Monday, July 31, 2006

Treats: Cava, Cupcakes, and Fellow Foodbloggers

When I travel for work, I operate under the rule that I deserve "treats" on the road. Instead of my regular cup o' coffee, I get a latte in the mornings. Going out for dinner? Gotta try the appetizer featuring pork, or maybe cheese. And desserts? Don't get me started. Remember my glee about the $1 ice cream bars?

However, having been on the road nearly every week this month, I realized guiltly that I've had many more treat-days than non-treat-days--which defeats the purpose, ya know? So--this report on a glass of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and a cupcake represent a last hurrah and a transition into August ascetism.

For the weary tourist or business traveller, I'd recommend a stop at Citizen Cupcake's outpost in the Virgin Megastore in San Francisco's Union Square area. Perched in a corner of the third floor, the floor to ceiling windows provide a great view to enjoy along with your sugar rush. The cafe serves wine and beer, baked goods and a couple paninis. Compared to many of the offerings in the immediate vicinity, the prices are low and quality's high. My mint chocolate cupcake came with a surprising burst of chocolate-mint squodgy frosting in the middle, and, refreshingly, was charmingly normal-sized, not a ridiculous hunk of butter n' sugar. A treat, indeed.

Citizen Cupcake Cafe
2 Stockton Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
@ Market (in Virgin Megastore)
Tel. 415.399.156

Another treat: I spent the weekend in San Jose at BlogHer '06 (pictures here) and was delighted to meet some lovely fellow foodbloggers: Chockylit of Cupcake Bakeshop, Elise of Simply Recipes, Nic of LA's own Baking Sheet, Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen, Fatimah of Gastronomie, Meg of Megnut, Shuna of Eggbeater and Pim of ChezPim. Charming women all, and I highly recommend checking out their work.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Going Local: Market Love

carrots at the Hollywood market

Fellow LA blogger, Foodie Universe, recently published a great article about our fab farmers' markets here in SoCal. Specifically, she highlighted the farmers of the Santa Monica market, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

As she discusses, to mark the occasion the Santa Monica Public Library is hosting a three part discussion series, "Farms, Farming and Farmers' Markets." The first of three has already taken place (definitely check out Foodie Universe for the report), but you have some time before the next two, so mark your calendar.

Farms, Farming and Farmers' Markets Discussion Series
August 17 and September 21, 7 pm to 9 pm
Martin Luther King Auditorium
Santa Monica Public Library
6th and Santa Monica Blvds.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Washington, DC: Say Hello to Hank's

I've been all over the place this month, so I apologize to you Angelenos for a lack of local updates. In August, it'll be all-LA, all the time. If you want a restaurant similar to Hank's (discussed below) in SoCal, I can't recommend the Hungry Cat enough.

Despite the bureaucratic blueshirts and pandering pols, Washington, DC remains one of my favorite U.S. cities. The leafy neighborhoods, lively music scene, free museums and walkability add up to a very livable urban space. The fact that it’s home to Hank’s Oyster Bar doesn’t hurt either.

This casual slip of a restaurant serves up a slim, well-chosen menu. While noshing on a small dish of goldfish crackers, you can choose from a handful of fresh fish dishes and seafood shack staples like a fried oyster po’boy or crabcakes.

On a recent business trip to the city I caught up with an old friend over a summery dish of scallops. Crispy outside, smooth inside, the seared mollusks matched nicely with some fresh corn and bacon. With a glass of Spanish rose, this meal almost made up for spending a day in a suit in 95 degree heat and humidity.

One quirk: no dessert menu. But really, compared to most restaurant desserts, I’d rather take the bowl of high-quality chocolate chunks you get with your bill at Hank’s.

Hank's Oyster Bar
1624 Q Street NW
Washington, DC 20009
202.462.HANK (4265)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Breakfast with Grandma: Pannu Kakku

After 5 days in depressing Detroit, I could hardly contain my excitement as my plane winged its way north, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so I could spend time with my Grandma 'Nita on the shores of Lake Superior.

Pannu Kakku, fresh from the oven. It rises mightily as it bakes, but deflates quickly.

Going to my dad's parents' house has always meant bounty--fresh-caught trout from the lake, often smoked in grandpa's backyard smokehouse; strawberries, blueberries, raspberries from the yard; venison sausage from the deer hunted the fall before. Every time we visited, my grandparents never let my folks leave without a cooler full of food to take back to Wisconsin.

My grandma still maintains this generous tradition, and stuffed me to the gills. Like many of her fellow Yoopers, she is Finnish. However, other than the pasty (pronounced pass-tee-- meat, potatos and carrots enclosed in a flaky crust), I don't remember eating a lot of Finnish food as a kid. Certainly, I can't imagine I'd have forgotten Pannu Kakku (sounds like: bunn-ew guck-ew), an eggy, buttery oven pancake. She and I shared this treat one morning with a sprinkling of blueberries and raspberries fresh from the yard. It's guilt-inducing, dessert for breakfast--but if grandma says it's okay--it's okay!

