Monday, February 28, 2011

Mushroom and Spinach Ris-oat-o: Painfully obvious

While I consider myself moderately skilled in the kitchen (particularly when it comes to quinoa and things that elevate my insulin levels), I’ve never been all that adept at making eggs. My omelets are always a complete disaster, I still regularly lose one out of every three eggs that I attempt to poach, and even my scrambled eggs turn out looking like sad yellowish grey pebbles.

I’ve had similar issues with the seemingly simplest form of egg preparation – the humble fried egg. The process of keeping the yolk runny while making sure the white is completely cooked through has always seemed a bit impossible to me. My usual method involves frying the egg at a low temperature and then covering the pan with a lid so that the steam will sear the top of the white. Even then, I perpetually end up with an imperfect egg that’s overly brown on the bottom, yet still contains a shiver of jiggly white around the edges of the quickly hardening yolk.

It’s completely and utterly frustrating to me – so much so, that I often just resort to scrambling the yolk in with the white and then frying the whole thing into a sad, well-done puck that I wouldn’t dare serve to any other human being. (Sometimes I have trouble serving it to myself.)

A few weeks ago, I proudly told my friend Sarah about the bibimbap quinoa I’d recently made – complete with one of my woefully fried eggs (I, of course, didn’t mention the woeful part). Always the thinker, she responded that bibimbap would be a fun idea for a buffet-style dinner party – people could pick their grain (quinoa, rice, etc), and then their toppings

“Smashing idea!” I enthused, before sheepishly admitting that if we were to ever do such a thing, I could not be in charge of frying the eggs.

With downward cast eyes, I then regaled her with all my frying issues using vivid, jiggly detail. When I’d finally finished ranting, she gently asked if I’d ever tried flipping the egg over.

I stared at her, horrified. “But doesn’t that break the yolk?!”

“Not if the base of the white is already set. It just cooks the top of the white.” She assured me.

I was stunned – I couldn’t believe I’d never considered it before. Particularly when I tried it the next day and it actually worked. It seemed so simple – and embarrassingly obvious.

When my brilliant friend recently featured a ris-oat-o made with oatmeal and mushrooms on her equally brilliant food site, I was similarly struck by how I had missed such a seemingly obvious connection.

I love oatmeal.

I love risotto.

Why had it never occurred to me to combine the two?

While I’ve made risotto with quinoa and barley before, making it with steel cut oats creates a far more similar texture to actual risotto. When the starch releases from the oats, it pulls the grains together – much like Arborio rice does when it releases its starches. As an added bonus, the wholesome, nutty grains makes for a far healthier version – especially since there’s no need to add any Parmesan.

What struck me the most, however, was how well the oats paired with the savory mushrooms and ribbons of spinach that I added in for something green. For years I’ve been eating my oatmeal with sweet fruit, nuts or nut butter. I never imagined that it could taste so good using food items from the other end of the flavor spectrum.

I did, however, imagine that the ris-oat-o would be even better topped with a fried egg. Particularly one that has been delicately fried on both sides so that the yolk is perfectly runny and the white is perfectly set.

It’s pure genius, I tell you. Pure delicious genius.

Mushroom and Spinach Ris-oat-o
Adapted from TasteSpotting
Serves 1

Adaptations: I used more fresh thyme (that I removed from the sprigs), omitted the bay leaf, added spinach, and sautéed the mushrooms in a little Marsala wine. I also slightly reduced the amount of oats in proportion to the mushrooms, and finished the dish with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The oatmeal also took longer for me to cook than the recipe instructed so I adjusted the cooking time below.

Olive oil
1/3 cup finely diced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
1/3 cup steel cut oats
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup shiitakes, baby bella mushrooms
2 tablespoons dry Marsala wine
1 cup spinach
Salt, pepper to taste
Balsamic vinegar to finish
Optional fried egg

Heat splash of olive oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add minced garlic and cook until garlic is cooked, about 3 minutes.

Add the half the fresh thyme leaves, oats, and chicken broth to the saucepan. Bring to boil, then turn down heat to low. Simmer, stirring often, until oats are cooked through, about 30-35 minutes. Do not leave the kitchen (according to Sarah, burned oats are not a good thing). If the oats start to get too thick, stir in more chicken stock, about ¼ cup at a time.

While the oats are simmering, heat a splash of olive oil in medium sauté pan. Add fresh mushrooms and sauté with the rest of the thyme and the Marsala wine until mushrooms are browned, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, set aside.

Reheat the pan and briefly sauté the spinach until just wilted. Remove with a slotted spoon and then place on a paper towel to absorb and excess liquid.

When oats are cooked, stir in browned mushrooms and spinach. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve hot, garnish with fresh thyme and optional balsamic vinegar. Can also top with a perfectly fried egg.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Scoops and Scoops Westside: How the fanatacism began

The first time I went to Scoops – the original location on Heliotrope Drive – I was looking for one thing: Red velvet ice cream.

I’d heard rumors that the humble ice cream shop owned and operated by epicurean genius Tai Kim carried the flavor, and at the time, nearly four years ago, I was obsessed with anything red velvet. The obsession was quickly reaching Justin Bieberesque fanaticism for me. I’d pour over the Chowhound message boards where angry ‘hounders engaged in fierce debates about the best red velvet cupcakes and cake in Los Angeles, and then I’d plot my eventual takedown of all the items mentioned.

First, I’d devour Sprinkles’ version, then Doughboys’, then Sweet Lady Jane’s, then Susie Cakes’, then….

It was starting to get a little out of control. I’d practically shove my friendly co-workers out of the way when we’d receive a cupcake delivery from one of our clients, mentally screaming with the giddy enthusiasm of a teenybopper, “Red Velvaaaaaaaaaaaaat!” Like those angry ‘hounders, I’d fallen face first into the red velvet trend and had a one-track-mind when it came to any cake-like product.

If it wasn’t red, I wanted nothing to do with it.

