Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Lentil Case

I'm almost embarrassed to be sharing this with you. There are a number of far more interesting recipes from my cooking exploits the past few months that I'm sure you'd find exceedingly more appealing.

I should be telling you about the carrot cake scones with cream cheese icing and toasted pecans I made for Easter brunch this spring, or about Joy the Baker's creamy pumpkin pie bars that were as creamy as advertised, or even the maple pecan shortbread that provided steep competition for the family favorite cashew butterscotch bars this Christmas.

Even another quinoa salad would be a welcome alternative to a dish prepared with the most rudimentary of ingredients. An ingredient that is most often associated with the word "humble" or the visual of a hippy, granola nut who can do all those weird yoga headstand poses and never uses any plastic bags ever. Just places the organic kale and unwaxed apples and gnarly beets straight into their grocery tote that was woven together with recycled barley husks and hemp fibers.

I'm under no such illusion that there is anything remotely exciting about lentils -- nor lentil soup for that matter. If there was a Tinder application dedicated to food it would certainly be the dish that was most often swiped to the left while everyone fawned over sexier dishes like runny fried eggs and salted caramel sticky buns and avocado toast.

This is absolutely the part where I should abort mission completely, shout "Just kidding!" and start in on a diatribe about some saucy bucatini number instead. And yet in this particular moment, lentil soup feels… right.

Its simplicity is fitting with the post-Christmas, pre-New Year's doldrums, a period when the excitement from the holiday season has started to ebb, and the blank slate of a fresh year is still simmering on the horizon. It's a time when slowing down feels like the only option, and, for once, an option that no one is inclined to question because they too are slowing down -- catching a breath before barreling forward into 2016.

This lentil soup requires minimal effort, and a scant number of ingredients -- most of which are negotiable aside from the actual lentils. There should be some form of onion sautéed with garlic, a grain of sorts, a few handfuls of something green and leafy to add textural interest, and a vegetable broth that may or may not be flavored with tomatoes, but it's all really just a template.

The whole thing comes together in less than an hour -- barely enough time to watch an episode of "Jessica Jones" on Netflix, and it will still somehow be perfect in spite of (or because of) the lack of effort that went into it. The ease of its preparation is perhaps as alluring as the soulfulness of its flavor during a time when we could all use a bit more soul. A time when we all need a break from the standard performance of everyday life in a social media-driven world. And a time when it's okay to be unapologetically enough -- without the pressure to be anything more.

Simple Lentil Soup
Serves 4 or so (depending on whether this is the main affair or a side)

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion (or shallots - which I used in the pictured soup)
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 cups vegetable broth or stock (I use Better Than Bouillon base mixed with water)
2 chopped tomatoes, half a can of chopped tomatoes with their liquid, or a tablespoon or so of good quality tomato paste like Amore or San Marzano mixed with 1/2 cup or so of water
A few sprigs of fresh thyme (dried thyme is also fine)
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup green lentils, rinsed well and picked over
1/2 cup quinoa or a quick-cooking brown rice or grain medley (basically look for something with a cooking time that is more or less equal to that of the lentils)
4 cups of chopped kale, chard or spinach (Note: If using kale or chard, don't toss the stems - chop them up and sauté them with the onion.)

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes or so. Reduce heat, add the garlic, and sauté for another 1-2 minutes. Add the vegetable broth, tomatoes or tomato paste mixture, thyme, and season with freshly ground pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then add the lentils and grains.  Bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly and simmer, uncovered until the lentils and grains are just tender -- approximately 30 minutes. You want the lentils to be done, but still have some heft to them. Add the greens and simmer a minute or two more until the leaves are just wilted.

Serve immediately -- perhaps with some toasted bread, or perhaps with nothing but a spoon. It's enough just as it is.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

20 Things to Do During 48 Hours in San Francisco

1. Now that BART has a connector transport to the Coliseum station (think "Penn Station" for getting anywhere in the city or East Bay), fly into Oakland Airport and feel really good about your decision to do so. Think, "This is so easy!" as you follow the 10+ signs directing you from Baggage Claim to the BART, feeling a little bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz without the obnoxious Rudolph shoes.

2. Feel less like Dorothy and more like the brainless Scarecrow when you actually get on BART and realize you can't understand any of the stop announcements. "Did he say 'Embarrassment'? Or Embarcadero?"

3. After transferring to MUNI, finally arrive at your destination stop (Castro, which should NOT be confused with Castro Valley). Praise God that you had the foresight to bring a rolling suitcase, because apparently your friend's residence is located at the top of a massive hill that's basically a mountain, and can we just pause and sit down on the sidewalk for a second to discuss who in their right mind would decide to build a city on top of all (gasp) these (gasp) mountains (gasp)?

4. Once inside the house (that obviously required you to climb up two narrow flights of stairs to access), replenish all the fluids you sweat out with local Sonoma-procured wine enjoyed on your friend's rooftop deck. Okay, fine, now you get the whole city built on a mountain range thing. 

5. Call a Lyft to transport you to dinner at Huxley in Tenderloin District which automatically makes you think of pork. Feel immediately charmed by the 25-seat restaurant whose spatial limitations feel far more intentional than the standard hole-in-the-wall. This is a spot for the gastronomically unintimidated -- particularly with the reservation policy that requires a credit card be placed on file to secure. Order the avocado toast with uni on local Jane bread, the charred squid with chickpeas and fermented cabbage, and wild mushrooms with polenta that is reminiscent of a cream of mushroom soup casserole. Finish with a scoop of the malted milk ice cream with medjool dates and hazelnuts that is reminiscent of… butter.

