Sunday, December 25, 2016

Spice Girl: The Gingerbread Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Sources:

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

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon: Aioli Bodega Espagnola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Baggage Claim: Unpacking IFBC in Sacramento Creates Renewed Fervor for Food Blogging

Unpacking the experience of Foodista's International Food Bloggers Conference two weeks ago is a bit like actually unpacking my huge swag bag of goodies from the Friday Night "Taste of Sacramento" bash, a task that took me several days since I had to hit the ground running at work when I returned from the weekend.

There were some obvious treasures, like the bamboo and silicone cooking spoon, "spork," and spatula from the California Cling Peach Board. There were some things that had intrinsic value but that I didn't know yet what to do with, like the generous bags of succulent dried figs from California Figs and the candy-like glass beads that I bought at Capital City Beads. And there were things that I am reluctantly letting go of, like the uber-yummy box of "Tango" cherry tomatoes from Windset Farms that I rationed out for a week (where in the world can I get more?!)  - and the original draft of this post, which to my chagrin, I accidentally deleted.

Peachy keen: Caprese salad with cling peaches,
basil, and walnuts, served up by the California
Cling Peach Board.
But the truly lasting souvenir of my visit to the "Farm-to-Fork" capital of the Golden State has been the effect of attending IFBC. Although I learned that there are a few other such events for food bloggers, the idea of gathering with other like-minded individuals - many of whom also have day jobs that advocate in the interests of the public - has been inspiring. If one can feel more grounded in a pursuit that at times can seem indulgent and frivolous, I can honestly say that IFBC did that for me.

It was heartening to learn that not all food blogs are dedicated to dreamy photos of perfectly iced cakes or truculent declarations of what constitutes perfect barbeque. And it was enlightening to not only hear from bloggers, diners, purveyors, and chefs, but from a largely unsung part of the foodie hierarchy - the farmers, growers, and ranchers who produce the foods that not only California but the entire nation, depend upon and enjoy.

Driving up the 99 - my choice because it would be more scenic than the 5 - was one long meditation on food and the environment that creates it. I had never seen the central part of the state before, and the scenery seemed organically synced to my driving soundtrack. Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt's 17-minute version of "Bye Bye Blackbird"  played me out until I lost the signal to KJAZZ 88.1 somewhere between the San Fernando Valley and Bakersfield. Switching to the crate of CDs I had brought along, Los Lobos and Bruce Springsteen added a poignant aural backdrop to the serenity of cows and sheep grazing in arid, Manila envelope-tan fields. Orderly rows of grapevines, almond and pistachio trees, and corn appeared a bit more promising. Even the road afforded a surreal sight, with trucks pulling huge steel-mesh trailers dotted the highway, filled with hundreds of pounds of opalescent tomatoes, white onions that scattered their papery husks like confetti in the wind, and other vegetables. I would follow them distractedly as Atalanta went after the golden apples, lose them in my lead-footed haste, and meet up with them again, miles away.

A merry chase: Apples are a girl's best friend - sort
of. Persistent suitor Hippomenes thwarted
Atalanta's alpha female by tossing
shiny objects in her path.
Sacramento proved a great host city for IFBC with the unofficial and overarching theme of "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital." While there are many regions in the U.S. where farm-to-fork is also a movement, you have to admit that California produces a staggering percentage of the nation's produce, including specialty crops like wine and nuts.

A 2013 article in Western Farm Press states that thanks to California's soil and climate, the seemingly endless variety of crops grown here - including walnuts, plums, celery, and garlic -  represent percentages in the the high 90s of the nation's harvest. Indeed, the label of "California" that precedes figs, walnuts, olives, almonds, and any number of other signature crops has long designated their pedigree of sunny fields and an idyllic Mediterranean climate.

A verdant flatbread pizza with
California Figs, served up
at IFBC's "Taste of Sacramento"
Sadly, that famed climate in California is cause for concern with the ongoing drought. For miles, I saw signs for a local movement throughout the San Joaquin Valley that archly inquired if growing food was a "waste" of water. For example, almonds are a notoriously water-consuming crop. But without these signature products, the state's economy - to say nothing of its identity as the land of plenty, would be jeopardized.

M.F.K. Fisher wrote, "First we eat, then we do everything else." I would amend that to say that before we get to eat, there is everything else to do. IFBC showcased not only the great talent among writers, chefs, farmers, and other stakeholders in the state's food community, but the inherent humanity among those who spend their lives and careers in the study of how we eat.

