Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Weekend: There's no better way...

I dreaded Mondays when I was in high school. Not for the typical reasons that most kids (and, well, adults) dread Mondays (the whole having to start a whole week over again), but because of the question.

The "what did you do this weekend?" inquisition that was par the course for Monday mornings in homeroom.

I hated admitting that I hadn't actually done anything social that weekend -- that the only thing I'd done other than studying and running a track meet was renting a movie with my parents.

"Yeah.... we made it a Blockbuster night," I'd say, my cheeks burning with shame as I pretended (unsuccessfully) to act like it was no big deal that I was whittling away my teenage years parked on the couch at home.

I was always impossibly jealous of my classmates who were doing the kind of things that normal high schoolers did -- going to the mall in mass groups, watching American Pie at an actual theatre and chugging beers at the house parties I was never invited to. I couldn't wait to graduate, go to college and finally be part of a social scene that did not revolve around my parents.

This might explain why I elected to go to school 2,000 miles away from them.

Some where along the line of playing "flip cup" at house parties and going to the Century 12 Evanston Theatre for study breaks, however, I started to miss those "lame" nights spent at home with my family. I distinctly remember one evening in particular when I called my mom while my brothers and future sister-in-law were over for dinner. She was making salmon -- my favorite -- and I could hear all of them chatting and laughing in the background. My heart stung with longing. Suddenly I was desperately jealous of my brothers that got to be home with parents while I was stuck in Chicago going to yet another football party.

Suddenly spending time with my family didn't seem so lame. When I graduated college a couple years later, it was one of the reasons that I immediately moved back to Southern California. I wanted to be able to see my parents and brothers on the weekends. I wanted to be able to tell people I'd had a "Blockbuster night" with my mom and dad when they'd asked me what I'd done on my Saturday night.

Tomorrow when I go to work, I won't feel any shame when I reveal what I did on my Memorial Day weekend. I'll be excited to tell my co-workers that I drove down to my brother and sister-in-law's house down in Rancho Santa Margarita. I'll gush about the artichoke heart and caramelized onion bruschetta my brother made. I'll rave about the grilled steak he served over corn puree, and the braised chard that some how rivaled creamed spinach in decadence. And my cheeks won't burn with embarrassment when I tell them how much fun my family and I had drinking wine, inhaling the platter of brownies I'd baked, and chasing my two-year-old niece around the house while she shrieked with joy.

In my mind, there's no better way to spend a Sunday night. Good food and good wine with the best company -- the people who loved me even when I was a painfully awkward track dork that nobody wanted to invite to their parties.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Apricot Chicken: A change

This week my entire world flipped upside down. It was "opposite week" -- an extended version of "opposite day," which I loathed as a child. I never failed to forget that "yes" really meant "no," and that if I said I was a girl my classmates would immediately start snickering that this confession meant I was actually a boy.

I won't go into my thoughts on "Friday Flip-up Day" when the threat of one's skirt being flipped up loomed in the air, so I'll let it suffice to say that I was not a fan of days that disrupted the usual state of things -- especially when it involved wardrobe malfunctions.

Thankfully, this week involved none of that nonsense, but it was still a shock to my system. I'm driving east rather than west, I'm working in an open loft space with a view of downtown rather than a lonely yellow-walled office with a view of the parking lot, and I'm busy. Challenged. Excited in a way that keeps me up at night because my mind won't shut down.

And I don't want it to shut down.

As much as I hated "opposite day" as a child, I'm loving these changes and loving the breathless, exhilarated feeling that comes with it.

It's put me in a different state of mind. I feel like for the past three and a half years I've been forced to order the same bland bowl of mashed potatoes every day, and I've suddenly been presented with a brand new menu for my life. I can have duck confit! I can have gnocchi with English peas! And I can have apricot chicken.

I haven't been cooking much chicken this past year. Since moving to an apartment without a dishwasher, I find myself feeling less and less inclined to work with a protein that necessitates sterilizing all the items that touch it with boiling water (my neurosis continues to be an issue). But when I was strolling through my local farmers' market this past Sunday, I couldn't resist the fresh apricots that my favorite vendor was selling for $2 a pound. I remembered the apricot chicken recipe I'd printed from Simply Recipes the year prior and knew I had to make it. Even if it meant sterilizing everything in my kitchen when I was done.

So I bought my first ever jar of Tabasco sauce, I bought a package of chicken for the first time in five months, and I cooked up a dinner that was the opposite of what I normally make for myself.

I wasn't sure how the melange of different flavors would work together -- rosemary, cinnamon, Tabasco, and apricots aren't inherently complimentary -- but the final product was unexpectedly delightful. Initially, a bit jarring to my palate, but ultimately, delicious.

It was a good change -- a good opposite. And way better than that bland bowl of mashed potatoes.

I'm taking that item off the menu. Forever.

Apricot Chicken Recipe
Lightly adapted from Simply Recipes
Serves 2

Adaptations: I reduced the amount of olive oil and sugar, omitted the butter, and increased the proportions of cider vinegar, onion and Tabasco sauce.

