Friday, January 29, 2010

Celadon Thai Kitchen and my terrible, no good, very bad day

“Don’t be mad,” She calls after me as I stalk toward the car, umbrella wrenched in the knotted fist of my right hand.

“I’m not mad,” I insist, sliding into the driver’s seat.

I throw my umbrella into the backseat, slam the door shut and turn to face my friend. “I’m… annoyed.”

She makes an apologetic face. “I’m sorry. I was the one that suggested Thai…”

I brush her off with a dismissive sweep of my hand. “No, I picked the restaurant. I wanted to come here.”

“Don’t think about…” She starts.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if they hadn’t told me to get the soy sauce noodles.” I interrupt. “They practically made me get them! I told them I wanted curry!” I sputter as I aggressively poke at the radio.

Ashley and I have just finished dinner at Celadon Thai Kitchen in Culver City, a new Thai restaurant that I’d been excited to try after the favorable report in the LA Times. I’d gone in with high expectations for the fresh, some-what health-conscious fare – so high that I hadn’t even minded that the nine-table restaurant is located in a strip mall. By a Papa John’s. And doesn’t take reservations. Or have a liquor license (yet).

I’ll save money! I told myself. I don’t always have to have wine – preferably a Sauvignon Blanc or spicy/robust red – when I go out to dinner. I can subsist on water. Water and delicious soul-comforting curry that will make me forget about the $50 parking ticket I got this morning.

I was convinced it would be great – fabulous even! The perfect way to turn around what had been a terrible, no good, very bad day.

And it was. Until it came time to order.

“How is the red curry?” I’d asked hopefully, looking to our server for reinforcement that the dish I wanted was, in fact, the dish I wanted. I needed his approval before I committed -- the smile that said, “Girl, you have zeroed in on the best item on the menu! Well done, you!”

Instead, our server surveyed me for a moment before responding, “It’s… spicy.”

My shoulders slumped back. “Oh.”

He pointed out the chicken curry to me – a yellow curry with carrots and potatoes, hardly the feast of brightly colored vegetables I was craving. He also graced me with an enthusiastic smile when I inquired about the soy sauce noodles -- flat rice noodles with broccoli and egg and my choice of protein ($7.95). It was the smile I’d wanted to accompany my mention of the red curry, not the gentrified pad see ewe dish.

“I think we need a minute,” Ashley said, coming to my rescue like she always does when she isn’t busy trying to get me to drink hard alcohol or take shots at a mutual friend’s wedding in New York.

A few minutes later a different server returned to our table for our order. Like the smiling chap that proceeded her, she shooed me away from my coveted curry with sweet basil, kabocha squash, red and green peppers ($7.95).

“You order the panang curry,” She told Ashley, upon hearing that my friend likes things spicy. “And you order the soy sauce noodles.”

“Okay.” I said finally, regretting the words as soon as they came trudging out of my mouth.
But I pressed on with my capricious optimism. I ate my half of the Celadon summer rolls, rice paper wrapped around mixed greens, tofu, sweet basil, and rice noodles ($5.95), and pretended not to notice that the accompanying mustard was the best part.

And I tried to pretend not to mind when my entrée -- a mass of limp noodles – arrived at the table looking decidedly underwhelming. Ultimately it proved to be too hard a task for me on that day – that terrible, no good, very bad day.
My head swelled with anger as I funneled the bland plate of picky white girl food into my mouth. The restrained amount of chicken and broccoli did nothing to assuage my disappointment that would only worsen when I tasted Ashley’s panang curry with tofu. The lush coconut-brown curry sauce enrobed my flavor-parched tongue with its bright spicy notes, mocking me with its pungency. It was the dish I had wanted – the dish I’d been craving. The dish that could have turned my terrible, no good, very bad day around.

“I should have gone with my gut.” I tell Ashley when we arrive outside her apartment later that night.

She nods, not knowing what to say. Knowing, perhaps, that there’s nothing that can be said or done to stall my bad mood.

Nothing except the salve for many of my emotional wounds: A bowl of Soy Creamy Cherry Chip ice cream.

After a pit stop at Trader Joe’s and a ten-minute interlude spent searching for the key I drop on the wet strip of street by my apartment, I finally eat (some) of my bad feelings away.

Some, but not all of them.

When I go to bed, I’m not cursing the parking attendant who leapt upon my poor defenseless car that morning; I’m cursing the blandest dish I’ve ever encountered at a Thai restaurant. And cursing myself for not getting the darn red curry that I wanted.

Celadon Thai Kitchen
13364 West Washington Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90066-5108

(310) 823-8100

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Split Pea and Green Pea Soup with Fresh Dill: The recipe that made me buy the book

I study the shiny green cover with an attentive eye – scrutinizing it like it’s a piece of chocolate I’m about to devour.

Is it worth it? I wonder. Worth the $27 and wait in the 10-person long line?

I flip through the pages again – trying to gauge whether I will actually make any of the “1,100 quick dishes for everynight cooking” in bon appétit’s fast easy fresh cookbook. I think back to Mark Bittman’s epic How to Cook Everything that a former roommate bequeathed to me nearly a year ago. At the time, I was ecstatic – Mark Bittman! – and had eagerly accepted the 960 page volume from her outstretched hands.

