Thursday, April 28, 2011

Roasted Red Pepper Goat Cheese Dip: Pita's new non-negotiable spread

This past Tuesday, as I was tearing into a scoop of that crazy burger ice cream, my friend Matt and I somehow got into the subject of drinking wine at restaurants. (Burger ice cream is clearly an obvious inroad to pontifications on wine.)

I’d told him that the last guy I went on a date with didn’t drink – actually, a rather pleasant bloke despite his imbibing inhibitions – and Matt looked at me as though I’d just informed him my date had an arm coming out of his forehead.

Or had told me my voice sounded like Sarah Palin’s, had proclaimed he didn’t know what pupusas or gnocchi were, and then let me drive him home from the restaurant because he’d taken the bus there.

I giggled at Matt’s appalled reaction, but ultimately found myself agreeing with him. Neither of us could imagine dating someone who didn’t drink, and we certainly couldn’t fathom having a nice meal at a restaurant without wine.

Pasta without a spicy Italian red to go with it?

Oh the horror! The horror!

The horror.

Suddenly I wasn’t so heartbroken that the nice sober bloke didn’t text or Tweet or Facebook message me about going out on a second date.

Matt and my conversation got me thinking about other things that I’ve become particular about with regards to food and dining. I don’t consider a meal complete unless it contains a vegetable (garlic counts), I would almost prefer skipping breakfast completely than eating it without a big pot of green tea, and I absolutely cannot have a bowl of soup without a piece of bread to go with it.

It’s a mealtime deal breaker.

So when I made this curried lentil soup a few weekends ago (prior to the dry, heat wave that is currently massacring my desire for it to be summer), I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what sort of doughy item I would pair with it.

Because the soup does contain a significant amount of curry, the obvious choice would of course be naan, but I ultimately settled on pita because it’s something I’d be more inclined to use up. Once I’d decided on pita, however, I realized that just like I can’t have soup without a bread-type item, I can’t have pita without something to spread on it.

And butter just wouldn’t do.

Instead, I whipped up a roasted red pepper goat cheese dip that I thought would not only pair well with the pita, but the soup that the pita was initially intended to partner with, as well. Unlike my pleasantly dry date and I, the combination really was a match made in heaven. The sweetness of the red peppers was the perfect companion for the tangy goat cheese, and the touch of lemon juice I added helped brighten up the flavors even further. It was glorious spread over the warm pieces of pita – so much so that I’m not sure I’ll be able to eat the rest of the package in my freezer without the dip to go with it.

And perhaps the requisite glass of wine I can’t fathom giving up when dining at a restaurant – sometimes even when that restaurant is my home.

Roasted Red Pepper Goat Cheese Dip
By Diana

4 ounces goat cheese
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 red pepper, sliced into one-third inch strips
4 cloves of garlic
Salt, pepper
Olive oil
Toasted pine nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss red pepper slices with a splash of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spread onto the bottom of a glass baking dish with unpeeled garlic cloves. Roast until garlic is tender, approximately, 15-20 minutes. Remove garlic from pan, crank the oven up to 400 degrees, and then return the red pepper to the oven to continue roasting for another 10-15 minutes or until the slices can easily be pierced with a fork.

Combine goat cheese, red pepper, garlic, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt and pepper using an immersion blender (or blender) until the ingredients form a smooth spread.

Once blended, the dip can be chilled and served cold, or can be used immediately in its slightly warm state, topped with the optional toasted pine nuts. Either way, it should be accompanied by warm slices of pita. And, if you are feeling so inclined, a glass of crisp white wine.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Scoops Westside's Burger Ice Cream: An experiment gone right

My first reaction was horror.

Scoops Westside isn’t really serving burger ice cream?” I thought, practically gagging when I read yesterday’s tweet that loudly declared they had a bacon, jalapeño and cheddar ice cream available that day.

I could see cheddar working by itself – possibly in an apple pie and cheddar flavor, and am well aware that bacon’s salty, smoky qualities can also be a positive addition to a dessert, but jalapeño?


In my head, I pictured a grossly orange yellow ice cream, topped with jumbo slices of jalapeño and bacon, as though it was a baked potato. I shivered at the thought of actually ingesting such a travesty to ice cream, but as the day wore on, I couldn’t help wondering what it would actually taste like.

In my mind, it seemed as though Scoops Westside owner Matthew Kang was triple dog daring me to try it. I know the Tweet wasn’t specifically directed at me – they have 1,655 other followers who wait with bated breath for each day’s flavor announcements – but in my morphed way of thinking, it was a challenge.

A challenge that I had to overcome with a mini plastic spoon.

So when I left the office last night, I scraped my original plan to hit up Nordstrom for the Clinique foundation I’m dangerously low on, and made a byline to Scoops to sample proprietor Tai Kim’s burger ice cream experiment.

“Ok, where is it?” I said to Matt as I strolled into the well-groomed shop that he is continually personalizing with art work, new furniture and magazines for his loyal customers who linger over Intelligentsia coffee and tea.

He laughed in response and immediately scooped up a sample of the bacon, jalapeño and cheddar ice cream, which will also be available this Thursday and Saturday.

It looked decidedly more normal than the image I’d been picturing all day – there were no discernable traces of cheddar nor that egregious-sounding jalapeño, and the crystallized red flecks of bacon looked almost like sprinkles. If someone hadn’t told me what I was about to eat, I would have assumed it was just a normal scoop of vanilla ice cream.