1/2 pound fresh apricots, chopped, pits removed and discarded
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2/3 pounds skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
Sea salt
2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1 yellow onion, diced
3/4 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 (heaping) teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon Tabasco

Place the chopped apricots in a large bowl. Stir in the sugar and the vinegar. Let sit while you brown the chicken in the next step.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add 1 teaspoon of olive oil to the pan, swirling to coat the base. Add the chicken, sprinkle with salt, and stir-fry until browned and cooked through. Remove chicken and set aside.

Add the remaining teaspoon of oil to the pan and sauté the onion until it begins to brown. Once the onions have browned a bit, add the chicken stock and lower the heat to medium.

Put about 2/3 of the apricots, along with any juice they have given up, into a blender and blend into a purée. (Can also use an immersion blender.) Pour the purée into the pan with the chicken stock and onions.

Add the cinnamon, rosemary and Tabasco and taste. You may need to add some salt. Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat and gently simmer for 10-20 minutes.

When you are ready to serve, put the chicken and the remaining apricot pieces into the pan and simmer gently for 5 minutes.

Serve hot over quinoa or rice.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Someone bought me flowers...

I've never been much of a flowers person. Even though I grew up in a household where flowers were a constant presence on the dining room table, I've never really understand the point of them. They're fine at weddings and other hoity toity-type events, I suppose, but the whole vase full of roses on the table where I'm supposed to be eating my oatmeal kind of perplexes me.

It's like a real life game of "something here does not belong." Flowers should be in the ground -- not on my bedside table, not resting on the tank of the toilet, and most certainly not coerced into the form of a wreath to be hung on the door.

My dislike of cut flowers is only further substantiated by the annoyance of their arrival and departure. They always seem to be gifted at an inopportune time -- presented by a well-meaning dinner guest when the hostess is already scrambling to get a pot roast out of the oven, or at a restaurant where there are no vases or convenient places to put a bouquet of flowers.

It gets even worse when they start to wilt and decay after a mere 24 hours -- leaving behind a trail of green sludge that the recipient must then clean up.

Green sludge does not a happy recipient make.

So for years I've been going about my life without feeling any modicum of sadness when my birthday passes by without any special delivery from a florist.

"I don't need no stinkin' flowers!" I scoff when I see other girls around the office with big lofty arrangements on their desks that seem to say, "Someone loves me much more than anyone loves you." I shake my head in pity as I watch their pink faces contort into happy-go-lucky grins.

"Just wait till the green sludge comes," I think. I know they won't be feeling so happy-go-lucky then.

So when my good friend Sook showed up to a celebratory dinner at Sotto this past Thursday night bearing a floral bouquet larger than my head, my initial reaction wasn't one of unbridled glee. I didn't gush or blush or squeal, "For me?!"

Clearly, I've never received flowers from a boy before.

Yet, as I sat there at dinner, the paper-wrapped bouquet of tulips, roses and hydrangeas perched on the booth next to me, I started to feel it. A warm sensation drifted over my limbs, my heart started doing that achy thing, and before I could stop myself, I started to feel just the slightest bit... special.

"Someone out there loves me enough to buy me flowers," I thought. "ME! Flowers!"

Suddenly, I couldn't wait to get them home so I could put them on display smack dab in the middle of the dining room table where I eat my oatmeal.

I couldn't wait to tear the paper away like a Christmas package.

And I couldn't wait to put them some place they didn't belong.

In my big blue teapot.

The inside crevices are going to be impossible to get clean.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Strawberry, Corn, Basil Quinoa Salad with Sautéed Tofu: Fork optional

I’ve been holding out on you.

Keeping this quinoa salad – the ultimate summer salad – a dirty little secret.

I’ve eaten it no less than 10 times since sweet corn and strawberries made their debut at my local farmers’ market a few weeks ago. Every time I extract the salad from my lunch tote at work, I’m nearly crushed by excitement. I can barely stand to eat it with a fork – I want to shovel it up with a giant spoon, my hands, my mouth to ensure every bite contains each glorious, summer-saturated component.

I live in fear that someone will walk into my office at the precise moment that I’m using my sticky, quinoa-coated fingers to set a stray toasted almond sliver or a cube of sautéed tofu onto my fork to complete that all-inclusive, perfect bite. Our eyes will meet from across the paper-cluttered room. I’ll try to stammer out an explanation as to why I’m eating my lunch with my fingers.

But it will be too late. They’ll already be backing away – not wanting to know – not wanting to see what I do when I’m behind my not-so closed office doors.

“It’s the salad!” I’ll finally scream, once they are safely down the hall. “It’s just too good! You’d do it too!”

This is what I tell myself.

That any reasonable person would lose all decorum when confronted with this mix of sweet strawberries, corn, basil, arugula, red onion, and tofu, slivered almonds, quinoa, and a pitch perfect balsamic dressing. That any reasonable person would abandon their utensils to turn lunch into a competitive eating sport.

Victory over this salad will be mine. All summer long. Regardless of the judgment doled out from my co-workers eyes.

