My heart pitter-pattered with excitement when my lustful eyes landed upon the light blue box. "They're back!" I thought happily, clutching a box to my chest. The lighthouse picture on the exterior was a change from the evergreen trees on last year's product, but there was no mistaking it -- the Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels had returned.

The key to these dark chocolate, caramel-filled delights is not the decadent gloss the chocolate imparts on the tongue. Nor is it the way the buttery caramel oozes out of the shell when the chocolate seal is broken. It is the sea salt. The glorious, high-blood-pressure-causing, sea salt. The combination of the sweet caramel, bitter chocolate and robust kernels of salt is intoxicating on the palate, and the textural components are equally compelling. The firm chocolate is nicely balanced by the soft interior and crunchy bites of salt. While the chocolates do crumble when pressure is applied from the teeth, the problem is easily solved by eating the whole piece in two bites. The next problem -- ie. desiring more -- can be solved by eating another of the approximately 70-calorie treats. And another...

Of course, since these delectable goodies are only available during the holidays, the extra indulgence can always be justified. As for the four glasses of eggnog downed at the office party? Not so much.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 2: The Endearing Tool

From time to time, I like to give my mom a little vocabulary lesson in popular slang and terms that might appear on the website,, or in the conversations of young adults. She enjoys being "in the know" and "with it," and I enjoy her humorous reactions to my explanations. In the past, I have told her about "cougars" (ie. older women who like younger men) and "douches," and most recently, I gave her a run-down on "tools." The sanitized UrbanDictionary definition is "someone who tries too hard," but I prefer the following version, "A person, typically male, who says or does things that cause you to give them a 'what-are-you-even-doing-here' look. The 'what-are-you-even-doing-here' look is classified by a glare in the tool's direction and is usually accompanied by muttering of how big of a tool they are."

Last night, as I was watching the second episode of "Top Chef" season 5, every time Fabio, the Italian-born cheftestant and current LA resident, came on the screen, I engaged in the aforementioned glaring and mutterings. Even his name, reminiscent of the severely overexposed male model who used to appear bare-chested on the covers of all those trashy romance novels, set off my tool alert alarm. His accent, immature banter with fellow European, Stefan, and over confident camera confessions only furthered my impression that Fabio belongs in a Craftsman shed rather than in the kitchen.

I spent the entire episode plotting his demise in my head and shooting eye daggers his way when he pooh-poohed Jamie's chilled corn soup as too pedestrian compared to his fancy spherical olives. I had all but convinced myself that I hated him and his over-the-top accent, but as the show went on, I found myself starting to find his toolish behavior slightly endearing. In an episode that was rife with predictabilities -- ie. Jill going home for her Ostrich egg disaster, and Hosea landing on the chopping block due to his unfortunate decision to use canned crab in his uninspired dish -- my opinion of Fabio made an unexpected turn.

As he stood before Tom, Padma, Gail, and guest judge, Donatella at the end of the show, I found myself actually rooting for him to win the elimination challenge. I realized then that he had attained a status that few men of his creed are able to achieve. Over the course of the episode, he had somehow managed to become a cute tool. His earnest defense of his winning dish (ironically more compelling than the abominable defense Jill offered for her ostrich quiche disaster), was a classic moment in the history of the "Top Chef" judge's table -- one that is sure to be replayed during the recap episode at the end of the season. I laughed out loud when the judges corrected him -- informing him that he didn't need to defend his appetizer -- he was there because they loved it too. The moment was incredibly disarming for the Italian stallion, and he seemed genuinely humbled by their praise.

Despite my initial affections for the tattooed Hawaiian, Gene, who many already predict will be this season's fan favorite, Fabio has hammered himself into my heart. I might even like it if he'd hammer his way into my kitchen too. For a tool, he sure knows what to do with a knife.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Galco's Old World Grocery: An Obscure Place for Obscure Soda

"What am I doing?" I thought, as I drove down the unfamiliar three-lane 110 freeway on Saturday afternoon. A bead of sweat rolled down the inside of my arm, and I reached over to turn up the air conditioner. It was hot, the sky was streaked with grey from the fires, and cars were zooming around my 1999 Silver Corolla as I peered anxiously at the exit signs, willing one of them to say "Avenue 64." I was on a top secret mission to secure obscure and exotic root beers, and despite my apprehension, I would not be thwarted by the distance (15 miles) I had to trek outside my West Hollywood comfort zone to get them.

It had all begun with a NY Times article that appeared in the paper this past June. The article shared the results of a root beer taste test, listing the top 10 root beers of the 25 that the panel sampled. I knew as soon as I finished reading the piece that I had stumbled upon the perfect gift idea for my root beer-loving friend: bottles of each of the reviewed sodas so he could perform his own taste test. The only obstacles? His birthday was five months away, and the only place likely to carry all the different labels was Galco's Old World Grocery, located in Eagle Rock far far away from my apartment.

As I drove up to the old school market, I cringed at the shoddiness of the signage and exterior of the one-floor building on York Blvd. I pulled down on the hem of my denim skirt, not sure what sort of characters I was about to encounter. This was not the image of a jolly old-time soda shop. I had pictured it being cute and cozy and full of bright colors -- I didn't anticipate that it would be dusty and dirty and somewhat reminiscent of an abandoned warehouse. Yet, as I walked through the sliding front doors, something magical happened. One moment I was in 2008 and the next, I was back in the 1950s.

