Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Eve

I'm not superstitious in the least or much for most tradition. But, I do love a food theme I can, so to speak -- sink my teeth into. Though I did not don the traditional red underwear of Italian New Year's eve, I did gather up a meal of lentils and sausages. The round lentils representing coins are said to bring abundance and good fortune in the coming year.
Usually the sausage would be cotechino (I've done that some years), something like an uncured salami that is generally boiled for several hours before serving. Our hurry up version of the Italian classic was just hot Italian sausage which I browned in olive oil (with onions and garlic) and then -- with a cover on the pan -- cooked through with a splash of red wine and water (the sausage steamed through for about 15 minutes -- I tossed in pre-cooked lentils for the last 5 minutes).
For a little bit of American style I served the sausage in a stack with a smattering of bright green kale -- a harbinger of the dollars to come our way in 2015.
Farewell 2014!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Live Crabs

A beautiful drive with visiting friends to Bodega bay to find live Dungeness crabs. Though I usually buy mine already cooked and ready to roast at home, Sha, my friend and fantastic Asian cook, insists on live for her delicious Singapore style chili crabs.

 We picked half a dozen fairly active beasts from the big purple tub set on the side of the road and brought our bounty home for dinner.
It's so nice to have cooking friends visit. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Beef Tacos

Living here among the cattle ranchers every now and then we are lucky enough to be gifted a choice cut in exchange for a friendly favor or honestly for no reason at all. That's how I came to have a couple pounds of beef cheeks in the freezer. Usually I would go right to a long cooking stew or braise but I felt like something a little different.
Trolling around the internet I came across famous fusion taco chef Roy Choi's recipe for beef cheek tacos and thought I give it a try. Choi marinates the cleaned beef overnight in a brine of 2 TB Kosher salt, juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 orange and 1 lime, 1/2 cup sugar. 3 peeled and smashed cloves of garlic, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1 1/2 whole dried guajillo chiles, 1/2 cup whole chiles de arbol, 1 cup rough chopped cilantro and 2 quarts of water all brought to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar and left to cool before adding the beef. I didn't have the chiles Choi specified so I used what dried chiles I had along with a fresh jalapeño cut in half. I left the meat in the brine uncovered overnight in the fridge and in the morning brought the whole mixture up to a boil and then allowed the pot to simmer for about an hour.
 I removed the meat from the brine (discard the brine) and let it cool before storing it in the fridge to wait for dinner.
Choi makes a piquant salsa verde to chop his tacos but it's hardly time time of year to easily find tomatillos and honestly James isn't that big on salsa so I improvised with a creamy guacamole and a crisp Latin style curtido, a quick pickled marinated salad of cabbage, carrots, jalapeños, and onions.
For my version I thinly sliced 1/2 cabbage, 2 carrots, 1/2 a white onion and minced a jalapeño. I tossed the vegetable together and poured over a hot brine of 3 TB cider vinegar, 2 tsp sugar, and 1 tsp kosher salt (brought to a boil and poured over the cut vegetables). After an hour covered in the fridge the crunchy salad was the perfect topper for crisply fried meat on gently warm corn tortillas.
Not exactly Christmassy but a fine winter treat none the less.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Shrimp and Grits

"No!" I said to my new French friend across the table. "That is not shrimp and grits." Protecting a dish I consider an American icon. We were seated together at lunch being served this caterer's version of the beloved Southern dish.
Now I realize shrimp and grits is one of those Southern dishes that has as many versions as their are Southern cooks but . . . their shrimp was pan fried with no bacon or ham gravy, their grits were hard and formed into a cake and worse yet . . . yellow! Some things cannot be tolerated. I decided right then and there to make a plate of the low country comfort food for James. A first I think.
I started with the grits, stone ground white corn grits I hand carried home from a job in South Carolina. Those boxed instant grits some areas of the country pass off as a breakfast dish are a non-starter. I'd rather eat the box. I set 3 cups of chicken broth and salt to a boil (if I'd had it I might have used 1 1/2 cups of whole milk) and stirred in 1 cup of grits. I covered the pan and lowered the heat to let the grits cook slowly while I tended to the shrimp.
First I cooked 6 slices of bacon (diced) over medium heat to crisp the meat and render as much fat as possible. I set the bacon aside and tossed in one diced onion, one chopped stalk of celery, and a couple preserved Padrone peppers I had canned from our garden over the summer. Now most cooks would use green pepper and of course you can but I don't really favor the taste and the slightly hot Padrones add a little kick the dish needs. When the onion was translucent I added in 2 cloves of chopped garlic, 10 large peeled shrimp, and the bacon back into the pan. After a minute I added in 1/4 cup of sherry and 1 cup of chicken broth, brought everything to a boil and let the shrimp simmer for 1 minute. To finish the sauce I removed the shrimp, turned of the heat, and added 1 TB of cold butter and a dash of hot sauce that I swirled into the sauce.
To finish the grits -- when they were soft and still creamy (about 25 minutes) I stirred in 3 TB of butter and a handful of shredded parmesan cheese. Stir in extra water as needed to make sure they are smooth and soft. The grits went down on the plate first covered by the tender shrimp just mixed into the savory sauce.
"You could serve this in a restaurant," James said.
I looked over and saw him scrape his plate with the back of his fork to get every drop.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas 2014

