Sunday, September 30, 2012

Great Scot: Oatmeal Gets Its Due

Professor John McNeil, who is about 93-years-old and long retired from the Department of Education at UCLA, still arrives on campus around 5:30 a.m., walks the track, and has his breakfast at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, a meal which often consists of oatmeal. He shared the story of the British lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who traveled to Scotland with his friend and intellectual sparring partner James Boswell, a Scottish lawyer, author, and diarist.

Desk set: Trader Joe's Steel-Cut Oats with
Rosemary Marcona Almonds and Greek yogurt

Johnson turned his nose up at the Scots' fondness for oatmeal, and in his "Dictionary of the English Language" which was published in 1755, he defined oats as "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland, appears to support the people." In Boswell's biography of Johnson, Patrick Murray, the 1st Lord Elibank, was credited with the retort, "Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?"

Oats are deeply ingrained (pun intended) in Scottish cuisine as a staple, being better suited than wheat to the country's short and wet growing season. It is used as a coating for Caboc cheese and is a main ingredient for such delicacies as black pudding, skirlie, and haggis. For less adventurous palates, oats are used in the baking of bannocks or oatcakes, a stylish and tasty alternative that my friend and hostess-with-the-mostest Linda Capelli Pierce, adds to one of her celebrated cheese plates.

While the colorful 1943 ditty tells us that
"Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats," it doesn't
explain how mares and does balance a spoon
between their hooves.

According to Wikipedia, ancient universities of Scotland observed a holiday called Meal Monday to permit students to return to their farms and collect more oats for food. Access to a steaming cup o' the "parritch" is a lot simpler for us at UCLA. Just about every morning pit stop en route to campus offers the warming and healthy cereal, including Peet's Coffee and Tea, McDonald's, and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. With more moxie than a McMuffin and more brawn than a bagel, oats in either the instant or the steel-cut variety also provide a good source of B-complex vitamins, iron, and protein. In addition, a well-known health fact about oatmeal is its ability to help lower cholesterol levels as an excellent source of fiber.

My foodie friend Anna brings her steel-cut oatmeal from home and covers it with fresh berries, a colorful and nutritious morning repast. I was addicted to the blackberry-blueberry sauced version at Jamba Juice, and will fall back on that when in a hurry. But when feeling creative, I whip up Trader Joe's Steel-Cut Oatmeal in Ye Olde Microwave - much easier than stirring it on the stove, and it comes out the same! - and add a variety of toppings depending on what's in my office "pantry."

I'm not a big fan of milk, so I add Fage Greek 0% plain yogurt for needed moisture, and top it off with sliced fresh plums or a sprinkling of TJ's Rosemary Marcona Almonds for a bit of crunch and pine-nut-like zing. But the most decadent topping I came up with seemed the most obvious: chopped dark chocolate with trail mix. It's like having oatmeal cookies for breakfast. Bananas would also work well for those mornings when nothing will do for breakfast but dessert.

Berry photogenic: Anna's oatmeal with
summer fruit. Photo by Anna Hoang

Professor McNeil grew up in Cherokee, Iowa, a small town center for local farmers. His father, George McNeil, was a homesteader, among the first to settle the Iowa prairie in 1880. His mother Elizabeth McCulloch, emigrated from a farm in Highlands Invergorden, Rossshire, Scotland, where she doubtless developed her love of oats.

Over a breakfast of oatmeal at Corner Bakery in Westwood, McNeil and I discussed the issues of the day and what was new on campus. Since I often eat on the fly during the workweek, this was a doubly nourishing repast. Cold oats would not typically sound appealing, but the bowl of chilled Swiss muesli with yogurt and plenty of chopped apples and raisins was delicious. And I didn't have to worry about it getting cold as we chatted, the conversation being the most fortifying element of my morning meal.

Chilled Swiss muesli at Corner Bakery.
Professor McNeil said that when he was a boy, his mother offered him anything he wanted for breakfast - pancakes, bacon, the works - as long as he ate his oatmeal first.

"I was so full after that, I didn't want anything else," he recalls.

I had told Professor McNeil about an editorial on the current disparity between male and female success - at least in the United States - that I have aired in several discussions lately. In it, David Brooks contends that men have not done as well as women in educational and economic arenas lately, largely because of their tendency to adhere to old standards of what is masculine, whereas women have adapted in much the same way that immigrants to a new country do in order to fit in.

