Friday, October 30, 2009

Skor Bar Coffee Cake: The perfect mid-morning pick-me-up

The teacher’s lounge at an elementary school is a dangerous place for dieters. My mom, a first grade teacher in Garden Grove, is constantly telling me about the treats that her coworkers bring in on a regular basis.

“Today someone brought donuts!” She’ll exclaim, as giddy as the students she teaches. (Her sweet tooth is almost as potent as mine.)

I typically roll my eyes and say, “Great, mom,” before changing the subject to something more important – like what I’m making for dinner or how hard “thigh” was during my Bar Method class that night. As a 9 to 5 office dweller, I don’t quite understand how necessary that mid-morning burst of sugar is for getting through a day of educating rugrats with short attention spans.

As much as my mom loves her raised glazed donuts, her favorite pick-me-up from the teacher’s lounge is actually the Skor Bar Coffee Cake one of her former colleagues used to make on special occasions. My mom enjoyed the cake so much that she eventually got the recipe so she could make it for my brothers and me at home. It was an instant favorite in our house – especially when it was still warm and gooey from the oven.

Today, the Skor Bar Coffee Cake is my go-to recipe when I need an easy crowd-pleasing treat for a party or office celebration. It’s not hard to see why everyone loves this cake – it contains a pound of brown sugar and six Skor candy bars. Paula Deen would certainly approve, but I’m not sure any nutritionist would go near the thing.

Regardless, when insulin levels get low, the Skor Bar Coffee Cake will come through every time. Just don’t feed it to the rugrats – they won’t just be bouncing off the walls, they’ll be bouncing off the roof.

Skor Bar Coffee Cake

1 lb dark brown sugar
2 cups flour
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
6 Skor (or Heath) bars, broken into pieces
1 cup of milk (I used skim)
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a fork, blend the dark brown sugar with the flour and softened cube of butter. Set aside 1 cup of the crumb mixture for the topping.

To rest of flour/sugar mixture, add the milk, egg, baking soda and vanilla. Gently fold together the ingredients until well-combined and then pour into ungreased 9 x 13 pan. Top with crumb mixture and then finish with Heath bar pieces.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes (mine was down at 35 minutes). Test for doneness with a toothpick.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Top Chef Season 6, Episode 10: Fallen heroes

This is it folks. Only seven remain in the “Top Chef” Vegas house and the chefs are starting to crack under the pressure. Even Jenn C. who I thought subsisted on a diet of baby’s tears and men’s testacles is buckling. It’s like Paranormal Activity and all that jazz – almost makes me wonder if some demonic presence is preying on her ability to cook yummy things. Is it Mike? Eli? Toby Young?!?

The only chef who doesn’t seem nervous about going home is Robin. “[She’s] really happy with how restaurant wars worked out.” Translation: She’s really glad she was on a team with the Volts and Eli so they could carry her through to the next round. But she knows she’s “here for a reason” (to piss off Mike?) and truly believes she’s holding her own. If holding her own means being in the bottom for eight different challenges. Mike I. would send himself home if he had that record. But Robin? Oh no, she’s just so darn proud of herself! Hooray for just skating by! Think she can get a bumper sticker for that one?

For this week’s Quickfire Challenge, Padma is sporting yet another onesie. Made of denim. Can someone please arrange a “Top Chef”/”Project Runway” cross-over show where the designers create new looks for Padma that do not involve jumpsuits and big belt buckles? Note to her stylist: Denim onesies is not making it work.

Standing next to fashion disaster Padma is guest judge Paul Bartolotta, who has apparently won multiple James Beard awards and is one of the top Italian chefs in the country. Just to be clear – he’s kind of a big deal, but I still am not quite sure who he is or how he relates to this particular challenge. For this week’s TV Guide Quickfire, the chefs are charged with reinventing a classic TV dinner inspired by an iconic TV show. The chefs draw knives for their shows, which include “The Flintstones,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Seinfeld,” “Mash,” “The Sopranos,” “Sesame Street,” and “Cheers,” and then have 60 minutes to prepare their dishes.

Robin never watched TV as a kid and eats health food so is, as usual, sort of clueless, Jenn is excited about drawing “the Flintstones” because she relates to Pebble; who has a cute little boyfriend named Bam Bam who carries a club around and pulls her by her hair (should we be concerned?); and Kevin admits that he has “a little bit of a soft spot for a well-prepared frozen meal.” A little bit of a soft spot, Kevin? C’mon now, be honest, Red Beard! I know those love handles aren’t there because you are so darn endearing! Though I suppose it is possible. Does Grandma really still make your family breakfast every morning? Soooo cute!

After much running around, the chefs present their TV dinners to Paul and Padma. Jenn knows she’s in trouble, and America knows that Robin’s in trouble because, well, she’s Robin. The two ladies land in the bottom – Jenn for her chicken roulade with garlic cream sauce, and Robin for her burger with an egg and crispy kale. Paul tells Robin, “It was not special.” Ya proud now, Motor Mouth?

Kevin Red Beard’s meatballs with polenta and roasted cauliflower ultimately bests Bryan’s meatloaf with mashed potatoes, and he wins yet another challenge. This time, the prize isn’t immunity. Instead, a version of Kevin’s dish will be featured in the new line of “Top Chef” frozen foods! He’s excited – and he really wants his face to be on it so he can make Grandma proud. He’s totally gonna be the next Chef Boyardee. Beefy.

For the elimination challenge, the chefs will again be tasked with taking over an institution – this time with Tom’s restaurant Craftsteak at the MGM Grand. They will each create a dish using the products stocked in the kitchen for the four judges (Tom, Gail, Padma and Paul) and seven other still to be named guests. Everyone is super pumped about using lots of meat – especially Kevin who says, “Cooking meat is me in my element.” Smile. Yes, we know, Kevin.

Of course, it wouldn’t be “Top Chef” without a surprise twist, and this week’s is a doozy. The surprise guest is Natalie Portman and guess what guys? She’s a vegetarian! For the slow, that means she doesn’t eat meat. No steak. No pork. No Mary had a little lamb. Mike isn’t worried though. He has like 20 vegetarian dishes on his menu. Plus, he looks way pumped to be cooking for Natalie. His eyes are all bugging out. He loooooves her. So does Eli, but only because she was in Star Wars which is like “the most important thing you can do.” I mean seriously, could the guy be any more of a cliché? A 26-year-old who lives with his parents, wears black t-shirts like Padma wears onesies, and loves Star Wars? Let me guess, he also reads comic books and cries baby tears while listening to indie rock and emo music.

Robin is happy as a little clam to be cooking veggie (apparently, vegetarians are people too), and is flipping out over all the produce. Fresh garbanzo beans, and squash and beets – she just can’t take the excitement and is, as usual, talking herself into a tizzy. She commands herself, “Oh brain, c’mon work.” And suddenly America knows why she never stops talking! It’s so obvious now! Her brain filter doesn’t work!

Eli is feeling confident tonight – especially since he scored the good eggplants that he and Jenn flipped a dehydrated orange peel for. Poor Pebbles. She just can’t win lately. I sort of want to reach out and give her ponytail a good yank for encouragement. Maybe bop her on the head a few times with a club for good measure? She’s really not so happy about her small eggplants. Gosh darn that Eli! The force is clearly with him tonight – even Michael Volt who is doing crazy stuff with polenta and bananas tells him he’s doing a good job.

It’s a scramble to get dishes plated for the judges, and even Bryan is flustered by the time crunch. It’s a first for the man of few words and almost no personality (except when fighting with his brother). His steady hand is shaking – but not as badly as Jenn’s. When she nervously begins serving the verjus over her charred eggplant with braised fennel and tomatoes for the table, the sauce splashes all over the place. It’s not a good sign for Pebbles.

