Friday, February 27, 2009

Whoopie Pies and 6 Pound 14 Ounce Babies

I don't really want to talk about whoopie pies today. Not only did I just give up chocolate for Lent and don't desire to be reminded about what I can't eat for another six weeks, but I also have something else on my mind. Something that weighs six pounds and fourteen ounces and is named Addison.

Last night, at approximately 6:03 pm, my sister-in-law gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and I became an aunt. Or, as I hope to be called one day, an Auntie Didi. It was an amazing afternoon filled with excitement, some nerves when my family and I hadn't heard any updates for a while, and then an overwhelming sense of joy and awe when we finally saw little Addison for the first time. I know that everyone is always required to call newborns "cute" and "perfect" even if they are misshapen and ugly, but Addison actually is absurdly adorable considering she just made her exit from the womb. I can already tell she's my niece -- she spent half the time we were in the hospital room sticking out her pink little tongue. She's going to be a snarky one, just like her Auntie Didi (I will make that nickname happen)!

So why am I including a picture of Susie Cakes' famed chocolate whoopie pie on a post about the newest addition to my family? Because Addison is so cute I could just eat her up like this half a whoopie pie! Plus, little girls, like cookies, are made with sugar and spice and everything nice. I can't wait for my little niece to grow in some teeth so I can share one with her. I may even let her have the bigger half...

... if she cooperates and gives into calling me Auntie Didi...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Top Chef Season 5 Finale Part 2: "A Crap End to a Crap Season"

“A crap end to a crap season,” says the text from my friend Ali mere moments after Hosea is named “Top Chef.”

Her words, while not poetic, couldn't be more accurate. It was a crap end to a crap season -- like a bad tasting menu that gets progressively worse with each dish, or in the case of “Top Chef” Season Five, each episode. Throughout the entire run, I kept hoping that the next episode would be better – that the chefs would find some personality or, at the very least, some semblance of passion. Unless Fabio was in front of the camera, that spark never emerged. Like poor Carla’s final cheese course, the season that never got off the ground ended last night on yet another flat note.

The finale starts out as expected. Stakes are laid. Claims are made. Hosea is suddenly nervous “because it’s down to three.” Apparently, he’s forgotten about the other ten other episodes where he was nervous because he was the last American male chef, or because he had to prepare fish for “the fish guy,” or because he stuck his tongue down Leah’s throat on camera and will have to face his girlfriend when he gets home.

Stefan isn't nervous at all. He’s never nervous. He’s from Finland. He is Team Euro. And oh yeah? "Hosea’s food sucks," and he needs to “go back to frickin' Colorado.” Didn't Stefan’s mother teach him that if he doesn't have anything nice to say, he shouldn't say anything at all? Course half the time I can’t understand his incoherent mutterings, so I guess it doesn't much matter what he is nailing down like an eel on a cutting board. I much prefer Carla’s more simple reflection on the whole deal over Stefan’s “I am Euro, hear me roar” spiel. With her googly eyes a-googling, she says, “In a word, ‘wow.’” In a word (or three), “You go girl!”

Part of me wants to just stop now before even starting into the final (predictable) challenge where the chefs are charged with crafting the “best three-course meal of their life.” I don’t want to talk about the big “surprise” that they will have to do an extra fourth course using alligator, crab or red fish. Nor do I even want to start in on the other surprise that they will be working with sous-chefs Marcel, Richard and Casey from seasons past. Well, okay maybe I do want to pause for a moment to reflect on Stefan’s reasoning for choosing Marcel as his kitchen partner. “People don’t like Marcel” (ie. misery loves company). And I do feel some what inclined to point out that in a previous season the chefs got to work with Rocco Dispirito, Michelle Bernstein and Todd English. Not sure I'd be jumping up in down for help from contestants who came close but, ultimately, as Tom says, "fell short."

But I digress, because I have a point to make here. I don’t want to talk about any of the meaningless episode filler or the great sausage war going on between Hosea and Stefan. Yes, I could go all Freud on them. Or compare it to some sort of world war. Or even begin citing all the various ways the producers set the stage for the epic battle of the baldies throughout the rest of the season. The whole situation repulses me. I want nothing to do with it. Instead, I want to go back in time to shake Carla and tell her to ignore everything that Casey says and just go with that love-saturated gut of hers. Everything will be okay then. She won’t sous-vez the steak, she won’t do a cheese soufflé, and she will win “Top Chef” and put an end to the audience’s misery.

I knew it was coming before it came. Carla tells the camera that she’s never sous-vezed a steak before. Carla blindly follows Casey’s lead on the cheese soufflé. It is like watching a train about to collide with a car that just can’t get off the railroad in time. It makes me hate Casey. And it makes me hate Carla for being so gosh darn likable in the final episodes. Just when I finally bought into all that cooking with love hogwash, “Top Chef” Season 5 goes and tears my heart out.

The facts are these. Stefan and Hosea present food that represents who they are as chefs and people. Stefan’s heart is made of steel, so ultimately, while well-executed, the food lacks “soul.” Hosea has a soul (when he’s not kissing Leah or passing off alligator to Stefan), and that “thoughtfulness” comes through in his dishes. He “[puts] a piece of [himself] out there.”

Carla doesn't. She puts a piece of Casey out there, and hands the victory to Hosea. With just a couple tweaks, it could have ended so differently. The season could have been redeemed with the fairy tale ending of Carla, the little “hooty-hoo”-calling Tortoise from the South, winning over the judge’s, winning over the audience, and winning the competition with all that love mumbo jumbo. I like that story arc -- I like the whole "American" dream undertones that anyone can make it in this country. Or, in the case of "Top Chef," the underdog can come from behind and pass by those big bald posturing chefs.

Instead, the other story arc reigns supreme and the juvenile rivalry between Hosea and Stefan reaches a definitive conclusion. Hosea brings down the great Stefan and wins the entire competition. Do I feel any sense of satisfaction from this? No. And it hardly seems as though Hosea does either. He doesn't roll out a bug-eyed response nor does he burst into a happy-jumpy dance. He claims he "couldn't be happier," but looks the same as he does when he's "so nervous" or filleting fish or making out with Leah. It's an appropriate end to the worst season of "Top Chef" ever, but like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, I want the fairy tale.

And, like Stefan, I really really want Hosea to go back to frickin' Colorado.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Peppercorn Chicken with Lemon Spinach: Using Up the Leftovers Never Tasted Better

"I don't know what to make!" I whined, eyeing the contents of my fridge in consternation.

I cocked my head to press my cell phone into my shoulder and continued my rant as I rifled through the items stocked in my produce and dairy drawers. "I have lemon to use up, spinach, eggs, a huge hunk of mozzarella, fingerling potatoes, a little red wine, and I have to do something new and exciting with it!" I slammed the fridge door shut.

This sort of pressure was not what I had in mind when I made the "101 goal" to try at least one new recipe a week.

"There must be something you can do." My mom said gently. She didn't sound very convinced, and it didn't help that I wasn't feeling particularly hungry after overindulging in quiche, steak and half a Susie Cakes whoopie pie the previous day (among other things).

I glared at the shelves filled with my roommate's cookbooks. I didn't have the energy to go through all of them. Or any of them. And then I spotted it.

The February/March issue of the new Food Network Magazine.

I'd loved reading the first two issues, but for some inexplicable reason (ie. laziness) had yet to try a recipe from the fab mag. I began eagerly flipping through the pages -- pausing to admire a Croque Monsieur Mac & Cheese and lust over the Samoa Tartlets.

"Focus, Diana, focus!" I commanded myself as I tried my best to ignore the impractical recipes that did not contain anything currently stocked in my fridge or cabinets. I thought it a futile effort until my eyes pounced on the quick weeknight meals section. While it was technically a Sunday, the Oscars were on and that clearly qualified it as a pseudo-weeknight!

