Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Best Recipes of 2012: Looking back, leaping forward

I'm trying very hard to be aloof about the end of 2012. You know, pretending that it's no big thing that I'm entering into the year when I will turn... 30. Which seems rather fitting for a year that ends in... 13.

Not that I'm superstitious or anything.

Not at all.

In the least.

That said, even with the large, looming 3-0 festering on the horizon like a darkening sky ready to explode rain all over my 20-something parade, there's a part of me that's also relieved to have the ups and downs of this year over. I'm ready to slough off the skin of 2012 and start in on the ups and downs of next year with every confidence that there will be (knock on wood) more ups than downs.

This year did have its moments, of course. The sun-kissed, carefree days spent in Palm Springs, the friendships found and strengthened over too many glasses of wine, and these recipes.

Because it can't very well be the end-of-the-year without at least one obligatory top ten list.

Olive Oil and Maple Granola

I've maintained a steady supply of this granola in my pantry ever since making that first life-changing batch this past March. Because it contains olive oil instead of butter, I like to tell myself that it's "healthy," but you'd be well advised to know that this is absolutely not health food. Even when it is spooned over Greek yogurt mixed with paper thin slices of cold banana in what has quickly become my favorite breakfast dessert. Eating it reminds me that it's okay to not be perfect. One can only eat so much quinoa.

Farro with Kale, Tempeh and Shiitakes

Full disclosure: This offensively dark, hastily-taken picture is not of farro with kale, tempeh and shiitakes, but rather of farro with kale, tempeh and coconut -- the first iteration of this recipe that I've eaten a disturbing number of times this year. While it's still deserving of a place on this list with coconut chips intact, after using slivers of shiitake mushrooms instead I haven't been able to go back to the original. It's like eating a warm, salty kale chip salad for dinner. With, you know, mushrooms and tempeh and whole grains thrown in for good measure.

Quinoa with Carrots, Currants, Chickpeas

Were it not for the strenuous arm workout required to grate all the carrots that I deemed necessary for this salad, I would have made this my brown bag lunch staple every week this year. As it is, I made it countless times, likely drawing raised eyebrows from my coworkers as I shoveled in forkfuls of the vibrantly orange-flecked quinoa whilst pouring over food blogs during the 15 minutes I call a "lunch break." A heartier take on a classic apple cider-dressed carrot salad, it's tart and sweet and utterly addicting. And also the reason I perpetually have little kernels of quinoa stuck in my computer keyboard at work.

Mozza's Butterscotch Budino and Rosemary Pine Nut Cookies

Perhaps the most labor-intensive of the recipes I made this year, it's only fitting that this intensely decadent butterscotch budino with rosemary pinenut cookies would make my top ten list. Particularly since the recipe comes from The Mozza Cookbook. Which is really all you need to know.

Curried Sweet Potato Soup, Kale and Chickpea Soup with Farro

Everyone needs a silver bullet soup recipe that comes together in less than an hour with a minimal number of ingredients and effort.  While this soup didn't come my way until late November, it's quickly become a staple for me. So much so that I even bought red curry paste to store at my parents' house in Orange County. (People need silver bullet soup in the OC too.)

Warm Quinoa Salad with Tofu, Shiitakes and Cabbage

A remix of the tofu & shiitake cabbage cups that preceded it, this warm quinoa salad ended up completely overshadowing its predecessor. The ribbons of cabbage acquire a delicate sweetness when cooked that is a fitting counterbalance to the earthiness of the shiitakes and salinity of the soy-based sauce. Capped off with a heady amount of sesame seeds and crunchy cashews, it's almost reminiscent of a warm Chinese Chicken Salad. Without, you know, the chicken.

Peach Blueberry Pie

Making this pie was a triumph. It came at a time when I was feeling like the world was spinning too fast around me and that I'd never quite catch up. With this recipe, I didn't need to catch up. I could slow down and still accomplish something significant. Because, as we all well know, pie is always significant. This version with its cinnamon-sugar dusted crust and rightfully oozy interior of in-season peaches and blueberries is particularly so, and reason enough to sit down a savor a slice of life a la mode.

Wheat Berries with Caramelized Onions and Maple Roasted Squash

I adore this dish. The sluggish slurry of caramelized red onions, the maple-glazed cubes of squash, the crunch of toasted pepitas, and the unexpected flourishes of dried mulberries -- this warm wheat berry salad is fall. I'm especially partial to it paired with a side of balsamic-glazed pan-fried Brussels sprouts, and I've also taken to throwing in a handful of chickpeas when eating it as an entree. I like to think that served this way even the staunchest carnivore in the group could be converted into temporary vegetarianism.

Cashew Butterscotch Bars

I blame these bars on my current state of post-holiday bloatation that has had me shellacked inside the same pair of black Lululemon stretchy pants for the past five days. I can't even fathom my skinny jeans -- nor how I will possibly be able to zip up the dress my mother gave me for Christmas. That said, I can't fathom not having these bars as a new fixture in my family's ever-growing list of holiday cookies.

Avocado Toast

As someone who thinks nothing of going to two grocery stores, the farmers market and my local wine shop to make dinner, I often forget that sometimes the simplest dishes are the best. With the right ingredients, something as ordinary as toast can be made sublime.

I hope to remember this more in 2013 -- with regards to both food and life. It doesn't always have to be fireworks and tasting menus and bottles of Grand Cru. Beauty exists in everyday moments, and joy can be found in the seemingly mundane. Even a bottle of 14 Hands Merlot shared with friends at a soba noodle place. Or a slice of avocado toast, eaten over the sink on an ordinary Sunday afternoon.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Cashew Butterscotch Bars: A wonderful bite

I've been fully embracing the "but it's the holidays" justification this year. There have been many second (and third) glasses of wine, more excessive purchases than I care to admit (including a completely unnecessary black and white dress from Anthropologie), and an obscene amount of Michael Buble holiday music.

While I've always been a sucker for the pomp and circumstance of it all -- the movies, the sentimental ornaments we hang on my parent's flocked Christmas tree, the alcohol -- this year I've let myself be particularly bitten by the spirit of the season (no bad pun intended).

Christmas (and the holiday season in general) feels like what life would be like in an ideal world. Where calories don't count. Where people take time for each other. Where miracles happen. Even if those miracles are happening to Hugh Grant and his romantic counterpart in "Love Actually."

It's a rather freeing time of year though. Having the excuse to do things that would seem completely irrational and impractical, in say, July. Buying my nieces obnoxiously pink outfits that cost more than the clothes I purchase for myself, drinking my morning tea out of a hideous snowflake mug, and making and eating six different kinds of cookies and confections.

It's all unnecessary, of course, but I love that it seems completely normal to look at the containers filled with chocolate covered shortbread cookies, fudge nut bars, spice krinkles, marshmallow cookies, walnut sea salt caramels, and decide that there's still something missing. In this instance, cashew butterscotch bars, a recipe I've had tagged in Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook ever since my friend Ali gave it to me two Christmases ago.

I was drawn to the recipe immediately, as I am with all things that contain cashews and sugar, yet had never found an appropriate time to make them. Likely because I knew that once I did, I would be completely helpless to their wiles and not able to rely upon the justification "but it's the holidays" as I tore into my third one in so many hours.

These bars are slightly reminiscent of seven layer bars, sans all the layers. The crust is salty and buttery, and, once ensconced with the butterscotch mixture, takes on an almost caramel-like chewiness. While cashews are a rarity in desserts, here, they are such an organic compliment it seems a tragedy that they aren't utilized more often.