MV(P) is on the other side of the confidence spectrum with his fancy asparagus with Japanese tomato sashimi and banana polenta. He thinks that “Natalie Portman will walk away from this dish scratching her head and saying I don’t know why I liked that, but I just did.” It’s pretty much a lovefest at the table. Someone calls him Picasso, Natalie is smiling and laughing like a giddy school girl who went to Florida State instead of Harvard, and Paul, the Italian master, is befuddled by the banana in his polenta. He’s sort of a funny guy that Paul. I’d sort of like to keep him around to take surly Toby’s place more often.

Natalie’s words of wisdom are less… compelling. She likes Robin’s dish because she “loved looking at it;” she really wanted to like Mike I.’s undercooked leeks with onion jus, baby carrot purree and fingerling potatoes, because she loves leeks and purple is her favorite color; and describes Bryan’s dish as “lemony!” and “spicy!” Maybe Eli was right? Star Wars was the best thing she did? I think Harvard needs to give her money back. And I think I’d like it if Padma stopped making sexual references at the dining table. A little prick in the mouth? This is “Top Chef” -- not “The Hills!”

Judge’s table is a foregone conclusion. Michael, Eli and Kevin are on top, and Kevin Red Beard wins again for his duo of mushrooms, smoked kale, candied garlic and turnips, which Tom says didn’t make him miss meat at all. He scores some GE appliances and responds with a very unenthusiastic “Okay.” (He really just wants his face on frozen food.) Michael V. is not happy about Kevin’s win. “I could have made that dish in 20 minutes.” He scoffs. Sore loser is not a very cute look for the handsome chef. Has another of my “Top Chef” heroes fallen from grace?

Mike I., Robin and Jenn are predictably on the bottom. Robin babbles on about how she’s never worked with fresh garbanzo beans and squash blossoms before (a super smart way to prove to the judges that she deserves to stay), Jenn is one step away from slitting her throat with one of her knives for serving “a garnish,” and Mike is as smug as ever. Which of course means he’s doomed. He’s sent packing for his arrogant attitude, undercooked leeks and lack of protein. Before he goes, he makes sure to dole out one last shot of Robin haterade – “It’s just her food and her style and she’s always in the bottom…”

Sigh. Oh Mike, we won’t miss you one bit.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pumpkin White Chocolate Chip Cookies: A recipe for disaster (and burned arms)

The e-mails came fast and furious yesterday.

“Seriously -- you should market these yummy treats!! I’m savoring every bite….”

“What a great birthday event, Diana. I’d love to get the recipes.”

“Seriously, I need that cookie recipe!!! Sooooo good!”

“Such a NICE treat to have homemade goodies from such a pro!”

I reveled in their praise of the pumpkin cookies and Skor bar coffee cake I made for an office birthday party, but at the same time felt a little disingenuous. If they knew what I went through to bake the darn pumpkin cookies nobody would think I was a “pro.” The whole affair was prime material for a sitcom called “Undomestic Goddess” – starring me, the perpetually flawed, cookie sheet burn victim.

First there was the unnecessarily complicated gathering of supplies. I went to Target to get a cooling rack (the racks from my roommate’s toaster oven just weren’t going to cut it anymore), to Trader Joe’s to get dried cranberries and walnuts, then finally to Gelson’s to get white chocolate chips, unsalted butter, ground cloves, and pumpkin puree.

Hitch number one came when I discovered that my preferred brand of spice was charging $11 a jar for ground cloves. Cloves were immediately nixed from the recipe.

Hitch number two came when I was half-way back to my apartment and realized that I’d forgotten the pumpkin (kind of essential for pumpkin cookies).

And hitch number three came when I discovered that my Gelson’s only has the jumbo 4-cup cans of pumpkin puree in stock – 3 cups more than I needed for my recipe. I shuddered away my pangs of guilt (I hate to waste food), and charged toward the register. At this point, it was already 3:30 pm on Sunday, and I still had to allow at least 40 minutes for the butter to soften at room temperature.

The actual preparation of the batter went fine. I love carefully measuring out ingredients and seeing all the raw food products come together into something that will eventually be edible. Everything was going rather swimmingly until I started to bake the cookies.

The first two batches came out without issue. The batter was difficult to work with because of its sticky consistency, but I still had no trouble getting the cookies in and out of the oven sans mishap. The problem came with the third batch. By this juncture in the afternoon (5 pm), I just wanted to get the whole production over and done with so I could do something mindless like stare at a wall or watch last week’s episode of “The City.” For the first two sheets, I had played by the rules and only baked eight cookies at time, but in my rush to get the cookies finished, I decided to cram the last thirteen on one sheet.

Not so smart.

The additional cookies, plus the cooler temperature of the batter (I refrigerated it between batches), wrecked complete havoc on the standard 11 – 14 minute baking time. They weren’t done after 14 minutes. Or after 15 minutes. I finally took them out at 16 minutes, and then popped my Skor bar coffee cake in the oven in their place, only to realize a few minutes later that the cookies still weren’t done. Frustrated, I shoved the cookie sheet back in the oven on the rack underneath the coffee cake.

I checked on them 3 minutes later – thinking that they’d for sure be done, but the darn cookies were still gooey in the center! I left them out lest I compromise the integrity of my coffee cake, as well, and decided to just put them back in after the cake was ready. Which I did.

For another four minutes.

The cookies finally looked done at this point, but four lone cookies still refused to bake through completely – even after I separated them from the cooperative ones and put them back in the oven. Finally, after three more minutes of unproductive baking time, I took the still soggy cookies out.

And burned my arm.

Not just a little burn, like the ones that are perpetually lining the insides of my wrists. Oh no, this kind of burn elicits cries of concern, “What happened to your arm?!”

One inch long, 1/3rd inch wide and a shade of purple that doesn’t go with any of my cute dresses from Anthropologie, the burn is like a scarlet letter.

“Diana is not a domestic goddess. Diana is not a domestic goddess at all!” It says.

Fortunately, my roommates were nonplused by the half-raw centers of the four errant cookies and eagerly devoured them before I could introduce them to the trash can. Their praise assured me that I could serve the cookies to my coworkers the following day, and I excitedly brought the fruits of my exhaustive labor to work the next morning.

Only to discover that the party was cancelled.

The shindig finally went down yesterday morning, but I couldn’t help but smile when my officemates applauded me for the cookies. “If only they knew,” I thought, as I fingered the sweater material covering my burn. “If only they knew…”

Pumpkin White Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from recipe on

1 cup (2 sticks butter)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup pumpkin
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves (I omitted)
3/4 cup toasted walnuts
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1 (12 oz) package white chocolate chips

Beat softened butter (I let come to room temperature rather than melting in microwave) with sugar. Add egg, pumpkin, vanilla and beat until well-combined.

In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon so it is light in texture. Gently fold into pumpkin mixture. Add walnuts, cranberries, white chocolate chips. (Original recipe called for macadamia nuts instead of walnuts and omitted the cranberries - so feel free to play with it according to your preferences!) Once combined, use a spoon to create golf-ball sized cookies -- bake no more than 8 at a time to ensure they cook evenly. (Note: Batter will be very sticky. It will be easier to work with if you refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes prior to baking, but you will need to increase the baking time accordingly.)

Bake on greased cookie sheet for 11 - 14 minutes at 350 degrees. (Mine took approximately 14 minutes due to the girthier size!) Allow to cool 2 minutes before removing from sheet and cooling on wire rack. (Definitely don't skip this step -- the cookies are very fragile when they come out of the oven and need a few minutes to set.)

