Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lemon Vegetable Risotto: Lightening up an Italian heavyweight

The Sunday before last, I was feeling a wee bit weighed down. Due to the extreme deliciousness of the chicken prosciutto panini at Aroma Coffee & Tea, I did my poor stomach a wrong. I ate the whole oversized thing. And then got a chai latte to go.

While I didn't feel overly stuffed after my good ole Big Fat American lunch/brunch (apparently, I'm used to gigantour restaurant portion sizes), I wasn't particularly hungry for the rest of the day. Even so, because I become an insane person when I go too long without food, I knew that I'd still need something to keep my belly beast purring through the night. It was at this critical juncture that I decided to make risotto.

I know, I know. Risotto? It doesn't seem like a light meal -- at all. On the contrary, risotto, with all its cheesy goodness, can be the perpetrator of a big kick to the stomach. Or at least it is when prepared with loads of butter and bacon and cream. Prepared my way, however, the dish can actually be a nutritional powerhouse and a delightfully light supper. It doesn't need lard or loads of animal fat to be good -- just like sloppy joes made with lean ground turkey instead of beef, or brownies baked with applesauce instead of vegetable oil, it is possible to make risotto a diet-friendly dish that will still knock even the pickiest of taste buds off.

I know this, because this dish, with its liberal use of lemon, still knocks my picky taste buds off every time I make it.

Diana's Lemon Vegetable Risotto
Serves 1

1/4 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup shelled Edamame, cooked
1/2 cup squash, cubed
1 large shallot, minced
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup chicken broth (I combined 1 teaspoon Better Than Boullioun chicken base w/ 1 cup water)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Salt, pepper to taste

Combine white wine, lemon juice and chicken broth in a small saucepan and bring to a slow boil.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy pan over medium heat and saute shallot in a little olive oil until tender. Reduce the heat, add the rice, and stir until the edges of the rice turn translucent. Add some of the hot chicken broth/white wine mixture and season with pepper to taste.

Continue adding the warm broth/wine little by little, stirring occasionally, as it is absorbed. The rice should simmer at a slow boil until it reaches a slightly stiff consistency. Just before the risotto is done, add the cooked edamame and squash to the pan. Cook until squash is tender, and then add the Parmesan and lemon zest, reserving some for garnish. Serve immediately.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Learning How to Make Do With What I Got

This past week I threw out a half-used loaf of mozzarella cheese I originally bought to make a panini, a third of a bunch of celery I bought to make sloppy joes, the moldy end pieces of some gruyere I bought to make a croque monsieur, nearly an entire head of ice burg lettuce that I only used to make two salads, a good half-cup of the crumbly remnants of my Kashi Go Lean Crunch Cereal, and a half bag of shelled edamame with freezer burn.

The great fridge purge got to me. In my efforts to keep my blog fresh with new recipes and exciting ingredients, I have become reckless with my shopping -- buying my way through the grocery store without considering how I will make use of the leftovers. While I usually do make a concerted effort to use up everything I buy, I know I can do a better job. I am not the kind of girl who gets a B- in anything, but I'm currently straddling C territory on this one. It isn't right. And it isn't me. I am an "A" student, and do not want to settle for anything less!

Unless of course, being an "A" student in thriftiness involves freeganism. Cute Anthropologie skirts and coordinating tees/sweaters do not mix well with dumpster diving. (Nor does germaphobia.)

This past weekend, I endeavored to make a few changes in my spending/eating habits. I decided not to try any new recipes. Instead of marrying myself to a certain dish that I felt I had to make, I listened to my cravings and then made something based on what I already had at home.

On Friday night, I defrosted a chicken breast and used up some leftover veggies to make a healthy and delicious chicken stir-fry with quinoa. On Saturday, my mom treated me to lunch out and a wonderful home-cooked dinner. On Sunday, I didn't go to brunch after church and instead made whole grain pancakes with wild blueberry maple syrup (pictured above) using items I already had on hand (frozen blueberries, maple syrup, whole grian pancake mix, wheat germ, etc.) and scrambled eggs. Even though the recipe I used called for buttermilk, I didn't hi-tail it to the nearest grocery store to buy a carton. I mixed a half-cup milk with 1 1/2 teaspoons of lemon juice and called it a day. The result was perfectly fine -- great even, and now I don't have to worry about what I'm going to do with the rest of a carton of buttermilk.

After all this unremarkable cooking, yesterday afternoon I started to feel the pressure to do something great and fabulous and worthy of exclamation points and comments like, "that looks so good!" I wanted to try to recreate a pork chop dish from one of my favorite restaurants, but knew it required buying several items that I would not immediately be able to use up. I walked aimlessly around Whole Foods, and later in the day, Gelson's, trying to let myself be inspired by something, but I had nothing but scorn for everything I considered. I didn't want any of it, and for once in my life, was sick and tired of thinking about food and what to do with it.

I finished my shopping and then went for a quick and ferocious hour hike up Runyan Canyon. I blasted the new Kelly Clarkson cd on my iPod and charged up the hill like I was on a mission to burn holes in my seriously worn down Nikes. It felt good. It felt cleansing. And after busting out some Bar Method style ab work on my purple yoga mat at home, I was ready to get back in the kitchen. Not to make something exotic and worthy of photography, but to make the wonderful chicken dish I made last Monday night. I used the half & half I already had, the remaining 1/4 cup of white wine in the bottle I opened for friends that past Thursday night, and plain white mushrooms that were $4.99 a pound as opposed to the $9.99 a pound shitake mushrooms. The result was delicious and satisfying. Especially since I didn't have to break the bank or dive into any dumpsters to make it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friend Award


When I started this blog last April, I intended it to be a creative outlet for all the food-related neurotic musings I tote about underneath my semi-unnatural head of blond hair. I never imagined that it would become what it has -- a conversation with other wonderful bloggers, whose kind words and comments bring a smile to my face everyday. If I were a cheesier person, I would break into song right now and serenade each of you with the words, "You, light up my life."

As much as I enjoy ingesting excessive amounts of cheese, I don't fancy my personality to be particularly cheesy, so instead, I am going to pass along this Friend award bequeathed on me by the exceedingly fabulous and uber-talented Blonde Duck of A Duck in Her Pond fame.

This award says: “These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers. Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this cleverly-written text into the body of their award."

Here, in no particular order other than the order they popped into my head, are the recipients of this Friend award:

1. Esi from Dishing Up Delights

2. Heather from Diary of a Fanatic Foodie

3. Meg from Futile Sniff

4. Reeni from Cinnamon, Spice & Everything Nice

5. Chrystal & Amir from Duo Dishes

6. Sara from Sara's Kitchen

7. Erica from Itzy's Kitchen

8. Kirby from Kirby Von Scrumptious

SiLa Bistro: A night worthy of "the splurge"

"I shouldn't be doing this." I think as I climb into the driver's seat of my 1999 Silver Toyota Corolla on Wednesday night. I carefully smooth out my pale blue dress so it won't wrinkle on the ride over and intently study the map I printed out from Google. It isn't a bad drive from my West Hollywood apartment to the restaurant in Silverlake -- only 6 miles, but it's not the drive I am worried about.

I am worried because I am getting my hair cut and colored on Saturday. I am worried because I am also having my car serviced and fixed up with new brake pads so I don't crash into the Prius that makes a sudden stop in front of me on the 10 fwy. Plus, after nearly two months of holding out, the previous day I decided that I could no longer stand the wretched state of my cuticles and broke down and got a pedicure. This is not exactly the week for putting my credit card out to pasture for a nice dinner out -- especially when my refrigerator is currently rivalling the produce section at Whole Foods.