In the interests of full disclosure, I've eaten five of them in the past 48 hours, amidst a sea of other cookies that I similarly had no need for outside of this alternate universe that we call the holidays. It's a rather wonderful thing -- this fleeting period of time where life really is wonderful.

Cashew Butterscotch Bars
Adapted from Amanda Hesser's Essential NY Times Cookbook

Notes: I had serious urges to add coconut flakes to the cashew butterscotch layer of these outrageously addictive bars, but restrained myself for this first outing (there may be experimentation down the line). The only change I made was to halve the recipe and bake it in an 8x8 square pan rather than a 13x18 cookie sheet, something that I would continue to do for subsequent bakings of these bars. Nobody should have three dozen+ of these available at any given time. Even when it is the holidays.

1 stick plus 2 3/4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher  or sea salt
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
5 ounces butterscotch chips, preferably Hershey's
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 3/4 teaspoons water
1 1/4 cups salted cashew pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8x8 square baking dish with butter, taking care to cover both the bottom and the sides. (These bars do have a tendency to adhere to things... dishes, teeth, thighs, so it's important to make sure the baking vessel is thoroughly greased.)

Place 1 stick + 1 tablespoon of butter and the brown sugar in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until thoroughly combined and smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt to lighten the texture of the flour and make it easier to incorporate. With the mixer on the lowest speed, gradually add the flour + salt to the sugar mixture. Mix until well-incorporated, but not until the dough forms a a ball. The dough should still be crumbly with pea-sized pieces.

Gently press the dough into the prepared pan. Don't pack it in or fret if the dough is not perfectly smooth -- it will still look a bit crumbly and that's okay!  Just make sure there is an even layer. Bake for 5 minutes and then remove from the oven and use a fork to poke holes throughout the crust. (Essential for the butterscotch layer to seep through and create that utterly delicious caramelization.)  Return the pan to the oven and bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes (mine took at least 15... perhaps nearly 18) or until the dough is lightly browned and no longer soft to the touch. (Note: Mine never got completely hard to the touch, but did brown nicely so I judged more by appearance than by feel.) Remove the pan from the oven and set on a cooling rack. 

In a small saucepan, combine butterscotch chips, water, corn syrup, and remaining 1 3/4 tablespoons of butter. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until the butterscotch chips are completely melted, approximately 5 minutes.  Pour the topping over the crust, taking care to ensure it's spread into an even layer. Sprinkle the cashew pieces over the top, gently pressing into the butterscotch layer.

Return to the oven and bake for an additional 12 to 16 minutes or until the top is bubbly and cashews are lightly browned.  Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before cutting into bars.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Curried Sweet Potato, Kale and Chickpea Soup with Farro: Real life

"See Your 2012 Year in Review. Look back at your 20 biggest moments from the past year."

I noticed the notification on my Facebook page this past Thursday -- it stared me straight in the eye, taunting me as I tried to process the assumption behind the phrases.

It struck me as odd that a social media platform could discern the biggest moments of my year based on my status updates, the photos I'd shared, and the number of "likes" I'd accrued with each one. It felt robotic. Impersonal. Like when iTunes tries to tell me what music I'd like because I recently downloaded songs from Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.

No, iTunes, just because I've listened to "I Knew You Were Trouble" 25 times in a row, it does not mean I want to purchase Justin Bieber's "Baby."

But I was curious. Could Facebook zero in on my most memorable moments of the year? Could it detect emotional resonance based on how many people liked an image of wheat berries with butternut squash?

I clicked through and was immediately confronted with a collage of photos: Sarah and I holding beers at the Gold Standard food event in March, Krista and I mugging for the camera during an impromptu visit to the bar at Picca, a table set with food during a dinner party with Daniela and Katie. I smiled at the images, inadvertently warmed by the memories behind each one, and continued to smile as I scrolled down the page. A picture of me on my 29th birthday. The announcement that I was going to Palm Springs in 14.5 hours. A check-in post at The Golden State that I was tagged in by a coworker. A status update about a swinging couple that propositioned me on OkCupid.

At first glance, it seemed fairly representative of my year. I did a lot eating and drinking, I spent two amazing weekends in Palm Springs, I found new friends in my new coworkers, and I did a lot of bitching about the crazy people I encountered on OkCupid. (The most recent wore a leather cuff bracelet outfitted with a Texas Ranger star on our first and only date.)

But as with most things that appear on Facebook, it was a somewhat superficial assessment of my 2012 -- the memories that I wanted people to see, the moments that I felt comfortable "oversharing," the status updates I'd generated solely because I knew people would "like" them.  

Because Facebook is inevitably more of a brag book or complaint department than it is a memoir of real moments both good and bad -- the ooey gooey stuff that we're often too afraid to admit outloud let alone outright.

Facebook was not the place where I talked about getting let go from my job -- even though that was perhaps the most defining moment of my year in terms of how I dealt with it, grew from it, and ultimately became better because of it. Facebook was not the place where I talked about getting my heart broken by the only guy I ever took to meet... Mozza.

And Facebook was not the place where I talked about all the mundane moments -- a casual dinner at my brother and sister-in-law's place in Orange County, going to see Magic Mike with my best friend on opening night, or closing down a soba noodle place with two of my other dearest friends in the city while we sipped a cheap bottle of Merlot.

I saved all that for Twitter.

All joking aside, Facebook does not have insight into the most meaningful or obscure yet poignent moments of my year just because 16 people thought it was funny that a guy on OkCupid told me "I have needs as a man and need to know if you can satisfy them."

That's the surface stuff. The hokey costume you wear on Halloween, the pristinely frosted layer cakes sitting in the window at the bakery, beckoning people passing by to pause, look and pay attention. Real life happens when nobody is watching. When we're too busy living the moment rather than thinking about which social media platform we want to use to broadcast it.

Real life isn't a layer cake. It's not a haphazard photograph taken at an event or party to prove to the people who ignored you in high school that you're cool and popular enough to be there. It's not a status update sharing your opinion on an article that you think makes you sound smart.

Real life is when you drink two bottles of sparkling Lambrusco with a friend going through a break up. Real life is when your brother asks you to be the godmother to your niece. And real life is soup, slurped at home on a rainy Sunday afternoon while the plumber fixes your broken pipes.

Curried Sweet Potato, Kale and Chickpea Soup with Farro
Adapted from Cookie and Kate
Serves 4

Notes: This recipe has quickly become my go-to soup recipe for lazy nights or gray weekend days when I can't fathom leaving the apartment -- or changing out of my sweatpants. It's hearty and comforting, yet not in a completely familial or tired way like some broth-based vegetable soups. The secret is in the sweet potato-thai curry combination -- the savory sweet ace in the hole, so to speak. I made only a few changes to the original recipe (mostly to the ingredient proportions), but also using coconut oil instead of olive oil, omitting the red peppers, and reducing the overall cooking time. I'm sure letting it simmer longer would create an even greater depth of flavor, but even as written below it packs enough of a wallop that I am sitting here considering making it again for dinner.