A panel discussion featured three food bloggers whose passion for writing and food led somewhat organically but surprisingly in directions to do good. Amber Stott founded The Food Literacy Center, a nonprofit based in Sacramento that goes into low-income elementary schools to, as its mission statement declares says, "inspire kids to eat their vegetables." Catherine Enfield was able to create the Sacramento Food Film Festival, which organically has become the Food Literacy Center's signature fundraiser. And Rodney Blackwell, who writes Burger Junkies, ended up founding the Sacramento Burger Battle to highlight the city's best burger chefs and raise money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.

Another notable session was a blind tasting of olive oils led by Dan Flynn, director of the UC Davis Olive Center and Henry "Hoby" Wedler, a sensory scientist and founder of Accessible Science, a nonprofit that provides blind and visually impaired youth with learning experiences in science, utilizing their heightened senses of taste and smell. Wedler also hosts the "Tasting in the Dark" experience for Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Their presentation addressed the many controversies over olive oil quality, use, and health benefits.

Along with discussions of the more nobler aspects of social justice, and the conscientious production, purchase, and preparing of food, delegates to IFBC had the opportunity to participate in one very critical activity: eating. Proximity to vineyards, world-renowned produce, and the creative food community of Central California, Sacramento has become a foodie mecca that rivals even a metropolis such as Los Angeles - without the traffic.

Lindsay's new Party Picks can turn that next martini
into one of your "five-a-day" with more than the
ubiquitous olive.
The "Taste of Sacramento" reception on Friday night started IFBC with a bang. For me, there was a nostalgic thread running through it, with exhibits that recall a Southern California childhood. Jimboy's Tacos were an unexpected treat that channeled my favorite Taco Bell crunchy tacos - but way, way better and without the politically incorrect signage.

I finally learned that "cling" peaches are a variety of fruit that does not easily release the stone when ripe. This allows the peaches to retain their shape when undergoing the canning process. While I am not a great fan of canned fruit, having eaten my share of it in the culinarily beige 1970s, I was pretty impressed by the "Caprese" salad of cling peaches, walnuts, basil, and mozzarella cheese served up by representatives of the California Cling Peach Board. And Lindsay, purveyors of those buttery black olives that as kids we all liked to wear like thimbles on our fingers, previewed Party Picks, tiny skewers of their cocktail olives and pickled vegetables, ready to embellish your next shaken-not-stirred.

Poached pear in wine at Aioli
Bodega Espanola.
One of my favorite parts of any trip is souvenirs, especially the edible kind. I went off the IFBC grid on Saturday afternoon and had one of the best meals of my life at Aioli Bodega Espanola, a local favorite on L Street, in an artsy neighborhood near the Capital. On the way back to L.A., I picked up treats from Nugget Market, including my favorite Guittard chocolate chips for baking or nibbling, and picked up some Santa Barbara Pistachio Company - in Santa Barbara, which felt way cooler than buying them at Whole Foods back home.

Whenever I return home from a trip, it still feels like I am in a new place, even though I have returned without fanfare to my usual routines and habits. For a while, all of those well-worn path, while familiar, seem to harbor new possibilities.

I'm looking forward to IFBC next year, which will be held again in Sacramento. Being able to see where our food comes from In the meantime, as I recall the conference in this blog, enjoy my edible mementos, and share my experiences with friends and family who have been so supportive of GMS, I will continually unpack my "suitcase" of impressions and with them the ability to see blogging about food through new eyes and think about where it will lead me in the future.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Photo Finish: GMS Now on Instagram

A feast for the eyes: GMS is now on Instagram. Check out my latest - and some not-so-latest - candid snaps of food, art, places, and other wonders!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Summer in the City: Smorgasburg Does L.A.

Los Angeles - or any major city, for that matter - suffers no lack of food festivals during the summertime. Add one more to that list: Smorgasburg has arrived on the "Left Coast," and runs until September. The artisanal market of food, beverages, crafts, and vintage goods originated in Brooklyn, where it has been known to draw nearly 10,000 visitors of a weekend. The L.A. version is scheduled to be held on Sundays from now until September at the Alameda Produce Market downtown, which is part of the ROW DTLA development. My sisters and I checked it out a few weeks ago and we're ready to go again.