Of course I would use the cookbook all the time! I assured her. He’s one of my epicurean heroes – and he’s a runner! I’d forever be consulting the book for soups and polenta and that pizza I’m going to make from scratch. Some day.

Nine months later, I’ve yet to crack the cover.

I sigh. Do I really need the bon appétit cookbook? I know I can find most, if not all, the recipes on line. Plus, there aren’t nearly enough pictures.

I need pictures.

How else will I know if a recipe is going to taste good? It’s how I decide which dishes to click on TasteSpotting!

I start to put it down. I need to be practical. To not make impulse purchases that I don’t really need and probably won’t even use. I’m halfway to the exit when I remember the worn, stained, barely legible cookbooks that line the shelves in my parents’ kitchen. I think of the handwritten notes next to my mom’s favorite recipes – “More pepper” on one, “Double the sauce” on another, “Diana likes!” next to the one dish I actually ate when I was an impossibly picky child.

I want that – the torn, worn and tattered cookbooks that my future children will make fun of.

I turn through the pages again. I’d make Wisconsin mac & cheese, I’d make celery root risotto and pesto, and I know I’d make the split pea and green pea soup with fresh dill. It’s the last recipe that seals the deal – it makes me want to go straight to Whole Foods so I can cook it now.

Instead, I head straight for the now twelve person-long line, no longer fettered with indecision.

Two weeks later, after the holiday rush has ended and I’m no longer subsisting on a mostly cookie diet, I make the soup that convinced me to buy the bright green cookbook. It’s just as good as I’d hope it would be when I was hemming and hawing at Borders. I scrape up every dill-infused bite and then make my first note in the book.

“Diana likes.”

Split Pea and Green Pea Soup with Fresh Dill

Recipe from bon appétit’s fast easy fresh cookbook
Serves 2

1 small leek (white and pale green parts only), chopped (about ¾ cup)
1 small bay leaf
1/2 cup green split peas, rinsed
2 1/2 cups vegetable broth, divided
½ cup frozen green peas, thawed
2 ½ tablespoons chopped fresh dill, divided
Olive oil
Salt, pepper to tast

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add leek and bay leaf. Sauté until leek wilts, about 3 minutes. Add split peas and stir to coat. Add 2 1/4 cups broth; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until split peas are just tender, about 35 minutes. Remove from heat. Transfer 1/2 cup soup solids, bay leaf, and remaining 1/4 cup broth to blender. Add peas and 2 tablespoons dill. Puree until smooth. Return puree to soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with remaining dill.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Little M has me rethinking my brown-bag lunch policy

Like most perfectionist type-A personalities, I often live my life according to a list of mostly nonsensical self-generated rules. I don’t eat lunch before 1 pm or dinner before 7 pm (unless forced). I don’t drink beer or hard alcohol (unless forced). And I generally don’t eat lunch out or order lunch in (unless forced or my significant mother is treating).

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the mid-day break from whatever work or errands I’m doing. There is something to be said for taking a time out from responsibility to breathe and enjoy a $3 glass of iced tea and overpriced mixed greens salad with apples, gorgonzola cheese and candied walnuts. It’s a luxury that every girl deserves on occasion lest she start feeling like a lesser person because she brown bags it every single day while her acquaintances and colleagues debate the merits of getting take-out from the gourmet cafe down the block or running over for a slice at the vegan-friendly pizza joint across the street.

Then again, most of the time, that girl (who looks and talks a lot like me) never feels like a lesser person because she shuns the salad bar offerings from Mrs. Winston’s Green Grocery. Shocking as it may seem, I actually like brown bagging it, and genuinely look forward to my turkey sandwich with hummus and cucumbers on whole wheat bread and Ziplock bag of baby carrots. It’s healthier, more economical and often tastes better than what I could purchase out.

As such, I would be perfectly content to continue on my path of self-made lunches like quinoa salad and split pea soup were it not for two popular lunching restaurants that I actually deem worthy of the take-out and/or eat-in: Joan’s on Third and M Café de Chaya.

I’ll never forget the first time I ordered take-out from M Café de Chaya, the trendy macrobiotic eatery with locations in West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Culver City. It was a revelatory meal that made me reconsider my mid-day thriftiness. I wanted to drink their refreshing iced green tea and eat their kale salad with peanut sauce, scarlet quinoa, Gado Gado salad, M Chopped, and Madras tempeh wrap every day for the rest of my life. My turkey sandwiches paled in comparison to the thoughtfully prepared, health-conscious cuisine, and I thanked God that none of the locations were close enough to my Santa Monica office to make it a weekday habit.
Recently, however, the Beverly Hills location was reincarnated as “Little M,” with a new menu specifically designed for the health-conscious folk who need to grab their food and go as quickly as possible so they can carry on with very important activities like finding the perfect pair of Christian Louboutin shoes at Sak’s. Or, alternatively, get back to that work stuff that some people do between the hours of 9 and 5. (When they aren’t being distracted by Twitter.)

