Saturday, December 31, 2005

Christmas Culinary Presents

J and I lucked out in the present department this holiday. A mix of things we asked for, and things they thought we'd like, our families treated us very well. My favorites: homemade jam from Grandma Sally; La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint- Ange from my sister--this is the first English translation of what's basically the French Joy of Cooking, first printed in 1927. It is full of detailed technique descriptions, and reads as culinary history as much as a cookbook. Also, Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin. Goin amazes me--shes' relatively young, and has been working in restaurants since her senior year of high school, and helms two of the most successful restaurants in Los Angeles (not including her role in her hubby's place, The Hungry Cat.) It's a complex cookbook and the menus are time-intensive, but the recipes inspire. I tried her beet and tangerine salad last night, and her simple garnish of fresh mint made the salad sing.

Finally, the pasta machine from my parents! So, so excited about this. We've tried our hand at making homemade pasta a few times but have not achieved thin-enough dough (though maybe with my new non-stick rolling mat, a gift from J who has experienced my frustration with rolling dough enough times to know it was necessary for his sanity as much as mine, it could happen). Anyway, I see piles of papperadelle in our future.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Holiday Traditions: New, Old, and Rediscovered

First, the new. For the second year in a row my mom made an amazing bacon-wrapped, savory breadcrumb stuffed beef tenderloin for Christmas dinner. This year was even better than the last, with the fine, buttery, herby, crispy breadcrumbs providing an excellent match to the rich, medium rare roast. Turkey’s got nothin’ on this.

She also made a pumpkin-apple soup for the first time, veggie-stock based for my vegetarian sister. The light and flavorful soup was a refreshing start to our decadent meal.

Second, the old. When I was a kid, the first hour or so of Christmas morning was torturous. My sister and I could open our stockings, but no presents until all adults were awake, caffienated and we had all eaten breakfast. The torture was somewhat mitigated by the fact that breakfast was always my Grandma Sally’s amazing cinnamon rolls, helping to quench our present lust. Not overly sweet and not dripping in a sticky glaze, these simple rolls, heated and spread with butter, always delight. I’d asked my Grandma for the recipe awhile back and she explained the only way I could learn to make them was for her to show me. This year my vacation timing worked out and my sister and I took a cinnamon roll making lesson. She starts with a basic white bread recipe, and fills her rolls with a layer of butter, copius amounts of brown sugar and a light dusting of cinnamon. I plan much practicing this spring.

Finally, the rediscovered. My other grandmother, Grandma ‘Nita, is Finnish. Recently, my dad began making Pannu Kakku again, a Finnish baked pancake that you spread with jam. It’s custard-like in texture, reminiscent of flan. We had this on Christmas Eve morning, but it works equally well as a dessert. Also, my Grandmother brought us a loaf of Nissu, a sweet bread spiced with cardamom, made by a friend of hers. This is also an excellent breakfast item, toasted and spread with more jam.

All in all, a delicious holiday, made more so by the joy of sharing it with my wonderful family. And of course, this is just my side of things—J’s family is full of food traditions as well—the absolute best apple pie ever, thin, crisp, buttery sugar cookies, his Mom’s cinannmon bread…More than a few extra gym hours will be necessary in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

(Real) Cold Weather Cookies

Cooking in my parents' kitchen always delights--not only is it huge compared to my own, with plenty of counter space, you also have a lovely view of their back hillside, currently blanketed in snow and often visited by families of deer. I especially enjoy baking in it at the holidays--having grown up in the Midwest, making Christmas cookies feels more right and less decadent when it's snowy and a mere 10 degrees outside.

Inspired by Darla of Messy Cucina and her Biscotto Bake-A-Thon, I decided to try them myself for the first time. I followed her master recipe and stayed simple with my goodies--chocolate chips--with a final dip in chocolate. It pays to stay patient after the first bake and wait a full half hour before you try to cut the logs, otherwise you'll just make a crumbly mess. Also, my dad's lactose-intolerant so I substituted margarine, which didn't seem to hurt.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Holiday Open House

Rather than an evening get-together, this year J. and I decided to host a holiday brunch/open house. We liked the idea of friends popping in and out all day, while we sat on the couch, nibbled yummy treats, drank wine, and enjoyed our Christmas tree. We served a mix of typical brunch fare--quiche, frittata, coffeecake, holiday fare--cookies and spiced nuts, and J and E's favorite fare--cheese, olives, cornichons and a homemade terrine (more on that project in a later post). As a savory foods person, I'm always surprised when most people go for sweet foods--the coffeecake was the hit of the party. It was a recipe out of the LA Times Food section (say what you will about the rest of the Times, this section always rocks)--you make the base dough the night before and let it rise, then fill with a meringue in the morning, full of whatever flavoring you want (I went with chocolate) then bake. Drizzled in a powdered sugar-Kahlua-vanilla glaze, it looked and tasted quite decadent.

