Sunday, December 28, 2014

Curried Butternut Squash Soup: That'll do

It's amazing how quickly the switch flips. When I swatted the sleep out of my eyes on Friday morning, my head still hazy from perhaps one too many glasses of red wine the night prior, I couldn't even contemplate eating a radish.

It was a grand departure from the days proceeding it when I had feasted on Butterscotch Cashew Bars and Christmas Cocoa Cookies and Walnut Sea Salt Caramels as though they were the building blocks of a healthy, balanced diet. My five-a-days, if you will. (I most certainly did will.)

In the moment it seemed impossible to stop this no-holds-barred style of eating and drinking for the monotony of regular food that doesn't come dusted with powdered sugar or dipped in chocolate. Yet, as soon as December 25th gave way to December 26th, my desire for sugar-driven sustenance gave with it, as though my body was finally putting up a Babe-esque protest.

"That'll do, Pig. That'll do."

As I slugged out of bed, I wanted nothing to do with the batches of cookies that still lingered, uneaten, on the kitchen countertops nor my favorite dark chocolate turtles, a gift from my dad. The hours that followed seemed marked by a resistance to anything edible. A half-hearted bowl of Greek yogurt with banana, raspberries, and a scant amount of almonds after a long, purging run by the beach, then nothing until nearly 3 pm when my mom and I decided, reluctantly, that food was probably a necessary order of business.

And so there was soup.

A cinnamon and cumin-scented butternut squash puree from our favorite local haunt, Zinc Cafe, that was everything we wanted in that precise moment. Soothing, delicately-spiced without edging into the territory of over-eventful, and satisfying enough that hunger wouldn't nag our consciousness again until dinner.

A re-creation at home was an inevitability.

The soup you'll find here is far from a consolation prize during a period that, for many, becomes an exercise in self-flagellation. Instead, it feels like an appropriate and welcome interlude to transition from a place of gluttony to one of, well, less gluttony. The curry-flavored butternut squash puree gets further heft from the addition of blended chickpeas, and a silkening ribbon of light coconut milk melds everything together just as the soup is about to be doled out into bowls.

With two sturdy slices of Clark Street Bread's Danish Rye (startling even in its unfettered, unbuttered state), this is holiday rehab at its finest. It'll do. It'll do perfectly fine.

Curried Butternut Squash Soup
Serves 4-6

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium white or brown onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon tumeric
6 cups cubed butternut squash
1 16-ounce can chickpeas, drained
5 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup - 3/4 cup light coconut milk

Heat olive oil in the base of large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the onion and sauté over medium heat for 7-10 minutes while breaking down your squash. Stir from time to time to ensure the onions don't burn, turning down the heat, as needed.

Reduce heat to low, stir in the spices, and cook for 1 minute.

Add the squash, chickpeas and chicken broth, and bring to a low boil. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, or until squash is completely tender. Remove from the stove.

Using either a blender, or immersion blender (which will make this task far easier), blend the squash, chickpeas and broth together until smooth. If using an immersion blender, you can do this right in the pot you cooked the soup in, but if using a blender, you'll need to work in batches.

Once completely smooth, transfer the soup back to the stove to re-warm. Stir in the coconut milk, starting with half a cup, and adding more if you prefer a thinner soup. (Note: The soup will get thicker as it sits, so hold on to that extra coconut milk to thin out the leftovers.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Dirt Behind My Worst Instagram Moments of the Year

There's a fairly good reason why platforms like Iconosquare don't offer to curate a video montage of one's worst Instagram moments of the year. Most people don't like to advertise their failures, particularly in a space that's supposed to only show the sanitized, shiny version of real life.

I mean how else are we supposed to shame our former high school frenemies who are eating ugly dinners while we eat caviar, and are fighting the crowds at Walmart while we're by the pool in Palm Springs, if not through social media?

Obviously, I'm not very good at this game because I have no qualms about telling people when I've just spilled wine all over my dress, burned my kitchen floor with a hot pan, or tripped over the sidewalk and fractured my finger. In many ways, I feel more comfortable airing details about my screw-ups than I do about my supposed successes.

So, of course, it would follow that the second I finished my "Best Moments of Instagram" post yesterday, I immediately regretted that I hadn't shared my "Worst Moments" instead. Clearly, this situation needed to be rectified with a counter post today.

