Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Sweet Goodbye to 2009: My favorite desserts of the year

With 2009 coming to an end tonight (thank GOD), I felt it imperative to say a final farewell with a tribute to my favorite desserts of the year. It’s seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Desserts are the perfect way to cap off a meal (for those of us who like – nay need – to juxtapose savory with sweet), so it clearly follows that they should similarly be the perfect way to cap off a year.

Or at least this is what I told myself when I made the executive decision to not include any sweet bites (other than CanelĂ©’s French toast) in my “Top Ten Bites of 2009.”

In other words, I cheated.

But for good reason, which in my semi-deluded world makes it perfectly acceptable since intentions are weighty clauses in both murder cases and life.

“But officer, I didn’t mean to stab him – he simply got up and ran straight into my knife!”

When I began formulating yesterday’s list, I quickly realized that given my propensity to favor the sweet side of the spectrum, were I to include desserts, there would be no room for savory entries, and I would therefore be neglecting to pay tribute to a year’s worth of notable eats that deserve to be heralded for their impact upon my tongue.

This would not do.

So I decided to make two lists – one devoted to the food that I eat so I can get to dessert, and one devoted to those sweet bites that are lining my imagined version of heaven. (Clouds made of ice cream, chickens made of chocolate, rivers that swallow up chubby little kids named Augustus who try to deprive me of the aforementioned chocolate, etc.)

I also decided that since I was already breaking the rules, I might as well go ahead and include twelve desserts instead of the more numerically pleasing ten. This is not the “Late Show with David Letterman;” this is “Diana Takes a Bite,” and I prefer to work without limits. And, incidentally, co-workers I want to sleep with.

Finally, it bears noting that I didn’t include any chocolates because were I to include the tasty offerings from Compartes, Valerie Confections and others of their ilk, the entire list would then be devoted to the contents of my snack drawer at work.

Again, this would not do.

As such, the following twelve desserts are what remain after filtering out items like the Compartes’ pear and cheese truffle, Valerie Confection’s chocolate toffee almond bar, and Trader Joe’s chocolate covered sea salt turbinado almonds. It's a pictorial montage of why I can never ever retire my running shoes.

2009, I bid you adieu.



Osteria Mozza's Rosemary Olive Oil Cakes

SusieCakes' Carrot Cake


Tavern's Snickers Bar

Bulgarini Gelato's Yogurt w/ Oil

LudoBites 2.0 Panna Cotta w/ Caviar and Caramel

Grace's Salted Caramel Doughnuts w/ Bourbon Pecan Ice Cream

Huckleberry's Salted Caramel


Joan's on Third's Lemon Bar

Corkbar's Banana Bread Pudding

Cube's Persimmon Pudding

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Top Ten Bites of 2009

As is typical for people with anxious personalities (read: neurosis), I’ve been contemplating (read: obsessing over) my best restaurant bites of 2009 post for the past month.

Err… three months.

Okay, fine, ever since I published my “Best Bites of 2008” post last year.

It’s a tricky thing to reduce a whole year of eating out into just ten bites or dishes. What qualifies a bite for such an esteemed designation? The shock of a unique, yet surprisingly delicious combination of flavors? A taste that elevates the senses and creates that over-used feeling of umami? Or something that evokes a glassy-eyed, “wow” reaction?

I’ve spent weeks reminiscing over the meals I’ve eaten this year, engaging in a vicious internal debate about whether, for example, the duck confit at Noca or the soft-shell crab at Tavern are superior to other contenders.

I loved the duck confit, but did I love it more than the duck breast with roasted peaches at Rustic Canyon?

And then I’d start to panic about the items I’d already deemed worthy of the list.

LA-OC Foodie thought Gjelina’s fingerlings were underseasoned. I fretted. Was I wrong about them? Did they need more salt? Or were they just as perfect as I remember them to be?

And, then I began picturing the loudly pontificating detractors.

“I can’t believe you are including something from a CHAIN restaurant! How dare you call yourself a food blogger?!”

Or…

“Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, again? Seriously, do you eat anywhere else? You are soooo not the next Jonathan Gold. You aren't even worthy of your Yelp profile!"

But then, last night, as I frantically uploaded pictures before my dinner date with Anna from Banana Wonder, I came to a realization.

A bite isn’t made perfect by the flavor or texture alone – a bite is made notable by the entire experience of eating it.