So I was a bit shocked when I walked into Scoops for the first time and realized that this red velvet ice cream I’d been hearing so much about was not a flavor that Tai served every single day. Even more shocking, none of his eclectic flavors – aside from the classic brown bread – were available everyday. I pouted for a few seconds, but eventually recovered enough to sample the options he did have.

While the popular brown bread, a caramel-based ice cream streaked with Grape Nuts cereal, was an immediate favorite, I also fell in love with the other scoop I selected that spring evening nearly four years ago. The Chai Irish Cream was unlike any ice cream I’d ever tasted before – smooth and light on my tongue, but popping with aromatic tea spices that were slightly softened by the luxurious liquor.

I visited Scoops several times over the course of the next few years, but never on a day when red velvet was in the rotation. But as time went by, my fanaticism for the flavor began to wane. I no longer trampled my co-workers for first dibs on the cupcakes. I was perfectly happy to be left with the humble carrot cake that was often passed over in lieu of the more popular options, and sometimes I wouldn’t even take any cupcake at all.

Even so, when I walked into the new Scoops – Scoops Westside, which is owned by friend and fellow food blogger Matthew Kang – last Thursday, I was delighted to see that the flavor I had sought out so long ago was finally available for me to taste. Even though Matt had several other tempting options in stock that day – including Cinnamon Basil – I reverted back to my days of red velvet fanaticism and immediately requested a scoop.

Given that I’d been thinking about this hypothetical combination of ice cream + cake for four years, it was inevitable that my expectations of its grandness would likely be disappointed. But the ice cream was exactly what it promised to be – a delicate red velvet-flavored base topped with hunks of real red velvet cake and cream cheese frosting. Sublime, right?

Yes, I suppose.

The problem is that I’ve come to expect something different from Scoops in the years since that initial visit. I want the Cinnamon Basil, the Blueberry Black Tea, the Coconut Pandan, and the other unique combinations that seem inherently wrong at first glance. When I stride through that swinging glass door, I’m not mentally screaming for any flavor in particular, I’m screaming for the fun that comes with playing ice cream roulette.

At Scoops Westside and the original location on Heliotrope, I’ve come to expect the unexpected. Just like that darn box of chocolates in Forrest Gump, the best part about Scoops is that I never know what I’m going to get. And that’s something that’s actually worth being fanatical about.

Scoops Westside
3400 Overland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(323) 405-7055

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Softer Soles $25 Giveaway: A treat for the feet

Back in the days when my world didn’t revolve almost entirely around food, I spent my money like most girls my age do. There were weekly shopping trips to the Grove, impulse trashy magazine purchases at the checkout stand, and bi-monthly pedicures at my favorite nail salon, Bellacures.

When I started going out more often and cooking with ingredients that were more expensive than a package of chicken and a 99-cent box of pasta from Trader Joe’s, my spending habits began to change. I live on a tight budget and something had to give. As much as I love playing dress-up at Anthropologie, I wasn’t about to bid Osteria Mozza or my new impulse purchases of $5 chocolate bars adieu.

So I stopped going to the Grove every weekend, I opted to read the slightly disheveled and sweaty magazines at my gym as opposed to buying my own, and I started getting pedicures less frequently.

Regardless of how long it had been between my pedicures (one month, two months, six months), Tommy Vu, my favorite nail technician at Bellacures, would always greet me with a huge smile and hug. Even with my often callused-feet and disreputable nails (I’m sure no treat for him to polish), Tommy treated me like I was his best customer. While I’d never been the type of girl who felt it necessary to request a certain technician (I always thought that was rather fussy), once I’d had Tommy, I couldn’t imagine letting anyone else touch my feet.

So when he told me he was opening up his own salon, Softer Soles, with fellow Bellacures stud, Cathy, I knew that I would be following him to the West 3rd Street location as soon as they opened.

A couple days before the grand opening on February 8th, Tommy shot me a message on Facebook to let me know they were finally in business. It had been six months since my last pedicure (I’d been doing a LOT of eating), so I was more than overdue for a visit.

This past Monday evening, I finally ducked into the bright, clean space to give my long-neglected toes the same sort of treatment I usually reserve for my stomach. As my poor nails were clipped, buffed and polished, Tommy told me all about their plans for the spa-like salon. While they are currently only offering pedicures, manicures and waxing (a full list of services can be found below), in the next few weeks they will be hiring a masseuse and foot masseuse to give clients massages in the back rooms. I'm particularly excited about the $15 minute food massages that will be available until 10 pm on week nights. Softer Soles will also be offering services for private parties and will host special events for holidays like Mother’s Day.

While I still can’t fathom giving up my luxurious pasta dinners, I’m definitely going to be making room in my budget for more $25 pedicures at Softer Soles. And because Tommy has always treated me with so much kindness, I’m going to extend a bit of that love to all of my faithful readers who have put up with my obsessive quinoa talk, nonsensical digressions about my illicit scone dreams, and reverent ramblings about Nancy Silverton.

To that end, I’m hosting a giveaway for one lucky LA reader to receive a $25 gift card to Softer Soles that I’m going to (gasp) pay for myself because I believe in Tommy so much. To enter, just leave a comment below telling me why you need a pedicure. To get the ball rolling, I’m thinking something along the lines of… “I need a pedicure because my heels are so rough, I can sharpen pencils on them.”

Whatever your response, don’t forget to include your e-mail in the comment so I can get in touch with you if you win.

For a second chance to win (I’ll create two entries for you as opposed to just one), simply tweet the following message on Twitter:

“@DianaTakesaBite, I need Softer Soles! Pick me to win a $25 gift certificate to Softer Soles Nail Salon

I’ll choose the winner next Friday, March 4th with the very sophisticated system of dropping everyone’s name into a mixing bowl.

There may or may not be pasta in that bowl.

