Tuesday, March 7, 2017

To Market, To Market: Albertson's Re-Opens in San Pedro

San Pedro is like Mayberry or Peyton Place. It is similarly endowed with a unique combination of folksy charm and community rancor - both of which came into play when Albertsons reopened its doors on Western Avenue on March 1.

In 2014, Albertsons was purchased by Haggen, a grocery chain based in the Pacific Northwest. A little over a year later, Haggen filed Chapter 11, closing its Southern California outposts and laying off any former Albertsons employees who remained to work for the new company.

Albertsons' grand opening included a packed parking lot
and a brass band, courtesy of San Pedro High School.
Haggen was not successful at any of its locations in Southern California. However, its usurping of that particular Albertsons location - one of the established hubs of San Pedro on both a material and an emotional level - was met with the vehement disapproval of a community that is fiercely loyal to people and institutions that treat them well.

The lights in the store space had been inexplicably turned on for months, but I did not know about the reopening of Albertsons until a few weeks ago. While at the shopping center on Western, I finally noticed a sign on the door stating that the store would reopen at 9 a.m. on March 1 and that the first 100 shoppers would receive a free basket of groceries. I pictured something out of a "Laverne and Shirley" episode where madcap shoppers would be plowing through the market, frantically filling their shopping carts to the brim. Then I realized that "basket" probably meant those small plastic baskets that sit at the entrance. Not as much comedic potential, and I wondered if any homeless people would get in line to pick up free food.

The red carpet at Albertsons was strewn with flowers
and bargains.
Later, I learned that the store was opened at 8 a.m. due to the eagerness of early bird shoppers. I never saw the first 100 as I sauntered over from Starbucks at 8:45 with my camera in one hand and an Americano in the other - indeed, there seemed to be a number of people already walking out with their purchases and freebies.

As I neared the entrance to Albertsons, the sound of a marching band blared triumphantly across the parking lot. The San Pedro High School marching band was there to kick off the event, with parents, members of the community, and kids from Dana Middle School looking on. Speeches were made by Albertsons management and by representatives of the store's parent company, and a certificate was presented to Albertsons by the City of Los Angeles.

Rick says "cheese" - literally. The former Albertsons
employee has returned to share his expertise
in formaggio.
Unlike the other big "red carpet" event a few days prior, the reopening of Albertsons went off without a hitch. And unlike the controversies that have surrounded the former event, the celebration of the supermarket's return to a very diverse community reflected its immigrant roots. Nearly all of the department managers at Albertsons boasted Latino surnames and the high school band was a veritable spectrum of skin tones - although there were no female participatnts (except for the director!). The aisles were stocked with a global feast of exotic produce, gourmet cheeses and meats, a tempting bakery and all the other ingredients needed to honor one's Slavic/Italian/Hispanic/Nordic/Asian culinary heritage.

A number of former Albertsons/Haggen employees have returned to Albertsons on Western Avenue. I met Rick, who was preparing bite-sized samples of Parmigiano Reggiano with pear paste and serving them in the revamped deli department.

Chester Cheetah greets shoppers in the snack food aisle.
"There are a lot of new products, a lot more sanitary measures," said Rick, who was wearing a sort of snood over his full beard. "There is a lot more of high quality products that look really good - it gets you hungry."

Rick moved to Northern California for a year, then moved back to the area before Albertsons offered him a job in his former store. Some of his former co-workers were hired at Vons Pavilions or Ralphs markets in the Palos Verdes area; a number of them chose to stay at their new jobs. Still, there were many familiar faces when Rick came back to Albertsons.

"It was like coming back to school after summer break," he said. "You get to see a lot of new and old faces, everyone hugging and saying hi, catching up on what they've been doing for the last year."

Rick is the cheese specialist in the Albertsons deli, a new position for the store.

My go-to item was always the salt and vinegar chicken wings.
"We want to educate customers and introduce them to more gourmet cheeses," he said. "We're going to try that out and see if it works."

While San Pedro is known for its deep love of history, as was shown with Albertsons' closing nearly two years ago, nothing should be considered forever. Still, Rick is optimistic. 

"I like to learn things so anything I learn from this experience I can take somewhere else, or stay in this company and move forward," he said.

Another Haggen in Lomita that closed last year is now being turned into an international market, with food from Asia and the Middle East. When I was growing up, my parents had to go all the way to Gardena to buy our huge bag of rice, dried anchovies, Kikkoman soy sauce, and other Asian-y staples. So it's great that there are more ethnic markets popping up in the South Bay. But we still need that friendly neighborhood market where everyone shops and where we can celebrate the good old U.S. of A. - with chicken wings, tabouli, Italian cookies, nopales, and fig spread, all under one
fluorescen-lighted sky.

