Tuesday, November 30, 2010

EAT MY BLOG: Walnut Sea Salt Caramels, Wine and a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, Oh My!

Last night I went to bed thinking about starving children.

Lots of them.

I pictured them lined up in a row with empty bowls and sad expressions like the orphans in Oliver!, all hoping that the headmaster might grant them a bit more gruel.

It was all I could do to keep myself from devouring the walnut sea salt caramels I’d begun wrapping for the third Eat My Blog charity bake sale that will be taking place this Saturday, December 4th, from 10 am to 4 pm at Tender Greens in West Hollywood.

I’d sampled one earlier in the night – just to make sure they would be okay to sell (wink, wink) – and that one calamitously good bite left my tongue sweating for, well, more.

Yes, moooore!

But I resisted.

I made myself a cup of rooibos peach tea and, despite the frigid temperatures that are currently attacking Los Angeles, procured a couple of Trader Joe’s chocolate covered chocolate ice cream bon bons from my freezer instead. As much as I wanted to inhale an entire row of the sweet, nutty, salty taffy-like caramels, I kept my eye on the prize. The caramels, along with all the other baked goodies that 50 of my fellow food bloggers and 13 restaurants/pastry chefs/bakeries will be contributing to Eat My Blog on Saturday will be serving a far greater purpose than satisfying rabid sweet teeth like mine.

All the proceeds generated from the bake sale will again be donated to the LA Regional Food Bank to help chip away at the hunger epidemic in the city.

In addition to all the fabulous treats like Chow Balla’s bacon caramel popcorn, BakeLab's seriously delightful coconut clouds (aka snowballs), and Sweet Life Kitchen’s gingerbread cake pops, we will also be holding a raffle with some amazing prizes for our generous donors. Anyone who makes a monetary donation to the Food Bank at the bake sale will be entered into a drawing to win one of the following prizes:

-A KitchenAid Stand Mixer donated by TasteSpotting
-A $50 gift certificate to local wine shop, DomaineLA
-A $50 gift certificate to Lou on Vine
-A $40 gift card to Rosso Wine Shop’s tasting bar
-A free wine tasting at Colorado Wine Company

Of course, the greatest prize will come after the bake sale when Cathy from Gastronomy Blog and the rest of us on the Eat My Blog planning committee will get to present a check to the Food Bank.

Because there really are a lot of starving children in LA, and it is our sincerest hope that this Saturday’s bake sale will help a few of them go to bed with fuller stomachs and happy hearts in this coming year.

Eat My Blog Charity Bake Sale
Saturday, December 4th, 10 am – 4 pm

Tender Greens
8759 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

All items will be priced between $1 and $4. Come early for the best selection! (Or I may beat you to the caramels….)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Celebrating Thanksgiving Without the Mashed Potatoes

It was going to be a great Thanksgiving – the best one yet!

Or at least this is what I told myself when I found out that neither of my older brothers would be able to attend our family dinner this year. I told this to my mother also when she called to regretfully inform me that it would just be my dad, her and me devouring the turkey carcass on the food-centric holiday.

“That’s fine!” I’d said with nary a hint of despair. “This means we can try out new recipes! No bland mashed potatoes and goopy corn casserole for us!”

My mother responded enthusiastically to my optimistic reaction – especially when I told her she didn’t have to make a pumpkin pie either.

We hate pumpkin pie.

In the past, whenever we’ve tried to change Thanksgiving up – nix that egregious pie from a can or some other traditional menu item, someone has always put up a fight.

“We aren’t having sweet potato casserole? But that’s my favorite side dish!” My eldest brother would complain.

“No corn casserole? That’s the best part!” My other brother would protest with a faux whimper.

So year after year, we’d drag out the tattered recipe index cards that it pained us to use. And year after year, my mother and I would secretly gripe to each other about how much we really don’t care for Thanksgiving food.

This Thanksgiving would be different, I promised her as I began scouring websites for recipes. After much thought, I finally settled on three side dishes to go along with the requisite stuffing (my dad’s favorite) – my warm Brussels sprouts salad, a potato-cauliflower gratin and caramelized carrots. For dessert, I’d make cranberry-apple pie bars. And nobody would deign to complain about it.

As suspected, the new holiday sides and dessert were a hit. We all exclaimed over how much lighter we felt – even after consuming second helpings of everything.

“Finally, Thanksgiving food I actually like!” My mom declared as she scooped up a big heaping bite of the Brussels sprouts.

Yet, as I finished the final crumbs of my second cranberry-apple pie bar, I would have given anything for my brothers, sister-in-law and 21-month-old niece to be sitting around the table with us. Even if it meant trading in the sweet oven-roasted carrots, homey gratin and tart and sweet bars for corn casserole, mashed potatoes and that wretched pumpkin pie.

Because Thankgiving isn’t really all about the food. It’s about the people that you spend it with. They’re the ones that make the holiday “the best one yet.”

Potato Gruyère Gratin
Lightly adapted from Good Housekeeping’s December 2010 Issue

1 head (small, 1 1/4-pound) cauliflower
1 1/2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced
3 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3 ounce Gruyère cheese, shredded (1 1/4 cup)
½ teaspoon salt
Paprika (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease shallow 3-quart ceramic baking dish.