Not only does the refurbished/condensed menu feature my standby favorites at lower price points – the aforementioned tempeh wrap ($9.75 instead of $10.75) and Gado Gado salad ($10 instead of $11.45), it also contains other tempting offerings like a dilled tofu salad sandwich ($8.25), a wild salmon salad baguette ($9.75), and the piece de resistance, sweet potato fries ($3.50). The innards for the wrap, salmon and tofu salad sandwiches are also available to purchase sans the carbohydrate shell, which would probably be pleasing to those (not me) who shun bread-like products.

When I received an invitation to experience everything Little M has to offer its more harried patrons, I eagerly accepted. It’s not often that I get a free lunch – especially a free lunch that I actually want to eat (and, incidentally, do eat even when it’s not free). Plus, I was really excited to try the chili, sea salt and lime speckled sweet potato fries (I had a soft spot in and around my belly for sweet potato fries during my “fatter” college years).
On the surface Little M is exactly what it portends to be – a littler version of the bigger M Café de Chaya locales in West Hollywood and Culver City. Underneath, however, it is packing just as much heat as its older sisters. Flavor and quality have not been sacrificed in the management’s efforts to make the M Café experience more efficient and affordable. My tempeh wrap and peanut kale were just as good as they are when I pay a dollar more for them, and the sweet potato fries (fried in rice oil) were just as addicting as I predicted them to be. While I wasn’t particularly fond of the dilled tofu sandwich (the tofu needed further flavor enhancement), I loved the sample of the deli lentils, and found the desserts from the Mmmm Café Patisserie case to be more agreeable than expected.

I normally subscribe to a policy of eating as much refined sugars/fat/dairy as possible in my sweets, so have never been inclined to try the restaurant’s egg-free, dairy-free, refined sugar-free offerings before. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the chocolate truffle ($2) still tasted like a chocolate truffle even without the dairy, and that the strawberry cupcake, while reminiscent of a muffin with whipped strawberry topping, was a decent healthy reincarnation of the trendy treat. Even the chocolate pudding captured my heart – a hearty feat considering that I ceremoniously dropped my brand new digital camera into it when taking a picture. (The camera has yet to make a full recovery).

Little M has subsequently put a kink in my brown-bag only lunch policy. Considering that the outlet is only a 13-15 minute drive without traffic (according to Google) from my office, and I can order my tempeh wrap and kale or Gado Gado salad on-line prior to my arrival, the Beverly Hills location is now a viable option for me. I can easily get out to the 90210 and back to 90405 within my one hour lunch period. Most importantly, I can do so without (completely) breaking the bank. Especially if I stick to just an order of the sweet potato fries with soy-based yuzu dipping sauce…

Little M
9433 Brighton Way
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Telephone: 310.858.8459
Fax: 310.858.8942

Monday thru Saturday
8:00 am - 7:30 pm

10:00 am - 7:00 pm

Monday, January 25, 2010

Carrot Cake Oatmeal: A new morning ritual

There’s an early episode of “Saved by the Bell” – the not nearly as amusing junior high version – where teacher Miss Bliss opens up her home to fellow teacher Tina, who has recently broken up with her boyfriend. Tina soon begins driving Miss Bliss crazy (as is often the case when sharing space with an obnoxious person), particularly when she uses the bran muffin Miss Bliss was planning to eat for breakfast to make her a healthy smoothie. It’s the final straw for the typically patient Miss Bliss, and a moment that I can completely identify with.

There is no meal (aside from maybe dinner at Pizzeria Mozza) that I consider more sacred than breakfast. Everyday I look forward to savoring my morning bowl of peanut butter oatmeal or, on occasion, Kashi Cinnamon Good Friends with banana, as I read the print version of the LA Times and sip a cup of green strawberry tea. It’s a special time for me -- the calm before the storm of the day when I gather my thoughts and take a moment to breathe.

The peanut butter oatmeal is an integral part of that ritual, and as such, I have gotten to a point where I can’t imagine eating my oatmeal any other way. It’s peanut butter with dried cranberries and green apple or nothing. If anyone dared use the last of my peanut butter or munch on my dried crans, my wrath would know no bounds.

Or at least that’s what I thought until this weekend.

It all started because I had a $3.99 container of leftover mascarpone cheese in the fridge I’d used in a special pasta dish earlier in the week. I hate wasting anything – even the tough green stems of a leek, and felt impossibly guilty that such a fine cheese product would go to waste. I remembered the pumpkin puree I had in my freezer and thought I might be able to do pumpkin oatmeal with mascarpone cheese topping. A quick Google search brought me to a recipe for carrot cake oatmeal with mascarpone instead, and as soon as I read the ingredients, the frozen pumpkin puree was out of the game.

This Saturday morning, as the sun inched its way free from the grey clouds that had held it hostage the past week, I followed the recipe for someone else’s breakfast (making my own adaptations along the way). I nervously exchanged my dried cranberries for seedless raisins, I snubbed the pb for toasted walnuts, and I ignored the green apple in my fridge in favor of shredded carrots and banana. Topped with a spoonful of mascarpone/Greek yogurt, it was one of the best bowls of oatmeal I’ve ever eaten.