The L.A. Business Journal

The Daily Breeze

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Spice Girl: The Gingerbread Manifesto

When I first heard this song by Antonio Carlos Jobim, I assumed that it was called, "Gingy," after the character in "Shrek." After all, why wouldn't anyone write an ode to a hysterical cookie man with a high-pitched voice?

Gingerbread men from Whole Foods: Crunchy
mini-mes by Nikki's Cookies with a long and tall
from Jacqueline's Cookies.
Gingerbread in representational shapes dates back to Queen Elizabeth I, who ordered biscuits made in the likeness of visiting dignitaries to her court. While gingerbread people, houses, and other shapes have become synonymous with the Christmas season, the cookie was sold at fairs in colonial America and baked into "funeral biscuits" and served at wakes in the 17th and 18th Century New England and Pennsylvania Dutch country. Caraway or tansy seeds enhanced the now familiar flavor of "hard gingerbread," which is still sweetened with molasses.

The New York Times recently ran an article on pierniki, a specialty of Torun, Poland, that dates back to 1380. The name comes from the Polish word pieprz, or pierny, meaning a peppery flavor. Modern gingerbread recipes consistently include a mixture of cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg - black pepper is not as frequently included although it is part of the authentic pierniki formula.

Boiled honey and candied orange zest give leckerli their
sunny flavor base despite their wintry appeal.
Gingerbread's Swiss cousin, leckerli, is made similarly to pierniki, with a boiled syrup of honey and spirits, as well as almonds, hazelnuts, and candied orange peel. Dorie Greenspan's recipe, reprinted on Food 52, was surprisingly easy - despite the cement-like consistency of a sticky dough - and yielded a huge supply of chewy and fragrant cookie bars.

And to satisfy my urge to roll and cut dough in festive shaped, I found a recipe on the blog, Pecan Pies & Tomato Tarts for honey spice cut-outs. The recipe allows for either molasses or honey to be used to sweeten the rich dough. I opted for molasses, which yielded a chewy cookie that was easy to roll and shape, with a great aroma that improves with age.

Unicorns are my new deer: Honey spice cut-outs await
the oven.
The term, "gingerbread" also refers to fanciful and ornate architecture in the late 19th Century, in the United States and in Haiti. Building houses and other structures of gingerbread has become an art unto itself. I didn't attempt it this year, but have acquired a Nordic Ware pan that bakes muffins or cakes in the shape of tiny houses. I'm looking forward to using it to try out this toothsome recipe for Gramercy Tavern's gingerbread, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen.

Finally, when the need for a gingerbread fix arises,
Gingerbread man from Peet's
Coffee and Tea adds nostalgia
to the coffee break.
there are many store-bought versions that are very good. Peet's Coffee and Tea serves a gingerbread man that is soft and chewy, with strong notes of clove. Nikki's Cookies, which are sold at Whole Foods, has cute and crispy mini-gingys, accented with black pepper. And Baked in the Sun created a gingerbread man that found its way into my Nordstrom shopping bag, decked out in red icing buttons and a friendly smile. This one was dense and chewy, and reminded me of the first time I ever baked gingerbread.

There must be a reason that the melange of spices used to flavor gingerbread and other holiday resurface every year for the winter palate. Cinnamon is said to have cognitive and psychological benefits - I actually
give my morning Americano a good sprinkle of it every day. Although a very subtle spice, nutmeg is helpful to circulation and reducing insomnia. Among many other qualities, ginger is the only source of gingerol, a known anti-inflammatory aid and antioxidant. And cloves aid digestion, control blood sugar levels (how it does this in a cookie, I don't know), and boosts immunity.

Obviously, there is some physiological draw to foods that warm up us or cool us down, depending on the weather. But during the holidays or any other festive occasion, there is a psychological attraction to the creature comforts that take us back to a simpler time. All the rushing about at the holidays is worth it when you can revisit childhood and recall happy times by just baking - or eating - a cookie.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a wondrous New Year to you! Thank you for reading GMS!

Other Sources:

Weaver, William Woys. "America Eats: Forms of Edible Folk Art" (New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon: Aioli Bodega Espagnola

Tapas are meant to be a communal cuisine, eaten with sangria and beer, in the company of friends. However, they are no less pleasurable when dining alone. While in Sacramento for Foodista's International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC) last month, I went off the grid one afternoon and enjoyed a memorable lunch at Aioli Bodega Espagnola on L Street.