Or not.

But it didn't much matter, because the recipe I subsequently found for a peppercorn chicken with lemon spinach was all sorts of perfect for my Sunday supper. I knew it would go well with my roasted fingerling potatoes, and I loved that it called for such simple ingredients that wouldn't weigh down my stomach like all the decadent food I consumed on Saturday.

The recipe came together really quickly (though I did miss 30 minutes of the boring awards/tributes at the Oscars), and more importantly, it tasted like I'd been slaving away like Cinderella before she became all chic, fabulous and undomestic. While I was initially skeptical that the chicken would go with the lemon and garlic spinach, the flavors came together like a non-Hollywood marriage. I was more than happy to heat up the leftovers the next night. And even happier that the pressure was off for the rest of the week. It could be spam from a can for all I cared.

Or not.

Peppercorn Chicken with Lemon Spinach
Adapted from the recipe in the February/March Issue of the Food Network Magazine

Serves 2

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (approximately 5 ounces each)
1 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground mixed peppercorns
3/4 teaspoon finely minced fresh rosemary
Sea salt
Olive Oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1/3 cup red wine
1/3 cup chicken broth
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper over shallots and roast in oven until tender (approximately 15-20 minutes).

Brush 1 teaspoon of mustard on each chicken breast. Sprinkle with the peppercorns, rosemary and salt to taste, patting gently so the seasonings stick.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat; add 2 teaspoons olive oil. Add the chicken and cook until golden brown, turning once. Remove from pan. Add the red wine and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the chicken and shallots to the pan, reduce the heat and cover. Let simmer for approximately 10 minutes -- flipping the chicken half-way through.

When chicken is cooked through, remove the lid from the pan and add the remaining tablespoon of mustard. Cook together until sauce has thickened (a couple minutes).

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a different skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the garlic; cook about 30 seconds. Add the spinach, season with salt and cook until wilted; add the lemon zest.

Plate the chicken and drizzle with the shallot sauce. Serve with the spinach and roasted potatoes because carbs make the world a better place.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Poco Dolce Chocolate: How to Eat My Way Into Debt

I felt a little disingenuous writing about my adoration for peanut butter yesterday. While I do crave the stuff like Rebecca Bloomwood craves shoes in the Shopaholic series, my heart beats the fastest for my true love, chocolate. Dark, milk, with nuts, without nuts, filled, unfilled -- I'll eat it all. And then go back for seconds. Err... thirds.

Unless, of course, it is a particularly offensive brand like Hershey's (too chalky) or Russel Stover's (inferior fillings).

This past weekend, during yet another visit to Zinc Cafe for their amazing quiche plate, I noticed a small container of individually wrapped chocolates by the cash register. Despite the $2.25 price tag on the small tiles of Poco Dolce chocolate, I felt inexplicably drawn toward them. I "oohed" and "aahed" over the exotic flavors -- mint toffee, sesame toffee, almond, and almond coconut -- all of which came topped with sea salt. I knew I should turn my head and resist the impulse buy, but I couldn't help myself. When chocolate is too close to my mouth, I have no choice but to find a way to consume it as soon as possible. Completely defenseless to the Siren's call, I purchased the almond coconut flavor.

While at first glance the chocolate did not appear to be anything particularly noteworthy or exciting, I knew I had myself a winner as soon as my teeth sank into the sturdy bittersweet chocolate. The covetted snap factor was there in spades, and my mouth was soon enveloped with the sensuous collusion of the sharp 63% Guittard cacoa against the delicate flecks of grey Celtic sea salt crystals. It was bliss. Especially when contrasted with the restrained, finely minced pieces of coconut and almond.

This is the sort of chocolate that could get me in trouble with my accountant (ie. the little voice in my head that tells me that $2.25 is way too much to spend for a single piece of candy). I'm trying really hard to avoid the Siren's call of the mail order option on the Poco Dolce website, but I'm not sure I can be trusted. Like Miss Bloomwood, it may be time to stick the credit card in a block of ice in the freezer...

Or just find something else to lust over.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Peanut Tofu Noodles: An Ode to My Favorite Form of Butter

My favorite Brad Pitt movie is not the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Nor is it Legends of the Fall, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Thema and Louise, or A River Runs Through It. There is nothing wrong with any of these films, but none of them do it for me in the same way that Meet Joe Black does. While I suspect that my affection for the nearly three hour film is more because Pitt looks exceedingly scrumptious than it is because I'm a super fan of the story, I do know that I quite enjoy watching Pitt's character discover peanut butter. He nearly chokes on his first taste, but is soon eating it by the spoonful. Later (as in two and a half hours later), it is the one thing he asks for when he is about to leave this world behind.

As a peanut butter lover who can also eat it without the assistance of even a piece of toast, I can understand why it would be so hard for poor Joe Black to give it up. I don't just enjoy peanut butter -- I consider it a vital part of my diet. My morning oatmeal would not be complete without a hefty spoonful stirred in, and I can't even imagine eating a bagel for breakfast without a big ole smear on top. I don't stop there. I put it on bananas, apples, pair it with chocolate, and even put it on my spaghetti, like in this recipe for peanut tofu noodles.

Of course, I can't take complete credit for this one. The inspiration for this dish came from Blind Faith Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant that my friends and I used to frequent in college. While I adored their corn and potato enchilidas verdes, my favorite thing to order was the Thai peanut noodles with thin rice noodles, broccoli, carrots, tofu and mung sprouts. After eating the dish an exorbitant number of times during my junior and senior years, I finally decided to try recreating it at home. I've tinkered with it a lot over the years, and the below recipe is the one that is currently most pleasurable to my palate. It can be made with a variety of different veggies (red cabbage works especially well) and chicken can be subbed for the tofu, but I think I enjoy it best with the tofu.

Plus, it makes me feel more virtuous and less like I am eating my way through the peanut butter jar. Again.

Diana's Peanut Tofu Noodles
Inspired by the dish at Blind Faith Cafe in Evanston, IL

Serves 1

1 piece Trader Joe's teriyaki flavored baked tofu
Assorted veggies - red onion, broccoli, red pepper, sugar snap peas
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
1 heaping tablespoon peanut butter
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1-2 tablespoons hot water (use more if sauce needs to be thinned out)
Red pepper flakes (to taste)
Trader Joe's whole wheat spaghetti

1. Combine ginger, peanut butter, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, red pepper flakes, and hot water in small bowl. Whisk to combine.

2. Cook pasta according to package directions. While it is cooking, heat 1 teaspoon sesame oil in hot frying pan over medium heat. Stir fry garlic and onion together under onion becomes tender. Add the broccoli and sugar snap peas and cook for a couple minutes before adding the red pepper, tofu and peanut sauce.

3. When pasta is done, drain and add to the pan with the veggies, tofu and sauce. Stir till well coated and serve with peanuts sprinkled on top if desired.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Proscuitto, Mozzarella, Arugula, and Fig Jam Panini: Finally Making Use of the Panini Grill

When my current roommate was preparing to move into my apartment last year, she was a little worried about bringing over all the kitchen equipment she'd acquired over the years. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic about all the new toys I'd get to play with. Especially when she included the words "panini grill" in her e-mail about everything she was hoping to squeeze into our kitchen.

I envisioned myself making paninis for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Savory ones with eggs and bacon and lots of ooey gooey cheese, hearty ones with pulled pork or roast beef, and sweet ones with nutella and bananas and caramelized walnuts. Yet despite my best intentions to press myself into sandwich oblivion, I didn't actually use my roommate's panini grill until this past weekend. I let it sit idly by as I grilled my sandwiches like most people do -- in a frying pan. My panini aspirations (like my aspirations to be a famous movie star and/or figure skater) had fallen to the wayside and were not awakened until last week when opportunity, inspiration and intention all came together.