That is until I actually tasted it.

It’s a subtle ice cream – the cheddar only apparent through the lingering mouth feel of something more texturally apparent than just milk and cream. The jalapeño is applied with an equally delicate and precise hand – it doesn’t wrest itself onto the palate with an overpowering wallop of heat, it merely adds a touch of spice that almost comes across like cinnamon. The bacon is the most dominant of the three flavors. It’s well-rendered and chopped into fine cubes, then crystallized in sugar so that it doesn’t become soggy when generously strewn over the top of the ice cream.

It’s sweet, salty and divinely crunchy – basically the best ice cream topper imaginable. It would create a frenzy if Matt added it to his sprinkle bar at the end of the counter. People would use it on everything – would possibly even request just a cup of the bacon crystals – hold the ice cream.

But I think I like it best as it is in this conception – a crisp companion to Tai’s sublimely refined burger ice cream. Not disgusting, not superfluous, and not even a challenge to appreciate.

It’s just right. And I triple dog dare you to say otherwise.

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

True Food Kitchen: The true way to order

We’ve figured it out.

After four visits to the Newport Beach location, and one to the original Phoenix location, my mom and I now know exactly how to order at True Food Kitchen, a Fox Restaurant Concept that specializes in healthy, globally inspired cuisine.

That’s not to say that we were ordering all that poorly before.

We quite enjoyed the chicken chopped salads and edamame dumplings we selected on prior visits – so much so that we chose to return specifically for those items. And we would have continued returning again and again for them had we not decided to switch it up when we dined in the sun-splattered space two Saturdays ago.

“Let’s do something different,” my mother said as our settled into our bright yellow booth on the patio, our sunglasses plastered to our faces in typical So Cal fashion.

I bristled at the word, “different” – both of us tend to get into ruts when we find dishes we love – but agreed to take part in her spontaneous eating plan. There was a quinoa salad on the menu, after all, and it seemed imperative that I give my signature seed a chance to romance my palate.

I do have a reputation to uphold.

So for our third visit to True Food Kitchen, which will be opening a fourth location at Santa Monica Place soon, we opted to split the Herb Hummus with whole wheat pita, tomato, red onion, cucumber, and feta ($10); the Tuscan Kale with lemon, parmesan and bread crumbs ($8); and two half orders of the Spring Chopped with snap peas, strawberries, walnuts, goat cheese, and balsamic dressing ($6); and the Quinoa Tabbouleh with watercress, beets, pomegranates, lemon and cold pressed olive oil ($6).

We were ecstatic with our choices – particularly the hummus, kale and quinoa. The kale salad is composed of dinosaur kale, which is slightly sweeter and more delicate than the traditional curly kale that is more readily available. The textured dark blue-green leaves are sliced raw and treated almost like a ceviche – the lemon and olive oil dressing “cook” the slivered slices so they lose some of the coarseness that is typical of the hearty green. It’s a simple dish, but the clean flavors and mangled textures of the kale and bread crumbs are addictive – particularly when paired with the quinoa tabbouleh.

The tabbouleh is made with red quinoa, a prescient choice since the red variety is more substantial than the more delicate white. It stands up to the large chunks of sweet beets and crunchy marcona almonds that add a touch of elegance to the also simple dish. But the simplicity is warranted – the restaurant concept relies on high quality, fresh ingredients to create flavor rather than overcomplicated sauces and dressings. It’s the type of food that people want to eat every day.

Which explains why my mother and I felt compelled to go back for a second dose the following Saturday – when we finally figured out exactly how to order from now until we fall in love with another dish on the menu.

The herb hummus is a must – a substantial plate to counter the lightness of the salads – and full orders of both the kale and quinoa tabbouleh are essential, as well. A half order of each just isn’t enough to split, and because the two dishes compliment each other so well, it’s only natural that they be ordered in tandem. Any additional items on the table only complicate matters – and create too much havoc on the individual plates.

Finally, the Red Moon “natural refreshment” with pink grapefruit juice, yuzu, agave, and soda water ($4) is imperative for the optimal True Food Kitchen “ladies who lunch” experience. It adds just the right amount of festivity to the occasion and only enhances the spa-like feel of the restaurant.

The only mystery yet to be solved is what to order for dessert. Rumor has it that the Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp with Dairy-Free Pistachio Ice Cream ($7) and the Flourless Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Caramel ($7) are hot commodities. Especially if the pistachio ice cream is subbed in for the vanilla that comes with the chocolate cake.

My mom and I will gladly investigate these claims the next time we go.

Which, according to our very unspontaneous schedule of eating, could very will be this coming Saturday.

True Food Kitchen
Fashion Island
451 Newport Center Dr.
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 644-2400

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sugared Vanilla Donut Muffins: The first dessert

I could have chosen anything.

A thick slice of carrot cake, dripping with heady tufts of cream cheese frosting; a batch of Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies, hot from the oven; or something truly over-the-top like a warm homemade brownie, clobbered with salted caramel ice cream, marshmallow fluff, and candied peanuts.

With bacon bits tossed over the top for a "garnish."

But when I woke up this morning -- the morning that marked the end of my second dessert-free Lent -- all I could think about was how excited I was to make and eat donut muffins.

