Saturday, February 15, 2014

Between the Sheets (Of Dough): Mishi's Strudel Bakery and Cafe

(NOTE: What follows is a thinly veiled work of fiction - thin as a sheet of strudel dough. The characters and incidents depicted are drawn from actual events and have been changed slightly to keep the reader awake.)

Elaine was in a foul mood. The streets of San Pedro, which on a weekday during the rest of the year, were pretty quiet, took on an even bleaker hue in the crumpled-paper strewn days after Christmas. Crumpled lists, crumpled giftwrap, crumpled hopes.

Her winter vacation from the university was dragging on and on; she could not wait to get back to the comforting reassurance of her work schedule, the companionable demands of email, the putting out of fires, small and great, that made her feel useful.

Port in a storm: Spinach Strudel at Mishi's charming
cafe provides welcome refuge from post-holiday doldrums.

It was New Year's Eve. She had been planning to visit Jake up north, and for once in her life, maybe have someone to kiss at midnight. But they had gotten into another huge fight. Elaine thought she had learned her lesson and had made a rule not to date any more writers. They were too neurotic, too competitive - being a writer, she would know. So she stayed home and waited out the second-to-last day of vacation.

Elaine kept to her daily exercise routine, but would head to the gym an hour or two later than she would during the workweek. She drove home after her workout, looking forward to a big brunch of buckwheat pancakes and Italian sausage. But alas, it was not to be.

Usually, Elaine would not be anywhere near home at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, so she never had to search for a parking spot near her apartment at that hour. Today, however, it seemed that everyone had the day off, lining the streets with their parked, not-going-anywhere-until-partytime cars. After circling her block in wider and wider orbits for nearly 20 minutes, she gave up in disgust and ran through the nearby options for breakfast. She decided to finally try that Hungarian place around the corner, the one that was always closed when she got back into town after work. She parked her car across the street - never a difficult thing to do in Pedro's "downtown" shopping district, except when the streets exploded with life during the 1st Thursday Artwalk - and entered the restaurant.

She had been to Mishi's Strudel Bakery and Cafe once before during the previous summer, when she had first moved back to town, and sat drinking coffee and nibbling on a tiny pastry on an exquisitely decorated dessert plate at a sidewalk table in the sunshine. The idea of a thick slice of apple strudel didn't quite appeal to her that day in the August heat, but today, it was time for a late breakfast. Besides, she had earned the right to indulge in some level of decadence with those 26 minutes on the elliptical machine.

Although the traditional sweet strudels sounded heavenly, Elaine, who was always rather diet-conscious, thought that she should have something a bit more substantial for the first meal of the day. She ordered the spinach, feta cheese, and mushroom strudel, which sounded like Greek spanakopita with a bit of Eastern Bloc gravitas. She loved mushrooms, those loamy, musty bits of cellulose that made her imagine what it would be like to eat actual earth.

Despite her self-consciousness over still being in workout clothes, Mishi's had a civilizing effect on Elaine's ruffled mood. She had asked for a cup of blackberry sage tea, one of those overly inventive flavors that Jake would roll his eyes at when she would order it. The only diner in the restaurant, she reveled in neatly blotting excess liquid off the tea bag against the side of her cup, carefully pouring in one sugar packet without dropping a grain of it on the table, and perching the remains of these demurely on the edge of her saucer.

Shortly before the spinach strudel arrived, a portly young man walked in and sat at another table. Elaine tried not to eavesdrop, but as they were the only two customers, it was difficult not to overhear him chatting with the waitress, ordering goulash, and telling the waitress that he ate there all the time. It sounded as if he was running up some sort of tab at Mishi's, perhaps even doing so up and down the block at the mom-and-pop restaurants and cafes that lined 6th Street.

After ordering his food, the young man acknowledged Elaine at her table. She responded with a polite "Happy New Year," with an expression on her face that she knew was less than happy. She had heard him telling the waitress that he had just taken a meditation class at the yoga studio one block over. Elaine took in his too-tight and too-short shorts, a Tyrolean-style embroidered vest, and a couple of Native American stone animal fetishes that swung from a chain around his neck. His body, while generous, seemed taut with youth, despite his apparent girth. He didn't appeal to her physically, but moreover, the affectation of John Lennon-esque spectacles and his nervously gregarious manner sent the needle on Elaine'sWeird-O-Meter flying.