As I eagerly spooned the cookie-esque bowl of warm cereal into my mouth, I couldn’t concentrate on the headlines in the paper. I could barely pause long enough to sip from my cup of hot tea. My sacred pb oatmeal and paper ritual hadn’t just been broken, it had been shattered.

Today, as I pulled myself from the tangle of pink sheets on my bed, I wasn’t looking forward to my habitual bowl of oats, I was looking forward to the carrot cake version. Sacred or not, I think it has already become a new ritual that will occasionally make its way into my morning routine. Just as long as no one blends my carrots into a smoothie.

Carrot Cake Oatmeal with Mascarpone Frosting
Adapted from Live Well 360
Serves 1 hearty breakfast eater

½ cup rolled oats
¼ cup carrot, grated
1 extra-small banana, sliced into thin pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
½ tablespoon wheat germ
1 tablespoon fat-free Greek yogurt
½ tablespoon mascarpone
2 tablespoons walnut pieces, toasted
1 heaping tablespoon raisins
Pinch of salt
½ cup water
¼ cup skim milk

In a small sauce size pan, bring ½ cup water to boil. Add the grated carrot, oats, water, and salt, reduce heat and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Stir in the milk, sliced banana, nutmeg, cinnamon, and raisins. Continue to stir, almost whipping, until the banana breaks down and the mixture thickens and becomes creamy, about another 3-4 minutes.

In a separate small-size bowl, add the Greek yogurt, ¼ teaspoon sugar, and ¼ teaspoon vanilla and whisk together with a fork. Set aside.

Add ¾ teaspoon of vanilla extract, wheat germ, and brown sugar to the oatmeal and stir until incorporated. Pour into a serving bowl and top with the cream cheese mixture and the walnuts.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Tuna salad traditions at my favorite LA haunt, Joan's on Third

“Where would you be the mayor of?” Josh of Food GPS asks me during our carbo-loading dinner at Border Grill. We are discussing Foursquare, the mobile application that allows users to tell their friends where they are at any given moment. Frequent patrons of a certain location can earn “virtual badges” and become the “mayor” of that location if they visit it more often than other Foursquare users.

[Translation: It’s the ideal application for dorky social networkers who feel compelled to tell everyone what they are doing at every single moment of the day. (Including when they are showering, brushing their teeth or eating a burrito.)]

I contemplate Josh’s hypothetical question for a moment (I don’t subscribe to the app or to such overt dorkiness), before giving my snarky answer.

Anthropologie.” I joke.

He smiles politely – not sure if I’m kidding. (Though, to be fair, I’m not sure if I’m kidding either.)

I snatch up tortilla chip from the basket on the table and give more thoughtful consideration to the question. Where do I go the most? And then it hits me.

“Actually, probably Joan’s on Third.” I say with conviction.

This time Josh’s smile is genuine – anyone would be happy to be the mayor of Joan’s on Third, the casual open-air café and gourmet marketplace in West Hollywood that is actually worthy of the long lines and crowds congregating in and outside the restaurant. With its pristine white surfaces, hint of epicurean haughtiness and pleasantly chaotic atmosphere, it’s the type of place that seems more suited for Soho in New York than the often tragically trendy Los Angeles.

Which, of course, makes it all the more appealing to its (mostly) posh patrons.

What Josh doesn’t know is that even though I’ve been to Joan’s on Third more times than I can count on my fingers and pedicured toes, I’ve only eaten there once – for a brief nosh session with one of the café’s signature lemon bars. On every other occasion I’ve been dashing in and out with an order for my work superiors or, now that I’m no longer working as an entertainment industry pion, a container of their tuna salad for my lunch.

I imagine that the cafe’s staff recognizes me by now. They probably silently exchange glances when I walk through the swinging glass doors, my pace quick and purposeful as I make a bee-line for the to-go counter.

“It’s the girl who always orders a third of a pound of tuna salad with a side of pickles.” I envision them whispering to one another. “Is that all she eats? Does she sit in her apartment alone, eating the tuna with a fork while she watches ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and pines for Patrick Dempsey?”

I often want to tell them, “I’m not a cat lady! It’s for a sandwich! I’m using it for my sandwich tomorrow! With bread!”

I don’t though. I order it with a sheepish smile, briefly contemplate adding on one of their caramel marshmallows or $1 chocolate dream cookies, and then am on my way as soon as they call my name and hand over that familiar white bag.

It wasn’t until this Monday that I finally broke my sad sack tuna salad to-go tradition. After a particularly harrowing Bar Method class at the studio down the street, Sook of Yutjangsah and I trampled through the rain to have a real sit-down ladies’ lunch at Joan’s on Third. Never mind that we were sporting workout clothes and soggy tennis shoes – nothing could defer us from our mission: Me, to finally eat at the place I would be mayor of, and Sook, to finally try the restaurant that I can’t stop gushing about.

While it would seem likely that I would want to order something different than the tuna salad I collect from the café on nearly a weekly basis, the lure of the popular tuna melt is too great for me to handle. The sandwich with aged Vermont cheddar and tomato on a French baguette ($10.50) sounds like the perfect remedy for the grey skies dampening the cityscape outside – especially with a shared pint of the soup of the day, garden vegetable.