Whether because of their content, photo quality, or my overexposed and chipped fingernails, these photos were the least liked of my year.  Which kind of makes me like them even more. #sorrynotsorrry #noreallynotsorry #seriouslynotsorry

#5 - Close-up of Green Juice from Whole Foods. (14 likes)
Caption: "Diana is feeling…"
I thought I was super clever with this one. It was New Year's Day, and I was, as my caption would suggest, feeling green after indulging in more Champagne than was necessary the night before. Maybe no one was paying attention to Instagram because they were also feeling, well, green, or maybe everyone was just appalled that I would dare post a picture of my unkempt fingernail still sporting the residual sparkly nail polish from a two-week-old manicure. Maybe let's go with the former?

#5 - Two Striped Black & White Dresses Hanging in a Nordstrom's Dressing Room. (14 likes)
Caption: Fetish
2014 was the year of the horizontal striped dress for me. I bought no fewer than seven, including both of these black & white numbers in an exercise of complete redundancy. Juxtaposed against the textured white and black wall of a Nordstrom dressing room, I thought I had a really compelling scene going on here. I mean, I didn't even need the Inkwell filter, guys! Or perhaps that's where I went wrong?

#4 - Windmills in the Distance Near Palm Springs. (13 likes)
Caption: Where am I, LA?
I snapped this shot during the home stretch of a six-hour car ride back from Phoenix with my parents over Thanksgiving weekend. At this juncture in the trip, I'd already read all four of my magazines, nearly expired the battery on my iPod shuffle, and was reaching the point of AREWETHEREYET WHYARENTWETHEREYET, SERIOUSLYWEARENTHEREYET?! I should have just posted another shot like….


#3 - Iced Tea from Seventh Tea Bar at the OC Mix. (11 likes)
Caption: Matches to a…tea.
Again, I thought I was supes clever with the caption here. I mean c'mon people, "Matches to a… tea"?! Clearly, I totally underestimated the interest level in cups of things that are not alcohol (yet again). Does it make it more interesting if I tell you I drank this after getting my taxes done? No?

#2 - Manhattan Cocktail and Glass of Champagne at Acabar. (11 likes)
Caption: Raising two glasses for this occasion… Happy Birthday, @kristasimmons!!!!
So, my whole logic that people like pictures of alcohol better than not alcohol goes completely out the window here, because… TIE GAME. I thought this shot was super artistic at the time with the candlelight shining through my cocktail glass, but I was also three deep by this juncture in the evening, so it's possible my judgement was... um... altered? Regardless, no regrets, people. None at all. And I still wish Krista Simmons a "Happy Birthday." 

#1 - Northwestern (NU) Reunion in San Diego Commemorated with Picture of our Feet in the Sand. (10 likes)
Caption: I (purple heart emoji) my college friends.
Solid proof that nobody cares where you went to school after you graduate. Also, feet are really really ugly, and no one should "heart" anything past the age of 12. (Unless, of course, you are double-tapping an Instagram photo. Like, um, this one. Cough. Cough. Help a girl out?)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Story Behind the Food Porn

To judge by the current content on every news outlet, blog and social media platform, it's not possible to move forward into 2015 without first recapping 2014 through lists and more lists. Best songs ("Shake it Off?"), best movies, best new restaurants, best bites, best recipes made to solicit pins and repins on Pinterest, and, naturally, one's best moments on Instagram according to the number of likes received.

Iconosquare, a platform that analyzes Instagram account activity, conveniently packages these "moments" together in a short little video that users can then post and share to feel very special about all the accolades they received on the shot of their pedicured toes in the foreground of a beach setting, their avocado toast on an Anthropologie plate, and another shot of their toes with a different pedicure in a different beach setting.

Toes and toast are like so hot right now.

A product of my generation, I am, admittedly, equally narcissistic and obsessive about how many people like the image of my bowl of chia pudding. (#health #superfoods #mydayinla) I've even been late to work on more than one occasion this year because I had to "style" my breakfast for optimal Instagram engagement. You know, with a mismatched bowl and plate and one of those little tea towels "casually'' thrown to the side as though an afterthought. (It's never an afterthought.)