Cut cauliflower in quarters; remove and discard core. Thinly slice cauliflower and roast in baking dish in oven until just tender.

In 12-inch skillet, heat potatoes and milk on medium-high just until boiling, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 7 to 10 minutes or until potatoes are just tender, gently stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, in small bowl, stir water and cornstarch until cornstarch dissolves. Stir into potato mixture and simmer 3 minutes or until mixture thickens. Stir in cauliflower, nutmeg, half of Gruyère, and salt.

Transfer potato mixture to prepared dish and sprinkle with remaining Gruyère and paprika for color.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until potatoes and cauliflower are tender when pierced with knife.

Caramelized Carrots Recipe
Lightly adapted from Good Housekeeping’s December 2010 Issue

1/4 cup hazelnuts (or filberts)
2 pounds small peeled carrots
1 clove garlic, very thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leave

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place hazelnuts in 18- by 12-inch jelly-roll pan.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until toasted. Wrap hot hazelnuts in clean cloth towel. With hands, roll hazelnuts back and forth to remove skins; discard skins. Let toasted hazelnuts cool completely; set aside.

In same pan, toss carrots with garlic, ginger, paprika, olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Cover pan tightly with foil and roast 20 minutes. Uncover and roast 20 minutes longer or until carrots are tender.

Meanwhile, in food processor with knife blade attached, pulse hazelnuts and parsley until coarsely chopped; set hazel­nut mixture aside.

Remove carrots from oven and sprinkle with hazelnut mixture.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Really Happy Thanksgiving...

Happy Thanksgiving... from my family to yours.


Valencia oranges

Juice oranges using a juicer or with pure muscle power. Strain liquid into pitcher.

Pour glasses 2/3rds full of champagne. Top off with orange juice.



Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Spaghetti with Chickpeas: Carbo-loading for a cause

This past weekend, Esi from Dishing Up Delights and Lindsay from LAist participated in the 16-mile Great LA Walk down Wilshire Blvd. Another food blogger ran a 50-kilometer race. And I, ambitious fitness star that I am, ran a measly 5 kilometers on Sunday morning – a 3.1 mile distance that is approximately half what I usually do when I drag myself out of bed for an early morning jog.

The short community race that my friend Ashley organized as the culmination of a 10-week training program that she and Anne, her STRIDES co-founder, implemented at a local high school should barely have registered as a blip in my weekend trajectory. It’s been years since I’ve raced and trained competitively, and I no longer feel a compulsion to burn the rubber off my Nikes when I’m hitting the streets. I’m comfortable being slow and enjoy being just another runner on the path.

Plus, the race wasn’t about me – it was about the achievement of the high school students, and Ashley and Anne’s achievement in raising awareness about an important issue. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for high school age students, and it was their mission to institute a program at Olympic Continuation High School in Los Angeles that would help combat the risk factors that lead to suicide.

During the bi-weekly training sessions for the STRIDES 5K, Ashley and Anne sought to increase the students’ self-esteem while giving them the strong social support that is so necessary for kids that age. The race on Sunday was a remarkable undertaking and notable accomplishment for both the students and Ashley and Anne.

Yet even with my acceptance that my performance didn’t matter, I couldn’t completely dismiss the race. I couldn’t just treat it like another day on the bike path. So I did what any other runner would have done the night before a “big race.”

I carbo-loaded.
With a spaghetti and chickpeas recipe that Deb from Smitten Kitchen recommended for “marathoners."

The cuddly, saucy noodles were the perfect thing to put me in “racing mode.” I loved the way the slick onions hugged the spaghetti noodles, and the pancetta and chickpeas added satisfying heft to the dish. By the time I reached Dockweiler Beach the following morning, I was ready to roll – at a very un-record breaking pace of 7:15 minute miles.

Even though my time was no where near what it would have been in my “glory days,” everything about the race was a success. I was proud to be a part of it. And was happy to use it as an excuse to “carbo-load” with this soulful recipe the night before.

Spaghetti with Chickpeas [Spaghetti con Ceci]
Lightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen who adapted the recipe from Michael White, via New York Magazine
Serves 4 as a main

15 ounces canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained or about 2 cups, freshly cooked chickpeas
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup pancetta, diced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
10 to 15 whole basil leaves (plus extra for serving)
Salt to taste
1 pound whole wheat spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste

Set 1/3 cup of chickpeas aside. In a blender or food processor, combine remaining chickpeas with chicken stock and pulse a few times until chickpeas are chopped.

Place a large pot over medium heat and add olive oil and diced pancetta. Sauté for 3 to 4 minutes until lightly browned; a splatter screen will make your stove look better than mine did after this. Add onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Continue cooking until onions and garlic are translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes.

Add chickpea mixture, tomatoes, and basil, and let simmer for 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt. While sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add spaghetti, and cook until al dente, or tastes like it could use an additional minute’s cooking time. Reserve one cup of pasta water and drain the rest. Toss pasta with chickpea sauce, reserved chickpeas and half of the reserved pasta water until evenly coated and heated through, about one minute. If sauce still feels too thick add reserved pasta water as needed. Season again, as needed, and top with grated Parmesan and slivers of the reserved basil leaves.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chef Jamie Lauren: The new fan favorite at Beechwood restaurant

When I was growing up my mom often needed to resort to sly methods to get me to eat certain foods. She’d cut my sandwiches into fun shapes, give me lamb under a sweet coating of mint jelly, and serve me the cute tender pieces when we were having chicken for dinner. She didn’t compromise the integrity of her food to please my picky tastes – she simply presented it in a form that was more accessible to me, and more times than not, I’d eat up whatever was on my plate without (much) protest. (It also helped when she’d tell me I could have dessert after I finished.)