It started with a GChat conversation with my friend Ashley last Monday. She'd visited our mutual friend Caroline in Philadelphia over the weekend, and was dying to tell my about her trip. Or, more accurately, the sandwich she ate on that trip...

"I have to tell you about the BEST SANDWICH ever I had it at brunch in philly this weekend -- a grilled prosciutto, mozz, arugula and fig jam sandwich. UGH - SO GOOD!!!!!" She wrote.

I quickly responded, "Oh my gosh - I want to make that! Maybe I'll try recreating it this weekend. I love figs! And proscuitto and mozzarella!"

And with those words, I finally committed myself to my roommate's panini grill.

The sandwich was just as good as I envisioned in my head. The saltiness of the prosciutto juxtaposed against the sweet fig jam felt as right as peanut butter and chocolate, and the peppery arugula added another dimension to the toasty sandwich. I know that it won't be too long before I'm plugging in the panini grill for another round of this winning combination.

Or maybe another winning combination.... I hear the Peanut Butter & Co has an eatery in New York that serves up a bacon, banana , honey, and peanut butter concoction...

Proscuitto, Mozzarella, Arugula, and Fig Jam Panini
Inspired by the sandwich at Marathon on the Square in Philadelphia

Serves 1

1 Ciabatta roll (courtesy of the Whole Foods bakery)
1 heaping tablespoon Fig Jam (also acquired at Whole Foods)
2 ounces Prosciutto (I used Applegate Farms)
1 ounce mozzarella cheese, grated
Handful of Arugula
Panini Grill

Slice ciabatta roll in half with a serrated knife. Spread Arugula over bottom half of roll and top with proscuitto. Spread jam over proscuitto, then cover with grated cheese and the other half of the roll. Grill until cheesy is melted and bread is nicely toasted.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Top Chef Season 5 Finale Part 1: The Fun Stops Here

For an episode set in New Orleans, a city infamous for its partying and bare chests, part 1 of the season 5 finale of "Top Chef" was severely lacking in the fun department. Gone were the chatty asides, nonsensical sound bytes from Fabio, and inappropriate snuggling on the couch. The final four chefs, Hosea, Fabio, Carla, and Stefan, arrive in the Big Easy with their game faces on -- they are all there to win. And maybe look a little snazzier on camera now that they are all big, quasi-famous reality stars.

Carla's makeover, complete with a sleek new hair cut and fierce hot pink jacket, is a definite "do" for the bug-eyed underdog. Fabio's mohawk and pale pink pashmina scarf, on the other hand, needs to pack its knives and go. Now. Bald boys Hosea and Stefan look the same (bald and slightly angry), though Stefan's cap that reads "Suimi," a Finnish word that can be translated to mean "a style of free-form psychedelic trance" (Wikipedia), makes me wonder what he's been up to these past few months...

My guess is skinning eels (or children) back in Germany.

After flying in, the chefs are immediately shuttled to a random picnic area for their quickfire challenge that is to be judged by the "King of Creole," Emeril Lagasse (aka the king of kicking things up to notches unseen by man). But wait a minute -- something is weird. Hosea can count and notices that -- gasp! -- there are only three tables of food! Padma informs them that they will not be cooking in the quickfire challenge -- Leah, Jamie and Jeff will be. The three formerly disgraced chefs are paraded out and told that they will be competing against one another for one last chance to make the final. The winner of the quickfire to create a dish with crawfish will join the four remaining chefs in the elimination challenge, but to move on to the final, that chef must win.

In other words, they are being used as sneaky plot devices to amp up the tension and stakes. Because there really isn't enough on the table already, and it's just so much fun to see the chefs, "our heroes" sweat and get in a tissy over yet another obstacle on their path toward Stefan's imminent greatness. I suspect that it's mostly to see Hosea get all awkward when he sees his long lost lover Leah, who still can't like stop saying "like" and like has "never worked with crawfish before" like. She makes "like a crawfish soup," Jamie does some weird egg thing that looks really complicated, and pretty boy Jeff whips up a shrimp and grits with Andouille sausage. Emeril says it's really hard to pick one dish because "they're all winners" (he must have missed the memo that "it's 'Top Chef,' not 'Top Pussy'), but ultimately awards Jeff the win. Just in case everyone didn't catch it the first five times, Jeff now must win the elimination challenge to move forward. But don't worry, that will come up another twenty times before the Judge's Table.

In the spirit of Mardi Gras, the elimination challenge requires the chefs to cook two dishes -- one in the Creole style -- and create one cocktail for 100 people attending a masquerade ball at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The winner will not just make the final, but also win a (drumroll please) brand new Toyota Venza! Fabio's car is "a piece of poop," so he's really excited about that. I'm really excited that someone is saying "poop" instead of to win "will be the answer to everything I need" and I'm doing this for "my husband and step-son" and the rest of that sentimental hogwash meant to get me all teary-eyed and attached to someone. Hey guys, this is "Top Chef," not "Top Pussy," remember? At least Stefan is aware of that. He knows "this is not a butt-rubbing contest. There will be a slaughtering." Hosea?

The chefs then head down to Emeril's restaurant, Delmonico, for five hours of prep. It's about as entertaining to watch as it sounds. There are no broken fingers, no refrigerators left open so everything spoils, and it seems as though all the cheftestants are actually... cooking? Well, except for good ole Stefan who is giggling over the shape of sausage links and taking a break to smoke a cigarette, and poor Carla who just learned to shuck oysters a week and a half ago and is struggling to get those suckers open. But not to worry -- she's got love on the menu, and begins asking them to, "please open for [her], little oyster."

Prep complete, it's time to head down to the ball where the chefs are then introduced to their four judges for the evening -- Emeril, Tom Collichio, Padma, and... Gail Simmons! I squeal at this one. As does Carla who screams, "Girl, love you!" Really starting to come around to Ms. Hooty-Hoo and her crazy love voodoo...

Everyone is decked out in masks which "kind of [reminds Fabio] of like an old porno movie with just kind of a mask on it." Totally making the sense there, Fabio, but boy, I still love you even if your haircut reminds me of like an old New Kids on the Block video.

Service starts and the chefs are frantically dishing out their plates and drinks to the masses of really hungry people -- ie. the krewe of Orpheus who are never fully explained. Everyone loves Jeff's mojito and fried oyster with homemade sausage, goes gaga for Carla's soup, enjoys Fabio's rando Italian-Creole crawfish pasta, and seems to appreciate both Stefan and Hosea's gumbos. With no major disasters (aside from some misses on the cocktails - bell pepper martini, anyone?), there isn't much to knock these chefs on.

Of course, the judges do find one or two things worthy of negative attention. They find Stefan's attitude that Hosea accurately described as his "Achilles heel," off-putting, and aren't completely smitten by the flavors in Fabio's maqux choux and creole pasta. It's clear from the outset that either one or both of Euro boys are going down. It's also clear that Carla is a favorite for her belabored oyster stew that Emeril declares a "home run." Even Tom is impressed, saying, "her food had a certain level of care." Ahem, Tom? Not just care, looooove. She walks away the winner of the evening, and the Euro boys are left to meet their fate.

I know before it happens what's coming. Stefan's "laissez-faire" attitude may be his greatest weakness, but he's still a talented chef. At this stage in the competition, it no longer matters that Fabio has a face and voice that could charm the pantaloons off a nun. Funny one-liners no longer fit into the equation. It ultimately comes down to the food, and Fabio's just isn't quite there. He is sent packing, and the humble Italian chef bids a sincere adieu to the judges and final three chefs, Stefan, Hosea and Carla.