I'd been waiting 46 days to make the sugar-coated bundles of hot dough that first captured my attention at the Village Bakery in Atwater Village this past January. Two of my fellow Eat My Blog committee members had whipped up homemade versions of the humble, yet addictive baked good with sublime results, so when I began thinking about what I wanted to break the streak with on the first day of Lent, the first sweet thought that popped into my head was that darn donut muffin.

And I couldn't shake the thought for the next 45 days.

The anticipation was tortuous. It seemed the donut muffin was popping up everywhere as I sipped on tea and hacked my way through six bags of Trader Joe's dried mango slices. I had dreams about the sweet, doughy pastry -- dreams that I couldn't take it any more and started inhaling them by the fistful, paying no attention to the sugar that was covering the bottom half of my face like a beard.

I'd wake up in a cold sweat, my tongue tingling for the donut muffin, but I'd be relieved that I hadn't actually broken my Lenten pledge. As the weeks went by, I held strong, confident that it would taste even better after an extended period of deprivation.

As it turns out, I was right.

When I sank my teeth through the crunchy blanket of cinnamon sugar that coated the tender muffin earlier today, I couldn't contain my delight. I ignored the glass of Rosé that was perched by my right hand. I couldn't be bothered with the heaping portion of my mom's "white trash" egg casserole that was quickly cooling on my plate.

All I could think about was how perfect that donut muffin tasted.

And how glad I was that I wasn't eating a thick slice of carrot cake, an Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookie, and a brownie sundae with bacon bits.

Sugared Vanilla Donut Muffins
Lightly adapted from G-ma's Bakery who adapted it from Grace Sweet Life
Makes 10

Adaptations: My only change to this near perfect recipe is the addition of cinnamon to the muffin's sugary coat for a little extra spice!

3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, for brushing
1/2 cup sugar, for rolling
1 teaspoon cinnamon, for rolling

Preheat oven to 350° F. Lightly grease a standard muffin tin with cooking spray or using a pastry brush, coat muffin cups with vegetable oil.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together sugar and egg on medium-high speed until light in color.

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Pour flour mixture into egg mixture and beat to combine. Results will be a bit clumpy. Pour in vegetable oil, milk and vanilla extract, and beat until smooth.

Divide batter evenly into 10 muffin cups, filling each about 3/4 full. Bake for 15-18 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

While muffins are baking, melt butter over low heat in a small saucepan, and pour the 1/2 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon into a small bowl. Stir with a fork to combine.

Let muffins cool slightly in the pan for a minute, then carefully remove and place on wire rack. Lightly brush the top, sides and bottom of each muffin with melted butter and roll in sugar. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What to Eat at Scarpetta's New Sunday Brunch Buffet

Even though I was born and raised in Southern California, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for a locale at the complete opposite end of the cultural and geographic spectrum – Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Every summer my brothers and I would spend three weeks in the sleepy Midwest city where my mother grew up – making faces at the giant brown bear at the Zoo, playing tennis at the local college near my grandma’s house, and visiting nearly every park in the city.

My fondest memories of Sioux Falls, however, involved all the food we were allowed to eat while we were there on vacation. We’d gorge ourselves silly on my grandmother’s ginger cookies, lick hot grease off our fingers from the fried chicken at Bob’s Cafe, and one Sunday during our stay, we’d troop to the local country club for an epic brunch buffet.

Brunch at the Westward Ho (yes, that’s the actual name of the country club) was the highlight of every trip to Sioux Falls. There was an endless array of pastries, pancakes and thick Belgium waffles with real maple syrup. There was an omelet bar, a salad bar, a carving station with roast beef and turkey, a hot bar with mashed potatoes and other savories, and an entire table devoted to dessert, including an ice cream sundae station.

It was a food paradise, but nearly impossible to eat everything available to us. After years of going to the brunch, however, my brothers and I learned to focus on our favorite items instead – for me this meant the waffles, country-style potatoes, turkey, fruit, and, of course, the desserts. I delighted in every bite, and still consider the brunch one of my favorite food memories from my childhood.

Even though I delight in taking many bites these days, I haven’t been to a brunch buffet since moving to Los Angeles nearly six years ago. I didn’t think anything like the Westward Ho’s spread existed here, so was positively ecstatic when Cathy from Gastronomy Blog invited me to accompany her to a media event at Scott Conant’s Scarpetta at the Montage this past Sunday for the debut of their new brunch buffet.

I was even more excited upon reading the laundry list of offerings the culinary teams at Scarpetta and Montage would be whipping up for the decidedly decadent affair. They promised (and subsequently delivered) a sushi and raw bar, a pasta station – with Scarpetta’s famed $24 spaghetti, an egg station for customizable omelets and frittatas, waffles and pancakes, a carving station, fruit, pastries, bacon, sliders and crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for younger diners, and an artful cheese display by the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. And to finish? “An extraordinary dessert presentation by award-winning executive pastry chef and Food Network’s most-winning champion, Richard Ruskell, who is currently competing on Last Cake Standing.”

I was full just reading the description of everything that’s included in the $68/person mid-day masterpiece of a meal.

Of course, as a seasoned brunch buffet diner, I knew I’d be able to handle it. After all, I’d been perfecting my buffet strategy since I was three feet tall (nearly half the height I am today). The name of the eating game is selectivity, and after taking careful surveillance of the offerings on Sunday, and sampling only small portions of each before going back for more of my favorites, I was able to focus my energies on the best of the brunch.

