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.