Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kale w/ Spicy Peanut Dressing: Score one for the taste buds -- and the body

I thought it would be tough. Like treading my teeth through the untrimmed ends of out of season asparagus.

I thought it would be bitter. Like chomping on overcooked Brussels sprouts that have reached the sulfuric gag-me-with-a-spoon stage.

I thought it would be something I suffered through because “it’s good for me.” Like when my mother forced me to guzzle milk in elementary school in the name of “strong bones.”

I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love kale when I finally tried it for the first time at M Cafe de Chaya nearly two years ago. The macrobiotic eatery’s beloved kale with spicy peanut dressing transformed my perception of the leafy green, which, incidentally, is actually a form of cabbage.

In the time since, I have ordered the kale as my side salad every time I’ve visited the cafe (I just can’t get enough), and have recently been incorporating the cruciferous powerhouse into my cooking as well. A handful in a pasta e fagioli soup, a couple handfuls in a warm quinoa pesto dish, and a few delicate slivers in an amateur attempt at miso ramen.

It was only a matter of time before I would connect the dots and decide, “Heck, I should really just make my own version of M Cafe’s kale salad with spicy peanut dressing.”

This past Friday evening, I did just that.

While my application of the peanut sauce was more restrained than the version I’ve enjoyed countless times at the restaurant, and I subbed in roasted shallots for the raw red onions and cashews for the peanuts on top, the end result packed in the same great flavor as the original. I served the final product warm with some short grain brown rice and sautéed tofu cubes that I’d marinated in a soy-maple sauce. I ate every single bite. And not just because “it’s good for me.”

Kale with Spicy Peanut Dressing
Based on dish at M Cafe de Chaya

1 bunch kale, stems removed
2 tablespoons chopped cashews or peanuts
1 large or 2 small shallots, sliced into thin rings

Spicy Peanut Dressing
2 tablespoons natural creamy peanut butter
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons maple syrup or honey
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 clove roasted garlic
Cayenne pepper, to taste (could also use red pepper flakes or syriacha)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place whole garlic clove in small roasting dish next to shallot rings and roast until shallots are tender and the garlic is soft enough to blend into the dressing. (Approximately 25 minutes for the shallots, 15 for the garlic)

Meanwhile, rinse kale to remove all dirt and debris and chop into chunky pieces.

When garlic is roasted, combine with other dressing ingredients (peanut butter, sesame oil, maple syrup/honey, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, cayenne pepper) using a blender or immersion blender. Set aside.

Steam kale in boiling water until wilted and then drain. Return the hot kale to the pot, and add the dressing. Toss until well-coated and then stir in the roasted shallot rings. Serve topped with peanuts or cashews.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How to heat up a chocolate chip cookie without a microwave

It came upon me rather suddenly. One moment I was contemplating gnawing on the chilled date in my mini fridge at work, the next I was zipping down Ocean Park Blvd. in the direction of Thyme Cafe and Market in Santa Monica for something a bit more… caloric. The unexpected chill in the air had awakened an intense craving for a warm, comforting baked good. A cold piece of dried fruit was not going to suffice as my dessert – unless, of course it was enrobed and stuffed with chocolate.

Blame it on the rain (or, more accurately, the grey skies), but I had to have a chocolate chip cookie yesterday.

After procuring the object of my stomach’s affection for $1.25, however, I discovered a slight hitch in my plan to eradicate the bad weather blahs via warm, highly caloric food. While the cookie was packed with oversized disks of bittersweet chocolate (a key component of a perfect chocolate chip cookie), it was not a single degree above room temperature.

Most people would turn to the microwave at this critical juncture, but there are several inherent problems with using my office’s communal appliance. First, as any chocolate chip cookie aficionado knows, the intense blast of heat from a microwave can scorch the delicate baked good far past the desired level of ooey-gooeyness. Second, completing the act will most likely tip off hungry co-workers that I am in possession of a cookie that I am not going to share with them. And third, because someone in my office feels the need to make butter blasters popcorn every afternoon at 4 pm, using the microwave makes any heated item taste and smell like a movie theater.