Makes approximately 30 cookies.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gyenari: Hello Korean BBQ, it's nice to meet your acquintance

As much as I love my hometown, Newport Beach, I’m the first to admit that it has a few shortcomings. Not many -- who doesn’t love living five minutes from the beach in one of the most beautiful places in the country? – but it is far from perfect, particularly in terms of the dining scene.

While Orange County has opened up some great new restaurants in recent years, when I was growing up, my family and I frequented the chain circuit – Chili’s and Coco’s when I was a tike, and PF Chang’s and Cheesecake Factory when I grew in my big girl teeth. As such, I didn’t get many opportunities to stretch my palate – even when we did go out for special occasion dinners at the Five Crowns or Villa Nova in Corona del Mar.

My rather limited gastro-education as a youngster is part of the reason I have not been exposed to ethnic and/or exotic cuisine (the other part involves my… err… picky tendencies). Despite my proclamations that I am passionate about food (ie. my name belongs under the hateful header “foodie”), I have an embarrassingly long roster of things I’ve never eaten before – Korean BBQ being one of them.

It’s not that I’ve been opposed to noshing on KBBQ. I like meat, I like barbecue and I clearly like to cook, but somehow, the opportunity never came up. Or at least it didn’t until I received an invitation to attend a complimentary blogger dinner at Gyenari, an upscale Korean BBQ restaurant in Culver City last Wednesday night.
While my fellow bloggers, who frequent Koreatown to get their BBQ on, were a little leery of chowing down at a place in Culver City, I couldn’t have been more excited. I knew Gyenari would be the perfect spot for me to acquaint myself with this type of cuisine. It would be a way to sort of ease myself in without having to completely dive in at a K-town location that tantalizes its more seasoned diners with menu items like diaphragm, small intestine or pork neck. As I told the gastro-adventurous Tony of Sino Soul in a recent e-mail, “D takes a B does NOT eat diaphragm, intestine or neck.”**

At least not yet. After my successful meal at Gyenari, I may be willing to go for some of that neck business… (but only if it tastes like chicken)

Over the course of our three hour dinner at Gyenari hosted by the charming owner William Shin and general manager Jimmy Jang, we were accosted with a seemingly never-ending stream of plates and shared platters. Korean BBQ is not for those who like to keep their food close to their vest – this is family-style dining at its finest. Lesson #1 of the night: Leave the food wenches at home. Everybody be grubbin’ on those pork belly skewers.

There were definite hits and (a few) misses for me – as is to be expected when trying something new. Even though my drink of choice is always always always wine, I was unduly impressed with the restaurant’s signature cocktail – the soju caipirinha made with fresh lime, raspberries, muddled lychee, soju, and a splash of soda. The well-balanced drink (with a flavor profile that resembled the smoothies my dad used to make me as a kid) is something I’d actually order again – even if weren’t free for the taking. I can picture myself meeting a Westsider for cocktails and gossip on Gyenari’s patio in the future – and maybe noshing on a few beef skewers as well if we aren’t trying to go Hollywood liquid diet.

As for the food (kind of the point of a blogger dinner), I loved the Duk Boki, pan fried rice cylinders with onions and Korean Chile Paste that are texturally similar to mochi (ie. chewy and carbolicious), and also enjoyed the shrimp, vegetable and mung bean jeons with the shoyu scallion dipping sauce. The tiny fried cakes were perfectly executed -- not overly breaded and bursting with plump shrimp and veggies, and I appreciated that they weren’t saturated with oil.

The Pear and Shiso Salad with flashed rib eye and shabu sesame dressing was another of my favorite dishes of the evening. The texture of the beef was off-putting to me from afar (ie. from behind my camera lens), but the succulent strips of beef were ultimately a winner for me, and I loved the fresh greens and pear in the salad that helped temper the richness of the beef.

My favorite items of the night, however, were the Japchae (glass noodles with stir fried with thinly sliced veggies and beef) and the Galbee (tender slices of marinated beef short ribs) that we were meant to cook on the grill with our other proteins – bulgogi (typically a prime cut of beef), aged pork belly and flower chicken. While the diners to our right and left grilled their own meat, our section of the table didn’t have grilling capabilities and received our meat already cooked. I was fine with this development – I stove it up so much at home that the last thing I want to do when I go out is cook more. Even if I may have had a less “authentically” Korean BBQ experience because of it.

Dishes that didn’t quite ease my transition from Korean BBQ newbie to a Korean BBQ lover included the pumpkin porridge with toasted pine nuts and soju sautéed dates, and the kimchee chagae and rice (a traditional Korean kimchee stew). Even with the sweet dates, the overall composition of the porridge was a bit unbalanced by the savory elements, and while my companions told me it is considered a traditional dish, it did not seem to complement the rest of the menu.

We capped off our evening with Spicy Chocolate Crème Brulee with bacon shortbread and almond cream, and Green Tea Beignets with chocolate mint drizzle. Despite my adoration for anything that contains the word “chocolate” and “cream,” ultimately, I was too full to dig very far into my brulee. I did make sure to clean the almond cream off the top, however, – one is never too maxed out for a little poof of delicately flavored whipped cream.

Despite some minor hiccups, my overall experience at Gyenari was unequivocally positive. It was the perfect environment for an introduction to the cuisine, especially since I was surrounded by diners who were eager to explain, for example, why we were receiving bowls of potato salad, pickled cucumbers, kimchee, bean sprouts, and broccoli with our meat course (they are free accompaniments – “banchan” – that can be replenished at any time).

By the end of the night, Gyenari whetted my appetite for more Korean BBQ. Maybe not for diaphragm**, but in time, I may (at my more adventurous friends’ urgings) have my way with some pork neck.

9540 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
Phone: (310) 838-3131
**Addendum: Apparently, D takes a B does "do" diaphragm. According to trusted foodie sources, diaphragm is also referred to as skirt steak and hangar steak -- two cuts of beef that I have enjoyed on many occasions.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Valerie Confections Fall Open House: Go ahead, experience life

Tonight, at the Valerie Confections Press Preview Event and Party, I learned something. Not that there is a limit to how much chocolate one person can eat (there isn’t), but that Kelly Cutrone’s assertion on “The City” that “LA has weather; NY has life,” is not as accurate as I first suspected. LA has life – one just has to be willing to go after it.

This week, Valerie Confections, located at 3360 West 1st St. (at the intersection of Virgil and Beverly Blvd.) is holding a free Fall Open House for the public to come in and sample their treats. Each day will feature a different confection – like the amazing Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake that I, after tasting tonight, am seriously considering for my wedding cake. That is if I ever meet my foodie soul mate (requirements include a love of chocolate, cheese and things that have faces).
I highly encourage my fellow Los Angeles eaters to take advantage of this incredible opportunity to experience “life.” Or at least a sweet toother’s version of “life.” Cancel that Bar Method class (I did tonight!), blow off that downer friend who always whines about her hipster boyfriend who just can’t commit, put off that TPS report till another day, and go check out one of the events at Valerie Confections this week (Tuesday, October 27th – Saturday, October 31st). I guarantee that if the delightful owners Valerie Gordon and Stan Weightman don’t brighten up your day, one of their specialty gourmet toffees or salt and pepper truffles will.

Check back later this week for a more comprehensive D takes a B report of Valerie’s offerings.

Fall Open House Calendar of Events

Tuesday, October 27th

Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake and Blum’s Lemon Crunch Cake

10 am to 6 pm

The Open House Week begins in earnest with a sampling of two of our most popular cakes—the Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake and the Blum’s Lemon Crunch Cake. The Coffee Crunch Cake was created for a Los Angeles Times Magazine story on wedding cakes. Almost immediately Valerie began receiving scores of calls from native Californians who fondly remembered the now defunct Blum’s Bakery and their signature crunch cakes. Valerie Confections is pleased to have brought these cakes back to fans old and new. Visitors to our boutique will be treated to a free slice of either flavor.