To start, I went straight for the daintier offerings – the salads, raw bar and the grilled branzino with spring garlic vinaigrette. The grilled asparagus paired with a tangy tomato dressing was a perfectly pleasant way to begin the meal and was my favorite item from the salad bar that also included mixed greens, Caesar salad, roasted beets, and roasted cauliflower with minted bread crumbs. While vegetables are usually a hot commodity for me, I didn’t dabble too heavily in the greens – especially after tasting the grilled branzino, a dish that is also offered on the regular Scarpetta dinner menu.

Grilled whole with the skin on, the flaky white fish retained much of its moisture and tasted incredibly fresh – particularly when paired with the spritely, well-balanced spring garlic vinaigrette. I went back for seconds of this dish toward the end of the meal.

As a rule, I’m not particularly partial to raw bar offerings, but I spared a bite for the yellowtail with olio de zenzero and pickled red onion, also an item from the regular Scarpetta menu, before heading on to heartier pastures.

While Scarpetta offers a host of traditional breakfast and brunch dishes like pancakes, waffles, French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, oven-fried potato wedges, omelets, and frittatas, I elected to select the more unique items available. The small bites I took of the bacon, artichoke frittata and potato wedges didn’t dazzle me enough to tempt me away from the more dinneresque offerings.

The roasted lamb with mint salsa verde was an immediate victor, as was that darn $24 spaghetti, which I couldn’t seem to stop eating. This second time around, I realized that the secret to the dish’s popularity isn’t in the sauce, it’s in the noodles. Texturally, the egg yolk-heavy thick ropes almost remind me of lo mein. Despite my previous claim that the spaghetti isn’t my favorite item on Scarpetta’s menu, I found it absurdly addicting on Sunday – even when faced with a buffet of other foods competing for my attention. With its mushier texture, the other pasta on tap – ricotta raviolini with baby stewed tomatoes – was quickly lost in the shuffle.

Since I couldn’t enjoy Chef Ruskell’s desserts because of Lent, I let the Cheese Store representative put together a plate of their cheeses for my brunch finale . He loaded my plate with a smorgasbord of their offerings, including epoisses, but the highlight for me was the Buffalo Pecorino with truffle honey. While I was disappointed I didn’t get to partake in the vanilla-cream filled donuts, the yuzu meringue tarts and the rice pudding trifles, it more than satisfied my need for one last decadent bite.

While I still miss those Sunday brunches at the Westward Ho in Sioux Falls, Scarpetta’s feast brought back all those fond memories of being a kid in a food paradise. And with the charming patio and adjacent European-style courtyard, in this case, it actually felt like paradise.

225 North Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

(310) 860-7970

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Oaks Gourmet Market: My grilled cheese pinch-hitter

I am terrible at making grilled cheese.

The worst ever.

Complete rubbish, as someone with a British accent might say.

It's not that I don't know how to make grilled cheese. I know how to make a grilled cheese. The cheese should be grated -- not sliced -- so it achieves the proper, uniform melt. The bread, preferably a white, spongy entity, should be buttered prior to grilling -- one should never butter the pan instead. And once the sandwich does reach that hot, ungreased frying surface, it should be fried at a low temperature so the bread doesn't burn before the cheese inside has time to melt.

Nobody likes biting into an under-melted sandwich. It's almost as tragic as biting into a mushy apple, a cold slice of blueberry pie or a salad that doesn't contain quinoa.

Given my vast-ish knowledge of how to properly compose and sear a grilled cheese, I should be stunningly successful at the rather humble kitchen feat. I should be the opposite of rubbish at it -- I should be a treasure trove of skill with a spatula.

But, I'm not.

And never will be.

Because I don't use enough cheese or butter.

It's impossible to achieve grilled cheese perfection without using enough butter to coat the entire surface of the exposed bread slices and enough cheese to create the signature strings that ooze forth when the sandwich is sliced in half and pulled a part. Without an indecent amount of butter, the bread won't get crispy -- and without at least two-three ounces of cheese, it won't do much stringy action at all.

Even though I know all this, I have no intention of overcoming my inability to slather with abandon. While it's fiscally irresponsible of me, I'd much prefer leaving all that nonsense to "the experts" -- the ones who grease, smear and overload that malnourished bread in a kitchen (or truck) far far away from my eyes.

What I don't see won't hurt me, I tell myself.

Or at least it won't until I stop going to Bar Method -- or stop putting quinoa in my salads.

So tonight, to cure my craving for that slick sandwich that is, incidentally, taking center stage this Saturday, April 23rd, at the Grilled Cheese Invitational in Los Angeles, I turned my blind eyes to the Oaks Gourmet Market in Los Feliz. To gear up for the epic grilling battle, the stop-and-go neighborhood market's Chef Luke Reyes created a special sandwich featuring Tillamook Sharp Cheddar, Black Forest Bacon, Homemade Tomato Jam, and Sourdough Bread ($9.95). While the Oaks usually reserves such specialties for their Wednesday grilled cheese night, this sandwich is available every day this week.

For, you know, all of those freaks who desire to get their Tillamook Loaf Love on without having to actually see just how much love goes into it.

Though the grilled cheese arrived with tomato slices instead of the aforementioned tomato jam tonight, Reyes' creation is undoubtedly a fine representation of the sandwich I'm too wussy to make for myself. The entire surface of the sourdough bread is crisp -- not just the outer edges around the crust. The golden cheddar cheese is luxuriously applied, but not overbearing. The accompaniments -- the fresh tomato slices and sweet slabs of well-rendered Black Forest bacon -- are not lost within it.