"I shouldn't be doing this," I think again, as I dodge around a driver, carelessly trying to make a left turn at a signal that prohibits such action between 4 and 7 pm.

"I shouldn't be doing this," I think, as I scour the blocks surrounding Hyperion Avenue for free street parking.

"I shouldn't be doing this," I think, as I scurry down the street, frantically glancing at the clock on my cell phone to make sure I won't be late for my dinner date with three lovely ladies.

And then I am in front of the quaint neighborhood bistro that is humbly planted on the corner of Hyperion and Griffith Park Blvd. I pull the front door open and step inside the warm dining room to the welcoming smiles of the owners and staff. In that instant, all my guilt fades away into the dim night sky.

For the next three hours, I let myself go to the hands of the talented restaurateurs, relishing every moment of the experience with my new friends, and savoring every bite of the seasonally-inspired, local fare.

Restaurants like SiLa, an acronym for Silver Lake, are special not just because of the intent focus of the menu or the unique flavor profiles in one of their signature dishes, the absinthe shrimp. Restaurants like SiLa are special because they make their customers feel special. On this particular night, the owners and staff make it their mission to woo our party of four, like we are living in a Jane Austin book, and they are competing to win each of our hands in marriage.

The meal begins auspiciously with a shower of amuse bouches -- crispy cubes of seasoned potatoes and mini crostinis topped with herbed goat cheese. The gesture sets the tone for the evening and sets our bellies ablaze for the impending feast.

After the last potato cube is claimed, we boldly attack our first appetizer, the SiLa tart, which is essentially a puff pastry pizza topped with mozzarella, tomato, basil, proscuitto, and lemon dressed arugula. The buttery crust and succulent cheese caress our tongues with decadence, priming our senses for our even heartier other starter, a gratin of macaroni & four cheeses with sharp cheddar, fontina, gorgonzola, and Parmesan.

The pungent bite of gorgonzola dominates here, forcefully announcing itself on our palates and muddying the other cheeses in the dish. At first, I am overwhelmed, but as the cheeses cool, the flavors begin to harmonize. I am eager to spoon another small helping onto my plate -- as are my dining companions. We don't stop until the last elbow of macaroni has disappeared.
Our entrees arrive at the table with flourish -- each presented in a way that articulates the vision of the dish. Two orders of the daily special, a Lake Superior white fish with braised leeks, red potatoes and a vin blanc sauce for myself and the lady to my right, are delicately displayed on the plates -- an appropriate visual for the mild fish and accompanying sauce. The flavors are understated, almost to the point of negligibility, but the flaky fish is cooked well. I enjoy the crisp sear of skin on the top, and am only momentarily dismayed that I didn't opt for the bolder absinthe shrimp, a vibrant display of mixed greens, sauteed asparagus and baby tomatoes.

Upon sharing tastes of all the entrees at the table, we agree that the country fried steak with shallot mashed potatoes, sausage gravy and maple glazed carrots selected by the self-described "hardcore meat eater," is the definitive belle of the ball. This is comfort food done justice. The tender crisp-fried cutlet is unapologetically plopped down on its mashed potato bed and dressed to the nines in its sausage gravy overcoat. This would be a terrifying plate for a dainty damsel, but for the four hearty appetites at the table, it is a sight to be revered.

In continuing with the spirit of our deep-sea dining, dessert is not even a question. The red velvet cake is striking, but, according to my companions, who did not opt to extricate chocolate from their diets for six weeks, does not quite live up to expectations. The apple tart with vanilla bean ice cream -- a sweet rendition of the puff pastry savory starter -- is the decided favorite.

After the last flake of the pastry is consumed, we don't rush from our chairs to dash home since it is a "school night" and one of us has to wake up to run six miles the next day (surprisingly, not me). We are comfortable and relaxed, and our wooers do nothing to hurry us on our way. They encourage our lingering presense, even serenading us with complimentary glasses of tawny port to further enhance our spirited discussion and uninhibited laughter.

As we finally get ready to depart, three hours after arriving at the restaurant, one of the owners makes a point to thank us for coming in during these tough economic times.

I pause, look him in the eye and without a hint of my previous guilt, respond, "Evening's like this are worth the splurge."

My words are not intended for flattery, but carry the force of a fresh desire to treat myself as well as the restaurant treated me that night. I walk out the door thinking, "I should be doing this." I walk down the street, thinking, "I should be doing this." And I drive home to my apartment, thinking, "I should be doing this. I should be doing this more often."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Chicken with Sauteed Mushrooms: Bringing some unexpected "Glamour" to my kitchen

Three of my favorite dessert recipes (German chocolate cake, turtle brownies, and Texas sheet cake) came from my mom's lovely cousin, who claims to be a terrible cook who is incapable of turning on her stove. The super yum-o sloppy joe's I made a couple weeks ago came courtesy of Rachael Ray, a woman who's cooking Anthony Bourdain recently called "pretty damned awful." According to the LA Times, Nancy Silverton's son dreamed up the combination of speck, fresh pineapple, mozzarella and jalapeno on Pizzeria Mozza's new hot pie, the pizza allo Benno. And, this past Monday, I found my new go-to week night recipe for chicken in... Glamour magazine?

While I somewhat agree with the theme of the film Ratatouille that "anyone can cook," up until recently, I didn't think that extended to mean that good recipes can come from anywhere or anyone. I certainly never imagined that I'd enjoy getting down and dirty with a 30-minute meal, and it would seem completely improbably that instead of finding a great new recipe in the latest issue of Bon Appetit, I found one in a magazine famous for their fashion "Do's" and "Don'ts."

Has the world gone topsy-turvy? Is the sky no longer blue? Or are my tastes merely turning (gulp) low-brow?

I'm going to go with the loathsome option "d" that my high school AP U.S. history teacher evilly used over and over and over again on his multiple choice tests -- none of the above.

As much as I like to imagine that cooking is an art that only a fine few can master, ultimately, I do think that most people are capable of concocting at least one delicious dish. It might be a fluke or situation involving divine intervention, but I still maintain that it is possible if the task is approached with the right attitude. How else can one explain how Hosea was able to win this season's "Top Chef" over the favorite, Stefan? It certainly wasn't because Hosea truly was the "Top Chef" on the show. He didn't have to be. He just had to be the "Top Chef" on that one night.

And so it goes with the rest of the world. It doesn't take a culinary genius to fry an egg and lay it over some form of fatty pork and cheese on a slab of toasty bread. It doesn't take a degree from the Culinary Institute of America to whip up a fine batch of Texas sheet brownies. And it doesn't take a fancy schmancy food editor to come up with an easy and delicious recipe for chicken. It only requires a little imagination, a pair of hands and a functioning stove.

This one's a keeper -- especially with the simple, but delectable whole wheat risotto-style orzo I, the untrained, mostly undomestic goddess from the OC, came up with to go with it.

Chicken with Sauteed Mushrooms
Adapted from Glamour Magazine

Serves 1

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
1/2 cup sliced shitake mushrooms
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon half & half (or heavy cream)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Pinch of thyme
Salt, pepper to taste
Olive oil
Flour for dredging

Season chicken breast with salt and pepper and lightly dredge in flour. Heat olive oil in pan over medium heat and saute chicken on both sides until golden brown. Add 1/4 cup of chicken broth, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked through.

Remove chicken, and saute mushrooms in residual chicken broth until tender. Add wine, balsamic vinegar, thyme, and pepper to the pan, and let the wine reduce down for a couple minutes. (May add chicken back at this stage to keep warm.) Once it has reduced, turn the temperature down to low and add the half & half or cream. Whisk in with a fork and simmer together for a minute or until sauce has reached desired consistency. Spoon over chicken breast and serve with whole wheat risotto orzo.

