Friday, October 30, 2009

R.I.P. "Soup Nazi"

I was trying to get Jolene and Hiro to find the "soup nazi" restaurant, as depicted in a Seinfeld episode... Just found that the place no longer exists.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Trader Joe's Black Bean Soup, 10/24

Encouraged by my foray into making my own soup - albeit the lazy way - I decided to tackle the carton of black bean soup that always seems to be in the cupboard. Someone always buys it with the best of intentions: high protein, good source of fiber, yadda, yadda, yadda. But it tends to be - well, so bean-y.

Everyone was home for dinner at the same time, a nice thing about the weekend. My brother-in-law Hiro was making pasta and my sister Jolene was washing the never-ending pile of dishes in the sink. I was trying to playing cooking "Twister" and be out of the way while embarking on my own project.

Another cause for commotion was the large pan of pumpkin mochi that my sister had baked earlier. Weeks of hoarding all the canned organic pumpkin we can find at Trader Joe's yields an endless supply of this unusual and addictive dessert all winter long. It's not as stiff as regular mochi, but more lighter, more cakelike and only slightly chewy. And like my squash soup, it makes the house smell like Thanksgiving.

Seiji and Kanzo were all too happy to beg for seconds and thirds of the mochi despite the fact that dinner was going to be on the table on about 15 minutes. I caved in and ate one small piece and started on the soup.

It was so simple it's embarrassing. I poured the black bean soup into a pot. It seemed like it ought to be darker having been made from "black" beans, but it was actually a nice mauve. I added a can of crispy corn kernels, also from Trader Joe's, and a small sprig of cilantro. A dollop of fresh sour cream gave it that gourmet kick and three grownups had black bean soup to go with ham and three-cheese pasta. The kids had Kamen Rider on YouTube to go with their dinner.

The Los Angeles County Museum is showing an Audrey Hepburn retrospective and I was planning on going to the second half of that night's double feature, "Two for the Road." This "One" got on the road too late and decided while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic at the far end of Fairfax that I was going to miss the movie. So I took a detour to Canter's to pick up some dessert.

In the last year, I've been at Canter's with a couple of dates. There was always a jovial African American man panhandling as you step out of the parking lot onto the sidewalk. As I walked toward him, he made some comment about "the happy couple out on the town." Apparently, some guy had gotten out of his car right after I did and was walking a bit behind me. I was so embarrassed that I didn't dare turn around. A small irony was that while I was alone this time, the man asking for change now had a partner, another man who sat across the sidewalk from him.

I wasn't hungry for food, but seemed to need to "be out," so armed with a book, I decided to sit down in a tiny booth. The waiter, who wasn't half bad-looking, passes me off to an older female server. I guess the lone girl with her nose in a book doesn't appear as interesting - or as good a tipper - as the cute couple on a date in the booth in front of me. I ordered a cup of herbal tea and look for Rodney Bingenheimer, who is almost always seated at the semi-circular booth next to the stairs. He isn't there. For the last 20-plus years that I've been dining at Canter's, he's been there, either with an entourage, or in more recent years, alone.

In our 20s and 30s, my friends and I would make a pilgrimage to Canter's at least once a month, arriving no earlier than 9:30 and taxing our then-younger digestive systems with Reuben sandwiches, potato knishes, and egg creams. Most of these friends have since gotten married, had kids, moved out of state, or all of the above. Most of them, and frankly myself included, would really have to work themselves up to eating even half a Reuben with sauerkraut and mustard. And if I didn't live in closer proximity, it would be a challenge to get me to drive up to Fairfax.

But I'm here now. A busboy walks by with a tray loaded with two-foot loaves of seeded rye. The waiter, who kind of reminds me of Huey Lewis but with darker hair, is speaking very loudly to a very old and apparently deaf man who is departing from a booth on the other side of mine. The waiter tells him how much he would enjoy the film "Charlie Wilson's War," how it captured the end of the Cold War era so well, and how it reminded him of the Congressional offices that he went in and out of when he was a toddler. Definitely a conversation intended to be overheard. When he was cleaning the man's table, I wanted to ask him why he was hanging out in the Capitol as a kid, but that seemed too forward.