6. Call another Lyft (because when in Rome) to transport you to the Mission District for post-dinner libations that start at Elixir and end at ABV where the menu presentation demands you start by picking your spirit poison. It's a red pill, blue pill moment, but it's 12 a.m. and your final answer is… whiskey.

7. The following morning, take the bus to The Mill in Alamo Square because hills are not an option when you've had that much…poison. Express confusion as to why neither your BART or MUNI cards work, but pay your $2.25 fare without further complaint because #needcoffee. Snack on a loaf of the country bread while waiting for your almond butter-enhanced, cinnamon sugar toast and almond milk cappuccino that will taste suspiciously like it's made with real milk because so good. Even though you are about to eat more bread for your breakfast, continue to tear off massive hunks of the warm, WARM, loaf because… so good.

8. Discover that an outpost of Bi-Rite Creamery is conveniently located two blocks away from The Mill and, when in Rome... salted caramel ice cream for a second breakfast?


9. Walk to see the houses featured in the opening credits of "Full House," which your savvy San Francisco friend informs you are actually called the "Painted Ladies." Whatever, at least you didn't get photo bombed by John Stamos, okay? 

10. Since you're not nearly caffeinated enough for all this dang walking, stop at Samovar Tea for a masala chai or Hong Kong latte made with almond milk that will also taste suspiciously like it's made with real milk. Buy some rooibos tea to take home with you even after you've been informed it's possible to order the tea online. 

11. Continue your urban hike through the Mission District to visit a bunch of boutiques that all carry quirky cards and jewelry and over-priced accessory things that seem instantly more desirable because they are sold in San Francisco rather than LA. Fall in love with at least three dresses at Mira Mira, but only buy one when you remember you have to lug your suitcase down all those damn narrow stairs when you leave tomorrow.

12. Pause at the entrance to Clarion Alley and engage in the following exchange with your SF host. Her: "This is one of the really famous SF street art spaces." You: "Oh." Her: "Do you want to go look or… you good?" You (after a five-second once-over): "Yeaaaah, think I'm good."

13. Now that you've gotten your fill of culture for the day, get your fill of more carbs at Arizmendi, a worker-owned cooperative that offers one and only one type of (vegetarian) pizza a day. Order a slice of the daily special, along with a seeded cheddar jalepeno breadstick that's longer than your forearm. Feel momentarily special because they gave you an extra sliver of pizza with your slice, only to realize they give everyone an extra sliver, and you are not special at all.

14. On your walk back to Castro, spontaneously stop into an Open House that is amazingly happening on a Saturday (!!!) which is apparently a very big deal in San Francisco, and you've basically just seen a unicorn. Try not to be too horrified when you see the size of the supposed $1 million dollar "steal." THIS CITY IS BUILT ON MOUNTAINS, PEOPLE!

15. After resting your weary limbs back at home, fire up your Lyft app again to get back to the Mission District so you can stand in the line of people waiting for Flour + Water to open at 5:30 pm. Put your name in for a seat at the bar, and then attempt to go to Trick Dog for drinks while you wait. Discover that everyone who put in their name before you had the same brilliant beyond brilliant plan, and take a spontaneous detour to The Homestead for Palomas instead.

16. Once seated at Flour + Water (two hours after putting your name in), decide you've had too much gluten that day and order stone fruit with ricotta... to start. Follow it with any combination of the seasonally-inspired housemade pastas and pizzas; perhaps a pappardelle with corn ribboned underneath coy shavings of summer truffles, or a summer squash-topped pie that you decide definitely qualifies as your sole vegetable serving of the day. When your server asks if you want dessert, say, "The chocolate budino with sea salt." Chocolate + Sea Salt = Good.

17. Adjourn to Dalva for further refreshment, proceeding directly to the back bar, Hideout which, despite the name, doesn't seem all that well-hidden. Still feel pretty dang cool about it because, guess what guys, you're not from around here, and you're like soooo in the know about the bar behind the bar. Order the Hideout Whiskey Cocktail and hang out in the upstairs loft area until it gets too hot/you realize you can drink your fancy cocktail in the vastly more temperate Dalva lounge and still be in the know. You know?

18. On Sunday morning, procure some local kombucha on tap at Atlas Cafe and take an East Bay road trip with a group of friends to feast on Thai food at the Thai Temple in Berkeley. While you wait in one of two lines (vegetarian or meat), play a little game of divide-and-conquer, sending one person to get tokens to "pay" for your food, one to secure papaya salad and mango sticky rice, another to tackle the line for cinnamon kanom krok (fried coconut pancakes), and yet another to find seating on the adjacent communal picnic tables. When you are all in possession of food and begin, well, possessing it, start speaking in hyperbole, declaring the pad thai the best you've ever had. Ignore anyone who thinks you are lame for liking pad thai because you know deep down they red heart emoji it too.

19. With a few hours to spare before your flight home (and no additional space in your stomach for another meal), go hiking in the hills above the Berkeley campus. Think, "Gee, I wonder if all these pretty plants we are walking by are poison oak?" just as your helpful friend announces, "Watch out for the poison oak!" Spend the rest of the hike afraid to touch anything, even the pine needles. Cross-contamination, people. CROSS-CONTAMINATION.