Softer Soles
7924 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 601-7534

Monday – Friday: 10 am – 8 pm
Saturday – Sunday: 10 am – 7 pm


Manicure - $18
Quick Fix Manicure - $10
Kid Manicure - $10
Softer Soles’ Sea Salt Exfoliate Manicure - $28
Dry Hands Therapy Manicure - $35

Color Gel
Gel Manicure - $40
Gelish-cure Extension - $50
Gel Removal Manicure - $30

Acrylic Full Set - $40
Acrylic Fill - $25
Acrylic Removal $15
Extra Long Acrylic Tips - $10 & Up
Cut Down Acrylic - $8
Acrylic Nail Fix - $4 per nail

Pedicure -$25
Quick Fix Pedicure - $12
Kid Pedicure - $10
Sea Salt Exfoliates Pedicure - $35
Callus Treatment Pedicure - $35
Softer Soles Signature Pedicure - $45
Relax-ology Pedicure - $45

Shiny Buff - $5
Nail Art - $5 per design & up
French Polish - $8
Paraffin with Hot Booties or Mittens - $10
Added Callus Treatment - $10
Extra Massage - $1 per minute

Eyebrow clean up - $18
Upper lip wax -$8
Lower lip - $5
Chin - $10
Full arms - $30 and up
Half arms - $18 and up
Full legs - $40 and up
Half legs - $25 and up
Underarms - $15
All off bikini - $45
New World (Half-off) Bikini - $35 and up
Just sides Bikini - $20 and up
Full back wax - $40 and up
Lower back wax - $20
Chest wax - $25 and up
Stomach - $15 and up

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Crème Caramel: Feeding my bread pudding addiction

There’s a brief moment when I think, “If I stop eating right now, I can eat the rest for dessert tonight.”

I survey the sizable hunk of Crème Caramel’s caramelized banana and fig bread pudding in front of me and shake my head with a decisive “nah.” My fork confidently crashes into the remaining tuft of warm, custard-soaked brioche bread, excising the biggest bite I’ve had yet.

My eyes instinctively close as the caramel-topped bread pudding deflates on my tongue, releasing the slightest hint of salty pork from the bacon fat that was used to caramelize the ripe slices of banana.

“I’m in trouble now,” I think as I spear the last chunk with my fork, careful to drag it through the remaining drizzle of caramel on my plate.

When I first discovered that Crème Caramel, a Los Angeles-based dessert company, would be selling its specialty crème caramel (chilled custard French flan) and bread pudding at my local farmer’s market on Melrose Place in West Hollywood every Sunday, I was thrilled. I’d had the opportunity to snag a taste of their popular bacon bread pudding at Eat My Blog this past December and was eager to dig into a full-sized version that I could horde all to myself.

But now, post-hording, I realize that this could quickly become a dangerous addiction. It was far too easy to pick up the $5 bread pudding that morning while I was doing my usual market shopping for kale, pink lady apples and Brussels sprouts. It was also far too easy to heat and serve the individual-sized treat. I simply preheated my oven to 325 degrees, unwrapped the cellophane and then stuck the convenient bread pudding tin on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes. An ample drizzle of caramel later, and my tongue was in business.

The only thing that isn’t easy when it comes to Crème Caramel’s products is saying “no” to them. Especially when greeted with Founder Kristine de la Cruz’s infectious smile on a Sunday morning. It’s better than a cup of coffee – and, incidently, is the perfect companion to her equally delightful sweet treats.

Crème Caramel is available every Sunday from 10 am – 2 pm at the Melrose Place Farmer’s Market in West Hollywood. To learn about special “secret menu” items, follow @CremeCaramelLA on Twitter.

Ordering information can be found on their
website and blog.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Le Saint Amour: Of love and butter

When it comes to the act of communal dining, there are generally three different reactions.

Some react with glee, thinking, “Sharing plates means I get to order and eat lots of different things!”

Others react with relief, thinking, “Thank God I have someone to share this piece of chocolate cake with – I couldn’t possibly eat the whole thing myself!” (I have no experience with this.)

A different set, the possessive set, reacts with horror. “I have to share my duck confit with three other people?! No fair – I want it all to myself!”

While I usually tend toward the third reaction and desire to slice someone’s hand off if they try to take anything from my plate, during a recent hosted media dinner at Le Saint Amour, a classic Parisian brasserie in Culver City, I found myself having an experience unlike I’ve ever had before. The act of sharing the luxurious dishes with the four people sitting around me at our little corner of the banquet table engendered a response of pure joy. Their presence enlivened every bite I took -- elevating Chef Bruno Herve Commereuc's refined French fare to a different level of deliciousness because they were there, smiling, laughing and enjoying those bites with me.

When our first course, the pristine Kumamoto Oysters with Champagne Mignonette, arrived at the table, my companions were delighted (not disturbed) to hear that it would be my first raw oyster. They eagerly walked me through the raw-oyster-eating process, instructing me to make sure the oyster itself was loose from the shell before dressing it with a touch of lemon and a splash of the shallot-scented mignonette. They watched in rapt anticipation as I lifted the delicate oyster to my lips and slurped it from the shell, blasting my tongue with a shot of cool, fresh ocean brine. Cheers nearly erupted when I looked up with a big grin.

They were, however, quick to inform me that not all raw oysters are as delightful as the ones at Le Saint Amour, and that they can often be overpowered by an overassertive mignonette.

Notes were also passed as we shared the Charcuterie platter, also prepared by Chef Herve Commereuc, who has been consulting with Chef Walter Manzke, formerly the head chef at Church & State, to refine his menu.

"I like the Country Pate and Toulouse Venison Sausage the best," said one.

A vote for the Duck Rillette was voiced by another.

"I think I need to try another taste to be sure..." announced a third, reaching for the communal plate to siphon off another bite of the neatly presented Galantine avec Pistachio.

It was all very pleasant, but our behavior was still somewhat reigned in by social convention at this juncture in our evening. When presented with the individual-sized Escargots en Croute, we tentatively used our two-pronged forks to poke at the the thick crust of buttery pastry to free the garlic-saturated escargot in the base of each ramekin. Did we dare use our fingers to smash the pastry into the cup so we could sop up the buttery sauce at the bottom? The question lingered unasked on each of our tongues.