The best part of the event (other than having quality time with our friends of course) was the leftovers--I packed an amazing meal for my plane ride to WI the next day, inspiring jealous looks across the aisles!

E & J's 2005 Holiday Open House Menu

Mixed Greens Quiche (adapted from LA Times recipe)
Potato and Wild Mushroom Frittata (E's recipe, with a little inspiration from Moosewood)
Overnight Coffeecake (LA Times)
Country Terrine (Gourmet Dec. 05)
Cheddar and Brie (from Say Cheese, Silverlake)
Olives and cornichons (Trader Joe's finest)
Cinnamon Orange Almonds (E's adaption of recipe found on Chocolate and Zucchini forums)
Gobs of cookies

Cinnamon Almonds
• 1 orange, grated rind only
• ½ teaspoon cinnamon
• nutmeg, freshly grated
• 1/3 cup water
• ¾ cup sugar
• 2 cups almonds

Combine the orange peel, sugar, cinnamon and water in a deep sauce pan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring regularly until it boils. Add the nuts and reduce the heat to medium-low so the liquid is simmering. Stir constantly while the water evaporates. At first, the glaze will be shiny. As the water boils off, the sugar will form brown, crusty crystals on the nuts. When the nuts are completely coated and all the liquid has evaporated, remove from the heat. Make sure to stir constantly to prevent the nuts from burning. Spread the nuts on a cookie sheet to cool and crisp. Store in an airtight continer for up to two weeks.

Makes 2 cups

Saturday, December 17, 2005

California Winter Salad

The bounty of SoCal farmer's markets is one of the few reasons I would truly miss Los Angeles. Today, in late December, we picked up burstingly ripe organic yellow and red cherry tomatos--I can only imagine how dejected tomatos look in a New York grocery store right now. Tonight those tomatos joined sauteed baby shiitakes, frozen corn, a little fresh marjoram and tarragon on a bed of mixed greens, topped with a sliced avocado and a drizzle of sherry vinaigrette. Is it really December 17??!?!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Patina: here comes the fromage

Having picked up some last minute tickets to the Harry Shearer/Judith Owen Holiday sing-a-long at Disney Hall last night (yes I'm a sucker for everything Christmas), we had empty stomachs and about an hour and a half to kill before the show. We had to keep it within walking distance since the car was already firmly ensconced in the bowels of the music center. Being big fans of bar dining as a way to sample but not splurge at pricey places, we thought we'd grab a snack at the bar of Patina, restauranteur Joachim Splichal's marquee place, located at the southeast corner of the Gehry-designed concert hall.

Well, we already had drinks in hand when the bartender informed us the only food service at the bar was caviar or cheese. Us: Okay, we'll get a cheese plate. Him: Let me get the fromager. Cue fromager to wheel in his big ol' cart of cheese. While I was thrilled by the diverse selection and piles of accoutrements (membrillo, apricots, lavender honey), it was rather awkward to sit in the restaurant's very tiny bar, right next to the hostess stand with other patrons coming in and out, and order our cheeses. Awkwardness wasn't alleviated by the annoying schmuck next to us, looking over our shoulder and pronouncing that all he needed was a block of Velveeta. However, the fromager was unfazed and managed to quickly put J. and I at ease.

We sampled three cheeses: Beaufort, a hard mountain cheese from France; Le Gariotin, a French goat cheese, this one soft and from the Perigord region; and finally a satisfyingly stinky Spanish Cabrales, which paired beautifully with the lavender honey. (The fromager gave us a small brochure with a listing of the cheese we got and a few notes--that's how I "remembered" the list). While not what we had in mind when we first sat down, the cheese service was a delightful way to begin our evening and experience the luxury of a chichi restaurant without committing to a whole meal.

141 S. Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Turkey Meatball + Everything Soup

It was another cold day in Los Angeles (I can hear my Midwestern family scoffing as I type), so more soup was in order. Started by sauteeing some onions, carrots and mushrooms, added salt, pepper, fresh thyme and a bay leaf, then a couple cups of chicken stock, couple cups of water. Tossed some in some chopped potatos, brought it to a boil then covered and turned down to a simmer. Managed to turn off the OCD part of my brain that irrationally worries about the apartment burning down and left it on the stove while we walked to the store for a loaf of bread. When we came back the potatos were done and it was time to add the frozen Trader Joe's turkey meatballs (if you haven't had these, you should!) and some frozen peas. After a few more minutes and handful of chopped parsley, dinner was on the table.