It's a simple offering, but wholly satisfying courtesy of the exact execution that I will never ever be able to replicate at home.

I'm complete rubbish, I tell you.

Or at least I am until someone else lovingly prepares and gives me a blissfully buttery, ooey gooey grilled cheese sandwich to eat.

The Oaks Gourmet Market
1915 North Bronson Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90068
(323) 871-8894

Monday, April 18, 2011

Curried Lentil Soup: One last chance

I’m always unreasonably sad when summer comes to end each September.

Easy breezy Southern California summers are what I most enjoy about living in Los Angeles – the farmers’ markets are brimming with corn, sweet summer berries and stone fruits, sundresses are the default weekend uniform, and everyone seems to be a little bit happier – a little less stressed.

I love that I can walk outside at night without a coat, wrap, sweater, or jacket like I do at every other time of year because I’m allergic to any temperature below 70 degrees. I love that the sun is still shining at 7 pm. I also love the lighter load on the freeways during my morning commute – God bless students and those who can afford to go on an exotic vacation.

Yet even with my desire for it to stay summer forever, when LA was blasted with a bolt of unseasonably cold weather two weekends ago, suddenly I wasn’t in such a rush to see it go. It seemed to me like a last call for winter – a final hoorah before spring fully took over and started winding into my favorite season of the year.

Suddenly, I felt a dire sense of urgency to take advantage of the chill in the air. I had to pack as much winter into my weekend as possible – by layering on sweatpants and cuddly sweaters, and by making cold weather foods like pasta and soup.

This recipe for a curried lentil soup from Molly Wizenberg has been lingering in the back of my mind since I first discovered it in Bon Appetít’s December 2010 issue. I was intrigued by the addition of pureed chickpeas – undoubtedly because I’ve developed an obsession with them in the past six months. But the thickness that the puree lends to the broth makes the recipe fall solidly into the winter category. During the summer it would be suffocating – too hot, too hearty, too much for a season that revolves around salad and foods from the grill.

With spring already in full gear, it seemed imperative that I make the cozy soup while there was still a whisper of winter left in the air.

It’s a Plain Jane sort of dish – not particularly showy on its own accord – more like a nicely tailored little black dress that is the ideal template for accessories. One day I roasted some red peppers for a garnish, the next day I tossed in a few florets of roasted cauliflower, and the next I topped it with an almost obscene amount of cilantro. By the time I reached the last spoonful, I finally felt ready to say goodbye to the cold weather I never thought I wanted.

But should it decide to sneak its way back into Southern California in the next month or two, I won't be all that sad to retire my sundress and glass of Rosé to pull on an oversized sweater and whip up another pot of this winter-ready soup.

Curried Lentil Soup

Adapted from Molly Wizenberg’s recipe in the December 2010 issue of Bon Appetít

Makes 4 entrée sized portions

Adaptations: I doubled the amount of onion, carrot, garlic, and reduced the amounts of olive oil and butter, using extra lemon juice instead of the olive oil in the chickpea puree. I also used chicken broth instead of water, and included optional garnishes – the cilantro is my favorite.

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 medium carrots, finely chopped

4 large garlic cloves, minced, divided

2 tablespoons curry powder

2 cups French green lentils (I used regular green lentils with no adverse effects)

4 ½ cups (or more) chicken broth, divided

1 15- to 16-ounce can chickpeas, drained, rinsed

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon butter

2 green onions, thinly sliced

1 lemon, cut into four wedges

Salt, pepper

Optional Garnishes: Roasted red pepper, roasted cauliflower, or cilantro

Heat large pot over medium heat. Once hot, add the olive oil, swirling to coat the base of the pot. Add the onion and carrot, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook until onion in translucent, stirring occasionally, about 5-8 minutes. Add 2/3rds of the chopped garlic, stir until vegetables are soft, but not brown, about 4 minutes longer. Add 2 tablespoons curry powder; stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add lentils and 4 cups chicken broth. Increase heat and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, puree chickpeas, lemon juice, 1/4 cup water, and remaining garlic in processor.

Add chickpea puree and butter to lentil soup. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and additional curry powder, if desired. Add water by 1/4 cupfuls to thin to desired consistency. Divide soup among bowls. Sprinkle with thinly sliced green onions or other optional garnishes and serve with lemon wedges.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tender Greens: Killing me softly - with specials

I've recently come to the realization that I hate specials.

I hate that I can only get the lamb burger at the Golden State on Thursday nights. I hate that since discovering that brioche bundle of Greek-seasoned flesh a few weeks ago I can't let a Thursday go by without thinking, "My mouth could be hugging a lamb burger right now."

And that's before remembering that I could also be daggering my teeth into Campanile's croque madame sandwich, which is only available during the restaurant's famed grilled cheese night on Thursdays, as well.

These momentous food events have ruined Thursdays for me -- I can't stop myself from thinking about what I'm missing out on when I decide to eat quinoa at home while watching that past Tuesday night's DVRed episode of "Parenthood" in my sweatpants.

"Other people are eating MY lamb burger," I think, as I gnaw on a piece of dried mango.

