Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Recipes of 2013

I'm feeling rather at peace with the arrival of 2014. 2013 was eventful, far more so than I anticipated when I rose my glass of champagne into the air to salute its beginning, and it feels ready to be over and done with. At least by my approximation.

A sentimentalist to the core, it's impossible for me not to reminisce, not to think back to the moments that defined this past year -- a fractured finger, a trip to NYC for my 30th birthday (!!!), first dates that were actually followed by subsequent dates, and the *best* nights spent laughing with friends and family over too much wine.

The stories have all been told here, perhaps inappropriately so for a site that is categorized as a "food blog," but the act of cooking has always been deeply personal for me. Something I do to recharge, to find my center, to express how I'm feeling -- even if it is just hungry.

These are the recipes that defined my year. The ones I found myself either making over and over again in my glovebox of a kitchen or ruminating over long after I took the final bite. I hope they in some way inspired you too, the friends and silent readers who have stayed with my through this year and perhaps even the years prior, listening to what I have to say even if it's not very much at all.

Thank you.

And may God bless you in the year that's stretched out ahead of us -- a blank canvas waiting to be scribbled over with fresh recipes and stories. 


Baked Oatmeal via Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day
Even though this recipe has not yet made it's way to this page, in the past few weeks it's made it's way into my morning routine in such a dramatic fashion that I'm having a hard time fathoming my eventual return to stove-top oats. Baked up like a casserole, it's the antithesis of the sticky, sludgy oatmeal I've not only grown accustomed to, but, admittedly, grown rather fond of in the years since its initial introduction. There will be more words on the matter later, but for now, know that very good things happen when you bake oats with cinnamon, bananas, raisins, walnuts, maple syrup, and almond milk. Very very good things. 

Sweet Butternut Squash Coconut Jam
I fell hard for this jam this past November. Head over bread heels hard. Particularly bread heels that have been toasted and smothered with more of this spread than is reasonable for a simple sliced carbohydrate to withstand. Sweet, subtly spiced and aggressively perfumed with tufts of coconut, it's far more than just jam. It's the thing you eat standing barefoot in the kitchen straight from the jar, that you stir into oatmeal, and that you bring to Thanksgiving dinner with no regard for the pies and casseroles you should be bringing in its stead. 

Roasted Root Vegetables with QuinoaThis dish is fall - comforting, yet necessarily nourishing in a season that seems more inclined toward heavy braises and baked goods that subscribe to Julia Child's cooking philosophy. I've eaten it dozens of times in the past few months and am always in awe that simple roasted vegetables can be this good. Without even a pat of butter or splash of cream. 

Egg, Caper Avocado Toast
Last year, I found myself dizzy in love with the simple pleasure of avocado toast, and this year, I upped the ante with a riff on the house-cured salmon toast at local LA gem Sycamore Kitchen. It's quickly become my favorite weekend lunch, cobbled together in the time it takes to hard boil and peel a farm fresh egg.

Homemade Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwiches
This was the product of one of those picture perfect lazy summer weekends that only seem to happen in the movies and on episodes of "The Hills" (may it RIP). Everything seemed momentarily okay, and there was *time* and that time was spent hiking and eating fish tacos in Malibu, and making peach ice cream and homemade cinnamon sugar pecan pop-tarts smashed together into the sandwich of my wildest dreams. I ate it standing over the sink with ice cream dripping down my chin and fingers and arms and all I could think was, "This is what it's all about."  Life, summer and the invention of stretchy pants. 

One-Pan Farro with Tomatoes
This recipe also defined my summer. It was a tough one for me - I was working too much, eating far too much chocolate because I was, well, working too much, and this dish was often the light at the end of that tunnel. I'd whip up a big batch of it on Sundays and eat it for dinner all week, not minding the repetition because I was so grateful to have it ready when I'd arrive home at 9 p.m., blurry-eyed and ravenous. It's the kind of recipe that will age well, not just, you know, in the fridge for a couple days, but down the line, during future summers when tomatoes are everywhere and you want to eat them in everything.  Especially this, and only this, for nights on end. (Though full-disclosure, it can also be made with a can of diced tomatoes in a winter pinch!)

Chickpea Sauté with Greek Yogurt
Of all the kale recipes I made, loved and obsessively ate this year, this one was my favorite. It's the sort of dish that treats vegetables with a different sort of respect than is customary, a respect that can rightly be traced back to Yotam Ottolenghi. While the buzz this year was for his other cookbook, the newer one, this recipe had me bookmarking every other page in his trusty vegetarian offering, Plenty.

Whole Wheat Raspberry Ricotta Scones
I often use family gatherings and holidays as an excuse to make the baked goods I myself have been lusting after under the guise of "contributing" to the celebration. Sometimes I'm the only one who actually wants the contribution, but in the instance of these pink-streaked scones, prepared for my family's annual Easter brunch, it was a welcome interloper amidst the buttery croissants and blueberry-flecked muffins. I ate two before they'd even cooled to room temperature, and then made them again two days later for a co-worker's birthday. As, you know, a "gift."

The Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich
While my kitchen doesn't often come into contact with the great bacon, cheese and butter trifecta, every now and then a girl needs a serious breakfast sandwich. The kind that greases lips and fingertips, and is all the better because of it. This is that sandwich.

Slow-Cooked Broccoli
If there's a way to make broccoli sexy, this dish would be it. Cooked tortuously slowly amidst a slew of onion and garlic, it transforms from the vegetable you eat because you ought to, into the vegetable you eat because you can't stop. Won't stop. Until the pan is bare and you wonder why you never saw broccoli in this way before.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Classic Shortbread: Not coming up short

It seems remiss to be writing about a holiday cookie recipe after Christmas. A bit like posting a gift guide three days before the holiday itself -- utterly useless for 90% of the population.  Particularly for those perfectly coiffed, check list-abiding folks who have their packages purchased, wrapped and under the tree by December 1st, and their holiday cookie recipes catalogued on Pinterest before fall has even made a dent in my consciousness.

I'm terrible at that sort of thing.

Organization amid structure. Or really, organization without a bit of chaos - the piles of magazines and meeting notes that threaten to teeter off my desk whenever I move my mouse, the bags of Brussels sprouts and pink lady apples that overwhelm my at-capacity produce drawers, and the storage closet that stores far more than it should.

While every now and again I'll go on a crazy rampage and attempt to West Elm-ify my life with calendars and labelled Tupperware, it only lasts for a moment. Approximately the length of time it takes for me to chip my nails after a manicure or dribble red wine on a newly laundered dress. And just like that I'll be back to me - the girl who posts about holiday cookies three days after Christmas while the whole world moves on to the New Year's resolution kale salad or heart-shaped everything. 

But there's something about these particular cookies that demands to be shared in a more meaningful manner than what I managed to communicate via a haphazard hashtagged Instagram photo on Christmas Eve. Because I never would have picked the recipe out as the stunner that would most captivate my sweet tooth this holiday season. My eyes would have soared past it, falling for chocolate-pistachio sables or chewy molasses cookies or something with a bit more pizazz and star power than… shortbread.

Even the name seems to indicate it's lacking in something - coming up short or edging far too closely to an item that does not instantly evoke a sugar high. Yet when a friend pulled the hot pan from the oven during a holiday cookie baking party inspired by that issue of Bon Appétit - you know, the one with the glossy, painted sugar cookies on the cover all chic and West Elm-like - I was done.