Gets my vote for best vendor name.
While held in the devil-may-care spirit of summer (even in L.A. where the sun is almost always shining!), summer festivals are not without their pitfalls. Smorgasburg is unique in that revelers don't fall victim to one of the greatest public scourges: inconvenient and expensive parking. There is a gigantic indoor parking structure that greets you before you enter the Alameda Produce Market, with two hours free. Which is great, if you only stay for two hours. 

Moveable feast:Todos Verde agua fresca,
Raindrop Cake, and lobster rolls from
Red Hook Lobster Pound.
However, all bets were off when my sisters and I discovered that the American Apparel compound next door also featured an American Apparel outlet. I scored a couple of all-cotton sweater vests/shells for $6. Literally, scored: the versatile "bone" sweater was $5; the identical one in the less popular "nude" or beige was $1. When we finally emerged from our shopping spree, I owed $10 for parking. I decided to cut my losses that day and rationalize that I paid $16 for parking, which is not atypical in the city.

Talk to the hand: My new favorite hamsa
pendant from Santa Monica Healing, and bargain but
quality sweater (cotton is truly king!) from
American Apparel outlet store.

Some tips for enjoying Smorgasburg:

1. It's hot downtown. Wear sunscreen and a hat, if that's how you roll. Or use a parasol, like my stylish sister does.

2. Take a good look around first. Unless you plan to hang around from 10 am to 6 pm, there is only so much you can eat, so choose wisely.

3. Eat dessert first. Really. 

Tired of waiting for you: Frozen pudding from Little Spoon
eased the tardy arrival of siblings.

4. Go when it opens. The illusory liberality of a whole day only means that vendors might run out of food. Which, as we learned, many do well before the 4:00 hour, when we decided to meet. 

Amusing artwork at American Apparel outlet.

5. Laugh. A lot. It burns calories.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Summertime Blues: Regression and Blueberry Muffins

When I was a kid in the ready-mix 1970s, blueberry muffins were a major treat, made from that Betty Crocker mix that came with a tiny can of "wild blueberries." The blueberries were tiny dark and mysterious orbs swimming in an inky pool of liquid, presumably from Maine or some other exotic locale far removed from Southern California, where the only crops we could boast of were citrus, concrete, and smog.

Years later, when access to large and flavorful fresh blueberries was possible, it never occurred to me to want blueberry muffins, mainly because as a yummy superfood, blueberries are so good on their own. However, this recipe from the Zabar's recipe blog got me with its superbly lit photo of blueberry muffins, bursting with fruit. This weekend, I decided that regression would be a good antidote after the rigors of a shortened work week after the July 4th holiday - and an unexpected flea infestation due to racoons having burrowed under the house.

I woke up today feeling as if I had been on a treadmill for nine hours - to be specific, a treadmill with a washer and dryer attached it it. I spent yesterday emptying my closet, bagging garments that potentially had fleas or eggs. I laundered everything that could be washed and have several piles of clothes for the dry cleaner. To bolster the efforts of the pest control company that sprayed inside and outside the house, I sprinkled the carpets and closets with salt, which is supposed to act as a desicant and dehydrate the fleas to extinction.

So far, it seems to be working. The itchy feeling is lessening and the fleas that I've found seem bloated and near death. It has been a terrible, unclean feeling, itching away after just having taken a shower, or even away from home, when I've found the odd flea, bloated and near death from gorging itself on my veins.

I realize these are first-world problems. But these days, even the first world doesn't seem all that safe, in the wake of evildoings and the snuffing out of lives here at home and across the globe. The Boomtown Rats' song, "I Don't Like Mondays," which was about a school shooting, seemed like a farce back in the day. Although based on real events, the idea that someone would do such a horrible thing was unthinkable. Today, flags being flown at half-mast is the new normal; I think we would stop in surprise if it was displayed aloft and proud again.

The most benign definition of regression that I could find on defines it as "reversion to an earlier mental or behavioral level." With all that happens today, a bit of regression probably wouldn't be such a bad thing. Maybe we could all go back to finding joy in things like the promise of unknown treasures like a can of tiny blueberries grown in a far-off place.


1) The "batter" will resemble more of a dough; don't be scared off, it bakes beautifully.
2) Eat with a fork - the abundance of blueberries makes these muffins impossible to handle, and wonderfully so!