The customers that pushed their metal carts around the four-aisle market were moving at a slower pace than the ones I pass by at Whole Foods or my local Trader Joe's. They were taking time to browse, to chat with the several employees eager to help and answer questions, and to even give a newbie like myself a few pointers. A woman who was there with her son told me to use an empty soda case to transport my root beers so they wouldn't roll about in my cart, and another patron pointed out a product that he insisted I add to my collection.

After just a few minutes, I had found all the root beers on my list except for Sea Dog Old Style. I asked a passing employee if they had it in stock, and while he said "No," he made it his mission to make sure I left the store with several additional bottles of root beer that were not included in the NY Times piece. I wanted to tell him to stop filling my cart with unnecessary items, but I was charmed by his enthusiasm for the product. As he extolled the virtues of the Red Ribbon bottle and began recounting the history of Sasparilla -- the precursor to root beer -- I couldn't help but feel a sense of nostalgia for a time that I never got to experience. When I ask someone at Trader Joe's if they recommend the spinach lasagna, I am met with a blank stare. In this self-interested age and in this self-interested city, it is rare that a person will spare the breath to inform me that "No, the lasagna sucks, but the meatless meatballs will knock your socks off." At Galco's there is no such attitude nor pretension.

When I had finally completed my shopping (which included a bottle of Mexican coke for myself), my new friend guided me to the check-out. I started to reach for the hefty box of sodas, but he immediately stopped me.

"Let Darrell do it." He said with a smile, nodding toward the fresh-faced young man behind the register. "You're probably too young to get that." He added.

"No, like Mikey." I said, returning his smile.

He was impressed. As was I when he helped me to my car, loading the heavy box into my trunk without flinching at the scuffed bumper or distinct layer of soot/grime that coated my older model Toyota. It fit right in there -- a little dusty around the edges, but with an engine/heart that keeps it running smoothly.

The bottles on the shelves might have imperfect labels, might contain over or under 12 ounces of fluid (as my friend discovered later), and might be a little shelf-worn, but the product itself is perfect. A testament to soda, and a testament to a time when grocers didn't discard apples simply because they aren't pretty enough to put on display.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Xiomara: Go for the Mojitos, Stay for the Pork

I'd driven by it hundreds of times on the way to Osteria La Buca for gnocchi, Scoops for ice cream and Larchmont for other recreational activities involving food/eating. For three years, Xiomara, located east of Highland on Melrose Ave., was the restaurant "in the corner of my eye," but I knew nothing about it other than what I had gleaned from a spattering of Yelp reviews. The mojitos, made from real sugar cane (as opposed to "fake" sugar cane), are supposedly "the best in LA," and the food, while expensive, is pleasing to the palate.

Because I'm mostly a wino when it comes to consumption of liver-leaching beverages, and I had other wallet-shocking restaurants on my "to eat" list, Xiomara always seemed to be overshadowed by the Osteria Mozzas and Fraiches of the LA dining world. I wanted to go there, but needed someone to push it to the forefront of my foodie radar.

This past week, after forcing my good friend into an early celebratory birthday dinner, Xiomara finally made it to the top of my list. I sent my friend an e-mail with fifteen different restaurants (with links to the menus included), and he immediately responded that he'd like to try Xiomara. Reservations were easily secured for this past Saturday night at 8 pm, and I was left with only one final concern -- what to wear to the upscale Cuban-inspired eatery.

As we strode into the half-full restaurant on Saturday night, I was glad I had chosen a form-fitting long-sleeved steel grey dress and heels. The upper-crust clientele occupying the tables downstairs and upstairs were well-attired and reeking of wealth still unburdened by the economic recession. I took it as a sign that the food would be more than just an average plate of garlic-soaked chicken from the budget-friendly Versailles. I took the serving trays filled with glasses of mojitos as a sign too. Both my friend and I ordered the restaurant's signature $12 drink as soon as we settled into our two-person table overlooking the downstairs dining room (the place to sit).

When our silent Bob-esque waiter dropped the drinks off at our table, my hand immediately dove out to catch the glass that appeared to be tipping over. It took me a second to realize that the glass was slanted and was meant to be a "Leaning Tower of Mojito." After one sip of the work of Cuban bartending art, I knew why the mojito at Xiomara is so acclaimed. Unlike the glass, the lime, mint and sugar were perfectly balanced -- not too sweet, not too tart, and most importantly, I didn't wind up with a mouth full of mint leaves.