It's really meant to be a template for something else. The blank canvas where rosemary and caraway seeds reside (as it originally appears in Bon Appétit), where lavender becomes something other than the scent du jour for fancy hand soap, where layers of chocolate and caramel and nuts find a foundation. In my estimation, however, it's best just as it is - cut into fat fingers and served plain with a liberal top coat of coarse sugar.

Not particularly glamorous nor worthy of a magazine cover, but everything a holiday cookie should be - a resolve-killer, even three days after the holiday itself. 

Classic Shortbread
Lightly adapted from the December 2013 issue of Bon Appétit

Notes: Aside from nixing the rosemary and caraway seeds, which I'm sure are perfectly lovely contributions when a savory shortbread is in demand, I followed this recipe rather closely. My only "tweaks" so to speak were borrowed from the friend (a former pastry chef) who introduced the shortbread to me during that holiday cookie party. I baked the batter in a 13x9'' baking dish rather than two 8''-diameter cake pans, and cut it into strips while still warm from the oven to avoid any unfortunate crumbling after it had cooled completely. My friend thinks these get better on the 2nd or 3rd day, and I'm torn -- there's something to be said for a warm cookie, peeled straight from the pan while the sugar is still slightly molten and caramelized, but these are equally (and perhaps more) compelling at room temperature as a companion to a stern cup of tea.


2 sticks (cold) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2'' pieces
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 large egg, beaten
Turbinado sugar (or another coarse sugar), to finish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 13x9'' glass baking dish (probably not entirely necessary given the amount of butter in the recipe itself, but something I feel inclined to do regardless).

Place the flour in a medium bowl and gently stir with a whisk to lighten the texture so it's easier to incorporate into the batter.

In a separate large bowl with fairly high sides, combine the butter, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, and salt. Use an electric mixer on medium-high speed to beat until the batter is very light and fluffy (around 7-10 minutes). I imagine it would be equally fine to use a stand mixer for this step, just as long as air is beaten into the butter in some capacity, which Bon Appétit notes makes for tender shortbread. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour, half at a time. Mix until just combined - the dough will not come together perfectly and it shouldn't.

Gently press the batter into the prepared pan, taking care to ensure it is spread into an even layer. Brush with the whipped egg, then aggressively sprinkle with turbinado sugar or whatever coarse sugar you are using. Bake 25 minutes or so or until the edges start to brown and the center feels to the touch.

Cool on a wire rack for 15-20 minutes, then slice into wedges or bars. Enjoy warm or store in an airtight container to steal bites from all week.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Six Last Minute Gifts for the Food Lover

I'm not sure how it happened.

December 22nd.

I had so many intentions for Christmas this year. *Real*, tangible holiday cards that I would hand write in loopy illegible cursive and dorn with mistletoe postage stamps. An actual Christmas tree that I would decorate with sales bin metallic ornament finds and show off on Instagram. New and old cookie recipes that I would whip up in my snowflake apron and package for everyone I've come into contact with… ever.

From the girl who sells me kale and Brussels sprouts at the Farmers' Market, to anyone who's liked one of my posts on Facebook this year. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

And yet, here it is, December 22nd and I've written approximately one holiday card, am celebrating the season with a ten-inch, unadorned tree from Trader Joe's named "Larry," and the only holiday confection I've confected are my grandma's walnut caramels.

I've been telling myself it's because "Thanksgiving was late this year," and that "We missed a WHOLE weekend!", and I suppose it is true. Yet something about the holidays makes me feel like I should have done more. Could still do more.

Or at the very least compose a list of my favorite DIY edible gifts and cookbooks that might inspire someone else to do more… in the next 48 hours.

DIY Edible Gifts

For the Breakfast Lover - Mason Jars Filled with Granola
- This is my go-to for a homemade housewarming or holiday hostess present. It's heartfelt and keeps well so its recipient can enjoy it for several weeks after receiving. My standby granola recipe is still Early Bird Foods Granola via Molly Wizenberg at Orangette. It's just rich enough to taste like something special is happening in your cereal bowl without teetering too far into dessert territory.

For the Snacker - Spiced Glazed Nuts & Pretzels
- This nut mix from David Lebovitz, like most of his recipes, still obliterates any bit of restraint I might possess if I didn't like eating/food/nuts so much. This is why we make it to give away, not hoard all to ourselves. (Life Lessons 101)

For the Sweet Tooth - Sea Salt Walnut Caramels
- My absolute favorite recipe to make during the holidays. While they take patience to individually wrap in wax paper, anyone I've given these to has made subsequent requests for more of the same the following year. These caramels are love and nostalgia, which, in my mind, is the best gift to give anyone during the holiday season.


You still have 18 hours to order on Amazon for arrival on Christmas Eve. For a personal touch, if you've prepared recipes from the cookbook, tag your favorites with post-it notes, offering your tips and serving suggestions. You can also pair it with a key ingredient showcased in the book (suggestions below!).

For the Vegetable Lover - Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson
- Even though I've had this cookbook for two years, I'm still blown away by both the creativity and the precision of the recipes. It's the cookbook that I most often pull from my bookshelf in search of inspiration - usually because I have some odd vegetable lingering in the produce bin. Most recently, my world was rocked by the Baked Oatmeal, which has emphatically nudged its way into my top ten favorite recipes from this past year.  
INGREDIENT PAIRING: A mix of oats, cinnamon, salt, baking powder, toasted walnuts with the directive to use it to make the aforementioned Baked Oatmeal immediately.

For "The Big Salad" Orderer - The Lemonade Cookbook by Alan Jackson and JoAnn Cianciulli
- A new release that features recipes from the beloved Southern California mini-chain including the fan favorites Broccoli with Ricotta Salata, and Roasted Cauliflower with Curry Vinaigrette. Perfect for anyone, who like Elaine Benes, enjoys a "Big Salad" with more substance than just lettuce leaves, or just wants to learn the proper way to make a vinaigrette (Note: You're probably making it wrong).
INGREDIENT PAIRING: Assorted oils and vinegars.

For the Food Porn Addict - What Katie Ate by Katie Quinn Davies
- This is the cookbook for the home cook who can't make a recipe that doesn't contain a picture. The stunning, Instagram-esque photos will leave your recipient drooling and inclined to drop everything to make a Wild Rice, Mint and Chickpea Salad if you're me, or a Rib-eye Steak with Anchovy Butter if you're, well, not me.
INGREDIENT PAIRING: Pretty plates from Anthropologie so the recipient can photograph and Instagram the fruits of their kitchen labor.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Coq au vin: Fall ritual

Fall finally arrived in LA this past weekend. The kind of fall that drives us Angelenos to turn on the heater and wear knit caps indoors and break out every single winter-esque accessory in our possession.

In other words, it was 55 degrees.

And… it rained.

I wasn't expecting it when I peeled myself out of bed on Saturday morning, sleep still clinging to my eyes and limbs as I stumbled toward the front door with plans to go running at the beach. Initially annoyed, I was later thrilled at the notion of spending the day in hibernation, cooking, writing and watching terrible ABC Family holiday movies on Netflix. It felt necessary, like my personal rite of passage into the season I've been desperately craving for the past two months.

In the midst of it all, I found myself reminiscing back to my experience of fall as a child. My mom trucking my brothers and I off to the beach in wool sweaters to take photos for our Christmas card, burrowing under the piles of leaves that our Liquid Ambers would deposit on the front lawn, and eating coq au vin.