I do not like popcorn-flavored cookies.

So, instead, I fixed myself of cup of green tea with the scorching hot water from the water cooler by my desk, I set a paper plate on top of the cup, and then positioned the cookie on the portion of the plate that was directly above the steaming water. Minutes later I had myself a perfectly ooey gooey chocolate chip cookie and a lovely cup of tea to go with it.

My dreary Tuesday was instantly better. And Miss. Popcorn Popper was none the wiser…

Thyme Cafe and Market
1630 Ocean Park Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 399-8800

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Warm Lentil Salad: I don't need no stinkin' restaurant

“I’m going there now.” Read the e-mail from Sook of Yutjangsah on Sunday afternoon.

I furrowed my brow – how dare she go to BLD for brunch without us? And, more importantly, how dare she have other friends who are not Sarah, Lauren or me? Who were these people? I wondered. And what did they want with my wise-cracking, similarly poorly-cuticled friend?

“Jealous!!” I e-mailed back.

And I was a little bit. Though mostly because I was feeling nostalgic for the fun we’d had at BLD the previous weekend when we’d bucked all responsibility in the name of mimosas, diet destruction and shoe shopping. I wasn’t actually all that heartbroken that I was missing out on the blueberry ricotta goodness – even when Sook taunted, “I’ll order the pancakes in ur honor.”

She’s nice like that.

I ignored her goading response, and smiled to myself. Let her eat her pancakes, I thought snidely, turning my focus to the version of BLD’s warm lentil salad that I was planning to make at home for lunch. I didn’t need a fancy restaurant or fancy cloth napkin or a fancy mimosa to have nice brunch.

While I would have preferred swapping gossip and pancake bites with my girl friends (bucking responsibility is one of my favorite pastimes), the homemade lentil salad was just as good as the one I enjoyed at BLD the previous weekend. The pan-fried bacon bits added just the right kick of salty flavor, and my use of oven-roasted grape tomatoes rather than raw cherry tomato halves added a subtle sweet dimension to the salad.

Plus, I didn’t have to feel self-conscious about using my fingers to pick up the stray lentils that were unattainable with my fork. Or going back to the kitchen for a second egg. Of course, I’m fairly certain that my poorly-cuticled friend would have found these responsibility-bucking activities completely acceptable. Which is probably why I like eating pancakes and drinking mimosas with her so much to begin with.

Warm Lentil Salad w/ Fried Egg and Sherry Vinaigrette
Based on dish at BLD Restaurant
Serves 1

1/3 cup dried green/French lentils, rinsed and picked over for quality
7 grape tomatoes, halved
1 small shallot, sliced into thin rings
1 slice bacon, chopped into rectangular pieces
1 egg
Handful of arugula
1 tablespoon Pecorino Romano, grated
Sea salt

Sherry Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons olive oil
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt, pepper to taste

Whisk together vinaigrette ingredients, tasting for balance. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place tomato halves in a glass baking dish with the inner side face up. Sprinkle with sea salt and roast in the oven until shriveled in appearance – approximately 30-40 minutes. Add shallots to the roasting dish after the tomatoes have been in for 10 minutes.

While tomatoes and shallots are roasting, rinse the lentils, and bring a pot of water to boil. Add the lentils to the pot, return to a slow boil and then partially cover with a lid. Cook for 20-25 minutes or until tender. Drain, return to pot, and add the roasted tomatoes and shallots. Simmer together on the lowest possible heat while preparing the bacon and fried egg.

Heat a large non-stick pan over medium-high. Add the bacon pieces and saute until they have released their fat and are crispy. Remove, and set aside. While pan is still hot, crack the egg into the center and fry until white has set and yolk has reached desired doneness (I recommend leaving it a bit runny).