The company makes a difference. The surroundings make a difference. The service makes a difference. And the mood and expectations of the diner in that particular moment make a difference.

It’s impossible for two people to have the exact same reaction to a particular dish or plate because no two people are the same. Of course I’m going to respond differently to my first ever taste of runny eggs than someone who has dipped their toast in a river of golden yolk every morning for the past ten years. And of course I’m going to attach more significance to a bite that is taken on a particularly memorable occasion than one taken when I’m grouchy and anxious to get home to watch “White Collar” on Hulu.

Different circumstances, different personalities, different tastes and different backgrounds are the reason that so many food blogs can successfully coexist. I can read twenty reviews of LudoBites at Royal/T because I know that each review is going to bring a unique perspective to the table. One diner loves the squid with chorizo oil, another finds it undercooked for his tastes. One diner raves about the hangar steak, another raves about the veal with udon.

It is with this realization that I can confidently go forth and announce the following as my top ten bites of 2009. I don't expect everyone, or even anyone, to agree with my choices, because, as I mentioned, it's my list -- and I'll fill it with as many dishes from Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza as I see fit, gosh darn it!

Or, maybe just the ones that, like my other favorites, I fell in love with at first bite.

Animal’s pork belly with kimchi, peanuts, chili soy, and scallions
Up until I savored the caramelized chunks of pork belly at Animal this past May, I was under the impression that pork belly would be a gelatinous, gag-inducing wad in my mouth. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s meaty chunks of fatty pork shocked me with their tender shreddability, and were elevated even further when paired with the sweet and spicy elements on the plate.


Ricky’s Fish Tacos
I didn’t believe Danny from Kung Food Panda when he insisted that Ricky’s fish tacos are the best in the city. I didn’t believe that I could find gastronomical delight from a stand on a street corner in Silver Lake. And I didn’t believe that one bite of the delicately battered fresh fish taco could stretch my lips into a smile so big that everyone in my vicinity took notice. I’m still smiling today just thinking about it.


LudoBites 2.0 Foie Gras Croque Monsieur
I didn’t like foie gras the first two times I tried it. At all. The texture was unpleasant, the aftertaste harsh and vicious on my tongue, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how many wasted calories I was ingesting. But then came a foie gras tart, and then… the foie gras croque monsieur during my third visit to LudoBites at BreadBar. My roommate said it was “like Christmas in [his] mouth.” I couldn’t agree more.


Sam Woo’s Roasted Duck
Our waitress hated me, I was tired and dirty from a 10-mile hike to the Bridge to Nowhere, and I was not in the mood for Chinese food. But then I took a bite of the restaurant’s succulently tender, crisp-skinned roasted duck, and suddenly all was well with the world again.


Huckleberry’s Green Eggs and Ham
“I’m going to get salmonella poisoning.” I thought when I tore my fork through my first runny yolk at the Westside’s favorite brunch spot. I was appalled by the streak of yellow saturating the homemade English muffin on my plate, and had to check with my friend Ashley multiple times to confirm that it was okay to eat. It was. So okay that I’ve gone back for the dish three more times since. Turns out, I love runny yolks.


Osteria Mozza’s Stracciatella w/ Celery and Herb Salad
No “Diana Takes a Bite” top ten list would be complete without the inclusion of something fresh from the hands of my chef idol, Ms. Nancy Silverton. So fresh, in fact, that I only just enjoyed this dish last night. It sealed my 2009 Mozza memories with an appropriate kiss. The lightness of the salad was the perfect foil for the decadent buffalo mozzarella cheese. When our server saw Anna and my bare plates, he joked, “Disgusting, huh?” Disgustingly good.


Cafe R+D’s Chopped Chinese Chicken Salad
Even now, I hesitate to admit that one of my favorite bites of the year was a $17 salad from a chain restaurant. At a mall. In Orange County. But just looking at the picture sets my tongue awash with longing for the addicting combination of pliant noodles, crunchy nuts and vegetables, tender chunks of chicken, and sweet mango. I don’t care how much it costs my reputation and wallet – I love this salad.


Pizzeria Mozza’s Bianca pizza w/ the addition of fennel sausage
I tried to delete the image from my head and pick another pizza instead – perhaps the now-closed Riva’s patate simplice with fontina cheese, yukon gold potatoes, rosemary and sea salt, or Marche Moderne’s Alsatian Tart Flambee. I tried to forget about the chewy yet crisp crust, the lush application of fontina and mozzarella cheese, and the arresting kick from the pleasantly greasy sausage. I tried and I failed. Pizza this well-executed can’t be forgotten.