Turning to Stefan with a twinkle in his eye, he says, "If you don't win, I will kick your ass. You have no idea."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Maple Glazed Tempeh: How to Achieve Balance

When I was in high school, my cross-country coach used to threaten to make me run hurdles. Everyone knew it was a joke -- me jump over hurdles? The girl who regularly fell over nothing on our long runs? With my long limbs and gawky frame, I was constantly picking myself up off the ground, and today, I still have scars on my knees from all the contact with the pavement, asphalt and concrete.

My balance has improved since those days, but I still find myself on the verge of an embarrassing spill from time to time (ie. yesterday when I skidded across the lobby of my office building). I may not ever be able to traverse a balance beam like those adorable gymnasts with ribbons in their hair, but not all areas of my life are as unbalanced as my center of gravity. I do know how to bring some equilibrium to my diet. After indulging in steak, cookies and full-fat bowls of ice cream, I am more than happy to give my body a break with some heart-healthy whole grains, low-fat proteins, and fiberlicious greens.

A couple weeks ago, that break came in the form of the pictured maple glazed tempeh with green beans, shitake mushrooms and brown rice. I discovered the recipe on 101 Cookbooks, my go-to site when I'm craving something healthy, and as usual, adapted it to my tastes. While it wasn't as flavorful as I hoped, I loved the combination of the tempeh, green beans and shitake mushrooms. After two nights of the hearty dish, I felt right with myself again and ready for more chocolate. (You know, to balance out all the greens and roughage and what not.)

Maple Glazed Tempeh with Green Beans, Shitake Mushrooms and Brown Rice
Adapted from recipe on 101 Cookbooks

Serves 2

8 ounces tempeh (I used Lightlife)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 teaspoons ginger
Red pepper flakes, to taste

Green beans, cut into pieces
Shitake mushrooms, sliced
1/2 red onion, sliced
1/2 cup brown rice
1 teaspoon sesame oil

1. Combine soy sauce, maple syrup, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes in a bowl. Cut tempeh into triangles and marinate in soy-maple mixture for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, cook rice according to package instructions.

3. When tempeh is done marinating, saute in a frying pan over medium heat, reserving the marinade to stirfry with the vegetables. When both sides are golden brown, remove from the skillet.

4. Add sesame oil to hot skillet and saute onions until slightly tender. Add the green beans, the marinade and cook for a couple minutes before adding the shitake mushrooms and the tempeh back to the pan. Cook together until marinade has reduced and coated the veggies and tempeh, and then serve over brown rice.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pan-seared Steak with Shallot Port Wine Sauce: How I Woo Myself

In case my post on Valentine's Day didn't make it clear, I spent Saturday showering myself with love instead of hugging my pillow to my chest and crying because I don't have anyone to do the showering for me. While I do occasionally tend toward the dramatic, I most certainly do not do lonely and pathetic. When life throws me a flaming ball of calamity (or a miserable excuse for a date), I do what any aspiring domestic goddess with good taste would do -- I cook, eat and drink wine.

As I was doing my usual blog/cooking site surveillance this past Friday, I came across the recipe for a hangar steak with shallots on Simply Recipes. The caption under the mouth-moistening photo read, "Looking for a quick, easy, yet special meal for Valentine's? Try this hanger steak, just cut the recipe in half if you are making it for two. ~Elise"

I bristled at the mention of "making it for two."

Why are couples the only ones who get to eat well on Valentine's Day, I thought. I like steak. And shallots are one of my all-time favorite ingredients to cook with! Don't I deserve a delicious steak dinner too?

That's when it occurred to me. Just because I'm single doesn't mean I have to eat frozen pizza or TJ's meatless meatballs on Valentine's Day. Screw convention (I'm not really a fan of following the norm anyway) -- I was going to chow down on a big fat slab of beef and enjoy every minute of it!

While my dinner was inspired by the recipe for the hangar steak on Simply Recipes, I ended up going in a completely different direction. Instead of hangar steak (my Whole Foods didn't have it), I used top sirloin, and instead of a shallot sauce made with a red wine and red wine vinegar reduction, I made my sauce with port and beef broth. Paired with a glass of Menage a Trois Zinfandel from K&L Wine Merchants, roasted fingerling potatoes and some lightly steamed broccolini, it was the perfect dinner to woo myself.

Pan-seared Steak with Shallot Port Wine Sauce for One

6-oz piece of Top Sirloin (or steak of choice)
1/4 cup port wine
1/4 cup water, mixed with Better than Bouillon Beef Base (or 1/4 cup beef broth)
2 large shallots, sliced
Salt, pepper
Olive oil, butter

1. Toss sliced shallots with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper and pinch of time. Roast in oven at 350 degrees until tender. Meanwhile, begin cooking port wine/beef broth together in a small saucepan on the stove over low heat. Add shallots when they are done so the flavors have time to blend.

2. Season both sides of steak with a generous amount of ground pepper, salt and thyme. Heat heavy pan over medium heat -- coat the bottom with butter (or olive oil if proffered). When pan is hot, begin cooking steak -- approximately 3-4 minutes per side depending on thickness.

3. Reduce heat, and add port wine sauce to pan. Let the steak cook with the sauce until reaches preferred doneness and sauce has reduced. Serve immediately with fingerling potatoes and something green (because it makes the plate look prettier).

Roasted Fingerling Potatoes

Fingerling potatoes, sliced long-ways
Salt, Pepper
Olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss sliced fingerlings with drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper, and thyme. Spread out on a cookie sheet and bake until slightly crispy/tender -- approximately 20-25 minutes. Stir occasionally while baking so they cook evenly and don't burn onto the sheet.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sapphire Laguna: Refined Reinterpretations

"Another roll?" He asks, cocking an eyebrow at me, as he holds his tongs tentatively over the item in question.

"Oh yes," I respond, unable to refuse his offer for another of the freshly-baked rosemary and Asiago dusted bread rolls.

The stomach-filler barely has time to hit my plate. I sink my teeth through the tender crust and close my eyes in appreciation. "It's even better than the first one." I whisper to my mom, and she immediately raises her hand for a second as well.

It is the third time that my parents and I have been to Sapphire Laguna, the highly-acclaimed Orange County restaurant that has been winning local foodies over with its self-described "comfort food inspired by cuisines from around the world." The seaside eatery on the famous Pacific Coast Highway is now almost two years old and has reached a level of refinement that wasn't quite there when I visited the first time in September, 2007. It has, to quote a cliche, "come into its own" and developed a flavor that goes exquisitely well with its transcendentally beautiful Laguna Beach environs.

Like the rolls I can't stop eating, the restaurant keeps getting better, and more importantly, is keeping things fresh with seasonal updates to its ever-changing menu. The peach-glazed pork chop that I devoured on that first occasion has been replaced with a baked Kurobuto pork shank with spaetzle, brussel sprouts, and homemade apple-mustard. The lamb sirloin with curry mashed potatoes that my dad enjoyed the second time, is now an onion dusted lamb sirloin with bleu cheese gnocchi, rapini, and a tomato basil-olive jus. And the prosciutto-wrapped mission figs that my brother and I shared on one occasion are gone completely.

Sitting underneath the apropos sapphire-colored blown glass chandelier lights on this particular evening, I am struck by the sense of possibility that permeates the sea-kissed air of the tranquil, upscale space. To my right is a young couple -- each doing their best to eat their Caesar salads without getting any lettuce leaves stuck in their teeth. Maybe they are on a first date? By the front window is a party of four -- two older couples who seem as drunk on the wine as they are on the ample amounts of food that keep coming their way throughout the evening. And just behind me is a special party -- Chef Azmin Ghahreman and a small gathering of his friends. I can't help but lust over the indulgent casserole of macaroni and cheese that is resting in the middle of their table. And I can't help but feel as though I'm in the presence of culinary greatness.