It was a given. As soon as the temperatures began to dip low enough for us to, you know, wear wool sweaters at the beach, my dad would lug out the giant iron-clad pan. The scent of frying bacon would start to tickle our noses and remain there, intermingled with simmering chicken, for hours while we'd wait in rapt anticipation. We'd gather around to watch him or my mom light the pan on fire - our favorite part of the whole ritual - while we'd sip Coke's because it was the weekend and that's what we did on the weekends.

Coq au vin was one of the few dishes that I truly loved as a child, that I would eat without pushing the pieces around my plate, declaring with a stubborn curled lip that I was "full" after two bites. I savored it, mesmerized by the way the chicken's muddy red wine-stained exterior would give way to flesh as white as snow. Even to my underdeveloped palate that preferred Top Ramen to most of my mother's wholesome home-cooked meals, it felt special, like the beginning of something.

It's been years since the last time I've celebrated fall with coq au vin, but this Saturday, as I sat shivering in my apartment because I refused to turn on the heater, it was all I could fathom eating for dinner. So while the world went on outside attending to Christmas trees and holiday shopping, I roasted pearl onions until the exteriors wrinkled and tanned. I nearly took my eyebrows off lighting brandy-ensconced chicken on fire, and then I waited in rapt anticipation while it simmered away on my stovetop, etching its scent into the walls of my apartment like graffiti.

Like always, it was even better on the second night, and even more so on the third when the temperatures dove even deeper south. But I was ready for it. And ready to turn on that heater whilst huddling on the couch with a fleece blanket and a wool cap.

Fall. In LA.

I could get used to it. 

Coq au vin
Serves 4

Notes: This recipe is cobbled together from the bits and pieces I remember from my childhood, along with some procedural and fundamentals that I borrowed from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My approach with this was to cook by feel rather than a strict set of instructions and the results were everything I hoped them to be. My soul was satisfied. I hope yours is too.

20 pearl or boiling white onions (this seems like a lot, but trust me, you'll want more)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 heaping teaspoon thyme, divided
4 strips of lean bacon
2 lbs skinless chicken pieces on the bone (you can use anything - breasts, thighs, legs, though I used breasts in my rendition)
1/4 cup Brandy (or Cognac)
1 1/2 cups red wine (something fruit-forward and full-bodied is preferred)
1 cup chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon tomato paste (or a scant teaspoon of Amore tomato paste - my preference!)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 carrots, peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 shallot, minced
1/2 lb button mushrooms, quartered
2 tablespoons flour + extra for dredging
Chopped parsley for serving
Salt, freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop the white onions in the pot and blanch for 1-2 minutes depending on whether you are using the larger boiling onions (my preference) or pearl onions which will only need to blanch for a minute. Drain and let cool slightly and then remove the skins. They should slip right off at this juncture.

Toss de-skinned onions with 1 teaspoon olive oil, a pinch of salt, pepper and some of the thyme. Roast in an oven-safe dish for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally until they start to shrivel and brown. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Meanwhile, place the strips of bacon in a large, deep, flame-resistant pan (as you will be lighting it on fire and all). Cook over medium heat, watching as they begin to release their fat to flip as necessary. Brown until crisp, then remove and set on a paper towel. Pour some of the bacon fat into a small dish to freeze for later use (this stuff is liquid gold, I tell you), reserving the rest in the pan for browning the chicken.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper and lightly dredge in flour, shaking any excess off.

Turn the heat a notch above medium, then add the chicken to the hot bacon-greased-lined pan. Cook for a few minutes on each side until golden brown.  Turn down the heat, add the brandy or cognac, then, using caution and a very long lighter or one of those giant matchsticks, light the liquor on fire, averting your face/eyes to avoid potential eyebrowlessness. Shake the pan back and forth until flames have extinguished completely, then add the red wine, chicken stock, garlic, most of the remaining thyme (leave a pinch for the mushrooms), and the bay leaf. Whisk in the tomato paste, then bring to a slow boil. Reduce the heat and cover, letting it simmer away for 20 minutes.

Remove the lid, add the carrots, flip the chicken over, and continuing simmering away for another 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small dish and combine with 2 tablespoons of flour to make a roux to thicken your sauce when the time comes.

Heat the other tablespoon of butter in another pan over medium heat. Add the shallots, mushrooms, a pinch of thyme, salt and freshly ground pepper, and a glug of wine if it seems dry.  Cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms begin to deflate and brown and release their liquid.  Set aside with the onions.

Remove the chicken and carrots from their pan, then whisk half the roux into the sauce. Bring to a low boil, stirring frequently until the sauce starts to thicken. It should coat a spoon, but not be globby, so start with a little roux and add more if needed.

Once the sauce is at its desired consistency, add the chicken and carrots back to the pan, along with the onions and mushrooms.  Reheat through until everything is nice and piping hot, then serve, sprinkled with parsley and crumbled bits of that crispy bacon.  I prefer mine served alongside roasted fingerling potatoes (more on that later, I suppose, because there are things to be said), but this is also terrific with egg noodles or even mashed potatoes if you want to be completely over-the-top about it. For a low carb version, try simply steamed green beans - not particularly seasonal, but a substantial accompaniment nonetheless.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sound Bites: San Francisco Edition

Because there's not always time for a full meal...

1. The recipe I'm dying to make - Quinoa with almond, cauliflower, popped sorghum via Daniel Patterson's Coi: Stories and Recipes. Because, quinoa. And also, I'm fascinated by the idea of popping sorghum seeds like popcorn. This is going to make for a pretty crrrrazy Saturday night some time in the not too distant future.

2. My new obsession - BART. I was in the Bay Area last month for less than 24 hours and even though I have the navigational intelligence of someone who has very terrible navigational intelligence, I decided to use BART to get from the Oakland Airport to San Francisco and then onward to my final destination in the East Bay (Concord). It was easy, cheap, fairly devoid of offensive smells, and I got to tell everyone about it when I got back to LA like it was no big thing. "Oh yeah, I took the BART… got off at the 16th St. Mission stop." See how hella cool that sounds? (Note: They don't say "hella" in the Bay Area - that's just me being hella dorky.)

3. Where I'm eating - Tartine aka the whole reason I made a detour from my final East Bay destination. I walked in with a giant Adidas backpack and kept bumping into people's heads with it like a tourist with no navigational intelligence, but it was all worth it for… the sandwich. Peppered turkey smothered with melted provolone and broccoli rabe pesto sandwiched (as sandwiches are) between two crusty, grilled slices of the best white country bread in existence. This is probably hyperbolic, but, you guys, the bread. It completely overshadowed the banana cream tart I ate for dessert and the crispy, infant head-sized chocolate chip cookie I ate for breakfast the next morning. Did I mention I'm having a hard time buttoning my jeans this month? Yep, pretty much.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sweet Butternut Squash Coconut Jam: The centerpiece

For someone who works (and plays) in the food industry, I am disconcertingly delinquent when it comes to planning for Thanksgiving. It's not that I forget about the holiday's existence, and, in fact,  spend all month talking about it as a publicist - pitching recipes and menus and wine pairings until every writer in the greater LA area is ready to add me to their blocked senders' lists.