Gjelina’s Crispy Fingerling Potatoes w/ Truffle Oil, Herbs and Parmesan
My mom loves potatoes so much that in college her friends nicknamed her “Spud.” If all potatoes tasted like Gjelina’s crispy fingerlings, I might end up with that nickname too.


Canele’s French Toast w/ Fig Compote and Marscapone
Simply put -- it’s the best damn French toast I’ve ever eaten. So good, in fact, that I’m willing to put my dainty Christian sensibility aside and use the word “damn” to describe it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My favorite recipes of 2009 and the one New Year's resolution I actually kept

I wasn’t planning on having any concrete resolutions for 2009. In general, I find them to be either contrived or overambitious – it seems that everyone either wants to lose 10 pounds or do something absurd like run twelve marathons and find the meaning of life on a steamboat in the Congo.

As much as I enjoy absurdities (when they are happening to someone else), I don’t subscribe to unrealistic expectations or the belief that a new year requires me to make great changes to my life. Why should a silly number make me want to suddenly give up refined sugar, alcohol and “The Hills?” Because years are passing me by? The clock is ticking? I’m one day closer to 30?

But then everybody started buzzing about this whole 101 goals in 1001 days thing, whereby, as the title suggests, the resolving person makes a list of 101 goals they want to complete in 1001 days. The point of the ordeal (and it is an ordeal) is to allow more time to accomplish the unrealistic and absurd goals, as well as to allow for the inclusion of more mundane ones, like finding a pair of boots that don’t make one’s ankles look fat. (I’m still looking.)

So I decided to do it.

Well, sort of do it.

By “do it,” I really mean come up with 23 goals and then give up because I’m a Gen Y-er and have no attention span.

While most of my goals like “Join the Daring Baker’s” and “Take a rock-climbing class” were quickly shunned and forgotten; and others, like “Publish another article” and “Vacation with my college friends” were pushed toward the later end of the 1001 days; my goal to try at least two new recipes a month was one that I actually felt compelled to complete.

Not only was I sick to death of my standby dinners -- chicken marsala , veggie stir-fry and grilled cheese – but I felt like if I attempted this one thing, I could justify ignoring everything else on my list. Especially the one requiring me to say “yes” to an invite even when I want to say “no” just for the sake of being social.

Seriously, who wants to be social when there are such things as cable and sweatpants and central air?

So I set about to make as many new recipes as my sanity and food budget would allow. And, I, for the most part (I lost track around April), stuck with my 101 goal to try at least two new ones a month. While many of the recipes did involve ingredients I was already comfortable with (ahem, quinoa), others challenged me to take on less familiar food products like butternut squash, tempeh and persimmons.

Not everything I made was a success this year (eggs continue to be a problem area), but at the very least, I feel that I succeeded in growing as a cook, chef or whatever title is appropriate for what I do when I’m alone in the kitchen with knives. Overall, it was a fun year, and as I look back over my favorite recipes of 2009 – the recipes I found myself craving again and again – I can’t wait to continue with my goal in 2010.




Orzo Soup


Monday, December 28, 2009

13.1 Marathon: A reflection on wellness -- and chocolate cake

In my mind, I was already there – the cool morning air arresting my lungs, the anticipation thumping through my heart and anxious legs, and my head dizzy with last minute concerns.

“Did I drink enough water?” “Did I drink too much water?” “Do I have time to go to the bathroom again?”

My breath would quicken with each frantic thought, my beating pulse seemingly typing out a secret internal code to warn my body of what was about to happen to it.

13.1 miles.

13.1 miles.

13.1 miles.

The gun would fire, bursting through the adrenaline-saturated air at the start line, and I’d be off down the Venice boardwalk, pushed forward by instinct and muscle memory.

I had big plans for the inaugural Los Angeles 13.1 Marathon to take place Sunday, January 10th in Santa Monica/Venice/Culver City. It would be a way to recapture health and “wellness” after a season that has made it far too easy for me to justify the consumption of eggnog cupcakes and fudge nut bars. It would be symbolic of my commitment to taking care of my body – feeding my legs and heart and lungs first, and my stomach second.