By the time the Moules Marinieres and Frites arrived, this politeness had vanished. As we heaped the supple-fleshed mussels onto our plates and dredged the crisp fries in the accompanying garlic aioli, our excitement for the food overcame our ability to maintain social grace. Fingers were licked, seconds were administered, and bread was requested and then commandeered as a vehicle to consume the thyme-scented, cream-based white wine broth served with the mussels.

"When you dip, I dip, we dip," I found myself half-singing to my dining companion on the left as I held the serving bowl so both of us could saturate the warm pieces of baguette with the lush sauce.

When the serving spoon fell into the bowl moments later, we all looked at it with lust.

"The happiest spoon that there ever was." We agreed, before using our fingers to free the last two mussels from their savory bath.

This excitement was mirrored when the Moroccan Merquez arrived. We urged each other to take more of the potently spiced sausage and fluffy peaks of raisin-studded couscous -- ironically one of our lightest bites of the evening. On this plate impact is achieved through the quality and seasoning of each component rather than through a luxurious robe of butter or cream.

Decadence reappeared with the Boeuf Bourguignon, Seared Black Bass with artichokes, and the Boudin Noir, blood sausage with braised red cabbage and a sweet, warm bacon vinaigrette. The Bouef Bourguignon, a traditional interpretation of the dish with red-wine braised beef cheeks, carrots, caramelized bacon, and gnocchi, is like a more developed, sophisticated version of the ubiquitous short ribs. The secret is in the sauce -- a deep, muddy gravy that is clearly thickened with a roux of flour and butter.

The intensity of flavors in the dish make it the standout entree of the three, but we were universally fond of the fresh artichokes accompanying the flaky white fish, and found the sweetness of the cabbage a prescient match to help cut the richness of the blood sausage. Upon revealing to my dining companions that, again, I was in virginal territory with the boudin noir, they were, again, quick to inform me that not all blood sausage tastes as mellow and refined as the one at Le Saint Amour.

We were anything but mellow (or refined) by the time dessert was shepherded onto the table three hours after our arrival at the restaurant. Our eyes were initially enraptured with the nicely executed, but fairly standard Chocolate Souffle with Banana Ice Cream, Salted Caramel and Peanuts, but the Lemon Mousse with Tangerine Sorbet and Blood Orange Granita ultimately snuck in to capture our hearts. Despite the richness of the food we'd gluttonously consumed prior, our spoons attacked the lemon mousse with conviction. While at first sight, the dish appears mundane, all the components and tart, sweet and tangy flavors are in perfect balance. The refreshing granita and sorbet are the ideal foils for the budino-like mousse beneath them -- this was a dessert we all wanted to eat more of.

And, when the diners at the end of the table were too full to finish theirs, we did.

As we reluctantly pushed away from the table and hugged each other good bye, it struck me that the name of the restaurant was especially fitting given our evening together. The thoughtfully-prepared and classically-presented French fare brought more than bulging bellies and buttery fingers into our little corner of the table. Sharing every plate and every garlic-aioli-dipped fry brought joy and mutual appreciation into our hearts.

Le Saint Amour is a place to fall in love -- with one's dining companions, with the Moules Frites and with the act (or art) of communal dining.

Le Saint Amour
9725 Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 842-8155

For more on Le Saint Amour, check out Neil at Food Marathon's perspective of our evening.

Upcoming Event: This Sunday, February 27th, Le Saint Amour is inviting its diners to watch the Academy Awards with a bit of French flare. Guests can enjoy a glass of complimentary Hibiscus Flower Champagne and cheesy Gougères, while they cheer on their favorite flicks and nitpick over their least favorite gowns. Reservations are recommended.

Friday, February 18, 2011

On Weird Food Combinations and Roasted Butternut Squash with Red Grapes and Sage

This morning when I was driving to work, I couldn’t stop thinking about kimchi cheesecake.

It was a dish that was listed on the sample menu released when Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s LudoBites 6.0 at Max in Sherman Oaks was announced this past October. While I’m not sure if the item made an appearance during the pop-up’s nearly three week run, at the time, it was the dish that most piqued my interest. Enough so that I still remember it nearly four months later.

As I meandered through the seemingly never-ending parade of signals along Pico Blvd. on my commute this morning, the kimchi cheesecake popped into my head once again. I kept wondering, “What would it taste like? Could two such disparate items actually work together?”

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try it. I imagined that the sultry cheesecake might tame the spice and sour tang of the kimchi – muting the astringency in a way that could be compelling. It sounded crazy – perhaps one of Ludo’s strangest pairings ever, but then again I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for strange pairings.

I am, after all, the girl who makes her oatmeal with apple, dried cranberries, cinnamon, and peanut butter. And I see nothing wrong with putting green apple on my egg sandwiches or eating burgers with teriyaki sauce, cayenne-candied bacon, pineapple, and cheese.

So when I stumbled upon a recipe for Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Grapes, and Sage on Epicurious a few weeks ago, I was more than a little intrigued. I’d never thought to pair squash with grapes before – and I’d certainly never thought to roast grapes in the oven. I immediately printed the recipe so I could make the dish for a dinner party I was hosting at my apartment the next day.

While I was cognizant that it wasn’t necessarily the wisest idea to make an experimental dish for the first time when guests were coming for dinner, as soon as I pulled out the baking sheet of caramelized squash, onion and puckered grapes, I knew I had a winner in my hot-padded-hand. The sweet, warm grape juice burst forth from the blistered skins, creating a tangy dressing that was the perfect companion to the squash and onion. Seconds were requested by everyone at the table.

I’m thinking for the next dinner party, I’ll need to break out the kimchi cheesecake. After I get my guests buzzed enough to want to try it.

Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Grapes, and Sage
Adapted from Epicurious
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 side servings

Adaptations: I used a smaller squash than the recipe called for (2-1/4 pound) so reduced the proportions accordingly. I also used less olive oil, omitted the butter in the recipe, used more sage, and omitted the pine nuts. Next time I might try topping it with toasted walnuts – or, if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, a smattering of goat cheese.