Friday, July 8, 2016

GMS Heading to Foodista's International Food Blogger Conference

This month, I'm looking forward to the International Food Blogger Conference, to be presented by Foodista in Sacramento. Events include a "farm-to-fork" tour of the historic Sacramento Delta, with a look at California Endive Farms and an opportunity to watch the harvest of Bosc pears at Stillwater Orchards. Other events include talks on culinary travel writing, beverage trends, food waste, and "Putting Flavor Into Words"; a "Taste of Sacramento" fair presented by local restaurants and businesses; and a sidewalk "Farm-to-Fork Feast" near the State Capitol Building, prepared by Chef Jason Poole from Dawson's.

Sacramento was not the original capital of California; the first Constitutional Convention was held in 1849 in Monterey when the state was under Spanish and subsequently, Mexican rule. The capital was moved to Sacramento in 1854.

Despite this runner-up history, Sacramento has a rich history in its own right. Sutter's Fort, which was established by John Sutter in what is now downtown Sacramento, was used to distribute the fruits, vegetables and other resources that were found in the area to the city's earliest settlers; Sutter also built mills in the nearby foothills. It was at one of these mills - in what is now Coloma - where John Marshall, a Sutter employee, found gold in a stream in 1849. The city was incorporated that year.

In the interim between 1849 and 1854, several other cities served as California's capital for a short time, including San Jose, Vallejo and Benicia. Sacramento's proximity to rivers that led to San Francisco and other ports allowed access to the state's growing economy by both land and sea. And as the original site of the Gold Rush, the city had a certain cachet.

One can certainly strike gourmet gold in Sacramento, whose foodie town potential is bolstered by the local agricultural industry and the innovation of the skilled, imaginative, and ambitious farming and culinary community. Watch this blog for my adventures in the Capital City later this month!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Game of Cones: I Scream for Ice Cream

My default home freezer dessert is Talenti Gelato -  they are one of the manufacturers who use the fewest ingredients in their product (all ones that I can prounounce), and gelato is lower in calories because of its lower cream and air content. Gelato shops were a hot moment in the early 2000s, but ice cream appears to be enjoying a real renaissance, with more artisanal and homemade choices and flavors that Baskin-Robbins never even dreamed of. Here are some new and longstanding faves:

Kansha Creamery, Gardena

Matcha, matcha, man: High tea with a scoop of
oatmeal cookie caramel at Kansha Creamery.
New kid on an old school block of Western Avenue, in a strip mall with several Japanese restaurants, next to The Local Place, an outpost of King's Hawaiian. Kansha's ice cream is made fresh daily on-site; they are known to  close early when flavors run out. When I finally made it over there, they had Lupicia Select Matcha (clean and not unpleasantly soapy taste of high-quality green tea) and something called "Mr. Universal," which was flavored with crumbled oatmeal cookies and a sweet but non-sticky caramel swirl. The vibe is hip young Asian, but not-so-hip,  middle-aged Asians (me?) are welcome too. A taste of their mugicha flavor reminded me of the tall, cool pitcher of barley tea that is in Jolene's fridge all summer long.

Atticus Creamery, West Los Angeles

I've been going to Atticus Creamery since its first store opened about a year ago, conveniently across from the Westside Pavilion. Don't let the somewhat cliched DIY decor fool you - this small batch shop has created some intensely inventive flavas like Brown Sugar Apple Pie (my personal favorite), Honey Honeycomb, and Lemon Lavender. Their mini pies are also incredible, made from scratch with fillings like Earl Grey and Strawberry Pistachio.

A new location recently opened at The Grove, but I like the neighborhood feel of the Pico shop, with its tiny strip of Astroturf across the threshold and proximity to many great restaurants, whose one shortfall - happily for both Atticus and me - is dessert.
Picture-perfect cone at Atticus Creamery

Saffron & Rose, Westwood

Even if you've never had food from the Arab regions of the Mediterranean, you get the idea while driving down Westwood Boulevard between Wilshire and Pico that the Iranian, Lebanese, and other expatriates that have made this area flourish, take their cuisine very, very seriously. While patronized by a good cross-section of Los Angelenos, the many cafes, bakeries, and stores are supported by a tight ethnic community that takes great pride in its culture while welcoming outsiders.