So, obviously I love all this Iconosquare analytical business and was quick to jump on the train to make my best Instagram moments of 2014 video. Yet, as I sat there all Gen Y-like watching my five "best" images fly by on the screen of my iPhone 6, it felt slightly depressing that my entire year was condensed into a 20-second video montage. While the cliche dictates that a picture tells 1,000 words, the inherent model of Instagram only shares a very small piece of the story behind each image.

While it's probably, again, narcissistic of me to assume that anyone would want to know the story behind a handful of food photos that supposedly were my "best moments" of the year, I feel inclined to say a bit more about each picture for my personal gratification. Not because I expect people to care, but because it's the holidays, and I'm feeling nostalgic about another year gone by… in an instant.

#5 - Heirloom tomato salad. (102 likes)  
As soon as summer hits LA, everyone starts going insane for heirloom tomatoes, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't similarly smitten. My ritualistic Sunday morning visits to the Melrose Place Farmers Market were always punctuated with a stop at the heirloom tomato vendor, a trip that was subsequently followed by the production of some form of salad that was basically an excuse for me to eat an entire gargantuan tomato in a single sitting.  This excuse, scattered with fresh shucked corn, slices of avocado, and copious amounts of basil and mint, was perhaps my favorite of the bunch. If summer could be summed up in a single dish, this would be that summation.

 #4 - Homemade English muffins with housemade cultured butter, sea salt, and rosemary. (103 likes)
Since I started working in restaurant public relations 3 1/2 years ago, I've maintained a strict no-fly-zone policy when it comes to mentioning clients in this space. Beyond the obvious (that whole conflict of interest thing), I've wanted to keep my identity as a publicist separate and distinct from my identity as a writer. It's often frustrating to keep that part of my life so carefully concealed, particularly as it occupies so much of my time, heart and headspace. The restaurants I'm privileged to work with come to feel like my children, and I get excited when they do great things and receive praise, and it all makes me want to go do weird things like brag about them on Facebook and affix their accolades to the bumper of my car. Instead, I just post pictures of their food to Instagram with lots of annoying hashtags. (#sorrynotsorry) These particular English muffins came from this incredibly talented chef at this new Manhattan Beach restaurant that opened this past November. And, yes, they are as good as they look.

#3 - Ricky's Fish Tacos. (109 likes)
My friend Sam Kim was one of the first people to respond to my often asinine tweets when I joined Twitter in 2009. I remember thinking, "Who is this @samkimsamkim person who keeps giving me advice on where to eat?" While not affiliated with the food industry in a professional capacity, Sam Kim (we always refer to him by his full name), has an incredible ability to bring like-minded people within the dining community around a table to enjoy a great meal. Likely, immediately followed by another great meal (and trip to the bakery around the corner to get cookies for later). He lives in New York City now, but whenever he's back in LA, he brings a laundry list of things/places he wants to eat while he's in town. Sarah and I were more than happy to help him check Ricky's Fish Tacos off the list during his most recent visit this fall. And because we were with Sam Kim, we went to Go Get 'em Tiger for coffee/tea after, where we snacked on the chocolate chip cookies he'd picked up at Gjusta earlier that day for later

#2 - Christmas Cocoa Cookies. (111 likes)
I wasn't sure I loved, let alone even liked, these cookies when I first tasted them this past Sunday after nearly three hours of mixing, rolling, baking, and glazing. I had bookmarked the recipe in Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook years ago because they sounded like trail mix in chocolate cookie form, which is basically everything I love in the universe in one convenient Christmas… package. Naturally, I was a little confused when I took a bite (see: Diana Takes a Bite) and didn't immediately want to shove all 44 in the batch in my mouth. In spite of this initial hesitation, I've found myself continuing to sneak a cookie here and there over the past few days, each time liking the contrast of the tart lemon glaze against the spiced chocolate more and more. I'll save the rest of my words on the matter for when I actually share the recipe with you, but for now, know that these cookies are very much worthy of their #2 ranking on this list. 