As saturated as my daily world is with all those Thanksgiving-related details (to brine or not to brine, the proper digestif to pair with pumpkin pie, and the tired question of whether to prepare stuffing inside or outside of the turkey), I somehow always fail to think about what I'm going to do myself. It doesn't hit me until the day before, as I'm sending that final work email before heading out the door, that, oh right, Thanksgiving is tomorrow.

It's only then that I start to feel that nudge of compulsion to do something above and beyond what my family already has slated out for the holiday. You know, the standard stuffing-filled barbecued turkey, mashed potatoes with my dad's giblet-heavy gravy, and, yes, even that requisite cranberry jelly served unceremoniously on a plate, still perfectly molded in the shape of a can.

I'll half-heartedly start poking around the fall recipes I've bookmarked for inspiration, pausing to consider a remix on the pumpkin pie I'm not particularly fond of to begin with, the latest variation on Brussels sprouts, or a healthier take on a Thanksgiving side that I may be able to sneak onto the table without too much protest from the potato-pushers in the family. Because, for me, Thanksgiving has become less about what's on the plate, and more about the time spent with the people who know me outside this weird food-focused microcosm where I both work and play. The people who, while often equally passionate about eating well, still think nothing wrong with cranberry jelly plopped onto the table in the shape of a can.

So, today, tonight, I head into another Thanksgiving armed not with a pumpkin pie bread pudding with bourbon-pecan hard sauce; nor a stuffing comprised of homemade cornbread, sausage and caramelized onions; but with a recipe for sweet butternut squash coconut jam that I don't even plan to serve on the holiday itself.

Instead, it will be slathered on bread with a smear of goat cheese at various points over the weekend, tucked into oatmeal with pomegranate arils and toasted walnuts, or perhaps eaten directly from the jar with a spoon. It will stand on its own -- outside of the spectacle of turkey and excessive starches and the vegetables I plan to roast into submission so I have one thing I can eat without hating myself.

And we'll all be thankful for it. Because this jam is a centerpiece all to itself, a sticky mass of fall that deserves to be shared with the people who make Thanksgiving a reason to celebrate in the first place. Even when, and especially because, they force-feed you cranberry jelly from a can.

Sweet Butternut Squash Coconut Jam
Lightly Adapted from The Kitchn
Makes 2 cups

Notes: I followed this recipe mostly to the "T" as they say, though I did cut it in half and use regular vanilla as opposed to a vanilla bean. I also used a whole cinnamon stick like the original recipe for double the amount, because I deemed it unnecessary to attempt to snap a cinnamon stick in half. Particularly since I tend to use an aggressive hand with my cinnamon shaker in general. Do with it what you will, but promise me you'll try this spun into a bowl of oatmeal laced with pomegranates and walnuts as pictured below. Life-changing stuff, I tell you.

1 lb butternut squash, grated
1 cup milk
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
5 whole cloves
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup finely shredded, unsweetened coconut

In a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized pot, combine the grated squash, milk, sugars, cinnamon stick, and cloves. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently so the milk doesn't scorch. As the squash begins to soften, use the spoon to squash it down a bit. (Forgive me for the terrible pun - it's a disease.) But keep on stirring and mashing, for a good 15-20 minutes or so until it's starting to take on a baby-food like consistency.

Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring frequently as the milk reduces, until the mixture takes on a jam-like quality, approximately 25-35 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves, then stir in the vanilla, followed by the coconut. Remove from the heat and let cool before serving.

Store in the refrigerator, but I'd advise to eat it up within a week or two. Mostly because I'm paranoid about these types of things, but also because this is the kind of jam that should be enjoyed daily on everything and anything that could possibly be served with jam.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sound Bites

Because there's not always time for a full meal...

1. The recipe I'm dying to make for someone to make for me - Pumpkin Pie Bread Pudding with Bourbon-Pecan Hard Sauce via Food & Wine.

2. My new obsession - Saako Scarf-Lace. As soon as it's cold enough to wear this without looking like a dork-face, my neck will never see the light of day again. Because not only is this scarf super cool-looking, when I wear it I get to tell people it was handmade by Ana Isabel in Barcelona. Which is, you know, way better than saying your scarf was handmade by a machine in China.

3. My new sippable obsession - Lupicia's Caramel & Rum Rooibos Tea. So it's not actually new to me, but it may be new to you. It doesn't taste particularly rummy, but enough like caramel that you might be able to skip dessert if you are one of those people who does that.

4. Where I've been eating - Trois Mec. You know when you're having one of those weeks where mercury is in retrograde and even though you're a sensible person and don't believe in that, your kitchen sink clogs, your hairdryer breaks and you can't find the $500 check that you're sure you stored in a safe place because… you're a sensible person. And then you get an invite to attend a special book dinner at one of the most exciting new restaurants in not just LA, but the country. You say "yes" without hesitation because it's Daniel Patterson and Ludo Lefebvre, and suddenly find yourself walking into a former pizzeria with an open kitchen of chefs beckoning you inside with a chorus of "Bonjours!" Before you know what's happening, you're sipping Blanc de Blanc and munching on Patterson's brown rice crackers and avocado like this is what you always do on Wednesday nights. After a circus of dishes, Lefebvre's famed potato pulp is placed before you - a snow-like mound of potato tendrils, nourished by an indecent amount of brown butter, flecks of bonito flakes, onion soubise, and salers cheese. And it no longer matters that your kitchen sink is clogged and your hairdryer is broken and you may never see that $500 again. Because you're eating potato pulp in a former pizzeria in a strip mall, and life is pretty darn good.

5. What I'm reading - Life & Thyme. Just when you think there can't possibly be room for another food blog in Los Angeles, you stumble upon a site that's doing things so differently that you remember why you read food blogs in the first place. Photos that put your Instagram feed to shame, words that paint a picture as vivid as those images, and stories that capture exactly why Los Angeles is such an exciting place to be eating and drinking right now. It's about thyme.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Roasted Root Vegetables with Quinoa: Faking fall

The weather in LA has been schizophrenic this fall. Right when it seems like we've made it, that I can actually start using the boots that have been collecting dust in the closet since last year, we get slapped with an 80 degree day that demands to be enjoyed in sandals.

It shouldn't surprise me so - I've lived nearly my entire life in Southern California except for the four years I spent shivering in Chicago during college, and yet somehow every November I seem to forget that we don't actually get a fall. At least not a discernible fall in the way that one experiences in Chicago when the change in season comes dramatically and decisively before September has even had time to make its official exit. The air chills and crisps in a way that is barely possible in Los Angeles even on its coldest days.

While I, like most Angelenos, inevitably bemoan the loss of summer and squawk about how cold it is the second the temperature dips below 65, I miss that feeling. The stampede of cold air nearly bursting my lungs, reddening my cheeks and requiring an aggressively wrapped scarf wound round my neck like ivy.

The contrast in autumnal experiences has been even more perceptible to me this year for some reason. Likely because I've been searching for it - the crunchy fallen leaves that I can squash underneath my booted feet, the comforting shield of a wool sweater, and the end of tomato season once and for all.

So as the 80 degree temperatures rage on outside my apartment window, I've been faking fall in the only way I really know how - by drinking tea from a seasonally inappropriate mug and cranking up my oven to a temperature that is regretfully high for a one bedroom abode. Even with sweat beading at my temples, I press on, roasting roots until they shrivel and caramelize into unrecognizable forms of crisp-edged vegetable candy. I toss them with a bracing aged balsamic vinegar and spoon their collapsing corpses over a bowl of steaming quinoa. And then, finally, thankfully, I find it.

