Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Last Piece of Pie

While talking to Karen last night about the impending changes that come with a new year, namely the much-anticipated shift of consciousness in 2012, I couldn't help but think of the things I hope will endure. One of these things has to be my tried-and-true recipe for quiche. Although it began as a formula for the traditional Lorraine, with time and dietary requirements, the dish evolved into a way for me to embrace the differences among my friends and their palates. I happened to be making up a batch of the savory pie as she and I chatted: one smoked salmon and a ham and cheese for Seiji and Kenzo.

This quiche "shreds": Cheddar and Swiss is my go-to combo, but feel free to experiment.

I wrote this snapshot of a much-loved recipe in 2007 after nearly three decades of making it for numerous gatherings, to impress boys (especially my nephews!), and even to enter it in a pie contest. The joy of my quiche, which has been adapted to suit every taste and dietary restriction, is as much in the process of making it as in the experience of eating it. I have yet to find the best title for this piece, and am open to suggestions - as I am open to requests for yet another new ingredient to add to the pie.

You can please everybody all the time with two flavors per batch. "Grown-up" smoked salmon and spinach parties with "kids' special" ham and cheese. Guess which one the grown-ups will sneak pieces of...

Quiche Story Redux

Go to Trader Joe’s and get one block of sharp cheddar and one block of Swiss; each piece should be about the size of a Betamax tape. Also, get a dozen eggs, a pint of cream, a medium-sized piece of smoked salmon, fresh dill, a bag of spinach and some green onions.

Go to Ralphs and buy two frozen deep dish pie shells. The original recipe was for one quiche, but since Phil broke the dish with the recipe painted on it, you couldn’t remember how many eggs it took, and somehow over time, it evolved into a dozen. Hence the two pie shells. It’s just as well. One would never be enough anyway, and since Shiho and Joselyn are lacto-ovo-pisces vegetarians, they can eat the one with salmon. It’s funny how they don’t think fish is meat. It still has a face, but no legs. Maybe that’s the difference.

The quiche always makes a dramatic entrance from the oven, so don’t start it when you get home so that it comes out just as guests arrive. Besides, you have to pull dishes out, vacuum, dust, and find something to wear. Putter needlessly at these tasks until a couple of hours before everyone arrives.

Thaw a package of six pieces of bacon in the microwave and cook it. Costco has two pounds of thick cut bacon from Canada for $10. It’s a deal, and incidentally, the best bacon I’ve ever had. It’s not Canadian bacon, which is almost like ham, but bacon from Canada. It takes about a year for me to finish a two-pound package.

While the bacon cooks, you can start shredding the cheeses into the big stainless steel bowl. There is enough to eat small wads of it with bits of bacon, but don’t overdo it. Wash the spinach, take the stems off and tear it, and chop up the green onions. Set this mixture aside.

The eggs and I: Save up calories for this one; it's a doozy with heavy cream and a dozen scramblers.

Tear the salmon into little pieces. Curse the phone, because it rings as soon as your hands are covered in fish oil. While you are washing them, the machine picks up. It’s Alice, and she’s bringing Vicki with her.

Finish breaking up the salmon, and chop two or three sprigs of dill to go with it. Put the rest of the dill in the refrigerator. In about three weeks, you will take it out again, the herbs shriveled beyond recognition, and throw it away.

The phone rings again. It’s Jolene, who will be late. As soon as people start arriving, we all start guessing how late she will be. It’s a good thing she always stops at the Chinese bakery, probably part of the reason she is so tardy. Nobody can be mad at you if you bring over a box of old-fashioned almond cookies, the kind made with honest-to-God lard.

Keep the edges of the pie crusts from burning by covering them with a thin collar of aluminum foil. Take a fork and prick holes in the bottom and sides of the pie shells. Don’t ask me why, I saw this in a book somewhere. I think it aerates the pastry and helps it cook more evenly. Or it just provides the illusion of homemade pastry that involved more effort than pulling it out of the freezer.

Pile the dry ingredients into each pie shell, alternating the spinach-cheese mixture with bacon for one, salmon and dill for the other. Another vegetarian alternative is actual vegetables, like fingerling potatoes, zucchini and butternut squash that have been roasted in the oven. Who knew they could taste so good?

There are just some ingredients that I just can’t substitute in order to accommodate dietary needs or allergies . Rodney, who is lactose intolerant, just brings his pills along. He isn’t about to give up my quiche because of a little discomfort, and so far, I haven’t found any great substitute for cream and cheese.

Okay, I wasn’t really looking.

Beat the entire dozen eggs into the big white bowl and add the cream. Put in a healthy dash of salt, grind about a two-inch-wide shadow of black pepper and a pinch of nutmeg over it, and stir.

Carefully pour the egg mixture into the pie shells with the big Pyrex cup. This takes a bit of time, because you have to let the liquid drip and settle between all the layers of ingredients. This should use up almost all of the egg mixture, but don’t overfill them as they will drip messily onto the baking sheet, forming clouds of overcooked egg batter.

Put the pie shells on a large cookie sheet and bake for about an hour at 350 degrees. During that hour, you can finish dressing, fuss over the living room, and unwrap the rest of the food. Operation Quiche dominates the entire kitchen, making it impossible to cook anything else for the party. While you are picking up the ingredients, be sure to buy some hummus and pita chips, carrot sticks, prosciutto, cheeses, olives, whatever.

Love's labors luxe: A crisp and nicely browned top means the egg mixture is cooked, but the quiche is still moist and cheesy within. Let it stand for a few minutes before cutting.

After about 40 minutes, check on the quiches. They are done when you poke them with a steak knife and it comes out clean. By this time, hopefully people have started to arrive. Depending on your oven, you may need an extra 10 minutes, 20 tops.

Bask in the glow of compliments from people who’ve had it before, as they always sniff appreciatively at the savory aroma that fills the kitchen. Enjoy their enthusiastic endorsement to newcomers who have yet to discover this delicacy.