Even the Caesar salad, a starter so redundant it borders on benign, is a revelation in Ghahreman's hands. The crisp whole pieces of Romaine lettuce are enlivened by the peppery punch of the authentic, Parmesan and anchiovy-laced dressing. This salad has bite, and I have to restrain myself from dancing my fork over to my dad's plate for another helping. It was the same story the last time we dined there, and I found myself moaning over the robust earthiness of my dad's silk-smooth mushroom soup.

If I wasn't so intent on ordering the aforementioned lamb sirloin entree, it would be easy to leave satisfied from an all-appetizer dinner. The Malaysian black pepper prawns with wok-fried Chinese long beans and garlic chips, and the Pan-Seared Day Boat Scallops with baby field greens and warm pancetta-passion fruit dressing beg to be ordered, but the chill in the air has stirred up my appetite for something substantial. I pass over the delicate Hawaiian-style steamed Barramundi with ginger-shitake mushrooms, cilantro, green onions, and shoyu -- a light dish that is sure to please those with less ambitious appetites -- and go for the lamb.

The lean, judicious slices of sirloin arrive at the table the perfect shade of pink -- attention has been paid to my request for a medium cooked slab of flesh, and I eagerly dig my steak knife into the tender meat. The lightly-seasoned lamb dissolves into my mouth without a trace of gaminess, and the flavor is further accentuated by the pool of tomato basil-olive jus that covers my plate. I am not as enamored with the bleu cheese gnocchi as I imagined I'd be. They seem to be a perfunctory note and distraction to the overall vision of the dish, and are slightly firm to the bite. The kiss of bleu cheese is not overwhelming however, and eaten alone, they are not particularly bothersome.

The Chianti-braised prime short ribs with leek and parmesan mashed potatoes and mirepoix garnish that my parents both order is a relatively standard interpretation of the now ubiquitous dish, but is a fine rendition none-the-less. Short ribs are a fattier cut of meat, but the hearty portion resting over the perfectly whipped potatoes has been trimmed of all discernible traces of fat. The tender beef needs no assistance from a knife to be eaten. This is the sort of dish that is perfect on a rainy day, or in Southern California, a day with clouds.

The dessert menu continues the trend of the rest of the menu. The seven desserts offered are reinvented versions of traditional plates. It's not just creme brulee -- it's a trio of creme brulee with white espresso, Chai latte, and orange-chocolate varieties. Panna cotta is dressed up with basil and fresh strawberry-rhubarb puree, and a fruit pavlova is married with passion fruit, fresh berries and mango coulis. Everything seems to hold the promise of a unique dessert experience, but my dad and I can't help but be lured in by the most standard interpretation -- a warm spiced apple tart with Calvados caramel and Dulce de Leche ice cream.

That tart, that is not really a tart at all, arrives at the table in the form of a moist spice-cake that has been topped with baked apples and raisins, drizzled with caramel and set over a decadent pool of sweetened cream cheese creme. The presentation is whimsical yet refined, and while there are a lot of different flavors on the plate, everything comes together beautifully. It is neither cloying nor understated. It is what dessert should be after a fine meal -- the perfect ending to a special dining experience.

As we leave the restaurant, my dad pauses at the door to shake Chef Ghahreman's hand. While my mom and I stand waiting for my dad to finish his conversation with the humble chef, we begin talking to the hostess. She tells us that the restaurant received its name because the Chef's wife, her mother and her grandmother were all independently proposed to with a sapphire ring. My mom and I marvel at the coincidence, but later, it occurs to me just how fitting the name is for the restaurant. The menu is defined by the reinterpretation of classic dishes -- just like the Chef and his in-laws who reinterpreted the engagement ring by filling it with something unexpected.

It may not be a diamond, but as Sapphire Laguna ages, it is quietly refining itself into something even better.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Milk's Ooey-Gooey Chocolate Chip Cookie: Happy Valentine's Day to Me

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how, as a single gal, I struggle to justify spending a lot of money on groceries for new recipes I want to try. I would love to churn out exotic dishes that call for exotic ingredients, but know that I would ultimately end up tossing said ingredients when I can't use them all up myself. The always lovely Heather from Diary of a Fanatic Foodie made a comment that really lept out at me, and her words have been knocking about in my head ever since. She wrote,

"I love being married, but sometimes I would give my left arm to be single again, and not have to consult with someone every time I make plans, buy something expensive or do anything else that might impact another person. So, remember to cherish these moments a little bit, because when you're married, you'll celebrate the rare business trip that your spouse goes on that allows you to make some Annie shells mac and cheese and watch 13 Going on 30."

As I sit at my dining room table, sipping some loose leaf Jasmine tea and staring at the crumbs from the Ooey-Gooey Chocolate Chip Cookie I just devoured, I am starting to feel pretty darn happy that my Facebook profile still reads "single." (And not just because I saw He's Just Not That Into You last night and am feeling anti-man.) When I went to pick up my afternoon Valentine's Day treat from Milk, my local neighborhood ice cream and sweet shop, it struck me that it's nice being able to get exactly what I want today. I don't have to get my hopes up about the outcome of some special contrived evening, or pretend to be happy when I receive something egregious like white chocolate or cherry cordials from a clueless significant other. My singleness gives me the freedom to go out and get the cookie I want and then eat the whole thing without having to share a single chocolate chip studded morsel with anyone.

This Valentine's Day, instead of bemoaning my lack of date and the sad state of my empty flower vase, I am going to savor my solitude like I would a frothy Chai latte. As a tribute to all single girls who are similarly spending today sans sweetie, here is my list of favorite things about being a "me" and not a "we."

1. I never have to watch (or pretend to like) sports, action movies or weird Discovery Channel shows about robots, machines or things that go "Vroom."

2. When I go out to dinner, I don't feel obligated to offer anyone a bite of my amazing steak or pasta Bolognese unless I want to.

3. If I miss a patch of leg hair when I'm shaving, the only one who notices is me.

4. The toilet seat in my apartment is always down.

5. When I buy a package of Trader Joe's chocolate ice cream bon-bons and leave it in the freezer for a few days, I know they will all be there when I want one.

6. I can spend my Friday and Saturday nights anyway I want -- watching "Friday Night Lights" and eating frozen pizza, going out to dinner and drinks with girlfriends, or, if I decide to change my personality, dancing at a "hot" Hollywood club.

7. I never have to explain why I had to have another pink skirt from Anthropologie.

8. I can wear the same sweatpants day after day after day after day after...

9. My weekends do not involve trips to Home Depot, Fry's Electronics, or to the sketchy hot dog place on Fairfax.

10. I still get to fantasize about "the one" -- how we'll meet, if we've already met, what he looks like, and how cute we'll be in all our wedding pictures.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Brunch at the Little Next Door: Not Just Another Omelet

It looks like it's just an omelet. Nothing particularly special -- merely a run-of-the-mill, slightly overcooked block of buttery eggs. It certainly doesn't seem like a dish worthy of the battle against the perpetually horrendous Third Street traffic and evil meter maids dying to meet their ticket quotas for the month. I could very easily forgo this post completely -- relegating the photographic evidence of my midday meal at the Little Next Door cafe a few weeks ago to the garbage bin on my computer. It's what I should do, but I'm not.

There have been many occasions in the past few years of penny-pinching and budget-watching, that I have turned down invitations for lunch, brunch or dinner to save money. Aside from the ill-effects to my credit card bills, I've also found that so many of the meals I am served in restaurants are inferior to what I could whip up at home. There is nothing worse than shelling out $20+ for an overcooked bowl of lukewarm pasta when I could be eating a sensuous plate of al dente noodles bathed in a sea of spicy arriabiatta sauce and topped with Parmesan Reggiano at my own dining room table. (I should really try making that some day.)

