Friday, June 29, 2012

The Foie Gras Ban: A form of artistic censorship?

My first reaction was relief.

No longer would I have to be the sole party at the table not interested in ordering two of every single foie gras dish on the menu.

No longer would I have to pretend that I enjoyed eating foie gras donuts or foie gras tater tots or foie gras french fries covered with foie gras gravy with little foie gras lobe babies on the side.

I could get my beet salad with burrata, my grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes, my decidedly pedestrian seared scallop, and not feel guilty for eschewing the more gastronomically forward duck liver. The liver that would somehow identify me as a legitimate authority on food rather than a girl who eats an indecent amount of quinoa.

While I've had many excellent preparations of foie gras during my Los Angeles foodeducation -- a terrine that found its PB&J companion in a fold of warm pita, a foie gras filling deftly tucked inside a pasta purse, and a seared lobe with maple bread pudding that devilishly married together the sweet and savory yin and yang of the eating rainbow -- I've never craved it as an entity like I do a burger, a bowl of ice cream or even a fish taco.

So it was relief I felt when I heard that it was to be banned in California -- relief that it would finally be excised from the realm of ordering possibility, paving the way for other dishes to enter into the dining table conversation.

Like the little gem lettuce salad nobody ever lets me get.

Yet it struck me one day as I was twirling words around in my head in an attempt to articulate my thoughts into a sensible paragraph that it wasn't, of course, about me. Nor was all the discourse on the matter about the morality of the issue at hand -- force-feeding ducks destined for slaughter.

It was, quite simply, about censorship.

In that moment, I wondered how I, as someone who identifies herself as a writer, would feel if I was legally bound from using a certain word to convey my message. If I was suddenly told I could no longer say, for instance, "juxtaposition" ever again. I don't make a habit out of using "juxtaposition" in my daily speech or correspondence, but I like knowing it's there -- I like having it as a tool in my arsenal when I need it to sharpen up a sentence or, more accurately, make myself sound smarter than I actually am.

Ultimately, foie gras is to a chef what a word is to a writer. A color to a painter. A note to a musician. An html code to a programmer.

While there isn't a definitive answer as to whether gavaging a duck is more or less humane than raising chickens in cramped cages or less morally defensible than say, driving up the price of quinoa to a point where the people who benefit the most from its nutritional value can no longer afford to buy it, there is somewhat universal agreement in this country on the subject of censorship. 

At the risk of overdramatization, the foundation of the constitution was built upon it.

For the California chefs who've been writing with foie gras their entire careers, it's an omen of what's to come. The first pebble knocked down a slippery slope into a world where the ingredients they paint onto a plate are stripped from their palat(t)e.

I still don't necessarily want to order it at a restaurant, and I don't regret that I didn't make it to any of the "Farewell to Foie" dinners around Los Angeles this month, but I do feel grief at what it represents.

The deletion of a word from the culinary dictionary.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cinnamon Roll Cookies: Relentless obsession, channeled deliciously

"Will he call me?"

I plunked the words into the Google search bar -- the one at the top right of my browser that I never even knew existed until a week ago when Ashley pointed it out to me.

We were drinking wine, my new Trader Joe's obsession, Goats in Village Chenin Blanc Viognier, and had somehow stumbled onto the subject of Channing Tatum, who I always want to call "Tatum Channing." This wine-fueled wandering naturally led into a discussion about his -- Channing Tatum's/Tatum Channing's -- former profession as a stripper, and, by extension, the trailer to his stripper movie, Magic Mike.

That clearly we needed to watch immediately.

(We were on glass #2 by this point.)

"Why don't you just type it in there?" She asked, impatiently jutting her finger at my laptop screen.

And just like that a whole new world of Googling opened up for me. And, by "Googling," I really mean "stalking." The type of thing I do when it's a Thursday night and I'm sitting cross-legged on my couch with my shirt tucked into my sweatpants. (Usually I'm on cup #2 of rooibos tea at this point.)

On this particular night, incapable of employing my usual methods of Internet stalkage via social media (Twitter, Facebook and, in the best case stalking scenario, a personal blog), I deemed it completely rational to instead plug my burning questions into the Google search bar. Because that's what logical people who tuck their shirt into their sweatpants do when there's nothing on the DVR aside from old episodes of "Glee."