The auspicious beginning to our night continued with a generously stuffed bread basket containing crispy plantain chips and succulent pieces of butter-toasted white bread. My friend and I were in carbohydrate heaven as we gorged ourselves on the diet-destructing simple sugars, content to consider it our appetizer for the evening. The bread and the complimentary quiche slice, dropped by our table without a word from the server, were more than enough to keep our mouths occupied while we waited for our entrees, the highly recommended Chilean Sea Bass on Corn Guizo, roasted with a crispy corn crust and served on chile mashed potatoes and corn stew ($34), and the Seared Pork Hash, Yuca con Mojo Platonos y Chicarron ($23.50) that translates to a shredded leg of pork, marinated Cuban style and served with black bean jus, marinated cassave, and fried rip and green plantains.
Because we have reached a point in our friendship where we no longer fear each others germs/backwash, my friend and I opted to split the two entrees. I started with the hash, he started with the sea bass, and we agreed to swap mid-way through. Though the pork hash sounded like something one might encounter at a Cuban restaurant of a less prestigious nature, the construction of the dish was nothing short of spectacular -- in both presentation and height. I had no idea what I was eating as I forked my way through the succulent braised pork and accompaniments, but the flavors blended so well that I hated to part with the rest of it when I reached the half-way point. It was the type of dish I might crave on a cold "winter" day when I actually need to wear a sweater or pair of closed-toed shoes.

After the unequivocal success of the pork hash, I knew that the sea bass could never live up to the taste that now lined the inside of my mouth. Try as I might to see the bright side (ie. that it was nice to finish with something "lighter"), the sea bass, while well-cooked, fell a bit flat. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the crispy corn crust against the tender, moist flesh, but found the chile mashed potatoes and corn stew to be distractions rather than enhancements to the dish. The spicy vs. sweet flavors were somewhat overpowering for the delicate sea bass, and I couldn't help but wish the entree had been prepared in a way that would better showcase the mild fish.
Despite the slight tongue disappointment at the end of the meal, my friend and I were both pleased with the "in the corner of my eye" restaurant. Enough so that I can see it moving to another section of my "To Eat" list -- to the section labelled "I Want to Go Back," with a side note, "Next time I'm eating both halves of hash."

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Hunt for Red... Err... Cranberry Relish

I held the cranberry orange relish in my hand. It would be so easy to empty the fresh cranberries, orange, sugar, and 100% cranberry juice out of my cart and just use the already-made, Trader Joe's version instead. Did I really want to go through all the effort of making my own from scratch when I could scoop, plop and eat?

I sighed, thought of my blog and the super chic curvy bowl my brother has been bugging me to use, and set the container of relish back into the cooler. There would be no easy button on this one. I charged toward the checkout stand, fully committed to my Saturday morning mission -- creating the perfect topping for my turkey sandwiches.

My love of cranberry relish on turkey sandwiches dates back to my college days when I spent my sophomore year rotating between two lunches. Practically every single week day I nourished myself with either a chicken caeser wrap or the aforementioned turkey sandwich which came topped with a slice of Muenster cheese, an ample smattering of cranberry relish, and the requisite lettuce leaf. After graduating from the dorm cafeteria to off-campus home-cooking (ie. heating frozen pizzas and making grilled cheese sandwiches), I scoured the nearby markets for a similar version of my favorite spread, but never found anything similar. My search continued when I moved back out to Southern California, and for a while, I satisfied my itch with Fiordifrutta Cranberry Spread from Erewhon Natural Foods Market. I thought I had found the perfect product, until sporadic stocking and a jump in price from $4 to over $7 prompted me to say "No go!" on the pricey jar of goodness. I turned my back on the tart little berry and opted to top my sandwiches with a more stable spread, like hummus or mustard.

I have grown to enjoy the various mustards I have introduced to my palate, but with Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, grocery stores are now embracing the cranberry like Los Angelos have embraced the cupcake. Everywhere I turn cranberries, relishes and sauces are begging to be my sandwich lubricant of choice. While I have been tempted to purchase them, there is always something that keeps the jar on the shelf instead of in my cart: massive amounts of sugar, corn syrup and other additives that do not belong in my cute striped lunch tote. The Trader Joe's version does seem to be "healthier" and more "homemade" than most varieties, but standing in the overly-crowded aisle on Saturday, I couldn't get myself to buy it.

A good friend once told me that "you can't really like something until you've made it." While I don't necessarily agree with that statement (at all), her words rang in my head like Christmas bells as I finished the rest of my shopping and went home to test out the recipe I had found on Since I was only using a 12 ounce bag of cranberries (as opposed to the 16 ounce bag in the recipe) I needed to change the proportions of the other ingredients. I also cut the amount of sugar in half, like many of the cooks who reviewed the recipe did as well. It was shockingly easy to make, and the results were, for the most part, good.

Biting into my turkey sandwich on Saturday did not bring back college memories of dancing in shady bars and wearing the same pair of jeans five days in a row, but it was a decent first attempt. I did find it to be a little "tart" due to my restrained use of sugar, and also felt it was a little "wet" for an ideal sandwich spread. Furthermore, the distinct cranberry/orange flavors were almost too potent and were both a little too eager to compete with my Boar's Head maple-glazed turkey breast and provolone cheese. Ultimately, I think it would work better as an accompaniment on the big T-day instead of as a mustard/mayo substitute.

Where do I go from here? For now, straight to the refrigerated section at Trader Joe's. Stay tuned for "Iron Chef: Battle of the Relishes."