Wednesday, October 28th

Everyday Indulgences

10 am to 6 pm

On Wednesday visitors will be able to try our new line of casual treats, our “Everyday Indulgences”. These perfect little sweet snacks include Almond Toffee Treats, Peanut Toffee Treats, Chocolate Citrus Bark and Chocolate Dipped Shortbread Cookies.

Thursday, October 29th

Petits Fours

10 am to 6 pm

Elegant and diminutive, Valerie Confections petits fours come in flavors such as vanilla bean with rose/passion fruit ganache and orange/almond cake with handmade marzipan filling. Visitors will be able to enjoy an afternoon petit four pick me up.

Friday, October 30th

Valerie at the Market

10 am to 6 pm

Friday, Valerie will be sampling the “Valerie at the Market” line, which is inspired by the farmer’s markets of Los Angeles. “Valerie at the Market” products change seasonally, according to what is currently being harvested in the region. We’ll have products like White Fig and Fuji Apple Jam, Hand Pies, and Mini Market Cakes for sampling.

Saturday, October 31st

Chocolates, Toffees, and Truffles

10 am to 5 pm

To celebrate Halloween, Valerie will be sampling all manner of chocolates. We’ll have our signature Almond Fleur de Sel toffees, Black Pepper Truffles, Liquid Caramels and more.

SK's Donuts & Croissant: Great donuts, until 10 minutes later

It seemed like a great idea at the time. Of course I should reward myself for seven hours of volunteer work at the Nike Human Race with a donut from SK’s Donuts & Croissant on West 3rd Street. I’d wanted to try the Yelp favorite for ages, and nothing else in my hood is open at 3 am. Well, aside from Benito’s Tacos, but I like to reward myself with sugar, not chicken taquitos with liquid guac.

In my mind, the whole thing seemed serendipitous. As I mentioned, SK’s was open, I would be driving almost right by it on my way home from USC, and, most importantly, I have a mouth that occasionally digs fried dough when it’s not busy macking on chocolate or ice cream.

It would be great – I’d eat a big fatty raised glazed donut in bed with some of the rooibos tea my mom gave me for my birthday, and then tweet about how I was eating donuts in bed. Because that’s what food bloggers do. Eat something and then tell the world about it.

The first kink in my great donut plan came when the chap working the shop told me that they didn’t have any raised glazed left. And that the glazed twists and sugar-dusted raised versions weren’t fresh. On a scale from 1 to 10, my disappointment level was at like a 27. Maybe a 27.5.

But I sucked it up like a big girl and asked said chap what the most popular ones are. He pointed out the crumb, the buttermilk and the frosted chocolate cake donut. I sighed in defeat – none sounded particularly worthy of sending my insulin levels into a tailspin. It was a very “wah wah” moment. Kind of like how I feel when an episode of “Glee” is over, and I know I have a whole week to get through before the next one.

After a few minutes of anxious contemplation, I finally went with the crumb and then told him to pick out another one for me so I wouldn’t have to make any more decisions. He selected the buttermilk and then threw in the chocolate one too because he didn’t “want [me] to be disappointed.” So sweet, that donut man. He only charged me $1.60 for the lot, but being the generous person I am (read: too anxious to get home to wait for my change), I gave him $2 and skedaddled.

Fifteen minutes later I snuggled up in my bed with my loot. It was an impressive spread. I snickered a bit at how gluttonous it seemed. A big plate of donuts at 3 in the morning? How Homer Simpson of me!

I tore into the buttermilk donut first. The freshness of the pliant dough was immediately apparent – as was the intense buttermilk flavor. I could practically feel the fat oozing into my pores as I nibbled my way through the fried pastry. This was a good thing. (Or at least I thought it was a good thing.) The light glaze covering the tender dough was sweet, but not cloyingly so, and I had no trouble polishing off the entire donut.
My other selections – the crumb and chocolate frosted cake donut – were also good and, most importantly, fresher than most of the donuts I’ve encountered in my lifetime of occasionally eating donuts, but were still outshone by the buttermilk variety. Tasting them only reaffirmed my favoritism for doughy, glazed donuts as opposed to cake-like ones. I cut off one more sliver of the crumb donut just to make absolute sure that I didn’t want to finish it, and then packed up the leftovers to give my roommate later.

It was around this time that my stomach started to hurt.

A lot.

“Foiled again by my own devices!” I thought woefully, as I tweeted about the unfortunate consequence of my post-midnight indulgence.

I chugged down the rest of my tea, hoping it would temper some of the pain that was rapidly spreading through my overburdened belly, but alas, it was too late for natural remedies. The damage had been done.

“Just lay still.” I told myself, hugging my biggest pillow to my stomach. “Mom would tell you to just lay still.”

My last thought before falling asleep was, “I hope I don’t throw up.”

The next morning, I woke up feeling disoriented, as though I’d been overindulging in Cabernet rather than fried deliciousness. While the carboloading proved to be an excellent pre-workout meal for my subsequent eight mile run (I felt inspired by all my fellow runners at the Human Race), I now know why I eat chocolate instead of donuts. Chocolate, even in massive quantities, brings only love and joy to my stomach – never stomachaches.

Sk’s Donuts & Croissants
5850 W 3rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Phone: (323) 935-2409

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thyme Cafe and Market: Assessing the premises (and cupcake potential)

When I heard the noise on EaterLA that a new Joan’s on Third-esque café/bakery would be opening on Ocean Park Blvd. just a stone’s throw (or 3-4 minute car ride) from my place of employment, I was pretty ecstatic. While I do brown bag it almost every… single… day, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the occasional cookie, brownie or cupcake to perk up my lunch hour. Plus, it’s nice to have the option to escape from my Boar’s Head Honey Maple Glazed turkey sandwiches with provolone, leaf lettuce, delicatessen-style mustard on my Oroweat whole wheat bread when I feel the need.

The new lunching/sugar-coma-inducing locale, Thyme Cafe and Market, officially opened for business last Tuesday, October 13th, and earlier this week, I decided to make a drive-by assessment of the premises. Because that’s what I do on my lunch hour – eat food at my desk, and then go look at food I might want to eat at my desk in the future (or right then). What can I say? I’m vigilant about my craft. Of eating. And inducing mid-afternoon sugar comas that make it impossible for me to concentrate on my Excel documents. Sigh.

After maneuvering my car into a metered space down the street, I paused briefly outside the pleasantly bustling cafe, which is located just west of 17th street on Ocean Park Blvd. in Santa Monica, to snap a few establishing shots. I’m a good intrepid food blogger like that – always thinking about the visuals (or at least I am until I get too hungry). Satisfied, I then made my way inside for further surveillance.

The interior of the very Westside eatery (read: uber clean and sanitized) is decidedly Huckleberry and Joan’s on Third in fashion – with slightly better acoustics that will probably worsen as it gets more popular. The piercing SoCal sunlight that blinds me on my drive home, streams through the ceiling to floor windows, filling the space with the sort of light optimistic energy that is decidedly LA in nature. It feels like the type of place that would be featured on “The Hills” – a pristine lunch spot that fits the shiny, undefiled image of LA portrayed on the series.

The crowd is as well-manicured and groomed as the environs of the cafe would suggest. This is clearly the “light lunch” set – ladies who only eat salads, business men who are trying to clean up their diets and image with daintier gourmet sandwiches instead of the behemoth Godmother from Bay Cities, and a mix of folks from the neighborhood who just want a local spot other than the Counter to nosh.