Diana's Whole Wheat Risotto-style Orzo
Serves 1

1/4 cup whole wheat orzo
1 large shallot, minced
1 1/2 cups low sodium chicken broth
Pepper to taste
Olive oil

Saute minced shallot in olive oil over medium heat in a deep saucepan. Add orzo and saute over medium low heat until slightly toasted. Add chicken broth and pepper to taste and simmer, uncovered until the orzo has absorbed all the liquid and is tender. Stir occasionally, and add additional broth as needed. If using whole wheat orzo, this will take approximately 20-25 minutes (reduce cooking time if using regular orzo).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Aroma Coffee and Tea: A glimmer of light

I didn't want to leave. I was happy -- with the company, with my chicken prosciutto panini and organic white peach tea, and with the tranquil setting that seemed to make time stand still. As I sat on the patio of Aroma Coffee and Tea this past Sunday afternoon, I felt momentarily in love with life. I wasn't thinking about the economy. I wasn't thinking about where I am going to live after my lease ends on May 1st. I wasn't thinking about my broken oven or the guy who is just not that into me and probably never will be. In that moment, life was good. And nothing else mattered.

I've had a tough run of it these past two years. Nothing horribly serious, but I've experienced a series of mild annoyances that, when taken together, seem overwhelming. At times I just want to laugh at the situation, shake my fist in the air, and declare, "Ahh life, you got me again!" Other times, I want to bury my sorrows with an extra large scoop of Soy Creamy chocolate cherry chip ice cream. (Or a couple fat pours of wine.)

My post-collegiate life hasn't turned out exactly how I thought it would when I moved to Los Angeles three and a half years ago, but it has taught me to appreciate the small things -- the glimmers of light that make everything worthwhile. The glimmers of light that remind me that there is more to life than work, my depressed bank account and the guys who don't want to date me. This past Sunday, that glimmer came in the form of a lovely lunch with four amazing girls in a place that made me forget all the worries that lead me to gorge on ice cream.

There is something to be said for an eatery with the ability to transport its patrons to another state of mind. Aroma Coffee and Tea is probably not the most economical nor tastiest choice for lunch, but it is nevertheless a charming place to spend an hour on a weekend morning or afternoon. I love the slightly ramshackled quality of the cafe's house-like building, am smitten by the gnomes that peak out from the planters on the patio, and adore the kitchy touches -- like the chandelier that hangs from an awning outside, and the inside dining room that is decorated to resemble a library. The eclectic, homey ambiance makes me want to move into the space -- to plop down on one of the threadbare couches inside with my current reading material, How to Be Single by Liz Tuccillo, and a frothy cup of Aroma's amazing chai (the best I've tasted in LA).

As such, Aroma Coffee and Tea is so much more than their oversized salads, bursting with fresh greens and vibrant veggies, and decadent focaccia bread paninis stuffed with tender grilled chicken, imported proscuitto, provolone, sundried tomatoes, spinach, and sage. It is more than the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, robust blueberry muffins, and mile-high cakes that tempt patrons to stray from their diets. Aroma Coffee and Tea is a safe haven from the world beyond the front porch. It is a place where friends can meet, laugh and help get each other through the broken hearts, career calamities and dismay over the insipid plotlines on "Grey's Anatomy." It is a place where glimmers happen, and a place where one can find hope for something better.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Split Pea Soup: A new taste of home

My friend Hank is continually appalled by my revelations about common food items/dishes that I have never eaten. He shakes his head when I tell him I've never forked my way through a slice of Key Lime pie, feigns disgust when I tell him I am scared to try cottage cheese, and nearly disowns me as a friend when I tell him I've never eaten a cheeseburger. For someone who loves food and eating as much as I do, it is seemingly incomprehensible to him that I can be missing these and other pivotal experiences from my dining repertoire.

In recent years, I have made an effort to fill in those gaps, and a few months ago, bought my first bowl of split pea soup at Whole Foods. As a child, I turned my nose up at the disturbingly green soup because my mother always acted disgusted when my dad made it for himself. Up until my first spoonful of the chunky pea-speckled concoction this past November, I always associated the soup with her negative reaction to it. I trust my mother fairly implicitly with matters of food and drink, so was shocked to discover that it is actually really good.

After that first bowl, however, I forgot all about the soup until this past Friday when I stumbled upon an image of it on a food blog that I, unfortunately, cannot remember at the moment. With the weather in LA reaching down to temperatures that do not bode well for my thin skin, I impetuously decided to make it for lunch the following day. I already had potato, celery, carrots, and onion in my fridge at home -- all I needed were some split peas from the bulk bins at Whole Foods and I was in business.

Once I'd collected my split peas, I turned my attention to finding a recipe -- an effort that was not exactly successful. I didn't want ham hock or bacon or other things that would defile the healthy nature of the soup or distract from the flavor of the peas. I wanted my first attempt at the dish to be pure in nature -- not a vehicle for the unnecessary ingestion of pork fat. As such, I decided to be the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants girl that I never am and just wing it.

Paired with a Parmesan crisp, the resulting soup was the perfect way to warm up my perpetually goose-bumped arms on Saturday afternoon. It was exactly what I was craving -- a taste of comfort, a taste of early spring, and a taste of home (even if that home didn't serve me the soup as a child).

Vegetarian Split Pea Soup
By Diana

Makes 1 entree sized portion (approximately 2 cups)
Total Cooking Time: Approximately 1 hour

1/3 cup split peas, rinsed and picked over
1/3 cup white onion, chopped
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 stalk celery, chopped
1/4 cup carrots, chopped
1/3 cup white rose potato, peeled and chopped
2 cups chicken broth (I used 1 cup water + 2 teaspoons Better than Boullioun chicken base)
Pepper to taste

Saute onions, garlic, celery, carrots in olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat until onion is just becoming tender. Add chicken broth, split peas and bring to a boil. Reduce temperature, add pepper to taste, and simmer, covered, for approximately 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.

After 20 minutes, add the chopped potato and continue simmering (partially covered) and occasionally stirring for another 25 minutes or until peas are tender. Remove approximately 3/4 cup of soup (try to get the chunky carrot bits) and set aside. Puree the remaining soup using an immersion blender or blender. Mix the chunky portion back with the pureed portion and bring back to desired serving temperature. Serve with a Parmesan crisp.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pom and Balsamic-Glazed Chicken: In desperate need of love

LinkI wasn't in the mood for the POM and balsamic-glazed chicken. I was cranky from spending an hour driving the 7.8 miles between my Santa Monica office and my West Hollywood apartment, I only had 65 minutes before I had to leave for my friend's play, "Makin' Hay," and my chicken breast was still partially frozen. I wanted nothing more than to toss the recipe aside, polish off a couple glasses of my bottle of Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc, and pop a frozen pizza in the oven instead.

Rather than going with my kitchen gut, however, I pressed on -- forcing myself to go through the motions of making the dish without any of the passion I usually exhibit when attempting a new recipe. I pan-fried my breast with a scowl, measured out the ingredients for the POM and balsamic sauce with a frown, and threw my quinoa side together without an ounce of tender loving care. Carla from "Top Chef" would have been appalled by my lackluster performance.

There was no love going into my dinner at all.

Part of my poor attitude could be attributed to my bad mood, but the other part was due to a disconnect with the recipe. I couldn't decide if I should prepare it to be sweet or savory, and was befuddled by how the different flavors -- balsamic vinegar, 100% POM juice, brown sugar, oregano, basil -- would come together. The original recipe called for the dish to be served with green onions and carrots, and I reinterpreted this by making a quinoa side perked up with the colorful veggies. Since this was my first time working with the POM juice however, I didn't feel confident about how this would meld with the overall vision of the dish. Instead of feeling excited about what I was doing, I plodded around the kitchen as though I was preparing frozen fish sticks and some sort of egregious tartar sauce.