Ice cream is the universal language spoken at Saffron & Rose, where friendly staff don't just offer tastes of this or that. Shiho and I actually had a sort of ice cream sommelier serve us the other day, pressing actual pairings upon us as we hemmed and hawed before his freezer case. Faced with the staggering array of options, we actually liked what he suggested: the eponymous saffron with pistachio and white rose for Shiho, and espresso and medjool date for me.

Saffron & Rose has been a venerable institution on Westwood Boulevard for as long as I can remember, and was featured in The New York Times this spring in one of several articles about the traditions of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The distinct and sometimes flowery flavors are a great foil for the robust and aromatic tastes in Persian cuisine, and can even seem like a sort of calorie-laden aromatherapy with choices like orange blossom, fresh ginger, cucumber, and saffron with orchid. There are plenty of more traditional flavors like strawberry, mint chip, and cookies and cream. But when in Tehran...

Just mad about saffron... and rosewater... And date
and espresso. Flavor pairings as served up at Saffron & Rose.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Jug of Wine and Fowl: Julia Child's Coq au Vin

Braising is grilling's more sophisticated cousin. The flavors and aesthetics of barbeque tend to be showy and brash - perhaps having to do with the fact that open flames, a backyard, and a lot of beer are generally involved. In "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation," Michael Pollan says that the "braise or boil, since it cooks meat all the way through, achieves a more complete transcendence of the animal, and perhaps the animal in us, than does grilling over a fire, which leaves its object partly or entirely intact... a visible reminder, in other words, that this is a formerly living creature we're feasting on."

Pearls before wine: This coq au vin recipe had many steps,
all of them worth the effort!
Like the present-day protagonist of "Julie and Julia," I was (and probably still am) intimidated by the complexities of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." When I decided that it was time to learn how to make coq au vin, I had originally planned to do the slow cooker version of a recipe that I found online. But ironically, I did not have enough time that lazy Sunday afternoon after doing the shopping to allow the dish the five-and-a-half hours that the slow cooker recipe required. So I decided to cook it on the stove, and to go rogue and break one of those cardinal kitchen rules - never serve a dish you've never made before - and invite the neighbors over for dinner.

It's not entirely true that I have never made coq au vin before. In my misspent youth, I attempted it from a recipe in a cookbook that came with a CD of ersatz French cafe tunes, seduced by the knowledge that cooking with wine sounded like a very grownup thing to do. I remember going through two or three bottles of a cheap red from Trader Joe's (there are very good "cheap reds" at TJ's, but this wasn't one of them!) and ending up with some indistinguishable bits of purple, overly salty chicken in the bottom of a charred Dutch oven.

No more wasted cans of tomato paste: Trader Joe's Italian
Tomato Paste in a tube provides just enough for a recipe, and can
be stored in the fridge for another use.
The literal translation of "coq au vin" is "rooster with wine," which doesn't sound half as appetizing. Indeed, the dish was originally made with roosters that were past their prime, their flesh tenderized by the wine. Ultimately, braising meat is like culinary foreplay, teasing and coaxing the flavors out of food with the carefully orchestrated application of heat, seasoning, and time. And the process does possess a touch of the animalistic, despite Pollan's observations, as each ingredient can still be savored viscerally: the miniaturized perfection of pearl onions, the wine's bouquet, the buttery sizzle of mushrooms, and the alchemic effects of heat, time, and patience as raw chicken, vegetables, and wine become robust and satisfying dish, redolent of ancient ways yet savory enough to appeal to modern palates.

It's ironic that I am a mad collector of cookbooks, vintage or contemporary, because I never seem to cook from them. The internet is my oyster, I shall not want for guidance via Food Network, Martha Stewart, or the thousands of talented cooks, writers, and photographers online.

The trouble with depending on the Web for recipes is that as when using Google Maps, one often finds steps missing. While it is easy for me to backtrack through faulty driving directions, I've had less experience - and success - with retracing my steps when cooking. So I went back to the search engines and found a recipe on Leite's Culinaria, which was adapted from Julia Child's version. Any connection to Our Lady of Land O' Lakes was enough for me to trust in the recipe, so I compiled my shopping list and hunted and gathered.

Preparing the coq au vin turned out to be way easier, and the results much better than I could have imagined. The dish was met with rave reviews, and I decided it was okay to share my cockiness (I've a million bad puns - it's a disease) in serving a dish that I hadn't practiced before. With a simple salad and a surprisingly good baguette from Yellow Vase, it was like having my own French bistro. All I needed was the amorphous crew of tableware from "Beauty and the Beast" singing about my "culinary cabaret."