Pannu Kakku
(based on my dad's recipe, adapted to match my grandma's technique --Sorry Dad, hers is just a bit better!)

Preheat oven to 350.

1 stick of butter
1C flour
1C sugar
4 eggs
2C milk

Melt butter in oven in a 9x13 pan; should be sizzling when you take it out.

Meanwhile, mix other ingredients like hell - till very frothy. Pour batter into pan with melted butter.

Bake 40 minutes. Eat immediately.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Summer in Motor City

For $1, vending machines at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan provided the best culinary experience of my recent trip to Motor City--a sugary, chin-dripping, delectable ice cream respite from the sticky weather.

fried perch po'boy with yam fries

With limited time, transportation, and knowledge of the city, I'm sure I missed out on some treasures, but what I was able to sample didn't impress. The menu at the refurbished Majestic Cafe promised interesting grub, but the food didn't quite deliver. My yummy yam fries couldn't make up for the paltry portion of perch in my po'boy sandwich, especially considering the ginormous bun. The Majestic is central on a revitalized strip near downtown Detroit, abutting a hipster bowling alley, the city's main concert hall, and a handful of similar restaurants. It's the type of place that has an ambitious menu, and everything has an adjective/twist--the po'boy doesn't come with tartar sauce, it comes with chipotle tartar sauce. The steak doesn't come with fried onions, it comes with fried cumin-scented onions. Oh and that vinaigrette? It's a basil vinaigrette. Unfortunately, the Majestic makes flavor promises it can't keep.

The Majestic Cafe
4120-4140 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, MI
313.833.9700 ext.207

On a non-food and pro-Detroit note, my work conference happened to coincide with the annual Concert of Colors--an amazing cultural event. For three nights, the main concert hall hosts musical acts from all over the world--all for free. On Sunday night we managed great seats for the incredibly energetic and inspiring Michael Franti/Spearhead concert--a real treat.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Earning your Steak and Potatos

White Wolf Lodge in Yosemite National Park (unfortunately, mosquitoes made dinner on the porch impossible)

Earlier this month, J and I spent the week of the 4th camping with his folks in Yosemite National Park. This was our second visit, and I can't recommend it enough--as long as you don't stay in the busy Valley--opt for a first-come, first-serve campground on either Tioga Road or at Glacier Point. The spacious but more primitive campgrounds discourage the maddening crowds.

We both come from do-it-yourself hardcore camp cooking families, and take pride in packing and planning fabulous homemade meals for our outdoor vacations. For the bulk of this trip we relied on our farmers' market and Trader Joe's cache--mixing up chili, grilling salmon and savoring "hobo dinners" (hamburger, potatos, squash and onions in a tinfoil packet over the fire). However, for our last adventure, we took a marathon hike of 10 often steep miles to North Dome, a point right next to Half Dome, one of the gems of the park, and ended the day dead tired. Luckily, we had made reservations at the restaurant at White Wolf Lodge, the high sierra camp situated near our campsite off Tioga Road.

view of Half Dome from our hiking destination, North Dome

For back country campers not wanting to lug food and shelter, the high sierra camps are a series of platform tent camps, approx. 10 miles apart that you can hike to in a day and stay the night. White Wolf Lodge has been around for ages, and every night the restaurant serves a prix fix, family style meal, aimed at satiating hungry hikers. For $25 bucks a head, we enjoyed cheddar-beer soup, cesar salad, a baked potato as big as a softball, a juicy, pink steak and homemade blueberry pie with real berries and real crust. Alcohol was extra and worth it--the Yosemite Pale Ale did the local brewers proud. Plus, we sat next to a lovely family with two teenage boys that had stayed awake the previous night watching for bears outside their tent (their mom shared the story as the boys cringed). The simple, hearty dinner tasted all the better for our hard work that day, and there's no better nightcap than a walk back to one's tent under the silent stars.

White Wolf Lodge
off Tioga Road, Yosemite National Park
Reservations (definitely recommended): 1-559-253-5635

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Going Local: Passion Flower Fruit

The fruit of the blue passion flower falls into the category of wild growing foods that "look like they might but they won't" poison you. If you live in southern California (or South/Central America), you've likely seen these blue flowers and their subsequent orange fruits creeping across backyards in your neighborhood. I hit the jackpot of passion flower fruits, however, when I realized the chainlink fence enclosing parking lot near my office was absolutely covered with the orange buggers. So on a night when I knew I'd have plenty of time to deal with them, I harvested a shopping-bag full.

the actual passion flower and a few green fruits

Related to the somewhat more familiar passionfruit, these fragrant pouches are delightful to peel. You take off the loose, pithy skin and reveal a glob of blood-red seeds held together by a gelatinous membrane (I make it sound delicious, don't I?). Smaller but similar in texture to pomegranate seeds, the insides taste flowery, tangily sweet and slightly bitter.

brains or seeds??