By the time I sat down with my dinner I knew I had taken the recipe in the wrong direction. My lack of enthusiasm, lack of understanding of the flavor profiles, and disconnect with the ingredients, led to a very disconnected plate. Even as I ate it, I still couldn't decide whether the chicken was meant to be sweet or savory. I did know that it did not go well with my quinoa, which, incidentally, was quite good on its own. And I did know that part of my failure in the kitchen was not because of an inherent flaw in the recipe, but because my heart was not in it.

I love pomegranates, and adore it mixed into cocktails, iced tea, ice creams/sorbets, and salads, but don't know that I love it in this type of preparation. That doesn't mean I'm going to give up on the antioxidant powerhouse - on the contrary, it makes me even more determined to find an application that will work for me -- but it does mean that I am going to think twice before going against my kitchen instincts to make something that doesn't appeal to me as a chef nor as a diner. I'm going to take the sage advice of my favorite "Hooty-hooing" "Top Chef" contestant and work with ingredients and food that do inspire me. And then I'll love the heck out of them.


POM and Balsamic- Glazed Chicken
Adapted from POM Wonderful

Serves 1

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
3 tablespoons POM Wonderful 100% pomegranate juice
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
Pinch of oregano
Salt, pepper
Olive oil
Flour for dredging

Season chicken breast with salt and pepper and lightly dredge with flour. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat, and brown chicken on both sides. Add chicken broth, balsamic vinegar and pepper to taste, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked through.

Meanwhile, mix pomegranate juice, sugar, cornstarch, oregano together in a separate bowl. Remove chicken from skillet, add pomegranate mixture and reduce sauce until it thickens, Add chicken back to the pan to reheat and then serve with something other than the below recipe for quinoa.

Quinoa with Carrots and Green Onions

1/4 cup quinoa, rinsed
1/4 cup diced white onion
2 tablespoons diced carrot
1 sliced green onion
1/2 cup chicken broth
Olive oil

Heat olive oil in small saucepan. Saute onion until tender, add quinoa and toast for 1-2 minutes. Add chicken broth, bring to a boil, season with pepper, and then cover. Half-way through, add the diced carrots. Simmer over low heat until quinoa has absorbed liquid and the outer "shells" have separated from quinoa kernels (approximately 20 minutes). Toss in green onions just prior to serving, reserving some of the green ends for a garnish.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Chewy oatmeal raisin cookies and my very un-Martha moment

It was all a little too easy. The recipe only called for 10 ingredients -- most of which I already had on hand in my cupboard, the batter came together with minimal effort, and I was actually pleased with the consistency and texture when I popped it into the refrigerator to chill overnight. The whole affair seemed destined for success, and I could scarcely wait to bake up the oatmeal raisin cookies the next afternoon.

I had the whole thing planned out in my head. I'd take the batter out of the fridge and preheat the oven while I fixed and ate my lunch, and then bake the cookies up for the perfect post-lunch treat! I'd save half the batch for myself and bring the other half over to my good friend, who actually deserves way more than just a few cookies for putting up with my neurosis and general nuttiness over the years. I felt just like Martha Stewart with all my grand baking and gifting intentions -- only a way chicer version without the ugly ponchos!

In the next couple hours that followed, however, any likeness that might have existed between Martha and I quickly faded away. I underbaked the cookies. Not once, but twice.

The facts are these. The recipe from the seriously fabulous Smitten Kitchen suggested chilling the dough prior to baking. I complied with this request by chilling the batter overnight -- just like when I made the fabulous NY Times Chocolate Chip Cookies that pretty much rocked my socks right off my oversized feet (or at least they would have if I was wearing socks at the time of consumption). The recipe also suggested baking the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes with an aside that noted that baking time will vary depending on the oven and how cool the cookies are going in. Since my oven is notoriously hot to trot, I decided to bake my cookies for 11 minutes. It seemed to be the perfect timing. The cookies were golden brown, and had that slightly undercooked look on the top -- just like the recipe said it would.

As the cookies cooled, I distracted myself from the tantalizing scent of cinnamon and vanilla with some cleaning and general domestic activities (since I was channeling Ms. Martha and all). I made it an impressive 40 minutes before settling down at my dining room table with a cup of tea and one of the largest cookies in the batch. I was so the perfect picture of restraint and domesticality!

Or at least I was until I started eating the cookie. The first bite was grand -- stupendous even! But as I neared the interior, things started to get a little ooey. As I do in all situations of potential and actual kitchen disaster, I immediately picked up my pink Motorola Razr to call my mom.

"I underbaked the cookies!" I whined into the phone, my voice swelling with emotion. "What do I do?"

My mom, the source of solutions to my everyday problems both big and small, told me to just stick them back in the oven for a few minutes.

So I did.

But when I broke into the twice-baked cookies a few minutes after taking them back out of the oven, they still looked a little ooey.

"I can't give someone underbaked cookies!" I wailed into the phone a few moments later.

"So stick them back in again." My mom instructed.

I balked at her suggestion. I couldn't bake the cookies three times! Could I?

Apparently, I could. Despite my concern that they would come out dry and hard like flattened golf balls, when I tested another cookie a couple hours later, it tasted perfect. Chewy, moist and exactly how I expected it to be when I confidently plopped the batter in the refrigerator the previous day. My friend thought so too -- he ate three of them that very night.

Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
From Smitten Kitchen
Makes 16 cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) butter, softened
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour1
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup raisins

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar, egg and vanilla until smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt together. Stir this into the butter/sugar mixture. Stir in the oats, raisins and walnuts, if using them.

Chill the dough overnight. When ready to bake them, remove from fridge and let come to room temperature for 30 - 40 minutes unless you fancy underbaked cookies. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 13-15 minutes depending on hot your oven is/how cool the cookies are. They are done (hopefully) when golden brown. Let them sit on the hot baking sheet for five minutes before transferring to a rack to cool.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lupicia Strawberry & Vanilla Green Tea: Ruffling my feathers -- in a good way

I hate change. I like to order the same dishes in restaurants, shop at the same grocery stores/markets and am fiercely loyal to my favorite brands. As such, it irks me when I get an unwelcome surprise -- like when Trader Joe's decided to discontinue their Hot & Sweet mustard, or when Keri Russell chopped off all her gorgeous curly hair during the second season of "Felicity." (Why, Keri, Why?)

Given my predisposition to make everything in my life go according to my unmasterful plan, I was horrified when I discovered that the source for my favorite green peach tea, Whittard of Chelsea, closed its shop at the Westfield Topanga Mall a couple months ago. It was a shattering moment. Ever since my dear friend Lauren gave me a bag of the loose leaf tea last June, I'd been hooked on the stuff and had grown accustomed to having it with my breakfast every morning.

It was with a heavy heart that I followed my friend Lauren to the other tea shop in the mall, Lupicia. I'd been to the one at the Century City mall before, but hadn't felt particularly excited about it. Plus, I didn't want to find a new tea. I wanted my Whittard of Chelsea green peach!

Or at least I did until I sampled Lupicia's Strawberry & Vanilla that is described as a "green tea blended with Matcha and flavored with sour-sweet strawberries and vanilla." It was unlike any green tea I'd ever had before -- sweet, yet not cloyingly so, with a fresh, clean finish on the palate. I was blown away -- it was the perfect blend to makeover my morning routine, and I happily handed over my credit card for the $6.00 bag (coincidentally $3.00 cheaper than the bag I used to buy from Whittard of Chelsea).