20. In dire need of fresh produce before you hit the airport, make a pit stop at Berkeley Bowl, most accurately described as a farmers' market inside a grocery store. Buy more plums and peaches than you can conceivably eat prior to your flight, and then stand in the parking lot attempting to conceivably eat them all. Vow to get more the next time you're in the San Francisco area because you can already tell you're about to leave a piece of your red heart emoji there.

Until next time, SF.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Balancing Act

Before I go any further, I should probably acknowledge the jurassic-sized elephant in the room: The four-and-a-half months that have transpired since my last post. It's the longest I've gone without writing since I naively started this silly little pink blog in April 2008, not realizing that it would lead me to where I am today -- in a job that I love so much it consumes me to the point where I have little energy left for anything outside of it. The ultimate blessing and curse that often leaves me wondering if I'm living the dream or abiding in a nightmare.

I've missed this space.
I've missed being able to Pollack my thoughts into the universe without thinking about who was reading (or, more accurately, who wasn't reading) because the foremost point was unfiltered self-expression. But most of all, I've missed my identity as a writer and the balance it brings to my life.

I feel grief over it. Sadness that so many of the stories I want to tell are told by others because of the profession I actively pursued and, ultimately, chose four years ago when I ceremoniously retired certain aspects of this site in favor of a career as a restaurant publicist.

I don't regret my decision and would choose the same path again without hesitation, but I do regret that I've let this side of myself shirk to the background while "PR Diana" commands the room. Sometimes I get a panicked feeling that all anyone sees anymore is that girl. I worry that perhaps they (you?) miss who I was before when my hand wasn't constantly clutching my phone, when I remembered to send birthday cards on time, and when I would unearth unedited and uninhibited daily compositions on chocolate bars and quinoa salads as though that was what mattered the most in the world.

It's easy to be nostalgic for those days, to see them through 20/20 vision and block out the paralyzing anxiety I felt over "my purpose" during that period of time. That particular memory box is filled with tear-soaked phone calls to my mom, toxic self-doubt, and a pulsating fear that I was never going to be anything more than an assistant who made someone else's travel arrangements. I still get a bit giddy when I present someone with my business card that's emblazoned with a legitimate title. I mean that's really the whole point of having them, isn't it? So there's some form of official documentation that one has achieved an approximation of adulthood? However meaningless it all is.

Naturally, the "achievement of adulthood" comes with a new set of struggles that feel, in many ways, equally paralyzing as the ones that preceded it in my former life. How do I reconcile the "new" me with the "old" me? How do I stop myself from letting a career, cultivated from a passion that first found its voice on this blog, bleed into every aspect of my existence?

How do I find balance?

I've been thinking a lot about that word lately. Last month I joined a group of "career-focused women" at my church that could easily come with the tagline, "The Pursuit of Balance: Learning How to Not Do it All." The subject keeps coming up over and over again in such an avert way that I feel as though I'm in the midst of a giant "wake-up call." I'm starting to realize how much I stand to lose if I don't find some semblance of balance in the months to come: Pre-existing relationships, the potential for future relationships and, perhaps most importantly, a relationship with my true self.

This weekend I went to the Friday night wine tasting at Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood, an iconically LA summertime tradition that required me to actually take advantage of our office's "Summer Friday" policy to make it across town in time. I treated myself to a solo lunch of fish tacos (one of my favorite things to eat in the universe) at a restaurant that is not a client, and treated myself to a not-solo dinner with a good friend at the new hotspot in Santa Monica that is also not a client. I spent way too much on another iconically LA tradition, a facial, and I caught up with a friend I haven't seen in nearly six months over too many glasses of wine at Bar Covell.

Most significantly, after four-and-a-half months of deafening silence, I wrote this post… entirely unfiltered, and entirely for myself.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Forbidden Fruit

You were wearing a black Journey t-shirt; and I was in a striped navy, grey and pink dress with pointy flats purposefully chosen to coordinate with my Hobo clutch.

You probably don't remember that part, though; just like you probably don't remember my name (Diana), or that I live in West Hollywood and don't usually get over to the Westside, let alone all the way to Venice, on a Friday night.

Unless, of course, I'm provoked.

Or a friend sends an Uber with the directive, "Be ready in 10 minutes."

What you likely remember is that we sang a duet of "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid before we'd even formally introduced ourselves, or perhaps considered whether it would be appropriate to sing Disney in a restaurant bar not outfitted for karaoke.

You probably remember that we inappropriately giggled like 12-year-olds over the size of a poor, unsuspecting bar goer's Adam's Apple.

And you might remember that after we chortled through the lyrics to "Les Poissons," I started to refer to you as Mufasa. (Because Prince Eric, or your real name, Clark, would have been too obvious.)

The whole interaction was easy and relaxed and fun and everything that IT should be.

You know, that connection/chemistry/attraction thing that we are all trying so hard to find on OkCupid/Tinder/Coffee Meets Bagel through gritted teeth, forced conversations and far too much alcohol.

Which is why it was so startling to find IT there, in the middle of the bar at Scopa Italian Roots, while others around us were fumbling through opening lines and throwing back Bullocks-Wilshire cocktails. They, those fumblers, had nothing on us. Mufasa and Sebastian (Ariel or Diana would have been too obvious).

It was irritatingly cute and perfect... except for the minor insignificant detail that you were on a first date with someone else.

And of course she had to be all sweet with her J. Crew necklace and black date night dress, as she insisted that my friend and I stay, talk and keep intruding on your conversation like it wasn't the most annoying thing in the world. And you were chivalrous and found her a bar stool to sit on because her feet hurt, and when it got late, and we ran out of Disney songs to sing, you said you had to get her home without a hint of an ulterior motive polluting your voice. 