Of course, to always snub those invitations to sucker punch my bank account would mean missing out on the opportunity to not only discover a new favorite restaurant or dish to love, but to connect with another individual as well. My meal at the Little Next Door a few Sundays ago was not just about re-fueling the vessel and screwing over my grocery budget for the week -- it was about re-fueling a relationship with a friend whom I hadn't seen in several months.

As we both dug into our savory omelets, stuffed with tender poached chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and luscious chunks of goat cheese, we were catching each other up on what was going on in our lives. I told her about my sister-in-law and brother's baby shower the previous evening, she told me about her pregnant cousin in New York. I told her about the guy who was "just not that into [me]" and she told me about the guy that was "just not that into [her]." By the time we'd scraped the last puddles of cream from the decadent potato gratin sides on our plates, we'd made a significant step forward in our recently malnourished relationship.

While it is important to not throw one's money about like Rebecca Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic, it's also important to know when to say "yes" to financial impracticality. There is a reason why Mastercard keeps putting out those sappy "Priceless" commercials -- some memories really are worth the splurge. Especially if those memories come with really good omelets and really good potatoes.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 12: A Last Supper Worth Waiting For

I don't cry at movies or television shows. Ever. Not in Steel Magnolias, not in that Hillary Swank boxing movie where she was all buff and manly and scary-looking, and certainly not in Bambi. Yet last night, as I watched the final scenes of the twelfth episode of "Top Chef" season 5, I felt a stirring in my chest. An odd sensation descended upon my throat... was there a lump in there? For a minor moment I thought I might actually be able to squeeze out a single tear.

And then the moment passed, and I went to bed.

In case it wasn't clearly established in the dozen or so times the chefs mention it throughout last night's episode, the stakes at this point in the season are like really high now, guys. Like way higher than the weeks before when there was "no room for error," and Hosea was nervous about being the "last American male chef." That was all just playtime in the sandbox. (Or at least it was for Stefan.) Last night's sparing was it for the final five -- the last chance for romance before one unlucky chef gets kicked to the curb just shy of making it to the final four that will proceed to New Orleans.

In Stefan's words, "If you slip, you are in the bottom."

Of course, he's not worried at all. Oh no, he's Stefan -- he skinned eels as a young boy in Germany. "There is nothing that can go wrong" for him. But more on that later. Leah, on the other hand, is pretty worried. Like really worried, because guess what? "Cooking is the only thing [she's] ever been able to do really well." Apparently, she wasn't so good at college. Me thinks that she may have been spending a little too much time bending over for the frat boys instead of bending her head over her books like a good little student. But that's just me. Maybe I'm wrong about her. I mean if Carla used to be a model then maybe Leah is the monogamous sort who doesn't cheat on her boyfriend in front of television cameras. And maybe it really does make sense that Carla would start buying cookbooks when she was modeling. Because models just love eating and all.

With all the usual "back at the ranch" hi-jinks and sound bytes complete, the chefs are trooped into the kitchen for their final New York Quickfire Challenge with some molecular gastronomist named Wylie Dufresne as the guest judge. I don't really know who he is, but everyone seems super impressed (like they are when anyone other than Padma, Tom and Toby walks into the kitchen). Because Wylie's favorite meal of the day is breakfast, the chefs are challenged to create a dish with eggs. Everyone except Carla, who decides to do a take on "green eggs and ham," immediately starts freaking out about doing some crazy voodoo to their eggs. Fabio is "running like flash." and Hosea is musing about how he can turn the egg into something it's not. Like some monkey ass in a clam shell, perhaps? I don't know what Stefan is up to but it's okay because he knows he's "a great chef." As is usually the case with these fancy schmancy challenges, the simple dish prevails, and Carla is announced the winner. Fabio is on the bottom and is "pissed."

Padma wastes no time in announcing their Elimination Challenge. Each cheftestant draws the name of a "culinary master" and is charged to make him or her the dish that they would want for their last supper. Get it? Last supper? Because this is the last meal the chefs get to cook in New York? Someone's been using their noggin! (Hint: Not Leah)

Fabio draws Lydia Bastianich, who he describes as "the queen of the Italian cuisine in this country," and is asked to prepare a roast chicken with potatoes and a leafy salad. Carla draws Jacque Pepin, who requested roast squab with fresh peas, and is like eye-bugging out because she is "like this with peas," and clearly Jacque and her are "two peas in a pod." She is apparently really enjoying the bad puns in this episode, but as long as she's not talking love and light, I'm not complaining. The rest of the chefs receive their assignments -- Hosea will make shrimp scampi with provençal tomatoes for Susan Ungaro, Stefan will make salmon with spinach for Marcus Samuelsson, and Leah will make egg's benedict for Wylie Dufresne -- and then it's off to Whole Foods for some shopping.

Everything starts off well and good and normal. Leah reminds us that she "sucked ass in the last challenge," and then has trouble finding the eggs and butter in the store. (Hint: The dairy section.) Hosea still really wants to beat Stefan, but Stefan doesn't think Hosea has "the balls for being a chef." (Might have to consult Leah on that one.) The chefs get back to the kitchen and start their two hour prep, and just as the action starts getting good, there is a crash off-camera.

Fabio has broken his finger.

If I hadn't been so worried that the only chef I actually like this season might be going home, I might have been able to enjoy all of Fabio's classic commentary post-break. I couldn't, so I'm going to have to repeat it all here.

"I'll chop it up and sear it on the flattop so it doesn't bleed any more."

"I always say it so easy I can do it with one hand behind my back -- I don't mean it!"

"I got so many kick in my ass that sometime when I'm in the bathroom I still poop shoes out of my ass."

Thank you, and good night.

Well, not quite. There's still the whole cooking, serving, tasting and judge's table to get through. "This is 'Top Chef,' not 'Top Pussy'" as Fabio announces at the end of the episode.

The dishes go out and everyone is super freaked out because Tom Collichio comes in right before begging the chefs not to embarrass him. The stakes are like really high, remember? The judges and culinary masters have been seated around one side of a long rectangular table that is clearly set up in a way that is reminiscent of Da Vinci's depiction of Jesus' Last Supper. The presumption that these chefs are "god-like" is pretty off-puttingly brazen, but I'll keep my opinions focused on the food for now. Everyone loves Carla's "perfect" peas and even Tom is impressed by her "audacity... to do something so simple." Hosea's scampi is okay, but doesn't seem to make many waves, and no one seems to be particularly fond of Leah's runny hollaindaise sauce and slightly undercooked eggs. In a shocking turn of events, the table is unanimous that Stefan's fish, while well-seasoned, is overcooked. Guess he's not as good with salmon as he is with live eel...

And then there is Fabio's chicken. As he stands in front of the table, hiding his broken finger behind his back, my heart nearly explodes with compassion for the man with the broken accent. And then, it nearly explodes again when the judges all moan over his humble roast chicken that Tom declares is a dish that could "make [him]" as a chef. Hosea isn't the only one who is "close to tears" after the meal. I want to cry out of joy for Fabio, and nearly do when he is announced the winner over Carla.

Ultimately, Leah's lackluster egg's benedict proves to be the final knife in her long awaited coffin, and she is finally, gracefully, sent packing. I couldn't have asked for a better ending if I'd written it myself. Though I might have ex-nayed some of the sappy goodbye between her and Hosea. Not really feeling the whole "I have one more person to do this for" garbage that he's trucking out. I'm sure his girlfriend back home, ain't either.

For once this season, "Top Chef" did not disappoint. And for once, Stefan did.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Okay, Fine -- Let Them (Or Me) Eat Cake (Or Pecan Pie)

This is a story about my dad. My relationship with the man who gave me life (and a fine-tuned palate) has always been a touch shaky. Mostly because we are very similar people (stubborn, moody, impatient), but also because he, well, sends me flying over the cuckoo's nest (ie. drives me crazy). That's not to say I don't love my dad -- I do; I just lack the ability to enjoy all his personality quirks.