As I near the bottom of my new favorite loose leaf tea, part of me is desperate to head right back to Lupicia for another bag of the Strawberry & Vanilla. Another part, the "change is good" part that I rarely let come up for air, wants to try something new. Maybe the Paradise Green, which uses a variety of tropical fruits, or the Jasmin Mandarin, which is described as having "a sweet fragrance like a spring wind." Change doesn't always have to be bad like Keri's ill-conceived hair cut. Change can mean finding something better -- like a really great tea, a really cool shop, or at the very least, a fun new experience to share with my readers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pan-Seared Scallops with Radicchio Risotto

"How much do scallops normally cost?" I screeched into my cell phone earpiece as I left the Farmer's Market at 3rd Street and Fairfax yesterday evening.

"Uhh..." My mom faltered, her voice growing weak under the pressure of my demanding tone. "Maybe $17 or so a pound?" She guessed.

I snorted in disgust. "I just paid $22 a pound -- $5.97 for three lousy scallops!"

"Well, they will probably be really good..." She said, trying her best to hide her horror at my exceedingly reckless spending.

"They better be!" I cut in. "They are Canadian wild." I added more quietly, slightly embarrassed by the whole situation. It wasn't very green of me, but at that point all I wanted to do was get home and forget about my poor purchasing decisions. I had thought that by going to the Farmer's Market rather than the Whole Foods across the street I would be saving money -- not emptying my wallet. My grand idea to use up my leftover radicchio from the chopped salad I made over the weekend in a radicchio risotto with pan-seared scallops suddenly seemed foolish. The whole point had been to not be wasteful.

With the $6 scallops, $3.99 package of Boar's Head smoked bacon I bought over the weekend, and $7.99 (on sale) bottle of Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc I would need to open to complete the recipe, the affair had turned into something much more grandiose than my initial intention to simply empty out my produce bin. It seemed as though I was headed straight for kitchen disaster, and as soon as I got home, I poured myself a hearty glass of wine to calm my upended nerves. (A second would follow later.)

Yet, as the recipe began to come together -- the radicchio wilting into what Serious Eats had described as a "sweet, sticky, porky mess" with my sauteed pieces of bacon, the Arborio rice plumping up as it absorbed the chicken broth/white wine, and the scallops caramelizing in my bacon fat coated pan, I no longer felt foolish. Instead, I seemed to be experiencing a moment of cooking serendipity. How else could I explain the appearance of the recipe on both Serious Eats and, by extension, the Kitchn, the same week I had radicchio to use up? And how else could I explain my compulsion to forge on with my kitchen mission despite the financial obstacles (and horrific parking lots) standing in my way?

As I tore my fork through my inappropriate St. Patrick's Day dinner, I could hardly believe how delicious my foolhardy dish tasted. The $6 scallops were really good -- mild and tender, my knife sliced through the pearly flesh without hesitation. They married unbelievably well with the radicchio-streaked risotto that was silky on my tongue and radiant with the underlying tones of bacon. When I finished my plate, I immediately reached for my phone -- this time, not to hound my mother about the price points of seafood, but to share the tale of my kitchen triumph.

It is no wonder Jamie always cooked scallops on "Top Chef." Done right, they really are worthy of a win at the judge's table. Last night, they were certainly worthy of their $6 price tag.

Pan-Seared Scallops with Radicchio Risotto
Adapted from Serious Eats

Makes 1 generous entree-sized portion

3 jumbo sea scallops (approximately 1/4 pound)
1 1/2 strips bacon
1 cup radicchio, coarsely chopped
1 large shallot, minced
1/4 cup Arborio rice
1/3 cup white wine (I used Sauvignon Blanc)
1 cup chicken broth (I combined 1 teaspoon Better Than Boullioun chicken base w/ 1 cup water)
1 heaping tablespoon Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Salt, ground pepper
Balsamic vinegar for drizzling (optional)

Combine white wine and chicken broth in a small saucepan and slowly bring to a slow boil.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy pan over medium heat and saute shallot in a little olive oil until tender. Reduce the heat, add the rice, and stir until the edges of the rice turn translucent. Add some of the hot chicken broth/white wine mixture and season with pepper to taste.

While the rice cooks, warm a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat and add 1 strip of chopped up bacon to the pan. Cook until the bacon starts to crisp and release its fat, and then add the radicchio. Season with salt and pepper, and let cook together approximately 5 minutes, or until the radicchio has wilted down. Add the mixture to the rice.

Continue adding the warm broth/wine little by little, stirring occasionally, as it is absorbed. The rice/radicchio should simmer at a slow boil until it reaches a somewhat soupy, slightly stiff consistency.

Approximately 5 minutes before risotto is done, heat the remaining half piece of bacon in the 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Season the scallops with ground pepper and salt. When the bacon begins to release the fat, add the scallops to the pan, and cook until golden brown on both sides (approximately 2 minutes per side depending on thickness of scallops).

When risotto is done, stir in the Parmesan and serve immediately. Top with scallops and drizzle with a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Nancy's Chopped Salad: It will never be Diana's Chopped Salad

When I read a recipe, I automatically react in one of the following ways:

1. I blanch at the list of ingredients that either don't appeal to me, don't fit within my budget or require an obscene amount of effort to prepare, and blow by it like I'm running for a gold medal.

2. I clip, print or tag the recipe in question and add it to the perpetually growing list of dishes I want to try... someday.

3. I fall in love at first read and come to the conclusion that I must try it within the next week.

This past Wednesday, the LA Times "Food" section published a recipe that engendered the latter response. As my eyes scrolled over the list of ingredients, my face grew flushed, my heart began to beat faster, and I could barely sit still long enough to finish sipping my tea and eating my morning oatmeal. I felt as though I'd won the foodie lottery -- I now possessed the recipe for Pizzeria Mozza's infamous Nancy's Chopped Salad, a dish that LA Times critic Irene Virbila described in her Mozza restaurant review as "an updated, pristine version of salads you used to find in New York's Little Italy."

In other words, hubba hubba hubba.

Instead of relegating the section to my recycle bin with the rest of my newspaper, I immediately clipped out the article and accompanying recipe, and made plans to make the salad for my lunch on Saturday. This one couldn't wait. I had to try it as soon as possible, and felt as though I was somehow involved in an imaginary race with other Los Angeles cooks/chefs to be the first one to churn out the lovefest of salami, provolone, cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, pepporocinis, red onion, radicchio, iceberg lettuce, and a pungently tangy oregano dressing. Nevermind that I didn't have any of the fresh ingredients stocked in my produce bin. Nevermind that radicchio was $7.99 a pound at Whole Foods, and I had to go to three different grocery stores to get everything I needed. And nevermind that my Mozza-sessed friend Rob thought the affair would require "excellent knive skills" that I don't really possess.

There was no way I wasn't going to make this salad this past weekend. It didn't matter to me if it turned out good or bad, pretty or ugly. All that mattered was that I try it -- regardless of how many obstacles (or grocery store parking lots) stood in my way.

I thought that once I collected all the right ingredients, the rest would be easy. The article had emphasized the importance of using quality oregano, hard salami and aged (not smoked) provolone, and I was most concerned about being able to recreate the dish with my lesser quality products. Yet, as I sat down to my heaping, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink salad, I realized something.