As the egg is cooking, line the bottom of your plate with arugula, toss the crispy bacon bits and 1 tablespoon of the dressing in with the lentils, and serve over the arugula. Top the lentils with the fried egg and Pecorino Romano cheese.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lobster and Wedded Bliss at New Capital Seafood

This past Saturday, 230 competitors and thousands of hungry Los Angelenos descended upon the Los Angeles Center Studios for the Grilled Cheese Invitational sponsored by America’s favorite Tillamook Cheese. The buzz surrounding the event was hotter than the melted taleggio on Eric Greenspan’s award-winning short rib grilled cheese, and everyone who is anyone in the LA dining community seemed to be braving the long lines for a cheesy fix.

Everyone, of course, except me.

Yet, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed that I wasn’t eating my weight in dairy on Saturday. I had much bigger fish to fry (and, incidentally, eat) – Cathy of Gastronomy Blog’s long-anticipated wedding, and a reception to follow at New Capital Seafood in the San Gabriel Valley. Grilled cheese had nothing on seeing my dear friend walk down the aisle in one of the most beautiful wedding dresses I’ve ever seen. And it had nothing on the 11-course feast (12 with the sesame balls and red bean pastry bites) that I and the other guests enjoyed at the restaurant that evening.

Despite living in Los Angeles for nearly five years now, Saturday was only my second time eating Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley. I’d had a memorable experience noshing on some roasted duck at Sam Woo last year, but had yet to make the drive back. As embarrassing as this is to admit, the last time I had Chinese was actually at PF Chang’s in September. I stand by those tangy lemon pepper shrimp, but I was still completely and unreasonably overdue for a dose of authentic Chinese in a restaurant that doesn’t belong under the header, “Stuff White People Like.” On Saturday night, New Capital Seafood gave me that dining experience.

To start, there was a barbecue meat platter teaming with duck, pork, beef tendon, and some gelatinous-like strands that looked to me like some sort of sautéed glass noodle or pickled vegetable. I boldly heaped the item onto my plate and was shocked when my date for the evening, Danny from Kung Food Panda, looked at me in surprise and asked, “Diana, you like jelly fish?”

As it turns out, I don’t.

The tender cubes of wok-fried French-style beef that appeared on our table’s Lazy Susan next were far more to my liking. I couldn’t tear my hands away from the serving spoon that accompanied the caramelized nuggets of beef that, given their sweetness, would probably qualify as the aforementioned “Stuff White People Like.” I did, however, pause long enough to savor a taste of the Szechuan-style sautéed prawns that came crowned by a garden of spritely broccoli crowns. The plump shrimp were minimally dressed and seasoned with red pepper flakes – a preparation that showcased the clean flavor and crisp texture of the fresh crustaceans.

A large cauldron of hot and sour soup arrived next – a welcome interruption to the protein-heavy plates that preceded it. Brimming with green onions, supple strands of tofu, pork and wood ear mushrooms, the broth-based soup cleansed my palate and breathed life back into my rapidly filling stomach. I was ready for the Peking duck.

Like with the jelly fish, I had to look to Danny for advice on how to eat the roasted slices of duck and crispy skin.

“Where’s the meat?” I asked in confusion as I lifted a piece of skin with a marginal amount of attached flesh onto my plate.

“The skin is the best part.” He insisted, and then showed me how to fill the accompanying bao (steamed bun) with the duck, green onions and hoisin sauce.

“Just a little!” Danny said, as I readied a heaping spoonful of the hoisin sauce to pour over my skin sandwich. “It’s very salty.”

I nodded, glad that I had him as my Peking duck guide, but also grateful when I could navigate my fork around more familiar territory -- the braised haricot verts that were lavished in a slightly sweetened oyster and soy sauce.

The three courses that followed were, along with the French-style beef, my favorites of the evening. The large chunks of supple lobster adorned with scallions and ginger that I almost mistook for thin slices of fingerling potato made it clear why the restaurant is named New Capital Seafood. Happiness is using one’s fingers to pry the restaurant’s butter-kissed lobster from its shell. Or, at least it was for those of us who weren’t the bride and groom. (I think they most likely had a different interpretation of happiness that evening.)

