Monday, September 26, 2011

Quinoa Frittata: Thou shalt not be afraid

All I could think about was ramen.

It didn't matter that I was surrounded by acclaimed chefs and restaurants -- Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken from Border Grill, Suzanne Goin from A.O.C., or Sherry Yard from Spago. Their thoughtfully executed dishes, conceptualized and crafted from seasonal produce from local farmers for the Localicious Gala I was attending, were meaningless to me.

I didn't want a lamb sirloin crostini with tomato eggplant jam or a delicate ricotta-stuffed squash blossom.

I wanted to slurp a hot mess of broth-saturated noodles and pork belly with chopsticks I don't know how to hold properly. I wanted meaty juices to drizzle down my chin like pork-infused rain. I wanted to eat exactly what I was craving in the exact moment that I was craving it.

And, for once, I didn't care if I had to leave the company of other individuals to sit alone at a restaurant to do it.

It had been a good week and a half since my last solo restaurant/bar excursion -- a pathetic outing involving a chick lit book, a pity pour of wine and multiple bemused glances from the resident bartender.


The self-imposed socially awkward experience had lowered my inhibitions about solo dining (and imbibing). Eating a bowl of ramen at Robata Jinya, my local Japanese robata restaurant, seemed infinitely less masochistic in comparison. Pleasurable even. I couldn't say my "good byes" fast enough.

"If I can read a Jennifer Wiener book during Happy Hour at Comme Ca, I can eat by myself anywhere!" I thought as I assertively strode down West Third Street in the direction of the restaurant 20 minutes later.

I swung open the door and proudly walked up to the host stand, primed to declare myself a party of one.

"It's just me," I told the stylishly coiffed hostess, an overly extended smile straining the corners of my mouth. "Can I sit at the bar?"

She grabbed a single menu and beckoned me to follow her -- past the tables of equally stylish twenty-somethings sharing sushi small plates -- to the robata bar in the back. I envisioned all of them turning to look at me as I walked by, tilting their heads up to observe me with deep admiration.

"Wow, that girl is awesome." They were all clearly thinking. "She's eating ramen by herself on a Friday night!"

I also envisioned a strapping young bachelor walking over to inform me of this awesomeness -- how impressed he was with my self-confidence and unrestrained enthusiasm for pork and noodles. Taking no notice of the broth dripping from my face or puddle in my lap, he would slide his card across the lacquered wood panel of the bar, flash an electric smile, and say, "Call me if you ever want an eating partner."

The fantasy quickly crashed and burned as I realized where the hostess was taking me. She walked by the empty seats in the front of the bar and pointed me toward a seat in the far corner of the restaurant -- where single women go to die.

I cringed as I sat down, feeling slightly embarrassed that I'd been hidden away in the corner like the bad kid in class. I wanted to be on display -- the totally cool solo ramener who is so at ease with herself she doesn't mind being the center of attention.

"All that's missing is a dunce hat," I mused, as I dutifully reached for my reading material, the "Breakfast" issue of Los Angeles Magazine this time.

While my knight in shining Ashley came swooping in from down the street to join me for a drink 25 minutes later, I did actually feel more at ease on this occasion. It wasn't terrifying for me to sit there slurping my noodles while everyone else in the restaurant was slurping in tandem. And after a few minutes, I didn't even mind being tucked into the worst seat in the house.

It was kind of nice.

This past weekend, I tackled another formerly terrifying situation -- using the broiler drawer in my oven to make a frittata version of "the Kitchn's" omelet with quinoa. The last time I'd used the broiler I'd burned the kitchen floor, likely compromising my security deposit (and part of my sanity) in the process. Yet as I began prepping the ingredients to make my lunch using Heidi Swanson's frittata instructions in Super Natural Every Day, I reasoned that the worst possible scenario had already transpired (short of burning the food beyond edibility).

Just like I'd confidently gone to Robata Jinya by myself (for approximately 25 minutes), I was going to confidently use the broiler to finish my quinoa frittata so the eggs would poof up just like Heidi promised.