Strawberry, Corn, Basil Quinoa Salad with Sautéed Tofu
Serves 4

Note: You may be tempted to omit the tofu, but that would be a grave mistake. The sautéed cubes of extra-firm tofu add a satisfying heft to this salad without imparting a distracting flavor to take away from the true stars of the show – the strawberries, corn and basil. The texture of the tofu is what is key here, as are the crunchy almonds and delicate kernels of quinoa that bring everything together into one hot (well, actually cold) delicious mess.

¾ cup dry quinoa, cooked in 1 ½ cups water and then cooled to room temperature
1/3 cup red onion, minced
1 carton fresh strawberries, stems removed, chopped
2 ears fresh white or yellow corn, husked
8 ounces extra-firm tofu, cubed
2 cups arugula, chopped
½ cup fresh basil, chopped
½ cup slivered almonds, toasted
1 teaspoon olive oil

Balsamic Dressing
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons olive oil
Juice from half a lemon
Salt, pepper

Combine dressing ingredients together in a small bowl. Whisk together until well-combined. Taste – if tart, add extra Dijon or honey to balance out the vinegar.

Soak red onion in small bowl of cold water for 15-20 minutes (this will help reduce some of that red onion bite). Drain and set aside.

While onion is soaking, bring enough water to cover the two ears of corn (roughly 3 inches) to boil in a large pot with a lid. Once boiling, add the corn, cover with the lid, and cook 3-5 minutes or until the corn is just tender enough to be pierced with a fork. Drain immediately and rinse with cold water so it doesn’t continue cooking. Using a chef’s knife, cut the corn kernels off the ear.

Heat a large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the teaspoon of olive oil and swirl it to coat the base of the pan. Add the tofu, reduce the heat to medium, and sauté until the tofu is golden on all sides. Remove from the pan.

Combine quinoa, red onion, corn, and tofu, and toss with the balsamic dressing. Refrigerate until cool before proceeding.

Once chilled, stir in the strawberries, arugula, basil, and almonds. Serve immediately. With or without utensils.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Be-All End-All Brownie

I blame the cake.

Yes, that cake – the winning-hearts-and-minds cake that my mother nearly decapitated two Sundays ago with one fell swoop of her ungraceful hand.

I still haven’t gotten over it.

Any of it – the almost decapitation, the damage to my nervous system that can’t handle fell swoops, and the way the deformed cake tasted once we’d covered up the mangled top with a whipped cream concealer.

It was like fudge and brownies and chocolate soufflé had a baby in an 8-inch round pan – a baby that I subsequently had to abandon at my parents’ house in Orange County.

The single slice I’d eaten that night was a dull knife to my heart. I felt like someone had cut the cable five minutes into an episode of “How I Met Your Mother” or told me I could only have one lick of an ice cream cone. I couldn’t stop thinking about chocolate the entire week. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was going to silence the incessant noise in my head – the clanging, clattering voice that demanded to know why I hadn’t taken a piece of the cake back to LA with me.

I was certain it was having abandonment issues.

Because I was having abandonment issues.

There seemed only one way to remedy the hole in my stomach that was growing larger and emptier and angrier by the second.

I had to make brownies.

But not just any brownies – certainly not the boxed variety that brought doom, despair and wobbly bits to my and my roommates’ thighs in college – I had to make from-scratch brownies. And they had to be perfect. The be-all end-all brownie that all the other brownies want to be when they grow up.

Amanda Hesser’s brownies.

It was an obvious choice. The recipe she includes in the Essential New York Times Cookbook is simple and uncluttered with any sort of peanut butter, caramel, espresso, mint, Oreo, or cheesecake nonsense. Her description as to why she selected this particular recipe says it all:

I settled on this unadorned version, with classic proportions of butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and chocolate, which I believe is the best kind of brownie; a little buttery, a little bitter, a little salty, but mostly about the chocolate. These brownies also exhibit my favorite brownie detail, a shiny, chewy crackled surface.

Chewy crackled surface. The words echoed in my head, finally bringing peace to that accusatory voice and my stomach’s abandonment issues.

This was the be-all end-all brownie that I desired. And it was the first thing that popped into my head when I woke up at 7 am on Sunday morning courtesy of an unexpected downpour outside my bedroom window. I told myself the rainstorm was God’s way of telling me to bake them. Immediately.

I made the brownies without hesitation – ate them without hesitation too. One after lunch, two after dinner – a consequence of my week-long period of chocolate cake deprivation. I cursed the brownies for their rich and sassy demeanor. I cursed their crackly surface and the satisfyingly chewy bits around the edges.

And I cursed the cake.

Yes, that cake. The cake that started all the trouble – decapitation, abandonment issues and my subsequent discovery of the ultimate, be-all end-all brownie recipe. My thighs will never be the same again.

Lightly adapted from Amanda Hesser’s Essential New York Times Cookbook
Makes 16 brownies

Adaptations: The only changes I made to the original recipe are procedural in nature – using a double boiler instead of a saucepan to melt the chocolate and butter, and going a different route to cut the brownies.