"Will he call me?" I typed as though Google was a Magic 8 Ball capable of telling me whether the guy was or wasn't still into me.

I waited with bated breath for the nanosecond it took Google to come up with the Harvard baseball team's "Call Me Maybe" Youtube video that I may have watched a dozen times that week. You know, in between views of the Magic Mike trailer. Channing Tatum. Tatum Channing.

Clearly I wasn't getting anywhere.

So I continued my completely normal, shirt-tucking-in behavior and consulted the stars. Naturally.

"Astrology Zone Virgo June," I typed into the search bar, proud of how efficient I was being with my new found stalking/Googling tool. In between gulps of tea, I spent the next half hour reading and shrieking over my June forecast and then over that past May's, analyzing every single date and word until I'd convinced myself it was all true.

The bits about my profession and career path. My trip to Palm Springs. My concerns over money and boys and family and life in general.

"How does she know?!" I screeched into the stagnant air of my apartment.

This is what happens when a neurotic, determined mind gets a hold of a Google search bar.

And cinnamon roll cookies are what happen when that same mind gets a hold of a somewhat tedious, multiple-step, must-make-now recipe.

Relentless obsession. Channeled deliciously.  


Cinnamon Roll Cookies
Barely Adapted from The Cravory via Noelle Carter at the LA Times

Notes: My only noteworthy change to this recipe was to use vanilla extract rather than vanilla bean seeds in the glaze. Keep a careful eye on the cookies when they are baking -- though they are a girthy good, because you are using a muffin tin they will bake faster than you think!

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 eggs, brought to room temperature
3 cups + 1 teaspoon all purpose, unbleached flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup pecan pieces, toasted
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon cinnamon

2 ounces cream cheese
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons 2% or whole milk

Using a stand mixer outfitted with the paddle attachment (a hand mixer is also perfectly acceptable), cream together the softened butter, sugar, brown sugar, and powdered sugar. Add the vanilla, letting it briefly mix in so the butter absorbs the flavor, and then add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until well-combined.

Turn the mixer to the lowest speed and slowly add the flour mixture a bit at a time, until just combined, taking caution not to overmix. Remove the dough and wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or so -- should be thoroughly chilled so it is easier to work with.

Before removing dough from the refrigerator, prepare the filling by tossing the pecans, brown sugar and cinnamon together in a medium bowl. Pour the melted butter over the nuts and stir until evenly coated.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface into a 10 by 10 inch square. Spread the filling evenly across the dough then carefully roll the dough into a tight log. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (if time allows).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease 2 (12-cup) muffin tins with butter or grease of choice. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and slice into half-inch-thick slices. Place one slice in each muffin cup.

Bake for 14-16 minutes or until tops are slightly browned, rotating the tins halfway through to ensure even baking.

Remove the cookies and cool, still nestled in the muffin tins so they can firm up, on a wire rack. After they've had 30 or so minutes to set, carefully run a knife around the edges and pop out. 

While the cookies continue to cool, prepare the glaze. Using an electric hand mixer (or a stand mixer with the whisk attachment if it's your preference), combine the cream cheese and butter. Slowly add the powdered sugar, then the vanilla (or scraped vanilla seeds from 1 bean if available). Finally, add the milk and continue beating until the glaze is smooth and thick.

Using a fork, generously drizzle the glaze the cooled cookies. The glaze will be thick so it's advised to use a quick flick of the wrist to ensure an unglobby presentation. (Though if you are like me and can eat spoonfuls of frosting at a time, it's worth noting that the globbier the presentation, the more delicious glaze you'll get to consume.)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Quinoa Salad with Grilled Scallions, Edamame and Dates: A deconstructed class act

"You're totally rockin' that t-shirt," She said nonchalantly as though she was stating a fact like "You're tall," or "You like pink."

I stared back at her, swirling the words around in my head like wine.

"Me? Rockin'? T-shirt?"

My cheeks immediately filled with color.