I'm glad we ended up making soup, because we were this close to ordering take-out. We had lots of holiday cooking projects going in the kitchen and the temptation was high to avoid making more dirty dishes, but I must keep reminding myself that making a yummy weeknight dinner at home need not be complicated or time-consuming (and that it's okay to "cheat" with some prepared items). If you have favorite weeknight recipes that keep you sane, please share in the comments.

Champagne + Stout = Good (and drunk)

This weekend J's company hosted its annual holiday party. The food was once again quite good, but the best (and most surprising) treat of the evening was one of the featured drinks at the bar--Black Velvet. It was 1/2 stout beer, 1/2 champagne, and boy was it tasty. I have always been skeptical of mixing beer with anything, but this worked. The tart and sparkly champagne cut and complemented the hoppy beer flavor. I think this may become a holiday staple.

Photo by Mandolux, used with permission.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Linzer Cookies

This recipe came from Gourmet magazine's Dec. 05 issue, and I'm quite pleased with the results. The cookies are just barely sweet, with a wintry hazelnut flavor. I used some seedless raspberry butter for the filling, and though the Gourmet recipe doesn't call for it, I sifted powdered sugar over the top cookies (I think this must be an oversight on the mag's part b/c the accompaning photo shows snowy tops).

Full recipe here: Linzer Cookies

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Solar de Cahuenga

Stopped at this newish spot in Hollywood for breakfast Friday morning. Nice space, with a comfy-looking patio, though suffers the fate that many patios in LA do--open to a busy, speeding car-filled street--though most Angelenos don't seem to mind. According to Gayot, on the weekend's it'll be open 24 hours--If true, always nice to add another option to the late-night dining list in close proximity to home.

For breakfast, I had the Aspen crepe--spinach, mushrooms, swiss and green onions. The eggs were light and fluffy and the crepe was slightly sweet and nicely browned. I liked it a lot more than the ones I've had a the crepe place in the Farmer's Market at 3rd and Fairfax, it seemed much lighter. The side of fruit that I paid an extra couple bucks for (instead of the potatos that came with it) was pretty sad--primarily day-old apples with a few grapes and one sliced strawberry. Next time I'll forgo healthy for tasty and stick with the potatos. The menu also had a long list of paninis, and both sweet and savory crepes.

Solar de Cahuenga
1847 Cahuenga Blvd. (corner of Franklin)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Peppermint Meringues, Attempt #2

The second time around my meringues turned out much better. I still used a warm water method, but used a thermometer to measure the temperature as it heated, not my finger. Other changes I made from the first try: started with all the ingredients at room temperature, as instructed by the Joy of Cooking. Added a 1/2 tsp. of cream of tartar. Mixed some of the decorating gel with regular red food coloring to form more of paste.

See my first try: Peppermint Meringues, attempt #1

The meringues, while still not the perfect Martha stars, were much more kiss-like in shape. I think I need to practice piping, and perhaps need a bigger pastry bag (or need to not fill it so full). I still made a god-awful mess as you can see, and when the meringue again started to come out of the top of the bag, not just the bottom, I lost my concentration and from then on was just racing around trying to keep my hands (and the floor, my jeans, my hair, the cats' water dish, etc) semi-clean and finishing piping all the kisses before my meringue batter lost its staying power. This happened a bit anyway, and the last few looked more like the discs of my first attempt, albeit with more red.

Now, the reality part: for all of that work, yes, they look nifty, but I don't think they're worth it. The taste is okay, but I'd rather have a really good chocolate chip oatmeal cookie. I thought about making one more batch to further practice the piping, but have decided I'd rather try something else (like all of the holiday cookies in the latest Gourmet and from the cookie swap!)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Late Night Dining: Beechwood and The Hungry Cat

These places aren't exactly unknowns, but thought I'd quickly mention my recent experiences at each. As the title indicates, both provide something fairly rare in LA--a place to get a bite that's not only open late, but still bustling at 10:30 p.m.

I'd been wanting to try Beechwood ever since reading the LA Times review eons ago, but I'm rarely that far west later in the evening. Finally, an evening work meeting provided an opportunity (who whoulda thunk I'd meet with moderate Democratic Representative Jane Harman at the hippie coffee spot The Cow's End, but that's for another blog I guess). Anyway, liked the chaise lounge-y seating in Beechwood's bar, and loved the HUGE pulled pork sandwich with fried pickles even more--at $12 it was a steal. Unfortunately, the sweet potato fries weren't as revelatory--I think Bowery's are much better. Had a decent glass of red wine, couldn't tell ya what it was. J. had a steak (skirt, I believe?) that was nothing special. His regular fries were much better than my sweets. All in all, a nice joint if you're in the neighborhood, but not a destination.