Part of being a great chef – whether a professional or amateur like my sweet, obliging mother – is knowing your dining audience. Chef Jamie Lauren from “Top Chef: Season 5” and the upcoming “Top Chef All-Stars,” is proving that she knows just that in her new gig as the Executive Chef at Beechwood restaurant in Venice. Lauren has revitalized the restaurant/bar’s classic New American menu with her unique take on familiar, crowd-pleasing foods. She is cooking her way while still being mindful of the context of her location – a neighborhood hangout that attracts post-work drinkers/nibblers and locals looking for a satisfying bite.

For the nibblers, Lauren offers a host of dishes that go far beyond typical bar fare, but that are not too far-out for her diners. Toasted edamame is thoughtfully enriched with togarashi, garlic, Japanese lime, and sea salt ($6) for an addictive and relatively healthy snack. A surprisingly refined housemade pimento cheese spread is served with pliant flatbread; Beechwood chicken nuggets are made with sous-vide slices of chicken mousse, seasoned with curry and accompanied with raita and whipped vindaloo oil ($12); and bruschetta is artfully topped with beet puree, marinated white anchovy, basil, lemon oil, and indulgent pillows of burrata ($10). While seemingly over-the-top, the latter is a bright, unobtrusive bite even to those who are usually repelled by the assertive flavors of anchovies and beets. Despite the intimidating list of ingredients, the bruschetta is comfortingly familiar – it tastes somewhat similar to garlic bread.

Other inspired bites include shots of a silky pumpkin soup with vanilla cream and pumpkin oil ($6); grilled lamb meatballs with piquillo pepper, pistachio, cucumber and dill yogurt salad, and smoked paprika oil ($10); and a crispy oyster trio topped witih horseradish crème fraiche, cocktail salsa, and long pepper mignonette foam ($12). The soup oozes warm fall flavors onto the tongue, and the lamb meatballs present themselves on the palate like non-vegetarian falafel balls. There’s no need for my mother’s coy mint jelly here.

For dinners looking for a cleaner bite, the shaved fennel salad with honeycrisp apples, radish, Persian fetta, chives, tarragon, and meyer lemon ($11); and hiramasa crudo with kaffir lime-lemongrass oil, pickled jalapeno, crispy shallots, and micro cilantro ($12) are not to be missed. The fennel salad bursts with freshness from the herbs, meyer lemon and seasonally-apropos components, and the crudo is clean and precise. Both leave a memorable mark on the tongue and are the perfect palate cleansers before digging into the restaurant’s hearty entrees.

The Sonoma duck confit tacos with dried cherry mole, queso fresco, and grilled seranos ($14) are sure to become an instant favorite among tacosessed Los Angelenos who are looking for a little refinement stuffed into their tortillas. The pretzel-stuffed Jidori chicken with braised red cabbage and a genius housemade Guinness mustard sauce ($19) similarly showcases Lauren’s slyness in the kitchen as she reconceptualizes soft pretzels with mustard and beer as a refined entrée.

The braised kobe beef cheeks with curry spices, masala spiced smashed potatoes, and sautéed Bloomsdale spinach ($19) is perhaps Lauren’s biggest trick to her audience. While the plate presents as a typical boring short rib dish, the supple ribbons of beef and pleasantly lumpy mashed potatoes are infused with cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, and other Indian spices that transform it into a completely unique menu item. It’s a confident, bold entrée that perfectly sums up what Chef Jamie Lauren is doing at Beechwood.

She’s giving people exactly what they want and exactly what they didn’t know they wanted.

I have no doubt she will quickly become a fan favorite in the neighborhood -- even without the promised of lemon ricotta beignets ($9) for dessert.

822 Washington Blvd.
Venice, CA 90292
(310) 448-8884

Note: Menu items mentioned above were hosted.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thyme Cafe and Market: 7-Layer Bars

“This is torture.” I think as I methodically arrange the lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and other baked goods on the platter. A heady chunk of chocolate from the 7-layer magic bar falls off in my hand and for a moment I contemplate shellacking it back on and ignoring it completely.

“This is why I had four squares of dark chocolate after lunch,” I remind myself.

I’d known I’d be tempted to devour some of Thyme Cafe and Market’s sweet treats when I went to pick them up for the afternoon meeting at my office, and I thought that by ingesting a substantial lunch dessert, I’d be able to resist Chef Marie Byrne’s rustic, homey goods.

But I hadn’t anticipated just how good the 7-layer bar would look with its meaty hunks of butterscotch chips, disks of bittersweet dark and white chocolate, fudgy center, toasted coconut, and plump raisins.

My lips quiver with sugar lust and before I can stop myself I shove the displaced piece of chocolate in my mouth.

“Oh no,” I think as it melts into my tongue. “It’s all over now.”