Be our guest: Coq au vin minus the singing teapots or candelabra.
Next time I make coq au vin, I will follow some of the Serious Eats tips like cooking all the ingredients together to create even richer flavors, and I will follow the universal wisdom that this is a dish best prepared the day before, the better to meld all its earthy wonderfulness. Crock Pot be damned - making "slow food" like this beats the supposed convenience of "slow cooking" every time.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Making Friends Lemon Cake

Having become a Soy-Free Vigilante has proved a mixed blessing. On the plus side, I no longer eat real junk food and many of the desserts that I used to enjoy. The drawback is that I no longer eat a lot of real junk food and many of the desserts that I used to enjoy. Good-bye to See's Candy and any type of sandwich cookie - practically any store-bought cookie, really. Even some of the best bakeries on the planet use a soybean oil-based spray to keep their cakes from sticking to the pans.

When life gives you lemons - bake with them! This lemon cake
recipe uses juice, peel, and shreds of zest.
Being a headstrong Sagittarius, I have made it my life's work to ensure that I don't have to deprive myself. Some people collect stamps; I collect soy-free chocolates. While I have discovered many wonderful products by creative and conscientious chocolatiers, I have so far been deprived of the dainties in which I used to indulge that are Everywoman's god-given right. If anyone knows where I can get soy-free chocolate truffles, bridge mix, or chocolate covered cherries, fill me in!

However, going soy-free has happily helped me improve my baking chops. I've branched out to make things like almond macaroons and this little gem of a lemon cake that I've adapted from an issue from last summer of Better Homes and Gardens.

A teaspoon of lemon zest in macaroons
provides a balance to the sweetness of the almonds.
If I had an actual superpower, I always thought it would be taste. I'd be called something like "Gourmet Girl," with a cape woven of herbs and a toolbelt outfitted with a microplaner, a flavor injector, and a magic spherification spoon. So reading recipes is a vicarious thrill, as I imagine flavor, aroma, and even mouthfeel of the finished product. This simple loaf cake did not disappoint in any of these areas, and even proved foolproof when I forgot to add grated lemon peel after the cake had been in the oven for several minutes - neither its late addition nor the time I thought I had over-glazed one of two small loaves has even resulted in a botched cake or cakes. And with oatmeal and extra-virgin olive oil, it's practically a superfood. Well, almost.

I named this my "Making Friends Lemon Cake" because it has successfully broken the ice on several social occasions. People tend to take atypical seconds (including myself!) and many ask for the recipe. It's great to be able to make something that is easy, always comes out wonderfully, and makes everyone happy!

Two's company: Glazing a pair of Making Friends Lemon Cake.

Making Friends Lemon Cake - Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

Preheat oven to 350° F and butter a 9X9 square cake pan. Finely zest one lemon and juice 4-5 lemons total (about 8-9 tablespoons). Reserve the peel of one lemon to be cut into thin strips for the glaze.

In a large bowl, whisk together:

2 eggs
2/3 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Add dry ingredients:

1 cup Quaker instant oats, coarsely ground in blender or food processor
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ organic cane sugar
1/3 cup turbinado sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon sea salt
lemon zest

Combine ingredients thoroughly with mixer or by hand; do not overbeat. Pour batter into prepared pan and sprinkle with a bit of turbinado sugar if desired.

Bake for 40-50 minutes until a toothpick inserted near the center of cake comes out cleanly. Cool for at least 10 minutes before glazing.

In a small saucepan, combine:

¼ cup organic cane sugar
remaining lemon juice

Bring mixture to a slight boil, dissolving sugar. Remove from heat and add lemon peel from one lemon, cut into thin strips. Gently poke holes into cake with a toothpick, reaching bottom of pan. Drizzle the glaze over the entire surface with a large spoon and arrange lemon peel on top. Dazzle friends, new and old!

Some tips:

1)  I use Meyer lemons – they’re a bit sweeter, but this would be good made with "regular" lemons as well.

2) Baking time may vary depending on your oven and the size of your eggs (not a euphemism!) I only say this because the first two or three times I made the cake, I used extra large eggs and it took 40 minutes. More recently, I used large eggs, which resulted in the cake being done in almost 35 minutes.