And just like that my heart broke into a million pieces for what might have been if you weren't a good guy, and I weren't... me

So, you walked away, and I stayed. And we missed our chance.

* * *

It's probably too late to be sharing these two recipes that call for pomegranate seeds in the precise moment that the season is coming to a conclusive end. In fact it's rather cruel of me to be mentioning them to you at all - parading them before you with the unspoken taunt, "You can look, but you can't touch." 

I fully realize it should be all things blood oranges and tangerines and pomelos at this juncture of winter, but if you can still find a vibrant red pomegranate at your farmers' market, I command you to make both of these dishes immediately.

Before you, you know, miss your chance.

Avocado Toast with Pomegranate, Lime, Feta, and Cilantro

1 piece of thickly sliced bread
1/2 medium avocado
Juice from 1/4 a lime
Salt, pepper
Crumbled feta
Pomegranate seeds
Cilantro leaves

Toast bread.

Scoop avocado into a bowl with lime juice. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Smash with a fork until relatively smooth.

Spread avocado over toasted bread. Sprinkle with feta, pomegranate seeds and cilantro leaves.

Quinoa Salad with Black Beans, Pomegranate and Avocado
Serves 4-6

1 cup quinoa, rinsed well
Salt, pepper
Honey lime dressing
Zest of 1 lime
1 small bunch of cilantro, minced
1 14-ounce black beans, drained and rinsed well
4-6 radishes, sliced into thin half-moons
2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
Arugula or other greens
1 avocado, sliced
1/3 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Honey Lime Dressing
Juice from 1 lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons honey
Salt, pepper

Combine ingredients in small bowl. Whisk together until well-incorporated.

* * *

In a medium pot, bring 1 3/4 cup water to a boil. Add quinoa, season with salt, and simmer, covered, until water has absorbed (approximately 20-25 minutes). Remove the lid, fluff with a fork and let sit for 5 minutes.

Transfer quinoa to a large bowl. Add the lime zest, dressing, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Use a fork to stir the ingredients together. Let cool in the fridge while prepping the other ingredients.

Once cooled to room temperature, toss the quinoa with the cilantro, followed by the black beans, radish slices, pomegranate seeds, and arugula. Serve topped with slices of avocado and the toasted pepitas.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Easy Does It

It's been 39 days since my last real run, and 72 since I sustained "the injury."

The funny thing, or rather, not funny thing, is I felt incredible in the moment when it was happening. It was like one of those poignant Nike ads where all you hear is the runner's breath as she's striding down an isolated trail with her blonde pony tail swinging behind her like Wonder Woman's cape. I was in Phoenix for Thanksgiving, and whether fueled by two helpings of my sister-in-law's righteous pumpkin bread pudding or energized by a fresh context outside my everyday, I felt like a freaking gazelle.

So much so that I began fantasizing about seriously training again - running a half marathon and actually racing it, recapturing a part of myself that I thought I had abandoned when I metaphorically hung up my spikes ten years ago after a less than stellar final collegiate cross-country performance. I pictured seven minute splits. I pictured early mornings cruising past stroller-pushing joggers on the Santa Monica Bike Path. I pictured my dang pony tail declaring, "Eat my dust" to everyone I passed.

And then life happened.

What I originally attributed to soreness from running longer and harder than I normally do, turned into a nagging, sharp pain in my right achilles that I stubbornly continued to ignore because I'm me, and I'm invincible, and obviously a gazelle. Even when I finally decided to "let it rest," I took only two days off before diving right back into my regular exercise regimen.

As I grimaced through a 35-minute run on New Year's Eve morning, I finally acknowledged and accepted what I had intuitively known the first moment I'd felt it. (Because I, you know, read about it on WebMD.)

I had to stop.

There are certain things you realize when you can't do something you love. Namely, how much you really do love that thing, but also how paramount it is to your sanity, sense of self, and, perhaps most significantly, sense of worth.

Fortunately, I've also discovered that public pools that don't feel too public do exist in Los Angeles, and for $15 a month, I can bring back my college coach's preferred form of cross-training, the very glamorous pastime of aqua jogging. While 40-50 minutes of running in place in a therapy lane occupied by women more than twice my age is not exactly worthy of a Nike ad, it's something and has been, more or less, what's kept me from cutting my ear off during this whole ordeal.

Even so, the thing that has been most surprising to me throughout these past six weeks is that I actually am capable of being a patient person. As much as I want to tear the band-aid off, lace up my hot pink sneaks and be a freaking gazelle again, I am listening to my body -- and bonding with 70-year-olds over my new one-piece Target swimming suits in the process. (They approve.)

Ultimately, I know the end result will be worth the annoyance of this current period of physical restraint, not all unlike this slow-roasted chicken that I've been meaning to tell you about for five weeks.

I hope you find it worth the wait (even if you didn't know you were actually waiting for it).

Slow-roasted Herbed Chicken
Adapted from Bon Appetit via The Wednesday Chef

Notes: I waited months to make this chicken for the first time - mostly because life and quinoa kept getting in the way. I finally found an afternoon/night where I was capable of lingering around the house for a few hours early last month, and, as Louisa from The Wednesday Chef promised, this rotisserie-style "stratosphere-reaching" chicken delivered the knockout punch I was rabidly anticipating as it perfumed my apartment for three excruciating hours. I ate the leftovers for four days and then froze packets of residual pieces for literal (and metaphorical) rainy day chicken noodle soup. The final verdict here?  Find the time to make this. (P.S. The original recipe calls for potatoes that you roast alongside the chicken, but I opted for different accompaniments - an herbed quinoa pilaf and roasted cauliflower.)