Fall in food form.

At least until I can squawk about it being 64 degrees out.

Roasted Root Vegetables with Quinoa
Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side

Notes: This recipe can be as simple as just the vegetables themselves, served as an accompaniment to roast chicken (fall's other favorite food), or as complex as you see here. I often find myself subtracting the feta and pistachios to keep it a touch lighter, but the mint has become a fairly essential addition - the punctuation mark, if you will. Enjoy it with a red wine that will stand up to the aggressive bite of the vinegar, and then cozy up on the couch with a cup of tea in a seasonally inappropriate mug.

1-2 beets (depending on size), peeled and chopped into 3/4-inch chunks
3 carrots, scrubbed, but not peeled, and sliced into 1/2-inch thick slivers
8 Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed, and sliced into halves (omitted in the version you see pictured)
2 shallots, sliced into rings
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chickpeas
1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed well
Handful fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons pistachios
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large cast iron skillet, toss beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts, and shallots with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast, stirring occasionally to ensure even browning/caramelizing, for 35-40 minutes or until vegetables are deeply colored and crispy around the edges. Five minutes before removing from the oven, stir in the chickpeas to heat through. Remove from the oven and pour the balsamic vinegar over the hot vegetables, stirring to release any caramelized bits of vegetable stuck to the bottom of the pan.

While the vegetables are roasting, prepare the quinoa. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat, then add the rinsed quinoa kernels to the dry pan. Toast, shaking the pan frequently so the kernels don't burn, until lightly browned on all sides. (Approximately 5-7 minutes.)  Turn off the heat.  Bring a cup of salted water to a boil, then add the toasted quinoa. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes or until the water is absorbed.  Fluff with a fork and set aside.

To serve, spoon quinoa into bowls and scatter the vegetable-mix over the top.  Sprinkle with the fresh mint, pistachios and feta. Toss together into hot mess of fall flavors.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sound Bites

Because there's not always time for a full meal...

1. The recipe I'm dying to makeSweet Butternut Squash and Coconut Jam via TheKitchn. Is this the reason toast was invented?  I don't know, but I will endeavor to find out. Even if I do have to eat an entire loaf of bread to do so. (Life is hard, guys.)

2. My new favorite nonessential essentialLékué Decomax Decorating Pen – This silicon bowl-bag hybrid frosting kit is pretty much the best thing that was ever invented for people who break out in hives every time they see a frosting bag, because…frustrated noises. I found mine at Sur La Table for $25, and it's basically the reason my Guinness Stout Ginger Cupcakes look far cuter than any cupcake that has ever emerged from my kitchen before. Frosting bowl-bags = winning. 

3. My new edible obsessionPerugina's Baci Bar – a thick slab of dark chocolate filled with chopped hazelnuts and, according to the website, "luscious chocolate."  Apparently this whole "Baci flavor" is "world famous" and only recently available in bar form, so obviously I've been living under a rock and, yes, I did have the Motorola Razr until 2010. A word of warning – eating six squares in a single sitting is maybe too much. As in, you might get a stomachache and need to drink three cups of tea and then still decide it's worth it, because it's luscious chocolate, yo, and you have to make up for all the time you were eating non-world famous candy.

4. Where I've been eating Cook's County.  I've always wanted to have a neighborhood spot where I could go and get those nods of recognition from the staff like I'm "one of them," even if those nods are all in my head. While I've now reached a point where I've been to this literal farm-to-table restaurant enough times to warrant a hug from a server on my last visit (it helps when you begin the relationship by ordering the entire dessert menu), what keeps me coming back is the food. Chef Daniel Mattern and Pastry Chef Roxana Jullapat take seasonality seriously, changing the menu nearly daily to reflect their latest bounty from the farmers market whether it be persimmons and squash in the fall, or ramps and peas in the spring. My current obsession is the BLT with a fried egg and avocado at brunch (pictured above), but regardless of the meal or occasion, I don't dare leave without ordering at least one of Jullapat's pastries or desserts.

5. What I've been readingHumans of New York. I discovered this blog/Facebook page during my post-NYC vacation depression and have become completely hooked. It's like an edgy, real-to-life version of all those Hallmark commercials that make you (okay, me) cry, captured through arresting photos that reflect the diversity and beauty of the humans that make up New York City. Grab a box of Kleenex before looking at this one. (P.S. The photographer/creator Brandon Stanton just published a book version too!)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Black Truffle Risotto: The ultimate souvenir

The second time I met my future sister-in-law, I made her go car shopping with me.

She was in town visiting from Phoenix with my brother, and what was supposed to be a special occasion for family-bonding and copious wine-drinking, quickly turned into a weekend of test drives and me having a nervous breakdown over whether I should get a Toyota Corolla, a Hyundai Elantra or nothing at all.

While everyone in my family (my mother included) quickly tired of my indecisiveness, she remained firmly on my side, never once arching an eyebrow even when I hijacked a trip to the mall so we could check out one last car dealership before dinner.

There was a moment in the midst of that final test drive when I looked in the rear view mirror at her in the back seat and realized that she wasn't just some girl my brother was dating. Nor was she someone I could imagine floating in and out of our lives at the slightest provocation, breeze or a potential sister-in-law's nervous breakdown.

She was family. 

Either that or someone who really really likes shopping for cars.

Recently, she, my brother, and my parents took a trip to Italy together. I had originally hoped to join them for what I knew would be an eating and drinking extravaganza, but instead opted for an eating and drinking extravaganza in New York with my girl friends.

Even though I was happy with my decision (and grateful that I wouldn't have to share a hotel room with my parents), it was difficult for me to see the pictures on Facebook and Instagram of them truffle-hunting in Alba, sipping wine at the La Spinetta vineyards in Piedmont and touring the Colosseum. I wanted to be there with them gorging on Neapolitan pizza, al dente pasta and, in the words of my mother, "too many wine tastings."

So when my brother sent me a text message revealing that he'd smuggled me back a black truffle, I was thrilled that they'd thought of me in the midst of all their Barbera-slurping. Particularly since it meant I would get to enjoy a small taste of Italy in my shoebox West Hollywood apartment.

Yet, as fun as it was to shower a bowl of risotto with an indecent amount of black truffle shavings, it didn't compare to the other souvenir he brought back from Italy for me.

A future sister-in-law.

Someone who I know will always be on my side. Or, at the very least, always go car shopping with me.

[Congratulations, Richard and Taylor!]

Black Truffle Risotto
Serves 2

Notes: This is a simple risotto - the barest bones of risottos, really, but also the perfect canvas for an ingredient like fresh truffles. The key here is patience, an attentive eye, and, the best ingredients you can find. It's a labor of love, but worth every flick of the wrist. This is comfort food at its finest and most luxurious.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, minced
2/3 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine (a crisp Sauvignon Blanc is preferred)
4 cups of chicken stock (or 4 cups water combined with 1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon chicken base)
1/3 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmigiano Reggiano)
An indecent amount of black truffle shavings

In a large saucepan, combine white wine and chicken stock.  Bring to a slow boil, then reduce heat and cover to keep warm. (You may not need all of it, but I prefer to error on the side of generosity.)