3) The original recipe called for a regular-sized loaf pan, but because it is a very crumbly cake, I use a square one for ease of slicing. For gifts, small paper or foil loaf pans are great; just fill them two-thirds of the way.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Everything, Including the Kitchen Sink: Julia Child and "Food" at the Smithsonian

On a recent business trip to Washington D.C., there were two things I wanted to see: the Newseum and Julia Child's kitchen, reassembled as it was in her Cambridge home, now on display at the Smithsonian.

Visitors to the Smithsonian's National Museum of
American History can see Julia Child's reassembled kitchen from her
Cambridge home.

"Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000" is a new ongoing exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History that chronicles the nation's trends and concerns surrounding food during a 50-year period of great social, political, and economic changes. While it is only one part of the exhibit, Julia's kitchen is truly the main draw of "Food," as is the TV monitor that continuously plays snippets of her shows on PBS. One of the more poignant sights of my trip was a lone woman who sat glued to this monitor the whole time I was viewing the exhibit, as if channeling a simpler time when people were entertained by watching a comical but confident Everywoman bone a chicken.

One of Julia Child's legion of fans
enjoys a nostalgic moment at the Smithsonian's
"Food" exhibit.
While food on TV is now an everyday thing, it has morphed, like so much else in our everyday lives, into glossy and surreal perfection. Sadly, these slick culinary aspirations are juxtaposed by the new normal of bad manners and human cruelty. Cooking has taken on the same role in our entertainment as gladiators or midget wrestling, with competitions like "Hell's Kitchen" and "Chopped." While you can learn a lot about cooking by watching professional and semi-professional chefs vying with each other for the approval of snarky celebrity chefs or the chance to start their own restaurant, you also are a captive audience to the same conniving and dread as viewers of shows like "Survivor" or "Naked and Afraid."

Julia Child's famous pegboard storage for an array of pots,
pans, and baking vessels. She outlined the shape of each
piece on the wall, so that there was a place for everything
and everything in its place.
In Julia's day, watching someone cook on television was a novelty. But while she was far from the first person to demonstrate cooking on air, she was the first person who made it look like anyone could - and should - attempt Boeuf Bourguignon or a Queen of Sheba Cake. With her somewhat hysterical warble, her lack of pretension, and the occasional fumble, Julia served up more than recipes and techniques; she gave ordinary home cooks an invaluable sense of confidence.

Julia's kitchen at the Smithsonian appears surprisingly - or not surprisingly - almost shabby in the dark "Food' galleries. The counters, which were built to accommodate her statuesque proportions, are tidy and uncluttered. The sense of order is echoed in the astounding array of pots, pans, and gadgets that hang from pegboard on her signature green walls. There is even one of those coated wire drainboards that every home had back in the day, next to the kitchen sink. Next to a jar of Sue Bee honey and a row of turquoise metal canisters is Julia's ubiquitous jar of Skippy peanut butter. She is reported to have loved the stuff, as well as Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers.

Julia Child's outsized whisk and copper
bowl were used to demonstrate how to
make omelettes on the first-ever
episode of "The French Chef" in 1963.
Julia's picture also hangs in the cafe at the National Portrait Gallery. A generation or two after her influence on American cooks, we have lionized The Chef. Thomas Keller's portrait graces a hallway of the gallery's most recent acquisitions. His commanding stance while holding a basket of fresh produce could be compared to a portrait of one of George Washington's generals poised to charge into the fray, which hangs in the same gallery.

But back to the "Food" exhibit - and the issue of hunger. Among the news clips and magazine articles featured across from Julia's kitchen was a black-and-white photo piece on hunger from an old magazine. Next to that was a colorful illustration on the cover of Life that depicted a healthy, well-fed toddler riding in a shopping cart as his mother's gloved hand continued to fill the overflowing conveyance.

We waste a shameful amount of food in this country. And we talk about feeding the developing world while fellow Americans starve in the streets, in schools, and at home.

That weekend, I visited Dupont Circle, lured by the legendary Kramerbooks and the adjacent Afterwords Cafe. It was one of those early spring afternoons where the weather goes from sunny and pleasant to sunny with an icy wind. The scene reminded me of the Abbott Kinney neighborhood in Venice, which is posh in a sort of rundown way. Sadly, the area also has a homeless contingent that belies an unpalatable truth about our society in upscale urban areas, where people spend extraordinary amounts of money on simple things like omelets and tee shirts, while other human beings live, sleep, deal with disease and yes, sometimes eat, on the same sidewalks.