Our Christmas seafood dinner and not one decent photo to show. I had no real plan heading into dinner and so I ended up with a strange combinations of things we like. I felt a little uneasy about the pairing until it hit me. Our dinner of stuffed clams topped with thick slices of bacon and crab cakes made from my favorite childhood recipe came straight from the menu of any Italian inspired East coast seafood house found up and down the right side of the country. Back East the crab is blue but now that I am a Westerner we are Dungeness all the way. The delicious winter crab.
I grew up in Maryland where crab is a summer treat and the best steamed crabs, crab soup and crab cakes are hotly debated topics. Certainly one of my favorites is Faidley's in Lexington Market and I've been using their crab cake recipe flavored with mustard and worcestershire sauce (and my own splash of old bay seasoning and a dash of hot sauce)  for years. Tonight I offered this to James along with a quirky cranberry cocktail sauce I first whipped up one evening when the cupboard was bare.
"Kings don't eat like this," James said.
They do at our house.
Merry Christmas Honey!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Crab For Christmas Eve

We're continuing with our self-created tradition of dungeness crab for the winter holidays. Tonight out of the shell and folded into a creamy béchamel for a white lasagna accented with grassy, sweet (easy melting) fontina cheese.
Be assured this dish fits squarely in the tastes better than it looks category but honestly I was too anxious to get James' entree to the table to try out other poses. In this baked pasta, layers of egg noodles alternate with a rosemary and thyme infused béchamel, dungeness crab meat and fontina cheese -- topped (just before serving) with a pan roast of fresh mushrooms. It's the kind of dish I couldn't find time to make everyday and that's exactly what I try to do for the holidays.
For some busy families just cooking and sitting together at the table is a holiday only event. We sit down to a home cooked meal just about every night. So to make a night feel more like Christmas I venture out to recipes with multiple steps, meals served in courses and homemade desserts (not to mentioned super-luxe ingredients)
Santa won't get any trouble from us. We'll be tucked away in a happy crab coma while reindeer take their annual ride.
Merry Christmas to All! Merry Christmas, Goodnight!

Saturday, December 13, 2014


For a few years now I have been reading food writers and blogs literally scream praises for Jessica Koslow's hand crafted Sqirl preserves. Trained in high end restaurants. Koslow started peddling her homemade jams at local farmer's markets and those rave reviews somehow converged into a let's say compact East Hollywood/ Silverlake cafe.
As a fervent amateur jelly maker I've been wanting to taste what all the fuss was about and one recent morning I stumbled over to try.
Despite an interesting and fairly extensive (for the size of the kitchen and compact dining room) menu and a shockingly beautiful, elegantly rustic selection of baked goods (Koslow was once employed as a pastry chef in Atlanta's Bacchanalia restaurant) the most famous dish at Sqirl is toast. Fluffy brioche toast and a choice of jam. The bread is airy. Not heavy with eggs and sugar as brioche can be but almost spongy with deep brown toasted crust. Swirl offers a selection of jam flavors each day and because I seemed interested the bubbly gal behind the counter brought me a tasting spoon of each one on offer. The cranberry bourbon and raspberry vanilla to me were fine I'd stack any of my homemade flavors against them and come out ahead I think. But, the blueberry rhubarb (pictured on the toast above) and strawberry rose geranium literally burst with fruit flavor. An addictive blend of sweet and acidic these preserves, despite their oddly loose texture, sparkled in a way that made me determined to make mine better. I can taste what the fuss is about.

The subject of nearly as many poetic reviews as her jams are Sqirl's breakfast rice creations. Savory or sweet, these combinations seem like a chef's very sophisticated take on leftovers. I can almost picture Koslow, fridge handle in hand, thinking . . .  maybe a touch of pesto . . .  where was that feta cheese and . . . oh yes topped with an egg. The kokohu rose rice bowl I ordered had kind of a spontaneity to it. I'm sure it didn't but it felt like a dish that just happened. A -- for lack of a better description -- what I want to eat right now kind of feeling.
I love rice. I often scramble it with eggs for breakfast and if we've had spaghetti recently I might toss in a dollop of pesto or charred tomatoes. Swirl's sorrel petso is flavorful and herby and not cluttered with cheese (as mine often is). Tasty, but again the preserves are the star of this dish. I might have described this breakfast combination as fine or not especially memorable if not for the super vibrant, puckery preserved lemon condiment served on top. I would happily order that by the bucketful.
The dining room is micro at best. Though tables sprawl down the sidewalk you'll likely have to wait for a place to sit and from what I've seen the line to order can sprawl dozens deep. This isn't fast food by any means. But if you have the time to linger Sqirl is certainly worth the visit. I'll go back for certain.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Joan's On Third

