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.