The hearty soup is practically stew-like with its meaty pieces of mushrooms, carrots, celery, onions, and tomatoes. I could easily make a meal of the entire pint with the accompanying pieces of freshly baked baguette. As it is, splitting it with Sook affords me only enough room to savor half of my generously sized tuna melt that more than does my signature order justice. The warm crusty baguette and subtle bite of melted cheese makes a mockery of the cold tuna sandwich I make with slices of Milton’s Whole Wheat bread. Sook is equally impressed with her turkey club and its generous slices of thick-cut bacon ($10.95).

Sook and I finish our "ladies who lunch in wet sneakers" with magic bars – a half shortbread/half brownie concoction that is topped with caramel, pecans and chocolate chips ($1.95). It’s a triumphant cap on our lunch of firsts, and as we parade out the door, leftovers in hand, it’s hard for me to remember why I don’t dine in more often.

As it is, I’ll probably continue with my tuna salad to-go traditions – a less indulgent way to enjoy my favorite Los Angeles locale. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I start up a vegetable soup for-the-road tradition or, when the spirit moves me, another post-Bar Method lunch with my sneaker-wearing friend.

Joan’s on Third
8350 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 655-2285

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The time is now for spaghetti with mascarpone, meyer lemon, spinach, and hazelnuts

“Just spotted this pasta dish on the Kitchn - I want I want!” Read the e-mail I sent to Esi from Dishing Up Delights on February 18th, 2009. I subsequently printed out the recipe for spaghetti with mascarpone meyer lemon spinach and hazelnuts with bold intentions to make it “soon,” and then, like most recipes I bookmark or print for later use, promptly buried it in the back corner of my mind.

I didn’t forget about the pasta dish completely, as I did still “want” it, but somehow it got lost in the shuffle of life. I was about to become an aunt, I was looking for a new roommate to move into my two bedroom apartment, and I was getting ready to give up chocolate for Lent.

Which of course meant that I was about to lose my mind. (And apparently my capacity for making new pasta dishes.)

By the time I regained consciousness from that tumultuous period of time meyer lemons, a key ingredient in the recipe, had gone out of season, and winter had rolled away. It was spring and I was craving lighter dishes – stir fries and quinoa, rather than a hearty cheesy pasta dinner that did not bode well for my ability to fit into my summer wardrobe.

The timing for the spaghetti was all wrong – the recipe and I were in different places, and I wasn’t ready to take it to the stove. I was waiting for the right moment to break the seal on that container of lush mascarpone cheese. The weather would have to be cold and depressing – giving my license to eat my feelings via comfort food. I would have to be willing to give the quinoa a rest, and, most importantly, I would need a reason to splurge on a $9 jar of nutmeg (though I’m sure I could have found cheaper bottle if I’d looked harder).

My move into a one bedroom apartment this past weekend presented the perfect opportunity for such a splurge. The stormy weather lambasting LA on Sunday night only further established the case for me to eat my way through a plate of cheese-coated strands of spaghetti. I was finally ready to make the pasta I had wanted so badly last winter.

I made a few adjustments to the original version – adding parmesan, slivers of zucchini and chicken that I sautéed with white wine and garlic, and amping up the proportion of meyer lemon juice/zest and nutmeg to mascarpone cheese – with fantastic results. Despite the seemingly liberal amount of cheese and the creamy nature of the sauce, the dish was surprising light – a bright note on a rainy day and a nice change to traditional preparations of spaghetti.

I won’t be waiting for a good reason to make this dish again. The only reason I need is the reason I always eat something at approximately 7:30-8 pm – it’s dinner time.

Spaghetti with Chicken, Mascarpone, Meyer Lemon, Spinach, Zucchini, and Hazelnuts
Adapted from the Kitchn
Serves 1 as a main course

1 teaspoon Meyer lemon zest (from about 1/2 lemon)
3 tablespoons juice from a Meyer lemon
2 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon finely grated parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
a few grinds of fresh pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (original recipe calls for freshly ground)
1-2 ounces whole wheat spaghetti
2 cups (loosely packed) fresh spinach, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons chopped, toasted hazelnuts
4 ounces chicken breast, thinly sliced
1 small zucchini cut into slivers
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon white wine

Combine the zest, lemon juice, mascarpone, parmesan, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in a bowl. Whisk to combine.

Bring a pot of water to boil and salt generously. Cook the pasta according to package instructions.

Meanwhile sauté chicken breast with one tablespoon white wine and minced garlic. Season with pepper. When chicken is cooked through, add the zucchini. Cook together over medium low heat, then add the pasta and spinach. Set over low heat, add the mascarpone sauce and stir until well-combined and spinach is wilted. Top with the toasted hazelnuts and serve immediately.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Food Trucks for Haiti

If I were a different person – the type who would find a mass congregation of food trucks serving eclectic cuisine exciting – I would plan my entire day around the Food Trucks for Haiti event to take place this Saturday, January 23rd from 11 am to 4 pm at the TLofts in West Los Angeles.

As it is, I still might.