The final savory courses of the evening – the steamed whole black cod that came bathed in a soy ginger broth and topped with cilantro and scallions, and the cleansing mound of jasmine fried rice were a stunning finish to the meal. Despite my satiation level, I slyly returned for a third helping of the delicate white fish and accompanying broth that I luxuriously spooned over the rice.
While the restaurant also brought out sesame balls, mini red-bean pastries and tofu with ginger for dessert, at this juncture in the evening, my stomach only had eyes for Cathy and Vernon’s pristine three-tier wedding cake that was custom-made by food blogger Sarah the Bear. Sarah made two different filling options for the yellow cake frosted with Italian meringue buttercream – lemon mousse with blackberry jam, and passion fruit curd. Both slices were far more gourmet than any other wedding cake I’ve eaten, but the tartness of the lemon paired with the sweet blackberry jam won me over. This is a cake worth saving in the freezer for that one-year anniversary.

From the yellow sashes on the ring girls’ dresses to the sunlight that streamed over the ceremony at Greystone Mansion – blessing the special couple with its warm glow, to the spectacular banquet reception, Cathy’s wedding was a feast for the eyes, senses and mouth. She and her “stellar” groom are off to an auspicious start for their wedded life together. I wish them a lifetime of happiness together -- filled with buttery chunks of lobster.

New Capital Seafood
140 W Valley Blvd
Fl/4 #D
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-1899

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Blueberry and Pear Buttermilk Muffins: Because single girls deserve muffins too

I didn’t wake up this morning thinking that I was going to make myself muffins. Breakfast was the last thing on my mind when I reluctantly extracted myself from my tangle of pink sheets to hit the gym. And even if I had been thinking about my stomach rather than burning off some of the calories from the “doughnut flight” I consumed at Grace Restaurant last night (more on that later), I would have been thinking about what I always eat for breakfast – oatmeal.

Yet, when I arrived home today, sweaty and sticky and redder than Nick Nolte after a cocktail party, I had an inexplicable urge to bake myself muffins. I had almost a full carton of buttermilk leftover from the strawberry muffins I made a newly engaged friend last Saturday, a pear that was on its last legs (ie. turning brown), and some blueberries in my freezer that were begging to be baked. It was really only sensible that I turn them into muffins!

I haven’t done much baking for myself. Mostly because I fear what might happen if I have an entire batch of cookies all to myself (the memories of what my two college roommates and I did to pan after pan of brownies during our senior year are far too fresh in my mind.) I also feel a bit funny about being so self-indulgent and potentially wasteful. Single girls who live alone and consider Anderson Cooper the man in their life don’t have any use for a dozen muffins. Especially the morning after chowing down on three doughnuts – with ice cream.

Even so, why shouldn’t I do something nice for myself on a day when I am about to watch another of my closest friends walk down the aisle with the man in her life? (Incidentally, not Anderson Cooper, but we won’t hold that against him.) I’m a happy person, and am truly thrilled for my friends who have found their other halves, but why should I wait around for someone to discover just how charming I am to treat myself to a homemade breakfast?

I’m worth these blueberry and pear buttermilk muffins -- with or without the validation of "a ring on it." I think Anderson Cooper would agree.

Blueberry and Pear Buttermilk Oatmeal Muffins
Makes 6 muffins for a fabulous single lady ("Throw your hands up!")

1/2 cup oatmeal
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 beaten egg (approximately 2 tablespoons)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/12 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons toasted wheat germ
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons oatmeal to sprinkle over the top

Combine oatmeal and buttermilk in mixing bowl. Cover and refrigerate for one hour. (Today, I only let stand 30 minutes with fine results.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove oatmeal/buttermilk mixture from refrigerator, and line a standard muffin tin with aluminum muffin liners.

Combine flour, baking powder, wheat germ, cinnamon, and salt in separate bowl. Whisk together until light in texture.

Add egg to the oatmeal and buttermilk mixture and whip together until batter develops some volume. Stir in the vanilla, oil and sugar. Add the flour mixture, and fold in until just incorporated. Fold in the pear, then the blueberries.