1 teaspoon ground fennel
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh marjoram; plus 4 sprigs, divided
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme; plus 4 sprigs, divided
1 tablespoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 3½–4 pound chicken
1 lemon, quartered
1 head of garlic, halved crosswise

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine fennel, red pepper flakes, marjoram, thyme, salt, and pepper. Mix together with a long-tonged fork, then add olive oil, stirring to combine.

Resist the urge to rinse your chicken (splattering potential germs all over your kitchen sink and surrounding counter services), and pat it dry with a paper towel. Using your hands, rub the herb oil mixture all over the outside/inside of the chicken. Stuff the inside with 2 sprigs marjoram, 2 sprigs thyme, the lemon quarters, and the garlic halves. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine.

Place the remaining thyme and marjoram in the center of an oven-safe baking dish (I used a sturdy Le Creuset situation). Set the chicken on top of the sprigs, and place in the oven. Roast, basting the chicken ever hour (I did this using a spoon to, well, spoon the jus over the chicken), until the skin is browned on the outside, and the temperature reads at least 165 degrees in the thickest area of the thigh.

Remove from the oven and let rest 10 minutes before inhaling. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Winter Kale Slaw

New Year's Day is a big deal in my family - far bigger than that whole champagne-until-you-drop New Year's Eve business, which, to be perfectly honest, I'd really rather skip through entirely. This year I did mostly that, uncorking a bottle of blanc de blanc and watching a very sanitized-for-TV version of Pretty Woman before conking out at 11 pm in true rockstar fashion.

It was everything I dreamt it would be when all other plans for the evening fell through at the last second, mostly due to my hesitation to spend $300 on an Uber.

This, my friends, is real life. (At least in Los Angeles.)

But New Year's Day is another story entirely, a story that has been repeating itself for as long as I can remember. Every year, my dad takes over the kitchen at my folks' house down in Newport Beach, and cooks up a huge Mexican feast that includes no fewer than four baking dishes filled with chicken enchiladas, carne asada, guacamole, rice, and, depending on my family's interest level that year, black beans with salt pork.

It's a bold move for the first day of January, a moment when everyone is feeling slightly remorseful about eating and drinking far more than usual in the preceding days/weeks (see "champagne-until-you-drop"), and is toying with the idea of resolutions that preclude the ingestion of anything remotely fun at all.

Naturally, everyone in my family chooses to go in the opposite direction - skirting around the notion of lightening up in favor of, well, skirt steak tacos. We pretend that words like "cleanse" and "resolution" and "new year, new you" don't exist, each of us singing a chorus of "La la la, I can't hear you" in our heads.

And, so we feast.

Doing horrible things like grating cheddar cheese over nacho cheese Doritos and sticking them under the broiler to make "nachos," and piling our plates precariously full with my dad's enchiladas topped with an obscene quantity of guacamole. Because we all know that guacamole is basically a salad, right?

Amidst all this reckless (and hence glorious) gluttony, I usually find myself in the minority contingent that actually does want something leaf-like to provide a bit of contrast on that over-loaded plate. Not because I plan to eat any less of everything else, but because I genuinely enjoy having a kale palate cleanser between bites of white trash nacho Doritos (the best).

This year, I pushed a winter kale slaw salad (adapted from Sprouted Kitchen) on my family, forcing them to briefly acknowledge that there is an outside world where vegetables do exist on January 1st. For once, my efforts weren't met with eye rolls, but rather nods of appreciation.

This salad, while virtuous, is by no means a wimpy, wilty, sad sack situation. With its cinnamon-spiced cubes of roasted butternut squash, tart pomegranate seeds, and aggressive garnish of both toasted pumpkin seeds AND parmesan reggiano, it is a salad with substance. It can stand alone on those days after January 1 when nothing more is needed, but still hold its own as an interloper in the midst of a robust holiday feast.

In other words, it's a true rockstar. (Even if its maker is decidedly not.)

Winter Kale Slaw with Roasted Shallot Dressing
Adapted from Sprouted Kitchen
Serves a lot of people

Notes: The original version of this recipe calls for dried cherries and pecans, which feels like a completely reasonable thing to do in a winter slaw recipe. Because I was serving this alongside Mexican food on the first go, I opted to use pomegranate seeds and pepitas instead and have stuck with this route for the time being. Most of everything else remains fairly enact other than with regards to the dressing, which I've tweaked slightly - reducing the olive oil, using the full recommended amount of apple cider vinegar, and nixing the chives, simply because I didn't have any. You won't need all the dressing (unless you like things VERY dressed), but it will keep in the fridge for a few days, so can be repurposed on other salad-type things. Tis the season, right?

3 cups butternut squash, cut into 1/2'' cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pinch of salt, smoked paprika and cinnamon

2 bunches lacinato/tuscan kale, stems-removed, washed and dried, and sliced into thin ribbons
1/2 head red cabbage, sliced into thin ribbons (hello, knife skills!)
1/2 small red onion, sliced thin (Pro tip: If you are adverse to raw onions, try soaking the slices in cold water for 30 minutes or so before using)
3/4 cup pomegranate seeds
Sea salt, to taste
3/4 cup shaved parmesan reggiano
3/4 cup toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
Roasted shallot dressing
2 small or 1 large shallot (skins on!)
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon each sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim the ends off the shallot (or shallots), drizzle with a bit of olive oil and wrap up in foil. Place in oven and let roast for approximately 45 minutes or until tender. Let cool slightly before handling. Once you're able to confidently touch it without scalding your fingers, peel off the skin. Place the peeled shallot in a blender with the vinegar, mustard, olive oil, lemon juice, honey, salt, and pepper, and puree until smooth.