¼ pound semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (I used Ghiradelli 60% cacao chips)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
½ cup sifted all-purpose flour
½ cup chopped pecans (or other nuts)
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch-square baking pan and line the base with parchment (I extended the parchment to come up the edges of the pan so I could use the overhand to lift the brownies out for cutting purposes).

Melt the chocolate and butter in a saucepan (I used a double boiler) over low heat. Remove from heat.

Beat the eggs with the sugar until the sugar is mostly dissolved, and add to the chocolate mixture. Add the other ingredients and mix well. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost, but not quite, clean, about 25 minutes (mine took 30 minutes). Let cool completely.

Once cool, place the pan in the refrigerator for an hour to chill. (This will make them easier to cut.) Run a knife around the edges of the brownies that are touching the baking dish, then use the parchment paper to lift them out of the dish. Set on a cutting board and cut into 16 squares.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Diana Takes a New Bite"

I’ve always shied away from it – talking about my blog on my blog. In my mind, it’s the equivalent of breaking character in a play – giggling in the middle of a serious scene or turning to the audience to speak directly of the action taking place on stage.

It kills the moment.

And it kills the perception of voyeurism for the man watching in the third row or the girl reading at her computer. Addressing the art itself – that the play is being consciously acted out, and a blog’s posts are deliberately conceived and not merely a free-flowing array of words – is kind of a buzz kill.

I never wanted anyone to know just how much work and thought I put into what I say here. I never wanted anyone to know that “Diana Takes a Bite” isn’t just the script for the reality show that is my life of eating and cooking food.

But this little pink blog that I started three years, one month and eight days ago is undergoing a change in direction – one that I feel compelled to address lest I leave my loyal readers scratching their heads as they try to figure out, “What happened?”

I’ve never mentioned it before (at least not publicly), but “Diana Takes a Bite” first came into being because I didn’t get a job. At the time, I was a hardcore “Yelper,” spending countless hours penning silly reviews that I hoped would win me “Funny,” “Cool,” and “Useful” votes, new “fans,” and the coveted “Review of the Day” honor.

I was pretty darn good at being irrelevant.

And I loved the rush I felt whenever someone would send a compliment my way for that irrelevance.

So when a Yelp Community Manager position became available in Orange County, I immediately applied for the gig. Suddenly, all those hours I’d wasted discussing my affection for the color pink in the middle of a review about an Italian restaurant didn’t seem like such a waste.

Clearly, it had all been leading up to this point. I was going to get the job, move back to Orange County and be the coolest girl in my hometown. At least, according to Yelp.

Except I didn’t get it.

After dragging my heart along for a month, I was informed that they “were intent on finding someone with a professional writing background for the role.”

Apparently, the list of “Signs you are spending too much time/money in a clothing shop” that I wrote for a review of Anthropologie did not qualify me as a “professional” writer.

Instead of wallowing in my sorrows that I was not going to be the ultimate “Yelper” or the coolest girl in Orange County, I turned the crushing disappointment into a catalyst for something else. I’d been obsessively reading “The Delicious Life,” “Caroline on Crack” and “LA and OC Foodventures” for a while, and had been toying with the idea of starting my own blog as well. Not getting the Yelp job put the fire in my belly to actually go for it.

“Screw professional writing experience,” I thought smugly, as I signed up for an account on Blogger. “I’m going to be the next Delicious!”

Now that we are friends, Sarah and I joke about the moronic email I sent her (when I’d never so much as interacted with her on Facebook or Twitter) asking for “Blog Advice” and pointers on how “to do all the fancy blog tricks.”

The low point was when I signed off my message with a charming, “Keep up the good eating!”

As if she needed the encouragement.

Somewhere in the midst of all this idiocy, I found my “voice,” and eventually, a place in the LA dining community – without all those “fancy blog tricks” I thought I needed. To this day, I still pay no attention to things like SEO. It’s only recently that I even learned how to adjust the white balance on my camera. (Count one toward the “fancy blog tricks” that Sarah has patiently taught me.)

Throughout this whole time that I’ve been doing this whole technologically-unsavvy blogging thing, however, I’ve secretly been hoping to turn my passion for food and writing into a career. I’ve also secretly known that once I got to that place, things would change – that I wouldn’t be able to continue my blog in its current state.

Last week, I finally arrived at that point. I’ve amazingly – Praise the Lord! – found a way to do what I love most for a living (hence the celebratory dinner at Osteria Mozza last Tuesday night).

While I’m sad that it signals “the end of an era,” it feels somehow appropriate that the blog that came into being because I didn’t get a job is going to change because I did get one. I’ll still be here, plugging away on recipes, sharing my horrific dating stories, and pontificating on whatever else is going on in my world, but, because it presents a conflict of interest, I won’t be writing about restaurants any more.

Not even about Osteria Mozza. Or Golden State. Or FarmShop, where I devoured this amazing open-faced tuna sandwich for brunch last Sunday. (The smoked trout-stuffed deviled eggs, pictured above, were no slouches on the couch either.)