You should have enough to serve approximately 12 happy guests, some of them twice. Make sure that the non-vegetarians leave plenty of salmon pie for Shiho and Joselyn.


Shiho is no longer a vegetarian. And only once did I make a "real" pie crust, it was as easy as the old expression goes. For the LACMA pie contest, everything had to be homemade. So I found a simple recipe for pâte brisée. A dry run is always advised for a new recipe, so a few days before the contest, I gave this a whirl and was really impressed with how simple it was to make such a flavorful crust.

The day before the contest, I made a new batch for the pie contest and refrigerated it overnight per the recipe. But when I unwrapped it the next morning it shattered into a dry crumbly mess, due to the fact that I had not added enough water. With the contest a few hours away and the entry requirement for a freshly baked but cooled pie, I hastily made another batch of pastry and hoped for the best.

The resulting quiches looked good, and I sampled the second one, which was filled with Kenzo's ham and cheese concoction. The crust was acceptable, but I was struck by the simplicity of this "new" recipe.

Kids don't like mushrooms or ground nutmeg. And all cheese is yellow. So I make their quiche by simply piling shredded cheddar cheese and ham or bacon in the pie tin and pouring plain, unseasoned eggs and cream over it before seasoning the remainder for the grown-ups' version.

Kids know what they like and aren't afraid to tell you so. My wish for the new year is that we all can cut to the chase, the way an eight-year-old's palate does. To me, changing consciousness will mean improving old recipes while adapting more readily to new challenges and embracing possibility. Happy New Year!

Sunday, November 27, 2011


About this time last year, Jolene brought home a two-pack of Schick's Chocolate Babka from Costco in the Marina. Babka was one of the things that I had previously ignored when at Canter's bakery in favor of more portable treats such as rainbow cookies, rugalach, and cheese pocket danish. But I tried a tentative slice of the rich, yeasty cake and was hooked.

A couple of weeks ago, my tastebuds remembered the flaky, chocolaty goodness and I drove to Costco to pick up another two-pack. Although the store was well-stocked with every Jewish delicacy you could think of - they even had economy-sized jars of gefilte fish and ready-to-bake pans of noodle kugel - they did not carry Schick's babka this year. I picked up the family's favorite challah, which being from Costco, is about the size of a Mini Cooper, and went home feeling deprived.

Glatt Mart, with no less than four cases of hummus and hummus-related products.

So I hit Pico Boulevard, home to a large number of kosher delis, restaurants and markets. But after a satisfying six-block hike, the marvels of Glatt Mart, which is arguably the largest kosher market in the state, and a fabulous bowl of lentil soup at Eilat Bakery, all I could come up with was one ring-shaped babka from Schwartz's Bakery. Yelpers alternately love or hate the place - sadly, most reviews reflected the latter - and after tasting the dry pastry, I could see why. Actually, since I bought the last one on a Sunday night, it may have been sitting there since before Friday's Sabbath, so I'm hoping theirs doesn't start out as dry. The experience only made me more determined to find either a Schick's babka or an acceptable substitute.

It is ironic that on my recent trip to Phoenix to spend Thanksgiving with David, that I would come up with not just one, but three babkas to sample. We made a beeline for Chompie's, the area's go-to deli near Scottsdale. Comparable to Jerry's Deli in L.A., it is a good, clean restaurant with generous portions of reliably tasty deli fare. Their hefty babka loaf is drizzled with chocolate icing and well-marbled within, with a nice, light sweetness and a rich cocoa-y vein. David looked relieved that we had found what I were looking for so quickly, but as usual, I wanted something more "authentic."

Chocolate babka from Chompie's. No fudging on flavor; this is the best in Phoenix.

I spied Imperial Kosher Market & Deli on Glendale Avenue. Buildings in Phoenix are deceptively large due to the exterior walls that make them inhabitable in the desert heat. The tiny store was attached to a comfortable looking restaurant that offers kosher versions of southern fried chicken alongside more traditional fare. I had phoned them a couple of days before and asked if they sold Schick's Babka and they answered unequivocally, "We have Green's. It's the best."

When we visited the store on the Friday after Thanksgiving, we scored the last chocolate babka, which was surrounded by about a half-dozen of Green's cinnamon variety. They felt as squishy moist as the one I chose, but on the babka flavor hierarchy, chocolate reigns supreme.

"Another babka?"... 'Lainie and Jerry contemplate "the lesser babka."

We picked up another the last one on the day-old table from Karsh's Bakery, seduced by the promise of tiny chocolate chips that covered its top, and headed home. Karsh's ring-shaped cake tasted like a Hostess Crumb Cake with a chocolate bar that was melted into the middle of it, but then it hardened, leaving a slab of second-rate chocolate in the middle of the cake. We ate ourselves sick of the chocolate chips that now littered the bag, the plate, and the counter, but pronounced Karsh's a bust. Babka-beleaguered David, who isn't much for sweets to begin with, said that he liked the one from Chompie's the best, and the Karsh's version, "next to last," in the hopes of not having to taste any more babka. He begged me not to unwrap the Green's loaf, so I took it home for the family to try.

Karsh's babka was like me at 30 - pretty but dry-humoured.

This morning, I opened up the Green's babka, which was pronounced delicious and moist by Jolene and Hiro. Despite its Brooklyn origins, it was the freshest, but then again, it is supplied to delis and markets all over the country and its ingredients must ensure a longer shelf life. It has a good, even chocolate flavor, but I prefer the delicate taste of Chompie's version, albeit when it was two days fresher. It is now a dry slab, optimistically stored in a Ziploc container.

The irony of it all was when I walked into Junior's last night for my welcome-home-to-me bowl of sweet and sour cabbage soup. I was greeted at the bakery counter that faces the front door by a cut half of a glistening, chocolate chip-studded babka. I hesitated, knowing that a doughy pile of babka souvenirs awaited me at home, but will have to give that one a try.

Last exit to Brooklyn: Green's babka delivers, excellent for a store-bought specimen.

