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.