I, investigative food blogger on a mission, stand out amidst the rest of the crowd that is at the cafe/market for a specific purpose. I’m not there to stand in the line by the counter, or hibernate at one of the dozen or so tables that dot the space. I’m there to look, listen, observe. And possibly buy a cupcake or chocolate chip cookie if one strikes my particular fancy.

The glass counter showcases the deli salads available, as well as some of their sweet treats like the currently trendy chocolate pudding, topped with soft snow-capped mountains of whipped cream, and lush rows of lemon bars kissed with powdered sugar. I spy a couple lone chocolate chip cookies in a glass jar outside the refrigerated case, but their standard appearance does not inspire my tongue to moisten. The fudgy, walnut-studded brownies look more appealing, as do the dainty carrot cake cupcakes with their impeccable top hats of cream cheese frosting. The ubiquitous red velvet looks lackluster in comparison, and I ultimately snub all the baked goods – mindful that just because it’s in front of me, doesn’t mean that I have to eat it.

Before heading back to the office to conquer another round of Excel documents, I take a quick glance at the gourmet goods available for purchase. Little jars of pricey substances amuse me, but sadly the collection seems to be an afterthought compared to the main appeal of the cafe – lunch.

I know I’ll be back, but not necessarily for a sugar rush via a cute carrot cake cupcake or tart lemon bar. The real point of intrigue for me is what lies on the menu – the affordable Chinese Chicken Salad, the Classic Chicken Tarragon Salad on Walnut Raisin Bread, or the Grilled Cheese with Tomato, Bacon and Avocado. This is a spot I’d be happy to let pinch hit for my standard turkey sam. Especially if it revives my energy enough to tackle all those Excel grids.

Thyme Cafe and Market
30 Ocean Park Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA
Phone: 310-399-8800

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Top Chef Season 6, Episode 9: Michael asserts his domination

There’s no time for (un)pleasantries or Pilates at the beginning of the 9th episode of “Top Chef: Las Vegas.” With only eight cheftestants left, everyone has their game face on. Especially Laurine who is on deathwatch since Grandma Robin doesn’t seem to be going back to the nursing home ever. Jenn C. is so riled up about the high-stakes of the competition that she considers cooking in her bathing suit and heels. Jenn does look pretty cute in her bikini (she clearly doesn’t love the pig as much as Kevin Red Beard), but it’s probably not the best idea. I mean hello? Padma’s the only one who’s allowed to wear inappropriate things in the kitchen!

According to guest judge Rick Moonen, the chef/owner of RM Seafood, who Kevin tells us is big on “sustainability,” the Quick-Fire Challenge this week is all about synergy. The chefs must draw knives to form two teams that will then prepare a dish together. Sounds simple, right? Wrong!

Rick Moonen and Padma are practically gleeful as they describe all the surprises in store for the chefs. “First you will draw from the great death block of knives, then you must pick your teammates and hope to God that you don’t get stuck with Robin because she will ruin everything. You will then prepare a dish tag-team style whereby each chef will have 10 minutes to screw their next teammate over with whatever crap you decide to make. And for an extra, knee-slapping good time, you can’t talk to each other and will be blindfolded while your teammates cook! Hahahaahahaaa!” It’s all very Mister Burns. I can practically see Padma hunched over his desk, tapping her finger tips together like an evil dictator.

The chefs are, needless to say, not so amused by all the tomfoolery. “It’s ludicrous, it’s crazy!” Kevin says. I so enjoy hearing Red Beard use his words like the good Southern-battered boy his mama raised him to be. So much better than all the bleepity bleeps. Though Jenn C. does make for amusing television too. I just love when her eyes get all squinty and steam starts shooting out of her nose – she looks just like the bad witch Maleficent when she turns into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty!

The teams shake out as follows: Michael, Bryan, Eli, and Grandma on the red team; and Kevin, Jenn C, Laurine, and Mike Isabella on the blue team. They each have 30 seconds to decide the order they will be cooking, and Michael immediately smacks Robin into the least important position – 2nd chef in the line-up. Eli will go first, Michael puts himself last, and Bryan will go third because, “If there is any crisis early on he should be able to start to fix it.” Translation: Bryan can do damage control after Robin f’s everything up. Eli also puts it nicely when he says, “Robin is somewhere east of Mars in terms of the type of food we do.”

There’s just so much love. So much love. Googly eyes Carla from Season 5 would be practically weeping over it all.

With the orders figured out, the chefs are off and cooking, and it’s actually pretty entertaining to see everyone trying to figure out what the person before them was doing. Mike seems to be having an especially fun time with it. Jenn, who went first for the blue team, is a little worried. He looks a “little dizzy, confused,” and she’s practically foaming at the mouth for the cod she set up to be poached. Mike finally puts two and two together, but then Kevin, that rascal, he decides not to poach the fish! Gee whiz!

The red team presents Rick and Padma with a pan roasted NY strip with whipped miso avocado puree and pickled vegetables; and the blue team serves a pan-seared sablefish with sautéed mushrooms, ginger shiitake broth, and a radish salad. Jenn C. describes it as trout, gets called out on it, and then smirks to the camera, “I called my black cod, trout on national TV. Awesome.” Oh how the mighty have fallen. But not really. The team still wins it courtesy of her exceptionally “well-made stock.” Hugs all around – the blue team is not blue at all! They then have the choice of either taking $15,000 to split between the four of them or letting it ride for the Elimination Challenge – the highly-anticipated Restaurant Wars. Should the blue team take it each chef will receive $10,000. It takes about two milliseconds for greed/pride to win out and the chefs decide to “let it ride.” This is Vegas, baby. VEGAS!

The blue team will also have the advantage (that, incidentally, isn’t really an advantage at all), of choosing which restaurant they want to cook in at the Mandalay Bay. They opt for the fancy schmancy one, which is fine by the red team. “It doesn’t give them any advantage.” Bryan says dismissively. He’s so rational it almost hurts. Wish he had used his voice of reason when his team decided to name their restaurant Revolt. Padma and the gang will have lots of fun with that one later. The claws are coming out, tonight, folks! Meooow!

With names decided (the blue team goes with the rather mundane “Mission” because their cuisine is like mission-style architecture?), it’s off to Whole Foods and Restaurant Depot for the goods. Robin gets testy because Lorraine steals her revolutionary idea to serve sparkling water, and Lorraine’s eyes start rolling like soccer balls. Poor grandma just can’t seem to catch a break from any of the kids. Even teammate Michael thinks “she’s a little out of her league,” and is prepared to stomp all over her feelings with his big chef man boots. Maybe her dentures too.

Robin, always the astute one, knows she’s going to get pushed into the corner with something akin to dishwasher duty. “Michael has asserted his domination.” She says for the first of many many many times over the course of the evening. Me thinks she is really excited about using “Michael” and “domination” in the same sentence. I kind of like it too. Michael has asserted his domination, folks. Michael will have his way with… the food. Michael is… married and has two kids.

Brother Bryan isn’t very happy about lil bro’s assertive behavior. “He’s a bit cocky.” Robin just wants her voice back. We really really do not want that to happen, so it’s pretty great when M.V.(P.) relegates the chatty Cathy to a chef’s version of “dishwasher duty” – dessert, which the other team decides to nix completely because, according to Jenn, every time a chef does dessert “it has bitten them in the ass.”

Big mistake, Jenn. HUGE. Poor girl is just not on the ball this episode! She’s calling black cod, “trout,” making bad dessert decisions, is in the weeds with her fish dishes… Maybe she should have cooked in a bathing suit and heels, afterall?

But enough of the nitty gritty chopping and searing stuff. Nobody really wants to see Jenn filleting fish or Kevin undercooking Lorraine’s lamb. This is “Top Chef” – not “Iron Chef.” The secret ingredient is drama (and sometimes pork)! Onto the restaurant war blood bath!