The takeaway from all this? When I get obsessed with something, it can be pretty brutal for all involved. Friends and family must suffer for my art. With a delicacy as folksy and homespun as babka, freshness is key. Sometimes, the best of everything could be found just down the street. And I'm still looking.

After our babka-fest, even this volcanic core on Interstate 10 looked like the perfect marbled babka. Another hill looked like mounds of chopped liver.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Cheese Whiz: Asian-Ya's Unexpected Take on Soon Tofu

Cheese figures pretty heavily in Hiro's work. As creative director of Hello Design, he and his team created several sites and campaigns for Tillamook Cheese. A lot of market research went into this, as he and Jolene attended grilled cheese festivals and the phrase, "They serve Tillamook" became the signal for a quality eatery.

So it was no big surprise that he recommended the cheese (yes, cheese!) soon tofu at West L.A. gem, Asian-Ya. Usually, one must move with all possible speed away from places that serve ramen. And soon tofu. And chicken karaage. But Asian-Ya's ambition belies its genius.

I am the Eggplant: Asian-Ya's inventive appetizer.

The grownups started with a sophisticated hors d'oeuvre of eggplant topped with a miso glaze and baked in its rind. Delicately flavorful, without a hint of bitterness, the eggplant was like a veggie souffle. The kids, who are a few years away from thinking any vegetable could be a thing of beauty, had the gyoza, which I have to admit I eyed with longing.

The table also tends to be a pretty colorful display, despite the requisite darkness of the restaurant. Jolene ordered tan tan men ramen, a delightfully spicy rendition of the iconic Japanese comfort food. The broth, reddened with a discreet but intriguing dose of chili, shone like a bright poppy against the dark wood table.

Jolene's tan tan men ramen. Say that five times fast.

Joselyn ordered the classic seafood combo soon tofu, my default order when having soon tofu. But I couldn't resist the promise of cheese. I ordered my broth "regular," which I hoped would mean "medium." It was, and next time, I'll go for "spicy." But the novel soup did not by any means, disappoint. It had the spicy warmth of soon tofu with the blankety, spoon-coating meltiness of French onion soup.

Cheese soon tofu with chicken, who came stag. No egg with this version of soon tofu.

Among the things that whetted my appetite at Asian-Ya were the classic rock/eclectic soundtrack and the blingy maneki neko that watched over us from an alcove above the table.

"Puss in Boots" got nothin' on this cat!

But the best seasoning at Asian-Ya was an evening with family and the discovery of yet another bonus noodle - or wonton, or kreplach, or tortellini - in the ever-simmering soup of casual dining in L.A.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Discomfort Food: Pie Contest Raises Forks and Questions

Several weeks ago, I was scanning – and deleting - the daily dozens of advertisements in my email when my eye landed on the word, “pie.” Except for pumpkin pie during the holidays, I rarely eat the stuff. But the oddity of seeing it mentioned in an email from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art got my attention.

My hopeful Pie #50: Smoked Salmon Quiche with Spinach, Mushrooms, and Shallots

As it turned out, KCRW’s Evan Kleiman and LACMA were presenting the 3rd Annual Good Food Pie Contest at the museum on Sept 19. While I had never really thought of my famous quiche as a pie, I figured it would do, and blithely registered to enter the contest. Although I didn’t place, it was reward enough to see what the most creative bakers in Los Angeles, both amateur and professional, brought to the table.

The event was amazing on many levels. It propelled me to compete in an arena where I rarely felt competition – in the kitchen – teaching my inner Nancy Silverton a thing or two. It also brought a sprawling metropolis together over the homiest of creations, a fresh baked pie. And now that I have the technique for pâte brisée in my repertoire, I feel like a real baker.

"James and the Giant Peach" Pie, a fanciful tribute to LACMA's Tim Burton retrospective and first place winner in that category.

Although the day was full of good-natured competition and a general tossing-off of the diet restrictions of body-conscious Angelenos, I could not help but think of the contrast between the festivities in LACMA’s west courtyard and an exhibit that Shiho and I walked through on our way to the festivities.

Edward Kienholz’s sculpture “Five Car Stud (1969-1972)” was installed at LACMA shortly before the contest. The controversial work was never shown in the United States, but was stored for 40 years in the vaults of a Japanese museum after its first and only showing at the documenta V exhibit in Germany in 1972.

Kienholz’s work, which is constructed with found objects, is brutally honest, hard to look at, and hard not to look at. Although I was very young when I first saw “Back Seat Dodge ‘38” and “The Illegal Operation,” they struck me deeply at the time with a glimpse of a grotesque reality that lies beneath a thin veneer of calm and respectability.

As Shiho and I entered the Art of the Americas Building, we could see the exhibit from the lobby; it is the only work on display. I was startled by the sight of figures moving that I had thought were part of the dimly lit installation. Then I realized that they were actually other visitors to the museum.

The room is dark, illuminated only by the headlights of the vehicles that circle the central figures of the work. I was relieved that there were a few people milling about with us, as the darkness and vague impressions of figures engaged in a horrifying act of violence would have been unbearable without the reminder that we were in a crowded public place. The figures, which were cast from live models, represent five white men who are castrating a black man while his white female companion cowers in horror in a pickup truck. The figure of a small child in one of the cars also witnesses the scene. I am the sort of person who watches horror films through a screen of my fingers; I kept my head down most of the time and stared at the imprints our shoes made on the dirt-covered floor.

I had mainly entered the KCRW pie contest because it reminded me of what it must be like to live in a town like the fictional Mayberry, the setting of “The Andy Griffith Show.” In the show's mythically bucolic universe, the citizens of Mayberry compete in contests focused on domestic skills like putting up homemade pickles. The show makes me think of an America that I wish I lived in, where strangers were only friends you haven’t met yet, and every conflict is solved with everyone having learned their lesson in approximately 23 minutes.

However, even die-hard fans of the show admit that the near- absence of African Americans in North Carolina in the 1960s where the stories are set is strange. Although they are seen as onlookers or in crowds, only one episode - ironically produced when the show went to “color” – features a speaking part by a black actor.