The Hungry Cat has been a reliable favorite ever since it opened. We usually sit at the bar and get 2-3 items to share. On Monday night, we met to celebrate the end of my UCLA class, and celebrate we (at least I) did. Besides the fantastic seafood, the Cat has a creative drink menu, mostly fresh fruit juice and relatively unknown (at least to me), high-end liquor. I started with what their subtly tangy Sidecar (you'd be amazed at how many bartenders don't know how to make this--I've had it served in a wine glass with ice), followed by a gin and tonic, made with Raj Gin, and I think just a look at the tonic bottle. J. and I shared a fall salad (roasted squash, blue cheese, hazelnuts, dates, greens with a balsamic dressing) and a bowl of the special homemade papparedelle with lobster, in a lobster/beef stock. The Hungry Cat is not cheap, but it's an excellent value.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Lentil Soup with Potatos and Spinach

I love it when I can make something fairly substantial just using items in my pantry/fridge/freezer, particularly items I've been wondering how I could use up. Even better if that something results in leftovers for lunch throughout the week (my office is in a lunch-spot wasteland).

It was what passes for cold in Los Angeles today, so I wanted a warm and hearty dinner. Remembering a lentil soup recipe in Cook's Illustrated, decided to give it try. If you're not familiar with this mag, you'll have to check it out sometime. The recipes are usually touted as the best of the basics, with lots of experiments in the science of food backing up their decisions, and they often revisit dishes they feel are executed poorly on a regular basis. Lentil soup was one of those dishes, of course. The key to a superb lentil soup, according to the serious Cook's Illustrated folks, is sweating the lentils before boiling. Who knew.

I had almost everything I needed except bacon and carrots, which no doubt would have made the finished product even better (especially the bacon), but I refused to make a trip to the store. My other major modifiction was the addition of potatos and a bag of frozen, chopped spinach--the spinach especially added a nice color since lentil soup tends to look kinda boring. Here's the recipe (with the bacon and carrot included), and if you want the full-on scientific explanation of which lentils to use and why, check out the Feb. 2004 issue of the magazine.

Lentil Soup with Potatos and Spinach

3 slices bacon, cut into small pieces
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 can diced tomotos, drained
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. minced fresh thyme and/or rosemary
1 c. lentils, rinsed and picked over (I used a mix of beluga and brown lentils)
1 tsp. salt
Ground black pepper
1/2 c. dry white wine
4 1/2 c. low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 c. water
1 c. potatos, chopped
1 16 oz. bag frozen, chopped spinach
1 1/2 tsp. balsamic vinegar

1. Fry bacon in your stockpot over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp, 3-4 minutes. Add onion and carrots; cook, stirring occassionally, until veggies begin to soften, about 2 mins. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 secs. Stir in tomatos, bay leaf and herbs; cook another 30 secs. Stir in lentils, salt, and pepper to taste; cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until vegetables are softened and lentils have darkened, about 8-10 minutes. Uncover, increase heat to high, add wine, and bring to simmer. Add chicken broth and water; bring to boil, cover partially, and reduce heat to low. Simmer until lentils are tender but still hold their shape, 30-35 minutes.
2. Puree 3 c. soup in blender until smooth, then return to pot; stir in spinach until heated through. Stir in vinegar and serve.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Peppermint Meringues, Attempt #1

While I've made a decent souffle or two in my time, I don't yet have a very good relationship with whipped egg whites. I think it's the kind of thing I need to see someone else do once or twice--so I know exactly what stiff peaks look like for future reference. I also need to improve my ability to take things I've learned in previous cooking experiences (like cream of tartar helps your egg whites stiffen) and apply it to new recipes. This is all a preamble to the fact that I tried to make Martha Stewart's Peppermint Meringue Chocolate Sandwiches the other night, and as you can see, they didn't turn out very well.

The recipe was a warm-method meringue, and it never quite stiffened as much as I think it needed to. I ended up with something like marshmallow fluff. I decided to attempt piping it anyway, though I have little experience with this skill either. The combo of the gloopy mix and my inept wielding of the pastry bag resulted in peppermint egg whites all over the kitchen, on my shoes and even in the cat's water dish. Not to mention that the red stripes I'd attempted to paint on the pastry bag a la Martha's instructions resulted in barely visable pinkish stripes. The recipe calls for red gel food-coloring, and I think this must be different than the red gel icing pen I picked up at the grocery. Anyone know where to get gel food-coloring, and if that's actually different?