If I had been with friends, we would have eavesdropped on this conversation, then picked it apart when we were out of earshot. We would have come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why the waiter was hanging out at the Capitol, such as having been adopted by the Ghanaian ambassador, or part of a child genius program spearheaded by the CIA. Which incidentally, has a great "kids' page" on their Website.

But I digress. You can be obnoxious in public with your friends, which I'm sure I was. You're protected somehow by this cocoon of togetherness, of knowing that however moronic your conversation is, you're with people whose observations are equally moronic.

But being alone, free of the obligations to wait for someone to finish their egg cream, drive them home, or put up with their boyfriend/sister/co-worker, has a price. The price is feeling like a sore thumb among the couples, families and friends out on a Saturday night. I guess the alternative would be to stay home and immerse myself in a book or a project, all the while feeling that I was missing something, because it is Saturday night, after all.

I finished my tea and sauntered to the bakery counter to get some of those little rainbow cakes and my new favorite, an unassuming bar of white cake soaked in rum and coated with a thin layer of chocolate and coconut.

Back outside in the night air, I pulled a dollar out of my change and handed it to the man who greeted me and my "date" earlier. He seemed a bit surprised to be handed money by a woman alone. I guess a sense of chivalry can exist even among those who beg for change. But I figured it was time in life to start doing the things I didn't have the inclination to do when I was too busy laughing and warm with the company of friends or holding someone's hand to shield me from things like noticing show-off waiters and panhandlers on the street.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Soupy Sales (1926-2009)

So weird that when I'm done with my blog for the night, I find this news item while checking my email.

His heyday was before my time, but his sort of humor would have gone over well with me as a kid. If only we could really hit people with a pie in the face when they annoy us instead of vulgar words or worse, building resentment. We'd be messier, but probably a lot freer.

Trader Joe's Butternut Squash Soup

For most people, the idiom "salad days" denotes a carefree period of life, typically during one's youth. For me, it has been redefined as "soup days," the long weekend I just had before having to return to work after a state-imposed furlough Friday. I brown bag it pretty regularly, so it stands to reason that I should create my own concoctions to take to the office. Fortunately, Trader Joe's offers several soups that transcend the limitations of the typical canned variety available at most supermarkets. These are very flavorful and can be enjoyed either on their own or as a base for new creations by hurried gourmets like myself.

Squash is a harbinger of fall on the veggie front. I decided to embellish TJ's Butternut Squash Soup with fried sage leaves. I remembered an impressive appetizer I had once of fried sage leaves that were served like musky green snack chips. I also would add sauteed onions and a dash of cumin to the ready-made soup.

I found a simple recipe for the sage leaves on the internet and proceeded to dredge a whole package of sage leaves in a bit of flour. I put about a quarter of a cup of olive oil in a skillet and when it was hot, quickly tossed in the dusted leaves.

The kitchen smelled like I was frying doughnuts laced with marijuana. Not that I ever have, but I imagined that the herby, starchy odor was what it would smell like. My nephews who were supposed to be going to bed ambled out to the kitchen.

Seiji said, "Something smells funny."

His younger brother Kenzo said, "Something smells good."

I predict that in about ten years, this scene will play itself out again, concerning the above mentioned substance, and probably without benefit of it being encased in fried pastry. Kenzo has the family's unanimous vote as "Most Likely To Fill-in-the-Blank."

Suddenly, they both said, "I'm hungry!" even though they never eat at 9:30 at night, proving once again that aroma is a stronger stimulant than actual taste. My brother-in-law herded them away for storytime before bed and I finished frying the sage.

My sister Jolene came home from the market and said, "It smells like Thanksgiving!"

I blotted the excess oil off the sage leaves with paper towels and ate one skeptically. It tasted of flour and very "green," but had that crispy texture I remembered. I eyed them critically started to prepare the onions. Jolene and I have decided that if you ever have to cut up an onion, that means you are "really cooking."

This feeling of accomplishment was diminished only slightly when I wantonly squirted half the carton of ready-made soup into my Ziploc container. I considered its caramel-colored surface, then sprinkled three spoonfuls of onion over it. I arranged five fried sage leaves on it. They lay there suspended like paper blooms in a Matisse collage, and I imagined their herbal goodness infusing itself into my soup while being radiated in the office microwave.