1 tablespoon coconut oil (olive oil is also perfectly acceptable)
1 yellow onion, diced
2 small or 1 extra-large sweet potato, peeled and diced (approximately 2 cups)
Sea salt, to taste
2 tablespoons red Thai curry paste
6-7 cups vegetable broth (I use water mixed with Better than Bouillon vegetable base - the best!)
1/2 cup farro, rinsed well
1 16-ounce can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
4 cups finely chopped kale
Sriracha for serving

Heat coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sweet potatoes, season with a pinch of salt, and saute over medium heat for 7-10 minutes until they start to soften and brown. Lower the heat, add the red curry paste and stir to coat the onions and potatoes

Add the farro and vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until the farro and sweet potatoes are tender.

Remove the lid and add the chickpeas and kale. Simmer another 5-10 minutes until kale is completely wilted. Serve immediately. If desired, add a couple drops of sriracha to each bowl for a kick of heat.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Broccoli with Ricotta Salata: Fall crush

My first celebrity crush (aside from Zach Morris on "Saved by the Bell") was Keanu Reeves.

I was in the 5th grade at the time, sporting bangs, an ill-advised perm and a wardrobe composed explicitly of hoodies and colored jeans from the Limited Too. While I was barely removed from my "girls rule, boys drool" stage, as soon as I saw Keanu come on screen with his buzzcut and tight white t-shirt in the movie Speed, I was mesmerized.

There was something about his swagger and the confident way he took charge of the situation (and bus) that rendered me completely silent as I watched the screen, riveted by his commanding presence. And, well, body armor.

I was, of course, totally mortified by my reaction and told no one, not even my best friends at the time, Katie and Shana, who I was convinced would think I was even more of an awkward weirdo for liking him. It didn't occur to me that other people might actually find him attractive too -- that I wasn't the only girl in the universe who had a thing for tall, dark and handsome men. It seemed to me like another one of my bizarre predilections. Like my affinity for white bread Nacho Cheese Doritos sandwiches, which were, incidentally just as lacking in substance as Mr. Reeves.

But still... delicious.

A few months after my initial encounter with Speed (I say this because there were multiple encounters), I was sprawled out on Katie's living room floor playing "Truth or Dare" with her and Shana like most pre-teens across America who've grown out of the Barbie stage. We were alternating through the usual dares ("I dare you to prank call your brother") and truth questions ("What's the worst thing you've ever done?"), when I was charged with the ubiquitous, "Who do you like?"

I immediately blushed a fierce shade of red (likely the same color of my Limited Too jeans), and stammered, "No one!"

My two friends looked at each other in disbelief, their eyes gleaming with what I had come to recognize as the physical manifestation of a shared joke that was likely at my expense. Or hair's expense. (A perm and bangs is not a good look for me.)

"Have you never heard of Keanu Reeves?" Shrieked Shana, while Katie giggled, observing me like the awkward weirdo that I was at age 10.

I was stunned.

"How did they know?" I wondered. "Did they like him too? Did other people like him? Was this a common thing? Was I not a total freakazoid?"

I did my best to convince them that, yes, I had heard of Keanu Reeves, and yes, I too thought he was the best thing to happen to a white t-shirt since the Gap, but it was too late. At this juncture in our game, it looked like I was only saying I liked him because they liked him, which, in the world of the 5th grade is even worse than admitting you don't like anyone at all.

It was a lesson that I learned quickly -- always take ownership of that which you like. Even if that something is Keanu Reeves in a movie about an exploding bus.

Or Adam Levine's tats.

Or tuna salad sandwiches with pickles and chips stuffed in them.

Or the roasted broccoli with ricotta salata at the local mini-chain that you haven't been able to stop thinking about since you ate there four weeks ago and then immediately had to recreate at home because it was the best broccoli you'd ever had, and you didn't know why you hadn't always been eating broccoli with ricotta salata.

You know, since like the 5th grade.

When you had bangs, an ill-advised perm, and wore colored jeans from the Limited Too.

Broccoli with Ricotta Salata and Quinoa
Inspired by the salad at Lemonade
Serves 4

Notes: It probably won't come as a shock to you that the original dish this is inspired by doesn't contain quinoa. I added quinoa, red quinoa specifically, because one can't necessarily make an entire meal out of just broccoli and ricotta salata. Without, you know, becoming hungry ten minutes later. So this is the bulked up version of the salad at Lemonade. With quinoa, and a champagne vinaigrette made with apple cider. You can toss some dried mulberries, cranberries or slivered almonds in there if you'd like. Whatever you do -- own it. And be sure to tell your friends about it first.

3/4 cup red quinoa, rinsed well
2 heads of broccoli, cut into florets
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 cup apple cider
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 1/2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt, pepper
1/3 cup ricotta salata crumbles

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bring 1 1/2 cups water to boil in a medium sauce pan. Add the quinoa, reduce the heat to low, and cook, covered, until the water has been completely absorbed (approximately 20-25 minutes as red quinoa takes longer to cook than white). Fluff with the fork and set aside to dry out and come to room temperature.

Toss broccoli with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, then lay out in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast for 20-25 minutes or until tender and slightly browned.  Remove from oven and set aside.

While broccoli is roasting, bring 1/2 cup apple cider and the champagne vinegar to a slow boil in a small sauce pan. Add the minced shallots and cook for 6-8 minutes until reduced. Turn off the heat, whisk in the mustard, remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and salt and pepper.

Toss quinoa with the broccoli and the dressing to taste. Chill or serve warm topped with crumbled ricotta salata.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Wheat Berries with Caramelized Onions and Maple Roasted Squash: 'Tis the season

Let's slow down.

Let's go see Silver Linings Playbook on a Saturday afternoon at the local theater.

Let's pay $3.75 for a small (regular) coke just for nostalgia's sake.

Let's paint our toenails gold.

Let's buy holiday dresses that we'll have no use for in January.

Let's drive to Beverly Hills to see the Christmas lights on Rodeo Drive.

Let's watch Love Actually.

Let's light candles that smell like apple cider and mulling spices.

Let's listen to the Michael Buble holiday station on Pandora.

Let's watch Love Actually again.

Let's make hot chocolate with whole milk and extra marshmallows.

Let's sing along to "All I Want for Christmas is You" at the top of our lungs.

Let's send holiday cards.

Let's roast butternut squash in maple syrup and walnut oil.

Let's caramelize onions until they are sweet like candy.

Let's make wheat berries.

Let's sit down at a table set with cloth napkins, the "good" glasses and real china.

Let's open a bottle -- and then finish two more.

Let's celebrate the season.


Wheat Berries with Caramelized Onions and Maple Roasted Squash
Serves 4-6

Notes: I made this recipe for my family's Thanksgiving dinner this year -- my contribution to a table already overflowing with mashed potatoes, pecan praline sweet potatoes, stuffing, green beans, two kinds of cranberry sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, and, of course, a 17-lb turkey. For four people.

My addition was not particularly necessary, but then again, nothing about Thanksgiving is particularly necessary -- certainly not the canned cranberry sauce my mom insists upon nor the third glass of wine nor that second helping of pumpkin spice cake. I wanted to take the time to create something special for my family that, while wholesome, could still hold its own next to more indulgent offerings at the table. This dish succeeded in doing just that -- even if my older brother did refuse to try any.

The secret (that he missed out on - hmmph!) is in the varying textures -- the sweet strands of onion sluggishly woven around cubes of butternut squash and chewy wheat berries, and surprising interludes of dried mulberries and toasted pepitas. If you can't find dried mulberries (mine were purchased in the bulk bins at Whole Foods), feel free to omit or substitute golden raisins or dried cranberries. Though, I wouldn't raise an eyebrow even a centimeter if somehow a smattering of well-rendered bacon bits found their way into this dish in their stead. 'Tis the season, no?