Of course, he does have his redeeming qualities too. Despite his whole I'm-man-of-the-house-hear-me-roar persona, he's totally got the whole "softer side of Sears" thing going on. Nothing seems to please him more than doing things for his family, and more often than not, those things he does involve food and wine. Sometimes his efforts to drown us with caloric love are successful (especially with the wine), and other times, they end up in the waste basket. With him, it's always a little touch-and-go, and over the years, my mom and I have come to fear the days when he brings home little white boxes from the latest bakery he's discovered, or massive amounts of grocery bags from his favorite produce shop.

One weekend this past October, he brought my mom and I a couple desserts from Let Them Eat Cake, a Costa Mesa bakery that was featured on Food Network's "Ace of Cakes" for their dramatic specialty cakes. As usual, we were immediately concerned about what was in "the box." We are both picky about our desserts, and often find that my dad's idea of what we enjoy is in direct opposition to what we actually like. He brings home chocolate mousse or rich chocolate decadence cake, and we cringe in disgust -- wishing he'd thought to just bring us a simple chocolate chip cookie instead. On this particular occasion, we were both dismayed to find mocha cheesecake and a huge, rectangular chunk of what appeared to be pecan pie.

"Do you think he'll be offended if I don't eat any?" I whispered to my mom as we stared in horror at the absurdly decadent desserts. Despite my affection for Billy Crystal's humorous line from When Harry Met Sally, I did not want to "partake in the pecan pieeee."

She gave me a look. Nay, not just a look -- the look. The one we give one another to telepathically communicate a message of grave importance. That day, the message was clear. Eat it or break his bull-sized heart.

That evening, I trudged into the kitchen as though I was Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. I yanked out the slab of pecan pie from the fridge, shooting a lustful glance to the freezer. I desperately wished I could forgo the contents of the dreaded white box for a bowl of the mint chocolate chip ice cream my mom always buys for me when I'm in town, but didn't even want to contemplate the fall-out from that slap to my dad's face.

It was pie or nothing.

I cut into the slab, nearly wincing at the effort it took for the knife to slice through the dense cake of pecans, something brown and gooey, and what appeared to be a shortbread-type crust. I sat down at the table with my plate and giant mug of Tazo Calm chamomile tea and took a deep breath as I braced myself for extreme sugar impact. I took a bite. And then another. And then another. And then I went back to the fridge to cut off another hunk of the unexpectedly delightful dessert that I couldn't even begin to describe if I tried.

Approximately a month later, as my dad and I were driving home from his produce market with all our fixings for Thanksgiving, he turned into the small parking lot in front of the unassuming bakery on Newport Blvd. I immediately protested.

"No Dad. We don't need anything -- I'm making chocolate chip cookies, remember? The batter is resting in the fridge?"

He glanced over with a twinkle in his eye. "Let's just get a little something."

I followed him inside (again, like Sean Penn.... Dead Man Walking), but quickly found myself smitten by the work-shop appearance of the bakery. Aside from a short counter and condensed display case, most of the space was occupied by the sizable kitchen where a man and woman were working on breathtaking cakes. Their focus and concentration were compelling, and I secretly wished I could pull up a chair and watch them create their works of cake art for the rest of the day.

My dad had other ideas. In yet another example of how my dad wrecks havoc on my nerves, he began chatting up the counter girl about a bottle of wine he recommended that she try. At first I was annoyed (he has a tendency to trap strangers in ridiculously long conversations), but after a few minutes, I began to see the interaction in a different light. In that moment, I realized that my dad and I don't just share the same bad qualities -- we share a few good ones as well. The interaction reminded me of similar conversations that I strike up with cashiers and receptionists at my regular haunts in Los Angeles. He wasn't being annoying -- he was being nice.

By the time we arrived home -- pecan pie in tow -- I had reached a new level of appreciation for the man with the overactive vocal chords. Just like the dessert I hesitated to try, I felt as though I'd been hesitating to look for his redeeming qualities. Watching him make the bakery girl's day a little brighter made an indelible impression on me. That's all he is trying to do when he brings my mom and I desserts we don't like -- he wants to make our day a little bit brighter.

If he keeps filling those boxes with pecan pie, I may just let him.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pistachio-Crusted Chicken and Warm Spinach Orzo Salad

I was standing in line at Whole Foods when I realized I'd forgotten the chicken.

"Oh my gosh!" I exclaimed, anxiously eyeing the mass of groceries I'd already unloaded onto the conveyor belt. "I forgot something." I told the cashier sheepishly.

She smiled in understanding and insisted I run back to get it, and I sprinted over to the poultry counter so the butcher could hack me off a 5-ounce breast for my dinner that night. By the time I made it back to the register, there was a sizable line of angry customers who were none-too-pleased to be held up by my mad dash for chicken. Fortunately, the cashier didn't seem particularly bothered by their irritation at both me and her, and I was in and out and on my way with all the fixings for my Saturday night supper.

I'd been wanting to try the recipe for the warm spinach, orzo and pistachio salad ever since Esi from Dishing Up Delights brought it to my attention after I posted about my big fat sort of (but not really) Greek orzo pasta dish. I loved that the recipe called for balsamic vinegar and shallots (two of my favorite ingredients to cook with), but I didn't love that it doesn't call for any animal flesh. While I do enjoy getting my protein fix from tofu, tempeh and lots and lots of cheese, the salad seemed to cry out for something meaty to go with it. Because it contains pistachios, it seemed destined to be served with a pistachio-crusted chicken breast.

I'd never actually made a pistachio-crusted breast of chicken, so did a little Googling to see which method would prove most fruitful for my purposes. I didn't want a recipe that had too much going on since it was meant to be an accompaniment rather than a competitor to the orzo salad, but I could have been a little more risque in my seasoning. Though the chicken was moist and tender, it was a bit bland and would have benefited from a more liberal dose of Dijon mustard, and perhaps a squirt of honey as well. I did think that it went well with the salad, and enjoyed the meal as a whole (mostly because it looked so darn purdy on my new fancy Crate and Barrell plate!), but wished I'd thought to squeeze a little lemon over the orzo to balance out the balsamic vinegar.

Ultimately, the combination of starch, greens and protein made for a very satisfying meal, and didn't leave me rummaging through the freezer for chunks of old frozen brownie like my lackluster pancakes did the previous night. Thank goodness for filling, hearty-healthy chicken. And thank goodness for the sweet cashier who let me go back to get it.

Warm Spinach, Orzo, and Pistachio Salad
(Adapted from Dishing Up Delights, who adapted it from Serves One by Toni Lydecker)

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus a large pinch
1/4 cup whole wheat orzo
1 tablespoon crumbled feta cheese
2 teaspoons organic, extra-virgin oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large handful organic baby spinach
1 small shallot, chopped
1 heaping tablespoon roasted pistachios

Cook orzo in boiling pot of chicken broth until tender.

Meanwhile, saute shallot in frying pan until translucent. Combine the feta, olive oil, vinegar, a large pinch of salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl.

Drain the orzo through a strainer and add to the frying pan with the cooked shallots . Throw in the dressing and spinach and stir until orzo is coated in dressing and spinach is just wilted. Sprinkle with pistachios, and if desired, serve over a bed of extra cooked spinach.

Pistachio-crusted chicken breast

1 chicken breast, pounded flat
1 egg white
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons crushed pistachios
2 tablespoons Panko crumbs
Flour for dredging
Salt, pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare three bowls -- one containing just enough flour to coat chicken breast, another containing the egg white and Dijon mustard, and the third containing a mixture of equal parts crushed pistachios and Panko crumbs.

Salt and pepper the chicken breast and then coat in flour. Shake off excess flour, and then dip in egg white/Dijon mustard mixture and then into the Panko/pistachio crumbs (you most likely will not need to use all of it).