Divide the batter evenly among the 6 muffin tins. Top with a sprinkle of oatmeal and bake in the oven for approximately 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow them to cool 10 minutes before serving.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Abdallah Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels: Baby steps

I pull open the second drawer to my office desk and guiltily eye the sealed pink box of Abdallah dark chocolate sea salt caramels. The box is exactly as it was when I found it sitting on my bed at my parents’ home in Orange County over the Easter holiday. I’d discovered the item on the premium Minnesota-based chocolatier’s website right before Lent started, and had whined to my mother about how unfair it was that I wouldn’t be able to order/eat them for, exaggerated sigh, “a whole six weeks.”

My sly mother didn’t let on that she was paying much attention to my lament (I have many laments), but she was already plotting to purchase me the chocolates for an Easter treat. When she found the item at a local shop, I’m sure she never imagined that it would take me, exaggerated sigh, “a whole 15 days” to try one.

“I might as well get this over with.” I think, using my letter opener that I never actually use to open letters to rip the glossy wrapper off the box. My reluctant behavior is a marked change from my pre-Lent days when I’d be thinking about my post-lunch chocolate fix all morning.

“What should I have today?” I’d think at 9:30 am. “The sea salt chocolate covered almonds? The 100-calorie Bissinger dark chocolate bar from Whole Foods? Or maybe I’ll steal out for a warm chocolate chip cookie from Thyme Cafe & Market down the street…”

It was always a very important decision – perhaps the most important decision that day.

On this day, however, I’m feeling rather taxed by the idea of eating the humble half-inch by half-inch chocolate covered caramel. Even with my recent baklava and cookie indulgences in South Carolina, I’m just not quite there yet – not quite back to my chocosessed, will drive any distance to get a fix, self.

I take a sip of green tea to steel myself for the impending shock of sweetness, and then slowly curl my lips around the firm shell of sultry dark chocolate. The flecks of sea salt disembark from the outer coating, assaulting my tongue with a briny bite that is almost overwhelming until the thick square of darkened caramel yields forth from the center of the chocolate. It’s a well done version of the now ubiquitous chocolate shop offering. I like that the chocolate has girth and isn’t overpowered by the caramel within. I like that the caramel has integrity and is neither runny nor excessively chewy. And I like that the chocolate does not shatter into pieces as I nibble my way through.

I don’t, however, like the stomach ache that accosts my belly moments after finishing my relatively small treat. I close the lid on the pink box, sealing off the fifteen chocolates that I will, exaggerated sigh, some how have to eat my way through.

“Baby steps.” I tell myself, as I gulp the rest of my tea.

Even with good chocolate, it’s going to be a long road back to obsession.

Note: Abdallah dark chocolate sea salt caramels are available on the website for $6.95 for an 8 ounce box. I also recommend the milk chocolate Alligators with creamy caramel and pecans, and the chocolate mints.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Taking the white trash out of the egg casserole -- and the personality as well

I had big plans for my mom’s white trash egg casserole. HUGE plans. Plans so big that my muffin tin couldn’t even contain them. (Literally – but more on that later.)

I was going to give my favorite Easter brunch recipe an extreme makeover – reducing the size for better presentation, replacing the herb stuffing cubes with real bread croutons, subbing in goat cheese for the cheddar, and nixing the ham in favor of tender roasted asparagus and shiitake mushrooms.

It was going to be something really special. Heads would turn, the audience at home would cry over the shocking transformation, and I would eat a delicious lunch.

Or so I thought.

As it turns out, whole wheat bread that has been cubed and toasted in the oven to form croutons is not an adequate replacement for Mrs. Cubbison’s herb seasoned cube stuffing. The chunks of bread rehydrate when baked with the eggs and milk, forming an undesirable whole wheat bread crust that eradicates the souffle-like texture of the original recipe.