1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes (approximately 3 cups)
1 tablespoon walnut oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 red onion, sliced thin
1 tablespoon olive oil (or bacon fat, if available)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup soft wheat berries
1/4 cup dried mulberries
1/4 cup pepitas, toasted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss butternut squash with walnut oil, maple syrup, fresh thyme, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Spread out into a single layer onto a baking sheet. Roast, stirring once, 20-30 minutes or until tender and lightly caramelized.

While butternut squash is roasting, prepare the onions and wheat berries.

Heat large nonstick or cast iron pan over medium heat. Add the tablespoon of olive oil (or bacon fat, if using), swirling to coat the base of the pan. Add the red onion, lower the heat and let cook down for 10 minutes. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt, and continue cooking, over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until caramelized, approximately 20 more minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and add the tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.

As the onions are caramelizing and the squash is roasting, bring 3 cups water to a boil. Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt and the wheat berries. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes until wheat berries are tender. Drain and toss into the pan with the caramelized onions. When ready, add the butternut squash, mulberries, and pepitas, as well, stirring until well-combined.  Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Couscous with Spiced Zucchini: Make every bite count

"I don't like food - I love it! And if I don't love it, I don't swallow."

The quote, the most iconic line from the villainous Anton Ego in the film Ratatouille, is at the center of our conversation as we sit, huddled around the table, mouths deep into burgers.

We're comfortable in the indulgence, licking the juice from our lips, peeling off stray pieces of slaw to eat with our fingers, and nonchalantly dipping fat onion rings into swimming pools of housemade ranch dressing.

Despite the decadence of the spread before us, we are all in agreement that it's worth it -- worth the calories that we'll inevitably have to work off at the gym the next morning, and worth the stomach space which, in our industry, has become an all too precious commodity.

As a restaurant publicist and food writer like the friends and colleagues sitting around me at the table, I'm never in danger of missing a meal. There's always a festival, a new restaurant to try, a preview tasting, a dozen prim cupcakes idling in the kitchen at the office, or new recipe for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie that I need to make. Now.

The sheer quantity of opportunities for me to eat, and eat well, is often overwhelming -- to the point where (woe is me) the greatest occupational hazard I can site is that there's too much food available for me to eat. I'm the jerk who groans when presented with a tasting menu, who has actually whined the words, "Mom, I have to go out to another five-course dinner...again."

While I would no longer describe myself as a picky eater a la the days when my mom had to strain the onions out of sauces for me, working in this industry has made me increasingly particular about the quality of the food I consume. I'll eat almost anything -- the only prerequisite being that it tastes good.

I, like many of my contemporaries, have turned Anton Ego's declaration into my mantra. That doesn't mean my purse is filled with napkins containing half-chewed pieces of well-done steak and gummy noodles, but rather that I strive to make every single bite (and sip) count.

It's why I turn down a slice of store-bought cake without an ounce of hesitation, why I would rather drink water than an astringent glass of wine, and why I take time to plan my meals -- from the carefully simmered stove-top oatmeal I eat for breakfast to the salads I bring with me to lunch.

On Sundays, I'll scour the farmers market for the perfect, unblemished zucchini. I'll soak and cook dried black beans rather than opening up a can. And I'll spend $6.99 on a block of imported feta cheese with a label I can't pronounce. Because I love food and want every bite to be worth swallowing. Even when it's something as simple as couscous.

Couscous with Spiced Zucchini and Black Beans
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Serves 4

Notes: This recipe. in various permutations, was my go-to lunch recipe during late summer and early fall. In August, I tucked in fresh corn, and swapped in garbanzo beans and sunflower seeds in place of the black beans and feta -- an iteration that may be my favorite to date. Whichever way you decide to toss it, yes, even with canned black beans, this salad is a great one to have in your wheelhouse for a quick side dish or satisfying lunch.

I took several liberties with the original recipe -- the most notable being significantly upping the spices, swapping cilantro for the mint, and adding black beans and feta. I see the original as a great template for creating a dish that is worth every bite to you.

1 1/2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup whole wheat couscous
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 lbs. zucchini, cut into 1/2'' cubes
1 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 16-ounce can black beans or 1 1/2 cups cooked black beans
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Crumbled feta cheese, for serving

Bring broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in the couscous, turn off the heat, cover and let stand for 5-7 minutes. Fluff with a fork and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, and saute, stirring occasionally until golden brown, approximately 6-8 minutes. Add garlic and saute for a minute over medium heat, stirring frequently so it doesn't burn. Once fragrant, add the zucchini and remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and saute, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat slightly, and add the coriander, chili powder, cumin, and pepper. Stir to coat the the veggies, and let cook for two minutes, stirring frequently to toast the spices. 

Toss the zucchini with the couscous and black beans, and refrigerate till chilled. Just prior to serving, toss the salad with the cilantro and lemon juice. Top with crumbled feta.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Roasted Brussels Sprouts: The antidote to pumpkin lattes

It sat on the kitchen counter, a glossy congealed mass of pumpkin standing tall, proud and gelatinous in its pale, buttery crust. I groaned at the sight, disdain circling the circumference of my stomach as I struggled to keep my distaste from becoming an audible disturbance to my officemates in the other room.

"I hate pumpkin pie," I muttered, quickly placing my quinoa salad in the fridge, far away from the object of my disaffection.

"What?!" My coworker sputtered in disbelief, as though I'd just confessed something truly horrifying, like I was giving up wine, or wanted to punch a baby.

It wasn't the first time my lack of enthusiasm for the ceremonial gourd had registered such an appalled response. It's not that I hate pumpkin in its entirety -- I'm quite fond of the seeds, can get down with it in cookie form, and have even been known to order it on my pizza when the mood so strikes.

What drives me to the edge -- to punching a baby territory -- is the pumpkin obsession that descends on the population this time of year. The signs shrieking about the return of the pumpkin latte. In September. The endless parade of recipes for pumpkin chili, pumpkin macaroni cheese, pumpkin gnocchi with pumpkin seed pesto in a sea of pumpkin-infused butter.

And the staunch devotion to the flavorless mush of canned pumpkin smashed together with the equally egregious can of evaporated milk on the most food-focused day of the year.

Pumpkin pie, in most iterations, is not dessert.

It's baby food.

For me, the thing that makes me shriek with elfin glee at the first gasp of fall is not a neon coffee beverage or congealed slice of pie, but rather a cruciferous vegetable.

Brussels sprouts.

This past weekend three pounds were purchased and subsequently roasted into submission. As a side to chicken. As the key mix-in to one of my favorite quinoa salads. As the crux of my dinner tonight -- the other ingredients mere excuses to continue in this harried pursuit to consume as many Brussels sprouts as possible in a four-day period.

They're my pumpkin pie.
My signifier that summer is officially over -- that fall, giant ugly sweaters, thick socks, and clanging heaters are marginally acceptable in a city where 65 degrees is considered chilly.

And, gratefully, the heart of a dish that is not at all fit for a baby.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Carrots and Chickpeas
Serves 4-6

Notes: This dish was initially an afterthought. The result of an immediate craving that was realized with a roasting pan, a surplus of chickpeas, and the inevitable additions of garlic and lemon (the yins to all the yangs that come out of my kitchen). It's simple, rustic, and for the so-inclined, a hearty addition to round out yet another bowl of quinoa. Serve it independently as a side or piled high and proud on a plate for dinner. I opted for the latter. 