1 1-1/2-pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 slightly heaping cup of seedless red grapes
3/4 medium onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh sage leaves
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 425°F. Combine butternut squash, grapes, onion, and sage in large bowl. Drizzle with oil. Season generously with salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Spread out onto large rimmed baking sheet. Roast until squash and onion begin to brown, stirring occasionally, about 50 minutes. Transfer to platter and serve.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Maui and Sons Bar & Grill: Taking a vacation from myself

This past Monday night, cupid’s love arrows created one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever experienced in LA. For 45 minutes, I sat in my car, my hands kneading the stirring wheel in frustration, while the traffic around me barely moved.

The most obnoxious part about the havoc Valentine’s Day was wreaking on my commute was not that love was the root cause, but that I almost missed the Bar Method class I had signed up for that evening. And I couldn’t miss Bar Method. I always go to Bar Method on Mondays. And then I always go home to eat quinoa and watch “How I Met Your Mother” and “Gossip Girl,” before going to bed at precisely 10 pm so I can be up at 6 am to go for a run before work, because I only like to run in the morning when the air quality is relatively unpolluted by exhaust and toxic fumes and crazy motorists.

This may come as a bit of a shock, but I can be a bit… tightly wound.

Sure, I have my moments when I let loose, skip Bar Method, drink more than a moderate amount of wine and stay out past my self-imposed curfew, but I’m not the type of girl anyone would describe as a party animal.

Or any type of animal, really. Unless that animal is a giraffe (my unfortunate nickname in high school).

So I need a bit of encouragement (usually from my older friends who are, ironically, the ones who are most likely get me to act my age) to “kick back.” Last night, however, I found encouragement from a location – the recently opened Maui and Sons Bar & Grill adjacent to the Egyptian Theatre and Pig and Whistle in Hollywood.

The casual space, a collaboration between Sunset Entertainment Group and surf brand, Maui and Sons, is a breath of fresh ocean air on the chaotic strip of Hollywood Blvd. that is more typically known for serving overpriced drinks to underdressed patrons. There’s no such attitude or pretension to be found at Maui and Sons Bar and Grill – just a carefree aloha spirit and the type of fare that one might expect to find in Venice. Funky, neon-colored tropical and frozen drinks are served with tiny umbrellas, $3 beers are served in frosted glasses, and the entire menu of Hawaiian BBQ-inspired eats is available for under $10.

With the giant shark situated outside of the entrance and kitschy beachy décor that includes a communal surfboard table, Maui and Sons is not the type I place I would normally visit to “kick back” after a long day of work. It’s not a wine bar (though there is wine on the menu), and I’m more likely to be excited about a cheese plate than a basket of Maui Cheese Fries ($4).

But Maui and Sons has a certain charm to it, and the fun fare is more ambitious than the price tags would suggest. Tightly bound Shaka Rolls, a take on Indonesian lumpia, are neatly packed with ground pork, ginger and garlic and served with a sweet chili sauce ($5). Tempura-battered Pumpin’ Popcorn Shrimp ($8) served with a Japanese-style spicy mayo are remarkably similar to what one would encounter at an Izaka-ya, and Lava Wings ($4 for a half dozen, $7 for a dozen) are a lip-numbing bite courtesy of their sticky overcoat laced with Sriarcha, Thai bird chili, jalapeño, and chipotle.

With a cold glass of Wyder’s Pear Cider, a sweet soda-like beer that would likely make beef aficionados roll their eyes in disapproval, I found myself more relaxed than I have been in ages. I wasn’t worrying about whether I was getting enough vegetables or whether my car was still okay at the meter on Las Palmas. I was enjoying a moment outside of myself – at a place outside of my usual trajectory.

I gladly accepted a second cider when the offer was made and gladly latched on to the Duke Burger ($8) when a platter of the ambitiously-topped ground chuck sandwiches and accompanying Maui onion potato chips arrived at the table. Despite the heavy application of flare that includes house teriyaki sauce, grilled Dole pineapple, spicy mayo, suno muno cucumbers, cheddar cheese, and cayenne candied bacon, the overall package works. It’s a somewhat absurd combination of ingredients, but completely delightful – particularly with the sweet slabs of thick-cut bacon. I found myself more smitten with the burger than I was with the Huli Nuli Mahi-Mahi Fish Tacos ($6) and the Cosmic Teriyaki Bowl ($6) with smoked tofu and vegetables – the two items that I thought would be most appealing to me when I initially studied the two-page menu.

It appears that some time during my evening at Maui and Sons, my tightly wound self unraveled a little bit. I would blame the beer, except no one would actually let me call Wyder Cider, “beer.”

So instead, I’ll blame the setting and the princely hosts who showered me with a feast of fried eats that made me remember what it was like when I considered French fries my favorite vegetable.

It was a well-needed vacation from myself that – traffic obliging – I would gladly return for in the future.

Maui and Sons Bar & Grill
6708 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 463-3130

Note: All menu items listed above were hosted by the restaurant.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

B.T. McElrath Dark Chocolate: For every day and every holiday

Seeing as I posted about a dish I made on the Superbowl on Valentine’s Day, it seems only fitting that I should post about chocolate the day after the most chocolate-centric holiday of the year. Because clearly that makes perfect sense – just like everything I do and/or say.

But as someone who doesn’t need a holiday to tell me when to love my friends, family and my future husband who doesn’t know I exist yet, it’s actually quite sensible.

Just like I don’t need Saint Valentine to tell me when to feel love (or the lack thereof), I don’t need him to tell me when it’s acceptable to ingest chocolate. In my mind, every day should be celebrated with the silky substance – especially every day during February, which, incidentally, is National Chocolate Month.

I’ve been hoarding this chocolate bar – the best I’ve ever had – to myself for some time now. I’ve kind of enjoyed having it as my little secret – or at the very least, a secret between myself and Ashley, who told me about B.T. McElrath’s dark chocolate after Easter last year. She’d received the 3 ounce bar of the company’s proprietary blend of European and Colombian chocolate (70% cacao) for the holiday, and, unable to resist its tantalizing flavor, devoured the entire thing in a single day. (In my mind, a completely reasonable thing to do whilst celebrating the risen Christ and the end of the Lenten period of self-sacrifice.)