Heat olive oil in nonstick frying pan over medium heat, and fry breast for approximately 3-4 minutes on both sides or until the chicken is nicely browned. Transfer breast to cookie sheet lined with foil and bake approximately 10-15 minutes or until cooked through.

Serve with warm spinach orzo salad.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Conquering the Croque Monsieur

The memory is seared onto my brain like grill marks on a juicy rib-eye steak. Approximately two years ago, my former roommate and I both had terrible days at work and impetuously decided the occasion called for gluttony (as most bad days do). One phone call later, we were set with last-minute reservations at Campanile for their famed "Grilled Cheese Night," and approximately one hour later, we both came face to face with our first ever Croque Madame sandwiches.

An eerie silence descended over our table as we eagerly devoured the crisp, greasy sandwiches topped with a tender fried egg. We didn't look up. We didn't stop for air. We didn't pass go. (Or some other non-Monopoly line that makes sense here.) When there were only crumbs and stray lettuce leaves from our mixed green salads left on our plates, our eyes met across the table. We broke into hysterical laughter -- so amazed at how good grilled cheese could be that we had no idea how else to react.

Since that night, I've had many other encounters with the Croque Monsieur -- a decadent sandwich made with Gruyere cheese, French jambon and bechamel sauce -- and the Croque Madame -- the same sandwich with a fried egg on top. Yet despite my affection for my favorite form of grilled sandwich, I've never actually made it myself. (Partly out of laziness, and partly out of not actually wanting to see how much fat and buttery goodness goes into the decadent dish.)

When the NY Times posted a recipe for the Croque Monsieur in June 2008, however, it seemed that I was destined to give the sandwich a whirl in my own kitchen. Of course, since it was the middle of summer, I wasn't exactly in the mood for a big hot mess of cheese -- regardless of how delicious said hot mess might taste.

I promptly forgot all about my Croque Monsieur intentions until this past week when I began planning the recipes I wanted to try out over the weekend. With rain and gloom all over the forecast, I knew that Saturday would be the perfect day for some Frenchified comfort food.

Armed with Gruyere cheese, Black Forest ham from Whole Foods that was not very French at all, and a couple slices of whole wheat bread (courtesy of my freezer), I set about to create some Croque-style goodness for my lunch. Since I only had skim milk on hand, I was a little concerned that my bechamel sauce (made with butter, flour and milk) wouldn't thicken correctly, but after ten minutes of persistent stirring it came together perfectly. I slathered that luscious bad boy over one slice of my bread, topped it with two ounces of my lean ham and a generous blanket of grated cheese, and then covered it with the other slice of bread. Then it was into my 400 degree oven for approximately ten minutes (the amount of time it takes for the cheese to reach the oozy stage).

While my version of the Croque Monsieur was significantly healthier than both Campanile's version and the recipe in the NY Times that calls for the sandwich to be topped with another layer of bechamel and cheese, it was still delicious. Paired with some fancy greens that I dressed up in a light homemade balsamic dressing, it was the perfect lunch for LA's take on a "rainy" day. It makes me wish I could move to San Francisco or Seattle just so I can justify eating it every day.

Hmm... do people wear pink in San Francisco?

Croque Monsieur
(Very loosely based on the recipe from the NY Times)
Serves 1

2 slices whole wheat bread
2 oz Black Forest ham, sliced thin
1 oz+ Gruyere cheese, grated

Bechamel Sauce
(Will make more than needed for one sandwich but feel free to save the leftovers for many of the other things made with bechamel)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup skim milk
Pinch nutmeg
Salt, pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In small saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Whisk in the flour to form a paste. Add milk and stir until combined. Continue stirring over low heat until sauce becomes thick. Remove from the heat and add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.

2. Spread a thin layer of bechamel sauce over one slice of bread (cover completely). Cut ham to fit neatly onto the bread slice (or tear it like me), and then top with grated cheese. Top with other slice of bread, and place on a cookie sheet lined with greased parchment paper. Bake for ten minutes or until cheese is melted.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Belated New Year's Revelations and Some Honest Scrapping

What's blond and tall and pink all over from embarrassment?


The lovely Miranda from the always amusing "A Duck in Her Pond" passed me the New Year's Eve award in early January for being a "true lover of the new year," and I have been a terrible recipient. So bad in fact, that I could very well be sent to the chopping block for not truly loving the new year. I should really just pack my knives and go, except I really do have an affection for what happens when the clock hits midnight on December 31st.

(If, unlike the past two years, I manage to stay awake.)

Okay, so maybe I don't love New Year's Eve in quite the same way more revelerous (that's a made-up word) people do, but I do have five things to say about what I do love about the days that have come after all that champagne and nonsense. Without any further more whacks around the bush, here are five things I love about 2009 so far:

1. The sense that all those silly horoscopes might actually be accurate and 2009 really will be MY year.

2. Keeping my new year's resolution to try at least one new recipe a week and discovering some amazing new dishes (orzo soup, vibrant green beans) as a result.

3. My future niece will be making her debut in March (or February if she's an early bird like me!).

4. "Friday Night Lights" and "Lost" are back!

5. My best friend Ali's visit to California this past January, and our amazing three-day eating extravaganza and trip to Disneyland.

While I'm supposed to pass this along to 1 to 50 other people, since the new yearsiness (another made-up word) of 2009 has been somewhat diminished, I'm going to skip that step.


I'm not, however, going to skip out on the chance to plunk down some more random revelations (10 to be exact). Esi, kitchen goddess extraordinaire, tagged me with the Honest Scrap Award on her blog, "Dishing Up Delights," and I'm ready to roll out some serious randomness!

1. I am currently half-watching Jerry Maguire. I have seen the film no less than a dozen times, and find it particularly enjoyable because parts of it are shot in my hometown of Newport Beach.

2. I occasionally have trouble falling asleep at night because I can't stop thinking about different recipes I want to try/food I want to eat.

3. No matter how many bags I already have in my cupboards at home, every time I go to Trader Joe's I feel compelled to buy dried cranberries. Am I storing up for "the big one?" Paranoid that they will suddenly discontinue them like the Hot & Sweet Mustard? Or am I just crazy? The world may never know...

4. I secretly enjoy it when strangers catch me singing/dancing in my car. (Sometimes I exaggerate my gestures/head bobbing actions to give them a better show.)

5. I named my laptop, "Lucy," my cell phone, "CiCi," my iPod Nano, Nancy, and my Toyota Corolla, "Tiffany." (Alliteration pleases me.)

6. I had to go to speech therapy when I was in elementary school for a lisp. The word "Mississippi" used to terrify me.

7. In college, I was a member of the Super Soaker Club -- we used to run around campus in bright pink shirts and ambush each other.

8. I make my bed as soon as I get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes I start making it when I'm still in it.

9. At various points in my childhood, I took music lessons for the bassoon, the violin and the piano. I was half-way decent at the piano (I have absurdly long fingers), but stopped playing when I starting going to a teacher who would dance in my living room to demonstrate "rhythm."

10. When I was younger (and by myself), I would get dressed up and pretend I was famous and appearing on a talk show - Jay Leno, Rosie O'Donnell, etc. I'd come up with answers to their questions and even do the fake, "I was so worried I'd fall," line. (It is entirely possible that I have reenacted this in the past few months.)

I am passing this along to the following four people (instead of seven like I'm supposed to!)...

1. Nicole, my falafal-loving non blogger friend
2. Hank from "Without Baggage" even though I know he will never do it and will most likely mock me for my random things
3. Reeni from "Cinnamon Spice and Everything Nice" because I just discovered her blog and find it fabulous
4. Mike from "Right Way to Eat" because he was the one who showed me that the right way to eat pizza in LA is to drive directly to Vito's