Cranberry Relish
(Adapted from recipe featured in Parade, November 2002)

12 ounce bag of fresh cranberries
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh squeezed orange juice (use two tablespoons less to adjust for 12 ounce bag)
1/2 cup 100% cranberry juice (use two tablespoons less to adjust for 12 ounce bag)
1 tablespoon orange zest

Combine ingredients in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the berries pop open and sauce begins to thicken (took about 15 minutes). Skim the foam off the surface with a metal spoon and discard. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 3 months.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cici's Cafe: Bewitched and Bedazzled Once Again

I've never been one to hold a grudge. If someone makes me mad, causes me pain or inflicts damage upon my taste buds, I may fume and fester for a few minutes, but more often than not, I'm willing to give the foolhardy deviant a second chance. I may possess a seriously potent evil eye, but once I've released the anger out into the universe, I'm all happiness and light once again.

Approximately two months, Cici's Cafe in Tarzana was the source of a grave brunch time disappointment. At the time, I claimed that I would henceforth be exclusively committed to receiving my pancake-lovin' from my favorite brunchery, the Griddle Cafe. I knew that it was likely I might return to Cici's again, but I no longer felt enamored with the bustling Valley eatery like I did in the early months of our carbohydrate-fueled courtship.

This past Sunday, I planned to meet my dear friend Lauren for a long over-due brunch after my church service let out. Because Cici's is just down the street from her, and merely a 15 minute drive from my church, it was the logical choice for our reunion. I set aside my ill-conceived feelings about the inadequate Pink Lady pancakes I received on my last visit, and made the very adult decision to let bygones be bygones.

When I pulled up to the popular restaurant on Sunday, I was dismayed to find that it was oozing impatient couples and families who were all waiting for tables. My stomach lurched with hunger and irritation. This did not bode well for the future state of my Cici's relationship. I may have a forgiving soul, but when my belly is empty, a lion comes out!

Fortunately, my prescient friend knew that a weekend brunch at Cici's inevitably means nerve-rankling crowds, so had arrived early to put our name in. We were escorted to our table within 15 minutes of my arrival on the premises (a 45-minute wait for her), and as I settled into my seat, the lion momentarily went back into his cage. I knew what I was getting before I even opened the multi-page menu. From past quizzes with the Cici's servers regarding the best items, I had learned that the pumpkin pancakes are a major hit with both the staff and clientele. I eagerly selected a short stack of the "Bewitched" pancakes that includes two pumpkin cakes topped with baked apples and walnuts. With a side order of scrambled eggs and a pot of Mighty Leaf white peach tea, I was all set for my redemption brunch.

Though the service was rushed due to the aforementioned hungry/impatient crowds, my "Bewitched" pancakes rekindled the dying flame in my previously broken heart. The spicy buttermilk cakes were fluffy bites of carbohydrate nirvana -- especially paired with the baked apples and crunchy walnuts. Because the apples were simply prepared without much (if any) sugar, they didn't overwhelm or compete with the flavor of my pumpkin-spiced cakes. The flavors all complimented each other perfectly, and by the end of the meal, the lion in my belly was purring like my roommate's cat Rocco (he's a charmer).

Heading out into the blustery fall air that afternoon, my heart was warmed with the renewal of Cici's and my relationship. The road ahead may be a bumpy one-- perhaps one that is lined with "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" -- but those bewitching pancakes have bedazzled my heart once again.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 1: What Were They Thinking?

Spoiler Alert!

I knew what was coming within the first five minutes of the premiere episode of "Top Chef" Season 5. His cleanly-scrubbed face, flushed with color and devoid of any perceptible blemish or stray chin hair, was a little too angelic. His eyes, unadulterated from the wisdom that comes with life experience, were a little too blue. His age -- 21 -- was a little too young. As contestant Patrick gazed into the camera and excitedly revealed that he is still in culinary school, I knew he was a goner.

What I didn't know, and what I still don't know, is why he was there at all.

Watching last night's episode of "Top Chef" was akin to watching the preliminary rounds of "American Idol." It was painful to watch Patrick marching his way down a plank toward an inevitable death. The "Quickfire Challenge" that in a fun play on the NYC "Big Apple" setting, required the contestants to peel and chop fifteen apples, only confirmed my first impressions of Patrick's chances. The only thing "quick" about his performance in the challenge was how quickly he proved how out of his league he was among the other more seasoned chefs. His inferior knife skills and weak attempt at an apple salad immediately established him as an amateur -- a small fish in a huge pond. He couldn't compete, and to even begin to compare him to the other chefs surrounding the chopping block would be akin to comparing apples and oranges.

Despite his lackluster beginning, Patrick was still able to out perform his former CIA classmate, Lauren, to make it to the elimination round. No big shocker there. Judging by the amount of screen time both contestants received in the first few minutes of the episode, it was foreseeable that Lauren's lack of face time implied an early exit. With no attachment to her whatsoever, it didn't bother me to see her "pack her knives" and go.

For the elimination challenge, each contestant was asked to draw a knife for a different neighborhood in NYC. Based on the neighborhood drawn -- Little Italy, Chinatown, etc. -- the contestants were then charged with the task of shopping at a market in the area to create an ethnic dish inspired by what they found. Two contestants were assigned to each area, and their dishes would be presented head-to-head for the panel. The superior of the dishes would be in the running to win the competition; the losing dish would be up on the chopping block for elimination.