I fired up the temperature to 500 degrees, removed the pan in the evil fire-breathing drawer, replaced the grill with my cast iron skillet, and slid it under the flame. Loud snap, crackle and popping noises immediately began emanating from the inner depths of my oven.

"It's the heart of darkness," I thought as I grimaced in pain, fretting like a mother that my poor quinoa frittata was being burned alive.

But when I pulled the pan out a few moments later, the eggs weren't charred beyond recognition -- they were perfect.

I'm kind of thinking I might just be ready to tackle a solo tasting menu.

Or, at the very least, finish a full bowl of ramen at Robata Jinya while everyone looks on and admires my awesomeness.

Quinoa Frittata with Sun-dried Tomatoes, Kale and Goat Cheese
Inspired by "the Kitchn" and Super Natural Every Day
Serves 1

1 tablespoon quinoa
2 eggs
1 shallot, finely minced
1 cup kale, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon milk
Goat cheese, crumbled
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

Bring 2 tablespoons of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the quinoa, reduce heat, and simmer covered until the quinoa absorbs all the water - approximately 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a medium pan over medium high heat. Once hot, add a splash of olive oil, swirling to coat the base of the pan. Add the shallots and saute 2-3 minutes before adding the chopped kale. Season with salt, reduce heat, and cover. Let braise 15-20 minutes over low heat until the kale is satiny in appearance. Add the sun-dried tomatoes for the last five minutes. When done, remove kale, tomato and tomatoes from the pan and toss with the quinoa. Set aside to cool.

Crack the two eggs in a small bowl. Add the splash of milk, season with salt and pepper, and whisk together. Add the cooled kale and quinoa mixture.

Heat a small (6-8'') cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Once hot, add a good splash of olive oil, swirling to coat the entire base of the pan. Pour in the egg mixture and let settle for one minute before nudging the edges in with a spatula so that the uncooked center runs out to the sides. You may need to tilt the pan a bit so the runny eggs run to the underside of the pan. Cook for another minute or so or until the edges are set and the center is just a bit puddly in appearance.

Remove the pan from the stove, sprinkle with goat cheese, and place under the broiler for a minute (maybe two) or until the top of the frittata is puffed and set. Remove from the broiler and let sit for a couple minutes before sliding out of the pan.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Colorful Lentil and Couscous Salad: Lust

I knew as soon as I saw her I was in trouble.

Sitting there, waiting for me in the car port with her sassy clean white curves, functioning CD player and radio, and passenger door that doesn't squeak when it's opened.

"I'm not going to want to take her back," I told Armando, the Toyota serviceman who'd arranged for the rental while my 1999 Corolla was in the shop.

He smiled knowingly, almost tauntingly, like it was all a part of his master plan.

How could I not fall in love with a brand new version of the car I've owned since I was a sophomore in high school? A car with 125,000+ miles, a severely scratched bumper and a dirty track record that goes far beyond the new brake cylinders it needs... this time.

"Well, just let me know and I'll make sure my guys give you a good deal." Armando said, extending his arm to hand me the keys.

"A good deal." The words echoed in my head as I slid into the driver's seat, immediately noticing how the seat molded around my back, as if it was giving me a warm hug "hello."

"Crap." I said out loud. "It even has that new car smell."

My head pulsed with alternating currents of anger, lust and sadness. "It's not fair," I thought, my stomach wrenched with emotion that I usually reserve for Hugh Grant movies. "They are salting my wound!"

I glared at the warning label still affixed to the driver's side window -- a window that actually rolls up and down on command, and doesn't get stuck like mine does. I stared down the odometer with disgust, gasping when I saw that I was the first person to drive it -- the car that should and could be mine.

If I just let Armando know.

I wanted it more than I've ever wanted anything in my life. Even more than the TV I coveted for Christmas when I was in the fourth grade. The year that my mom and dad bought TVs for both my older brother and me, but made the poor judgment call to give his to him first.