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in deep non-stick pan, preferably cast iron as it will cook the rice more evenly.  Once hot, add the shallots, reduce heat to medium and sauté for 3-4 minutes. Add the rice kernels (no need to rinse first), and sauté with the onion for a couple minutes.  Lower the heat, add a spoonful of the wine/broth mixture to deglaze the pan, and then add an additional 1/2 cup of the liquid.  Simmer, uncovered, until the broth is absorbed, and then add another 1/2 cup, stirring frequently to ensure even cooking.

Continue process until rice is creamy and tender, but still has a slight chew left to it, as it will continue to cook after you serve it. Moving quickly, stir in the freshly grated pecorino, then plate immediately, letting it bleed out across the plate (or, if using, base of a flat bowl). Sprinkle with black truffle shavings. Buon appetito!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Guinness Stout Ginger Cupcakes: Sweet success?

"I totally failed."

It was my three-word personal mantra during my school years. Every test, every essay, every presentation I gave, I was terrified to prematurely proclaim that I might have actually done well. I far preferred responding to queries with the worst possible scenario, envisioning a paper or report card littered with red marks and a giant unhappy face at the top.

Yet even in the moments when I was fairly certain I'd done better than average, or at least better than what my personal mantra seemed to indicate, I was always a bit stunned to find out that I had, in fact, received an "A." It felt a bit like trickery, "a fluke," if not for the tiny insignificant detail that I, the perfectionist of perfectionists, almost always received an "A."

In my mind, however, the "A" didn't come naturally. It was hard fought. Just like when I broke five minutes in the mile. Just like when I got into Northwestern. Just like when I somehow ended up doing pretty well there too.

Success, in spite of myself.

I'm still terrified of presuming such a thing. As much as I strive for greatness and believe myself fully capable of it, I shudder away from uttering the word out loud, as though daring to articulate the notion of success might jinx its likelihood of happening. I feel much more comfortable quietly working hard, cloaking myself in an aura of modesty, whilst I keep my eyes firmly fixated on my end goal.

My innate propensity to undersell is no less apparent in the kitchen. While I've reached a point in my life where I'd describe myself as a good cook (and better baker) and fearlessly tackle everything from homemade pop tarts to Queen Nancy's Butterscotch Budino, I don't dare pontificate on the matter until the deed is done. I hide behind squeaky voiced exclamations of, "I hope it turns out!" or "It's just something I threw together!" until I'm confident that it actually did, in fact, turn out.

And then I photograph the heck out of it to prove it happened.


In spite of myself.

So when I endeavored to make these cupcakes for a co-worker's birthday, applying the recipe for Gramercy Tavern's Guinness Stout Ginger Cake as inspired by Anjali of "Eat Your Greens," I found myself once again swinging precariously on the pendulum between success and failure.

The scene in my kitchen was not that of the merry Stepford Wife with nary a hair out of place as she glides, smiling, from the oven to the center island with pristine cupcakes in hand. It was an abomination to all things good and true and Martha Stewart. A battlefield of sugar and butter. Flour scattered over the countertops like the first frost of the season, gooey patches of Stout and molasses crusting the stove where the pot had boiled over, and lumpy batter, likely the result of my haste to combine the still hot Stout-molasses goop into my carefully whisked eggs.

In other words, a disaster area the likes of which is supposed to remain unseen, unaired, and certainly not broadcasted over a food blog where it's expected to be all success all the time. At least in the eyes of those who don't subscribe to Martha's train of thought.

And yet, somehow, even with the proposition of failure lingering in the air and on my countertops, the pockmarked cupcakes didn't taste terrible.

At all.

They tasted of fall. Of crimson scarfs tucked around the necks of rosy-cheeked children. Of fireplaces filled with crackling logs, and of steaming mugs of hot apple cider.  The image on the screen that is never exactly true to life for more than a brief second.

And topped with a few dollops of strategically placed brown sugar cream cheese frosting, the cupcakes miraculously became a success. Became the image on the screen for a fleeting moment. A story to tell. A recipe to share.

In spite of myself.

Guinness Stout Ginger Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from "The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern" via Epicurious
Yield: Approximately 21 cupcakes

Notes: There are two versions of this recipe online - one that contains double the sugar, a third of the baking soda, and no fresh ginger, and the one that you'll find below. Thrown by the differing quantities of baking soda, I elected to use 1 teaspoon as a compromise between the two varying recipes and suffered no ill fate as a result. Praise be to God.

Now a word on the frosting. Anjali, who bequeathed this recipe onto me alongside the inspiration to turn it into cupcakes, used a lemon cream cheese frosting in lieu of the brown sugar version you see here. While seemingly inherently opposed to the nature of gingerbready sorts of things, the lemon cream cheese was a surprisingly delightful foil to the dark and moody cupcakes, and when I endeavor these again, I fully intend to play around with citrus flavoring, as well. For the purposes of this birthday celebration, however, I selected something slightly more mainstream, and in my mind's eye, no less compelling.

1 cup Guinness stout
1 cup molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda (original calls for 1/2 tablespoon)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil (grapeseed oil also accepted here)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground ginger (not a typo)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (not a travesty if omitted)
1 tablespoon grated, peeled fresh gingerroot
Frosting of choice (brown sugar cream cheese frosting below!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line two 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large saucepan with plenty of room for boiling action (important!), combine the Guinness and molasses. Bring to a slow boil, watching closely to ensure it doesn't boil over onto the stove and possibly onto the floor. Turn off the heat immediately, and stir in the baking soda. Allow to sit until the foam dissipates and the mixture cools down enough that it won't curdle the eggs in the batter.

Meanwhile, while the Guinness/molasses/baking soda mixture is cooling, set about preparing your other ingredients.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs with both sugars, followed by the oil.

In another large bowl (we are dirtying lots of things today!), use a fresh whisk to combine the flour, ground ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom if you can find it/afford to spend $11 on a ground spice you only need 1/8 teaspoon of in a recipe.

Now, with all the ingredients prepped and the Guinness/molasses/baking soda mix cooled down to a state that won't scald your appendages, combine it with the egg/sugar/oil mixture. Whisk half of this wet mixture in with the flour mix, followed by the other half. Stir in the fresh ginger until just combined.

Pour the batter into the lined muffin tins, about 3/4 of the way to the top. You'll likely get around 21 cupcakes - 22 if you stretch it some.

Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out perfectly clean. Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.

Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
From Smitten Kitchen

1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese (at room temperature)
1/2 cup unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small bowl, whisk together the two sugars and cornstarch, taking care to whisk out any brown sugar lumps. Lumps are not frosting's friend. (Particularly when you're using frosting to hide lumps on cupcakes).

In a separate large bowl, beat the softened cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla (adding before other ingredients allows it to better penetrate the butter as per a pastry chef I trust implicitly), and then follow with the sugar-cornstarch mixture. Continue beating until the frosting is completely smooth and light. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator until it firms up enough that it won't slip and slide on your cupcake. Dollop, spread or use a pastry bag to form perfectesque peaks of frosting on each cake.

Take pictures. Because - success!  You did it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Six Categories of Blog Commenters, and a Categorically Delicious White Bean Quinoa Salad

I have a weird fascination with the comments that people leave on blogs.

Other blogs, naturally - the ones with audiences so large and devoted they could colonize an entire country. The Republic of Smitten Kitchen. The United States of Cupcakes & Cashmere. The Land of Orangette. (Which I imagine is filled with banana bread, bottomless jars of granola and cheese.)