Toss the butternut squash with olive oil, and season with salt, smoked paprika and cinnamon. Spread out in an even layer on a baking sheet and roast until easily pierced with a fork (around 20-30 minutes depending on the firmness of the squash). Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

In a very large salad bowl, combine the slivered kale, cabbage, red onion, roasted butternut squash, and pomegranate seeds. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Drizzle part of the dressing over the salad and begin to toss, tasting after the first application to gage whether to add more. (Note: You may even want to let it sit for 5-10 minutes before tasting, as the dressing with start to soften the kale/cabbage and you may not need to add much more!) 

Once the slaw is dressed to your liking, serve, topped with parmesan and pepitas.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Best Restaurant Bites of 2014

I know. Just when you thought I was done, my hands wiped clean of 2014, I had to go and do this.

Basically, I'm aiming to write as many best of 2014 posts as I did actual posts last year. Or, the far more boring truth that I just really really like lists and felt compelled to eke out one more before I take down my Christmas tree and move on with 2015, already.

So, here we go… my favorite dishes I enjoyed outside of my apartment this year [with the usual (yawn) disclaimer that this list excludes any items I had at clients, even if they were, potentially, worthy of inclusion].

Squid Ink Spaghettini with Dungeness Crab, Uni Butter, Sardo Cheese, and Charred Kumquats from Orsa & Winston in Los Angeles
When Cathy and I made plans to dine at Josef Centeno's arguably most culinarily ambitious restaurant in what has become a veritable Centeno Complex at 4th & Spring Street in Downtown Los Angeles, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd read about the buttery, Japanese milk bread, stared into the eye of the "Breakfast in a(n Egg) Shell" across many an Instragram feed, and heard rumors of an exquisite, almost redundantly creamy risotto crowned with sea urchin and texturally reprieving geoduck. Centeno's foray into fine dining requires the diner to exhibit trust - to submit to his culpable hands via a tasting menu format that does not defer to dietary preference. As Cathy and I learned last February, to the trusting go the spoils. What was most unexpected, aside from the near flawless progression of courses that seamlessly balanced precision with nuances of whimsy, was the supplemental dish we ordered on a, well, whim. The squid ink spaghettini's al dente strands could have stood alone with perhaps no more than a sheen of oil or gloss of butter and been spectacular. But the marriage of the noodles with sweet crab, luscious uni butter, sardo cheese, and game-changing charred kumquats brought this dish into closed-eye-revelation territory. Nearly twelve months later it still stands out to me like an exclamation point amidst a block of punctuationless text. 

Courtesy of Republique's Facebook
French Fries at Republique in Los Angeles
In the moment I remember thinking, "These are really good fries." Then, a minute later, pausing mid-fry to, again, reflect, "Really really really good fries." Partially provoked by the assistance of splashy pours from Wine Director Taylor Parsons, two orders of the assertively salty, crisp strands barely seemed sufficient to cover our party of three girls, even with the roast chicken, agnolotti, crusty baguette with Normandy butter, and roasted cauliflower that were also nourishing our table. The next day I thought perhaps I was mistaken in my over-hyperbolic response, blinded by too many sips of whatever it was that was keeping us so well-hydrated that evening. Yet, within weeks Jonathan Gold proclaimed himself similarly enamored, and I pumped my fist in vindication. These truly are the best fries I've experienced in Los Angeles. 

The BeeSting Pizza at Roberta's in Brooklyn, New York
A study in the reasons why savory needs sweet, and sweet needs spicy, and we all need this pizza. Thin slices of spicy soppressata find their foil in a seemingly misplaced drizzle of honey on this now iconic NYC pie that also demonstrates the importance of a crust with enough character to stand up to its toppings. Obviously, there's something in the water out there. I'll take a pitcher. 

The Strawberry Cronut at Dominique Ansel in New York
The not-so-humble pastry that started it all: Multi-hour lines. Pre-ordering frenzy. Imitators peddling all iterations of imitations. The thing is? The cronut really is everything one hopes and wants a croissant-donut hybrid to be... maybe even more. 

Santa Barbara Prawns with Lentils at Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos
These prawns, likely still moving 10 minutes before we were served them, provided ample justification for the spontaneous road trip my brother and I took up to Santa Ynez on a Sunday afternoon this past June. We were there, of course, to sample the acclaimed flatbreads for research prior to his October wedding in the area, but left with a taste memory that superseded that of even the prized pizzas. The prawns, a delicacy on their own, became even further superlative against the earthiness of the stewed lentils. We scraped the plate clean, and then I sucked the heads. 

Rhubarb Crumble Ice Cream from Salt & Straw in Los Angeles (via Joan's on Third)
My initial introduction to Salt & Straw, Portland's beloved small-batch ice cream purveyor, came via a scoop of Rhubarb Crumble with Toasted Anise from Joan's on Third on one of the hotter days of the summer. I finished it before my co-worker and I could make it back to the office - a mere five-minute work from the cafe. I could say it's because I didn't want the ice cream to melt in the hot sun, but the truth? I couldn't pause to take a breath between bites. I had the same problem when we bought a pint of the California Peaches and Lemon Crumble for a birthday luncheon, and when I visited the brick-and-mortar shop on Larchmont for a scoop of Almond Brittle with Salted Ganache. Salt & Straw makes homemade haute. And ridiculously irresistible.