So I expectedly sort of hate it when Tender Greens, one of my favorite healthy noshing spots, taunts me with tweets about the daily specials available at their three Los Angeles locations. Especially when I'm at work in Santa Monica and can't have the Asparagus and Melted Leek Tart with goat and Parmesan cheeses at the Culver City location, or the Grilled Pork Loin Medallions with ginger emulsion, green lentils, baby mustard greens, and green garlic aioli at the West Hollywood location.

Upon reading the boastful descriptions, I immediately feel bitter that I don't get to be the one eating the made-to-order dish that likely won't be available the next time I'm at the casual, counter service restaurant.

If I am, however, by some miracle at Tender Greens on the precise day that the precise location is offering one of those seemingly spectacular specials, I'll inevitably end up doubly bitter once I discover how great the item I might never be able to have again tastes.

Exhibit A: This grilled Idaho trout with red quinoa, roasted vegetables, frisee, and citrus vinaigrette that was the special "Muscle Menu" dish at the West Hollywood location this past Friday when I was invited in for a quick lunch.

It kills me. And I'm sure it'll kill me tomorrow when I sign on to Twitter and see that there's a new Muscle Menu crispy-skin fish dish that's chock full of the whole grains and vegetables that make my crazy little world go round. I essentially want what they are having every single day. And when I don't get it, I always feel a slight twinge of jealous rage that the dish existed and was consumed without my involvement.

This week, Tender Greens will be tempting (and infuriating) me with something with even greater limited availability -- grilled cheese.

To gear up for the Grilled Cheese Invitational this coming Saturday, April 23rd, Chef Eric Hulme will be whipping up a special grilled cheese sandwich every day through Friday this week at the West Hollywood location on Santa Monica Blvd.

And, much to my chagrin, the restaurant will be tweeting about it.

For guests lucky enough to nab one, the $10.50 melty preview of what Chef Hulme may or may not be entering into the Invitational will also come with a side salad.

I'll be enjoying my non-existent grilled cheese sandwich with a side of anguish. Until Thursday rolls around and I start pining for a lamb burger again.

Tender Greens
8759 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069
(310) 358-1919

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Carrot Cake Cupcakes with White Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting: I cheated, you win

I cheated.

I didn’t want to cheat. I had no intention of cheating when I pledged to give up desserts for Lent, but it happened.

I did it.

And I’m blaming it all on sour cream.

While sour cream is often used as the base for dips or as a top hat for a baked potato or enchilada, its tart, creamy properties are not just suitable for savories. It does wonders for cakes and muffins, adds just the right zing to pancakes, and is a dream when combined with powdered sugar, white chocolate and butter.

Which is where the whole cheating part comes in.

I was making carrot cake cupcakes a few weekends ago – my mother’s recipe that calls for carrot baby food rather than a heap of shredded carrots – and was experimenting with a new kind of frosting. A frosting that contains a big ole scoop of Knudson/Breakstone’s sour cream.

Because the first rule of cooking (aside from use real butter) is to “taste, taste, taste,” I was faced with a slight dilemma. Did I make the frosting and hope for the best? Or did I take a teensy tiny, itty bitty, microscopic sized taste to make sure I wouldn’t be poisoning the recipients of my dear mother’s cupcakes?

I opted to taste.

I dipped a knife into the sweet puddle of frosting, coating the tip like a snow-capped mountain top. It was barely enough to register on my palate, but I still said a quick prayer asking for forgiveness as I reached my tongue out to lick it off.

I half expected there to be a clap of lightning or a sudden downpour positioned directly over my apartment, but nothing happened. Everything was exactly the same as it had been prior to my licking.

Except, of course, for my feelings of complete delight that my sour cream frosting actually worked. Exclamation point!

The results of that little experiment can be found over there yonder on that there TasteSpotting, which, incidentally, is going a little sour cream crazy this month. Exclamation point squared!

They are hosting a $200 gift card giveaway for anyone who likes Breakstone’s Sour Cream on Facebook, posts their favorite food with sour cream on Breakstone’s wall, and adds “@TasteSpotting” to that post so they can track entrants. (Entries must be received by the end of the month for eligibility.)

Then, for those who feel the need to bleed sour cream into their favorite foods immediately, TasteSpotting is having a “Virtual Sour Cream Party” this Friday, April 15th. Everyone is invited, but to get in the door, you must whip up something delicious with sour cream in it, post it to your blog, and submit it to TasteSpotting by 5 pm (eastern time) tomorrow, Thursday, April 14th. Starting Friday morning, submissions will be showcased on the main TasteSpotting page – you know the one that gets 5 million visitors every month.

To summarize all that sour cream craziness (I know it's a lot to handle) – I cheated, and now you (can) win.

So go do that while I pray for forgiveness -- and go back to snacking on Trader Joe's dried mango.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Pitfire Pizza: An unsung pizza hero

It’s easy to forget about Pitfire Pizza.

It’s not the hot new thing. It’s not a scene. And it’s not the type of place that makes waves around the LA dining blogosphere.

The local artisanal pizza chain, masterminded by proprietors Paul Hibler and David Sanfield, has been churning out its eclectically-topped rustic, fire-singed pizzas since 1997 – long before Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali brought Los Angeles its most famous pizzeria.

Even though Pitfire Pizza now operates four locations in Downtown, North Hollywood, Culver City, and West LA, it occupies a quiet existence in a city that is seemingly all about buzz, trends and flashbulbs. There’s no complicated reservations system requiring patrons to book a table weeks in advance, there’s no flashy “Top Chef” alum at the helm, and there’s no sous vide steak with dehydrated onions and mushroom foam on the menu.