But not because I’ve suddenly changed my personality or anything. I still don’t like eating my lunch on a curb, I still prefer using utensils rather than my fingers, and I still favor light salads and sandwiches to short rib tacos and paneer frankies, but… a good cause is a good cause.

Plus, rumor on the street is that Dainty Cakes will be making an appearance…

Cupcakes on the curb for charity?

This I can do.

Hope you can too.

Food Trucks for Haiti
Saturday, January 23, 2010
11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

11500 Tennessee Avenue (Olympic and Butler)
Los Angeles, CA 90064

*Participating trucks include: India Jones Chow Truck, The Grilled Cheese Truck, Nom Nom, Don Chow Tacos, Buttermilk Truck, Asian Soul Kitchen, Slice Truck, Fishlips Sushi, Get Shaved, Dosa Truck, Barbie's Q, South Philly Experience, Vesuvio, LA FuXion, Calbi BBQ, King Kone, The Sweets Truck, Del’s Frozen Lemonade, Dainty Cakes LA, Flying Pig…

*All of the participating trucks are giving a portion of the day’s proceeds to the Red Cross with TLofts, CityView and the principals of Lee Homes also pledging financial assistance. Red Cross representatives will be on hand to accept donations as well.

My first meal in my first one-bedroom apartment

“I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t come back until the 21st,” She says, her voice not sounding very sorry at all.

“But… but…I’m moving in tomorrow!” I sputter, my voice weakening with every breath. “I need to be able to use my stove!”

The woman at the Gas Company sighs, clearly not moved by my emotional plea. “We are very busy this week, and that’s the soonest I can fit you in the schedule. The door was locked when the technician came this morning.”

I start to protest again – to tell her that it wasn’t my fault – that someone locked the door after my management company opened it, but the phone goes dead. I look down at the barless screen on my cell phone and scream in frustration.

And then promptly burst into tears.

This is a disaster, I think. I’m about to move into an apartment that doesn’t have cell reception, doesn’t have a shower rod in the bathroom and won’t have a functioning stove for six days!

Despite my desire to promptly abandon ship and my moving plans, I finish signing the lease with my manager, take the keys and then sadly walk out to my car.

This is not how it was supposed to go.

I’d had a vision of that first weekend in my first one bedroom apartment. I would make oatmeal for breakfast – no longer worrying that the smell of cinnamon and apples and peanut butter might offend my sleeping roommates. I would take over all the space in the refrigerator with as much fresh produce as I desired, without needing to cram it in the corner to make room for someone else’s apples. And I would finally make the recipe for the Kitchn’s Spaghetti with Mascarpone, Meyer Lemon, Spinach, and Hazelnuts, feeling free to commander every single burner on the stove and every countertop in the kitchen if I wanted.

The pasta recipe would be the first dinner I’d make in my new apartment – the first of many that I’d whip up in the kitchen that would be mine all mine. I didn’t want my first meal to be takeout. As delicious as it is, there is nothing symbolic about the goat cheese bacon leek pizza from Mozza2Go. Aside, of course, from symbolizing my obsession with all things Mozza.

I call the Gas Company back again, bracing myself for disappointment, but not ready to give up on my vision just yet. After being placed on hold (with music) for almost 20 minutes, I finally get the answer I want to hear.

“Ma’am, we can set it up tomorrow, but understand that it will be an all-day appointment. The technician can come at any time between 7 am and 8 pm.”

“I’ll take it! I’ll take it!” I gush, already picturing myself cooking up a big pot of oatmeal on Sunday morning before church.

“Will you be leaving a key?” The woman asks.

“No, I’ll be there!” I respond – I am not going to take any chances this time.

The next morning, I wake up at 5:45 am to go for a quick jog. I collect some things from my old place, and then drive over to my brand new apartment to wait for the Gas Company.

With the sun just starting to peek through the clouds over West Hollywood, I sit down in my empty apartment with a cold pot of Japanese Berry tea and a bowl of Kashi Cinnamon Raisin Good Friends cereal with banana and skim milk that had partially frozen in my new fridge. Despite the chill in the air and lack of appropriate seating, it is the most satisfying breakfast I’ve had all year. Almost as satisfying as the mascarpone meyer lemon spaghetti I will make on my functioning stove the following night.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pitfire Artisan Pizza: I (highly) recommend it

A few months ago, my friend Ashley called me asking for a casual, yet good restaurant on the Westside, near her mom and her hotel just south of Westwood.

I thought for a minute, debating the various options – sushi, ramen, Mexican -- then piped up with excitement, “How about Pitfire Pizza?”

They went, they ate, they liked, and I patted myself on the back.

A month ago, I received an IM from a co-worker asking me if I knew of an upscale pizza place, again, on the Westside, where she and a friend could order gourmet pies for their girl’s night in.

A smug smile stole across my face – hah, this was an easy one!

“Pitfire Pizza is your best bet.” I typed without hesitation, then sent her a link to the on-line menu with the commandment, “Order the burrata pizza.”

She complied, had a great night with her friend, and I, again, patted myself on the back.