A booze-fueled brunch with your two closest friends in LA is the best excuse to spontaneously cancel an appointment to get your car serviced. Who needs to get their tires rotated when there's smoked trout and avocado toast, French fries, vegetable and white bean soup, Moroccan eggs, and lots and lots of sparkling Rosé to be had? Of course, you can see all that from the photo above. Not pictured? How hard we laughed at everything and nothing at all for four hours.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Isn't it Romesco?

I'm trying to think back to whether there was specific instance that I can pinpoint as the start of it all. I'm sure it stemmed from some seminal restaurant experience, a sensory a-ha moment reserved for those of the food-oriented persuasion. There was likely a closed eye moment of revelation, followed by a cessation of vocal ability, and then, upon its return, audible groans of approval and something along the lines of….

"OMGsogood! Whysogood? O.M.G. sooooo gooood!" 

Judging by the trajectory of the past few years, the specific a-ha moment likely occurred somewhere circa 2009 when suddenly everyone realized that vegetables are demonstrably better when tossed in olive oil and roasted at a high temperature until they caramelize and become more like candy then, well, vegetables.

As someone who grew up on steamed broccoli and green beans, my mind was completely blown by this seemingly progressive preparation. Think lightening bolts firing off all over the sky above my head as if I were starring in my own food-centric cartoon (named "Diana Takes a Bite," obviously). Cue the subsequent demise of my beloved Crate & Barrel steamer (unnamed), and dramatic incline of my gas bills to cover what would soon become near nightly oven escapades with every vegetable suitable for a roasting pan.

One would think that this fetish would have waned some in the years that have followed, particularly given the prominence of these same dishes on every restaurant menu everywhere, regardless of the style and type of cuisine. Italian concept? Roasted cauliflower with capers. Mexican cantina? Roasted cauliflower with salsa verde. New French bistro? Roasted cauliflower and… butter.

Shockingly, this constant exposure did nothing to desensitize my palate to their allure. My default answer when it comes to all matters of vegetable things is still to torch them under the aggressive heat of a 400 degree oven - something that has been very frequently catalogued here.

It shouldn't be surprising then that over the course of my brother and sister-in-law's wedding of the century in Santa Ynez, a wedding weekend where we feasted on Los Alamos' iconic Full of Life Flatbread; sipped on craft cocktails curated by Red Clay and LA master bartender Michael Nemcik; and gorged on crispy pork belly skewers and a multi-coursed dinner from the epicurean geniuses behind Whoa Nelly Catering; I must regretfully admit that the thing that stands out the most in my mind was a platter of roasted vegetables. 

The platter in question was presented mid-way through the Full of Life-catered rehearsal dinner in the wine cave at Sunstone Winery, where this be-all, end-all wedding would take place the following afternoon. My heart nearly seized and collapsed with joy (joy!) when the servers paraded it down the linear space and deposited it directly in front of my place at the table. Heaped with cauliflower, sweet delicata squash, gooey strands of onions, still-in-season summer squash, and draped with a romesco sauce and a chiffonade of basil, it was a presentation that clearly indicated its purpose: This was a plate meant to be shared family-style. Perhaps even passed and moved up and down the table to the guests to my right and left.

Instead, it remained firmly planted in front of me for the duration of the evening. Spoonfuls were deposited on empty plates upon request, but by the end of the night, I'm confident that I consumed nearly a third of the beastly portion myself. 

Naturally, a recreation was inevitable upon my return home. Which brings me to tonight, and brings us to the sauce that sealed the deal on this particular iteration of roasted vegetables that caused a closed eye moment of revelation, temporary cessation of vocal ability, and audible groans of approval.


Isn't it romantic?

Romesco Sauce
Adapted from the NY Times
Yield: Approximately 1 cup

Notes: I'm tired now, so just know that I made a lot of changes, as per usual. The takeaway? If you want to see the original that doesn't have wheat germ, calls for more olive oil, features different proportions of ingredients, and has a completely alternative procedure of instructions, click the link up above. Gracias. 

1 red bell pepper, cored, de-seeded and sliced into chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 plum tomato
3 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts, skins removed (see a handy method for that here)
2 tablespoons wheat germ (I'm weird sometimes)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1/2 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
3/4 teaspoon hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss red bell pepper pieces with one tablespoon olive oil and place in an oven-safe baking dish.  Roast for 30 minutes or until tender. Simultaneously roast tomato in a separate baking dish, while also roasting the garlic on a sheet of aluminum foil. Basically, you are going to do a lot of roasting until everything is tender and squishy enough to puree. So have fun with that.