Pitfire offers its loyal cadre of pizza-craving patrons comfortable food that’s easy to eat any day or night of the week. It’s the place that crazed UCLA grad students flock to when they are in the middle of finals and are too tired to cook or go to the store. It’s a place where friends and family gather for “pizza night.” It’s a place to start an evening before heading to a movie, bar or concert.

As such, it’s easy to let the casual pizzeria fly under the radar – below the “it” dining destinations of the moment.

But Pitfire’s presence and influence in this city cannot and shouldn’t be brushed aside. Even after 15 years, it’s still buzzworthy, and the thoughtful menu of starters, salads, pizza, pasta, panini, and splurge-worthy desserts, is still worth mentioning.

This past Saturday evening, I was invited into the Downtown location to check out the newly remodeled space and sample some of the items from both the regular menu and special Spring menu. Over the course of dinner, I saw a more dynamic, soulful side to the restaurant that I’m always recommending to friends who are looking for a quick affordable bite.

Like the Culver City space that was recently nominated for a James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant design, the Downtown location flawlessly melds a modern sensibility with a functional space. It’s not self-conscious or obviously garnished – the artistic elements are in the details – the bar with a bulls-eye view of the pizza oven, the light bulbs that dangle from the ceiling, the fire red staircase leading up to a private room upstairs.

In this way, the design is not unlike the food itself – thoughtful, but not over thought. The Farmer’s Market Plate ($9.95) with grilled asparagus, braised fennel, grilled potatoes, rainbow carrots, grilled bread, and a whipped ricotta dipping sauce is simple in concept, but refined by its execution. The bread is unreasonably good, the vegetables, undeniably fresh.

A simple Spring Vegetable Salad ($7.95) with asparagus, goat cheese, peewee potatoes, radish, and lemon vinaigrette is similarly inspired. Pitfire sources its potatoes from local Farmer’s Market favorite, Weiser Farms, and they shine in the setting of the spritely salad. They taste divinely earthy – like someone plucked them from the ground just prior to cooking.

While Pitfire is best known for its pizzas, the Linguini Bolognese with spinach linguini and house made beef ragu ($9.95) marries al dente noodles with a sweet tomato sauce that almost eradicates the need for the meat. It’s a sauce that’s been simmered under a watchful eye – a sauce that, like the restaurant itself, has something going on underneath the surface.

Yet even with the well-composed salads, astutely prepared vegetables and sublimely sweet tomato sauce, the pizzas are still what most excite me about Pitfire. On this particular occasion, it’s the Big Sur ($10.25) with Laughing Bird Shrimp that is most arresting to my palate. Despite claims that seafood and cheese are never meant to mix, the fresh, sustainable shrimp are the perfect accent to the mozzarella, roasted garlic, parsley, and red chile flake-topped pie. This is the obvious choice for people who can’t decide between pizza and pasta – think of it as shrimp scampi on a perfectly executed crisp, thin, yet still substantial, crust.

The ingredients at Pitfire aren’t complicated. The pizza dough itself is made of just flour, water and yeast. But each component in the Pitfire operation – the architecture, the specialty sodas and reasonably priced glasses of wine, the vanilla soft serve ice cream from Straus Family Creamery – has been put there for a reason.

Not to be flashy, not to be “so hot right now,” but to bring its customers the best affordable, everyday dining experience possible.

It’s working. And that’s something to buzz about.

Pitfire Pizza

108 West 2nd St.

Los Angeles, CA 90012

(213) 808-1201

Details about other locations can be found on their website.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Winner Winner Local, Pastured, Organic Ground Lamb Pasta Dinner

"I'm having dinner with the butchers," He said.

For a moment, I decided to play a long. I began to nod my head in understanding, as if to say, "Oh yes, the butchers -- great folks. Love the way they handle a cleaver."

But I stopped myself mid-encouraging smile.


"The butchers." He repeated, as though the very act of repeating it would suddenly make it clear to me who these mystical butchers were.

I had no idea.

So when I met them later that night -- the butchers, who are now well-known throughout the LA dining community as "Lindy & Grundy" -- they were just Amelia and Erika -- a sweet couple who were fun, easy to talk to and passionate about their craft. Which just happened to be butchering local, pastured and organic meats.

I could scarcely focus on the food in front of me (incidentally, meat) as we talked about their future butcher shop, Lindy & Grundy, coyly named after their nicknames for each other.

"Will you have hangar steak?" I asked, hopefully.

They said they would -- and a cut that I might like even better.

"Will you tell me how to cook it?"

They said they would -- that they'd also have rubs, marinades and spices, and eventually recipes for what to do with items purchased in their sustainable shop.

"Will I be able to come and get like two slices of bacon or just a hunk of pancetta?" I asked, thinking about the half package of bacon I'd thrown away the last time I'd purchased it.

They said I would -- that they'd cut me exactly what I needed.

I was sold. A local butcher shop that sources meats from small, humane family farms; believes in nose-to-tail butchering; and lets me walk out with two measly slices of bacon for my favorite barley dish with roasted cauliflower and chickpeas?

The next day I couldn't talk to anyone without mentioning "the (awesome) butchers."