I do promise this though – no matter where this new job takes me, I’ll always keep up the good eating.

It should be a little bit easier now that I don’t have to lug a camera around to do it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spring Fried Quinoa Rice: How I fly by the seat of my pants

My favorite movie growing up was Pretty Woman. At the time I didn’t understand half of what was going on – partially because the version I was watching was edited for TV – but I loved all the fairy tale-esque moments that I did understand.

Over the course of the three dozen times I watched the film when I was home sick from school or because “Full House” was a rerun, I became intimately familiar with all the scenes and dialogue. It got to the point where I could recite the exchanges word-for-word (a useless skill I still possess today). One of the exchanges between Edward (Richard Gere) and Vivian (Julia Roberts) shortly after they’d checked into the “Reg Bev Wil” was particularly memorable to me.

“Do you plan everything?” Vivian asked Edward.

“Always.” He responded.

“Yeah me too!”
She piped up, before continuing. “I'm actually – no, I'm not a planner. I would say I’m a kinda fly by the seat of your pants gal, you know moment to moment. Yeah that’s me, that’s...yeah.”

Even at the age of seven, this floored me – a precocious, perfectionist child who already possessed a day calendar. (It was mostly filled with the birth dates of my stuffed animals.)

Twenty years later, I’m still in awe of those people – men, and, well, prostitutes – who don’t plan out every second of their existence. While I don’t always write things down (I lost the ability to use a pen and paper three years ago), I always have things plotted out in my head. By Sunday morning, I already know what I’m going to eat every day and night that week, and if I’m going out to dinner, I already know what I’m going to wear, how I’m going to screw up my hair, and what I’m going to order.

In my mind, it’s the only way to live.

So last night, I was completely thrown for a loop when I got a text message from my friend asking if she could get a rain check on our dinner date. I wasn’t upset with her – I completely understand and encourage the need to stay in when the mood so strikes – I was more stupefied by what I should do since I hadn’t planned on what to make for dinner and I am not, as Vivian so eloquently says, “a fly by the seat of [my] pants kind of gal.”

I was supposed to eat at Robata Jinya, and order the spicy ramen with an egg added and some grilled broccoli for a green side. That was what was supposed to happen. That was what I’d been gearing up for since my friend and I had finalized the restaurant location at 2 pm earlier that day.

I couldn’t think straight. Did I use up the rest of a head of suspect cauliflower? If I cut off the tiny flecks of black mold could I still eat it without compromising my immune system? Or should I play it safe and make something with the asparagus I bought at the farmers’ market on Sunday? I wasn’t sure I wanted asparagus – or what I would even have with the asparagus since gal-who-does-not-fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants also cannot eat asparagus alone.

For 30 minutes, I stared blankly at the contents of my cupboards and refrigerator. Nothing sounded good except for fried rice – which I was seemingly incapable of making because I didn’t have any of the proper foodstuffs for it. Namely rice and an acceptable fried rice vegetable mix-in like broccoli or snow peas or even green beans.

I had asparagus.

Finally, after several more minutes of debate (which included a weak moment where I contemplated extracting the partially spoiled cauliflower from the trash can), I decided to go for broke with a “Spring Fried Quinoa Rice” dish. They were my pants and I was going to fly by them any which way I wanted. So help my taste buds.

I wasn’t sure how the dish was going to come together when I began roasting my asparagus, preparing my quinoa, and mincing an indecent amount of garlic and shallots. But when I sat down to my spontaneous supper less than 30 minutes later (take that Rachael Ray!), it tasted as though I’d spent all day planning to make it. So good in fact, that I’m already thinking about making it for dinner again tonight -- instead of my original plan for quinoa with asparagus, slow-roasted tomatoes and pesto.

Because that’s the way I fly by the seat of my pants -- sort of, kind of, not really at all.

Spring Fried Quinoa Rice
Serves 1

¼ cup (dry) quinoa, prepared with ½ cup of water
7 spears of asparagus, sliced diagonally into 1-inch pieces
2 shallots, finely chopped
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced (amount can vary depending on size and personal tolerance for garlic breath)
1/3 cup frozen peas
1 egg
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Juice from 1/4th a lemon
1 teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon sesame oil
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Salt, pepper
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, lemon juice, honey, and sesame oil. Set aside.

Toss asparagus with salt and pepper and place in a glass baking dish. Roast until tender – approximately 15 minutes. .

While asparagus is roasting, heat a large, nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add a splash of olive oil, swirling it to coat the base of the pan. Reduce heat to medium, then add the shallot and garlic. Sauté together until onion is translucent, then add a pinch of red pepper flakes. Reduce the heat to low, cook together for a minute, then add the quinoa. Let cook over low heat for 1-2 minutes so the quinoa can begin absorbing some of the flavor from the garlic/onions. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add a splash of olive oil to the pan and reheat over medium high heat. Crack the egg into the pan, and scramble until just barely set. Add the quinoa, shallots, garlic, asparagus, and frozen peas to the pan, and stir to combine. Toss the quinoa fried rice mixture with the soy-lemon sauce until well-integrated throughout. Serve immediately.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Winning-Hearts-and-Minds Chocolate Cake: The Ace of Cakes

It was perfect.