I finish arranging the platter and then race back to my desk with the largest 7-layer bar on the plate. I quickly brew a cup of tea, but I’m too impatient to photograph the evidence before digging in.

“I’ll just have to go back for another one,” I think as I massacre the epically sweet bar in record time. Graham cracker crumbs liter my desk when I’m finished -- guilty little reminders of what has just transpired within the four yellow walls of my office.

But I know I’m going to have another one in the near future. And seven days later, I do. Because Thyme Cafe and Market’s 7-layer magic bars are the best I’ve had – guilty little graham cracker crumbs and all.

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Warm Brussels Sprouts Salad: Learning to eat (and love) a new cruciferous veggie

As a child – a particularly picky one – I was socialized to hate Brussels sprouts at an early age. Along with its good ole companions, spinach, anchovies and broccoli, Brussels sprouts seem to belong to a category of foods that are usually loathed by children and, as such, are often depicted as putrid and offensive. In TV shows, parents are always telling children, “Finish your broccoli,” rather than, “Finish your rice.” And there is no vegetable that evokes the same pinched nose reaction among the younger set more than a lump of wilted spinach.

I remember the first time I had spinach during my late elementary school years. I’d always thought that I wouldn’t like it because of what I’d seen on television and read in children’s books. I was shocked to discover that it didn’t taste as foul as I imagined – in fact it was very palatable – far more so than some of the other foods I detested at the time (onions, cheese, steak, fish, tomatoes, eggs, bananas, cereal with milk).

In spite of my spinach awakening, I still found myself avoiding Brussels sprouts throughout my teen and college years. I hated the way they stunk up the kitchen when my mom would steam them for dinner and would happily accept any other steamed green in its place. It wasn’t until recently that I started to come around to the cruciferous vegetable, but initially only in its roasted form.

Even though I’ve encountered some great sprouts in the past year (the version at Pizzeria Ortica was particularly memorable), I’ve been shy about ingesting them on a regular basis at home. I consider them “fine,” but always tend to gravitate toward other vegetables when I’m at the farmer’s market or store. Or at least I did before I met my friend Ashley’s boyfriend’s mother’s recipe for sautéed sprouts. Her boyfriend prepared the dish at a recent dinner party I attended at Ashley’s place, and I was immediately smitten. I heaped the warm salad of thinly sliced sprouts, shallots and hazelnuts on my plate and didn’t hesitate to go back for more. Long after I left the party, I was still thinking about the simple side – I had to make it at home.

Because the dish had left such an indelible mark on my tongue, for my reinterpretation, I knew I wanted to turn it into a main course so I could eat a giant mound of it like I’d wanted to do the night of the party. I marinated some tofu in a maple syrup and apple cider vinaigrette and tossed in some thin slices of pink lady apple for textural contrast. I added a touch of the vinaigrette at the end rather than stirring in a pat of butter like Ashley’s boyfriend Elliott had done, and then served it as a giant salad.

I’ve gone through 4 pounds of sprouts in the time since this recipe made its debut into my life. And it’s already found a place on my family’s Thanksgiving menu. There’ll be no more sulfurous steamed sprouts at our house – and no more pinched noses either.

Warm Brussels Sprouts Salad with Maple-glazed Tofu and Apple
Serves 1 as a main or 3 as a side

8-10 Brussels sprouts (depending on size), outer shells removed and sliced into thin pieces
3 ounces extra-firm tofu, cubed
1 large shallot, minced
2 tablespoons hazelnuts, toasted and finely chopped
½ a small Pink lady apple, sliced into thin pieces
Olive oil
Salt, Red Pepper Flakes, to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt, to taste

Whisk together dressing. Pour half over cubed tofu and set aside to marinate for 20-30 minutes.

Heat large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the tofu, reduce heat to medium and pan fry, stirring frequently, until browned on all sides. Set aside.

Clean out pan, and return to medium-high heat. Add a splash of olive oil to coat the pan, and then toss in the shallots. Sauté until slightly translucent (approximately 3-5 minutes). Add the Brussels sprouts, salt and red pepper flakes and sauté on medium heat for another 5 minutes or until sprouts are wilted and slightly caramelized. Toss in the tofu cubes, apple and remaining dressing and stir until all ingredients are well integrated. Serve immediately. Top with hazelnuts.

Other serving suggestions: Sauté shallots and sprouts in bacon fat and add the rendered pieces of bacon when the apples are tossed in. Could also incorporate dried cranberries.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Simplethings Pie & Sandwich Shop: Getting back to basics

Life has become a lot more complicated since I graduated college and moved to the smoggy city by the sea in June, 2005. Los Angeles is a fast-moving city – the kind of place where it’s easy to get lost in the crowd, or in my case, lost every time I attempt to find my way through a different part of town.

While I was initially rattled by the constant noise and congestion, I’ve grown to enjoy the rush that comes from the chaos. My hometown of Newport Beach seems decidedly dull in comparison, and when I go down to Orange County to visit my parents now, it’s hard for me to stay more than a day.

In some ways, Los Angeles has ruined my ability to sit still and ruined my enjoyment of some of the simple things I used to savor before I became soiled/spoiled by my residence. I crave bolder flavors now – in both my social life and in the food I eat. I’m no longer satisfied by planning my calendar around my favorite TV shows, and I couldn’t imagine eating a plain bowl of white rice and shelled soybeans for dinner like I’ve done in years past.