It’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen at this point. With Eli putting his whiny schmooze-factor to good use out in the front of the house, Michael dominating the kitchen (and Robin), and Bryan working like a valiant soldier, restaurant Revolt is on the up and up. Despite the “horrible” name, the judges are practically gushing over the food. “This chicken is amazing…” “[The pear pithivier] was like a perfect massage.” “I wish Michael would assert his domination on me…”

Oh wait, that’s not what Padma said?

The other restaurant experience could not be any more different. Lorraine is not the hostess with the mostest in the front of the house – failing to describe the dishes to the judges, and the back of the house is equally challenged as Jenn C. frantically tries to steam her mussels and clams to order. Timing is a huge problem, but not as big of a problem as the execution. There are problems with all the dishes (aside from Kevin’s righteous pork entrée- you rock that pig, Red Beard!), and nobody is scratching their chins in confusion when team Revolt is awarded the win at Judge’s Table.

Padma is super excited to announce that Michael is the victor for his chicken and cod dishes, and coyly says, “Michael, I have a little something for you…”

I start to shield my eyes (thinking it’s not going to be PG-13), but it’s only a check for $10,000, which Michael says he will split with his teammates. Aww, sooo cute. Maybe he really does have “the biggest heart here” when he’s not busy asserting his domination and taking over Robin’s “damn dessert.” Bryan doesn’t want anything to do with Michael’s money though. “It’s unprofessional behavior being rewarded.” I tell ya, he’s always the voice of reason, that one. Or just a giant wet blanket.

Restaurant Mission is sent back to the Judge’s table for failing to accomplish their mission (har har har), and it’s a pretty ugly scene. I’m fine hearing them rip on Lorraine for being a “deer in the headlights,” but when they start needling Kevin for the undercooked lamb and Jenn C. for her “broken sauce,” it feels just so wrong. Jenn and Kevin are supposed to be beyond reproach! They can’t go home yet! They just can’t! They have so much left to do – so much more bacon left to cook!

Fortunately, Lorraine’s failures in the front of the house allow Kevin and Jenn to live to see another pork chop. Lorraine knows it’s coming. “Sure,” she says like the good sport she is. I’m a little sad to see the self-described, “rock” go. Poor girl got herself dominated by the competition. Her rock was rocked. And yes, this is still a family show.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Gjelina: Spuds and eggs get a make-over

"She said 30 to 40 minutes," Ashley says to me when I arrive outside Gjelina restaurant in Venice after (expertly) parallel parking my car on Electric Avenue.

I can tell by her pained expression that she's a little unsure about the wait time and a knot of anxiety weaves through my rumbling stomach. I hope she doesn't suggest going elsewhere. I think. Hal's is fine, but...

"I'm just going to go to the bathroom!" I stammer quickly, stalling so that by the time I get back, there will only be 25 minutes left, and then I can make the argument that all good brunch places have at least a 20 minute wait on Sunday.

Smart, Diana, Smart. I commend myself and bolt away from Ashley before she can put up a protest.

The bathroom at the rear of the restaurant is an amusing space. While I am a bit annoyed at the effort it takes to not touch the (potentially) germ-infested chain flushing mechanism or the rod iron steering wheel handle above the sink, I like the overall effect. It's rather dungeonesque, except without the stench of rotting bones and flesh.

By the time I do get back to Ashley, we only have enough time to buy amusing birthday cards at Firefly down the street before the somewhat surly hostess seats us at one of the communal tables in the middle of the trendy Abbott Kinney restaurant.

I make a face at Ashley as we squeeze onto our tiny barstools. It's a good thing both of us run... a lot, I think. Of course, at this point, my stomach has reached full ready to rumble stage, and I would be happy eating out of a pig trough, so don't (much) mind that the girl next to me is practically in my lap. She actually seems pretty sweet. Plus, I really like the looks of her egg dish with its golden runny yolk oozing over spritely slivers of asparagus.

By the time our waiter comes by to take our drink order, I'm pretty determined to pull a "I'll have what she's having." Or at least I think I'm determined. I do still feel somewhat compelled to ask our hipsteresque server what he recommends lest I experience another mojoless ordering moment. He singles out the poached eggs with lentils, escarole and salsa verde ($11); albacore tune tartine with confit tomato, gruyere and cucumber green bean salad ($13); the Pei mussels with chorizo, garlic, confit tomato, white wine and grilled bread ($13); and the marinated beet salad with avocado, orange and hazelnuts ($9).

Again, Ashley and I make faces at each other.

"Nothing he recommended sounds good to me..." She whispers once he has departed to put in my request for green tea ($4).

"Me neither..." I whisper back, still making eyes at the poached eggs with maitake mushrooms, roasted asparagus and parmesan breadcrumbs.

When our server returns, Ashley orders the Anson Mills corn grits with poached eggs, cavola nero and crisp bacon ($13), and I opt for what my conjoined twin on the right is enjoying. We top things off with a small plate of the crispy fingerling potatoes with truffle oil, herbs and parmesan ($5), and then pass the (brief) waiting period discussing how Ashley wants to get married in a short wedding dress and how I want to have a gelato bar instead of a dried out multi-tier cake.

The fingerlings arrive first -- announcing themselves at our table with the intoxicating perfume of hot truffle oil. Potatoes don’t normally inspire greedy gobbler behavior for me, but I have to physically restrain myself from eating the entire plate before Ashley can get her share. Even after we try our entrees, which are, incidentally, delicious, we both can't get past the potatoes.
"These are the best thing we ordered." Ashley declares as she spears another crispy tater.

I nod and immediately stab my fork into a particularly girthy spud on my half of the plate.

Our egg dishes also prove to be successful -- particularly after we give them a salt shower. My first bite is a touch underwhelming, but as my tongue acclimates to the earthy flavors and savory broth, I find myself increasingly enamored by the lightness of the dish. I also very much enjoy using the buttery grilled bread served on the side to mop up the excess liquid. It’s not the most attractive behavior, but Ashley pretends not to notice my uncouth communal table manners. She is content to scrape up her plate of grits and greens – a dish she later describes as "comfort food."

The brunch proves to be pricier than my average midday nosh session (especially since most of my midday nosh sessions come courtesy of my own two hands), but when I sign my name on the dotted line, I don't feel as though I've wasted my money on something I could have made better at home. Gjelina's brunch offerings are unique in a way that makes the restaurant a worthy destination for someone who wants a little something more than plain old scrambled eggs and hash browns. Gjelina elevates the humble egg and lowly spud from ho-hum to gourmet. I can’t wait to go back for dinner to see the crazy stuff they do to pizza.

1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, CA‎
Phone: (310) 450-1429‎

Monday, October 19, 2009

Black Bean Burgers: Satisfying my animalistic urges... with beans

Bacon and burgers. It’s all anyone talks about any more. Well, fine, maybe the occasional balloon boy too, but puking six-year-olds aren’t likely to be gracing the cover of Gour... err... Saveur anytime soon.

All the cow and pork love isn’t a bad thing – I sincerely believe that bacon really does make everything better (except maybe congenital heart disease) – but I typically prefer clogging up my arteries with ice cream and chocolate instead. Of course, my girly/hormonal tendencies don’t necessarily mean that I don’t crave the experience of eating a messy burger from time to time. Who doesn’t love biting into something that, as the Carl’s Jr. motto says, “gets all over the place?” Even with my faux displays of feminine primness, I am no exception. I find it inexplicably satisfying to sink my teeth into a hearty hunk of flesh, bun and drippy toppings that require a tree’s worth of napkins to get through. The ritual feels animalistic in a good way – like I am declaring to the world, “I am woman, hear me (attempt to) roar.”