Given my quickness to recommend the artisan pizzeria that also has locations in North Hollywood, Downtown and, come January 23rd, Culver City, one would expect that I must be a frequent patron. I wouldn’t tell people to go some place and order something that I’ve never tried, would I? It would be akin to texting in a vote for a contestant on “American Idol” without ever watching the show. Or nodding in agreement when someone asks, “Don’t you luuuuuve Italy?” when the only stamp in your passport is for Tijuana, Mexico.

It would be crazy.

I would be crazy.

Which I am – just a little bit.


I suppose I should feel guilty about telling my friends to go to restaurant I’ve never been to before, but after attending the soft opening of the new Culver City Pitfire Pizza this past Thursday night (as the restaurant’s guest), my behavior seems completely justified. Some might even call it (and me) perfectly sane for doing so.

Pitfire Artisan Pizza is not just another pizza place on the corner with sticky red vinyl booths, metal napkin receptacles and pitchers of watered down soda. There aren’t Pac-Men machines in the corner, parents attempting to force down slick slices of their kids’ over-cheesed selections, or limp “Caesar” salads composed of browning romaine lettuce and a single from-the-box crouton.

Pitfire’s red wood-burning pizza oven fires up pies topped with nitrate-free pepperoni, fresh mozzarella, inch long pieces of basil, and fresh produce from the Santa Monica farmer’s market. A mushroom pizza is luxuriously coated with Fontina cheese, crème fraiche, mushroom jus, and flat leaf parsley. The aforementioned burrata pie turns sweet caramelized onions, arugula, hazelnuts, and pesto into fast friends.

This attention to detail and commitment to using only the freshest ingredients doesn’t stop at the pizza. The roasted vegetable platter, bursting with seasonal selections from the farmer’s market like cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, is gorge-worthy – particularly when paired with the whipped ricotta (also a revelation when applied to the restaurant’s warm flatbread).

The Pitfire chicken salad with wild arugula, butter lettuce, pickled currants, and pine nuts is similarly impressive. The chicken is sous-vide, then roasted in the oven for color, and the meaty hunks of bread croutons are made in-house. Both the salad and vegetables make a compelling case for me to henceforth suggest the restaurant to my health conscious acquaintances when they are looking for a “light lunch” in the area, as well.
And, when I get a panicked call from a most likely female friend with a desperate craving for a chocolate chip cookie – a thick, chewy one that is loaded with chocolate shavings – I can similarly direct her to Pitfire. The restaurant bakes their supremely satisfying version twice throughout the day for their patrons who aren’t content to end their meal on a savory note.

Finally, for the wino whose face pales at the sight of a pitcher of beer or fountain selections, there is wine. A robust Malbec, a crowd-pleasing Poppy Pinor Noir, and a Chardonnay that isn’t oaky, among other choices.

When taken together, it seems decidedly sane that I told my friends and friends of friends to rush over to Pitfire Pizza for a meal. The only thing that makes me the slightest bit crazy (which, again, I rarely ever am), is that I didn’t get there sooner myself.

Pitfire Artisan Pizza - Culver City
12924 Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90066
*Scheduled to open January 23rd

Friday, January 15, 2010

Taking Down the Giant Peanut Butter Cup

“What… is it?” I ask, staring down at the inch thick, two inch wide chocolate in front of me with slight trepidation.

“It’s a peanut butter cup!” My dad enthuses, clearly proud of the box of Chocolate Soldier chocolates he has bought his three grown up children for Christmas.

My brothers and I exchange glances.

“It’s a biiiiig peanut butter cup.” We respond in unison.

Despite my appreciation for almost all things chocolate (excepting egregious Whitman’s Samplers and chalky Hershey’s bars from the drug store), I can’t fathom how to eat the oversized confection. Do I bite into it like an apple? Gnaw on it like a fried chicken drumstick? Eat it Seinfeld-style with a knife and fork?

I’m not sure.

So I wait, eating the chocolate turtles my dad also purchased us first, avoiding the giant peanut butter cup like I avoid polyester and the Valley. It isn’t until two weeks after Christmas that I finally decide to engage my stomach’s worthy opponent.

While I am tempted to jack hammer the thing into pieces and blend it into vanilla ice cream for a massive Dairy Queen-esque Blizzard, ultimately, I decide to cut the chocolate monstrosity into four reasonably sized pieces to enjoy over the course of four days.

The high-quality Guittard dark chocolate shell cuts easily under the pressure of my knife – there will be no need for gnawing action to consume it. I’m slightly fearful of the ample amount of peanut butter filling however, imagining that it will cement my teeth together like the poor bloke eating a peanut butter sandwich in the “Got Milk” commercial.

I push the unpleasant images out of my head, and press on, slicing the first quarter of the cup in the middle so that I can ensure to get a more balanced bite of both chocolate and peanut butter. I brace myself for peanut butter overload, so am pleasantly surprised when I discover the filling is somewhat reminiscent of a Buckeye. It isn’t sticky or cloying in the mouth – it’s smooth, the glue-like texture has been tempered by the application of what I imagine is powdered sugar. The resulting flavor is decidedly more refined than I’d anticipated – particularly when paired against the satisfyingly bitter dark chocolate. It’s a grown-up version of a Reese’s, in both size and taste.