I had noticed Aioli the day before when I visited Capital City Beads across the street, but wanted to explore all my options  before settling on the place for my solitary repast. I was anticipating the big "Farm-to-Fork" Feast at IFBC that evening, and wanted to experience a restaurant that was more off the beaten path of IFBC.

Aioli is located in an area of midtown Sacramento called the Handle District, named for its resemblance to San Francisco's Panhandle, a park that connects Golden Gate Park to some hip neighborhoods like Hayes Valley and Haight-Ashbury. Like the Panhandle, the Handle District looks like the handle of a cooking vessel, more of a deep pot than a frying pan.

Fittingly, the Handle District is home to a number of restaurants, wine bars, and coffeehouses. With its quaint yellow awnings, Aioli has graced L Street for 22 years. It seemed like just the sort of place that I prize whether at home or away: a place that locals can enjoy in peace while visitors from out-of-town marvel at its excellent food and low-key atmosphere.

Walking into the restaurant's nearly empty back patio was like being the first one to arrive at a party - indeed, the space looked like someone's backyard. Two women were seated at what appeared to be their regular table; otherwise, I had the patio to myself. I could picture it eventually filling with diners, but reveled in the quiet serenity of the moment. I chose a table partially shaded by trees and a large mosaic-embellished fireplace and sat down, breathing in the sunlit green of the trees and the blissful stillness.

Mediterranean food - especially tapas - holds an eternal quality that I can't easily explain. We've fetishized foods like pizza, olive oil, and spanakopita to the point of caricature. But Spanish bodega fare is relatively unsullied by the American tendency to oversimplify ethnic cuisines into an "It's a Small World" shadow of their true selves.

At Aioli, this is particularly true. While undisputed Spanish classics like paella Valenciana and flan are featured on the menu, the real genius lies in dishes that reflect Spain's multicultural heritage. The menu included viera en jengimbre (scallops with an orange-ginger sauce), gravlax, and pasta al Amatriciana, dishes that I wouldn't ordinarily expect at a Spanish restaurant.

Erin Ergenbright's essay, "Table for One" describes eating alone as "an uncomfortable intersection between the public and the private." I have gained the sense over the years, that food servers are a little embarrassed by and for the lone female diner, in addition to sometimes being downright inhospitable. When my server does not resort to the latter behavior, I am either treated with sexless deference by the male servers, or the obsequious pity reserved for maiden aunts and absentminded grandmothers by the female servers.

My server that day did neither of these. He was businesslike but cordial, if such a combination exists. He graciously answered my questions about soy allergens (so far, Spanish food is happily devoid of such) and even cautioned me against ordering too much food when I began to request half a page of menu items. 
When he began to bring my meal to the table, I understood why.

I started with a small dish of creamy aioli made with white beans and garlic. Despite the popular misunderstanding of aioli as a sort of mayonnais-y sandwich spread, this dreamy dip was more like a thinner and creamy hummus. The best thing about dining alone is that you can double-dip, which I did with tiny discs of a yeasty and hearty baguette. A bowl of tiny olives gleamed at me like oily, earthy jewels. The fact that they still contained their pits was a reminder to take my time and added to my enjoyment of this leisurely meal.

I was trying to keep from polishing off all the bread and aioli when my food server showed up with my entree of pincho morunos de cordero - skewers of tender grilled, marinated lamb in a red wine sauce. An unexpected blend of red peppers and mint honored both Spain's Moorish heritage and the complexity of the lamb. The languid gaminess of the meat was just right with the spices that lingered on my palate.

The dappled shade over my table was subsiding with the intensity of the afternoon sun. A few more diners had joined me on the patio - all older women. One of them was alone at a table in front of me, facing the restaurant and calmly drinking a glass of sangria. Five other ladies arrived and seated themselves at a table at the rear of the patio and I tried to guess if they were a book club, former classmates, or members of a family.

I probably think too much about this, but I am still pretty self-conscious about eating alone in public. As women, we are brought up to be more communal and lone females have culturally been considered suspect. I sat there hoping that one day I would be as self-possessed with dining alone as the lady with the sangria seemed to be, and realized that at least for that afternoon, I was.

That being said, I did end up going indoors for my dessert as the legendary Sacramento heat was beginning to assert itself even more. I ordered pera "Aioli" - a pear braised in red wine and spices for dessert with a cup of coffee. I let the food server know that I would be moving inside and seated myself at the empty bar - at least I thought it was empty.