Even so, there are moments when I wish I could briefly transport myself to a place where life is a little less gratuitous and a little more basic. And there are moments when I wish I could be happy eating a bland bowl of mush without my head swirling with ideas about how I could improve it with a little lemon zest or drizzle of sherry vinegar or touch of goat cheese.

So when I first heard about simplethings, the new pie and sandwich shop that’s opening soon on West Third Street in West Hollywood, I thought to myself, “They are only going to serve pie and sandwiches? What’s so exciting about that?”

It seemed too simple for a town and area that tends to gravitate toward the more exotic. Pie and sandwiches are both decidedly humble entities and are usually the type of things that are made and enjoyed at home.

Yet when I visited the discreet shop this past Friday for a hosted media preview event, I found myself immediately smitten by the cafe and bakery’s old fashioned mentality. Partners Andy Paxson, Ryan Handel and Carrie Cusack take the time to do things the right way – the way that evokes a fond sense of going to a family gathering rather than going out.

The turkey for the Thanksgiving sandwich that’s topped with cornbread jalapeño stuffing and cranberry sauce is roasted and carved fresh. The potato salad is perked up with grainy mustard rather than excessive, caloric additives. And Executive Chef Carrie Cusak’s pies taste wholesome – like the type of thing Grandma might have made if she had the same imagination and eye for presentation.

The pies, which are available in three sizes – mini, small and large, are thoughtfully conceived and executed. A peanut butter pie topped with a brûléed marshmallow is mouth-smackingly peanut buttery – exactly what I want it to be when I collect a mini one to sample. I’m even fonder of the same pie with a chocolate cookie crust. The deep cocoa flavor helps balance out the intense nuttiness.

The pristine whip cream-topped banana toffee pie is a dream for those who, like me, have an assertive sweet tooth. I love the sultry budino-like texture of the toffee filling that is only subtlety kissed with banana and find it hard to stop eating it in lieu of the other pies. But there is life beyond the graham cracker crusted options that also include a delightfully tart key lime selection. There are blueberry crumble pies, apple pies, pumpkin pies, sweet potato pies, and pecan pies – each as adorable and classically prepared as its predecessor.

It’s the pumpkin whoopie pie, however, that evokes my most enthusiastic response of the evening. The ambitiously-sized, cake-like cookies taste like fall – full of the aromatic spices that are so familiar and comforting this time of year. I want to eat the whole thing, while licking the mild cream cheese frosting out from the center like I would have as a child.

If there was a place where that kind of behavior would be acceptable, it would be at simplethings – a shop devoted to bringing some of life’s simplest pleasures back to Los Angeles.

Simplethings Sandwich & Pie Shop
8310 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pistachio Nut Butter: Don't judge a book...

There's no getting around it -- it's hideous.

I was horrified as soon as saw the putrid olive sludge emerge from the whirring blades of my immersion blender a week ago Saturday. In my mind, the roasted pistachio nut butter would be a spritely, seasonally-appropriate green -- the same color as the Grinch's fur in the childhood Christmas story.

Instead it looked like something teenage boys might snicker over in the locker room.

And as soon as I recovered from my initial horror, I may have snickered about it too.

Until I tasted it.

In the week since I made the swamp-like pistachio butter for a TasteSpotting feature about homemade English muffins, I've been looking for any possible excuse to eat it. I've stirred it into oatmeal, I've smeared it onto cold bananas, and I've eaten it by the spoonful as "dessert."

It might just be the best example of the tired phrase, "Don't judge a book by its cover," ever.

I think. I'll have to go eat another spoonful to make sure...

Recipe for Pistachio Nut Butter can be find here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Spicy Squash Salad with Lentils and Goat Cheese: The way we communicate

When you’ve been good friends with someone for a while, your communication changes.

You stop bothering with the pleasantries – the “Hello, how are you’s?” and the “What’s new with you’s?”

Because you already know she’s busy with grad school and the 5K race she's planning for her fellowship program to help prevent teen suicide (sign up here!), and she already knows that you’ve been blogging, writing features for TasteSpotting and spending too much money at Bar Covell. If something is new, you tell each other immediately – send a text or G-Chat message or just pick up the phone and start right into the conversation without so much as a breath.

After 8 years of friendship, Ashley and I have reached a stage in our relationship where we are more like sisters than we are friends. She’s one of the few people who will call me out when I’m being irrational or handling a situation inappropriately. She’s also one of the few people who I can have an entire conversation with based on the exchange of links.

She’ll send me a link to a new pair of boots she’s dying to order, I’ll respond with a link to a dress I need from Anthropologie, and then we both go back to whatever it is we are supposed to be doing.

Until we find another piece of jewelry or bag or sweater that we have to have.

Because both of us love to cook hearty vegetarian meals, we also communicate with recipe links – most recently with the link to Smitten Kitchen’s Spicy Squash Salad with Lentils and Goat Cheese that we had both already independently found and decided to make. I whipped up the cuddly sweet and savory salad on Saturday night, she made it on Sunday night using cayenne for an added punch of flavor, and then we exchanged notes on Monday morning.

Our general consensus?