I'd cried like the spoiled brat that I was, thinking they'd picked him over me. That I wasn't going to get a 9-inch screen TV that year. That the small package that was on the table in front of me was going to be a pair of socks from the Limited Too -- not the remote to my own white Toshiba TV that was just hiding in the other room.

"It's not fair," I'd thought then.

"It's not fair," I thought as I pulled the car onto the highway on Saturday afternoon.

"It's not fair," I think now, the night before I have to give her, "Camie," back.

I felt sick driving home tonight. I don't want to go back to my old car with her load groans and inferior leg room. I want to keep Camie forever.

Or at least until she needs new brake cylinders, a new CD player, a new paint job, a new fan belt, new shocks, and a new driver's side window too.

So I understood when my neighbor walked by my kitchen window this evening and stared in with lustful eyes as I prepped my lunch for the week -- a "colorful" lentil and couscous salad.

"What are you making?" She asked with wide eyes.

"I'm just sauteing some onions and peppers for my lunches this week," I responded bashfully, embarrassed that I'd been caught in one of my most sacred of rituals.

"It smells so good!" She gasped.

I nodded, knowing exactly how she felt -- intoxicated by the perfume of the salad, just as I'd been intoxicated by the smell of the new car. Wanting what she couldn't have, just as I'd be wanting what I couldn't have.

I'll eat this lentil and couscous salad -- a harmonious blend of sweet peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, laced with a tangy pomegranate molasses-based dressing -- tomorrow before I drive Camie back to the dealership. I'll breathe in the scent, let the flavors linger over my tongue and enjoy the last lunch I have before I say goodbye to the girl who's been my best friend for the past two days.

And then I'll drive back to LA in my old car, secretly hoping that by Christmas this year, there really will be a new Camie waiting for me in the other room.

Colorful Lentil and Couscous Salad with Walnuts & Herbs
Adapted from the Kitchn
Serves 3-4 (3 if you are a hungry person like me)

3/4 cup dry Umbrian or green French lentils
2 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup whole wheat couscous
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1/2 cup flat parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup mint leaves, roughly chopped
3 cups loosely packed arugula
1/2 lemon, juiced and zested
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
Sea salt, freshly ground pepper

Rinse the lentils well and pick over for any stones. Bring 2 cups of chicken broth (or water) to boil in a medium sized saucepan. Add lentils, bring back to a boil, and then lower the heat. Cook, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes or until the lentils are "toothsome and tender, but not yet mushy or falling apart." When lentils are done, drain and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking process.

Meanwhile, finely chop the sun-dried tomatoes and place them in a heat-safe bowl. Pour 1/4 cup boiling water over the tomatoes and set them aside to seep.

Heat large frying pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the teaspoon of olive oil and swirl it around to coat the base of the pan. Add the onions and garlic and saute over medium heat until onions are translucent and tender -- approximately 5 minutes. Add the red and yellow peppers, a few generous shakes of salt and pepper, and continue cooking for another 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.

Bring 1 cup of water to boil in saucepan you used to prepare the lentils. Add the couscous, lower the heat, and let cook briefly until the couscous starts to absorb some of the water (approximately 30 seconds). Remove from heat, cover with a lid, and let sit for approximately 7 minutes or until couscous has absorbed the water. Fluff with a fork.

Drain the tomatoes (reserving 2 tablespoons of the seeping liquid) and toss into the onion/pepper mixture with the lentils, couscous, lemon zest, chopped parsley and mint, and arugula.

In a small bowl, whisk together the 2 tablespoons of sun-dried tomato water, the lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste, then toss the salad with the dressing. Either serve immediately (topped with walnuts), or taunt your friendly neighbor with the intoxicating fumes of your lunch for the next three days.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Peach and Rosemary Shortbread Bars: Feeling my age

"I'm 28 today."

"Twenty. Eight."

I kept saying the words over and over in my head when I woke up this morning -- as though repeating them would suddenly make them sound and feel normal.