The next day at about 11:30, I heated up the soup. In the air conditioned void of the office, it did indeed smell like Thanksgiving! I started to stir it about and eat when my intern showed up. We got into a discussion about a possible story idea he had and then we went in and pitched it to my boss. Then I walked him down to third floor and set him up in our empty office with a computer after introducing him to some colleagues that he would be photographing at an event the next day.

When I got back to my desk, the odiferous creation was lukewarm and I had to heat it up again. Then another interruption occurred and distracted, I started to answered a couple of emails. It's hard to type and eat with a spoon. I had to heat the soup up again. But I didn't mind.

I've learned after telling people about my blog that soup is a universal good, the ultimate in home cooking and comfort food. There's a reason that there is a series of books called "Chicken Soup for the Soul." Except in my case, I'd rather have the soup.

My friend Alice has invited me to her mother's house for the New Year, where she and her brother will be taught the family menudo recipe. My mother has been threatening my sisters and I with the tutorial for lugao, a Filipino dish that is not really a soup, but a porridge made of rice, chicken and generous amounts of ginger.

It's almost as if our parents are passing a torch of culinary importance, of family tradition and memories of a culture that we experienced only vicariously as the American-born offspring of parents who decided to leave the lands of their birth and make this country their home. In many cases, food is the only thing we learned about from our parents' ethnicity.

The recipe for a childhood favorite - no matter its origin - is something one learns with some apprehension, probably because it marks the end of one's youth. Suddenly, you are charged with taking responsibility for something that only the "grownups" knew about. But deep down, you are grateful, even proud of your newly bestowed knowledge. It means that life goes on.

A co-worker who is our resident authority on gourmet cuisine liked my idea for a soup blog. He told me about how he makes chicken soup from scratch by boiling a chicken and "layering" flavors by reducing the broth, adding butter, onions, garlic, and other ingredients. He also told me that apple schnapps is the thing to add to butternut squash soup.

If I could give my nephews - who most assuredly, being part of my family, will be compelled to cook someday - a foolproof recipe that would carry them through whatever hungers or challenges befell them, it would be something like this:

Make sure your brains and knives are sharp.

Try to be there for people who need you when they need you and don't be disappointed that means your food gets cold. You can always heat it up again.

Cook as you like but be open to suggestions. Especially if they involve apple schnapps.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Traktir, 10/19/2009

After a morning of dreaded and dull car errands (fixing a broken headlight and the DMV in Inglewood), I realized that it was time for lunch. My appetite is still a bit finicky as I weather the last stages of my cold, so I called my friend Larry in Seattle for some inspiration, as the majority of our conversations revolve around how much he misses the food in L.A. I ask him where he would go if he could go anywhere to eat on a beautiful, sunny October day in the city.

I had told him about my soup blog and he mentioned borscht. I said that I had been craving it lately, if only because my last soup adventures lacked a bit of color. He Googled Russian restaurants and found a place in West Hollywood called Royal Gourmet Deli.

I drove down Santa Monica Boulevard at a leisurely pace looking for the restaurant and enjoyed being a tourist in flamboyant "Boys' Town," on what used to be part of the original Route 66. Fantastic window displays and signage are everywhere - even the police department has a Hollywood-esque sign, a star-shaped sheriff's badge outlined in neon.

When I got to Royal Gourmet Deli, I found a market of Russian specialties and fresh delicatessen meats and salads. Cakes the size of cafeteria trays were displayed on top of the counter. Teas, cookies and sweets labeled in Cyrillic text beckoned with appetizing pictures on their packages.

I saw a man eating at a table outside the back door and asked the young Asian girl at the counter if there was a place to be served. She said no, but that there was a restaurant next door. I considered some of the brightly packaged sweets, but wanting to have a truly authentic Russian deli experience, I asked her what the cakes were made of. Honey, nuts, and sour cream were major components. I bought a slice of something made with dried plums and sour cream and sauntered next door.

Traktir was not very large. It had a patio that opened onto the sidewalk and a small interior that was charmingly Baba Yaga-esque - if Baba Yaga had satellite TV and made her own vodka. There were several large glass decanters on the bar, each with lemons, cranberries, jalapenos and garlic, raspberries, or what I later found out to be large knobs of horseradish floating in them. One of the waiters told me that the liquor steeps for a month in the jars before they are drinkable and that jalapeno and garlic is the most popular flavor.