Even when using the best foodstuffs the markets in Los Angeles have to offer -- the finest red wine vinegar and olive oil, the salad would still never be the same as the version at Mozza's. It is called Nancy's Chopped Salad for a reason -- it is hers, and is at its best when prepared and served within the muddied brick colored walls of Pizzeria Mozza. While I enjoyed my lunch and was pleased with how my version turned out, I couldn't help but feel that it was out of place on my grandmother's dining room table. The salad seemed somehow incomplete outside the context of the restaurant, and I felt slightly disingenuous as I ate it -- as though I was trying to pull a fast one on one of the greatest chefs in Los Angeles.

My humble hands are no match for Nancy Silverton's, and my West Hollywood apartment is no match for the vibrant dining room at Mozza. I won't make the salad again. Not because it wasn't good -- it was -- but because the salad is intrinsically linked in my head with the experience of dining at the restaurant. It's not the same without a glass of Barbara, or the promise of exquisite pizzas to come. It's not the same without the clatter of conversation that fills the space with an intense flow of energy. And it's not the same without the illusion that Nancy herself may have watched over the preparation of her namesake dish.

Nancy's Chopped Salad at Pizzeria Mozza

Nancy's Chopped Salad
Adapted from the recipe in the LA Times

Makes 1 generous entree-salad portion

Oregano Dressing
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano (I used McCormick's
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
(*Note: May not need all the dressing)

1. Mix the garlic, oregano, salt and pepper together. Chop the mixture together and use the side of a knife or a mortar and pestle to make a grainy herb paste.

2. Add the lemon juice and vinegar. Mix with a fork, allowing the salt to dissolve, then add the oil and whisk with a fork until well combined. The dressing should be thick with garlic and oregano.

Salad and assembly
1/3 cup can chickpeas, drained
1/6 red onion, peeled and sliced into fine rings
1 ounce aged provolone, sliced into ribbons
1-2 ounces hard salami, sliced into ribbons (I used Fiorucci from Whole Foods)
2 small pickled pepperocini, sliced into rings
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1 cup iceberg lettuce, cut into ribbons
1 cup radicchio lettuce, cut into ribbons

Mix ingredients together in a salad bowl. Toss with dressing and top with extra oregano, if desired.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wonderland Bakery: Where dreams really do come true

She stood at the door, clutching her car keys with impatience.

"You're making me nervous," I said, as I hurried to change purses (I'd just spilled water over my preferred bag).

She jutted her chin out like a defensive child. "No, I'm fine. I can find something to do while I wait."

I smiled knowingly at her. I'd been in her situation many times before and could easily spot the tell-tale signs of her affliction -- the glazed look in her eyes, the pacing, the need for distraction. My mom had cookie on the brain. And she had it bad.

I didn't blame her. Ever since she suggested that we split one of Wonderland Bakery's famous frosted sugar cookies (the same sugar cookies Obama ordered for his Inauguration Day parties), I'd been in a state of continuous quasi-salivation. It had been a while since we'd treated ourselves to the $7.25 cookie that could really only exist in a bakery located in posh Newport Beach, and my tongue lusted for the sugar rush that the nearly inch-thick cookie induces in its consumers. I too had been thinking about it all morning, and the hour and a half drive from Los Angeles to Orange County was all the more excruciating because of what I knew was coming.

In a word (or three), pure packaged bliss.

Despite the sinfully delectable taste, the Wonderland Bakery frosted sugar cookie is more than just an exorbitantly priced, decadent treat. It is an experience that is apt to turn even grown women into cookie monsters. The lead up before is akin to the wait to ride Space Mountain at Disneyland or the period of "will he/won't he" before a cute boy finally finds the courage to lean in for the kiss. There is need involved here -- the need for gratification, yes, but also the need for something more -- a thrill.

The Wonderland Bakery isn't just cookies (or cupcakes, brownies and frosted rice krispies treats), the Wonderland Bakery is a little girl's Barbie Dream House. The inside of the shop is an explosion of pink, purple and so many fuzzy and sparkly things that even Russell Crowe would feel emasculated upon stepping inside. It is the type of place I would have loved as a child -- a fantasyland where all my wildest dreams (ie. the ability to buy both a tiara and a cupcake in the same place) came true. It's no wonder the shop engenders this kind of feeling -- by owning and operating the bakery with her mother, Sondra Ames, the chef, 21-year-old Allyson Ames is acting out her wildest dreams.

As I walked into the bake/gift shop with my mother this past Saturday, I was nearly overwhelmed by the sense of possibility within the rainbow-colored space. It's over-the-top and nearly nauseating to my inner snark, but it's over-the-top because of passion -- something that seems to be in short supply in the concrete world outside. Inside the Wonderland Bakery, colors are brighter than they are in nature, cookies come out thicker than they do when made at home and tiaras are the accessory of choice.

The sugar-lined environs have a transformative effect on patrons. As we ogled the display of oversized cookies and overfrosted cupcakes, my mother and I instantly became little girls again -- little girls with cookie on the brain, child-like whimsy in our hearts, and, after we paid, very empty pockets. Yet, in the moment, we thought nothing of blowing our allowance on a single indulgence. In the Wonderland Bakery, every girl is a princess worth the price of a $7 cookie.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Baked Pasta Casserole: Eating to my... health?

This was meant to be an uber healthy dinner. The kind that undoes the damage from one too many bowls of ice cream, or an overdose of cheese and pork fat. Whenever I make any recipe from from Heidi Swanson's healthy recipe journal, 101 Cookbooks, I feel as though I am doing my body good -- like when I was younger and could still drink a glass of milk without gagging. Heidi's innovative concoctions always seem nourishing, like they really could make me healthier, stronger and capable of winning marathons.

Except, of course, when they become overloaded with ooey gooey cheese, nuts and generous pours of olive oil.

While this baked pasta dish relies on simple and generally heart-healthy ingredients for flavor (lemon zest, garlic, onions, olive oil), it is deceptively caloric -- particularly when eaten as a main dish rather than an accompaniment to a lean protein. This is problematic for a girl, like me, who needs a good balance of carbs and protein at every meal in order to avoid headaches, hunger pangs and general grouchiness.

In order to boost up the satisfaction levels of this dish, I added garbanzo beans to the mix, topped it with a tablespoon of parmesan, served it with a side of steamed broccollini, and then, when I still wasn't full from the serving pictured above, went back to finish the rest of the pasta in my mini casserole pan. It tasted good -- especially the crispy bits that had schlacked themselves to the sides of the dish during the baking process -- but left me feeling a little too light. Like I'd barely eaten at all.

I often tell people that if it weren't for steak (and okay, bacon and fish), I could easily become a vegetarian. I love tofu, go ga-ga for tempeh, and am perfectly happy when the incredible edible egg is the centerpoint of my meal. Yet, despite my taste for soy-based products and chicken embryos, my experiences eating a dinner like this prove that my bold statement is not quite accurate. I could be a vegetarian, but it wouldn't be easy. I'd add beans, nuts and cheese to everything, and then, eat more than my fair share when it still didn't fill me up. Without a protein-rich chicken breast to take up stomach space, I'd overdose on carbs, and then find myself hungry again a couple hours later. In other words, it would be a vegetarian recipe for disaster (ie. weight gain and extreme irritability).

That's not to say that I don't still love 101 Cookbooks, and the fabulous veggie-friendly recipes I've found on the site. I love Heidi's culinary vision and appreciate that she encourages cooks (and aspiring cooks) to experiment with simple, fresh ingredients. At the same time, however, I know that in order to make her healthy recipes work and still be healthy for me, I need to adapt them to fulfill my carnivoric needs. The next time I make this dish, I think I would reduce the amount of pasta and cheese, cut out the garbanzo beans that clock in at 100 calories per 1/2 cup, and mix it with ground turkey or lean strips of chicken breast instead. That's my version of healthy.

Or at least it is until I dig into the freezer for a bowl of ice cream...