And, to be perfectly honest with myself, a way to feel less guilty about taking an extra helping of my mom’s chocolate chip bundt cake on Christmas Day. With vanilla ice cream.

“I ran 10 miles yesterday,” I’d say. “These capable thighs are impenetrable to the fat grams on my plate!”

It was with this mindset that I decided to break my no-racing-ever-again streak for the second time since I retired my racing flats in college. At approximately 9 pm on Tuesday, November 24th, I told my mom that I was going to register for the 13.1 Marathon.

The following morning, my left knee started hurting.

I spent the next three weeks on the stationary bike at the gym – cursing the body that had failed me. My brief flirtations with running were short and painful – I was not the visage of a gliding gazelle moving swiftly through 8-mile runs. Instead, I was a hobbling hot mess, barely making it through 4-5 miles.

The pain finally abated this past week (just in time for my mom’s cake), but with less than two weeks before the gun goes off, it’s too late for me to get in proper racing shape. I’m a glutton for punishment (when I’m not a glutton for chocolate), but even I know that pushing myself to run 13.1 miles when I’m only just getting back to 6-milers is not healthy for me or my body.

Despite my frustrations, this past month showed me that “wellness” doesn’t necessarily need to come from races, punishingly long runs or stuffing my face with as much quinoa as humanly possible (though I do find that very enjoyable). Wellness comes from listening to my body – even when it tells me, “One slice of a cake is enough” or “Don’t push yourself too hard at the gym today.”

I just prefer when it tells me what I want to hear – specifically, that I am a healthy gazelle running swiftly along the Venice boardwalk on January 10th, who is deserving of as much chocolate as she wishes.

More information on registration and the course for both the 13.1 Marathon and 5K race on January 10th can be found here. Wellness sold separately.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas 2009: Over in the non-flash setting of a Sony cyber-shot camera...

Long after the final present has been opened,

the baby has fallen asleep in her mother's arms,

the final plate has been cleared,

and the wine is all gone,

the memory of Christmas 2009 will live on through a visual diary taken with a brand new Sony cyber-shot digital still camera.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tradition


Meat for Beef Fondue


Steamed Lemon Artichoke

Twice Baked Potatoes


Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake

May your Christmas be as FULL-filling as mine! :)

And may your humor be less cringe-worthy.

Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake
From Junior League Celebration Cookbook

Flour for dusting
1 package chocolate cake mix (we use Devil's Food)
1 four ounce package instant chocolate pudding mix
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup warm water
4 large eggs

Preheat over to 350. Coat a bundt pan with vegetable oil cooking spray - dust with flour.

Combine the cake mix and instant pudding mix in a large bowl. Add the chocolate chips, sour cream, oil, water, and eggs, mixing until well blended. Pour into the pan. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Cool completely before removing from the pan. Serve with vanilla ice cream and raspberry puree.

Raspberry Puree
1 bag frozen raspberries, defrosted
1 tsp. cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold water
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Puree the raspberries. Place in saucepan. Mix the cornstarch with the water. Stir into the puree. Cook over low heat until thickened slightly. Add the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons raspberry liquor, if desired. Serve hot.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Roasted butternut squash salad mash-up

This fall one of my favorite episodes of Fox’s high school musical dramedy “Glee” was the “Mash-up.” During the episode, glee instructor Will helps Emma, the school’s guidance counselor, create a mash-up of “The Thong Song” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” for her wedding to football coach Ken. Emma rightly wants the later to be their wedding song, and Ken… well, he wants to get jiggy on the dance floor to Sisqo. Note for the uninformed: We don’t like Ken and Emma together. And neither does Emma. Or Will, for that matter. Because Emma belongs with Will, and Will belongs with Emma – even if she is a neurotic germaphobe who carries antibacterial wipes in her purse.

Did I mention I love Emma?

Anyway, so Will is doing his darndest to make “The Thong Song” and “I Could Have Dance All Night” work, because, even though he doesn’t quite realize it yet, he is gaga for Emma and her antibacterial wipes. Only problem? The two songs are not meant to be mashed-up – just like (metaphor alert!) Emma and Ken are not meant to be mashed-up together in holy matrimony. Or in any situation, really. (Sweaty football uniforms do not pair well with fine knits.)