"Oh... really?"  I finally spattered back in surprise, a horribly uncool reaction that was the opposite of how I should have responded -- an elegant, unqualified "Thank you" that comes out as effortlessly as an exhale.

Because of course I was rockin' my t-shirt. Why wouldn't I be rockin' my t-shirt? I was totally the t-shirt version of Cupcakes and Cashmere!

Quinoa and Cotton.

"Yeah!" She enthused, reaching for her phone to take a picture -- to Instagram my Target fedora, chunky red necklace and large dineLA t-shirt, roped off with a woven tan belt, into the social media ether.

As I ceremoniously posed for her iPhone, I had a flash of what it feels like to have the innate stylishness I always believed skipped over me. For a moment, I let myself believe that I'd suddenly acquired the ability to pull a heap of random, seemingly incoherent pieces together to form the type of ensemble that makes people pause and say, "You are totally rockin' that t-shirt."

Me. The girl who can barely manage to paint her toenails without getting it all over her toes. And the floor.

While to her eyes, I might have looked momentarily constructed, underneath I was still the same hot neurotic, questionably fashionable mess that assesses nearly every wardrobe decision I make by asking myself "WWAW?" (What Would Ashley Wear?)

Because she, like Emily, actually does rock t-shirts -- and/or cashmere.

But this was all lost on me. In that instant, I was totally the cool girl in the blinged-out t-shirt and not the girl who spends an entire week tearing her apartment apart looking for the 3-month-old check she forgot to cash, or who absentmindedly carries her dinner plate into the bathroom to wash it instead of the kitchen, or who stands over the sink eating Everything flavor Pretzel Crisps and dark chocolate almonds at 1:30 a.m. on a Thursday night.

A deconstructed class act.

Just like this quinoa salad.

An indecent smudge of date puree on one side, a tangle of grilled scallions and leeks on the other, and jagged pieces of pecans scattered over the top.

Seemingly random, incoherent pieces brought together for a brief moment of stylish cohesion. 

Quinoa Salad with Grilled Scallions, Edamame and Dates
Adapted from Food & Wine
Serves 2

Notes: The most significant change I made to this dish was using edamame instead of fava beans -- mostly because I couldn't find favas at my Farmer's Market that day. (Though in the interests of full disclosure, using edamame is infinitely easier and recommended if you are short on time!) I also added pecans for a bit of texture, and used the recommended leeks instead of green garlic. Finally, I reduced the amount of oil, doubled the amount of lemon/zest (I'm an acid junkie), grilled my onions on a grill pan, and roasted my dates instead of grilling them. I was also a bit more heavy-handed with my mint and arugula.

4 soft Medjool dates, pitted
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
1/2 cup red quinoa, rinsed
1 cup water
1 cup shelled edamame, cooked
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
Sea salt
6 scallions, tips and ends removed
1 small leek, rinsed well, sliced vertically into 1/2 inch wide strips
1/4 cup roughly chopped mint
2 cups arugula
1/4 cup pecan pieces, toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place dates in small, oven-safe container and roast until soft, approximately 10 minutes.  Remove from the oven, season with salt and using the back of a fork, smash together. Add sherry vinegar, mixing until well combined. Mixture will be thick and sticky. Set aside.

Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Add 1/2 cup of quinoa, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, until all the water has been absorbed and the quinoa kernels have separated from their shells (approximately 20-25 minutes). Fluff quinoa with a fork and then set aside to cool.

Whisk together lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Toss the leeks and scallions with a tablespoon of the lemon dressing.

Heat a grill pan (or use an actual grill) over medium high heat. Cook the scallions and leeks until tender and browned on both sides, approximately 2-3 minutes. 

In a medium bowl, toss together the quinoa, edamame, mint, arugula and rest of lemon dressing.

Smear the date mixture on the side of two plates. Heap the quinoa mixture in the center of each plate, lining the other side of the plates with the onions. Sprinkle with pecans.  Serve and eat immediately.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Black Pepper Tempeh with Cauliflower and Farro: Bringing color to the plate

I have a writer's crush.