To complete this festive ambience, nesting matryoshka dolls, some traditionally styled, others painted to depict the Lakers and American presidents, greeted me from shelves that hung across the room from the vicious stuffed head of a wild boar. With such a mascot in attendance, I knew I was in for a good time.

I sat down and ordered the borscht. I've only had it served cold before and their version sounded hearty, served hot with potatoes, cabbage, and beef. I chatted with Larry a bit more while waiting. I was comforted by the thoughtfulness of water and lemon served in a carafe and a huge basket of bread that I was grateful for but left untouched in my ongoing war on carbs.

I eyed the only other inhabited tables in the restaurant. At these were seated several older people, one couple and four men and a woman who I assumed were regulars or members of the management. I felt self-conscious talking on my cell phone in the presence of the older generation, who represented at that moment a culture and time where people stopped in the middle of the afternoon to sit with friends, break bread and talk to one another. The smell of one man's pipe made me even more nostalgic for a place I've never actually known as a product of a culture that always seems to aim for "faster," not always "better."

Finally, the borscht arrived. The broth was a beautiful translucent ruby red, not the usual berry that always reminds me of a Pantone color chip. And it had levels to its richness. The sour cream had begun to sink below the surface, in tasty dollops flecked with fresh dill. Beneath that were fine shreds of cabbage and beet, floating like inclusions in a gemstone. The overall flavor was pleasantly piquant, not too spicy but not too bland. After a few spoonfuls of this sublime mixture, I felt renewed.

As if that weren't bliss enough, half a slice of the same light rye that was in the breadbasket was perched on the edge of my soup plate. Covered with a shredded white cheese and grilled to toasty perfection, it was the perfect counterpoint to the luxurious simplicity of the borscht.

By this time, I was incoherent with pleasure and had to hang up on Larry so as to devote my attention to the meal. I signed off, thinking how comforting a hot bowl of borscht would be in Seattle's frigid weather. Despite the fact that I was getting over a cold and had to put on a sweater, I was spoiled by the sunshine of early fall in Los Angeles that battled with an overcast sky and finally triumphed for the duration of the afternoon.

I said goodbye and thanked him profusely for guiding me to Traktir, albeit remotely. I wished he was with me, so I could have his piece of cheese toast.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Junior's Deli, 10/18/2009

The cold that inspired my current obsession with soup and hence, this blog (one must suffer for one's art) has put me on an unending quest for anything that will alleviate my discomfort. So far, only copious amounts of sleep and a hot liquid diet have worked.

After two weeks, I have not yet taken my dose of Jewish penicillin. So at the suggestion of my sister Jolene, who is a walking Zagat Guide, it's off to Junior's on Westwood Boulevard I go. Armed with William Saroyan's "One Day in the Afternoon of the World," I sit at the counter. I'm still not used to eating alone in a restaurant and having a book, even if I never open it during the meal, makes me feel less conspicuously alone.

I'm thinking of the last bowl of matzo ball soup I had, at Canter's, everyone's favorite all-night deli. I imagine a bowl of buttery chicken soup, with a nice, fluffy matzo ball floating in it. Out of curiosity, I ask the server what the soup of the day is. He tells me it's lentil and offers a sample. It's very tomatoey and light, not the usual hearty brew that lentil soup tends to be. But the tomatoes make it a little too zingy for this evening, and I ask for the chicken matzo ball soup.

Another option is kreplach, but I don't remember what that is.

"It's a kind of dumpling?" I ask the server.

"Yes, but with beef," he replies.

"What do you like better?"

"I'd get the matzo ball," he shrugs. I nod, asking him for rye toast on the side.

When I was growing up, soup was an afterthought, a gesture made at the beginning of the meal or eaten only when fighting a cold. The fine family of Campbell's products taught me all I needed to know about classic American cuisine, with alphabet soup, chicken noodle, and both chowders, New England and my favorite, the controversially tomato-based Manhattan.

I never went out of my way for soup. But this particular bout of whatever I have has killed my normal appetite for food and all that seems appealing is heat, flavored with herbs and some form of meat.