The tender fresh roasted vegetables I was so excited to delicately sprinkle over the top of each mini egg casserole made me sorely miss the salty chunks of processed ham in my mom’s version. My fancy goat cheese from Whole Foods lacked the ooey gooey texture of the molton Tillamook cheddar cheese. And the muffin tins were not large enough for their gourmet contents. Mid-way through the baking process, the egg and milk mixture began oozing over the top, requiring me to do quick plastic surgery to save the integrity of my somewhat disastrous lunch.

While the resulting mini un-white trash casseroles looked good, they lacked the personality of the original. My extreme makeover proved to be completely unwarranted and unnecessary – like I’d gone and given the Mona Lisa a few swipes of blush and mascara.

Though rough around the edges, my mom’s egg casserole is an atypical beauty – the girl next door, the brunette in a room full of blondes, Jan on the "Brady Brunch" – and all the better because of it. It doesn’t need any enhancements; it just needs someone to recognize its inner beauty – cube stuffing, cheddar cheese, processed ham and all.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

BLD: I could get used to this

My Sundays haven’t been particularly lazy lately. None of the loafing about, sweat pants-wearing and reality TV-watching that I enjoy way more than a person with any modicum of motivation should. Instead, I’ve been running “errands,” trooping my car out to five different grocery stores to find whatever must-have/hard-to-find ingredient I need for the recipe I just have to make, and writing. Always writing.

This past Sunday would be different. I was meeting my three snarky gal pals for a celebratory brunch at BLD, Neal Fraser’s contemporary American restaurant that, as the name suggests, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. I knew there would be alcohol – a Bloody Mary or two, mimosas and prosecco. And I knew that we would most likely stay far beyond the appropriate amount of time it takes to consume pancakes and eggs. I didn’t know, however, that the food would hold its own against the superior company. And I didn’t know that I would fall so desperately in love with the brunch at the popular Beverly Blvd. eatery.

I’d been to the restaurant before. Twice to be exact. Both occasions were “fine.” The hemp-encrusted tofu salad with shisito peppers was nice for a weekday lunch – as was the vegetable chopped salad for a Saturday brunch – but neither dish stood out to me. Neither made me slap my knee on a weekend morning and say, “By golly, I’ve got to go to BLD today!”

So, as I sat in church Sunday morning, trying (unsuccessfully) to pay attention to the sermon about Saul’s transformation from Christian persecutor to the apostle Paul, I was slapping my knee about getting to see my friends – not about getting to fill my stomach.

Aside, of course, from the act of consuming the aforementioned mimosa. (I’ve become quite partial to the beverage as of late.)

Soon after receiving our lofty spread of eats, however, my low expectations for BLD’s brunch were promptly dismissed. Gone were the “nice” and “fine” adjectives that I’d used to describe my previous meals at the restaurant. And gone was my ability to fully focus all my attention on my charming dining companions. Because, as I sat there, punching my fork through the half-inch blueberry ricotta pancake we’d ordered to share, and needling my knife through the crest of the golden egg yolk on my warm lentil salad ($14), I couldn’t contain my delight.

The much-praised blueberry ricotta pancake that seems to make its way to almost every tabletop in the restaurant was revelatory – the best pancake I’ve eaten in recent memory. My warm lentil salad with crispy pancetta, cherry tomatoes, red onion, arugula, fried eggs, pecorino romano, and sherry vinaigrette floored me with its well-balanced flavors. While I am not one who eagerly pushes my food on other people (see: LudoBites 4.0: Learning to share – the entire menu), I insisted that my companions try my dish – even thrusting the precious bits of caramelized pancetta onto their forks so they could get the full effect of all the components together.

The superior brunch, the divine company and, of course, the alcohol, were exactly what I needed to get my lazy Sunday mojo back. Flushed from the success of our meal, we spent the rest of the afternoon pining over shoes at Nordstrom at the Grove, sifting through the racks at Forever 21 and then retiring for another hour of unfiltered conversation and prosecco at Monsieur Marcel.

It wasn’t sweatpants and "Millionaire Matchmaker," but it was the perfect way to waste a day. Especially since, in my mind, it wasn’t a waste at all.