While preparing to celebrate this mythical America of county fairs and blue ribbons with the KCRW pie contest, I heard the story of Troy Davis, a man accused of killing an off-duty police officer in 1989, as it played out to its fatal end. Numerous delays to his execution stretched out over 22 years since his sentencing, during which the evidence resembled a piece of Jarlsberg, so full of holes it was. But things being as they are – black man shoots white cop in Savannah, Georgia – Davis was executed late on the evening of Sept. 21, after one last seven-hour delay while the Supreme Court deliberated his petition for clemency.

The overwhelming support from around the world was amazing. As Davis’s sister said, people who spoke languages that her brother could not, were on his side. President Obama’s silence – which was made much of in the media - was also a cause for wonder. But I don’t know what he could have done either. He was criticized for not acting, but would have been doubly criticized in some parts of these United States for reaching out to a black man on Death Row while the victim’s family sought their justice.

Joan MacPhail-Harris, the widow of Mark MacPhail, told The Associated Press that “it's a time for healing” now that Davis' execution has occurred, that she saw “nothing to rejoice over” in Davis’ death and that she was praying for his family.

“I will grieve for the Davis family because now they're going to understand our pain and our hurt,” she told the AP in a telephone interview from Jackson.

I’m sure that in their respective circles of family and friends, both the Davis and MacPhail families are trying to heal. Public consciousness of the case healed pretty quickly, as the next morning, the story had all but disappeared from the news, except for wrap-up stories on the execution and a few editorials.

After the winners of the pie contest were announced, all of the contestants were invited to serve their pies - which numbered approximately 200 - to the hundreds of spectators who had over the last couple of hours, converged upon LACMA in droves. While my fellow bakers and I worked like mad to appease the hungry mob with as many slivers of our creations as we could carve out with inffectual plastic spatulas, I can’t say I really saw who was out there. I might have noticed a jaunty hat or an unusual apron on someone, as museum visitors were encouraged to wear that day for an informal “fashion show” and free admission to LACMA.

Everyone's a winner - especially the hundreds of LACMA visitors who got a side of pie with the main course of art!

Mostly I was aware of a teeming wave of paper plate-waving humanity, all literally wanting their piece – or in this case, pieces – of the pie. If only justice were as colorblind.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dream Date: Panos Pastry's Ma'amoul

Like many ethnic enclaves in America, Little Armenia is entwined with its neighbor, Hollywood’s Thai Town. Before the last Los Angeles Press Club gathering I attended at the Steve Allen Theater, I headed west on Hollywood Boulevard to check out Panos Pastry.

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but the date- filled ma’amoul at Panos Pastry are among Lori Shahbazian’s family jewels.

After owning and operating his eponymous bakery for 14 years, Panos Zetlian, a native of Beirut, Lebanon, arrived in Los Angeles in the 1980s and in ten years, opened the shop in Hollywood and another in Glendale. Along with the requisite baklava, marzipan, and other Middle Eastern delights, the bakery features homemade chocolates by Panos’s daughter Jovina Shahbazian, and as if that weren’t enough, L.A.’s best ma’amoul.

A YouTube video of a clip from “The Secret Life of Cookies” shows the Zetlian/Shahbazian family showing host Jim O’Conner how ma’amoul are made. One bite of these treats – the date version in particular – will make you want to spin, much like merry bakers did in imitation of the formidable Hobart that mixes the dough.

“They’re full of vitamins from the fresh dates,” says Lori Shahbazian, Panos’s granddaughter, who has worked in the bakery since she was a kid. “A, B, C, the whole alphabet is in there. Dates are high in alkaline, which balances your pH levels.”

Nutritional facts aside, ma’amoul – which are also filled with pistachios or walnuts, another superfood - are just plain good, made with clarified butter and the grainy goodness of semolina that make them crumble and melt in your mouth. And they are one pastry that, like the ubiquitous black-and-white cookie, represents an idea of world peace: Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike in the Levantine nations all enjoy them during their respective holidays.

Look to the cookie... but save the date ma'amoul for me!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Meet the Marks: Fig Lollipops at The Factory

My co-worker Mark C. and his husband – who is also named Mark – live in a hidden oasis of just west of Atlantic Avenue in Bixby Knolls. Their neighborhood, which is known as the Virginia Country Club, is made up of wide, old-fashioned streets from the days when Long Beach was known as “Iowa by the Sea.” A few blocks away are mansion-esque homes that have been used extensively in films to stand in for places like suburban Chicago in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and the fictional town of Middlesex, Virginia in “Donnie Darko.” Even their house - which Mark C. jokes is on the lower end of the country club food chain - was used for a Domino’s Pizza commercial once.

On our way to the First Friday artwalk on Atlantic, we stopped at The Factory, a family-friendly gastropub that opened in 2009. Ordinarily, you would not expect to find tempranillo and temper tantrums – thankfully, we did not witness any of these – under the same roof. But The Factory beckons to one and all and to bring the kids for mini Happy Cow burgers and grilled cheese.

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a fig lollipop?

Perhaps it is this playful spirit that inspired the fig lollipop tapas, which were hands-down our favorite appetizer that night. Organic dried figs that are stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon and drizzled with a fig balsamic reduction are probably not for the Tootsie Pop set, but their parents, aunts, uncles, and babysitters will love them. They taste like the holidays: sweet, spicy, and porky, all at once.

The world may never know.

Mark B. and I had Bixby Blue Burgers made with 10 oz. grass-fed beef patties and Mark C. had the Drunken Seafood Noodles, a global wonder made with Japanese udon noodles and smoked Spanish pimenton . We didn’t have room for dessert, but really, we had already had it with our inventive appetizer.

Tangled up in blue: More of the odiferous queso on the Bixby Blue burger.

Ironically, “The Factory” was also the name of Andy Warhol’s original studio throughout the 1960s, and was the legendary site of wild parties whose guest lists – and probably crashers – included the likes of Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Truman Capote, Martha Graham, and Mick Jagger. Definitely no kids allowed.