As soon as Ashley told me about this mystical dark chocolate bar that had the power to trample all forms of self-control, I knew I had to get my teeth around one. It didn’t take long for me to track the bars down at my local Whole Foods; it also didn’t take long for me to fall completely head-over-heels for the smooth, sweet dark chocolate.

Aside from the flawless melt, lingering smoky aftertaste and satisfying snappiness, the dark chocolate is not cloyingly bitter – my biggest complaint with most dark chocolates that contain 70% or more cacao. It’s a dark chocolate bar that even a milk chocolate-lover can appreciate.

While I have come to treasure the sophistication and simplicity of the plain dark chocolate bar, in the time since discovering B.T. McElrath’s products, I’ve also developed a deep affection for their Salty Dog Chocolate – the same 70% dark chocolate dotted with flakes of butter toffee and then dusted with sea salt. This bar is even harder for me to savor – I usually can’t limit myself to just two squares a day, which is my usual method of ingesting the $4.95 indulgence so that I can stretch it out for an entire week.

It’s no easy feat.

Which is, of course, where the whole holiday and national food holiday nonsense comes into play. If two squares is acceptable every day, then clearly ten squares is acceptable on Valentine’s Day and any other day during the month of February.

Anything less would be unpatriotic. So says the completely rational, overly sensible girl who made Chana Masala on Superbowl Sunday.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Chana Masala: A Superbowl of chickpeas

Back when I was in elementary school and was pouting about having to watch yet another football game instead of “Clarissa Explains it All,” my mom told me that when she was my age she hated football too. She said the words not just to comfort me, but also to reassure me that I might grow up to love football just like her. While I was skeptical that I would ever reach her level of fanaticism (she regularly wears Vikings’ jerseys and braids when she watches games), in the years that followed, I made a few attempts to find similar enjoyment in the sport.

I tried going to Northwestern football games in college – even braiding my hair and decorating purple t-shirts with my friends as a freshman. Crammed into the student section with our fellow purple-clad contemporaries, we would shake our keys whenever the ball was punted, scream “Go Cats!” until we were hoarse, and, when appropriate, growl and make clawing gestures at the competition.

Even with the company and growling fun, by the time the first quarter was over, I was always miserable and ready to go home. Usually I made some excuse about being hungry or needing to go write a paper, and would then walk the nearly two miles back to campus, cursing myself for even bothering to go at all. I stopped attending games altogether after my freshman year, and in the years since, haven’t endeavored to watch the sport on television either – unless absolutely forced.

This avoidance includes the Superbowl.

So last weekend, while seemingly everyone else in America was huddled around their television sets watching Christina Aguilera butcher the National Anthem, and the Steelers and Packers butcher each other, I went about my Sunday as though it were just any other day. I went to the Farmer’s Market and church, I ate poached eggs and roasted vegetables for lunch, I went to see the King’s Speech, and then I came home to make Orangette’s Chana Masala.

As I simmered the richly spiced tomato sauce and chickpeas together on the stovetop, it was hard not to think about the foods that one typically eats on Superbowl Sunday – foods that likely contribute to my distaste for watching games. I couldn’t have been happier to be eating the fragrant Indian dish instead of Buffalo wings, sticky ribs, tortilla chips, and the worst offender of all, seven layer dip.

Paired with quinoa, roasted cauliflower and then topped off with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a generous sprinkling of cilantro, the soulful meal was a touchdown for the taste buds. For a moment I even felt the urge to jingle my keys, growl like a cat, and make a satisfied clawing gesture at my empty bowl. Instead, I elected to finish my anti-Superbowl Sunday by watching "Glee" on TV - a small gift for the girl who never got to watch what she wanted when she was growing up.

Chana Masala
Lightly adapted from Orangette

Adaptations and notes: I used more garlic and cilantro, substituted Greek yogurt for plain whole-milk yogurt, and used ground cumin instead of cumin seeds. The dish keeps beautifully and actually gets better as it “ages,” so don’t be afraid to make the full amount!

Good-quality olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon garam masala
3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, roughly torn, plus more for garnish
A pinch of red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
6-8 Tbs nonfat Greek yogurt
A few lemon wedges

Film the bottom of a large saucepan or Dutch oven—preferably not nonstick—with olive oil, and place the pan over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until it is deeply caramelized and even charred in some spots. Be patient. The more color, the more full-flavored the final dish will be.

Reduce the heat to low. Add the garlic, stirring, and add a bit more oil if the pan seems dry. Add the cumin seeds, coriander, ginger, garam masala, and cardamom pods, and fry them, stirring constantly, until fragrant and toasty, about 30 seconds. Add ¼ cup water, and stir to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook until the water has evaporated away completely. Pour in the juice from can of tomatoes, followed by the tomatoes themselves, using your hands to break them apart as you add them; alternatively, add them whole and crush them in the pot with a potato masher. Add the salt.

Raise the heat to medium, and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, add the cilantro and cayenne, and simmer the sauce gently, stirring occasionally, until it reduces a bit and begins to thicken. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Add the chickpeas, stirring well, and cook over low heat for about five minutes. Add 2 Tbs water, and cook for another five minutes. Add another 2 Tbs water, and cook until the water is absorbed, a few minutes more. This process of adding and cooking off water helps to concentrate the sauce’s flavor and makes the chickpeas more tender and toothsome. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary.

Stir in the yogurt, if you like, or garnish with lemon wedges and cilantro. Serve.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Forage: A welcome respite from overindulgence

The first time I visited my brother in New York four and a half years ago, I was stunned by how much he would order at a restaurant. Even a “light” dinner would involve a bottle of wine, two orders of steak frites and a proposal for at least one or two desserts. It was also during this trip that my brother introduced me to the tasting menu – a complete anomaly to me at the time.