Love, love, love it.

We also love this dress, but think it’s way too expensive for our humble lentils and squash budgets.

Spicy Squash Salad with Lentils and Goat Cheese
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen who adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves 3 as a main course

3/4 cup green lentils
6 cups peeled, seeded and cubed butternut squash or sugar pumpkin (1-inch cubes) (from about a 2-pound squash)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 heaping teaspoon ground cumin
1 heaping teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
4 cups baby arugula
3 large shallots, sliced into thin rings
½ cup soft crumbled goat cheese
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, plus additional to taste
¼ cup toasted pine nuts

Preheat oven to 400°F. Toss squash or pumpkin cubes with 1 tablespoon oil, cumin, paprika and salt. Arrange in a single layer on baking sheet and roast 20 minutes. Flip pieces, stir in the shallots, and the roast both for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until tender.

Meanwhile, soak lentils for 10 minutes in a small bowl, then drain. Cook lentils in boiling salted water until tender but firm, about 30 minutes. Rinse with water and let drain.

Heat large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat and add the lentils, squash, shallots, arugula, and the sherry vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and extra vinegar, if desired. Cook together until just heated through, then divide among plates to serve. Sprinkle with goat cheese and pine nuts.

Ashley’s suggestion: Add cayenne pepper when roasting the squash for added flavor.

My suggestion: Serve with quinoa.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Umami Burger: It's not what you think

Out of place doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel when I walk up to Umami Burger on Hollywood Blvd. on Friday night.

I shift my eyes over the casually dressed crowd lingering at their tables on the patio and tug down on my new Anthropologie print dress. “Maybe I should have gone with jeans,” I think as I awkwardly approach the hostess stand.

“There’s going to be three of us…” I stammer. “But they aren’t here yet. Can I put our name down for a table or…?”

“We don’t seat incomplete parties, but you’re welcome to wait at the bar.” The hostess responds brightly, unaware that the words “wait at the bar” have thrown me into panic mode.

“Right.” I respond. “I’ll do that.”

I approach the short expanse of bar with trepidation. A boy, who looks like a regular, is sitting in the middle of the space hungrily digging into a bowl of sweet potato fries while aggressively slurping his beer. I scoot onto one of the stools, and try to look casual as I orient myself to my surroundings. A TV is playing a basketball game, but I don’t even bother pretending to watch. It would be obvious to everyone – the bartender, the hungry boy who is now annihilating a burger, and the influx of people coming in for to-go orders – that I’m not actually interested in the score.

“Can I get you something?” The bartender asks.

“Do you have a wine list?” I respond, turning red at the sound of my predictable request. I feel like rolling my eyes at myself, giving my dress the once over, and whispering to someone about how totally lame and Shelley Long in “Cheers” I am.

Instead, I sit there being my former teenage self, afraid to engage with anyone. I sip my $6 glass of a standard New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I play with my phone, and I eye the door like I’m expecting Jesus to walk through at any moment. I practically leap from my seat when my friend Ashley and her friend Belle arrive 15 minutes later. Finally, I have reinforcements.

We are seated a few minutes later at a table for four in the middle of the expansive, sporty restaurant. I’m much more at ease now that I’m among friends who don’t inhale their burgers in less than four bites like the hungry fellow at the bar. Ashley orders a glass of Pinot Noir, Belle declares that she’s going to get the garden salad as her side, and then we all place orders for the restaurant’s vegetarian Earth Burger ($11). Our behavior is so deliciously girly I can’t help but make note of it to our waiter. He doesn’t respond – just scurries away to the kitchen to put in our wimpy requests.

But we don’t care if he finds us painfully feminine. The meatless burger composed of a mushroom and edamame patty topped with white soy aioli, truffle ricotta, cipollini onions, lettuce, and slow-roasted tomatoes is the reason we’re here tonight. And it’s the reason that I qualify my Foursquare check-in on Twitter with the phrase, “It’s not what you think.”

Because I don’t want to try the real Umami burger – the one that most people swear is like a meat massage for the mouth. I have no interest in the drippy, bloody medium rare carcass of flesh that others consider a grease bomb.

That doesn’t, however, keep me from lubricating my arteries with an order of the sweet potato fries to share with Ashley. The heap of thin-cut, crisp fries are lighter than I expect. They don’t leave a streak of oil on my fingers when I grab them two at a time (my preferred method of eating fries) to dip into the house-made ketchup. They’re also sweeter than I expect – perhaps because of the ketchup that also seems to be jazzed up with some form of sugar – and perhaps because they are minimally salted. They’re good, but oddly enough, I prefer the versions I’ve had at Native Foods, Veggie Grill and M Cafe de Chaya.

No such assessment can be made when the Earth Burger arrives at the table. The beet juice-stained patty stands tall and proud on the glazed brioche bun that’s been grilled in an indiscreet amount of butter. It’s an in-your-face veggie burger that screams “Just because I’m vegetarian, doesn’t mean I’m a pussy.” It has stature, girth, and, most importantly, flavor.

As I dive my teeth through the spongy bun and thick fleshy patty, I feel as though I’m actually eating real animal carnage. Not because it tastes like meat, but because it tastes decadent and indulgent like meat – especially when I reach the center of the burger where the truffle ricotta is concentrated.