Spicy udon noodles with shrimp and calamari in a mini-paella pan... It's a small world, after all.

Long Beach’s First Friday doesn’t boast a lot of celebrities, unless you count the denizens of Gallery Expo, which include David Rodriguez and Douglas Orr, the former owners of Atlantic's dearly departed Four Olives Café. The pair has turned their talents to curating shows of Long Beach’s best and brightest at Expo. The cornucopia of painting, sculpture, photography, and found object art – we really liked the “robots” made from a variety of vintage electronic parts and tools – was a great ending to an eclectic evening with great food and new friends.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eatalian Cafe: The Ladies Who Lunch

I was Laverne to Shelly's Shirley - and sometimes the other way around - during our retail days back in college. Whenever we we planned a food outing with friends, she would fixate on what we had discussed. And if, as is bound to happen with large and unruly groups of friends, somebody changed the collective mind and we ended up somewhere else, her day was ruined momentarily. But being Shelly, she'd end up being a good sport about it - after all, she still got to eat.

Her daughter Frances has inherited not only her mother's love of grub, but her steely-eyed focus. Although she was recovering from the indignity of a chicken pox shot the morning before the three of us had lunch at Eatalian Cafe, Frances set her sights on getting through a meal with grownups, whose agenda invariably included coaxing her to eat things like vegetables.

Shelly with Eatalian's signature "Emilia," a salad of grilled eggplant, zucchini, onion, and bell pepper, topped with Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar. So good, even a kid would eat it... maybe.

I am still amazed at how little it takes for a toddler to eat and be full. After two bites of her penne in marinara sauce, Frances decided that she was done. She humored Shelly and I through our grilled salad and our ambitious order of both the Pizman (tomato sauce, mozzarella, speck, porcini mushrooms,and gorgonzola cheese) and the Rock (tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy salami,gorgonzola cheese, spinach, and bacon). Eatalian's pizzas are made with a crust that was crispy and thinner than the excuses we made to each other about ordering two very similar pies.

Frances tucks in to her plate of penne al pomodoro. It took longer to say that than it did for her to eat her fill.

I asked Frances what her favorite food was. Not surprisingly, she said, "Chocolate!" Wanting to get more of a sense of what kids want to eat, I asked her what she liked to eat for dinner. Her answer: "Meat!" Having eaten her dad Luis's roasted pork before, I can't say that I blame her.

Kids don't think about making a meal balanced. Food is food and any food you really like is what you should eat. As adults, we become obsessed with how we combine dishes and how much nutrition and calories we are ingesting, which sometimes takes the fun out of eating.

But there are some things we never outgrow. As Shelly and I argued about who was going to take the leftover pizza home and swore that we would never eat again, the word "gelato" suddenly brought us to our senses. We tag-teamed up to the gelato counter - why doesn't every Italian restaurant in the world have one of these? - and returned with our respective dolces.

In it to win it: Frances knew all along that one can't eat a whole plate of pasta if one intends to eat a whole cup of chocolate gelato.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Stone in Love: My Peachy Keen Summer Fling

Of all of summer's voluptuous fruity offerings, none is as lauded in lore and on the tongue as the peach. My yearly obsession has been fed this year by the Sahara and Zee Lady varieties at Whole Foods, which are currently blessing my palate with their tree-ripened goodness. Despite my joyful indulgence, I live in the shadow of the inevitable end of this bonanza of flavor, which any day will cease as abruptly and rudely as a summer fling.

Gather ye peaches while ye may - and put them on pizza or in the soup! Above: Linda's "gaz-peacho," redolent with cilantro, cucumber, and garlic. Below: Cheese pie with onion marmalade, thyme and yellow peaches from Whole Foods.

In Chinese mythology, the peach is an auspicious fruit that symbolizes longevity. Each part of its tree was designated as having special powers, such as the wood, which was crafted into weapons by ancient warriors.

The peach's power as inspiration for art has been diversified from ancient Japanese folktales to rock and roll. The story of Momotaro, or "Peach Boy," depicts an elderly couple's discovery of a baby boy inside a giant peach.

Momotaro is "pitted" against ogres with a little help from his friends. Happy ending included.

And who could forget "Eat a Peach," a 1972 album by the Allman Brothers Band, featuring one of the greatest rock instrumentals ever, "One Way Out." The title comes from a quote by the late Duane Allman, who said that whenever he was in Georgia, he would "eat a peach for peace." The cover art was created by artist James Flournoy Holmes, and was named one of the 100 Greatest Album Covers of All Time by Rolling Stone.

In T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the narrator asks the rhetorical question, "Do I dare to eat a peach?". This cryptic line has been widely interpreted as everything from his fear of losing an aging tooth from biting down on a peach pit to referring to the protagonist's feelings of sexual inadequacy. Indeed, peaches are a very sensual fruit. However, I think old Alfie was just afraid of spoiling his perfectly pressed shirtsleeves with the inevitable gusher of peach juice.

T.S. Eliot's portrait by Wyndham Lewis. Would you trust this man with your peaches?

A new foodie mag called Lucky Peach has hit the newstands, including to my surprise, the one at Albertson's. The creation of David Chang, the founding chef of the Momofuku restaurant group in New York, New York Times food blogger Peter Meehan, and Zero Point Zero Production, producers of the Emmy–winning "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations." Also available as an iPad app, the magazine is published quarterly by McSweeney's - the closest thing to the Algonquin Round Table in existence today. The eye-catching photo on the cover is of a couple of raw chickens being lowered into a pot, and hints at the urbanely witty and acerbic prose within.

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. The inaugural issue of Lucky Peach promises a noodling good time with its comprehensive look at ramen.

The first release is labeled, "The Ramen Issue," which refers to both its theme and to the myriad versions of ramen that abound in Japan, the U.S., and everywhere in between. Articles include a travelogue of eating through pre-tsunami Japan by Chang and Meehan, a regional guide to the origins of different ramen styles, and step-by-step recipes for alternative ways with the classic instant ramen package, from "Oriental Dip" made with the uber-salty seasoning packet to ramen-crusted skate, which uses pulverized noodles as breading for fish. Betty Crocker would be proud.