I don't feel 28, but I never really feel my age. Usually, because I feel older, as though my brain somehow skipped ahead a few years when I wasn't looking. Likely when my fingers were glued to a computer keyboard, typing my rebel-without-a-cause days away while my more carefree contemporaries did tequila shots in their underwear.

But this morning, as I lay in bed, debating whether I should attempt to fall back asleep, I felt far younger than 28. I felt exactly like I did when I was five-years-old.

Too excited to sleep.

I know it's not cool to be fond of one's birthday any more -- especially when there's the big 3-0 looming in the not so distant future -- but I can't help but feel unreasonably giddy about a day that's all about me. I love that everyone from my cousin to a former coworker I haven't spoken to in four years leaves me birthday wishes on my Facebook wall. I love that my brother wakes me up in the morning with a, "Happy Birthday, stinky!" text message. I love that my best friend surprised me with a heaping container of bananas foster last night (I also love that I can justify eating all of it because, well, "it's my birthday").

It's strange in a way. How a day that is supposed to be about getting older instead makes me feel so much younger. How I could barely eat my Greek yogurt, fruit and almonds while I read the food section of the LA Times this morning, usually a leisurely activity for me, because my stomach was too tied up in excited little knots.

I couldn't wait for the day to begin -- to start baking my birthday dessert, to go to my free birthday Bar Method class, to have lunch with a friend at my favorite lunch spot, to sit on my couch sipping pink wine with my hands (predictably) glued to my computer keyboard. I wanted it all to be happening right then. I wanted all the birthday glory in my lap immediately.

It wasn't until I sat down with one of high school friends this afternoon with a cup of rooibos tea and one of these peach rosemary shortbread bars that the anxious anticipation started to melt away.

As I poured our tea, set out my special cocktail napkins and then used a fork to eat the dessert I selected to make because it didn't sound "too sweet," it hit me.

"I'm 28 today."

"Twenty. Eight."

I felt every bit my age.

Peach and Rosemary Shortbread Bars
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Yields 9-12 bars

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 cups + 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 stick + 2 teaspoons cold unsalted butter
1 large egg
1 peach, pitted and thinly sliced (between 1/8 and 1/4-inch thick)
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
2 tablespoons oats
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Brown your butter: Melt 1 stick of butter in a small/medium saucepan over medium-low heat. It will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir frequently, scraping up any bits from the bottom as you do. Keep your eyes on it; it burns very quickly after it browns.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Line a 8×18 inch pan with parchment paper and butter or grease the paper. In a medium bowl, stir together sugar, baking powder, flour, salt and spices with a whisk.

Using a fork blend the solidified brown butter and egg into the flour mixture. It will be crumbly. Pat 3/4 of the crumbs into the bottom of the prepared pan, pressing firmly. Tile peach slices over crumb base in a single layer. Sprinkle with lemon zest and rosemary.

Mix remaining crumbs with remaining 2 teaspoons butter, brown sugar and oats, then sprinkle evenly over peaches.

Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, until top is slightly brown and you can see a little color around the edges. Cool completely in pan before cutting into squares.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

BLT with a Fried Egg: Put your hands up

I had a choice.

Stay home in the sweltering prison of my air conditionless apartment, my pale pink J. Crew ribbed tank top plastered to my back like body armor, or go out, by myself, for a chilled glass of white wine in a cool environment.

I was in a dress and out the door before I had time to over think the decision -- or notice that my bra was not a suitable choice for my dress and was prominently on display for all the world to see.

The whole thing seemed like a fabulous idea as I strode down the block in the direction of Comme Ca, my favorite local locale for wine during happy hour.

"How liberated, am I?" I thought as I walked up to the restaurant, the chorus of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" pumping me forward. "I don't need a bar babysitter. I'm putting my hands up! Oh oh oh!"

The feeling of liberation only lasted so long. Once I spotted the two bar tables occupied with groups of decidedly unsingle ladies and gents, I wasn't feeling so inclined to put my hands or even a thumb up. I wanted to turn around and walk out the door, back to the crock pot of my apartment to be braised alive like a bunch of kale.