2 carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal into thin pieces
1 1/2 lbs Brussels sprouts, outer shells removed and cut into quarters
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Sea salt, ground pepper
1 16-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss Brussels sprouts and carrots with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread out on a baking sheet, and roast, stirring once or twice, for 20-25 minutes or until tender and lightly caramelized and browned.

While vegetables are roasting, heat large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add the remaining olive oil, then the chickpeas and garlic. Reduce heat slightly so the garlic doesn't burn, and cook, stirring constantly, until the chickpeas are lightly browned and the garlic is fragrant, approximately 5 minutes.

Combine chicken broth and lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to a low boil. Let simmer for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat.

Toss vegetables with chickpeas, garlic, and lemon zest, then drizzle with the lemon-scented broth. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Crackly Banana Bread: All that matters

I forgot to lock my car door on Friday night.

I was shocked when I realized it at nearly noon on Saturday – a full 16 hours after the security transgression had taken place. Numbed by my stupidity, I sat immobile in the front seat trying to process how this possibly could have happened.

I never forget to lock my car door. I love locking it – even going so far as to hit the button multiple times while I’m walking away just so I can hear the chirpy beeps. (Even after ten months, I’m still in awe that I actually own a vehicle with keyless entry capabilities.)

As I verbally thanked God (and my upstanding West Hollywood neighbors), I felt a rash of emotion start to inflame my eyes, the same rash of emotion that had hit me the previous night at my office as I'd tried to keep my composure intact. The past 18 hours had been a wake up call – the unlocked car door being the final physical manifestation that something had to give.

The past seven months have been the busiest of my post-collegiate life. A demanding new job that I love, writing projects, more tequila and beer-fueled nights than my Sauvignon Blanc-trained liver is used to (and by “more,” I mean “four.” Total.), and early morning Bar Method classes have all ensured that the dull moments spent shellacked to my couch with Bon Iver on repeat are fewer and further between.

While that's not necessarily a bad thing (no one should listen to any song 231 times), the collateral damage -- the emails from friends that go unanswered, the birthday cards I forget to send, the phone calls from my family that I miss while I'm at the office at nearly 8:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night -- is striking.

Back in the days when I hated my job, when I was out the door at 5 p.m. without a moment's hesitation, I always had room in my life for my friends and family. I responded to emails with long sweeping paragraphs rather than short, barely grammatically correct sentences. I spent hours searching for the perfect birthday card that truly encapsulated our friendship rather than using a blank stationary card hiding in the back of my linen closet that would inevitably arrive a week late. I talked to my mom at least 20 minutes every night rather than just the 6 minutes it takes to walk home from work.

I miss it. Miss those little pockets of meaningful human interaction that make life rich and full and beautiful.

On Friday night, I told one of my dearest friends, someone who loved me even when I wore a furry black Kangol hat in an unironic way during college, that I couldn't go to her fundraiser the following night because... I was tired. I let another friend tell me she missed our friendship without immediately leaping up and telling her that I missed her too. And, so distracted by the errant threads of stress from my professional day, I forgot to lock my car door.

I stumbled into my apartment in a sleep-deprived stupor, the intensity of that last hour at the office and astringent words from well-meaning friends, gnawing away at my conscience.

I knew something was wrong. Knew I was wrong. Knew I was teetering on the edge of regret and missed opportunities. It was a horrible, sickening feeling -- impending loss.

When I woke up the next morning, more rested and emotionally stable, a singular thought entered into my head that instantly put my mind and heart at ease.

As I strode down the street, running toward yet another early morning Bar Method class, it occurred to me that life is so much easier when you remember that all that really matters is being a good person.

Whether it's going to a best friend's fundraiser because it's important to her. Finding the time to gorge on pasta, wine and gossip on a school night rather than pushing it to the back burner until it's convenient.

Or baking banana bread for your dad on his birthday. 

Crackly Banana Bread
From Smitten Kitchen

3 large ripe bananas (think very yellow and freckled)
1 large egg
1/3 cup virgin coconut oil, warmed into a liquid
1/3 cup golden brown sugar
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup table salt
1 heaping teaspoon cinnamon (I always heap my cinnamon!)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of ground cloves
1 1/2 cups white whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup uncooked millet

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan with softened butter.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves. Whisk together to aerate, then set aside. 

Chop bananas into manageable pieces and place into a large ball. Using a fork or potato masher, mash bananas until they reach a pudding-like consistency with very few lumps. Whisk in the egg, then oil, brown sugar, syrup, and vanilla extract. Stir in the flour mixture until just combined, taking caution not to overmix.  Gently stir in the millet.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the top is golden brown and crackly, approximately 40-50 minutes. Test with a toothpick -- it should come out completely clean. Cool loaf in the pan on the rack, then invert onto a piece of foil. Wrap tightly and keep at room temperature - siphoning off a slice at a time for the next few days.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Curried Chickpeas: All I wanted

All I wanted was Joan's on Third curried chickpeas and blueberry ice cream.

It was an unusual craving -- spawned most likely from the near 100 degree heat that was smothering Los Angeles rather than from an unintended pregnancy or munchie-inducing inebriates.

On any typical Saturday, I would ignore said cravings and go about my regular Saturday business. I'd make my regular grocery trips to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods to stock up on quinoa and slivered almonds for the week, and then make some sort of eggy concoction - an egg sandwich on a whole wheat English muffin, braised kale with a fried egg, a frittata if I was feeling particularly fancy and had bothered to purchase fresh goat cheese that day.

But this day was different. It wasn't a typical Saturday at all - it was my birthday, it was 100 degrees out, and I wanted curried chickpeas and blueberry ice cream.

Logic would dictate that the smart thing to do would be to go buy blueberry ice cream from a grocery store or local ice cream shop. Logic would also dictate that rather than walking a mile in the heat to secure curried chickpeas, it would make far more sense to take the 15 minutes to make them at home with the mere six base ingredients required for execution.

Six ingredients that I already possessed in my cupboard.

Just an arm's length away.

Not a mile from my apartment.

But it was my birthday, and I wanted to do something special. I wanted Joan to make my chickpeas, and I wanted to make a lavendar-infused blueberry ice cream with dark chocolate shavings myself.

It was going to be my big girl, look-how-old-and-mature-I-am, birthday ice cream.

It all sounded quite brilliant in my 29-year-old head.

Everything started out fine enough. I went to four different stores to precure all the ingredients I needed to make the proposed ice cream. I carefully simmered the blueberries with sugar over the stove until it turned into a syrupy jam. I pressed said blueberry jam through a strainer, discarded the skins, and then returned the syrup to the stove to infuse with the dried lavender.

And then I strained it once again.

My patience was starting to waver as I took in the blue splatters that were now speckling my previously pristine countertops and floor, but I shook it off. I had curried chickpeas to attend to -- just a steamy 15 minute walk away in the 100 degree heat.

I felt empowered (and sweaty) as I walked into the bustling cafe, still crowded with couples going halvsies on tuna melts and friends eating around the fried wontons in their Chinese Chicken Salads.

"I never do this!" I thought with giddy pleasure as I walked up to the counter to place my order.

I could scarcely wait to sit down and eat a salad and an iced tea in a restaurant.

Because, this was clearly revolutionary behavior.

People never eat salad and iced tea for lunch at a restaurant on a Saturday.