Brunch at Afterwords Cafe.
I had a late brunch at Afterwords - a Mediterranean omelet seasoned with fresh thyme, with a side of honey-sweet bacon. A huge cafe mocha came in a large water glass wrapped in a paper cuff. Julia Child, with her love of humble supermarket ingredients, would have been impressed with its chocolately depths, achieved by the mere addition of Hershey's syrup.

I decided that I would give my leftovers to one of them when I left the restaurant. The amount of food I had left was as daunting as the generous portion that I initially received. There were enough eggs, potatoes, and bacon remaining for two or three small portions. I pictured the people I didn't give food to being angry or hurt. I considered leaving the leftovers on the table to avoid that.

Desserts glow in Thiebaud-esque perfection at the
Newseum's cafe, which is aptly named,
"The Food Section."
A few days later, I viewed the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery at the Newseum. There were the famous images that depicted atrocities of war; a well-known photo of a returning POW and his family's jubilant reception; an Olympic swimmer being congratulated against a dramatic backdrop of the American flag. But one that really struck me was a photo by Kevin Carter, who was documenting the famine in the Sudan in 1993.

The haunting image depicts an emaciated child that appears near collapse on the parched ground, with a vulture practically a foot away from her. Although the authenticity of the photo is in question - the girl's parents are reported to have left her for a moment while receiving food from a UN plane distributing aid - it is a stark view of what was happening throughout the beleaguered region. Carter had also witnessed other life-altering sights such as gruesome public executions during the era of apartheid in South Africa. In the end, it was all too much for him and he committed suicide a year after taking his Pulitzer-winning image.

The 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum pays tribute to the press
that told the story of one of America's darkest days
Journalists and others in communications often find themselves hardened by the work - almost. At times, the wonder of the benign topics I cover in my work is somewhat blunted because of the regularity with which I visit them. But the "news" must go on. I've been binge-viewing episodes of "Lou Grant," a show I did not quite understand in its heyday, being in elementary school at the time (mine was the last truly naive generation).

I am struck by the issues that Lou and his staff faced each week, issues that resonate today within the profession, along with journalism ethics that seem to be a thing of the past these days, given the 27/7 news cycle. It is no longer just about scooping the rival news outlet, but about inundating the universe with your own merciless repetition of a top story. In the end, the quality of the work suffers, and the public is no better informed than it was before.

Another thing that has gone the way of the
dinosaur in favor of the "delete"
button. Claes Oldenburg and Coosje
Van Bruggen's "Typewriter Eraser,
Scale X," in the gardens at the
National Gallery of Art.
But I'll climb off the soapbox now. The Newseum was a breathtaking experience. The admission provides entry for two consecutive days, which gives you an idea of just how dense the exhibits are. There is, of course, tons of reading to do - a newspaper (remember those?) from each of the 50 states is displayed daily on a terrace overlooking the Capitol. More vividly, tools of the trade like a news helicopter suspending in the lobby, as well as historic artifacts like a news tower that was mangled on 9/11, tell the story of journalism in America and beyond in a most poignant way.

Journalists are said to enter the profession in order to make sense of the world, but they are also only human beings, with all the prejudices, fears, and egos that everyone else has.

In the end, the food server at Afterwords put my leftover breakfast in one large takeout box. I walked out of the cafe and handed it to the first person I saw, a woman who was sitting near the restaurant's door. I couldn't use my second day of admission to the Newseum, and ended up giving it to the cab driver that took me to the airport, a man who had a master's degree in political science from his native Ethiopia.

Many weeks later, I covered a commencement ceremony for a high school in LA's Koreatown. One of the graduates expressed in a speech his gratitude for things like terrible food in the school's cafeteria, the ability to share his own small resources with a homeless person, and for his family, friends, and the opportunity to learn.

As has happened many times over the years, I had another of those moments that makes me glad I do what I do for a living. If only Kevin Carter and his contemporaries in The Bang Bang Club had been able to witness a few more of these kinds of moments of humanity - difficult to do when documenting the bloody scourge of apartheid in the 1980s. Perhaps we'd be able to hear his firsthand stories today, and perhaps his tragically blighted views of the world, which led to suicide at age 33, would have been somehow salvaged.

One of the pithy quotes that adorn the walls of the
Newseum. This one kind of says it all.