The only problem is (please prepare for shock)…

… I am rarely in the mood for a burger.

It’s not that I disapprove of ground up cow in patty form, but in the past four or so years, I haven’t felt a need to eat a hamburger in the way that I feel the need to massacre a giant chocolate chip cookie. Even so, I still crave the ritual of masticating something that “gets all over the place.” Sometimes when that urge strikes, I turn to tacos or ice cream sandwiches; other times I opt for a doppelganger burger – ie. a veggie burger.

I’ve sampled quite a few animal-friendly burgers during my cowless burger streak, and, in all honesty, can’t say that any have made me think I was noshing on actual flesh. Of course, since I’m not necessarily in the market for a patty that makes me think I’m eating something that may contain E-Coli, that isn’t a bad thing. All I really want is something that gives me reason to go through a big wad of napkins.

Two weeks ago I found that reason with Mark Bittman’s recipe template for black bean burgers. Using the Gastronomer’s helpful suggestions (nix the excess liquid, and don’t attempt to form the patties prior to cooking), I fried myself up a beefy burger and then went to town on it with the leftover contents of my fridge and freezer. I loved being able to customize my burger to my exact specifications, and was even more thrilled when I bit into the hefty sandwich and got avocado cilantro dressing on my face and hands. (Possibly my blogger prom t-shirt and baggy sweatpants, as well.) It was primal eating at its finest. And as such, will not be repeated in public (until after I trick someone into marrying me).

Black Bean Burgers
Adapted from Mark Bittman via Gastronomy Blog

Serves 1

½ cup black beans
3 tablespoons oatmeal
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons frozen corn
¼ white onion, chopped
½ teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon or so egg
Salt, pepper to taste

English muffin, toasted
Sautéed onions
Feta cheese
Avocado cilantro dressing

Sauté chopped onions in a frying pan with olive oil, salt, pepper, until tender. Combine black beans, oatmeal, onions cilantro, cumin, egg, salt and pepper in a bowl, and then mix together using an immersion blender or blender. Stir in the corn.

Heat olive oil in nonstick pan over medium high heat. Drop burger mixture into pan and form into a patty. Cook 4 minutes per side or until cooked through and golden brown. Serve on English muffin and top with avocado cilantro dressing, sautéed onions, feta cheese, and arugula.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Top Chef Season 6, Episode 8: Guess what, Eli lives with his mom!

There is a lot of talent on this season of “Top Chef.” So much talent that it almost feels like half (err four) of the contestants belong on “Top Chef Masters” instead. Watching Jenn C., Michael and Bryan Voltaggio, and Kevin Red Beard strut their stuff in the kitchen isn’t terrifying like it is when I see Robin or Ash getting too close to a burner. I know the fab four are going to rock it out (or at least they will when all the circuits are working correctly and there is plenty of pork around for Kevin).

The contrast between the Jenn, Michael, Bryan, and Kevin and the rest of the motley crew of cheftestants is startling, but not just because they cook things that Padma doesn’t want to spit out. While Michael admittedly likes to push older brother Bryan’s buttons in the kitchen, they at least keep their lover’s quarrels in the family circle. The other chefs do not, and as a result, seem even more unprofessional and amaueteristic in comparison.

Exhibit A: Eli. In the opening sequence the “Top Chef” producers give the audience a big giant present – Eli reveals that he lives with his parents. I can practically hear the collective “Ohhh…” spewing out of the mouths of the audience at home. Because suddenly I get why Eli is a whiny brat who thinks camping is stupid and cancer survivors are lame and black shirts are totally rockin’, duuuude. I’m so happy to have petulant Eli figured out that I don’t even find myself that appalled when Michael V. compares himself to Babe Ruth. I mean, really Michael, that’s just like way out of (bad pun alert!) left field. Babe Ruth has nothing on you! Swing higher, kid – you make fancy foams – he’s only (debatably) the greatest baseball player of all time!

So as the cheftestants head into the Quickfire Challenge, Michael is all pumped up to never make another mistake again (he’s got a legacy to build), and Robin, despite all the mind-clearing Pilates, is still delusional and thinks that she can actually win “Top Chef.” Right. That will happen when Kevin’s pig tattoo can fly, Robin. Or when Padma takes a look in the mirror before going on camera. Seriously, Padma, what is going on with your wardrobe this season? First the green onesie, now the space cowboy outfit complete with huge belt buckle and white knee-high boots? Think of your future child!

The Quickfire Challenge is fairly simple – make a dish that is a natural pairing for a flavor of Alexia Crunchy Snacks. The guest judge is Charlie Palmer who both Bryan and Michael have worked for in the past, but Charlie assures everybody that he will be impartial. I want to believe him, I really really do, especially because he looks so serious when he says it, but I…. just… can’t… do… it. Bryan is practically weeping with joy that he gets to cook for his mentor – he knows he’s got it in the bag of (bad pun alert)….savory onion Alexia Crunchy Snacks! Snap!

Michael’s actually kind of nervous because “Charlie has very high standards,” which Bryan translates as, “Michael thinks Charlie doesn’t like him. I think that’s funny.” Meanwhile, Jenn is freaking out because she overcooked her pork chop and doesn’t want to screw up in front of an “American icon,” and Eli is looking around at everyone like they are riff-raff because the other chefs don’t “get” natural pairings like he does since he lives with his mommy and daddy and that’s like the most natural thing ever. When you are five.

Robin, Ash and Jenn, courtesy of her overcooked chop, ultimately land in the bottom, and Eli, Kevin and Bryan are the favorites. Eli’s warm potato clam salad paired with the onion crunchy snack gets the nod, and Eli says, “I’ll take what I can get.” Yeah… like free rent, huh?

Ash is not too happy about it. He seems to have abandoned his nice guy persona in the last episode and is all about the bleepity bleeps tonight. It’s surprisingly not all that charming. But then again, neither is his chilled cucumber avocado soup…

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are asked to draw knives to find out what they’ll be cooking. Each knife lists the body part of a pig because, as we’ve learned in episodes past, pork is aaaaawesome. It’s really not “Top Chef,” guys, it’s “Top Bacon Bit” which Kevin understands completely. “I think it’s the best thing in the world,” He says, before admitting he has a pig tattoo. Swoon! Watch out Michael V., someone is stealing your tat thunder!

After everyone gets their pig parts and Jenn C, who receives the wild card knife, chooses pork belly for her dish, the chefs are then shuttled off to the Mandalay Bay to select a Pinot Noir to pair with their plate o’ pork. Each chef will need to make 150 tasting portions for Charlie Palmer’s aptly named “Pigs and Pinot” charity event. Eli is totally strutting his stuff because he’s “very familiar with wines.” Sometimes his mom even lets him have a little glass with dinner! But only if he finishes all his vegetables.

With wine selections made, it’s back to Whole Foods for shopping. Ash is like really stoked to make roasted pork tenderloin with polenta and cherry and is practically skipping through the aisles. Last dance for Mary Jane, perhaps? Then it’s back to the ranch for some fun times ignoring and hating on Robin. Kevin, bless his little Red Bearded soul, sums up the merriment well: “Robin has the best intentions at heart, but she’s driving people up the f*ing wall.” Without going into too many gory details, Robin and Eli get in a tiff over a dirty cutting board and Eli tells her, “You aren’t my mom so cut it out.” He’s really proud of himself for that one, and rushes to the nearest phone to call his real mom to give her a play by play.