Savory Bread Pudding with a Fried Egg at Sqirl in Los Angeles
When Chef and Jamstress Jessica Koslow tells you to order something, you comply. So while we had already requested two orders of the sorrel pesto rice bowl, a slab of brioche toast with fresh ricotta and Santa Rosa plum jam, and more sweets than I care to admit here in honor of Daniela's last-days-of-LA brunch, we ordered it. It, being the piece de resistance of our two-person feast - a square of warm, cheesy, savory bread pudding with a fried egg on top. Though I'd already taken half my rice bowl to task when it arrived, I couldn't stop stealing bites from the cast iron skillet. It was, after all, a farewell-to-LA brunch. Even if it wasn't my farewell. 

Courtesy of Yelp

The Catalan Tomato Toast, or "Pa Amb Tomaca" at Smoke.Oil.Salt in Los Angeles
In a year defined by toast - of thin tartines strategically draped with smoked salmon and chives, of avocado mashed into sturdy whole grain platforms, and of highfalutin nut butters smeared over highfalutin heirloom grain breads - Chef Perfecto Rocher's "Pa Amb Tomaca" was, quite literally, the toast of the town in 2014. Even now, typing this as the rain falls outside my window, I am thinking how lovely a meal it might make tonight. Just a plate of rustic bread, purposely charred into caramelization, imperfectly garnished with crushed tomatoes and their jus.

Ode to Zuni Chicken at a.o.c. in Los Angeles
Suzanne Goin's Ode to Zuni is an ode worth playing on repeat. The presentation of this chicken-for-two (or more), mounded atop an oblong platter with vibrant green olives, greens, and torn, toasted bread, invites a communal experience. It says, "Pull up a chair. Stay a while." It says, "Drink a little too much. Laugh louder than you may think is acceptable in a restaurant of this caliber." It says, "There is no other white meat. Drop mic. Suzanne Goin, out." 

Nectarine & Raspberry Vacherin with Crème Fraîche and Almond Nougatine at a.o.c. in Los Angeles
My favorite sweet dish of the year undoubtedly goes to Pastry Chef Christina Olufson's sorbet and meringue layered vacherin cake, an inspired take on the classic French dessert. While it's tempting to attribute this praise to the timing of its presentation as the culmination to a laughter-fueled 31st birthday dinner spent with friends, it would be negligent to do so. This show-stopper straddles the divide between cake and sorbet, over-the-top and not-enough-on-top, and sweet and tart, never veering too far in either direction. It's just... right. And the perfect way to end both a meal at a.o.c. and a final best of 2014 list here.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Top Ten Recipes of 2014

Another year gone by in a blink.

It was a good one, as years go. I didn't fracture my finger by tripping over the sidewalk, my brother got married (and I only sliced up my leg a little bit from a chard of broken wine glass), and I actually went places that were like totally not just my parents' house in Orange County.

I mean, we're talking Phoenix, guys. And San Diego. And the Valley.

But in all seriousness, I did push myself outside my comfort zone a little bit more than I did in 2013 - traveling to New York City by myself, indulging in not one, but two spontaneous road trips up to Santa Ynez, and accepting invitations to parties where I didn't know anyone other than the host. (If you know me, the real me, you'll understand that the lattest is a very very VERY big deal.)

My goal, as it is every year, was to say "yes," more than "no." It's a struggle for me to be open to letting life happen at times, or, more accurately, all the time, because I hate being in situations where I don't feel in control. It's funny how those words just tumbled out, but that's basically… me.  Which, likely, is why I enjoy cooking and baking so much. I get to make the decisions. I can follow along or riff on the recipe at will. I'm in control of the outcome.

Most of the time.

You know, when life isn't getting in my way.

These recipes, my favorite of the year, managed to come out unscathed. They were, in many ways, the antidote to the highs and lows of my year. The steadying hand that brought me back to my center during the moments when I was feeling stuck or sad or nostalgic for something that would bring me comfort amidst the chaos of my vocation and, often, imprisoning daily rituals. If these recipes didn't similarly move or inspire you before, I hope this summation breathes a second life into them. They're worth one last look before we dive forward, fearlessly, into 2015.

Tartine's Salted Chocolate-Rye Cookies
These cookies. When I posted about them early last year, I couldn't even find the words to properly pontificate why they were so hauntingly good. I simply informed you that I ate eight, hoping that was enough to incite you to drop everything to make them immediately. In case it did not, and in case you are reading this right now, ignorant to what happens when chocolate and rye intermingle within a cookie, please do drop everything (including that post-holiday diet). It's worth it for these - an articulation of the best parts of a cookie and a brownie, kept from going over the edge into too-sweet, too-rich territory by the sharp tang of the rye flour. It should come as no surprise that this recipe comes from Tartine No. 3, an astonishingly beautiful guidebook to baking with whole grains. I whole-heartedly recommend it, as well. 

Alice Water's Brown Sugar Rosemary Shortbread

And while we are on the subject of cookies, these sweet & savory shortbread wedges via The Essential New York Times Cookbook were my sleeper hit of the year. I made them on an impulse one week night when I probably should have been, well, sleeping or, at the very least, watching something terrible on television, and was immediately transfixed by their texture and depth of flavor. Shortbread seems like the kind of thing that adults eat because it's a very adult thing to do, but I assure you this shortbread is something you'll eat solely because it's just so darn delicious. I consumed nearly this entire pan in three days, which, now that I think about it, wasn't very adult of me at all.