When I finish the beastly concoction, I feel more satisfied than I ever have after finishing a veggie burger. I feel less satisfied after sampling the special dessert of the night – a fried Cake Monkey oatmeal sandwich cookie with vanilla ice cream ($10). The once respectable cookie has disintegrated into the puffy fried shell and when we break into it with our forks, there is only the slightest hint of oaty flavor remaining. It’s palatable when paired with the ice cream, but not particularly compelling. The ice cream is also less impressive when eaten solo.

Despite the shaky landing with dessert and my shaky take-off at the bar, the epic Earth Burger has already come to define my first visit to Umami. As we get ready to leave the restaurant, I finally feel like I belong.

I finally feel like I’m in the right place.

Umami Burger
4655 Hollywood Boulevard,
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 669-3922

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Valerie Confections' Fall Open House: Love (and chocolate) for the people

Last fall – Monday, October 26th to be exact – I was having a particularly bad day. I’m not sure what made it bad (though I imagine it was somehow related to work and/or sleep deprivation), but I remember I was ready to cry by the time the clock finally, mercifully struck 5 pm. At the time I was planning on going to my usual Monday night Bar Method class, but at the last minute, I changed my mind.

I’d been invited to attend a special Press Preview Event and Party at Valerie Confections to kick off their Fall Open House, which would be taking place that week. My initial reaction upon receipt of the invitation was to skip the sugar fest in favor of the aforementioned workout, but as I started to leave my office parking lot all I wanted to do was drown my sorrows in chocolate.

I didn’t know what to expect when I pulled up to Valerie Confections’ humble storefront at 3360 West 1st Street, just west of Downtown LA, but as soon as I entered the shop and attached workroom, my mood was instantly uplifted. Owners Valerie Gordon and Stan Weightman greeted me with warm smiles and a glass of champagne. They insisted that I grab a plate and begin making my way around the room that was filled with heaping trays of their signature toffees, salt and pepper truffles, rose petal petit fours, specialty jams, and huge pieces of their Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake featuring two layers of sponge cake coated in a coffee whipped cream frosting and “delicious bits of crunch.”

As I nibbled on the delightful confections, I finally understood what Carla from “Top Chef” Season 5 was talking about when she claimed she was infusing “love” into her dishes. Each hand-crafted chocolate, each crunchy piece of toffee and each delicate petit four tasted like it had been made with love. I felt Valerie’s sincere presence in each bite I took, and by the time I made my way to the exit, I felt like I’d been given a giant hug.

This week, Valerie and Stan are again inviting the local community into their beloved shop for a Fall Open House featuring various complimentary confections for visitors to sample. The Open House kicked off yesterday, Monday, November 8th, with samples from their New Fall Collection, including their pumpkin seed toffee and their new chocolate bark flavors, and will end this coming Saturday, November 13th with highlights from the week. Each day of the Open House will feature a different item or items from their ever-growing line of products.

Today, between 10 am and 6 pm, Valerie Confections’ will be doling out slices of the aforementioned Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake that was recently featured in the July 8th issue of the New York Times Style Magazine. The cake is as delightful as the owners themselves and is the perfect way to perk up an otherwise bland Tuesday.

If you can’t make it by the shop today, I highly encourage you to check out at least one of the opening house events this week. Even if you aren’t in a bad mood like I was when I was first introduced to Valerie Confections’ a year ago, your heart will still be warmed by Valerie and Stan’s welcoming presence and the love that they infuse into their artisanal goodies.

The Fall Open House tasting schedule is as follows:

Tuesday, November 9th
10 am to 6 pm
Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake

The Blum's Coffee Crunch Cake was a favorite confection for many, many Californians until the Blum's Bakeries were shuttered in the 1970's. Valerie is proud to have recreated the cake for those who remember it as their favorite childhood dessert and for those just introduced to its unique flavors. The cake features two layers of sponge cake in a delicate coffee whipped cream frosting, covered in bits of coffee crunch. We will be sampling slices of cake for all who visit.

Wednesday, November 10th
10 am to 6:30 pm
Cookies and Hot Chocolate

Stop by on Wednesday for a cup of Valerie's new Hot Chocolate and an assortment of cookies including Chocolate Covered Shortbread, Sugar, Durango Salt & Chocolate Chip, and Gingersnaps.

Thursday, November 11th
10 am to 6:30 pm
Chocolates, Truffles, and Toffees

Our signature hand-dipped toffee in flavors like Almond Fleur de Sel, Ginger, and Mint as well as liquid caramels, black pepper truffles, and salted ganache truffles will available for visitors to taste.

Friday, November 12th
10 am to 6:30 pm
Valerie at the Market Jam

Valerie's jam, made with local, farmer's market fruit was recently named the "Best in LA" by Los Angeles magazine. Taste the best jam in LA for yourself. On Friday, we'll be handing out sample size jars of our jam in seasonal flavors.

Saturday, November 13th
11 am to 5 pm
Highlights of the Week

On Saturday we will be sampling all manner of chocolates and confections including much of what has been sampled throughout the week, and perhaps a few new additions. Visitors are invited to stop by and see what we have on hand.