7450 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 930-9744

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Strawberry Buttermilk Oatmeal Muffins: It had to be you

It had to be muffins.

But not just any old muffin, like the tragically overdone blueberry or banana nut. While they are overdone for a reason (they taste good), there’s nothing particularly special about something that can be found at Starbucks or the coffee shop on the corner that strives to be the anti-Starbucks.

I half-considered whipping up Nancy Silverton’s bran muffins, because I love and adore her, but bran muffins aren’t necessarily exciting either. Even if they are Nancy Silverton bran muffins and contain enough fiber to keep one regular for a year.

No, these muffins had to be something really special -- the type of muffin that would adequately express my excitement for a dear friend who recently moved into a new apartment, started a new job and gotten engaged. The humble baked good seemed wildly appropriate for these changes in her life – a symbol of domesticity, and a portable breakfast for her to take with her to work on days when a cup of coffee is not quite enough. She could freeze them if she wished, or share them with her fiancé, or eat them all within a two-day period as a reward for finishing unpacking. Or not finishing unpacking.

I wouldn’t judge her.

But they had to be good enough to do all those things, and also wholesome enough so as not to be confused with cake or dessert. I wouldn’t want to give the future blushing bride a muffin top. I’m not that kind of friend.

So, after much thought – a whole day of thought, to be exact – I came back to my initial impulse to make strawberry buttermilk oatmeal muffins. It seemed right. It felt right. And when I sampled two to be absolutely positively undeniably sure that they were absolutely positively undeniably okay to give to her, they tasted right.

I hope she agrees.

Strawberry Buttermilk Oatmeal Muffins
Makes 12 muffins

1 cup oatmeal
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/3 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup strawberries, finely chopped
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons of oatmeal to sprinkle over the top

Combine oatmeal and buttermilk in mixing bowl. Cover and refrigerate for one hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove oatmeal/buttermilk mixture from refrigerator, and line a standard muffin tin with aluminum muffin liners.

Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in separate bowl. Whisk together until light in texture.

Add egg to the oatmeal and buttermilk mixture and whip together until batter develops some volume. Stir in the vanilla, oil and sugar. Add the flour mixture, and fold in until just incorporated. Fold in the strawberries.

Divide the batter evenly among the 12 muffin tins. Top with a sprinkle of oatmeal and bake in the oven for approximately 17-19 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow them to cool 10 minutes before serving.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

LudoBites 4.0: Learning to share -- the entire menu

“Two squid carbonaras?” She repeats in slight shock.

My five dining companions for LudoBites 4.0 at Gram & Papa’s all look over at me with semi-appalled expressions.

“Uhh… well…” I stammer, my face burning with shame. “The server said one of each entrée would mean one bite a piece…”

They nod, seemingly unconcerned that this could lead to a feeding frenzy – a battle of forks – a stare down over the last piece of Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s steak au poivre with roasted eggplant puree and polenta bone marrow ($27).

“Okay… so we want one of everything and then three of the brie chantilly napoleon ($7), and two of the the white asparagus velouté ($14), scallop ($14) and foie gras ($29)…” I say to confirm.
Again, nods all around.

I knead my lips together in a thin line and cast my eyes toward the napkin wadded up in my lap. I want to explain. I want to tell them why I am having a hard time wrapping my head around “one bite each.” I want to tell them everything – the whole sordid history.

Instead, I sit quietly, too afraid to pay service to the words swimming in my head. The words, “I don’t like to share food.”

The confession would be too much for my dining companions to handle. Food bloggers are supposed to love rotating dishes around the table like we are playing a game of musical plates. It’s expected that forks will fly free and that everyone will be happy to offer up a taste – or more – of that delicate pan-seared halibut or steaming bowl of linguine.

For me, however, the practice of doling out samples of my dinner is a challenge that can be traced back to my childhood when my parents taught my brothers and me to keep our forks to ourselves. They didn’t want us spreading germs to one another – a sensible lesson for children – and adults for that matter. I still remember how shocked I was when I first saw the boy and girl who lived next door drinking from the same can of soda. It repulsed me.