While I gravitate to these sites and others of their ilk for the content - the vivid pictures, the engaging prose, the recipes that I want to make and eat every day of my life - more times than not, I also find myself compulsively reading the comments that follow, feeling oddly like I did back in the days when I used to sneak into my brothers' rooms to read what their classmates wrote in their high school yearbooks. Which is, you know, a totally normal thing to do when you're thirteen and your brothers don't tell you about the secret girlfriend they took to the prom.

The difference, of course, being that the comments on these blogs are public, which makes their content all the more fascinating, particularly when patterns begin emerging. While there are the outliers who post sincere, personalized notes, those that lie between often seem to fall into the same categories. Categories that I immediately feel compelled to pinpoint, as though I'm playing some sort of digital iteration of Guess Who? with myself.

There's "The Justin Bieber Fan" - the person who comments (first) on every single post, always declaring how much they love and adore the writer. Exclamation point, exclamation point.
Oh my gosh, this is so amazing!! You're so amazing!! I love glittery pens too!! I just ordered one in every color with a case too which I'm going to monogram with your initials!! You're the best!! P.S. I'm sharing this on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, Instagram, and my refrigerator door right now!!

There's "The Grammar Nazi" - the person who fastidiously reads every single word of prose, searching for the one time the author accidentally writes "your" instead of "you're," or leaves the "e" of the fourth "the" in the seventh paragraph.
I think you meant to say, 'My mouth was figuratively on fire.' If it was 'literally' on fire, you'd probably be dead right now. Judging by the published state of this post, I'd surmise that you are not, indeed, dead.

Which brings us to "The Misanthrope," or the troll who reads blogs for the sole purpose of leaving scathing, inflammatory commentary about how stupid, ugly, gross, and terrible the author, post or subject matter is.
You have the fashion sense of an amoeba. That outfit is repulsive - I wouldn't wear it if I was living in a cardboard box in 10 degree weather, and it was the only thing I had to shield myself against the elements aside from a garbage bag. I'd rather freeze to death. Also, you have a unibrow.

On the other side of the spectrum is "The Self-Promoter" - the person who only leaves a comment so the site's author will visit their blog in return.
Love this! So cute! I have a blog too!  Here's a link to the sweater I knitted out of rubber bands, and here's a link to the diamond-encrusted pot-holders that I made my mother-in-law for Christmas last year. What do you think? Leave me a comment! Here's the link again, in case you missed it!

The lesser of these two evils is "The Skimmer" - the person who clearly didn't read a single word of the piece, but for whatever reason wants to pretend that they did by leaving a nonsequitor or one line declaration of approval.
Yum - definitely making this one! (In response to a post about a dish that the blogger admits was actually terrible.)

Finally, we arrive at my personal favorite - "Sally Substituter," found exclusively on recipe blogs where he or she will ask, in rapid succession, if they can completely change the recipe and still achieve the same outcome.

This looks great!  Question - can I substitute the sour cream for Greek yogurt? Gotta watch the waistline - have my high school reunion next month! Also, my astrology forecast told me that I should avoid gluten this month (hello, IBS!), so do you think I can use almond meal instead of flour?  Oh and I really don't like apples or walnuts, so I'm thinking of using mango and the leftover peanuts I have in the back of my fridge - will that work?  Do you know how long peanuts are good for?  Wondering now if maybe they've gone bad… let me know!  Can't wait to make this recipe!!

The different variations that people come up with never cease to amuse me - particularly when it reaches a point where the recipe turns into a completely different dish. A peanut shell of its former self.

While I laugh in the moment, chuckling at the absurdity of leaving the chocolate out of a chocolate cake, I'd be lying if I were to say that I'm not guilty of the same. Not begging permission to make a pizza without the crust, but making minor tweaks here and there when tackling a new recipe - adding quinoa, replacing one ingredient with another that I just happen to have idling in the pantry, altering the preparation as I deem appropriate, and then suddenly wondering whether I've reached the point where the original recipe ceases to exist.

Most recently, I found myself considering as much with this dish - a bean salad that originally came to me via the aforementioned Republic of Smitten Kitchen. Or, more accurately, her cookbook, the roadmap to that country of supreme deliciousness. What began as one thing, a fresh cranberry bean salad, simply adorned with celery, red onion, feta, walnuts, and a vinaigrette, ultimately became the inspiration for something entirely different. A white bean and quinoa salad, punctuated with radishes in addition to the celery and red onion, avocado in place of the feta, and a vinaigrette composed of walnut oil and sherry vinegar in lieu of Deb's perfectly wonderful-as-written red wine vinegar and olive oil dressing.

So, literally not the same thing at all.

But still the the best thing to happen EVER since glittery pens. Exclamation point. Exclamation point.

White Bean and Quinoa Salad

Inspired by the Cranberry Bean Salad in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Serve 3-4

1 1/2 cups cooked white beans (preferably prepared from scratch - it makes a difference, I pinky swear!)
3/4 cup quinoa
4-5 radishes, sliced into thin pieces, then chopped into little nubs
1 stalk celery, minced
1/4 red onion, minced
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon walnut oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Salt, pepper
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped and toasted
1/2 avocado, sliced and cut into small chunks

Thoroughly rinse the quinoa. Heat a large, nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the quinoa, and toast, shaking the pan frequently, until lightly brown, but not burned.

Bring just shy of 1 1/2 cups of salted water to boil in a medium-sized sauce pan. Add the toasted quinoa, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes, or until the water has been absorbed. Fluff quinoa with a fork and let cool to room temperature.

While quinoa is cooking, soak minced red onion in bowl of cool water for at least 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Whisk together the walnut oil and sherry vinegar.

In a large bowl, combine quinoa, white beans, radish, celery, parsley, salt and pepper. Toss with sherry-walnut vinaigrette.  Top with walnuts and avocado just before serving.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Essential Non-Essentials

I don't really have a point to this post today. Tonight. More just an impulse to write about something and nothing at all without a rhyme, reason or recipe to tie it all up neatly in a bow.

Have you ever noticed that everything always seems to run out at the same time?  Usually when it's one of those weeks, when you're pretending to be "on a budget," and then suddenly need to buy cinnamon and tissues and walnuts and red wine because life is so much better with walnuts and red wine.

And, well, tissues.

Usually I try to hold out till the weekend to purchase these essential non-essential life ingredients, but it was also one of those weeks where I thought I might die if I didn't have cinnamon for my oatmeal. And by "cinnamon," I, of course, mean "red wine."

For my mouth.

There was also coffee this week. Coffee whipped with full fat milk and capped off with a heart. Because coffee is so much better when made with heart.

Especially when accompanied by giant crackly-edged peanut butter cookies the size and girth of a small baby's head. As, opposed to, say, a large baby's head.

 Stumptown Coffee Latte + Farmshop Peanut Butter Cookie at Alfred Coffee & Kitchen

I feel like I may have learned something important in the midst of all the weirdness of these past five days, but I'm not entirely sure what that is as of this moment, sprawled out on my couch bearing thick socks and a seaweed mask, the physical manifestations of my Friday night lameness.

But I do know that I feel okay. With the lameness, with the knowledge that there's currently a belt in my purse because sometimes when you've eaten too many crackly-edged peanut butter cookies the size and girth of a small baby's head, you need to take off your belt during dinner, and with all the weirdness that will soon be forgotten. Or at the very least replaced by new weirdness.

Like taking off your belt in the middle of dinner so you can eat an extra slice of pizza.