For the challenge the next day, the chefs have only four hours to prep for the event. It’s madness, I tell you, madness! But Laurine is feeling really good about her pork rillette (translation: it’s going to be horrible), and Ash is pumped to finally cook his food. Or at least he is until he decides to cook someone else’s food and takes Mike Isabella’s brilliant advice to make chilled pork tenderloin instead of his plan for pork and polenta. You just keep digging that hole deeper don’t you, Ash?

The rest of the episode plays out as expected. The fab four – Michael, Bryan, Kevin, and Jenn C. – are the clear standouts for their pairings. Charlie describes Jenn C.’s take on pork and beans as “probably the lightest pork belly dish I’ve ever had.” Toby Young chimes in with the best/worst comment of the evening, likening the transition from American Pinots to Jenn C.’s European Pinot to “the difference between a shaved armpit and a hairy armpit.” He praises her for her ability to pick up on those hairy elements in the wine, and I throw up in my mouth just a little bit. Kevin Red Beard, however, takes it all for his pork leg pate. It’s a nice moment – he turns an appropriate shade of pink with pleasure. And then goes “Wee wee wee all the way home!”

Laurine, Ash and Robin are all in the bottom, and Mike makes it clear that he’s really hoping that “they make the right decision this time” and that “grandma goes.” Mike, honey, I love you (not really), but maybe if you had kept that big Jersey trap shut and let Ash do his pork ‘n polenta thing, you could have gotten your wish. Even though Dana Cowin, the Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine magazine, describes Laurine’s rillette as “cat food,” and Toby Young likens Robin’s sauce to “the gunk you get when you finish a cup of instant coffee,” ultimately Ash is sent home for his flavorless, clammy piece of pork that didn’t pair well with his Pinot.

Or as he says so eloquently, “I have the least good dish. Oops.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

3rd Annual Chocolate Salon: And the Dundie goes to...

The e-mail seemed to be sent to my inbox straight from heaven. A six hour luxury chocolate salon with samples from over 30 chocolatiers, confectioners, wineries and other culinary artisans? It took me less than 30 seconds to respond to Taste TV’s e-mail – I was in!

This past Sunday morning, instead of going to church like my less gluttonous Christian counterparts, I dragged Tiffany Toyota out to the Pasadena Center for the 3rd Annual LA Chocolate Salon. Armed with my camera, a bottle of water, and Tupperware, I arrived at the exhibition at 11:30 am, primed to eat as much chocolate as possible. For two and half hours, I did just that.

While others grew weary and complained of chocolate overload, I never felt like I needed to call a choco-interference. I was grinning like a sugar-crazed idiot the entire time, and was able to champion my way through many of the different vendors at the event. There is no way to award just one or even three of the bites I tried, the descriptor of “my favorite,” so instead I will do what high school seniors across America do at the end of every school year – I will award them superlatives. Or, if you prefer, “Dundie Awards” -- just like Michael did in Season 2 of "the Office."

Most likely to inspire me to change my personality and go camping...

Plush Marshmallows

My first stop at the Chocolate Salon was also one of the highlights of the event -- and I'm not just saying that because of the primacy affect. My second toasted marshmallow (caramel swirl) that I ate toward the end of my two-plus hour chocolate chowdown was just as tasty and ooey gooey delicious as the first one I sampled (s'mores). I did prefer the latter for obvious reasons (it contained chocolate).

Most likely to inspire riots…

Swirls Cupcakes

In the five minutes I spent talking to one of the women helping with the Swirls Cupcakes’ exhibit, I heard no less than ten people ask (in whiny voices), “Can we sample the red velvet?” Ignorant fools. There is goodness to be found outside of the red velvet! And that goodness is called the chocolate ganache cupcake. With its fudgy top hat and moist interior, this cupcake would pair perfectly with my fat pants and a glass of milk. But is it better than my favorite bad boys at Sprinkles or SusieCakes? Not so sure on that one. I’d have to... ahem… order a red velvet from the Sherman Oak-based company for adequate research.

Prettiest (ie. most expensive) packaging…

Clarine’s Florentine's

While I blanched when I learned that six of the delicate florentines would rape my wallet of $10, the product does have quality (and damn fine looks) on its side. The candied almond brittle caressed with Guittard chocolate was one of my favorite bites of the day, and may just inspire me to perform a little experimenting in my kitchen to replicate them.

Most… err… interesting…

Marti Chocolatt

The Durian chocolate I sampled from Marti Chocolatt was… not to my taste. At all. But the rose raspberry quickly brought the smile back to my face.
Most likely to get me to pry open my wallet…


This Santa Monica chocolatier bowled me over with its root beer float chocolate – a hefty bite of root beer and exotic vanilla cream enrobed in 32% cacao milk chocolate. Then the chocolatier went and bowled me over again with its seasonal peppermint snowman filled with marshmallow and peppermint cream. The unique chocolates were another of my favorites of the day, and I left with three root beer floats and one snowman to enjoy this week ($5).

Least likely to be a Hanukkah present…

Christopher Michael’s Sizzling Bacon Bar

This chocolate bacon bar ain’t kosher by any stretch of the imagination. Thank God.

Most likely to be described as “yum-o!”

CJ’s Stix

According to Bruce Nadler, the owner of the Marin county based company, Rachael Ray is a big fan of these chocolate dipped pretzels hand rolled in toffee chips. Despite that shortcoming, my mouth was still won over by the creative product and charming owner who started the company with his daughter. I’ve been craving both the original and peanut butter flavors since sampling them on Sunday. Yum-o, indeed.
Most likely to be mistaken for art…

Sterling Truffle Bar

Sterling Confections specializes in hand-painted truffle bars that are pretty enough to use as a centerpiece for a formal dining room table. Fortunately, they taste good too. The double hazelnut caramel with contrasting tiers of milk chocolate flavored with rich hazelnut puree, white chocolate infused with caramel and dark chocolate with a hint of ground hazelnut was almost as delicious as the over-effusive description implies. The rocky road with a filling of milk and white chocolate, almonds, marshmallows and a hint of vanilla was better. Now if only I could figure out how to cut the darn things without a butcher knife…

Miss Congeniality…


Pastry Chef Xuan Ngo and his partner Tuan Trinh were not only the nicest vendors at the exhibit, but also had the best variety of items to sample. From the sophisticated earl grey chocolates to the delicate vanilla macarons, everyone could find something to love from this table. I know it won’t be long before I’m stocking up on the macarons that are now available at Paris Pastry in Westwood.

Most likely to give Reese’s a run for its money…


Ococoa specializes in jazzed-up, adult versions of the candy aisle favorite Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Despite my adoration of most things chocolate and/or peanut butter, I never quite understood the big fuss about Reese’s chalky-tasting cups. Ococoa’s take is far more to my liking. The sample of the almond cherry dark chocolate I tried was refined enough to make me feel like a grown-up, but basic enough to keep my inner five-year-old happy. I’m dying to get my hands on the other flavors which include pistachio date, sesame fig, hazelnut chocolate, cashew apricot, marzipan truffle, macadamia guava, sunflower honey, and of course, classic peanut butter.

Most likely to make me do something stupid…

Dove’s Chocolate Martinis

Immediately after sampling the delightful chocolate martini, I found myself say, “Why, yes, I would be interested in hosting a chocolate tasting party. And why, yes, you can have my name and e-mail to contact me about it.”
Most likely to make me feel like a kid again…

Neopolitan Printing & Company

The Ants on a Log chocolate from this Portland-based company was another of my favorite bites – it tasted exactly like a peanut butter raisin topped celery stick, only covered in milk chocolate. I maniacally told the vendor that it was the best thing I’d had – ever. It was a total lie, and I have no idea why I said that, but they were yummy and I was high on sugar. The chocolate-covered mango was also good. But did not inspire me to make any hyperbolic remarks.