Anyway, I piped some flat circles (the meringe was too syrapy to hold star shape) and popped a sheet in the oven. This is where the story starts to get better, because they actually turned out quite tasty. The festive look from the magazine was not there, but I figured they'd still work as chocalate ganache sandwiches. Then, of course, things took a turn for the worse when I realized the cheap-o chocolate I'd bought at Albertson's was actually...

UNSWEETENED. Gross. By this point I was too uninspired to attempt sweetening the ganache with sugar or anything. So I was left with a tupperware full of quarter-sized peppermint meringues, one or two of which gets popped in my mouth whenever I head into the kitchen.

I plan another try of this recipe sometime this week. I've now looked through the Joy of Cooking's section on meringe, and it's so much more helpful than Martha's recipe. I think I will try a non-warm-method meringue, and definitely use cream of tartar. Any other tips you have for meringe perfection, please let me know!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Market Madness

When we lived on Capitol Hill, we could do almost all of our grocery shopping at Eastern Market--a long, high-ceiled building with a cheesemonger, fishmonger, butcher, baker, homemade pasta maker--it was all there. Weekend mornings we'd stroll the few blocks from our place, grab a cup of coffee, sometimes wait in line for the fabulous Market Lunch, othertimes we'd buy our produce at the outside farmer's market first, then finish our shopping inside. When we moved to LA, I thought it was one of the DC-institutions I'd miss the most.

Now, of course, I can't imagine what I'd do without the bounty of a California farmer's market. And I've found a replacement cheese store and bakery--of course they're not under the same roof and I still haven't found a convenient and decent butcher. I've tried to become a 3rd and Fairfax indoor farmer's market regular, but it's too far, too overrun with tourists, and too close to the Grove and its faux city square. I'm sure there are long-time Angelenos who will disagree with me, but Grand Central Market, on the other hand, feels much more authentic. It's always packed with primarily locals and the stalls are vibrant and many are bursting with exotic (to me) spices. It's not nearly as chi-chi-la-la as my beloved Eastern Market, and it's too far to walk, yet I thoroughly enjoy every trip there.

This Saturday we visited after a study trip to the Downtown Central Library. Went for the pupusas at Sarita's--chiccharon (ground pork), squash, and carne asada. Delicious in that gut bomb sort of way. Once we were home, naps were in order.

As a side note, markets like this seem to be popular revitalization efforts these days--I'll take it as a good sign that more and more people are interested in a closer relationship to their food and who sells it. Sarah at the Delicious Life recently posted about the Milwaukee Public Market in my home state of Wisconsin, and even though I travel there all the time for work, I've yet to truly try the vaunted Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco (a quick zoom around on a way to a meeting doesn't count).

Friday, December 02, 2005

Orange Blossom Chocolate Loaf Cake

One of the benefits of living near Little Armenia is a wealth of intriguing markets. One favorite is Kalinka on Hillhurst Ave, home of cheap and fresh feta. It's also where we picked up Orange Blossom Water about a year ago. I don't use it often, so whenever I reopen the bottle and get a whiff, I'm transported to a gauzy vision of Arabian nights, full of romance and intrigue (and yes, I know Armenia has no connection to Arabian Nights, but indulge me--they share ingredients).

Tonight, looking at a bowl of oranges on my table and feeling the urge for some chocolate, I decided to modify a recipe for chocolate loaf cake, incorporating both orange zest and the blossom water. The result was a richly satisfying dessert, with a subtle, wintry, orange flavor.

Orange Blossom Chocolate Loaf Cake

1 c. unsalted butter, softened
1 2/3 c. dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. orange blossom water
zest from 1 large orange
4 oz. best bittersweet chocolate, melted
1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 c. plus 2 tbsp. boiling water

Preheat oven to 375, and grease a 9x5 loaf pan. I lined the bottom with parchment paper, but I don't think you have to.

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, vanilla, orange blossom water and orange zest; beat well. Next, fold in the melted and slightly cooled chocolate. Sift flour and baking soda together. Add flour mixture and boiling water to batter in alternate spoonfuls until all mixed. The batter should be smooth and fairly liquid. Pour into the loaf pan and bake for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to 325 and continue to bake for another 15 minutes. The cake will be dense and a bit squishy inside, so a toothpick will not come out completely clean.

If you're patient, let the cake cool completely in the pan on a rack before turning out. I am not patient and turned it out after only an hour of sitting, and it was still warm. This caused a bit of crumbling, but I can assure you, did not affect the taste. Many samples were tested, just to be sure.

Adapted from Nigella Lawson's "How to Be a Domestic Goddess"