This weekend will be good. I'm going fake hiking with two of my dearest friends, which means we're going to wear makeup and try not to break an actual sweat, and then replenish our depleted reserves with champagne. You know, essential non-essential life ingredients.

The cinnamon in oatmeal. The hearts on coffee. And that extra slice of pizza.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Zoe Nathan's Cornmeal Cake with Macerated Strawberries: Summer in October

I've been in a fog since I left New York. Partly because of the predictable post-vacation inertia, my body's obstinate desire to stay firmly at rest. Sleeping in, ignoring emails, eating doughnuts and cappuccinos for breakfast… and chocolate chip cookies for lunch.

But there's been something else, beyond my aching sweet tooth, that's been present too. Lurking at the back of my mind like the sinister burglars I always thought were hiding outside my bedroom window when I was growing up. To, you know, burglar me and my Barbie dolls. 

Once again, New York has cast its spell on me. Just like I knew it would when I purchased the plane ticket, my brain nearly exploding with giddiness because I was finally going back. And finally going somewhere other than my parents' house in the OC.

In the two weeks since I've returned, I've seen New York everywhere. Not because it's suddenly been more present and taunting in my world as part of some grander sign that I'm supposed to move there, but more because I've been looking for it. Lusting for it. Nearly choking myself on NYC guidebooks at Anthropologie, snorting along with Buzzfeed's 35 Things Most New Yorkers Do like I can totally relate (I can't relate), and drowning my earbuds with "Empire State of Mind" when it so happens to come on the radio.

In the interim, I've been desperately trying to fall back into the routine of my life here in LA, hammering the square peg back into the round hole with as much enthusiasm as a kid eating broccoli. Telling myself that New York isn't that great. That it would be different if I actually lived there. That I'd be poor and cold and living in Brooklyn with a roommate that smelled like curry and B.O.

And yet, somehow even that seems glorious and exotic just for the inherent differentness of it all. Aside from, well, the poor part. And the B.O.

So in the midst of the lust, the imaginings of starting over, of wiping the slate clean and scribbling over it with a new path toward perceived greatness (and a killer winter wardrobe), I've been searching for the reasons why I love LA.

My Melrose Place Farmers' Market that I walk to every Sunday morning for kale and farm fresh eggs with yolks as vibrant as sunflowers.

The proximity of my family and nieces who I can't corrupt from 3,000 miles away.

The friends who make me laugh and drink too much wine.

Running on the Santa Monica Bike Path.

The dining community that makes me feel more a part of something than I ever have in my entire life.

And the ability to make cornmeal cake with macerated strawberries in October.

It'll do for now. At least until big apples come into season.

Zoe Nathan's Cornmeal Cake with Macerated Strawberries
Adapted from Noelle Carter's Culinary S.O.S. in the LA Times, and KCRW's Good Food Blog
Serves at least 12, though likely more if you offer more restrained slices

Notes: My obsession with Zoe Nathan's pastries began with the salted caramel at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe, another reason that I love LA. While it's hard for me to stray beyond the illicitly buttery, salty square that beckons me whenever I'm in the near vicinity of the beloved Santa Monica brunch hub, whenever I do, my sweet tooth is more than rewarded -- with muffins so delicate they crumble at the mere hint of an ocean breeze, with mini chocolate cupcakes that eradicate the notion that chocolate cake could possible be dry, with bread pudding that could be the reason bread was even invented at all.

One of the desserts that Zoe has become most known for in the LA dining circuit is her cornmeal cake, sometimes served with sweet corn ice cream, sometimes hidden beneath an indecent smattering of macerated strawberries and a sloppy tuft of whipped cream, and always more delicious than something made with cornmeal has any right being. Most recently, I got a taste of it at LA Loves Alex's Lemonade, a charity event and food festival featuring bites from the brightest talent both in LA and the country, and I was once again reminded of why Zoe is one of our city's greatest culinary treasures.

With temperatures toeing their way into the 90's in Southern California this weekend, it seemed only proper to bid summer one final farewell with a take on her cake, cobbled together from an older recipe for a cranberry orange version of Zoe's cornmeal cake via the LA Times' Test Kitchen Director Noelle Carter (another culinary treasure!), and a recipe that was featured last year on KCRW's Good Food Blog. Needless to say, I omitted the cranberries and orange zest from the Times' version, trading in lemon zest which I thought might partner better with the macerated strawberry topping, and I also used plain yogurt in place of part of the ricotta as dictated by the KCRW version. The end result was exactly what I had hoped it would be - a final breath of summer in cake form that encompasses all that there is to love about LA and, well, life in general. Cake really does make everything seem brighter, don't you think?

One final note - while the cake is delightful as plotted out here, the caramelized sugar top giving way to an interior that straddles the space between cake and pudding, I think I might consider trying it in a tube pan the next time for more caramelized sugar surface area. If I do so, I'll be sure to return and indicate as much here. In the meantime, go forth - make cornmeal cake, and remember the reasons why your life is already wonderful, exactly as it is.


Cornmeal cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons salt (this isn't a typo - this cake can take it!)
Zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups sugar + 2 tablespoons for dusting
1 cup whole fat ricotta cheese
1 cup plain yogurt (whole preferred)

Macerated strawberries
1-lb strawberries, quartered or halved depending on size
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice (Meyer lemon juice is brilliant here if you can find 'em!)

Whipped cream
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan with parchment paper, then liberally grease the bottom and sides, all the way up to the top.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking soda, and baking powder with a wire whisk. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, vanilla, maple syrup, and vegetable oil, also using a wire whisk until well-incorporated (this recipe is not shy with using bowls).

Finally, in a whole other large bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer - preferable), use the paddle attachment on your mixer or an electric handheld mixer on medium-high speed, to cream the softened butter with the salt, lemon zest, and 1 1/2 cups of sugar. You'll want to mix it until everything comes together properly, but not so much that it's completely creamy as the phrasing "cream together" would suggest. With the mixer still running over low, gradually add in the egg-maple-oil-vanilla mixture until just integrated. Add half of the flour-cornmeal mix, give it a 5-10 second whir in the mixer, and then add the rest of the flour, along with the ricotta and plain yogurt till, again, just combined. (Overmixing is the death of all good things aka cake.)

Pour the thick, fluffy mass of batter into the pan, admiring your work as it goes, then fanatically smooth the top using a flat knife so it's level. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in an even layer over the top.

Bake for 55 minutes to 65 minutes, checking after 55 minutes by inserting a cake tester into the center of the cake, but also giving it a good glance over for other telltale signs of doneness - a golden top, edges that pull away from the tin every so slightly, some crackly edges around the corners. The tricky thing with this cake is that the tester may come out clean when it isn't actually there, so better to gauge by the visual clues. Once you are convinced that it is in fact done, cool on a wire rack.

For the macerated strawberries:
While the cake is baking, toss the strawberries with the sugar and lemon juice. Let sit in the refrigerate to "macerate" (the technical term for what happens when those strawberries start to break down and release their juices into a puddle of strawberry au jus) for at least two hours.

For the whipped cream:
Just before you are ready to serve, combine the cream, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl. Use an electric mixer (or whisk if you want to be all proper about it) and whip ingredients until medium, yet somewhat fluid, peaks form.

For serving:
Slice cake into pieces. Top each with a couple spoonfuls of macerated strawberries and a heady dollop of whipped cream.