Nothing says that someone cares like a madeleine,
freshly dipped in chocolate and presented
like a yummy jewel.
After a cursory attempt at small talk about how quaint the neighborhood was, the yoga studio around the block, and Hungarian goulash - which the young man admitted he had never eaten before - Elaine decided that she was done talking. She usually felt compelled to entertain strangers, or people who were tending to her, and chatted nervously away with her hairdresser, the lady who threaded her eyebrows, even her dentist. The latter posed somewhat of a challenge, once her teeth cleaning or procedure was underway. But Dr. Branch was capable of talking for both of them, chatting nonstop throughout an entire procedure on music and film, much to Elaine's delight. Thus, she was often relieved of her conversational duty she sat in his examination chair, although she was tortured by the desire to participate in the conversation, while her mouth was being prodded with dental tools.

Finally, the spinach strudel arrived, a compact but substantial parcel of golden brown pastry stuffed with a harmoniously seasoned blend of spinach, mushrooms, and a mild feta cheese. A tiny cup of sour cream, which proved to be more delicate than the cold, stiff paste that Elaine usually found next to a baked potato at a steakhouse. The creamy condiment, pleasantly chilled, but not exactly cold, was just enough embellishment to bring out all the flavors in each savory bite of strudel, which Musette navigated with great delicacy and care.

Once the first few bites sated her initial ravenous hunger, Elaine took her time enjoying the subtleties of the dish, and listened to New Age Shorts Guy tell the other waitress that he lived with his brother across the street. The only building in any direction across the street from Mishi's that could provide a residence was an old building straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, with aged russet-colored bricks, crumbling fire escapes, and a bar on the ground floor called "God Mother's." The name, erroneously split into two words, drove Elaine's inner-"Grammar Cop" up the wall every time she drove past the bar. She imagined what it would be like to live in one of the residence hotels that dotted 'Pedro's downtown area. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to live in one of the residence hotels that dotted 'Pedro's downtown area, and envisioned it as an alternate existence, something between the squalor in "Trainspotting" and the insanity of  "Running With Scissors." 

As she slowed down toward the end of her strudel, Elaine made a mental note to order goulash next time, maybe even actually plan her next visit to Mishi's. She noticed that the large white ceramic bowl that had been served to New Age Shorts Guy, overflowing with a crimson broth and accompanied by a hearty-looking bread, was nearly drained of its contents. As she took her last bite of the spinach pie, Elaine wondered if dessert was a good idea.

It was. She had chosen a chocolate-dipped madeleine, thinking that a perfectly good, but commercially baked version would be served up. The cookie arrived, freshly dipped in a creamy chocolate coating, and dusted with a snowdrift of powdered sugar.

Elaine was touched by the extra effort that it took to present a typically unassuming cookie with such care. This is what makes Mishi's, Mishi's, she thought.

Elaine nibbled on the madeleine as slowly as possible, and drank a second cup of tea. When the bill was paid and the madeleine was gone, she tidied up her place setting a bit, gathered her car keys and backpack, and raising her voice slightly, wished everyone in earshot a "Happy New Year." This time, she meant it.

Kiss That Frog: Sweet Treats and Childhood Memories Make For Heartwarming "Gal-entine's Day"

When I was growing up, Valentine's Day was fun. All the way from first to seventh grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, we kids would knock ourselves out, preparing tiny cards and sweets for our classmates. On the 14th of February, we would deposit these gifts into the brown paper lunch bag "mailboxes" that we each had on our desks.

Perhaps it was because we were at a Catholic school, but there was never a kid who didn't get anything in his or her Valentine mailbox. In later years, when Valentine's Day took on an entirely different set of expectations, I still regard it - whether I have a significant other or not - as a day to celebrate all kinds of love and friendship.

Lindt's Froshkönig (Frog King): My dream man would be
nattily dressed and filled with chocolate too!
The commercial zeitgeist that is foisted upon the world at large - mostly the males of the species - is not lost on me, but for entirely different reasons. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and red roses mostly remind me of my Dad, who would present our mother with a dozen red roses and a large heart-shaped box of chocolate on Valentine's Day every year. In addition, he would give his three daughters each a smaller heart-shaped box of candy. So it seems to be my birthright that I have lovely chocolates at Valentine's Day, even if I have to buy them myself. (Pull out tiny violin to play sad tune here.)

I could not help but be charmed by Lindt's "Frog King" tin of über-luxurious chocolates, which was exclusively sold at Target. It seemed made for me to be able to laugh at my single state. I shared some of it with my two handsome princes, my nephews Seiji and Kenzo, who wondered why the box was shaped like a frog. They had never read the Brothers Grimm story of the prince who would be released from his amphibious state by true love's kiss. But they really liked the frog-shaped chocolate in particular, because it tasted like Nutella.