Sweet irony: The first name of Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Foods, translates from Japanese into "lucky peach."

And finally, peaches end up in the soup. Linda's answer to J. Al's question is not to only "eat a peach," but put it in the blender and turn it into gazpacho with an adventurous Martha Stewart recipe.

Linda, who is one of my most fearless friends, has provided wonderful evenings of wonderful conversation and food at our semi-monthly "writers' group" meetings of two. No shrinking sister of Prufrock she, Linda writes a blog, "Aging Isn't For Sissies," the spirit of which gives me hope for what used to be considered "the declining years."

The Lovely Linda
summoning the writer's muse with a bowl of sweet, earthy gazpacho made with tree-ripened peaches.

In my mind, Linda has turned the second half of life into "the defining years," with acts of bravery that include marrying my colleague John in her late 40s; taking on Ma Jolie, the world's feistiest German Shepherd (one meter reader is still missing in action); and by having life-transforming lap band surgery done about a month ago. It was her boredom with the transitional diet of liquids and bland, soft foods what prompted me to ask her to make her "gaz-peacho" for dinner when we met to presumably work on becoming the next Edna Ferber (Linda is working on, among many projects, a lightly fictionalized version of her family's history) and Dorothy Parker (I am working on becoming a lightly fictionalized version of me).

Peaches and garlic? Don't knock it until you try it. Currently, food trends include challenging our tastebuds with creations like toffee laced with bacon or lemonade infused with rosemary - both of which are wonderful. Our sunny bowls of fragrant gaz-peacho were accompanied by kalamata olive bread. It was just the thing to celebrate Linda and John's burgeoning new lease on life; he had undergone a gastric bypass in June. The simplicity of our summery meal and the sight of my friends blooming with newly-gained vim and vigor was a feast in itself.

Linda and John, my favorite Francophiles - vive l'amour... and vive la pêche!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Grand Casino: Main Street, Argentina Style

Lidia Lamanna sits daily at a sidewalk café in downtown Culver City, knitting or embroidering guest towels to give as gifts. Her industrious spirit was an inspiration when I was first getting to know the city, and I would often bring my beadwork and create jewelry while sitting on Grand Casino's patio, nursing a café con leche and a couple of alfajores.

How many calories can you burn while beading?

One day, I decided to stay for dinner, and ordered the strip steak, whose simple and garlicky seasonings always remind me of the steaks my dad used to prepare. I was hooked. I've brought friends to Grand Casino since, happy to find a place that combines incredibly good food with a comfortable atmosphere. Later, I learned that Lidia was not just a crafty lady who liked to knit in Argentinian restaurants, but the owner of my favorite downtown eatery.

"It was my husband's idea," says Mrs. Lamanna of Grand Casino, which she and her late husband Frank Lamanna, opened seven years ago on Main Street. "He always liked to do something new."

The greatest thing to happen to Catholics since Vatican II: Grand Casino's tuna empanada, available - sadly - only at Lent.

The bakery - purveyor of the aforementioned alfajores and other delights - has been there since 1987, with all the baking done on-site. Lamanna, who has retired and turned over the chef's apron to her daughter Linda, says that many of the dishes are made from family recipes. The menu, which is influenced by Lidia's Austrian-Russian background and her husband's Italian tradition, posseses the additional sabor of their native Buenos Aires.

Lamanna says that while she has experienced many types of cafés around the world, the ones in Argentina most resemble the cafés of France. People from all walks of life gather on the patio at Grand Casino all week long, using it as everything from a boardroom to a breakfast nook. Artistes of all kinds share their art, as the restaurant is a cozy venue for many musicians, tango dancers, and wine tastings.

Clemente Leon, who has worked at Grand Casino for five years, says that his favorite thing about his job is, "Everything. My customers. They bring their friends."

Grand Casino's parrillada, or mixed grill. Indulging my inner gaucho, minus the funny pants we wore in the seventh grade.

People - incredible food notwithstanding - are what make the place hum. Last Monday, when David and I drove into L.A. from Phoenix, missing not only Carmageddon but yet another Arizona dust storm. I told him he had to experience Grand Casino on this visit. But as we walked in, we learned that the restaurant closes at 8 p.m. seven days a week. We must have looked pretty hungry, because once again, luck was with us: Lidia and her staff allowed us to stay and eat. We ordered the parrillada, a mixed grill for two, which we devoured with great enjoyment and extra chimichurri sauce, as the staff closed the restaurant.

I learned recently that Grand Casino will begin to stay open an hour later - until 10 p.m. - all seven days. Apparently I was not the only one who wished that my favorite escape from the L.A. grind was open later. When it first opened, people were clamoring for Grand Casino to stay open past six and serve dinner. With the restaurant being located off Culver Boulevard, the dining hub of town with trendy options on every corner, that kind of popularity is nothing to sneeze at.

"We want all the customers to be happy," says Lamanna.

It's impossible not to be happy at Grand Casino. Even when, on April 1 this year, I and about 30 die-hard customers ate our lunches with contentment both inside the restaurant and at the sidewalk tables as city workers jackhammered at chunks of Main Street right in front of the patio - no foolin'.

It's a good thing I don't taste with my ears.

Soon-dooboo: A Soup by Any Other Name

I've been hard pressed to find one common spelling for that ultimate Korean comfort soup, sundubu. Or, as I've seen it spelled on menus, soon-tofu.

Mountain, a new Korean eatery in Gardena's Tozai Plaza, spells it soon-dooboo. I ordered the soon-dooboo chigae, or as Wikipedia has it listed, sundubu jjigae. No matter how you spell it, the light but satisfying concoction is full of buttery soft tofu, a variety of shellfish, and a spicy but not overwhelming broth. Tradition dictates a raw egg, broken into the boiling soup when it arrives at the table. But my favorite part of a sundubu/soon-dooboo/soon tofu meal is the banchan.