I eat the rest of the giant peanut butter cup over the next three days, no longer fearful of the confection’s girth. I still prefer the Chocolate Soldier’s turtles, but, ultimately, it proves to be a nice change in my regularly scheduled chocolate routine.

Next time, however, I’m going for the jack hammer method.

Chocolate Soldier
1200 South Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651-3183

(949) 494-4462

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Carbo-loading at Border Grill and overcoming my pre-race fears

“I can’t eat that the night before a race,” I think helplessly as I read over the prix fix menu myself and five other runners/food bloggers will be enjoying at Border Grill on Saturday night.

“Achiote roasted pork and chicken chilaquiles? Guacamole? Beans? Grilled skirt steak?!”

I shake my head. Nothing sounds particularly easy to digest the night before a half marathon. Nothing is even remotely close to the pasta dinners that I always ate before races in college when I neurotically weighed all my actions in terms of how it would affect my run, and abided by a strict checklist of rituals.

“I have to listen to Jack Johnson on the way to the race to calm my nerves, and then switch to Jamiroquai’s 'Canned Heat' right before to pump myself up.” I’d tell myself.

Meanwhile, I’d be compulsively checking and rechecking my athletic bag for my lucky orange hair band – becoming teary-eyed if I didn’t immediately find it amidst the tangle of my other “lucky” racing attire.

And I’d panic about what I was going to eat – convinced that if I didn’t consume pasta, preferably penne, with marinara sauce (and grilled chicken added) for dinner, I’d run out of energy a half mile from the finish line and collapse on the field amidst a sea of better-fueled runners.

My borderline obsessive compulsive behavior was the reason I grew to hate racing by my last season of cross-country as a senior. The rituals were exhausting, and I was more than ready to be a regular student who didn’t have to go to bed at 10 pm on a Friday night because of a 7 am training run the next day. I wanted to binge on beer and pizza – not water and energy bars.

Reading over the menu for the complimentary dinner at Border Grill fills me with the same sense of paralyzing anxiety that I used to feel as a competitive runner in high school and college. For a moment, I’m almost ready to let myself fall into that familiar trap of fear – the fear that subsequently turned me into a closet runner for the past five years.

I take a deep breath and glance over my choices again, asking myself, “What would I get if I wasn’t running the next day? If I was a normal person who didn’t obsess over everything?”

My eye immediately zeroes in on the Cochinita Pibil – achiote pork roasted in bananas leaves with caramelized onions, orange, cinnamon, roasted plaintains, and guacamole.

I want it.

I want it bad.

And suddenly I don’t care if it isn’t the ideal pre-race dinner, or if it contains the correct ratio of carbohydrates and proteins.

I’m not running the 13.1 Marathon to win a medal or secure a personal record or get featured in the Daily Northwestern. I’m running for fun. I’m running to finish. I’m running because I want to – not because I have to.

The subsequent dinner isn’t by any means the type of meal that I would have prepared at home, but ultimately, Border Grill’s upscale Mexican cuisine is not quite the carbo-loading fail I envision it to be in my head.

The green corn tamale efficiently packs the carbohydrates my body is craving in a neat little package that seems almost reminiscent of an energy bar (if I stretch the limits of my imagination). I appreciate the lightness of the traditionally dense dish, and am surprised to find it far superior to El Cholo’s much-praised version, which I find to be cloyingly sweet.

The plantain empanadas with roasted plaintain, black beans, poblano chile, cotija cheese are similarly surprising – they aren’t nearly as rich as their description implies, and I smile to myself, thinking, “If it has plantains, it’s kind of like I’m eating bananas!”

While I feel confident in indulging in both the empanadas and tamales, I have to make a concerted effort not to eat more than two chips worth of the finely seasoned guacamole. The addicting combination of crisp chips and spicy guac could prove disastrous if I let it, and I cut myself off to save room for the impending pork.

The achiote pork is presented alongside a strip of fluffy white rice, roasted plaintains, black beans, guacamole, and corn tortillas (I request flour). At first glance it is a fearsome plate of food for a pre-race meal, but I happily dig into the rice and plaintains, and use the tortilla to wrap up the meaty pieces of pork into a Mexican version of a pulled pork sandwich. I sadly neglect the black beans and guacamole in favor of the items that seem easier to digest, but I am happy to zero in on the carbs and adequately lean protein of the other white meat.

When dessert arrives – a sampler containing banana cream pie, flan, Aztec chocolate cake, and flourless chocolate cake, I tell myself I won’t eat any. And then I remember “I’m running for fun,” and devour several bites of the well-executed flourless chocolate cake and banana cream pie.
Ultimately, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s self-described “modern Mexican” cuisine at Border Grill is a surprisingly successful pre-race meal. It doesn’t leave the brick in my stomach that I feared it would when I read the menu the day before, and it provides me with the energy I need to get through all 13.1 miles of the race.

Most importantly, however, the dinner helps me realize that my obsessive compulsive pre-race rituals aren’t necessary for me to do well. The only thing I need to worry about is having fun – and not eating too much guacamole.

Border Grill
1445 4th St.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Phone: (310) 451-1655