Baked Pasta Casserole

Adapted from recipe on 101 Cookbooks

Serves 1

Extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup uncooked whole wheat Barilla penne

1/4 cup shallots, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 teaspoons lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 cup chicken broth

1 ounce mozzarella, shredded

1 tablespoon parmesan, grated

1 cup, well-chopped fresh spinach

2 tablespoons, slivered almonds, toasted

1/3 cup garbanzo beans

Sea salt, pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a small casserole dish or baking pan.

Boil the pasta in salted water per package instructions. Drain pasta, toss with chicken broth, set aside.

In the meantime, heat a bit of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high. Saute the onions with a couple pinches of salt for a few minutes (or if you want a bit more depth of flavor until caramelized). Stir in garlic and garbanzo beans. Stir in spinach. Cook for just about 20 seconds, until the spinach collapses a bit. Remove from heat and stir in the almonds and 1 teaspoon of the zest and the tablespoon of lemon juice. Add to pasta and stir - mixing extremely well, a minute or so.

Now sprinkle the bottom of baking dish with the rest of the zest. Add a layer of the pasta to the bottom of the baking pan, sprinkle with some of the cheese, add more pasta, then more cheese. Finish with the parmesan. Cover with foil and bake for 10-15 minutes or until cheese on top is bubbly and melty.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"The Chopping Block:" It's Got Me Begging for Mercy

He strides through the streets of New York City, his wild, muddy hair becoming further unsettled by his motion. The camera closes in on his checkered converse sneakers as he parades down the block and then pans up to capture a street sign, a building, the icy expression on his weathered face. The song "Mercy" swells in the background as the man, "the inspiration," continues his walk.

"You got me begging you for mercy, why won't you release me?" sings Duffy, and in these few moments, a certain tone and expectation is set for NBC's new cooking competition reality show, "The Chopping Block," which aired at 8/7 pm central time last night. The opening sequence sends a clear message to the audience. The man in the converse sneakers, chef Marco Pierre White, the star of "Hell's Kitchen" in the UK and the man who trained Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay, is pure evil, and he will beat the aspiring chefs in the competition down like he's hacking up a bloody pig carcass. If America thought guest "Top Chef" judge Toby Young was a pain in the ass, they are in for a rude awakening with Marco. After watching just one episode, I am already convinced that he is the meanest man alive, and that's exactly what NBC wants me to think.

The premise of "The Chopping Block" is fairly simple. Eight couples, each comprised of a chef and server, will compete against one another for the "ultimate prize" - a quarter of a million dollars that they will use to open their own restaurant. The couples are divided into two teams -- the red team and the black team -- and each team will open a restaurant right across the street from the other. Every week, the restaurants will compete against the other -- serving for an unnamed group of diners and an anonymous critic who will be responsible for determining the winning team/restaurant. Chef Marco Pierre White will then chose which couple on that losing team will be sent packing. Think "Top Chef" meets "The Apprentice" meets the "Amazing Race."

Sounds pretty darn entertaining, don't it? How can NBC go wrong with a hybrid of three of the most successful reality shows on the air? Apparently, very easily. Instead of drawing upon the best elements of these fine shows, "The Chopping Block" has appropriated the worst characteristics -- the obnoxious personalities, the transparent attempts at building stakes and audience connectivity, and the contrived sound bytes that reek of a producer's heavy-hand.

The entire show adheres to a specific formula. There are three types of footage funnelling into the final product -- the present action (ie. the chefs cooking, the servers serving, the patrons gagging, and Marco stewing), the one-on-one interviews with the couples about their feelings and the rest of that sentimental hogwash meant to establish emotional stakes, and then, the most egregious component, intercuts of Marco's musings about the world of the show.

Throughout last night's episode, he offered up insights like, "You have to be brave," "Every kitchen, like every army, needs a general," "When it comes to service, they have to fight, they have to deliver," and "When you are playing with people's dreams, you have to be fair." His overarching blanket statements, heaped upon the camera like roadkill, are meant to further establish him as a god-like figure reigning over his subjects -- the contestants. Yet, rather than bolstering him up to achieve the larger-than-life status that Donald Trump owns so effortlessly on "The Apprentice," Marco Pierre White comes across as pompous, unlikable and utterly obnoxious. Even with the bad haircut, he's got nothing on the Donald.

Furthermore, whereas Trump exists in a place above the muddying action and back-biting of his apprentices, Marco Pierre White does not rise above the whines and cries and tears of his proteges. He is enmeshed in all the ugliness these types of reality shows have to bear, but unlike the contestants, can't be kicked off to allow the audience any sort of relief from his abrasive personality. At this early juncture, the couples are also incapable of providing relief from Marco. They are too busy panicking and shaking in their kitchen clogs to offer any relatable sound bytes to the camera. They only further the impression that this show is not about them or the food that is almost completely relegated to the background. "The Chopping Block" is about Marco, who according to chef Vanessa, practically invented food. NBC has essentially built an entire show around an unlikable caricature, and the result is one of the worst examples of reality television since the CW's brief run of "Stylista."

It's got me begging Ben Silverman for mercy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SusieCakes' Carrot Cake: Thank God I gave up chocolate

They sat around me, their forks poised for entry into the decadent chocolate mousses from the specialty Costa Mesa Japanese bakery, Cafe Blanc. My heart lurched with envy as I watched each of my family members begin to tear through the chocolate ganache robe to reach the satiny center within the individual-sized Miroir cakes. I groped for my glass of Syrah and looked away in desperation when they marvelled over the ribbon of creme brulee and raspberry puree snaked through the center of the dessert. It was almost too much to bear and for a moment, I feared I might break down and give up on my commitment to not eat chocolate during Lent. It was my brother's birthday after all -- God would understand if I cheated a little, right?

Or not.

I pushed away my debaucherous thoughts and stared down to contemplate the dessert on my plate -- a slice of carrot cake from my favorite bakery, SusieCakes. It had been a struggle to make the decision to purchase this particular slice earlier in the day. The celebration cake, a multi-layered vanilla cake studded with sprinkles and enrobed in sweet buttercream frosting, had put up a worthy fight for my attention. As did the tropical coconut cake with its smattering of pineapple chunks and over-the-top layers of coconut-laced frosting. And then the bake shop girl had to mention that their strawberry cupcake is Martha Stewart's favorite strawberry cupcake in the country. Did she not realize that she was talking to the most indecisive orderer on the planet?

Probably, after it took me another five (or ten) minutes to finally settle on a slice of their "famous" carrot cake, a three-layer monstrosity filled with layers of pecan praline and covered in soft peaks of cream cheese frosting. As I turned to leave, I couldn't resist adding on a small sugar cookie sandwich with strawberry buttercream frosting. Because I was being so "good" and all by not eating chocolate...

Despite the appetizing appearance of my cake (before I demolished it by trying to slice the absurdly large piece in half), I was still somewhat dismayed by my inability to join in with the rest of my family as they ate their chocolate mousses. I couldn't help but feel left out.

Until, of course, I took a bite of the carrot cake.

As I forked the moist, yet fluffy, carrot-flecked cake into my mouth, I was struck silent by how good it was. The interplay of the ample walnut pieces, sweet praline filling and tangy cream cheese frosting against the spiced cake was nothing short of rub-my-belly phenomenal. I scraped my plate clean and immediately went back to the box to lob off another hunk. On the car ride back to my parents' house, I couldn't stop raving about the cake, and the next day, proceeded to broadcast the news to my dear friend Ashley, who shares my appreciation for carrot cake (after a few cocktails, we used to devour head-sized slices with our friend Caroline in college).