As Patrick and Danny, a chef from New Hyde Park, NY, descended on Chinatown, I knew it was over for the fresh-faced student as soon as he said the words "black rice noodles." The camera focused in on his ominous revelation that he'd never worked with the noodles before, and as he tossed the package into his basket, he sealed his fate. I didn't even have to hear that he planned to serve it alongside the woefully mundane salmon and bok choy that only further clarified that at this juncture in his culinary career, Patrick doesn't have the confidence or skill sets to push the envelope. Hearing him boast that he had learned about Chinese cooking in one of his culinary school courses made me physically cringe. I couldn't help but wish Jung from Season 3 was there to go a-wall on a duck or black chicken to prepare something truly authentic and reflective of Chinese cuisine.

When Patrick presented his contrived "Americanized" dish to guest judge Jean George, Padma, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons, I felt like I was watching a child approaching a snake pit. I wanted to save him the embarrassment of serving something so generically uninspired to the great Jean George, but could do nothing but sit on my coach, asking myself over and over again, "What was Bravo thinking?" This wasn't entertainment -- this was cruel and unusual punishment.

After the predictable announcement that Patrick was out of the competition, Padma chirped out an almost patronizing, "Good luck!" I wouldn't have been surprised if she'd reached out and patted him on the head, and then given him a cookie and glass of milk to make his bad day better. I could have used a cookie too. The sympathy pains I felt during last night's episode were excruciating.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Halibut with Champagne Vinaigrette: Have a Little Faith

She nervously chewed on her lip. I nervously chewed mine. Despite our earlier enthusiasm for the recipe we found in the Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook, as we stared down at the suspect champagne vinaigrette we were using in the dish, our confidence began to wilt.

With Lawry's lemon pepper marinade in hand, my mom charged over to the fresh halibut we'd purchased earlier that day, determined to season the fish we were about to broil with something other than the lemon juice, salt and pepper we'd used.

"No!" I shouted with urgency. "Don't do it!" I lept across the kitchen, my hand reaching toward hers like I was a girthy football player trying to block a punt.

"But, but..." She started.

"It'll completely clash with the flavors in the vinaigrette!" I gushed, throwing my hands in the air with the passion of Mario Batali.

Our eyes danced back over to the cloudy liquid resting idly on the stove.

"Be afraid," it seemed to say. "Be very very afraid."

When I told my mom that I would be coming home to Newport Beach for part of the weekend, her thoughts immediately turned to food and what we would eat while I was in town. Inspired by my obsessive/compulsive desire to try new things so I can post about them on my blog, she decided that she was in the mood to do a little experimenting this past Saturday night. Enter: Gotham Bar & Grill Cookbook, a present from my former NYC-resident/foodie brother.

It was scarcely 11 am on Saturday morning and she was already thrusting the book in front of my face so we could plot the execution of the complicated entree she had selected. While the recipe is actually called "Pan-seared striped bass with corn custard and champagne vinaigrette," we quickly decided to ex-nay the corn custard and replace the striped bass with the milder halibut. Preliminary decisions complete, we were off to the grocery store to acquire the lengthy list of ingredients needed for the dish -- completely unconcerned at the time about the potential for failure.

Approximately 9 hours later, life did not seem so bright and sunny as the uncomfortably warm weather we had experienced that day. Something felt wrong -- and not just because it was summer in November, and we were cooking with fresh sweet corn, Roma tomatoes and other unseasonal food stuffs. My mom's head began swaying with thickness, my stomach clenched in trepidation, but as we worked in tandem, something strange began to happen.

The dish came together.

As my dad, mom and I dug into the delicate white flesh of the fish enhanced by the bright and tangy warm vinaigrette, we began to see the light. All our fears were cast aside by the unique flavor profiles and textural juxtapositions of the produce we'd carefully selected earlier that day, and the next morning, my mom was still raving about how much she enjoyed it.

Moral of the story? Have a little faith. And don't use Lawry's lemon pepper marinade.

Halibut with Champagne Vinaigrette
(adapted from the recipe in Gotham Bar & Grill Cookbook)

Serves 3.

3 Halibut fillets
Fingerling potatoes
Cippolini onions, seasoned with olive oil, pepper, salt and roasted in oven until tender
1 cup shelled edamame (original recipe calls for fava beans)
1 fresh corn ear
Swiss chard, stems discarded, washed
1 Roma tomato, diced

Champagne Vinaigrette
1/2 cup clam juice
1/3 cup champagne vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup finely minced shallots
1 clove finely minced garlic
1/3 cup white wine (in place of 1/4 cup olive oil)
1 tsp. chicken bouillon
Coarse salt and pepper

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Peel cippolini onions and roast whole in the oven with olive oil, salt and pepper until tender. Reserve for final assembly.

Cut fingerling potatoes into small chunks, dress with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake in the same oven until crispy on the outside, tender on the inside.

2. Set broiler to 500 degrees. Season fish steaks with lemon juice, salt and pepper -- set aside until approximately twelve minutes before ready to serve. (At that time, broil for 6 minutes on each side.)

3. While the potatoes are roasting, boil and shuck corn, boil edamame for approximately 5 minutes, and prepare vinaigrette. Combine ingredients for dressing in small saucepan -- simmer over low heat.

4. When fish is almost cooked through, steam the Swiss chard and heat the tomatoes, edamame, corn, and cippolini onions with some of the vinaigrette. Reserve the rest of the sauce to spoon over the top of each plate.