Valerie Confections is located at 3360 West 1st St. in Los Angeles at the intersection of Virgil and 1st Street.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Corkbar: Better than I remembered

It’s always a bit strange to go back to a restaurant for a second visit after a considerable amount of time has passed.

“Will I still like it?” I wonder. “Will it be as good as I remember it to be?”

Then I’ll start doubting if it was ever all that good in the first place – that maybe it was “good” to my former dining self, but won’t necessarily be “good” to my current dining self, because clearly I am a much, much more mature eater than I was a year and a half ago when I still hadn’t eaten a cheeseburger.

Or not.

Even so, I felt a trickle of sneaking suspicion when I approached Corkbar at 12th and Grand Avenue in Downtown LA last Wednesday night. I’d raved about the California wine country inspired wine bar after my first visit in April 2009 that took place only a month after it had opened for business.

The experience had been a memorable one – and not just because it encouraged me to view Downtown LA as a classier, trendier and more destination-worthy locale than I’d previously thought. The service was warm and sincere, the wines were impeccably paired with the thoughtful Farmer’s market-inspired menu selections, and the banana bread pudding with caramelized bananas had left me speechless.

Walking into Corkbar on Wednesday night for a special media dinner, I was startled by how familiar it felt to me even after a year and seven months. The positive memories of the great time I’d had before instantly put me at ease in the sparsely decorated space that appears designed to showcase – above all else – the bar’s impressive selection of California wines.

There’s no pretension circulating in the air – no sense that I’d be “once-overed” if I walked in wearing a t-shirt and an old pair of ripped jeans. It’s a friendly spot – most likely due to the vision of co-owners Caleb Wines and John McGonigle who started the bar with the intention of re-creating the casual and approachable California wine tasting experience. With over 120 California wines available by the bottle, 80 of which can be ordered by the glass, they seem to have achieved at least part of this mission. I am pleased with both of my selections that evening - the CEP Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley ($13), and the 2008 JC Cellars "Impostor," a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petit Sirah, Tempranillo, Carignan, Grenache and Viognier ($17).

But wine isn’t the whole story. Executive Chef Albert Aviles, who previously worked under Carolynn Spence at Bar Marmont, has brought a sly and purposeful hand to the one-page menu of seasonal eats. There’s the typical bar fare, of course – a nicely-crusted Mac & Cheese ($10) that bites back with the prescient application of roasted pasilla chiles; Gougères ($7) that pack a potent punch of cheddar cheese flavor, but dissolve on the tongue without provocation; and an impressive Pork Slider on a pretzel bun that’s served with an assertive pickle relish and tangy mustard dressing. The dishes are comforting and familiar in conception, but refined in their execution.

Aviles extends that thoughtful hand to the rest of the dishes on the menu as well. Briny Curried Mussels ($17) are astutely paired with a delicate coconut curry broth in a dish that sings with well-balanced salty and sweet flavors. A Root Vegetable Salad with arugula, dandelion greens, cress, roasted root vegetables, shallots, a red wine-thyme vinaigrette and balsamic drizzle ($14) is similarly uplifted by the natural collusion of its ingredients, though is a touch overdressed. In comparison, the special iceberg Wedge Salad with a spicy blue cheese dressing, crumbled bacon and roasted tomatoes ($10) is less successful as a cohesive unit - perhaps because of the nature of the salad as a deconstructed plate.

For the mains, I was particularly impressed by the special for the evening – supple slices of pork tenderloin served over cabbage pickled in apple cider vinegar, and a silky pomme puree. It was hard to divert my fork in the direction of the other dishes we’d ordered for the table, but they were -- for the most part -- no less compelling to my tongue. While the Hangar Steak with red wine a mushroom risotto ($20) was sadly cooked past its prime, the Root Bear Braised Short Ribs with fennel and cheesy polenta ($16) is a solid selection for meat-eaters. The Seared Sea Scallops served with parsnip puree, spinach sautéed with bacon, and brown butter ($24) is similarly well-executed, though I did find myself wishing for a crustier sear on the five meaty scallops. All the mains are indulgent plates, but they don’t seem unnecessarily so. Aviles isn’t doing short ribs simply to do short ribs, nor is he adding bacon to something just because it’s bacon. He’s doing it because these choices make sense in the context of the restaurant (big red wines sour when paired with short ribs), or in, the case of the scallops, within the context of the dish.

No where is this more evident than with the special “Breakfast” bread pudding dessert that’s composed of cinnamon roll brioche bread topped with crème fraiche, caramel sauce, and bits of well-rendered bacon. While I was initially disappointed the banana bread pudding wouldn’t be making an appearance that evening, I was immediately silenced upon tasting Aviles’ playful pudding. It’s everything I want in a dessert – salty and sweet, warm with the appropriate cold juxtaposition from the crème fraiche, and immensely comforting.

It’s an apropos representation of the entire Corkbar experience. Everything about the classy wine bar is similarly comforting – just like it was when I first visited it in April 2009. It won’t be another year and seven months before I go back. And next time, I'll walk in confident that it will be even better than I remembered.

403 West 12th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 746-0050

Special Event Alert: Every Tuesday, Chef Aviles tests an appetizer-sized portion of a new, market-driven dish not available on the regular menu, for only $2. “Test Kitchen Tuesdays” begin at 5:30 pm. Limit one per guest, while ingredients last.