The soup arrives and old Willie S., who has been my constant companion all weekend in his library binding, is going to have to wait. The steaming bowl requires the use of all my senses to navigate the experience. I ask the server what the yellow knob on top of my matzo ball is, thinking it some sort of unexpected garnish like ginger or extra matzo dough.

"It's chicken, chicken," he says reassuringly, perhaps remembering my quizzical reaction to beef dumplings in chicken soup.

Chicken it is, big moist chunks of it. The bowl is also overflowing with numerous stubby lengths of green celery - it's practically a salad. The hallowed matzo ball takes up three-quarters of the dish, floating in the steaming broth like a fat man in a hot tub. A confetti of thin noodles is nestled underneath this porous hulk, taking the soup to the next level of comfort food. Carbs be damned. Eating this is the gastronomic version of donning sweatpants after a long buttoned-up day at the office.

I'm distracted from my OCD tendency to baste the matzo ball in broth as I'm eating the soup because it's perfect, not too salty and spiked liberally by me with black pepper. When the rye toast arrives, I butter one piece but abandon that in favor of dunking it into the flavorful soup.

My busy but solicitous server passes quickly, pausing to ask, "You like the soup?"

His remark is not a perfunctory, "Is everything tasting good? (as the grammar gods flinch) or the more generic "How is everything?"

I say that it's great. I was impressed with the fact that he actually remembers what people order.

I've noticed a correlation between the sometimes antiquated nature of a restaurant's bill of fare and the attitude of its staff. My experience has been that the more traditional the dishes offered, the more genteel and caring the servers tend to be.

It's almost as if they are stewards of not just your dining experience, but of another place that in this increasingly hurried world, we are constantly searching for. Whether that place signifies relief from a sore throat, the stress of a busy day, or a respite from the superficial gestures and words that often take the place of actual human connection, it's all the same. And you can often find it in the simplest of things - like a good book, a warm smile, or a bowl of really good soup.

Din Tai Fung, 10/17/2009

Yesterday was the first piano recital for my two nephews Seiji and Kenzo ... Since it was at an auditorium in Arcadia, we had to fit in a pilgrimage to that mecca of dumplings, Din Tai Fung. A visit to the shop on Baldwin Avenue, which is the only North American location of the Asian chain, is a rare treat along with the dumplings because a) of the great distance from anywhere and b) because of the minimum hour-long wait that is the hallmark of a trip to DTF...

The various types of dumplings are filled with typical dim sum fillings: ground pork, crab, sweet red bean paste. But the restaurant's popularity lies within the explosion of soup in each dumpling. Explicit directions are printed on the chopstick wrappers, warning the diner of the hot liquid that oozes out of each thin skinned dumpling when it is bitten. Eating these is a ritual. First, you pick up a dumpling, dip it in a sauce of shredded fresh ginger and black vinegar, place it in the large bowl of a melamine soup spoon, and then carefully take a small bite to slurp out the soup before gulping the whole thing down.

If one has waited a polite amount of time before diving into the tray of dumplings, as I did while dining with others (parents of the other pianists), then it is probably safe to simply take in the whole mouthful after the preliminary steps. Many of the group had never been to DTF before, and thought that they ought to try some of the other menu offerings: textbook dishes of fried rice and preternaturally green sauteed vegetables, their emerald perfection no doubt enhanced by a little MSG love.

But those of us who had been there before and the inhabitants of the spirited "kids' table" knew what the priorities were. Six kids each ordered their own tray of ten dumplings apiece, which even I know is a lot of food for a five- to seven-year-old. Their enthusiasm for this exotic yet comforting cuisine - when you're a kid, everything wrapped in dough is good - was evidenced by their happy shouts of "We're full!" This announcement preceded an orgy of running in circles and wrestling on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, to the horror of their parents and passerby - and one highly amused aunt.

At the end of the highly-detailed directions on the chopstick wrapper, it blithely instructs one to "Now enjoy it." It seemed the final benediction to those of us who had anticipated the recital for weeks, after hours of coaxing the kids to practice their songs, the donning of uncomfortable but photogenic clothing, and the hideous traffic endured to get to a venue that seemed to be at the ends of the earth.

Despite all this I hope that next year's recital will be in Arcadia. DTF - and watching S + K reach another milestone in their musical training - is worth the wait.