5. Assembly: Place Swiss chard in the center of the plate - top with halibut steak. Surround fish with vegetables, potatoes and then dress with the extra vinaigrette.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gina's Pizza: I Plead Guilty

It's almost embarrassing how much I love Gina's Pizza. Not only because the pizza goes against almost every foodie rule in the book regarding the size, toppings and crust composition of a truly great pie, but because I will drive in ridiculous 405 traffic for it. Last Friday night, I spent two excruciating hours on the freeway just so I could join my parents for a bite at the no-frills Irvine location of the Orange County pizza franchise. It's disturbing. Especially when I try to justify my behavior by reading Yelp reviews, only to find that most people think the pizza is "just ok" or "not great" or "nothing out of the ordinary."

It pains me to see the attacks on my favorite guilty pleasure -- do they mean that I have no taste? That my buds fail me the moment I pass through Gina's glass swinging door? Or does it simply mean that even the self-proclaimed "picky palated princess" is capable of being bowled over by something that is not critically acclaimed? "Gossip Girl" certainly isn't going to win an Emmy anytime soon, but I don't enjoy it any less because other people might find it smutty and tawdry and rife with poor writing. On the contrary, I welcome it into my Monday night line-up with open arms -- just as I welcome Gina's absurdly inauthentic pies into my stomach with the reckless abandon of an indiscriminate glutton.

I wish I could claim that my "poor" taste ends there, but even the house salad, a simple affair topped with cucumbers, chick peas, tomatoes, red onions and peppercinis, manages to win me over more than it should. I don't know why I always go back for a second helping off the family-style serving plate ($8.99), but it's an inevitable occurrence. I dish it into my bowl with gusto, cover it with the tangy homemade balsamic dressing, and chow down like I am feasting on a glorious arugula and field green salad with walnuts and goat cheese rather than a basic green salad with iceburg lettuce. I shouldn't like it, but I do -- going so far as to battle it out with my dad to secure the last chickpea on the plate.

My parents and I always follow our vulgar affair with the salad with another foodie sin for pizza traditionalists: the barbecue chicken pizza. On a thick crust. A really thick crust. A crust so dense and chewy and anti-NY that the pizza could almost be called cheese bread, except for all the chunks of succulent white meat chicken, red onions, barbecue sauce, and ample sprinkles of cilantro. Atkins dieters and thin-crust lovers would shudder at the site of this monstrosity of a pie, but I'm obsessed. I crave it like I crave a masochistic workout session at the Bar Method, and I pour my heart and soul into the effort of consuming it as I do when I am burning through my ab muscles.

I don't just stop at one slice. I actively seek out the two largest pieces and eat them both down to the very ends of the crust. A full stomach does nothing to slow my pace. If my mom doesn't finish her second slice, I am more than happy to finish it for her. If there is a stray chunk of chicken on the pizza platter, I dive in to save it. My family and I do not leave fallen soldiers at Gina's Pizza. We consume them all, or bring them home with us. And then we eat ice cream. Dreyer's ice cream. The slow-churned kind with ingredients that I can't pronounce, because they do not come from nature.

I don't care what Yelpers or NYers or even Chicagoans say. Even when I have to spend two hours on the freeway to defy my foodie self, it tastes pretty darn good to be bad.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Little Next Door: Bring Plenty of Quarters for the Meter

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008 is a day that will forever stand out in history as revolutionary and life-altering -- a clear break from the past, and the beginning of something new. Blessed with a day-off from work due to the election, not only was I able to "enjoy" my first ever massage (a painful experience that was the equivalent of listening to a 50-minute tape of nails grating on a chalkboard), but I also treated myself to my first ever solo lunch at a sit-down restaurant.

Armed with my current reading material, American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, I approached the Little Next Door, a charming French cafe just west of Crescent Heights on West Third Street, with confidence. I'm no female Adrian Grenier -- I don't need an entourage to eat lunch! In fact, this whole dining solo thing would be great -- stupendous even! I could take all the time I needed to figure out my order without feeling guilty about holding up my dining partner, and I wouldn't have to share a single bite. Plus, I could eat as slowly or rapidly as I desired -- completely unfettered by matching my pace to the pace of my companion. Of course, there was one slight restraint on my ability to sip my soup and nibble my sandwich like a true French woman -- I only had an hour and 30 minutes on my parking meter.

Fortunately, because I have been to the Little Next Door three times before, I already knew that I wanted "The Little Next Deal" ($15), an option that includes a bowl of soup, a half sandwich, a deli salad, and a macaron. I didn't need to waste too much time perusing the menu to decide on my sandwich and salad, but I did still struggle to pick out my soup, sampling the cauliflower puree soup-of-the-day before settling for their standby butternut squash that comes drizzled with cream and pomegranate seeds. The choice was perfect on the blustery fall day -- comforting and simple, yet enlivened by the bright punch of flavor from the pomegranates. Plus, the color went perfectly with my fabulous gold sweater from Anthropologie.

As I ladled small, lady-like bites of the mild soup into my mouth, I tried to focus my attention on my book like a good solo diner should, but with the clock ticking, I struggled to process the words on the page. I was nearly half-way through my bowl of soup and there was still no sight of the rest of my "Little Next Deal." Aside from my desire to eat my soup, sandwich and salad in a bite-bite-bite rotation, my mind couldn't extricate itself from thoughts of my parking meter. The "Little Next Deal" would not be such a great deal if I ended up with a $40 ticket.