Valentine's Day is also one of the most hectic dining-out days on the calendar, or at least, it used to be. Perhaps ROC on Sawtelle isn't really the go-to dinner destination for a romantic meal, but it was a perfect place for Shiho and I to have our "Gal-entine's Day" nosh. The scallion pancake with ginger soy dipping sauce was a perfectly crispy and surprisingly, not at all greasy. It triggered a Proustian memory of my first scallion pancake, enjoyed years ago at a now closed Islamic Chinese restaurant in Torrance.

ROC's scallion pancake hits the appetizer spot.
ROC is known for its xiao long bao, or Taiwanese soup dumplings. I had eaten dumplings a couple of nights ago at Typhoon at the Santa Monica Airport, so wasn't really in the mood. I opted for the beef noodle soup, without the noodles, since I had maxed-out my nighttime carb intake with the scallion pancake. But the fragrant soup, with its subtly spicy broth, similar to pho, was amazing even without noodles. There was a huge, heart-sized chunk of oxtail in the bowl, its meat falling off the bone simply by my gazing at it, and plenty of baby bok choy for color and crunch.

Shiho had the pork dumplings, which she thinks taste fresher than the dumplings at the mecca of XLB, Din Tai Fung. I tasted one, with its fragrant broth inside the dumpling skin, and tender seasoned minced pork. I concurred, although Din Tai Fung is an experience unto itself. In addition, ROC gets major points for offering more than just Chinese broccoli as its only vegetable. We enjoyed a plate of kale, stir-fried with just enough garlic, edible, yet crunchy.

Love potion: ROC's beef soup with oxtail and baby bok choy
We were going to take in a reading by 'zine artists at GR2 that didn't start for another half-hour, so we strolled up to Nijiya Market, looking for dessert.

Shiho enjoyed the array of nostalgic Japanese candies that recalled her childhood in Okinawa, and I enjoyed the colorful and artistic package designs of everything from shampoo to baby biscuits. Japanese companies take great care with the presentation of even the most mundane of objects and food. I found these tiny chocolate hearts that looked like they were made by extruding chocolate through an icing bag and meticulously packaged in a cardboard box with a sliding lid. They were actually very tasty too.

Shiho treated me to mango mochi ice cream, which we both agree is a gastronomic marvel of the 20th Century. It began to melt as we loitered too long in Nijiya after taking it out of the freezer case, and when we got to GR2, we almost forgot about it as we settled into the tiny gallery and the standing room-only audience.

A famous Japanese brand of chocolate gets into the
spirit of Valentine's Day.
When we remembered the mochi, I told Shiho that we would have to eat them like soup dumplings, taking a tiny bite out of the outside, and sucking out the melted, liquified ice cream.We did so, enjoying the creativity of the 'zine authors, the laughter their work created, and another new Valentine's Day memory.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Not All In One Basket: On the Town with GMS’s Must-Have List

Although Trader Joe’s has been around since the late 1950s, it really took off in L.A. in the 1990s, when shoppers in-the-know impressed their friends with fanciful delicacies and inexpensive but good wine. The supermarket strike of 2003-2004, which kept consumers out of the big chains like Ralphs and Vons, further reinforced the company’s stature as the go-to source for everyday groceries and even household paper and cleaning products.

The company’s website blows my mind as something that ties my pre- Internet life with the virtual window shopping of today. The other day, as I tooled around on the site, I was surprised by some of the 2013 list of“Customer Favourite Products.”

But one cannot live on Inner Peas veggie snacks and Tuscan Kale alone. Friends sometimes marvel at how I can go from store to store, hunting and gathering to fill my fridge and larder. Here is a list of the things that I cannot do without. Ever. While I do 90 percent of my grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, there are some intriguing finds among that remaining 10 percent.  Along with my TJ’s staples, here are some local “favourites” that I have discovered since moving back to ‘Pedro.

Trader Joe's always has a well-curated selection of
the season's best, as well as staple produce for
day-to-day cooking, eating, and composition
of still lifes.

1-    For Love of Three Oranges

Or, three shallots, three papayas, or three Kadota figs. TJ's makes it easy to get your five-a-day, with produce that is consistent in quality and competitively priced. I have never purchased a mealy apple there, and berries are at least one-third more expensive everywhere else, except maybe Costco.