"I'll have the salad trio with curried chickpeas, couscous, and the brussels sprouts with dates, and a peach iced tea," I said without hesitation, already pulling out my credit card to complete the transaction.

The server looked up with concern.

"Just a second," She said, "I have to check to make sure we have curried chickpeas today."

I scoffed at her response. Of course they had curried chickpeas today. They always had curried chickpeas. I'd never been there when they hadn't had curried chickpeas.

Joan wouldn't let me down.

Not on my birthday.
"Sorry, we don't have them," She said a moment later, shaking her head with casual indifference, unaware of how her words were resonating in my head. "What would you like instead?"

"Instead?" There was no instead! I hadn't even really wanted the couscous or Brussels sprouts to begin with. If I'd had my way, I would have ordered a trio of all curried chickpeas. An entire pound of them, heaped up on a plate of arugula, shining brightly for all the pretty people at Joan's to see.

I hastily asked for the butternut squash with yogurt, cringing at the seasonally inappropriateness of my order, and collected my number. This was not the leisurely lunch I was anticipating. But it was no matter, I had ice cream in my future. Not just any ice cream -- lavender-infused blueberry ice cream with dark chocolate shavings.

I retreated home, eager to start in on the (now) redemptive birthday present to myself. My eagerness was quickly curtailed by my inability to find a key part to my KitchenAid stand mixer ice cream attachment. After 30 minutes of rummaging through every cabinet in my kitchen, I finally found it.

And then discovered that the sole outlet in my kitchen wasn't working.

Undeterred, I blended the blueberry jam with the cream in my living room, and then plugged my mixer into the outlet next to my dining room table.

I was going to have my big girl birthday ice cream - even if meant destroying my big girl apartment in the process.

Or settling for blueberry lavender dark chocolate birthday soup when it was too hot in my apartment for the ice cream to freeze properly.

An hour later, I lay in bed staring up at the ceiling fan, exhausted and sticky from both the heat and  errant drops of blueberry soup that were now freckling my arm. I attempted to see the bright side.

"At least I won't spoil my appetite for dinner!" I reasoned. "It's all really for the best. Quite serendipitous indeed!"

As if on cue, my cell phone rang.

It was the restaurant where I was meeting my three closest friends in two hours.

"Power outtage. Closed."

The words became a blur. I nodded my head as though the host could see me through the phone. I heard myself say, "I understand." I heard myself accept his apology without screeching, "But it's my birthday!" I heard myself graciously react like a grown-up -- like a 29-year-old.

With laughter.

The next weekend I made curried chickpeas at home. And I bought blueberry ice cream from a store.

Curried Chickpeas
Inspired by Joan's on Third
Serves 3

1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 medium onion, minced
1 15-ounce can of chickpeas, drained
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder (I use Spice Island's yellow curry)
1/4 teaspoon tumeric
Salt, to taste
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Arugula for serving

Heat large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, swirling to coat the base of the ban. Add the onion, and saute for 5-7 minutes until translucent.

Lower the heat slightly, and add the chickpeas. Saute with the onions for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally until lightly browned on all sides.

Add the curry powder and tumeric, stirring for 30 seconds so the spices get lightly toasted. Pour in the water, scraping up the spices to coat the chickpeas and onions. Turn off the heat and toss with lemon juice.

Transfer chickpeas to a sealed container and refrigerate until chilled. Serve, piled high, over a bed of arugula with optional saffron-scented couscous on the side.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

LA at First Bite

It's one of those moments. I take a sip of my almond milk, the last taste from the juice-paired dinner, and lean back to observe the table and people around me.

I'm almost overwhelmed by the warmth circulating in the garden space, emanating not from a well-placed heat lamp or the unnaturally hot temperatures still lingering in the late September air, or even from the afterglow of alcohol.

It's emanating from each person at the communal table, each gathered here for the same reason -- to enjoy a great meal prepared by a great chef for a great cause

My stomach aches from the pursuit of unrestrained laughter provoked by my dining companions, most of whom had been strangers before we'd joined there earlier in the evening.

"This is it," I think. "This is what it's all about."

As I listen to my friend wax poetic about hot Krispy Kreme donuts, it strikes me that this moment, this iconic representation of the life I've created for myself in Los Angeles almost didn't happen.

A few years ago I almost gave up on LA.

The ceaseless stream of traffic on the 10 freeway, a job that crushed my spirit, the empty nights I'd spend wandering around the Grove or shellacked on my couch with an Amy's frozen spinach pizza -- my early years in the City of Angels were not so angelic at all.

I hated LA.

I hated the congestion. I hated parking half a mile away from my apartment every night. I hated filing my boss' expense reports. I hated my roommate's boyfriend. I hated the noisy neighbors that kept me up at night. I hated washing my clothes at a laundromat. I hated the guy -- Mr. Entertainment -- that I seemed to meet every time I went out. I hated going out. I hated staying in. I hated the hopelessness I felt when I wasn't the one again. I hated myself for feeling hope in the first place.

I hated the person I was becoming.

I didn't recognize her. And I didn't recognize LA as a place I'd ever want to spend more than a fleeting moment of my life.

It wasn't until I started my food blog and was miraculously embraced by the local dining community that my initial impressions of Los Angeles started to ease away. The everyday struggles suddenly didn't seem so bad once I knew the people that were out there struggling with me. It wasn't just me lost in a sea of Pruises and wannabe actors/models.

We were in this together.

We were experiencing the same annoyances -- traffic on the 405, earthquakes, Time Warner Cable outages, fender benders, parking tickets, security lines at LAX, the Trader Joe's at 3rd and La Brea.

But more importantly, we were experiencing the same joys -- Ricky's Fish Tacos, the budino at Pizzeria Mozza, one too many glasses of wine at Bar Covell, brunch at Huckleberry, burgers and craft beers at The Golden State Cafe, soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung, the crying tiger pork at Jitlada

Love at first bite.

LA at first bite. 

And each of us had a spot at the communal table.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Summer Frittata: One last taste

It was dark when I walked home from work tonight.

I stared up at the sky feeling the change in the air, an ever so slight chill slicing through the oppressive heat that's been, quite literally, steamrolling Los Angeles for the past month.

"How did it happen so quickly?" I wondered, struck by the unexpected darkness, the coquettish breeze, the curt nod toward fall.

I know what's coming.
I tasted it when I took a bite of a not-quite-sweet yellow nectarine on Friday, my lips puckering at the sour tang of the flesh. I felt it in the warm embrace of a long striped cardigan I tried on at Anthropologie on Sunday. I heard it when I took a big bite of a crunchy honeycrisp apple this afternoon.

I'm torn between wanting to cling to summer -- to the white dress I didn't wear nearly enough, to the fedora I probably wore too much, to the hot fling I didn't have -- and wanting to run as fast as I can into the arms of autumn.

At the very least so I can turn on my oven without suffering heat stroke.

I'm ready for the chill. Ready to replace my bowls of cold quinoa cereal with cuddly bowls of cinnamon-scented oatmeal. Ready to stomp on leaves in my tall bad ass black boots.

Ready for Jess and Nick to finally get together on "The New Girl."

But not before I savor every last flavor of summer. Even if it means cramming all of them into a frittata.

Summer Frittata
Serves 1

Notes: This frittata is a mash up of all my favorite summer produce -- lush heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, vibrant green zucchini squash, and pungent basil leaves. It screams the season so loudly it's almost deafening. Enjoy it. And serve it with the thickest slice of avocado toast you can muster.