Well, perfect, except for the alien baby head that was poking out of the top.

And the tiny, truly miniscule, sliver of egg shell that some how got lost in the deep chocolate batter when I wasn’t looking because I was too busy being… perfect.

But those were really inconsequential matters. The chocolate cake – Molly Wizenberg’s “Winning-Hearts-and-Minds Cake" that was, incidentally also her wedding cake – was a thing of gorgeous, alien-headed beauty. The edges were slightly crackly and soufflé-like, just like Molly had said they should be, and the center only displayed a whisper of jiggliness. I knew just by looking at it that it would set up… perfectly.

Because that’s how I do things. Perfectly.

I’d taken extra care with this cake – a mother’s day present for my mom whose affinity for chocolate is even greater than mine. I’d weighed my Ghiradelli 60% cacoa chips so they came out to exactly 7 ounces. I’d spent the extra effort to find European-style butter, which has a higher percentage of butterfat and creamier consistency than regular butter. And I’d vigilantly whisked in each of my five eggs, one at a time – just as Molly had instructed.

I’m an excellent whisker.

So, being that the cake was all perfect and what not, I was nervous about the process of extracting it from the 8-inch round pan. Molly had provided notes on how to do it – popping the delicate cake unto a flat, foil-lined plate before positioning the serving plate on the bottom so it could be flipped over, right-side up – but I was terrified of mutilating it in the process.

There were alien babies at stake here.

“You do it,” I’d told my mother who seemed nonplussed by the instructions.

“I know exactly what to do,” she’d said, taking charge with the plates and foil like a seasoned cake-flipping pro.

An “Ace of Cakes,” one might say.

I was so proud.

But then I saw it. The cake that she had flipped onto the foil-lined plate wasn’t lined up with the serving plate she was transferring it to. I started to yell, “Stop!” but by the time the word had formed in my mouth, quivering and anxious and ready to pounce on her with all the bravado and intensity of a dire warning, it was too late.

She’d already flipped it over.

And a huge chunk of the cake that was supposed to win hearts and minds was falling off the edge of the glass dish.

“You missed the plate!” I shrieked in horror, unable to contain my panic that my cake – my perfect egg-shell-containing, alien-head-baby cake – was about to be irrevocably ruined.

“Get me a giant spatula!” She commanded, thinking she could just shift the cake over into the center of the plate.

I shook my head in defiance.

I couldn’t stand idly by and watch the destruction.

Moving fast, I cut in, plopping the cake back onto the foil-lined plate, before transferring it back onto the serving platter.

It landed perfectly in the center.

Relief hit first, then anger. An acrid anger that rose up from stomach and into my chest as I stared at the dislodged portion of my perfect mother’s day present for my, clearly, not-so-perfect mother.

She was not the “Ace of Cakes.”

She was the “Disgrace of Cakes!”

I snatched up the dessert and stalked into the other room – terrified to leave it in the path of this woman who had missed the plate. She couldn’t be trusted.

My eyes began to narrow, assuming the position of my winning evil eye that makes hearts tremble and minds turn into wobbly bits of putty. Oh would she be sorry for missing that plate. The eye was going to get her.

My mother.

Yet, as I stood there, glaring at the cake and gearing up for a storm of adolescent-like rage the likes of which my parents' house hadn't seen since 1999, I realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be angry at her – the woman who had given birth to me and has put up with my neuroses for the past 27 years. It was Mother’s Day.

I had to forgive her.

Just like she’d forgiven me when I’d broken her crystal Swarovski swan when I was running around the house as a child. Just like she’d forgiven me when I’d hit a pole approximately a month after getting my driver’s license. Just like she’d forgiven me when I’d eaten half of her precious box of special mint Abdallah’s that her mother had shipped to her from South Dakota.

I tucked the evil eye away and went back into the kitchen, willing myself to move on.

When I sliced up the cake later that night (careful to avoid the shattered, disgraced portion), I didn’t hesitate to top each sliver with a generous dollop of the whipped cream she’d made. The smooth peaks oozed down the sides of the glossy mousse-like cake, hiding all sins, eggshells and alien babies within.

It was perfect.

And all hearts and minds were won.

Gâteau au chocolat fondant de Nathalie, or, Kate's Winning-Hearts-and-Minds Cake
From Orangette, who adapted the recipe from Je veux du chocolat!, by Trish Deseine

7 ounces (200 grams) best-quality dark chocolate
7 ounces (200 grams) unsalted European-style butter (the high-butterfat kind, such as Lurpak or Beurre d’Isigny), cut into ½-inch cubes
1 1/3 cup (250 grams) granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Line the base of the pan with parchment, and butter the parchment too.