George McNeil adapted to the changing economy in the Midwest, and explored the growing railroad industry along with his own attempts at farming and ranching before opening a merchandising business that folded with the advent of the Depression that ultimately influenced the family’s move to the West Coast.

While raising Professor McNeil and his sister, his mother served as a reporter for the town's newspaper. He remembers her immediate response to local events and catastrophes, and even accompanying her on interviews of the town’s personalities.

“Perhaps because of her, I never doubted what women can accomplish,” McNeil wrote to me in an email, reflecting on our talk – and perhaps of being hoodwinked out of a laboriously prepared breakfast by a busy mother!

Morning glory: Professor John McNeil
and his oatmeal at Corner Bakery.

Despite Professor McNeil's healthy breakfast of oatmeal, he often eats dessert for lunch. When I've joined him at the Faculty Center for the midday meal, he dines on a goblet of blackberries and a slice of the cake du jour. I tried to get him to eat something more substantial, but let's face it - once you reach his age, you can pretty much have anything you damned well please. I shudder to think what he has for dinner. But whatever Professor McNeil is eating, it appears to be working. My friend may well have discovered the Fountain of Youth.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Things We Ate Last Summer

Although Sammy Cahn didn't elaborate on "the lunches we used to pack" in his hit, "The Things We Did Last Summer," I can't imagine that they were nearly as good as this summer's moveable feast of good friends sharing good food. Looking back at the last few months, we've covered a lot of ground  - and plates. And ice cream cones. And bakeries. And...

Without further ado, here is a sampling of what "I'll remember all winter long."

Rock and roll: Okay, tuna yukke wasn't technically
a sushi "roll," but it totally rocked!

Tuna Yukke at Kula Revolving Sushi Bar - There is something oddly satisfying about having conveyor belts placidly carry food past your table. It's a feeling like the excitement of flagging down the ladies with their dim sum carts at Empress Pavilion. Since Yayoi, a native of Japan, was willing to eat here, I figured it would be pretty good, and it was.

Sushi would undeniably qualify as a superfood. The two-pieces of Tuna Yukke (spicy tuna with poached egg) packed a protein wallop, leaving barely enough room for more sushi, but I still managed.

Yayoi says that the proper way to eat sushi is sans chopsticks. I found this helpful YouTube video that describes the correct way to enjoy sushi – and this tongue-in-cheek video that tells you what not to do.

Lamb satay at Three Spices: Fun on a stick - except
for any dining partners who might end up with my
portion in their lap!
Another sushi-rific find I enjoyed this summer was the documentary, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." The film, which looks at the life of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi restaurant that is located in a Tokyo subway station and holds three Michelin stars.

One can hardly compare a place like Kula to a veritable temple of art like Ono's. But there is definitely some sort of spiritual satisfaction that is gained with a cuisine as exacting as sushi, whether it is in the creating of it, or the eating.

Lamb Satay at Three Spices Thai Kitchen - My new UCLA foodie friends and I had decided that our head maven Anna could not possibly have a complete picture of Asian food in Los Angeles unless she experienced the cornucopia of choices in the Torrance/Gardena area.

While the area has been a longtime enclave of Japanese and Japanese Americans, many other types of cuisine have taken a foothold in the last decade or so. We started the cook's tour at Three Spices Thai Kitchen in Gardena. My fondest memories from eating at Three Spices are of accidentally flinging bits of lamb satay across the table while trying to slide them off the skewer with my fork. Dylan doesn't usually mind when that happens, but I decided to behave myself a bit better since I lunching with ladies.

We started with shrimp tom kha soup, a traditional broth of lemongrass and coconut, spiced with galangal, thai chili, and lime juice. We also ordered the lamb satay, which I carefully ate off the skewers. The requisite peanut sauce is elevated to another dimension here, with just enough zingy sweetness to complement the perfectly grilled lamb chunks.

So close, and yet, so far: The bakery case tease while standing
in line at Huckleberry
I still don't know what the "three spices" are, especially since there are about 20 artfully arranged glass canisters lining the window that overlooks the kitchen. But this little gem of a Thai cafe, nestled amid Vermont Avenue's purveyors of ramen and loco moco is top shelf, indeed.