At most Trader Joe’s locations, the produce section is the first thing you see upon entering, which hopefully inspires shoppers to healthier eating. My staples are pre-washed bags of kale, rosy pink shallots that I use in everything, and thanks to NAFTA, blackberries and mangoes, nearly all year round. Seasonal not-to-miss faves are fresh figs (May-Septemberish, like my taste in men) and the divine Thomcord grape, the likes of which I have only ever been able to find at Trader Joe’s, and only for a few golden weeks the waning summer of September.

2-    “Designer” Bags: Join the Club

Why belong to a club if nobody knows it? The stylish and practical shopping bags at Trader Joe’s tell the world that a) you care about the environment; b) that you have great tastes in accessories; and c) that you are part of a discriminating and enlightened clientele. My personal favorites are the large canvas tote with the old-school TJ’s logo embroidered on it – I’ve seen people use these as yoga or diaper bags - they are that roomy – and the fabulous jute bag that came out a couple of years ago, that apparently was considered very cool in Japan. My friend Yayoi actually rocked one as a handbag

In the bag: My collection of TJ's totes.

3-    Nut Job: Rosemary Marcona Almonds

Marcona almonds in olive oil and seasoned with rosemary are so gilding the lily, but I love them. These are wonderful on salads, especially after being toasted a bit in the oven. Keep a close eye on them, as they will immediately blacken if you step away for more than 10 seconds. Toasting brings out the almond’s complexity and makes it a dressy alternative to Beer Nuts – perfect for all the football fests this season.

Another fun thing to do with these almonds is to melt some uber-dark chocolate and blob it over little star-shaped arrangements of these luxurious almonds on a wax paper-lined tray, making “turtles.” Serve with other equally pretentious sweets, such as licorice-coated chocolate lentils, bacon sea salt caramels, and orange-geranium infused chocolate. Sit back and enjoy the compliments.  

4-    Maître Pierre’s Tarte d’ Alsace

The only resemblance that Tarte d’Alsace bears to a frozen pizza is the fact that you may have to reposition the shreds of gruyere cheese and ham atop the thin flatbread crust, as the frozen contents will shift during transport. But that's where it ends. The flavors come from simple ingredients: a savory jambon, gruyere cheese, and crème fraiche, complemented by caramelized onions that form a marmalade-like cloak when baked. 

You have to be careful when preparing this savory pie, because it is placed directly on the oven rack during baking. There were a few that may have gone through a stretching machine too vigorously, ending up with a weak spot in the already diaphanous dough. Necessity and hunger are the joint-custody mothers of invention that inspired me to brace the weakened spot with a piece of aluminum foil, that I remove when the Tarte is more solid and only has about five minutes baking time to go. 

Baking the Tarte d'Alsace and its paper-thin crust is an
adventure, taking many forms. Shown here: The French Calzone.
I’ve always said that after diamonds, frozen food is a girl’s best friend. That being said, Tarte d’Alsace is a friend with benefits. I have this at least once a week, every week. It makes a great one-pan lunch, dinner with a salad, if that. I can eat the whole thing in one sitting, and not feel guilty. If there are leftovers, they make a great breakfast for the morning commute, eaten cold in traffic, with “Le Marseillaise” blasting from the stereo.

5-    100% Desert Mesquite Honey: Muy Bueno

Most commercial honey reminds me of pancake syrup with grassy notes. They tend to be thin and runny, and possessed of a nondescript, but cloying sweetness. TJ’s Desert Mesquite Honey tastes almost biblical. It’s way thicker than the supermarket brands, taking it from topping to a formidable starring ingredient in my Greek yogurt sundae. I also prefer it over maple syrup on pancakes.

When my sister Jolene was pregnant, I learned that you shouldn't feed honey to babies. Apart from the ungodly mess that would ensue, the digestion systems of infants under one year is not yet developed enough to ward off the botulism that may exist in dormant form in honey. Fortunately, we all outgrew that, and can enjoy baklava to our hearts content.

6-    Fish Tale: Cod Provençale with Ratatouille and Rice

My friend Matt has designated “Hamburger Friday,” so I came up with “Whitefish Wednesday.” But you can enjoy Cod Provençale with Ratatouille and Rice any day of the week. It’s like real food, but easier and faster to prepare. And the serving-for-one makes it a welcome response to the continual challenge of making a tasty but solitary lunch or dinner.

Among the cornucopia of choices in Trader Joe’s freezer section, it seems to be one of the most balanced meals. This is an entrée that I often enjoy at work, since I don’t have a microwave at home, but happily, it can be prepared in a conventional oven as well, although the nice “steamed” effect is a bit harder to achieve that way. Unlike the “Reduced Guilt” dishes that I also favor, this is a substantial portion (Filet of Sole with Rich Butter Beans & Seasoned Spinach is pretty good) of tasty cod, nestled on a bed of nutty, chewy brown and wild rice, with a flavorful ratatouille of zucchini, eggplant, tomato, and onion, on the side. 