Instead, I forced myself toward the bar, where I promptly sat down and ordered the best remedy I could fathom for the socially awkward situation of my own making.

"I'll have a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc, please," I said to the bartender without consulting the menu. Then I dug into my bag and extracted the solid form of liquid courage -- the brand new book my friend had sent me for my upcoming birthday.

I blushed a fierce shade of Rosé as I set the book on the bar, cringing at the title, "Then Came You."

This was not liberating at all.

My glass of wine appeared in front of me. The sommelier bearing the bottle took one look at me with my chic lit book and exposed bra, and drained the remaining contents into my already oversized glass.

He grinned at me, "Might as well finish it."

I smiled and thanked him, but inside I felt trapped.

"I'm going to have to sit here until I finish all of that." I thought. "While I read a book! At a bar! By myself!"

I attempted to relax -- to focus on Jules and Annie and India. But every sentence I read was interrupted by the voice in my head telling me that I was a freak and this was really weird and that the cute bartender named Sean was looking at me and wondering what the heck I was doing reading a book at his bar.

He pushed a candle over to me. I thanked him, blushing again because clearly the light in the restaurant was not conducive for my chosen form of happy hour activity.

"Good book?" He asked.

I casually slid my hand over the title to hide it from his view. "Yeah, it is," I said, even though I had no idea if it was a good book since I hadn't been able to absorb a single paragraph since I'd sat down twenty five minutes prior.

"My friend gave it to me for my birthday." I continued, grateful to have someone to talk to as I tried to get through my trough of wine. "I just picked it up at the post office, and I don't have air conditioning in my apartment, so..."

He nodded in understanding, and, feeling self-conscious again, I cast my eyes down to the meaningless black letters.

The phone clasped in my right hand began flashing the telltale green light to inform me of an incoming message. I sighed with relief when I saw it was a text message from my friend Sarah asking if I wanted to join her and some friends for champagne at another restaurant nearby. I took one look at the still honkin' glass of wine in front of me, the book splayed out on the bar, and the cute bartender who I was too embarrassed to flirt with, and lept up from my stoop.

"Can I get the check please?" I said, as I shoved the book into the bottom of my bag. "My friend just texted me to meet her..."

The translation, of course, being: "See, I have friends. I'm not just a crazy single lady with cats and mud-colored facial masks and an entire library of romantic comedies that all end with the girl getting lifted into the air by Patrick Swayze."

Once the check was settled, I bolted for the door, nearly overcome with joy that I had been summoned to finish my happy hour elsewhere -- with other people rather than fictional characters. As much as I'd wanted to be liberated -- to be a single lady who can go to restaurants and bars by herself and sip of glass of wine like it's the most normal thing in the world --happy hour is not the type of activity that I enjoy doing solo.

Most likely because it's not meant to be a solo activity -- it's meant to be enjoyed with three other girls who find it amusing that your bra is on display and think it's hilarious that you spent 35 minutes in the post office trying to pick up a book while little barefoot children kept running into your legs with their sticky, germ-laden limbs.

Fortunately, not all activities have to be enjoyed with the company of three females bearing sparking pink champagne. (I don't think.)

Eating a BLT sandwich with a runny fried egg at home for brunch is the perfect single girl activity. I don't have to worry about looking gross if the slice of tomato starts to slide off the bread and I need to use my fingers to shove it back into place. I don't have to leave the runny yolk on the plate in an unseemly puddle. I can use the bread to sop it up, animal-style, and then let juices dribble down my chin without immediately wiping them off. With the back of my hand.

And, most importantly, preparing the sandwich does not require arithmetic. Two slices of bread, 1 egg, 1 slice of thick-cut bacon, a few slices of tomato, salt, pepper, and lettuce. No need to break out the calculator to figure out how I can turn a massive recipe into a meal suitable for one.

It's perfectly acceptable exactly as it is.