Unlike Emma and Ken (and their favorite songs), this recipe that mashes-up Ina Garten’s roasted butternut squash salad with warm cider vinaigrette and True Food Kitchen’s harvest chopped salad with butternut squash, apples, walnuts, goat cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette does work. Especially since I made the executive decision to add quinoa to the mix.

Did I mention I love quinoa? And this recipe, which may just be my favorite mash-up of the year.

Roasted Butternut Squash Salad Mash-up
Adapted from Ina Garten
Serves 2 entree servings or 4 side servings

½ butternut squash, peeled, diced into ½ inch cubes
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
1 small pink lady or honey crisp apple, cut into slivers (if using larger apple, use only half)
½ cup quinoa, cooked according to package instructions
¼ cup chopped walnuts, toasted
2 cups arugula
2 shallots, thinly sliced
Goat cheese
1 tablespoon maple syrup

Apple Cider Vinaigrette
½ cup apple juice or cider
1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 ½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons shallots, finely minced
Salt, pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375. Toss cubed butternut squash with 1 tablespoon maple syrup and salt and pepper. Roast with sliced shallots for approximately 20 minutes or until tender. Add walnuts to the pan for the last five minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare dressing. Combine apple juice, cider vinegar, shallots in small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the cider is reduced. Turn off the heat, whisk in the mustard, salt and pepper. (I omitted olive oil from original recipe because my butt doesn't mash well with excess oil.)

While dressing, squash, shallots and prepared quinoa are still warm, combine with other ingredients – arugula, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, apple slivers. Plate and top with crumbled goat cheese.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fudge Nut Bars: Look mom, no hands!

I stare down at my mother’s stained recipe card for Fudge Nut Bars with panic.

“2 cups light brown sugar,” I read out loud.

But are those 2 cups packed or unpacked? I wonder. And when she says to “mix in eggs and vanilla,” do I use a beater or stir by hand?

I groan in distress. I’ve never made my favorite cookie bar without my mother’s presence in the kitchen to remind me what to do when her hand-typed words on the tattered recipe card fail me. In years past, we’ve always made the bars together. She stands close by my side to tell me, “Yes, the 2 ½ cups of flour is measured after it’s been sifted, not before,” and is always the one to find and grease the right size glass pan.

Today, however, I’m on my own. My mom has errands to run, and I told her that I’d be fine to make them myself.

“I’ll take care of them – no problem!” I’d said with confidence, hindsight having dulled my memory of the effort it takes to construct the fussy Christmas cookies.

I’d forgotten I had to sift the flour. Forgotten that I needed to be simultaneously melting chocolate for the fudge layer whilst I prepared the oat-laden batter. Forgotten if we typically use all the fudge or just part of it. Usually my mom tackles that portion while I take on the cookie crust, and we work in silent tandem – me pressing 2/3rds of the oat layer into the pan while she readies the chocolate for the center.




The process is not nearly as smooth without her. I’m toasting walnuts, sifting flour – and oops, salt and baking soda too! – and making a mess of the previously pristine granite counter tops. It’s not as much fun, and not just because of my paranoia that I’m screwing everything up.

Despite my concerns, my memory doesn’t completely fail me, and I manage to get the cookie bars in and out of the oven without any notable mishap. They taste just as they should – the decadent fudge layer pairing perfectly with the tender oat crust, and I subsequently receive nods of approval from everyone in my family.

Yet, even with their praise, I can’t shake the feeling that something is missing from the bars. Not a little extra sugar or a heavier application of walnuts, but rather the memory of getting to make them with my mom. Especially since she's the one who usually does the dishes.

Fudge Nut Bars

1 cup butter
2 cups light brown sugar (packed)
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
2 ½ cups sifted flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
3 cups quick-rolled oats (I used regular oats with no problem)

Fudge Nut Filling
1 package (12 oz) chocolate chips
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons butter
½ tsp salt
1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
2 tsp vanilla

Cream together softened butter and sugar. Mix in eggs and vanilla with a beater until well-combined. Sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Add to butter/sugar/egg mixture and stir until just combined. Mix in oats. Set aside and make filling.

In double-broiler mix together chocolate chips, condensed milk butter and salt. Stir until smooth. Remove from heat and add walnuts and vanilla.

Spread 2/3rds of oatmeal mixture in greased 15 ½ by 10 ½ pan. Cover with fudge-nut mixture. Dot with remainder of oatmeal mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Bars are done when golden brown on top.