When my roast beef sandwich (served on a french baguette with a creamy caper gribiche spread) and carrot and currant salad with a ginger dressing arrived a few minutes later, I sighed with relief and attempted to channel my inner chi. Relax, I commanded myself, breathing in and out like all those yoga-ites do. I eyed the clock on my pink Motorala Razr and chastised myself for being so anxious. I had plenty of time!

I proceeded with my bite-bite-bite plan of attack on my half-sandwich, salad and soup -- thrilled with the cacophony of flavors and textures. The high-quality roast beef was lean and inoffensively pink, and paired perfectly with the tangy spread, and the ginger dressing was an unexpectedly delightful partner for the crunchy shreds of carrots and tart currants. I tried again to read my book as I transferred my energies back and forth between my sandwich, salad and soup, but felt too distracted by the effort to concentrate. The food was simply too good to spoil the experience by pretending to read. I closed my solo dining armor with authority and concentrated all my attention on my lunch -- the only entourage I needed at the moment.

When I polished off the last crusty crumb of baguette (transported to my mouth from the tip of my thumb -- another perk of solo dining), I made haste to order a small non-fat, decaf mocha latte and a mocha macaron. Despite my attempts to reign in my inner neurotic beast, I was still preoccupied by meter woes. While I love the authenticity of the Little Next Door, the often slow-moving service that many attribute to the "Frenchness" of the cafe, was wrecking havoc on my nerves. I knew I had plenty of time, but I was suddenly filled with an incredible sense of impatience. Without the assistance of my book or a dining companion to fill the blank spaces, I felt antsy and ready to leave.

Despite the lack of caffeine in my decaf latte (adorably adorned with a heart), the creamy liquid did nothing to calm the ants that had taken up temporary residence in my pants (err... Joe's jeans). Try as I might, I could not sip the latte like any form of a lady. I charged through the foam like a sprinter bursting from the starting block, and chomped my way through my mocha macaron -- barely taking the time to relish the juxtaposition of the creamy ganache center against the delicate cookie crust.

My card was in the bill before it could even hit the table, and when I got back to my meter (with 30 minutes to spare), it struck me that my biggest problem with eating solo is not being seen by myself, but rather having to be with myself for such a long period of time. While I am fine when dining casually or in the comfort of my dining room or office space, the act of taking over a public table for a period of time that is dependent upon the pace of my servers was incredibly frustrating for me. Meter concerns aside, I felt helpless and out of control -- even going so far as to leave my table in an attempt to refill my water glass at the busboy station. I love the Little Next Door and still consider it one of my favorite luncheries in Los Angeles, but I'm not sure I love it on my own. Especially when the meter is running. And especially when there is no one to distract me with pesky requests to sample my food.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Trader Joe's 100 Calorie Dark Chocolate Bars: Hooray for Excessive Packaging!

Roommates are great for many reasons. They pay for half the bills, they listen to you whine about bad dates (or lack thereof), and they make watching "the Office" and "30 Rock" exceedingly more pleasant than when watched solo. Alex Baldwin is a funny guy, but he's so much funnier when there's someone else around to laugh at his peculiar antics.

While it is quite favorable to co-habitate with someone who appreciates good humor, the ideal roommate is also a great source of wisdom. For me and my roommate, that wisdom is most often related to food. She is the one who tells me it's okay to not wash my chicken before I cook it. She is the one who looks at my past-the-best-before-date Parmesan cheese and gives it the thumbs up or down. And she is the one who let me in on a little secret: Trader Joe's 100 Calorie Dark Chocolate Bars are pretty darn tasty.

I was a little skeptical at first. I am generally opposed to 100 calorie packs due to their excessive packaging and the inherently processed nature of their contents. Plus, I like to think that I have a modicum of self control and don't need to purchase a product designed to help dieters and waist-band watchers fight back against the temptation of an open bag or container of something not so healthy. I don't need someone to portion out my food for me, gosh darn it!

Well... okay, maybe I sometimes struggle a little bit. Like when I am cranky or eating from a sizable bar of dark chocolate or in the presence of nuts. Yep, I definitely struggle to keep my ingestion of cashews and almonds in check. I blame it on my German heritage. I'm not sure why, but my mom always says it when she can't put down the nut bowl, so I'll take it as fact "because she said so" -- just like my decision to try TJ's dark chocolate bars because my roommate said so.

It all started because of a Dove dark chocolate bar. I was sitting at my desk at work on a Friday afternoon, struggling to keep from cramming the entire thing into my mouth. My blood was charged with chocolate lust, and I could scarcely concentrate on the alignment of my excel documents. During the course of some e-mails with my roommate, I mentioned that I was in the midst of a torrid affair with a Dove dark chocolate bar that I could not put down, and she recommended I try TJ's bars. I immediately inquired into the "snap factor" (a must for me), and she generously offered to give me one of hers to sample.