Saturday Morning Brunch at Huckleberry - Breakfast has always been my favorite meal to eat out, despite the fact that on the weekend, it's everyone's favorite meal to eat out. The lines at Santa Monica's Huckleberry are bearable in my opinion, because of the bakery case that provides a hint of the delights to come. By the time Shiho and I reached the cashier to place our order, we had forgotten what we wanted for breakfast, so addled were our brains with the sight of tempting biscuits, cookies, and other treats. With our eyes bigger than our stomachs, we started off with a blueberry crostata, a lime posset, and a maple bacon biscuit. Actually, we also ordered a salted caramel cookie bar, but in our guilt, we had that boxed up to go.

Always eat dessert first - even at breakfast!
The lime posset was a great start to the meal. It looked like a sort of custard, with the clean and simple flavors of fresh cream and the refreshing but not overpowering tang of lime. After that, we sampled the decadent maple bacon biscuit, a flaky cushion of dough flecked with thick and chewy bacon. It was only after our collective curiosity about these guilty pleasures was sated, that we decided to eat our actual breakfast of poached egg atop über-healthy quinoa, a meal meant to atone for the goodies that we ordered while in morning glutton mode.

Eating with Shiho is an exercise in feast and famine, both literally and figuratively. We are both super busy, so we don't see each other all that often. But when we do, we fall effortlessly into the companionable habits of old friends. She is a great listener, and I shamelessly take advantage of that.

When I finally stop talking and glance absentmindedly down at the table, I invariably notice that Shiho's plate is like a palette with a carefully placed swath of paint perched on it. She has this habit of neatly sweeping her food toward her, unconsciously swabbing the plate clean. I have always marveled at this rather admirable quirk of hers. Although I never think much of how my plate looks when I'm eating, I am always suddenly aware when dining with Shiho of how it is always as unorganized as my thoughts.
Clean sweep: Shiho's plate would be the "do"
in a table manners tutorial

I can almost justify it with the knowledge that she is an artist and therefore tends to be neat and methodical in her work, especially with the painstaking care needed to render her amazing watercolors. I am a writer and only have to worry about keeping track of several screens open at once on a monitor. Or, I can simply face the truth and admit that I'm just a messy eater.

Afternoon Tea at Chantilly Patisserie - While a bakery is always a great place to start the day, they are a pretty good place to greet the afternoon as well. Our South Bay Asian food crawl brought Karen, Anna, and myself to Chantilly Patisserie in Lomita, home of the Choux aux Sésames. A cream puff flecked with black sesame seeds, is filled to order with black sesame cream, a delectable blend of East meeting West in pastry form.

We also enjoyed the Othello, a waggish name for a bar of chocolate and sesame flavored cake. The Gâteau Fraise, a strawberry chiffon confection that lent our little break some fruity zing and girly pink aura, and cups of top-notch coffee gave us the lift we needed after a day of doing what we do best - eating and shopping.

"Umami" burger: Chantilly Patisserie's black sesame cream puff
brings subtle savory to dessert
Flake Ice at Boiling Point - No summer story would be complete without ice cream or frozen desserts. While my favorite discovery this year is the raspberry basil sorbet by N'ice Cream, and Al Gelato's pear sorbet remains among the tried and true, the GMS Award for Most Decadent Frozen Dessert goes to the Green Tea Snow Flake Ice at Boiling Point in Gardena.

It stands to reason that a place that offers its patrons the chance to cook and eat a boiling hot pot of soup at the table, will offer the extreme flip side of this experience for dessert. Flake ice is another dessert innovation from Taiwan, home of the much regaled boba drink. Creamy snowdrifts of what is a cross between shaved ice and soft serve are laden with a variety of toppings, including sweet red bean, tiny boiled peanuts, and a great blob of that flan-like Japanese style pudding.

It's not easy being green - or finishing a Green Tea
Snow Flake Ice at Boiling Point!
As daunting as this confection appeared, the whole thing collapsed when attacked with a spoon. Dylan ordered the blueberry version, which was a pristine white flake ice, covered with a sweet blueberry "jam." While it was also delicious, my taste buds were too busy multitasking with the grainy goodness of adzuki beans, the rich green tea flavor of the flake ice, and the shameless incongruity of the pudding sidecar.

This has been an unusually hot summer, with unprecedented humidity and record temperatures for Los Angeles. But my friends and I have managed to stay cool, at least metaphorically speaking, with a taste for adventure that extends beyond the average Popsicle. Every meal can be an experience, and doubly so when shared with the people who give your life its flavor.