Though slightly hesitant, I followed my brother’s lead and dove into each course with the vigor of a seasoned athlete. We were so full when we finished that we had to walk 45 minutes before finally hailing a cab to take us the rest of the way back to his apartment. I could barely choke down half of the H&H sesame seed bagel I bought the following day.

Since that time, I’ve grown accustomed to “going all out” at a restaurant. I think nothing of ordering appetizers to share, and a full entrée and dessert to horde to myself, and tasting menus are no longer a rare occurrence in my dining life. Because I do tend to overindulge myself when I’m out, restraint has become the greater anomaly. Even on nights when I’m “being good,” I still find myself ordering a second glass of wine and eying the dessert menu – somewhat of a problem during weeks when I’m dining out more than a couple nights.

Last week was one of those particularly indulgent weeks. There was pasta, wine, fried zucchini blossoms, arancini, and ice cream at Terroni; crispy honey duck, crying tiger pork, mussels, rice, pad thai, beer, and mango sticky rice at Jitlada; and, as a grand finale, a beef fondue dinner party that ended with a hefty slice of blackberry buttermilk cake coated with tangerine lemon curd. By Sunday morning, it was hard for me to fathom ever wanting to eat again. (Hence the “cleanse” and depraved scone dreams this week.)

Amidst all the self-destructive food rubble, I had one meal out last week that didn’t make me feel like my blood was churning into butter. Two girl friends and I met up at Forage in Silver Lake, a fast-casual café known for its seasonally-inspired, rotating menu that features high-quality, fresh ingredients.

While the somewhat chaotic, neighborhood space specializes in seemingly standard composed deli salads like beets with oranges and feta, its commitment to quality has even caught the eye of LA Weekly’s Jonathan Gold, who named it one of his 99 Essential Restaurants this past November. The vibrancy of the ingredients and care that is put into every dish makes the food taste far better than what one might encounter in the deli counter at Whole Foods.

Forage offers diners several options – there are fully composed plates like the popular “P Belly” Sandwich ($10.25) with cabbage, tomato, jalapeno and aioli; there’s Rotisserie Jidori Chicken and Coca-Cola Marinated Flank Steak available as proteins; and there’s a variety of side dishes that can be paired with the proteins ($14.00), or ordered as simply a trio of sides ($11.00).

On this particular evening, I opted for three of the sides. After gawking at all the various selections as I waited in line to place my order, I settled on the Cous Cous with Peppers and Chickpeas, the Roasted Winter Vegetables, and a Lentil Salad tossed with barley.

For the price point, Forage is incredibly generous with their portions. Both my plate and my companions’ plates were brimming with food when we crammed around our small table that was really only meant to seat two. While the cramped quarters and precarious seating arrangement weren’t particularly comfortable (especially with the constant influx of cold air that blasted us any time someone opened the side door), we were all satisfied by the hearty, well-executed dishes. The delicate cous cous and deeply-flavored roasted vegetables quickly disappeared from my plate.

Though the fare is not unlike something I might make for myself at home, and is decidedly similar to what Joan’s on Third offers, Forage is a pleasant place to take a breather from tasting menus, gargantuan bowls of pasta and Starbucks Trenta-sized pours of wine (a bottle’s worth).

If I’m in the neighborhood, I’d surely stop by again for another dose of my beloved vegetables and healthy grains. And if I’m indulging that day (a likely possibility), a slice of their banana bread cake to horde all to myself.

3823 W Sunset Blvd,
Los Angeles, CA 90026-1529
(323) 663-6885

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Speaking of scones...

Last night I dreamt that I stole a cranberry-stuffed scone (an empascone?) from one of my childhood neighbors. I was standing in their family room (as my adult self), making casual conversation with them as though it hadn’t been 10+ years since I’d spoken to them, and it wasn’t at all strange that I should be dropping by for a visit on Christmas Day.

(Yes, apparently, it was Christmas in my dream – not some other more relevant or timely holiday like Valentine’s Day or National Nutella Day or even Groundhog’s Day.)

So as I was standing there, awkwardly asking them about their children whose names I couldn’t remember and didn’t even really care to remember, I noticed a platter of cranberry-stuffed scones. I kept looking at them, waiting for my seemingly gracious neighbors to offer me one, but they said nothing. They just continued on attempting merry conversation, doing their best to conceal the fact that they wanted me to get the heck out of their holiday and their lives.


But I didn’t leave. And even though I knew it was wrong as I was doing it, I reached out and grabbed a scone like it was the most normal thing in the world to do. I then proceeded to devour the oversized pastry while the saucy, cranberry filling dripped out all over my smug little face.

I paid no notice to said drippage. I just kept eating, silent except for the loud mastication noises that I couldn’t seem to control, while they stared at me with blank, horrified faces.

Just as I was getting ready to reach for another scone, I woke up.

And immediately felt disappointed that I wasn’t eating a cranberry-sauce stuffed scone the size of two of my fists combined.

It’s been five days since I’ve had any sugar, alcohol, meat, or cheese, and I think I might be starting to crack.

Scottish Scones with Ginger and Lemon: Breakfast, revised

For two years my friend Ashley has been talking about these scones.

“Best EVER!” She’d exclaim, her voice stretched to capacity as she over enunciated the word “ever.”

I’d smile politely and say something noncommittal like, “I’ll have to try them,” before changing the subject so we could discuss something I actually wanted to make.

Like a new quinoa salad recipe. Or anything containing chocolate and salted caramel.

Because even if they were the best scones EVER and, as Ashley so proudly claimed, “make a week’s worth of breakfast,” I had no actual interest in them. I eat oatmeal for breakfast – not buttery pastries that could double as bricks.

As much as I enjoy my morning bowl of oats, however, even I can admit that the goopy, paste-like sludge is not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing of dishes – especially for a birthday brunch party with girlfriends. Nobody wants to eat a bowl of mush with their glass of Viognier – myself included.