Once red pepper, tomato, and garlic are all ready for action, remove the skin from the tomato and peel the garlic cloves.

In a food processor or blender (or using an immersion blender if that's your jam like it is mine), pulse skinless, toasted hazelnuts until finely ground (though not pureed to a paste). Add the tomato, red pepper chunks (some people might feel inclined to remove the skin - I did not), garlic, wheat germ, vinegar, pomegranate molasses, paprika, and salt. Puree until smooth.

Store in an airtight container in the fridge until ready for use, or apply immediately to a pile of roasted vegetables. And then eat too many of them. Because OMGsoooogoood.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Brown Sugar Rosemary Shortbread: Team Christmas

In case it hasn't been mentioned before, I am a big sucker for the Christmas.

Even amidst my loud protestations that it was absolutely, completely unacceptable that 103.5 KOST FM started playing holiday music before Thanksgiving this year, I would be lying if I said I wasn't the slightest bit excited to hear Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" while it was still 80 degrees in Los Angeles. Nor was I all that appalled when my local CVS started peddling red & green M&Ms on November 1st. (They really are the best kind.)

This, the false protestations and lack of appallation*, may or may not have something to do with my not-so-secret desire to fast-forward through the whole Thanksgiving business that's clearly just a dress rehearsal for the main event. Cookies and peppermint hot chocolate and more cookies > brown-colored foods and dry birds and pie that is made from something that came in a can.

And that's before we even bring "Love Actually" and dead trees and glitter into consideration.

Not that I am one to complain about anything that necessitates a four-day weekend nor a reason to spend time with my family and a case of wine. It's just that deep down, underneath the two helpings of pumpkin bread pudding I consumed in far too rapid succession on Thanksgiving, I am team Christmas and everything it represents and inspires.

The true meaning, that is.

And all the jazz that comes along with it.

You will not be surprised to learn that as I'm typing this, perhaps a glass (or two) into a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc that has been hibernating in my fridge for the better part of three months, I have a batch of cookies in the oven and the Michael Bublé Christmas CD playing on my Spotify.

I will probably eat them before they've even cooled and maybe burn my mouth a little and not even care because… Christmas.

The best excuse to love each other a little bit more than usual, and to eat far more cookies than are acceptable any other time of year… starting with these buttery brown sugar rosemary shortbread wedges.

*A new word according to me. 

Brown Sugar Rosemary Shortbread

Adapted from Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cook Book
Makes 8 wedges

Notes: This recipe, courtesy of the Alice Waters, originally ran in the NY Times in 1986, which horrified me until I realized I was born in 1983 and obviously this recipe is still a spring chicken. I made a few adaptations - cutting the recipe in half to fit my single person needs, doubling the salt, adding in fresh rosemary for kicks, and finishing the whole thing off with turbinado sugar prior to popping in the oven. I also opted to bake this in a pie tin as opposed to free-flowing on a baking sheet, so do with that what you will. Perhaps take it as an analogy that this shortbread is easy as pie to make on a Wednesday night when you have nothing better to do but bake and listen to Michael Bublé's "White Christmas" on repeat.

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 packed light brown sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup toasted, unblanched almonds, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
Turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter a 9-inch pie dish.

Using an electric hand mixer (my method this evening) or a stand mixer outfitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the brown sugar until light and fluffy. (Approximately 4 minutes or so.) 

In a separate bowl, combine the flour and salt and whisk together with a fork to "lighten" the texture. Gingerly stir into the butter/brown sugar mixture with a spoon rather than electric means. Once incorporated, knead in the almonds and rosemary, and form into a flat, round disk (complementary with the shape of the pie dish). Let chill out in the fridge for a bit if it feels a bit sticky. Think 15-30 minutes - nothing like an hour or so, unless you are feeling really patient.

Gently press the shortbread dough into the 8'' round pie tin. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Using a knife or a pizza cutter like me, deeply score the disk into 8 wedges.

Bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned and cooked through. Remove from oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.

Or not. You might be inclined to eat it straight from the pan.