Her name is Besha and she likes Pizzeria Mozza and walnuts; is deliciously, subtly snarky; and she can perfectly capture a moment, a bite, a dish in a way that makes me wish we were BFFs and slugging back glasses of Sancerre while discussing Jung at an overcrowded restaurant bar right now. Besha and Diana. Diana and Besha.

This isn't the first time I've had a writer's crush, and incidentally, isn't the only writer's crush I even currently possess. I'm equal parts in love with Sarah Gim from "The Delicious Life" (who is actually one of my dearest friends), Molly Wizenberg from "Orangette," Ruth Reichl (who needs no introduction), and Amanda Hesser, whose sentiments about sharing food in her book Cooking for Mr. Latte made me pump my fist into the air in solidarity when I read the memoir two years ago.

She wrote, "When I go out to a restaurant, I do not like feeling as if I'm at a buffet. I like to construct my meal thoughtfully and then eat it. I don't want to pass plates and don't want someone plopping a slab of his skate in my lamb jus."

It was like she'd dug her fork into my brain and dug out the very words that were threatening to escape my mouth every time I was propositioned to order the entire menu and share it amongst seven different people.

This was, of course, before Amanda introduced me to my favorite be-all end-all brownie recipe. Though, in the interests of full disclosure, that likely sealed the deal on my lifelong affection for her and her sharp, yet accessible wordsmithing.

Like Ms. Hesser, at some point all these femme fatale food writers -- Sarah, Molly, Ruth, and, most recently, Besha -- authored something so relatable, so like something that I would write (or, more accurately, aspire to write if I possessed the words to do so), that I was overcome with the sense that we should be best friends. Or at the very least, I wanted to "grow up" to be just like them, a food writer with the ability to elucidate the exact way a restaurant would make a diner feel, or effortlessly draw a parallel between a slice-of-life anecdote and a recipe.

These ladies are my version of "celebrities" -- people I would have a freakout/Instagram moment over if I happened to cross paths with them. Just like when I met Molly Wizenberg at a book signing for A Homemade Life and awkwardly geeked out about a lentil soup recipe. Because I'm totally cool like that.

What it really drizzles down to is my admiration for how they can turn something that is entirely dependent on individual taste, personal preference and circumstance and make it wholly, completely recognizable through a string of words. An adjective. An analogy that seems wrong, yet is somehow so spot-on it clarifies exactly what it is they are trying to convey. The ever elusive show not tell -- the thing that every writer aspires to achieve.

Whether it's a single walnut, or a (seemingly) monochromatic plate of cauliflower, tempeh, garlic, shallots, and farro.

Black Pepper Tempeh with Cauliflower and Farro
Adapted from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day
Serves 2

Notes: Don't be put off by the seemingly bland appearance of this dish. It's anything but. The ginger, red pepper flakes, freshly ground pepper, and garlic add a sharpness that is barely curtailed by the sweetness of the lightly caramelized shallots and brown sugar, and salty lick of soy sauce. The earthy cauliflower, nutty farro and tempeh are the ideal templates for absorbing the bold flavors. My adjustments to the original recipe are mostly procedural in nature, aside from the addition of farro and the amplified amount of soy sauce.

2/3 cups farro, rinsed well
2 cups cauliflower, coarsely chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
2 teaspoons coconut oil
5 ounces tempeh, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 shallots, minced
4-6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1-inch piece ginger, minced
Pinch red pepper flakes
Freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup cashew pieces, toasted (optional)

In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, brown sugar and water. Set aside.

Bring 1 1/3 cups water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add the farro, reduce heat, and cover. Simmer for 20-30 minutes or until water is absorbed and farro is tender, but still toothsome.

Place baking sheet in the oven. Preheat to 400 degrees. Spread cauliflower bits in a single layer on hot baking sheet. Season with pepper and roast, stirring once, for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. 

Meanwhile, heat large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the coconut oil, swirling to coat the base of the pan. Add the shallots, garlic, ginger, tempeh, and a pinch of red pepper flakes to taste, and saute over medium-low heat until garlic and shallots are tender and the tempeh is lightly browned, approximately 15 minutes.

Add the soy sauce mixture and roasted cauliflower to the pan, stirring until well-incorporated. Serve immediately over farro. If using, sprinkle with toasted cashews.