2 eggs
1/2 heirloom tomato, sliced into 1/8 inch slices
2 tablespoons sweet corn, cooked and shucked from the cob
1-inch piece of a zucchini, sliced into paper thin slices
1 tablespoon milk
Goat cheese, crumbled
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt, pepper
Fresh basil, sliced

Heat a 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil in a small (6-8'') cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Add the zucchini, season with salt and pepper, and saute until just tender, approximately one minute. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool. Rinse out the pan and wipe clean.

Preheat the broiler to 500 degrees.

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

Heat the remaining teaspoon of olive oil in the cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Use a spatula to spread across the entire surface 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.

Arrange the tomato slices on the top of the frittata and 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 and the tomatoes are lightly caramelized. Remove from the broiler and let sit for a couple minutes before sliding out of the pan onto a plate. Garnish with fresh basil.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Avocado Toast for Dinner


"Stop it, Diana." I command myself. "You're not going to start crying in the middle of the dentist office."

My dentist continues thumbing at my gums, chatting away as I fight the burning sensation that is blurring the words on the motivational poster affixed to the ceiling.

I feel sick.
And not because of the bubble-gum-flavored paste that is perilously close to catalyzing my gag reflex.

It had started out casually enough. A routine examination flecked with the standard small talk. He'd asked me about my job. I'd replied gamely, waiting for the inevitable round of follow up questions. "What's restaurant PR? Do you handle advertising? What's your favorite restaurant?"

He'd seemed temporarily placated after I'd finished giving my practiced 100-word explanation. His latex-covered thumb back in my mouth, I'd returned to staring at the poster of the puppy snuggling with a kitten snuggling with a (likely diseased) mouse.

"Do you have kids?" His voice had rung out, breaking through my hypothetical musings about how the animal planet orgy was staged.

I'd chortled back in response, a cough-laugh-snort that sounded like a noise Tina Fey might make between bites of a meatball sandwich on "30 Rock."

"I didn't have kids till I was older," He'd mused, taking my guffaw as permission to continue the (one-sided) conversation.

I'd remained silent, half-wishing he'd find some sort of weird gum deformity that we could talk about instead. At the very least, a little gingivitis. Or stray piece of granola that my toothbrush failed to catch that morning.

Instead, he'd paused mid-way between the examination of my bottom wisdom teeth to peer down at me with a conspiratorial expression of alarm.

"I didn't get married until I was 29!' He'd exclaimed, his brows arching at the number, punctuating the gravity of this presumed sin.


29. 29. 29.

The words reverberate in my brain now, swaying back in forth in a sickening motion like a toy sailboat thrust into the eye of a storm.

"Stop it," I tell myself again. "Do not cry."

"You think you're young and then you look in the mirror and realize you look like your mother!" He finishes with a wry smile, further twisting the knife he's just plunged into my chest.

29, 29, 29.

"Well, your mouth looks great!  Beautiful teeth!" He announces, leaping up from the chair to ceremoniously toss his latex gloves in the trash so the dental hygienist can take over.

His work is done.

29. 29. 29.

I inhale slowly, trying to numb myself to his words. I know he couldn't possibly know. I know he couldn't possibly realize that I'm turning 29 on Saturday. That I've been freaking out about turning 29 for the past 360 days. That even though all my older and wiser, more settled friends insist that their 30s have been a vast improvement on their wayward 20s, I still can't shake the terrifying feeling that I'm edging toward the end of my youth.

The end of a period of time when it's acceptable to do things like wear rompers and turquoise nail polish, and listen to Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" when it comes on the radio without wanting to punch her in the face.

While I've always considered myself an "old soul," I'm not quite ready for my physical body to catch up with my older mentality. At least not until I find someone who is okay with it catching up. Who will catch up with me.

And love me more because of it.

The underlying fear behind 29 isn't merely that I'm scared of a time when I won't be able to paint my toenails neon colors or make that hypothetical Youtube video to "Call Me Maybe," but that I'm scared that I've fallen behind the curve of all those Facebook friends who keep reminding me my clock is ticking with their ill-timed status updates.

That I've even fallen behind the curve of my ill-mannered dentist.

Comparison, you see, is what really killed the cat. (Either that or the diseased mouse.)

Without it, without the constant influx of engagement announcements, wedding pictures, and baby bumps, being 29 and single isn't nearly as terrifying. It's liberating.

Particularly when I can eat a slice of toast slathered with avocado and a pinch of salt and pepper and call it "dinner."  

Avocado Toast
Serves 1 incredibly awesome still-single almost 29-year-old

1 slice of thick-cut fresh bread, toasted
4 slices of ripe avocado, smashed
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to toast

Toast bread.

Smash avocado.

Smear avocado on toast.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Is Eating Healthy Taboo?

"You're so healthy," she says. Her voice lingers over the word "healthy" in a way that makes it sound like it's distasteful for her to say, like she's just accidentally bitten into a lemon seed and is looking for a garbage can where she can spit it out.

I'm not sure how to respond. The irony isn't lost on me that she's thrust this accusation on me at a fried chicken fest mere seconds after I've finished devouring my second truffle honey glazed fried chicken thigh. At the moment, I'm not feeling particularly healthy at all.

I take a long slow sip of my beer, savoring the burn the carbonation imparts on my grease-slicked lips, and shrug my shoulders.

"Well, not today!" I say brightly, bearing my teeth into a good-natured smile that feels disingenuous even to me.

We part ways soon after, but her words keep ribboning through my head.

"You're so healthy."

It doesn't strike me until later why I feel so disarmed by her statement. While it's no secret that I like quinoa, kale and (gasp!) soy proteins, I frequently find myself at the receiving end of similar remarks  that are usually delivered in a way that makes them feel more like an insult than a compliment -- particularly when I'm in the company of what I shall dare call "foodies."
"I could never be full from just eating salad for lunch," says the well-meaning coworker when I lug out my (rather large, mind you) container of quinoa salad from the fridge.

"You're so good," says the friend with a slight patronizing edge when I turn down a cupcake.

Within the microcosm of the food community, eating healthy has become somewhat taboo -- something we are fine to spout about in theory (the importance of eating local and seasonal ingredients, the need for healthier options in schools, how hot "freekeh" is right now), but are less willing to showcase in a review, or talk about when it extends into our personal dietary behavior.

We go on hunts to find the best tacos in Los Angeles, we author top ten lists about French fries and donuts, we wax poetic about the intensity of the pork broth in a bowl of tonkotsu ramen, we devote an entire Facebook page to bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits, but rarely do we elucidate on the exquisitely dressed kale salad at the vegan cafe down the street. At least not without it being embedded in a grander supposition about its trendiness or popularity among local "hipsters" to somehow take the onus off ourselves.

"I wouldn't personally choose to eat here, but it's a good salad -- for, you know, those... healthy people."

The obvious conclusion is that it's cooler and more fun to talk and read about burgers than it is about quinoa. But there's more to it than that. For the serious "foodie," eating healthy is almost an admission of defeat, a chink in the armor that unmasks a certain vulnerability. Not just to weight gain and the commiserate health problems that come along with it, but a humanness, and, perhaps most concerning, a diminishment of street cred.

While "health" food has come a long way since the days of skinless boneless chicken breasts and steamed broccoli as evidenced by forward-thinking restaurants like M Cafe de Chaya, a critical darling in Los Angeles, it still carries with it  certain negative associations. Bland. Boring. Uninspired. Unsatisfying. Dry.