A man in a white linen shirt was sitting at a far corner of the bar, eating a steak that covered two-thirds of the plate. He was bald, in an appealing Jean-Luc Picard sort of way and wore fashionably framed glasses. I decided that he must have been the owner, judging from the hurried way he ate his lunch while still exuding a presence that said he was still in charge.

After a few minutes of polite silence, I finally asked him if he was the owner and when he confirmed this, I told him how much I was enjoying Aioli. I told him I was in Sacramento for IFBC and began to ask him questions about Aioli's menu, much of which comes from his native region of Andalusia.

Reda Bellarbi described tapas as "not a meal," as we seem to have interpreted it here in the U.S., but food that you drink with. Each tapas bar is known for a particular specialty; these small plates were free, and customers paid for their beverages.

We chatted about how nobody "owns" any one ingredient. It is important to remember that foods that are typically identified with a particular culture - tomatoes with Italian food, raw fish with Japanese food, or corn with Mexican food, to name a few - are shared by more than one group. Bellarbi told me that without the discoveries of the New World (which is now approximately 400 years old), the Mediterranean diet would  have continued to consist of cabbage, artichokes, olives, and wheat.

My dessert arrived and I chatted for a while longer with Bellarbi when the demands of running a restaurant broke the mutual reverie of food, history, and the art of living simply but well. Bellarbi had somehow managed to eat the huge steak without spattering his white shirt and while having a conversation. He excused himself and began to tend the host station while his two food servers covered the now bustling restaurant. As I was leaving, I admired a huge bronze statue of a member of the Guardia Civil, the oldest law enforcement agency in Spain, dating back to the mid-1800s. Bellarbi proudly explained its history to me and posed next to the towering sculpture.

I left Aioli feeling rather full, but refreshed. I took my time walking back to the conference hotel, and stopped at Old Soul Co. and bought a brownie and a lemonade to save for that late afternoon sugar crash. I attended a session on writing about culinary travel writing led by bloggers Amy Sherman (Cooking with Amy), Jessica Van Dop DeJesus (The Dining Traveler), and Jennifer Sweeney, director of public relations for Visit California.

The Farm-to-Fork Feast took place after this last session of the day, in a shady walkway between the Hyatt Regency and the Community Center Theater. The dinner for about 200 was prepared by Chef Jason Poole from Dawson's, the Hyatt's AAA Four Diamond restaurant. I enjoyed a salad of the freshest arugula I have ever tasted and an alternative vegetable entree, as the free-range chicken entree contained soy. This appeared to be a fancy succotash, topped with zucchini strips and surrounded by potatoes.

I chatted with my tablemates about the vagaries of foodie destinations and enjoyed the fashion show of the sari-clad fans of Gurdas Maan, a Punjabi singer and actor, who were streaming into the theater next door with their dates, children, and even grandparents. We commented on the multigenerational reach of music and the tolerance of a culture that appeared to think nothing of partying with its elders. We talked about how Denver is a comer as a culinary destination, and how Hawaii has been totally overlooked as a foodie haven, with its wealth of diverse ethnic cuisines and exotic bounty of ingredients.

Mostly, I took in the space - the enormous expanse of white tablecloths, the rustic flower arrangements that included of all things, ears of corn; and the delicious aromas that emanated from the wine and the meal as food servers tended to our party of nearly 200 guests. While the Farm-to-Fork dinner stood in sharp contrast to the tranquil setting of my lunch at Aioli, I still moved in that calm space for days afterward.

Whenever I am in a city other than L.A., the first thing I notice is how nowhere else is as crowded. Our traffic is epic, our disregard for other human beings in the struggle to do the day-to-day things has come to tragic proportions. I think this is why I blog about food - the preparation of it takes some level of concentration and while the consumption of it on the part of the diner does not require a lot of thought, in the right environment, the enjoyment of food can be rejuvenating and transforming.

The most valuable souvenir I brought home from IFBC was a sense of well-being that comes not only from good food but from enjoying it in a setting where it feels like one has room to breathe. We all need community and companionship. But we also need to be able to hear our own thoughts in order to share them with others and to appreciate theirs.

I think this is why I write about food. The need for it is a common thread that connects us all, and the love of it - its history, preparations, artistry, and the pride that those who grow or create it have - can bring out the best in celebrating humanity. It was wonderful to explore this further at IFBC in Sacramento, where despite the creativity and opportunity that flourishes in the food community, there is still room to grow and breathe.