Finely chop the chocolate (a serrated bread knife does an outstanding job of this) and melt it gently with the butter in a double boiler or in the microwave, stirring regularly to combine. Add the sugar to the chocolate-butter mixture, stirring well, and set aside to cool for a few moments. Then add the eggs one by one, stirring well after each addition, and then add the flour. The batter should be smooth, dark, and utterly gorgeous.

Pour batter into the buttered cake pan and bake for approximately 25 minutes, or until the center of the cake looks set and the top is shiny and a bit crackly-looking. (I usually set the timer for 20 minutes initially, and then I check the cake every two minutes thereafter until it’s done. At 20 minutes, it’s usually quite jiggly in the center. You’ll know it’s done when it jiggles only slightly, if at all.) Let the cake cool in its pan on a rack for 10 minutes; then carefully turn the cake out of the pan and revert it, so that the crackly side is facing upward. Allow to cool completely. The cake will deflate slightly as it cools.

Serve in wedges at room temperature with a loose dollop of ever-so-slightly sweetened whipped cream.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Osteria Mozza: Celebrate good times

Something new. And not at all blue.

Burricotta with radicchio, spiced walnuts, honey and fried rosemary ($16)

Bufala mozzarella with jumbo white asparagus, sieved egg, bottarga, and meyer lemon ($21)

Fava bean ravioli with English peas, spring lettuces and lemon ($21)

Linguine with clams, pancetta and spicy Fresno chiles ($21)

Chocolate and tangerine gelato

Osteria Mozza
6602 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 297-0100

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Din Tai Fung Dumpling House: Definitely, maybe, far better than fine

She mentioned it on Friday.

That maybe we could stop in the San Gabriel Valley for soup dumplings on our way back from Camp Blogaway on Sunday.

Din Tai Fung,” she said.

And in a second, I was sold – my hopes dangling on that “maybe” like it was referring to something far more important than merely satisfying the whims of my stomach.

My brother – who, incidentally, doesn’t even live in LA – had told me about Din Tai Fung last year. He’d fallen in love with the soup dumplings during business trips to China, where the original Din Tai Fung was established before the operation migrated across the globe to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and in the United States, Bellevue, Washington, and Arcadia, California.

While more expensive and obviously more “corporate” than many of the mom and pop shops that sell dumplings in the San Gabriel Valley, Din Tai Fung is widely popular – patrons will wait well over an hour to score a table at the two locations that are adjacent from each other on South Baldwin Avenue.

I couldn’t wait to be one of them.

Even though I’d been thinking about the dumplings all weekend, I feigned indifference when I reminded Sarah about her suggestion on Sunday morning.

“Do you still want to stop at Din Tai Fung on the way back?” I asked, as though her answer didn’t have the power to either crush or uplift my spirit.

“Sure! If you want to…” She responded, her voice equally nonchalant.

The brief exchange was only the beginning of our coy verbal dance of, “I will if you will,” “I’ll go if you want to go,” and the worst offender of all, “I’m fine either way.”

Politeness can be excruciating.

Especially when you aren’t really fine either way, but want to pretend to be in case the other person isn’t fine either way either, but in the opposite way that you wouldn’t be…


But as we reached the stretch of the 10 freeway that borders the Valley that is famous for housing the best Chinese food in Los Angeles – possibly in the country – we both finally, thankfully reached the same decision I’d been anticipating for two days.

We were stopping for dumplings.

We were assigned number 76 at the first Din Tai Fung location – the original, across the street from J.J. Bakery – and were dismayed to learn that they were currently on number 42. It would be a long wait, we thought, until the hostess suggested we check at the larger, more stylized location around the corner.

Within 15 minutes we were seated at a table for two upstairs – the small size of our party a boon on this particular afternoon, as many of the people in front of us were larger groups.

Sarah immediately took charge with the menu, checking off boxes with the dexterity and confidence of a seasoned Din Tai Fung diner. One order of the Juicy Pork ($7.25 for 10), one order of the Chicken Dumplings ($7.25 for 10), 1 order of the Pork Wontons with Spicy Sauce ($7.00).

“The best,” She said with a wink. “Do you want anything else?”

“I’m kind of curious about the Green Melon and Shrimp Xiao Long Bao ($8.00 for 10)…” I said.

“Get it!” She declared with finality. Then she promptly ex-nayed the sole vegetable that was to be included in our ambitious queue of requests – the sautéed bok choy ($7.50).

“We don’t need vegetables.” She explained.

I gulped, thinking to myself, “We don’t?”

But she was, as usual, right.

The dumplings came out in a steady stream mere moments after we’d ordered them. I was glad that I’d recently watched ABC 7’s “Eye on LA” special on ethnic cuisine, in which they’d described how to eat Din Tai Fung's dumplings – placing one in a soup spoon with a splash of vinegar and few strands of fresh ginger. On the show, the reporter had expressed girlish concern about putting the whole dumpling in her mouth at once.

I was not going to make the same rookie mistake

I plopped the entire ginger-topped, vinegar-spritzed juicy pork dumpling in my mouth as though I’d been eating them forever. It immediately burst open, a hot stream of porky broth oozing out of the delicate dumpling skin.