In essence, the opposite of all those cheeseburgers oozing housemade remoulade, al dente ropes of bucatini slick with ragu, and crisp legs of duck confit.

Admitting an affection for tofu, for brussels sprouts that haven't been fried beyond recognition, for lentils that aren't dressed with bacon grease, is akin to admitting an affection for bland and boring food. It says, "I have bad taste." Or worse, an unrefined palate.

Missing the point of course that healthy food isn't necessarily synonymous with tastelessness. Prepared in the right manner, with the same affection and care that is used to tend to that duck leg, that 24-hour ragu, that well-seasoned cheeseburger; kale, quinoa and, yes, even tofu, can be delicious in their own right.

At that point it should become just "good food."  Not prescribed a label or qualification like, "That quinoa salad is pretty good... for, you know, quinoa."

After becoming involved in the food industry, first through my blog and now through my career, I started eating a more plant-based, vegetable-heavy diet to balance out all the five-course tasting menus, bowls of ramen, and all too frequent trips to the Mozzarella Bar at Mozza. While I still love all those things, still lust after the Rustic Canyon burger like it's a shirtless Ryan Gosling, I also lust after bibimbab quinoa. Not because I'm being "good." Not because I'm punishing myself for overindulging, and not even because it's "healthy."

I crave bibimbap quinoa, get excited for a big bowl of braised kale and chickpeas, and perk up at the sight of a honeycrisp apple, because, quite simply, they taste good.

And because sometimes the thing I want most in the world is a big tub of quinoa salad flecked with fresh corn, zucchini, carrots, sun-dried tomatoes, and edamame.

Particularly the day after eating nine pieces of fried chicken at a fried chicken fest. 

Quinoa Salad with Summer Vegetables
Serves 3-4

Notes: This salad is an explosion of summer -- fresh sweet corn, zucchini squash, sun-dried tomatoes... everything you want to be eating before winter squash and root vegetables take over the farmers market. I like to infuse the dressing with the sundried tomatoes to add a bit of sweetness to counterbalance the tang of the vinegar, but feel free to skip that step if you are short on time. Either way, this salad will convert even the staunchest of "health food" opponents -- particularly if you top it off with a flourish of feta cheese, or a few strips of steak for the carnivore in the house.

3/4 cup quinoa, rinsed well
1 ear of corn
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
1 large zucchini, grated
1 1/2 cups shelled edamame
3 green onions, sliced
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt, pepper
3 cups of arugula
Handful of toasted slivered almonds or sunflower seeds (optional)

In a medium-sized pot, bring just shy of 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil. Add the quinoa, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for approximately 20 minutes until the seed has separated from the shell. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and set aside.

Once the quinoa has had 5-10 minutes to "dry out," transfer to a large bowl. Rinse out the pot used to cook the quinoa, and fill with just enough water to cover the corn. Bring the water to a boil, add the husked ear of corn, and cook, covered, for 3 minutes. Drain immediately, and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Once cool enough to handle, shuck the kernels from the cob and add to the bowl with the quinoa. Add the carrot, zucchini, green onions, and shelled edamame.

Place the sundried tomatoes in a small bowl. In a small saucepan heat the balsamic vinegar over low heat until just starting to boil. Pour over the sundried tomatoes to let "infuse" for 10-15 minutes. Remove the tomatoes and toss in with the salad.

Add the honey, Dijon mustard, olive oil, and lemon juice, to the balsamic vinegar and whisk well to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss together until all the ingredients are well-combined. Cover with saran wrap and place in the refrigerator until chilled through.

Just before serving, toss with the arugula and top with the toasted almonds or sunflower seeds if using.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Two Chip Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies: A million memories

I've been baking cookies for as long as I can remember.

Growing up, it was a ritual in my household -- as normal as brushing our teeth before bedtime or watching "Full House" and "TGIF" on Friday nights. My mom would always use the same putrid green glass mixing bowl and follow the same recipe that she knew by heart. I would look on from my perch on a wooden bar stool next to the counter, studying her precise movements and absorbing every word of instruction.

"Always make sure to pack down the brown sugar like this," She'd say gently, as she'd press it into the measuring cup. "When we dump it into the bowl it should maintain its shape rather than immediately crumbling apart."

"It's important not to over mix the flour," She'd advise, carefully folding it into the batter with her favorite, slightly chipped plastic spoon.

"The chocolate chips go in last!" She'd smile, sliding a few stray pieces my way.

I loved those moments -- not just for the end result (cookies), but because I was spending time with my mom. And, likely, escaping less desirable household chores like pulling weeds in the garden or cleaning my room.

I loved it even more when my mom began passing the spoon to me -- letting me cream the butter, measure the cinnamon, and, eventually, crack the egg into the bowl without getting a single piece of eggshell in there with it (the ultimate accomplishment in baking).

Cookies were the first thing I learned to make by myself, they were the first thing we packed for road trips, and they were the default answer for any event or occasion. Father's Day. A visit from a relative. Breakfast.

While I've grown past the point where I think it's completely normal to eat three oatmeal cookies for breakfast in lieu of actual oatmeal, I still associate cookies with the celebration of both the mundane and the momentous. Even when the mundane is an insatiable craving that can't be satisfied by my standard small wedge of dark chocolate.

This past weekend I baked these cookies (my favorite oatmeal cookie recipe kicked up a few notches) for my brother and sister-in-law who just welcomed my newest little niece into the world. I gently pressed the brown sugar into my measuring cup, carefully folded in the flour, and finished with an indecent heap of both white and bittersweet chocolate chips, dried cranberries, and oatmeal. It felt as normal and natural as the days when I was watching my mom make the same studied motions with her favorite recipe.

These cookies taste like a million childhood memories at once. Of Saturday mornings splayed out on the couch watching reruns of "Saved by the Bell." Of driving to Fresno for the state cross-country meet in high school. Of visits to see my eldest brother in the dorms at college.

Moving forward, they'll taste of a new memory -- the first moment I saw my five-day-old niece asleep on the couch, my three-year-old-niece perched next to her, exclaiming, "Diana! Diana! Come see my new toys!", completely oblivious that I might want to see her new little sister too.

Someday I may teach both of them how to press the brown sugar into the measuring cups. I may show them how to gently fold in the flour without over mixing the batter. And, when their parents aren't looking, I'll slip each of them a few stray chocolate chips.

Two Chip Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes 20-24 cookies

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup brown sugar packed
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 extra-large egg, brought to room temperature
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups oatmeal
3/4 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup 60% cocoa bittersweet chocolate chips

Combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together to lighten the texture and make it easier to fold into the batter.

Place softened butter in the bowl of a stand mixer (or regular, large bowl if using a hand mixer). Add the brown sugar and beat until well-combined. Stir in the vanilla so the flavor can penetrate the butter, then beat in the egg until thoroughly integrated.

Carefully fold or stir in the flour on the lowest setting on the stand or hand mixer, then add the oatmeal, and both the white and bittersweet chocolate chips. Stir until just combined.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate at least an hour or, time-permitting, overnight. 

When you're ready to bake the cookies, preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Roll cold batter into golf ball-sized scoops and place a couple inches a part on a lined baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, rotating once to ensure even cooking. Remove from oven when set on top and just starting to turn a nice golden brown. Let sit on hot baking sheet for five minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.