Single ladies put your hands up. And wrap them around this sandwich.

BLT with a Fried Egg
Serves 1

2 slices of bread, or 1 extra-long, thick slice of farmers market fresh whole wheat bread sliced in half
2-3 slices of heirloom tomato
1-2 strips extra-thick bacon, torn in half
Salt, pepper
1 egg
Handful of arugula

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place bread on tin foil and place in oven. Toast for 5-10 minutes, flipping once so it is crispy on both sides.

While bread is toasting, season the tomato with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. add the two bacon halves and cook, turning once, until both sides are crispy. Remove bacon with a fork and set on a paper towel to absorb the grease.

Crack the egg into the center of the hot, bacon-greased pan. Season with salt and pepper. Fry until the edges are cooked through and the white surrounding the yolk is almost cooked through. Carefully flip the egg over and cook for 1 minute.

To assemble: Place tomato on one slice or half of bread. Top with fried egg, bacon, arugula and the other slice or half. Put your hands up in triumph. Eat immediately.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Peaches and Mozzarella: Simple pleasures

The mason jar of half-blended pistachio nut butter and I were engaged in a fierce staring contest.

It had been idling in the back of my refrigerator since January when my immersion blender had sputtered to an untimely death halfway through the blending process. I'd disgustedly deposited the pistachio crumble into the aforementioned jar and chucked it into the corner of my fridge, telling myself I'd finish pureeing it later.

I, of course, never did.

So it sat, untouched, next to the two bottles of beer my dad had brought over to my apartment when I moved in over a year and a half ago. They taunted me from behind the carton of milk and Greek yogurt containers I'd placed in a fortress-like construction in front of them. But even when I couldn't see them, when I'd close my eyes and blindly reach into my fridge for the parmesan cheese, I knew they were there. Just like I knew the tupperware I'd shoved into the back of the highest cabinet in my kitchen after discovering a small dead cockroach inside was still there too -- the vestigial limb of the former roommates I'd evicted with 17 roach motels last summer.

It was unbearable. All of it. The bag of items I'd taken home with me on my last day of my former job nearly four months ago. The stack of unsorted junk mail sitting on a stack of health and fashion magazines on the chair by the door. The row of dresses in my walk-in closet that were no longer neatly arranged by color.

My brain would seize up every time I walked into my apartment, unnerved by the chaos and clutter that would attack it from every corner of the space. I couldn't focus on anything -- not even my new trashy television obsession, "Meet the Kardashians," or the mind-numbing text message conversation with my friend Ashley about whether we prefer Khloe or Kourtney. I felt dirty. Unhinged. Embarrassed by the physical representations of my disorganization.

Yesterday, I'd finally had enough. Enlivened by the caloric indulgence of a dim sum brunch with friends, I started cleaning at 12:42 p.m. and spent the next four hours excising all the clutter from my apartment. I opened the beers and drained the contents down the sink. I spooned the pistachio crumble into the trash. I outfitted my hands with extra thick gloves and removed the offending roach from the tupperware -- and then blasted the interior with a hot stream of antibacterial-laced soapy water. I shredded old papers until my shredder overheated. I reorganized my dresses by color.

And when all was said and scoured and banished, I stood euphorically in the doorway, observing all the clean surfaces.

Peace and simplicity at last.

There is nothing more satisfying than a clean, uncluttered apartment.

Except maybe a clean, uncluttered heirloom tomato salad with peaches and mozzarella -- the last vestigial limb of summer.

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Peaches and Mozzarella
Serves 4

2 medium heirloom tomatoes, sliced with a serrated knife
1 large yellow peach, sliced
6-8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced (I used Galbani)
Handful of fresh basil, torn
Handful of fresh mint leaves, torn
Balsamic vinegar
Good quality olive oil
Flaky sea salt (I used Maldon)
Freshly ground pepper

Layer slices of tomatoes, peaches and mozzarella across a plate. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, to taste. Finish with fresh basil and mint.