Any way you spell it, Korean tofu soup is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

While kim chee - or kimchi - is often thought of as spicy pickled cabbage, any vegetable can be made into kim chee, at varying levels of heat. Dylan and I were served the requisite cabbage and daikon varieties, along with the inevitable potato salad. As the blandest thing on the table, this made for a good palate cleanser. But the most surprising banchan was a bowl of what would be best described as caramelized tidbits of beef in broth, an unusual prelude to the fiery soups we were anticipating.

Tongyeong "tapas" - banchan can be a meal in itself.

Mountain prides itself on health conscious ingredients. They even offer dishes that are considered great remedies for colds (and hangovers. Yelpers - who call the Koreatown location "Mountain Cafe" - are fervent believers in the restorative powers of abalone porridge and the sam geah tang, which is chicken ginseng soup.

They even offer a choice of white or brown rice, which always gets bonus points from me. Except that the "brown" rice was highlighted by a lovely shade of purple. Like the elusive common spellings for tofu soup, the jury is out on what gives this rice the color of a penny loafer. Luckily, it's a whole lot tastier than one.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New Kid in Town: Ferraro's on the Hill

The newest Italian eatery in identity-conflicted Rancho Dominguez is located on Victoria Street in a strip mall that includes the place to get The Best Pho in Los Angeles, a Quiznos, and an ever-changing rotation of mom-and-pop lunch spots that cater mainly to firefighters, whitish-collar captains of industry and those of us at Cal State Dominguez Hills who are starved for options during Campus Dining's semi-hiatus during the summer months.

I was sitting in my office one morning when a guy with a New Yawk accent walked in and gave me a handful of fliers and coupons for Ferraro's on the Hill, including a coupon for a free slice of cheese pizza. Although fliers don't usually excite me, the messenger got authenticity points for his pronunciation. I just happened to be mulling over where James and I would go to lunch that day, and Ferraro's, looked promising with its menu of classics, the names of which all ended in an operatic vowel.

The restaurant itself is stark and clean, with a map of Southern Italy on a chalkboard-like surface and plain wooden tables and chairs. But my old friend "Al Fresco" beckoned from the large and sunny patio area, so we seated ourselves outside after ordering from the counter.

Spaghetti with meat sauce is my usual litmus test for a new Italian restaurant. I ordered the Bolognese meat sauce, while James had his spaghetti with meatballs. When our pastas were served, we noted with delight that the noodles were coated with sauce in addition to being topped with a generous dollop of sauce on top. But it was the complex flavor of the sauce itself that made us wish our plates of pasta would never end.

Works of art: Bon vivant James Scarborough and his life-changing plate of spaghetti and meatballs.

Actually, James, who is an art, theatre, and film critic for the Huffington Post and his own blog, really is a work of art, having been immortalized in a portrait by Ray Turner, which is on view at the Long Beach Museum of Art through Sept. 11. As executive director of PICTURE Art, a new venue on campus, he has become the Pied Piper to students who wander into his space and end up wanting to work as docents, or at the very least, decide that it's a great place to bring a date.

As we sat eating in reverence while trying to figure out the exotic herbs that were surely responsible for our state of gastronomic rapture, Joe Ferraro came out and asked how the food was. Like pupils showing off for a culinary tutor, we burst forth with our guesses on the secret ingredient: Fennel! Sage! Nutmeg! Coriander!

Joe indulgently listened and then revealed to us that the sauce did not contain any of these spices, but was simmered for six hours and included a touch of cream. He then brought us a soup bowl full of Joe's Famous Tomato Salad, which consists of chunks of fresh tomato, red onions, and basil, marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We were bursting from our Bolognese bacchanal, but slurped up the gazpacho-esque concoction greedily, soaking up the tomato juice with our bread.

You say "tomayto," I say "tomaato"... And, "Bring me more bread!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ain't No Mottainai Enough: Gardena Ramen Spot is Smokin' Good

Along with the the superbly criminal pun that this restaurant inspires, Mottainai is yet another foodie find, courtesy of my friend Ally. When she told me to meet her at the ramen place in Pacific Square, I was afraid that the landmark Fukagawa had closed and been replaced by a new upstart ramen shop. Happily, I was wrong.

Great noodle places are like speakeasies, with hidden entrances like the one at Otafuku on Western Avenue. After a few sweeps of the shopping center and another phone call, I realized that the place with the blue curtain with the endless knot on it was Mottainai. That's what happens when you don't know how to read Japanese.

Behind the curtain: Mottainai awaits with bowls of flavorful ramen.

The mysterious blue curtain is deceptive. Stainless steel walls give the restaurant a modern cleanliness while pine tables make it cozy. The motto painted on a cornice declares Mottainai's environmentally conscious philosophy: "Recycle + Reuse + Reduce + Respect." Loosely translated, the word "mottainai" is a lamentation of waste. It makes for an ironic counterpoint to the very act of making soup, which usually involves distilling the essence of food from scraps and parts that are normally thrown away.

In the spirit of "mottainai," they recycled the cover art from a No Doubt album for this decor.

While "Sapporo Miso Lover" might sound like the title of either a Gwen Stefani song or her latest clothing line, it is the trademark item on Mottainai's menu. The soup is a specialty of the Sapporo, which is the capital of Hokkaido, Japan. Its preparation involves flaming a mixture of miso and lard in a blazing wok. I watched entranced as one of the chefs, Hiro Igarashi, did just that behind a glass panel at the counter.

It all happened so fast. Artsy shot that exposed after the flames died down. With extra bean sprouts.

I added extra toppings of fresh spinach and an egg. I also had to have the "red bomb," a ping-pong ball of chili paste that added a nice, but not obliterating heat to the soup. Mottainai also offers another "bomb" of garlic and pork fat if you want your broth really porky. But my Sapporo already had plenty of porcine goodness, coupled with an unusual smoky flavor from the toasted miso.