Curried Butternut Squash Soup
Lest you think I only subsist on a diet of cookies, let there be soup. Specifically, this soup, an intoxicating slurry of curried spices, sweet butternut squash, coconut milk, and nutty chickpeas that manages to be far more soulful than "health food" has any business being during the time of year when hearty braises and roasts are the typical piece de resistance. While intended to be a means to repent for the sins of a very very merry Christmas, I fell head over bread heels for this recipe, eating it for four days straight without a single moment of protest or regret that I wasn't eating, well, cookies instead. 

Eleven Madison Park Granola
While the granola I make most frequently is still Earlybird Granola (via Molly Wizenberg over at Orangette), this replica of the version gifted upon diners at the end of an epic meal at Eleven Madison Park is pure addiction. It teeters on the border of too salty/too sweet, but is really just everything you want it to be spooned over a bowl of cold banana slices and Tillamook Farmstyle Greek Vanilla Yogurt (the best). It's also everything you want it to be spooned shoved, by the handful, directly into your mouth. 

Peanut Butter & Jelly Baked Oatmeal
The second of three, yes, three, breakfast recipes within this roundup undoubtedly goes to this iteration of baked oatmeal, which gets its inspiration from, predictably, the sandwich of the same name. It's what I imagine a hug would taste like - it's comfort, nostalgia, the happy ending in a romantic comedy, home, and everything that is warm and fuzzy and Hallmark Channel-worthy in this world. 

Chocolate Chia Pudding with Cherries
This. I can't even look at the photo without feeling utterly depressed that it will be months before cherries are in season, and this… situation can happen again. I won't draw this out too long, but let it be clear, this is the best possible excuse to eat chocolate for breakfast while still managing to be irritatingly healthy to all your friends and family members.

Zucchini Fettuccine
I don't know that I've mentioned it here before (at least not explicitly), but for the past couple years, I've been creating healthy recipes for this here blog. No, I did not link to the official Power Rangers' blog for parents of kids who watch the show by mistake. This is real life, guys. And this is also why I don't always get around to telling you about my latest misadventure in dating or my new quinoa salad obsession or insert other thing you couldn't possibly care that much about anyway.

So, let me tell you something that you should care about - this zucchini fettuccine. Constructed with grated zucchini that's sautéed with garlic and red pepper flakes, and then tossed over whole wheat fettuccine with brown butter, parmesan, lemon zest, and a heady amount minced parsley and mint, this dish defined my summer. I would pile it into a bowl with a plate of heirloom tomatoes on the side and it was… everything. I'm thinking a version with slivered Brussels sprouts may be an appropriate winter variation, and if it is, indeed, appropriate, I'll be sure to tell you all about it. Likely with another regrettable dating story served on the side.

Chili Roasted Tofu with Minted Pomegranate Salsa
One of the first new recipes I made last year, I knew as soon as I tasted this tofu from Sara Forte's Sprouted Kitchen that it would make this list. It can be a challenge to create vegan, gluten-free recipes that feel special, but Sara nails it with this wholesome, yet vibrant dish that is a study in textures and assertive, flavor contrasts. It's something that I can see serving to not just company, but mixed company - ie. people who usually think a meal is not a meal unless half the plate used to come with a face.

The Creamiest White Beans & Leeks with Parsley Pesto 
I remember writing about this dish on the train ride from New York City to Baltimore this June and thinking that if I wasn't confined inside a train for 2 1/2 hours, I would likely not have the stamina to detail out all of the steps required to make this recipe. I say this not to discourage you from clicking through (none of the steps are particularly hard), but more to reinforce that this whole white beans and rice thing is kinda a big deal. It's not just, you know, rice and beans. It's Sunday Supper. It's break-open-a-nice-bottle-of-white-and-stay-a-while. And it's fantastic as leftovers on a night when you can't be bothered to do much of anything at all.

Charlie Bird's Farro with Pistachios, Mint and Parmesan
If trail mix could take salad form, this recipe would be that dish. Based on the farro I ordered at Chef Ryan Hardy's Charlie Bird when visiting New York City this June, I couldn't get enough of it when I got back to LA, my soul lusting for the city I've come to view as a home away from my home. It's exemplary not only because of its sentimental value, but for its arresting juxtaposition of textures and flavors. Crunchy raw vegetables and chewy nubs of farro; fresh herbs, tossed in like lettuce leaves; and a liberal application of pistachios and parmesan that simply gild the lily into the zone of edible fetish. Even now, sitting here on the couch, getting ready to finish things up here, so I can watch a movie on Netflix, I'm thinking that it sounds like something I could eat by the fistful like popcorn.

* * *

A few final words before I move on… I would feel remiss if I didn't mention two other recipes that stood out from my 2014 kitchen archives, but didn't make it to my site for one reason or another. The first is a five-grain salad, inspired by this recipe via one of the chefs I represent, that exemplifies why we go to restaurants. Cooking five grains separately is A LOT of work, but this stunner of a salad was well worth the effort for my family's Thanksgiving in Phoenix this year.

The second, at the opposite end of the labor spectrum, is the two-ingredient chocolate banana ice cream pictured at the top of this post. It completely blew my mind this summer. Two ingredients, guys! Though I would be negligent if I didn't mention the flaky Maldon sea salt I sprinkled on at the end… it was, indeed, the perfect cherry on top.