I’ve recently become more open to sharing plates and swapping bites at a restaurant, yet even now I still don’t love doing so when there are multiple mouths involved. It’s one thing to share a baby beet salad, lamb sausage pizza or side of macaroni and cheese, but when a nice meal out starts to turn into a buffet featuring every dish on the menu, I find it to be overwhelming and confusing to my palate.

But I can’t possibly explain all this to the hopeful faces situated around me at LudoBites this evening. They would think I was greedy at best, absolutely raving mad at worst. And maybe they’d be a little bit right in that assessment. So I keep my lips clamped shut, and as the communal plates start flooding our communal table, I start to realize that maybe my dining companions are on to something...

While I could easily demolish the elegant white asparagus velouté with mozzarella, mousse, fennel, candied olive and salmon roe ($14) by myself, and would push babies out of the way for a one-on-one session with the supple flesh of the monkfish with crisp market vegetables and curry ($24), as the night goes on, ordering the entire menu seems to be the best and most prescient way to experience LudoBites.

Were it not for the insistent nods from my dining companions, I wouldn’t give a second thought to the ham soup with bread, Swiss cheese, radish, cornichon and Guiness ($12) – essentially a warm Cubano-esque sandwich in liquid form that is rumored to inspire some of Ludo’s diners to lick the bowl clean. I certainly wouldn’t take it upon myself to order the sultry Burgundy escargots with garlic flan, green jus, and violet flowers ($12) that ultimately proves to be one of my favorite “bites” of the evening. (I even sneak a second snail when no one is looking.) And I could never take down an entire warm baguette with a ½ cup of honey-lavendar butter (two plates for $8) without the assistance of five other mouths.

Or, more accurately, I shouldn’t do that. (Even if I do feel slightly inclined to slather the entire pot of honey-lavendar butter over the entire salty baguette and eat it like a sandwich.)

By ordering Ludo’s entire menu on this particular Friday night – even the seared foie gras “pina colada” ($29) and pork cheek terrine with German butter ball potato, smoked mayo and apples ($12) that are not items I’d typically gravitate toward, my dining companions and I have a unique opportunity to grow as diners. If I’d come to the pop-up restaurant by myself, I might have simply requested the scallop with almond puree, pickled grapes, capers, curry oil and cauliflower ice cream ($14) to start, and the rack of lamb with fresh goat cheese, smoked eel, artichokes, potato mousseline and mint to finish ($26). It would have been an incredibly satisfying meal, but I wouldn’t have learned anything about myself. And, more importantly, I wouldn’t be paying tribute to the whole spirit behind LudoBites – to experience food in a completely new and different way than ever before.

I know I like Ludo’s scallops that are always seared with a proficient hand and dressed to impress with his signature yin and yang-type accompaniments. Of course I’m going to love the sweet punch of grapes and cauliflower ice cream contrasted with the savory curry oil and salty bite of capers. I similarly know I am a fool for a rosy chop of knife-ready lamb, and butter that’s been whipped with potatoes (see potato mousseline). But what of the red snapper ceviche tossed with tomatoes, red peppers, orange segments, red onions, meyer lemon and jalepenos ($14)? Or the squid “carbonara” with poached egg, parmesan snow, sage, and addicting chunks of caramelized pancetta ($18)?

I don’t know what I think – or what to expect -- until I take “a bite.”

At the end of the evening, I do know, however, that the dark chocolate soufflé with vanilla black pepper ice cream and chocolate cream ($13) is the perfect way to see how far I’ve come since the days when I used to gawk at my Coke-sharing next door neighbors. I’ve been eyeing the opulent dessert since reading about it on Gastronomy Blog and if it were up to me, I’d order one just for myself and then go eat it in the corner where no one can judge me.

Ultimately, playing hot potato with the oversized soufflé is not all that bad. Especially since my very generous dining companions let me have the first and last “bite.” And cheer me on when I elect to use my finger to scrape the ramekin clean.

LudoBites 4.0

Gram & Papas
227 East 9th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015