So when Lindy & Grundy finally opened its doors to a mass of meat-thirsty Angelenos last Tuesday, I immediately began plotting my first visit to the sun-drenched space at 801 North Fairfax Avenue. I had a butternut squash to use up from when they were still (kind of) in season, a Mark Bittman recipe burning a hole in the "Recipes I Need to Make" file in my brain, and, conveniently, nothing to do this past Friday night.

Except cook, eat and drink.

"Ground lamb! Winner winner pasta dinner!" I tweeted as I made my way back to my car with my half-pound of freshly butchered meat ($6.99/lb).

When I first unwrapped the mass of unadulterated lamb, my initial reaction was that it looked weird -- completely different.from the ground meat I'm used to seeing at the grocery store that's usually more obviously shaped into thin, twine-like, heavily marbeled ribbons. It made me wonder if this is how it's actually supposed to look -- that maybe I'd been duped by the commercial packaging of ground meat my whole life.

But what was even more startling to me was the taste. For years I've avoided buying lamb at the market because I've always been concerned about gaminess (for some reason this never troubles me when I dine out). The lamb from Lindy & Grundy was so mild and pure that had I not known it was lamb, I might have guessed I was eating a leaner, slightly more flavorful cut of beef.

That tame meaty flavor was the perfect accent for my "winning" pasta dinner -- a whole wheat fusilli luxuriously enrobed in a stew of cumin and cinnamon-spiced butternut squash, tomatoes and onions.

I smiled as I sat down with my cuddly bowl of pasta, thinking about how special it was that my meal was made possible by two knife-wielding, tattooed ladies.

You know, "the butchers."

But I still think of them as Amelia and Erika -- two kind-hearted, fun girls who just happen to have a passion for sustainable, nose-to-tail butchering.

Lindy & Grundy
801 North Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046

Friday, April 8, 2011

Warm Chickpea and Roasted Cauliflower Salad: Stockpile this

I’m not ready for “the Big One.”

You know, the one geologists keep saying is long overdue in California. The one that I know I should be worrying about because living in my American bubble doesn’t make me personally immune to disaster. And the one that has likely inspired this month’s Earthquake Preparedness campaign in Los Angeles that has adopted the unfortunate slogan, “When it rocks, are you ready to roll?”

No, Earthquake Preparedness People Who Are Trying to Frighten Me, I’m not ready to roll. Ever. Not with the homies that Ty and Cher sang about in Clueless and certainly not with the ground.

I don’t have extra water, I don’t have a surplus of dehydrated food tucked underneath my mattress, and I don’t even have batteries for the gargantuan flashlight my dad gave me for Christmas three years ago, “just in case.”

What I do have is an excessive amount of dried cranberries, quinoa and garlic – all of which I can’t go to the store without buying lest I suddenly find myself without one of my pantry staples. This is what frightens me, people – not probable impending disasters that I need to take more seriously, but the possibility that I might, gasp, run… out…. of… quinoa!

Oh yes, the horror.

But I also – quite unintentionally – have been stockpiling something a bit more practical these past few months. The top shelf of my cabinet is now almost entirely devoted to the 15-ounce cans of chickpeas that I’ve been buying from Whole Foods on a weekly basis to have on hand for quick lunches and healthy vegetarian dinners. It’s become somewhat of a fetish lately – an obsession that I was growing slightly concerned about until I read Molly Wizenberg’s article in this month’s Bon Appetít about chickpeas and the man, her husband, who she considers a “Chick Magnet” because of his well-stocked pantry.

Of chickpeas.

It was like she had read my mind. Which I’m sure she is completely capable of doing because I’m fairly certain Ms. Orangette possesses other super powers. How else can one explain her ability to make 20 chocolate cakes for her own wedding without losing her mind? I can’t even make one chocolate cake without partially losing my mind and/or calling my mother thirteen times to ask if it’s okay if I use regular flour instead of cake flour.

So, of course, seeing as Molly was going to all the trouble of reading my mind and addressing all my concerns about housing a miniature canned goods department in my pantry, I had to make the article’s accompanying recipe for a chickpea salad with lemon, parmesan, and fresh herbs.

With a few of my own modifications and nips and tucks.

I need to find some use for all that quinoa I have lying around don’t I?

Warm Chickpea and Roated Cauliflower Salad with Lemon, Parmesan and Fresh Herbs

Inspired by Molly Wizenberg’s recipe in the April 2011 issue of Bon Appetít

Serves 2

1 15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed, drained

¼ cup fresh basil, chopped

¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped

Juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

2-4 garlic gloves, minced (I use 4, feel free to use only 2 if you have a low tolerance for garlic breath)

1 small cauliflower, sliced into flat, ½ inch florets

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

½ teaspoon sea salt

Quinoa for serving, optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place cauliflower florets in a large glass baking dish and toss with two teaspoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon of sea salt. Roast for 25-30 minutes, stirring once, or until florets are lightly browned and can be easily pierced with a fork.

Heat a large non-stick frying pan over medium high heat. When hot, add the remaining teaspoon of oil, tilting the pan so it coats the entire surface. Add the chickpeas and garlic, reduce the heat to medium, and sauté together until the chickpeas are lightly browned. Lower the heat, toss in the cauliflower, and then add the lemon juice, lemon zest, basil, and parsley. Stir until just combined. Serve immediately, topped with grated Parmesan, and, if so inclined, next to a fluffy bed of quinoa.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Oops I Did It Again...

Diana had a little lamb.

And a little Avery Dugana IPA to go with it.

The Golden State
426 N. Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 782-8331