I didn't find much on the internet in terms of recipes; instead I discovered that when found wild they're often eaten out of hand and called "maypops", "water lemons", "golden bell apples", or "granadillas". Also, if you boil the leaves or steep parts of the plant, you can make a drink tinged with just enough cyanide to make you sleepy and reduce stress. (Various reports differ depending on the species--obviously, I would not recommend trying this at home).

messy bowl of strained passion flower fruit curd

Anyway, remembering a long-ago consumed passionfruit curd, I decided to try the same with these close cousins. It turned out just okay--the flavor of the fruits is quite delicate and the egginess of the curd kind-of overwhelmed it. Perhaps a shot or two of lime juice could have punched it up, or I might have been better off just serving the seeds over some vanilla ice cream. Regardless, a fun experiment and a harvest I'll probably repeat on occasion. And now you know--next time you walk by a ripe vine, pop a fruit off and enjoy an exotic snack!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Thanks Russ!

prosciutto wrapped halibut, cherry tomato salad, grilled figs

Russ Parsons, writer for the Los Angeles Times food section, is one of my favorite culinary journalists. From him, I learned about local mozzarella, discovered how to pick a carving knife, and keep up-to-date about the ripest produce at the farmers' markets.

The latest Parsons' tip I've picked up involves prosciutto and halibut, independent proof of one of my core cooking theories: bacon makes everything better. In his recent article, Summer and Smoke, he recommends grilling halibut wrapped in prosciutto. Citing the lack of fat in the fish and its tendency to stick to the grill, he explains that the prosciutto keeps the fish moist and prevents a flaky mess. Beyond the practicalities of the recipe, it also tastes damn good, especially if you follow Mr. Parsons' other recommendation (and the actual purpose of the article): grilling over wood chips. Smoky, salty, crispy fabulousness. Oh, and did I mention its easy? Salt and pepper your halibut, wrap in prosciutto, stick 'er in the fridge for a bit, and then grill (check out the article if you actually need a recipe).

Erin's Kitchen Recipe Index: Meats and Fishes

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Pig Roast and a Party Dress

mashed sweet potatos, slab o' pig and skin, paella

What better way to kick-off the 4th of July weekend than a Friday night pig roast? But of course, because this is Los Angeles, its a gussied up pig roast at a chi-chi-la-la restaurant--the kind you can wear your fab new party dress, if you're inclined to do so.

Norman's, the eponymous West Hollywood "New World Cuisine" restaurant of James Beard award-winning chef Norman Van Aken, roasts a whole pig every Friday night, and serves it up with a side of paella, mashed sweet potatos and coleslaw for a mere $19. According to the waiter, they inject it with a brine well before roasting. Whatever they do to it, it's magic because it was the most tender, succulent, flavorful pork I've ever eaten. You could practically cut it with a fork. And don't even get me started on the crispy pig skins--pork rinds, cracklins, chicharrones, whatever the name, it was a little bit of heaven.

While the pig was a great deal, the prices on the rest of the menu reflect this spot's high-end nature. Not to say our prepared-tableside ceviche, chocolate-strawberry-vanilla-orange dessert, glass of champagne, glass of shiraz and glass of dessert wine weren't all fabulous--they were--but it makes for an expensive meal, so be forewarned (or come equipped with more resolve than we did to keep it cheap!).

strawberry-filled filo packet with chocolate mousse and vanilla-orange ice cream

A final note: overall, the service was very attentive. When I called a 1/2 hour before our 7 pm reservation to see if we could switch to 7:30, the hostess replied, "no problem!" We were seated on the patio, and didn't feel like we'd been forgotten as can sometimes happen. New napkins were brought when we went to the restroom, and the tableside ceviche presentation was pleasant, not overwrought. However, our waiter was strangely unknowledgable about some things and a bit pushy. For example, when asked about the menu's foreign-to-us apertifs, his response was, "Well, that one tastes a bit strong, while the other is more mild." Huh? Also, well after we'd finished our dessert, and after having asked twice about coffee, he came around not with our check, but just to triple-check that we didn't want coffee? cappuchino? are you sure? YES WE'RE SURE.

These minor blips aside, I can't recommend the pig roast enough--I'm not afraid to state definitively that it will be some of the best pork, if not the best, you've had in your life. Plus, you get to dress up and look fab while you eat it--who can argue with that?


8570 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
closed Sunday and Monday
note: They have a great online reservation system, and valet parking at $7 is cheaper than self parking in the same building at $10.
PS--Also, be sure to spend some time peering in the glass-walled kitchen; it's quite fun to watch the chefs at work--though I don't know if I'd like that kind of scrutiny!

Erin's Kitchen Restaurant Index: Los Angeles: West-ish