Today, I am still dreaming up ways to justify treating myself to another slice of the glorious cake that I have already deemed worthy of a presense at my wedding (if, as my dad says, someone "finds [me]"). Maybe I can eat a slice as a celebration for making it to the weekend? Or to honor another two weeks without chocolate? Or maybe just because I'm worth it.

At least I am until I can't zip up the fly on my new Joe's Honey jeans...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sloppy Buffalo Joe's and My (Yum-o) Kitchen Crime

I didn't think it could happen to me. I didn't watch her shows (unless my roommate and I needed a good laugh), I didn't read her cookbooks, and I didn't parlay any of her obnoxious catchphrases into my vocabulary. For years I was able to maintain my nonverbal commitment to never let the egregious event take place in my kitchen, and I was fully confident that I could make it through my culinary life without ever breaking that promise to myself.

Then, this past Sunday night, due to my inability to read carefully, I unwittingly committed that very foodie crime that I fear the most.

I cooked, ate and enjoyed one of Rachel Ray's 30-minute meals.

I originally found the recipe for the Sloppy Buffalo Joe's on one of my favorite healthy food/recipe blogs, Running With Food. I was intrigued by Jennifer's addition of blue cheese to the turkey sloppy joe's and have had the recipe bookmarked since this past January. Because my fridge is currently stocked with a hefty container of blue cheese from the red-leaf salad with roasted sweet potatoes I made two Saturdays ago, it seemed like this past Sunday was the opportune time to give the Joe's a whirl.

Everything went exactly as planned. I found all the ingredients with relative ease -- even stumbling upon a four-pack package of Oroweat whole wheat buns so I didn't have to get the jumbo eight-pack, and the recipe was a breeze to make. It was a nice break after some of my recent kitchen misshaps (Note: When de-shelling shrimp, do not forget to de-vein them too).

The positive energy in my kitchen continued at my dining room table. While the blue cheese was a bit of a shock to my tastebuds at first (last night when I reheated the leftovers I scaled back a little and added some carmelized onions to balance out the flavor), it was a filling and comforting Sunday night meal.

Or at least it was until I logged on to my computer after finishing the dishes. I wanted to post a comment on Running With Food to let Jennifer know I'd made and enjoyed the recipe, but all my good intentions flew out the window when I saw the following words in her post about the Joe's,

"Dinner this evening was a recipe borrowed from the YUM-O queen herself, Rachel Ray, scaled down and modified slightly to suit our tasty buds."

I was shocked. Stunned. Flabbergasted!

I had made a Rachel Ray recipe?!?

And liked it?!?

I ran to the window, my eyes searching the night sky for flying pigs, but none were to be found. The universe had not been thrown off kilter -- I had only myself to blame for my grave error.

Only, it wasn't a grave error. At all. This is actually a recipe I might make again -- for myself, for my future husband and kids, or for a Superbowl party.

Of course, for the latter to happen, I'd actually have to develop a taste for the barbaric sport. But crazier things have happened -- I did make a Ray Ray recipe, didn't I?

Sloppy Buffalo Joe's
Adapted from Running With Food who adapted it from Rachel Ray
Makes 3 generous servings

1/4 cup chopped onion
1 stalk celery, finely diced
1/3 cup grated carrot
Olive oil (not EVOO)
1/2 lb. extra lean ground turkey
1/2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 tbsp. Worcestershire
2 tbsp. hot sauce
1/4 cup canned tomato sauce
Whole wheat hamburger buns
Blue cheese crumbles
Salt, pepper

Heat a small amount of olive oil in a skillet, add turkey, salt and pepper, and cook until browned. Remove turkey, and add onion, celery and carrot to the pan. Cook for 3-4 minutes. Add the turkey back to the skillet and mix together with vegetables.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine vinegar, brown sugar, Worcestershire and hot sauce. Mix well and add to skillet. Stir well to distribute sauce and allow to simmer for 5 - 10 minutes. Spoon mixture onto buns, top with blue cheese crumbles and place under broiler until cheese is melty and bun is browned.

Note: I ultimately added more sauce to the mixture, so consider making extra if you like your Joe's a little sloppier.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Caioti Pizza Cafe: Where I want everyone to know my name

We arrived without reservations (they don't take them), with a bottle of our own wine, and sporting jeans rather than trendy statement pieces. We came as we were, with no pretense, no agenda to see or be seen, and with no secret mission other than to enjoy the company and eat really good food in a comfortable setting. It was a successful venture. And a unique dining experience that I can see myself craving again and again in a city that is far too often defined by the scene rather than the food.

Caioti Pizza Cafe on Tujunga Avenue in Studio City is a bit of an anomaly in Los Angeles. Besides being among a short list of BYOB Italian eateries, it is the type of restaurant that future patrons stumble upon rather than hear about on EaterLA.com. My dining companion admitted that he discovered the restaurant by default. He and a friend planned to grab dinner at Aroma Coffee and Tea down the street, and decided to try Caioti instead. He introduced the restaurant to me last Wednesday, and in the few days since, I have already spread the word to my circle of friends. This is a restaurant that inspires whispers rather than shouts, and as such, attracts a different sort of crowd than many Italian eateries offering similar plates around town.

In short, it attracts regulars.

Despite the charm of its no frills attitude, Caioti is most revered by its patrons because of the food. This isn't just the typical corner pizza place with processed Parmesan shakers on each sticky table. The Parmesan on the (clean) tables is real Parmesan -- the kind that might be found in the specialty cheese store across the street. Bread is not an afterthought like at so many casual Italian eateries that dole out underwhelming, cold slices that need a butter bath to be palatable. Mere moments after settling into their chairs, diners are romanced with fresh, piping hot garlic knots that seem almost worthy of the "amuse-bouche" descriptor.

Salads are similarly alluring. Traditionalists can opt for a standard house salad with the requisite shredded carrots, red cabbage, grape tomatoes and Italian Vinaigrette, but the menu also offers a taste of something more exotic. The grilled beet salad with candy spiced pecans and seared goat cheese over arugula and field greens is an affair to remember -- the type of salad that is attacked with a fork and craved after the last bite is consumed. It is not overshadowed by the cafe's namesake offering in the least. If anything, the pizza is playing second fiddle to this particular plate of robust greens.

The pizza is available in three varieties - Old World, described as "light and thin crusted," New World with "rich contemporary flavors on a medium framed crust," and New York style, in the "classic Neapolitan American tradition." Each category boasts a substantial roster of pizzas, each one owning to a certain personality and/or distinct "vision." The cafe is famous for their barbecue chicken pizza from the New World menu, but the house favorite is the Salsiccia with Italian sausage, mushrooms, Gorgonzola, mozzarella latter, fresh basil and pine nuts from the Old World menu. On the particular night of my visit, we opt for the Con Funghi Sugo (Old World menu) that marries Porcini mushrooms, roasted garlic, fresh arugula, Pecorino Romano and mozzarella latte together. With the addition of truffle oil, the pizza is transformed from simple and rustic to sensuous and refined. While not the best example of what the cafe's wood-burning oven has to offer, it is far better than most of the pies I've encountered in the city, and seems to improve with each bite I take.
The dinner menu also offers patrons heartier entrees like lobster ravioli with shrimp, avocado and tomato in a spicy cilantro cream, and pressed crispy chicken that is grilled and sprinkled with truffle oil. The descriptions read like poetry to a foodie, and provide ample reason for regulars at the humble cafe to keep coming back. I'm already hungering for my return visit and for the point where I too can be a part of the cafe's scenery. Not because of what I'm wearing, but because I, like the others who frequent the restaurant, am part of the fabric that makes the eatery what it is -- a place where everyone wants to know everyone's name.