So two Sundays ago, I broke down and finally made Orangette’s Scottish Scones with Lemon and Ginger that are featured in her book, A Homemade Life. Not for me, of course – for my friend Sook who isn’t particularly bothered by the hockey puck-like texture of most scones. (As a rule, the birthday gal isn’t particularly bothered by anything containing carbohydrates.)

At the time, it never occurred to me that I would be the one who wouldn’t be able to resist eating two, both smothered in the tangerine lemon curd I made to pair with them.

The scones are gorgeous – golden brown on the bottoms and cheerfully speckled with tempting bits of candied ginger. With their delicate crumb, the interiors are no less compelling. They’re slightly biscuit-like – light and tender and begging to be spread with some form of spreadable like the aforementioned curd. They aren’t bricks, they’re a true breakfast pastry and may very well be the best scones EVER.

Or at the very least, a nice alternative to a pasty bowl of oatmeal.

Scottish Scones with Lemon and Ginger
From Orangette’s A Homemade Life
Yield: 8 scones

Adaptations: I’m doubling the amount of crystallized ginger that’s called for in the original recipe. While the scones were still lovely with just 1/4th a cup, I found myself wanting just a little bit more kick from the ginger. I also think adding a dash of ground ginger would be quite nice also.

½ cup half and half (plus additional for glazing)
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ stick unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
3 tablespoons sugar
½ cup crystallized ginger, chopped
2 teaspoons lemon zest

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Using your hands, rub the butter into the flour mixture, squeezing and pinching with your fingertips until the mixture resembles a coarse meal and there are no butter lumps bigger than a pea.

Add the sugar, crystallized ginger and lemon zest, and whisk to incorporate.

Pour ½ cup half-and-half into a small bowl or measuring cup and add the egg. Beat with a fork to mix well. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture, and stir gently to just combine. The dough will look dry and shaggy, and there may be some incorporated flour at the bottom of the bowl. Don’t worry about that. Using your hands, squeeze and press the dough into a rough mass. (DTAB Note: If the batter seems unusually sticky (mine did!) stick it in the fridge for 15-20 minutes to firm up again.)

Turn the dough, and any excess flour, out onto a lightly floured board or countertop, and press and gather and knead it until it just comes together. Do not knead the dough more than 12 times…you don’t want to overwork it. As soon as the dough holds together, pat it into a rough circle about 1 inch thick. Cut the circle into 8 wedges.

Place the wedges on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Pour a splash of half-and-half into a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, gently brush the tops of the scones with a thin coat to glaze.

Bake 10-14 minutes, or until pale golden. Transfer them to wire rack to cool slightly, and serve warm, preferably with Joy the Baker’s tangerine lemon curd.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Tasting Kitchen: A new way to taste

From a block away, the Tasting Kitchen in Venice is just a sign next to a large, unwelcoming wood-panel door. It blends into its surroundings – a nondescript sushi restaurant and a women’s clothing shop – seemingly content to exist as a secret space reserved for only those who know it’s there.

A glance through the single window in front quickly dismisses the perception of the Tasting Kitchen as just another business lined up on the neat little strip of Abbot Kinney. Even from that clipped view, it’s apparent that the restaurant is pulsing with life and vibrancy. The diners are there to have a good time – to laugh over a bottle of wine from Manager and Sommelier Maxwell Leer’s eclectic list, and to connect through shared plates from Executive Chef Casey Lane’s equally eclectic menu.

The space, divided into a bar, lower dining room and upper dining room, is further enlivened by trees that arch up through the center of the restaurant. In a way, they seem symbolic of the entire concept of the Tasting Kitchen as a living, breathing dining destination where the seasonally-inspired, multi-cultural menu is constantly changing and evolving. In this way, it’s impossible to label the restaurant in any concrete terms – even the menus are scribbled with notes that make it slightly confusing to read and understand.

Fortunately, the confusion does not extend into the kitchen.

The restaurant staff is proficient and eager to assist diners struggling with the “Bill of Fare” for the evening. They’re happy to recommend a pasta – the bucatini alla amatriciana, perhaps – and offer further explanation and clarification where needed. That interactive exchange is part of the point – the Tasting Kitchen encourages a communal dining experience with not just the person across the table, but with the staff, as well.

The dishes can’t – and shouldn’t be – reduced to the scribbled words on the one page menu. The sautéed broccolini with stewed lentils is a pointed example of how Chef Lane combines simple, rustic ingredients to create something far more complex on the palate than what might initially be perceived from the menu description. The delicate spears of roasted asparagus topped with crunchy pistachios are further illustrative of the attention paid to even the humblest of vegetable plates.

Nicely charred chicken wings, lacquered with a sweet apple cider marinade, are messy to eat, but no less refined in terms of flavor. It’s an aggressive dish that requires teeth and hands and a mutual agreement between diners to drop all pretense and modesty. It’s the perfect ice breaker for a restaurant that strives to exist slightly outside the fine dining box.

Pastas are a highlight – especially the rope-like strands of homemade bucatini that are aggressively hugged by a concentrated spicy tomato sauce. The bigoli with lamb is less impactful in comparison, but the focus on this plate is not on the sauce or the supple strands of lamb interspersed throughout. The pasta, a meaty buckwheat noodle, takes center stage.

While the Tasting Kitchen is not known for its desserts, a brief foray with the caramelized pecan topped bread pudding might convince one otherwise. It’s a classic preparation that – like the rest of the items on the well-edited menu – relies on both the quality and careful pairing of its ingredients to elevate its flavor.

As can be expected with any restaurant that lives and breathes in real time, there are misses. A chicken liver crostone with poached egg, frisée and bacon lands a bit heavily on the palate, and an apple galate lands a little too softly. The sweetness of the apples is slightly muddied by the thick, obtrusive texture of the pastry.

But even with the misses, the Tasting Kitchen is still a win. It challenges diners to think beyond the traditional dining experience as they’ve previously known it to be. And it challenges friends and couples to forge new bonds as they decipher that atypical restaurant world together.

The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 392-6644