In a second, I was sold. I had no interest in consuming anything green.

The dumplings are impossibly light making it far too easy to go through 10, 15… 20 in a single sitting. We easily polished off all the juicy pork dumplings, as well as the pork wontons in spicy sauce – which, incidentally, were, as Sarah had promised, “the best.”

The chicken dumplings were a nice interlude to all the pork, and the subtle flavor of the shrimp and melon purses were also a pleasant addition to our order, but our soup spoons were most delighted with the pork-filled varieties. They are the ones that will linger in my mind, tempting and teasing me until I’m able to convince someone else that it is a brilliant idea to drive out to Arcadia to wait an hour for dumplings in the hot sun.

But only, you know, “If they want to.”

Because, “I’m really fine either way.”

“I’m completely ambivalent about the whole thing.”

Except, now that I’ve tasted the dumplings, I couldn’t possibly pretend to be ambivalent about going to Din Tai Fung ever again.

Din Tai Fung
1088 S Baldwin Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007
(626) 574-7068

Monday, May 2, 2011

Kale and Avocado Salad with Tofu: A little reminder

It was cold.

I had to sleep on a bunk bed – in a cabin, in the woods, up in nature. The air was dry, my skin was cracked, and there was no quinoa or Wifi to be found. Instead, there were 90 other food bloggers, a dozen marketing representatives, and one fearless leader, Patti Londre, an experienced food marketer and PR maven who also writes the food blog, “Worth The Whisk.”

For the 24 hours that I spent up at Camp Blogaway with Sarah, the brains behind TasteSpotting and The Delicious Life (recently nominated as one of the best restaurant blogs in the country at Saveur), I was constantly surrounded by the friendly chatter of other people. We talked about blogging and food, of course, but also about where we were from, about how cute the representative from Wente Vineyards was (one of five males present), and how we wished fascinators had been required attire for all campers.

(The latter might have been just my personal fantasy.)

It was a fun, but draining weekend, and by the time I arrived back to Los Angeles yesterday afternoon, I was relieved to have a moment of silence.

And a hot shower.

After speeding around town to get my weekend errands done (ie. grocery shopping – always priority number one), I returned to my empty apartment with a bit of a hesitant step. As I looked around the space that was completely devoid of noise, fresh mountain air and the constant companionship I’d been treated to the entire weekend, I was met with a pang of loneliness.

Suddenly the silence I’d been craving didn’t seem all that golden any more.

Despite my reservations about dirt and bunk beds, I wanted to cling to the weekend that had already passed by in a 24-hour flash. I couldn’t help texting Sarah, who I’d just spent every waking second with, about finding the Fiji water we’d gulped down up at camp at Trader Joe’s for a relatively reasonable price. I felt compelled to check in to see what my new and old friends were up to on Twitter. And when I started thinking about dinner, I knew that it had to involve the avocado I’d taken back with me courtesy of the California Avocado Commission – one of the many parting gifts we received.

I’d been eying Elf’s Kale and Avocado Salad recipe ever since it was featured in Saveur last year, so decided it was the perfect time to make it to sort of commemorate the weekend. I made several adaptations to the original – lightly braising the kale with minced garlic and red onion rather than just steaming it, using sunflower seeds instead of the optional hemp seeds, and including extra-firm tofu cubes for more bulk and protein.

The final product was the perfect template for my perfectly ripe avocado. The creaminess of the avocado added just the right amount of decadence to the kale, and the citrus dressing chimed in with a subtle touch of sweetness.

When I finished my dinner, I felt a little less lonesome for the community I’d left behind up in Angelus Oaks.

The salad had been a pleasant reminder of my weekend getaway. And the red quinoa I served alongside it was a pleasant reminder that I was home – in an apartment, in LA, with a queen bed that I didn’t have to share with anyone.

Kale and Avocado Salad with Tofu
Adapted from Saveur
Serves 2

¼ cup fresh orange juice
1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced garlic (feel free to use less if it is your preference)
½ cup red onion, chopped
1 bunch kale, finely chopped
½ avocado, cubed
6 ounces extra-firm tofu, cubed
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
Salt, pepper

Whisk together orange juice, lemon juice, honey, soy sauce, 1 teaspoon olive oil and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Heat large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add 1 teaspoon of olive oil to pan, swirling to coat the base. Add the tofu and sauté over medium heat until browned on all sides. Add 1 tablespoon of the dressing and cook with tofu until liquid has evaporated – approximately 1 minute. Remove tofu, set aside.

Clean out the pan. Reheat over medium-high heat. Add last teaspoon of olive oil, then toss in the garlic and onion, sautéing over medium heat until the onion is slightly translucent – approximately 4-6 minutes. Lower the heat, add the chopped kale to the pan, season with salt, and then cover the pan with a lid. Let kale lightly simmer with the garlic and onion for 5 minutes.

Remove lid, turn off heat, and stir in the dressing, tofu, sunflower seeds, and avocado. Serve immediately. Salad is best when it is at room temperature, so feel free to let it sit for a few minutes before digging in.