I didn't want to like Joan's On Third. Nearly an institution in LA, for years I avoided the take-out spot and casual eatery in spite of -- or probably because of -- it's popularity. How could I feel I'd found a hidden treasure when everyone knew about this one?
A couple months back I arrived early for an appointment just across the street from Joan's (early morning and parking was plentiful) and slipped in for a coffee and a, okay I admit it, delicious blueberry cornbread muffin.
The parking is nothing short of tragic. The multiple counters and cashiers is confusing. The market products are absurdly expensive. Though I spent $26 for Italian torrone I somehow couldn't resist. But, I love Joan's. If I had a restaurant it's the kind of place I'd like to have. Hearty sandwiches with finesse, a huge variety of read or serve entrees, salads and sides (pasta, meatballs, lentils, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, brussels sprouts -- a generous list every day ), pastries, ice cream, a cheese counter, soups to go. Simple rustic food, well prepared for a beautiful people clientele who looks like they never eat. Oh, and the bread!
The ordering system is chaotic. There is always a line. There is barely room to walk through the one winding aisle. But, I love the metal baking tray and pie plates Joan's uses for serving (can I do that at home?).  I love the oversized farmhouse table right in the middle of the refrigerator cases. I love the bottles of water the cheerful servers bring to the table. I love Joan's but I'll never tell.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Homemade Christmas 2014

Fabric, ribbons and several cases of mason jars littering my friend Shari's table as we churn out more than 20 batches of nut brittle (cashew, macadamia, and pistachio). With the brittle packed inside waiting jars we started to experiment with combinations and bows. Shari is an excellent bow tie -er. Nearly 10 hours later (no joke) we had an army of jars ready to deliver.
Packed in the back of my car, every time I hit the brakes I can hear the faint ringing of jingle bells. It's like driving the sleigh.
Tomorrow I start deliveries.
Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Din Tai Fung, Again

There was palpable excitement in the food centric corners of LA when an outpost of the venerated Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung opened in the area back in the early 2000s. An immediate success, it wasn't too long before DTF opened a second "fancier" (and bigger) spot just around the corner from the original shop in Arcadia. Last year the chain expanded again -- further from a steady East Asian clientele into Glendale -- in the high end Americana mall. Settled in among Kate Spade and Tiffany's, DTF now caters to busy shoppers and offers an alternative (and valet parking) to area diners looking for something other than the excellent middle Eastern and so-so chain restaurants already in the area.
Fifteen years ago DTF was not my favorite dumpling spot and it still isn't. In general I prefer a thin rice paper wrapper to sturdier wheat. But really there is nothing wrong with the chain's dumplings and I've eaten them in Arcadia, Shanghai (under protest), and now Glendale. It seems that the new location has tried to refine their dishes and service to make new customers more comfortable. My Steamed rice pork bun -- usually served wrapped in a leaf and tied with kitchen twine came to the table unwrapped and naked on a plate. Not flavored with pungent Chinese sausage, but filled with a not too chili braised pork. Fine but not special. 
Though I have rarely ventured from the soup dumplings at DTF today I opted for pork and shrimp wontons in spicy sauce. I'm not sure I'd call the sauce spicy even by white folks standards but I liked it. I'd go back for more. And soup dumplings -- you can order a half order which is nice for a smaller crowd to try different flavors -- were, as always, dependable.
Dumplings have come a long way since the only place to get quality xiao long bao in LA was at a small collection of sticky table dives in the SGV and honestly I still prefer the slightly lesser known outposts -- if for nothing else than my eater's pride. It's hard to trade fantasies of Chinese grandmothers' work hardened hands deftly rolling delicate dough for the plate glass window view of very Western college kids wearing chef's jackets in Glendale. But when a lengthy drive isn't in the cards and your dinner companion might want a glass of wine with wontons -- DTF might just be the place.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Farming For The Future

 Just before the rain, preparing for summer cattle our front pasture has been disked, seeded and dragged. We've planted alfalfa to bale and to feed our visiting beef herd in warm weather.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sweets Of The Season

It's a pie time of year. Thanksgiving is a pie holiday and it ushers in a season of sugarplums and Christmas cookies.
Despite what may have been a pie overload on turkey day -- when friends came to lunch the last of our precious tree's apples became a flaky sweet dutch apple crumb pie. I love the holidays.