Bombs away: A paste of red chilies complements the toasted miso and pork-rich broth of the Sapporo Miso Lover.

Chef Hiro offered me tastes of all the different broths they serve at Mottainai, if I had room for it after my huge bowl of soup. Sadly, I had to decline until next time. My tastebuds were too busy celebrating - and the rest of me was too full - to appreciate the savory subtleties of a "flight" of different soups.

Each of the ramen offerings were named after their region of origin: Tokyo, Yokohama, and Gardena. Yes, Gardena. For those of us who grew up in the South Bay, the city was our first introduction to Japanese food and culture. For those of us who grew up in the South Bay in the 1970s, Gardena was our first introduction to any Asian food and culture. So it deserves having a ramen named after it.

Ironically, Nissin Foods, makers of the ubiquituous Top Ramen, Cup of Noodles, and other products that have introduced mainstream palates to the joys of ramen is also located in Gardena.

I'm not knocking the stuff - Top Ramen has gotten more Americans through college than the Pell Grant. But you really haven't had ramen until you've sat down in front of a steaming bowl in one of any number of amazing hole-in-the-wall noodle shops between Crenshaw and Vermont. And you haven't really explored the surprising potential in a ball of pork fat until you've been to Mottainai.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Flipping For Olive Oil Pancakes

Whenever I see an olive tree, I am instantly transported to the house my sisters and I grew up in on Pullman Lane. My father had planted an incredible rock garden in the front and back of the house. As a kid, I felt kind of cheated that we didn't have a nice green lawn, just carefully laid-out islands of gravel and smooth round pebbles.

Artfully placed within these little islands were a veritable Eden of trees and plants, both ornamental and fruit-bearing. Along with the requisite assignation of a lemon and avocado tree in our Southern California backyard, there was a fig tree, stalks of sugar cane, and a loofah gourd vine, the fruits of which we dried in the sun and used as bath sponges. We girls grew whatever we could from those packets of seeds that were sold in the supermarket: cherry tomatoes, strawflowers, sunflowers, sweet peas, and cornflowers. As an experiment one day, we buried stubs of raw potato and were absolutely thrilled when several weeks later, we dug up a tiny, dun-colored spud the size of the head of a pin. It was hardly edible. Frankly, it was hardly visible. But we were excited that we grew it ourselves.

The gold standard of our agrarian experience was the exotic foliage that Dad had planted. The centerpiece of our front yard was a beautiful olive tree, the first one I had ever seen. I used to climb it, or rather, wedge myself into the inverted tripod of its trunk, feeling shelter in its lithe and leafy branches. Once, I even attempted to eat its bitter, unprocessed fruit, which I instantly spit on the ground in dismay.

You haven't really been a kid if you've never worn "olive fingers."

The appearance of trays of canned black olives, mixed nuts, and celery sticks on our mother's coffee table meant that company was coming. We would steal them and put the pitted ones on our fingertips like chubby jet- colored finger puppets. Much later, I would discover the briny delight of the Kalamata olive and the piquant ecstasy of green pimento-stuffed olives in a martini. Unless I have at least four plump olives perched precariously on the wide rim of my glass, it's not a real martini. Surely, this would count toward my five-a-day fruit and veggies. (By the way, it's eight-a-day in Europe.)

I remember an ancient bottle of Pompeii Olive Oil on our kitchen range at home. I never saw my parents use it in anything, but I remember its musty, yet peppery smell. The first time I was served Italian bread sans butter, I must have looked at the tiny saucer of chartreuse liquid dotted with balsamic vinegar in puzzlement. But as in the case of sushi, croissants, and soccer, Americans are quick to adapt to new ideas from other lands. Well, at least when it comes to food.

Last summer, I discovered tortas de aceite, the crisp and lightly sweet Spanish cracker that gets its distinctive nutty flavor from olive oil. When I first saw them at Surfas, I imagined the plain unassuming pastries as being baked in a convent and wrapped in their quaint oily paper by nuns. They are not, but the fiction made them taste even better.

These would be more popular than Girl Scout cookies if we could get "The Flying Nun" as a spokesmodel.

Maybe I channeled nuns when I found tortas de aceite because of the memory of a similar pastry from when I was in the second grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe Elementary School. One of my best friends, who bore the imposing name of Esperanza Solbach, shared a piece of the homemade "doughnut" that her mother had put into her lunchbox. Even at that age, I could tell it was homemade, its yeasty goodness accentuated with the merest sprinkling of cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg.

Sadly, at age seven, I had not thought to ask my friend for the recipe and have been trying to find that elusive taste ever since, the tidbit of cake looming large in my imagination like Proust's madeleine. Ironically, mass-produced versions of said madeleine are available at Starbucks and Trader Joe's. But whatever it was that my schoolyard chum had in her lunch is, like that day, long gone. I've even done extensive hands-on research on the native desserts of both Spain and Germany, figuring the recipe must have come from one side of her parents' culinary heritage. I came up empty, but found that Alpine Village actually does serve a mighty fine German chocolate cake - despite the face that the recipe isn't German at all, but refers to the brand of baking chocolate that is used.

Fast forward to the present, which has me watching a clip from "Made in Spain," a PBS series by chef Jose Andres with great interest. A native of Asturria with the accent to match, the show's ebullient host makes even raw egg sound entertaining: "The omelet is crying of happiness." In Andres's world, ingredients have lives and voices of their own, with flavors that "talk to each other" and pancakes that demand, "Jose, it's time to flip me over."

Chef with extreme case of olive hand, film at 11.

Hoping that these pancakes would recapture that childhood memory, I made them for my nephews. Although they are years away from appreciating the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil and 60 percent cacao in the chocolate chips, I think the main attraction for the boys was simply the fact that any chocolate with breakfast is a good thing.

So, did the olive oil pancakes taste like Esperanza's mom's doughnut? Despite their crispy exterior and dense, chewy texture, they didn't. But hopefully they'll make a new memory for two boys who will know when they're old enough to cook where they can get the recipe.