Despite my negative feelings toward 100 calorie anything, Trader Joe's take on the hot food trend surprised me with its decidedly less noxious taste and appearance. The simple cardboard box contains five .63 ounce individually wrapped bars for $1.99. It is restrained in its advertising of the "100 calorie" selling point -- rather than tattooing the descriptor all over the exterior package, as well as the metallic wrapping on the bars, it only appears on the outside of cardboard box. Furthermore, the individual bar wrappings are more practical than offensive. They allow for easy transportation of said bars -- an important thing for gals like me who need to keep chocolate within reach at all times.

Most importantly, the bar itself is good. And not at all skimpy like I imagined. While long and skinny, the bar is still thick enough to allow for the pivotal "snap factor" that I crave. Biting into the glossy chocolate provides a satisfaction akin to popping the top of a Coke can, and the taste is equally pleasurable. Though I prefer Scharffen Berger dark chocolate (and maybe even the low brow Dove dark chocolate), the quality of TJ's product is compelling enough that I now stock them in my office desk drawer for mid-afternoon emergencies. The 70% dark chocolate boasts a subtle undertone of coffee (which I suspect may be why my coffee-loving roomie is such a fan!) that blends well with the slightly bitter flavor of the Belgian cocoa.

Of course, when I'm in the midst of a chocolate rampage, I'm not really focusing on the notes of flavor. I'm focusing on getting the bar into my mouth as quickly as possible to eradicate another case of the low insulin level blues.

TJ's 100 Calorie Dark Chocolate Bars do the trick quite nicely. And my roommate approves this message.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Pan-Fried Fish Parmesana: Something's Fishy...

It looks pretty good doesn't it? Maybe even a little bit like it was served in a restaurant rather than in my two-bedroom WeHo apartment. I could lie and say that it was lip-smacking delicious -- that I moaned and groaned and cried out in pain when I took my last bite of the delicate Parmesan encrusted tilapia. Except it wasn't nearly as swoon-worthy as I anticipated when I descended --spatula in hand-- upon my kitchen on Tuesday night. As much as I would love to write a glowing post about the power of my skillet, I just can't do it.

That's right, I seriously bonked on this one. Well, not SERIOUSLY. Seriously would mean it was inedible, and it wasn't. My oven-roasted fingerling potatoes were perfectly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and the fish itself was fine. It was the sauce that was the problem. And my far too liberal squeezes of lemon juice over the top...

Everything started out okay. After cutting my fingerling potatoes (a popular choice for many restaurant chefs -- it works excellently with fish or in a salad) into cubes, I tossed them in a little olive oil, pepper and salt, and popped them into my 400 degree oven for approximately 20-25 minutes. I prepared my steamer for my hericot verts (French Green Beans), and began readying my tilapia, purchased at Santa Monica Seafood that day, for the frying pan. I was following an old standby recipe of my mother's -- the "Pan-Fried Fish Parmesana" from one of her standby cookbooks, San Francisco a la Carte. I was using the finest ingredients from the finest sources, and adhering to a mother-approved recipe book -- how could I go wrong?

I said it once and I'll say it again -- it was the sauce! It was the sauce...

I wish I could blame it on Giada, Rachel or Martha, but this one was all me. While the recipe doesn't call for any sort of liquid accompaniment, I thought the fish might be a little plain without it. Lemon juice, white wine, garlic and capers seemed to be a fitting accompaniment, so I decided to parlay the sauce from my chicken piccata recipe and add a little Dijon mustard to the mix too. Overly confident that the sauce could not fail, I poured things in without bothering to measure anything. Good cooks can tell if a sauce is good by the way it looks and smells, and as my sauce bubbled down to a pale yellow, runny egg-like consistency, I was convinced it would be delectable. Without even bothering to taste it first, I poured it over my fish with reckless abandon, squirted some extra lemon over the top and sat down to what I thought would be a scrumptious meal.

From the first bite, I knew something was off. At first, I thought it might be the Worcestershire used to season the fish. But the bites of fish that were not tainted by my Dijon lemon wine caper concoction tasted fine -- respectable even. It was the Dijon. And the capers. And yes, my extreme use of the lemon too. Oddly enough, it was the simply prepared, no-fuss, no-muss fingerling potatoes that proved to be the highlight of the meal. Just like the basic black dress can outshine even the brightest of frocks, my basic spuds stole the plate show away from my over-dressed fish.

While my meal was by no means an election night winner, I have included the recipe for the Pan-Fried Fish Parmesana with the hope that the Supreme Court (ie. my kitchen saavy readers) can provide some suggestions for an appropriate sauce to accompany my sad little fish. Unlike (most) elections, in the kitchen, there is always the opportunity for a re-do. Especially if it means I can make more potatoes to go with it.

Pan-Fried Fish Parmesana (San Francisco a la Carte)
*Recipe has been cut in half

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Fillet of sole, orange roughy or other fish (I used Tilapia)
Ground pepper
Flour (for dredging)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup bread crumbs (I used panko crumbs)
Butter, oil for browning

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce and sprinkle over the fish pieces. Pepper the fish, then dredge lightly in flour. (I skipped the flour dredging step.) Dip the fish in the egg wash, then coat generously with the cheese and bread crumb mixture.

In a heavy skillet, saute the fish in a mixture of butter and oil (I used just olive oil) over medium heat for 3-4 minutes on each side.

Remove the browned fish from the skillet, and bake in a glass casserole dish for 4-5 minutes, or until just heated through. Serve immediately. (Preferably with a GOOD sauce.)