Albertson's Salt and Vinegar Chicken Wings: If
Mother Nature hadn't meant us to eat
chicken, she wouldn't have made it out of meat.

7-    Albertson’s Salt and Vinegar Chicken Wings

I am usually not - I repeat – not a fan of chicken wings, or of the greasy fried chicken at is sold at supermarket delis. But one day not too long ago, I was out doing errands and ended up at Albertson’s on Western, the main shopping drag in San Pedro, right around dinnertime. My guilty secret when shopping while hungry is that I order a half dozen potato logs from the service deli there – big fat French fries, that have been dipped inexplicably and disgustingly in something like fried chicken batter – to tide me over until I get home for a proper dinner.

A free-standing steel island across from the deli counter caught my eye and I found it to contain several flavors of chicken wings. I passed over the three or four types that were thickly coated in crunchy breading. But I was curious about the mahogany-hued wings that looked as if they had been simply marinated, with sandy-looking crystals of salt encrusting the skin. I took some home, and I was hooked.

I eat these at least once a week. They’re even good cold, shredded onto a salad of TJ’s Power Greens with some olive oil, lemon, and some mashed avocado as a dressing. 

8-    Artisanal Cranberry, Raisin, and Walnut Bread - Sprouts

The name kind of says it all. Everyone loves cranberries in baked goods. They’re pretty and red, tart, yet sweet. Walnuts are a super-food, and raisins in bread is just one of those childhood flavors that one never outgrows.

This bread is the bedrock of my go-to commuter breakfast, slathered with TJ’s Crunchy Almond Butter. It’s also amazing with a very good cheddar melted on top (this week, I have Collier’s Welsh Cheddar from, where else? 

Sprouts' store-baked Cranberry, Raisin, and
Walnut Bread: A real cut-up, even when upcycled
into bread pudding.
9-    Primizie Thick Cut Crispbread – Smoked Dutch Gouda with Garlic - Sprouts

Another “shopping-while-hungry” find from Sprouts.

One evening before dinner, I had to have something that wasn’t sweet – no organic fig bars or lemon yogurt-coated almonds. There was a whole island of these chips/pita things in the bakery department, in their graphically-arresting white bags. In my pre-dinner haze, I had to read all the labels about three times before deciding on the Smoked Dutch Gouda with Garlic – the word “cheese” above the actual flavor was what hooked me.

Although the pictures on the bag depict the requisite “serving suggestions” of topping these triangles of yum with more cheese or hummus, they are exquisite just the way they are out of the bag. A pile of them with some nice red grapes makes a good 11 am snack at work!

10- Wallaby Organic Greek Nonfat Yogurt with Lemon – Whole Foods

I am, of course, very happy with my Fage Greek Yogurt, in the little cups with a “sidecar” of fruity toppings like blueberry açai, cherry, or passionfruit clementine. But it was far away from home, in a hipster coffeehouse/market/deli/café in downtown Austin (whose name I would provide here, if I could remember it – it was actually very cool) that I discovered this treat.

Upon returning to L.A., I had to find it, and harassed dairy staff at all the “healthy” markets I knew. Sprouts and Whole Foods carry Wallaby yogurt products, and I tracked down the lemon down at the Westwood location - only at the Westwood location.

Lemon is a very tricky flavor. It’s used with good intentions, but often misses the mark. Hints of Lemon Pledge Furniture Polish or worse yet, 7-Up, can ruin anything. But, old-school lemon bars, like my sister Joselyn makes from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, a hint of lemon on perfectly cooked fish, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and this almost decadent yogurt (did I mention it was fat-free?!), really do it for me, as the outstanding lemon topping of the Wallaby yogurt elevates your daily dose of calcium and cultures to a restaurant-quality dessert.

TJ's European Style Whole Grain Bread: I don't know a
word of German, but I can't help thinking auf Deutsch
when I eat this.

The overall thread that runs through these tried-and-true favorites of mine is that initial taste sensation that occurs when I first bite into, sip, or savor these. In a lifetime of eating, those moments are pretty few and far between, and I am someone who is especially attuned to flavor. But I’m only human – the day-to-day business of eating gets pretty routine at times. So I’m glad for these little discoveries, extravagances, and proven staples that can still make food an adventure every day.