Saturday, December 27, 2008

Casseroles, Sugar Overload and Gumbo Gone Wrong ... Saying Goodbye to the Holidays

The above photo adequately describes my Christmas dinner. Every time someone asks me how my holidays went, I can't help but laugh -- partly because I had such a good time with my family, but partly because (in some ways) the food was an utter disaster. Lest I get too long-winded before I begin, I decided to give my readers a play-by-play of the week's events:

The Eve of Christmas Eve: Getting off of work, early I decide to make a casserole instead of (gasp!) picking up a rotisserie chicken for a friend's potluck. Eat a piece of dark chocolate while whipping it together.

Christmas Eve at noon: Get off work. Avoid the kitchen and the hours of deveining/depooping shrimp, and chopping of meat and veggies for gumbo. Watch "The Good Son." Eat a piece of dark chocolate and two cookies -- and lunch. Later, I had whole milk yogurt and almonds (big mistake).

Christmas Eve, 4PM: Decide to stop procrastinating and get in the kitchen. Start peeling and deveining three pounds of shrimp as I boiled a vat of water. Call my grandmother in Seattle and hear her lecture me for 15 minutes on how much water I should include and the difference between a tablespoon and a cooking spoon. Second decision: beg my brother to help, because looking at the pile of shrimp was making me overwhelmed. He turned out to be my cooking partner in crime the whole night. Thanks, kid.

Christmas Eve, 5PM: Begin the rue.

Christmas Eve, 6PM: Stomach starts to do the conga and I have to lie down at let my cousin (a budding chef) take over. The next two and a half hours was a tango between me, the couch and the kitchen. Lie down, get up and brown sausage, lie down. Get up brown chicken, lie down.

Christmas Eve, 8PM: My aunt gets home and my cousin and I gracefully (but sneakily) abandon ship to let her take over. The last thing I did is eat a bowl of cereal because I was starving and nauseated at the same time (which began the conga all over again) and wash the crab legs.

My aunt and I both washed and smelled the crab legs, which smelled suspiciously fishy to my uber-sensitive nose and turning stomach. However, after a good wash they smelled and looked fine. Second big mistake of the night.

Christmas Eve, 10:30PM: Gumbo was finally finished and tasted good but not quite the flavor I was shooting for. (I ate only a spoonful because my stomach was still partying on its own).

Christmas DAY, noon:
All morning (during a lovely session of watching "The Incredible Hulk") I was fantasizing about eating a good warm bowl of gumbo. My mom takes out the pot from the refridgerator in the garage and was immediately horrified when I overheard my aunt say that the gumbo could have gone bad. After a smell and a good look at it (never trust gumbo that bubbles on its own and smells like a body part that I won't say in print) -- the verdict was in. The $200 plus gumbo had spoiled. We believe the king crab legs did the pot in.

My mom cried.

I ate a cookie, and tried to pull it together.

After we got over the disappointment, my mom made homemade waffles, my cousin started scouring the Web for her macaroni recipe and tried to explain to my stepdad what broccolini is.

All in all, Christmas was celebrated with roasted chicken, macaroni and cheese and roasted veggies.

So now I have a vendetta to settle with this gumbo. After all, my grandmother is from New Orleans and is an expert gumbo cook, so why can't I??? Ironically, when I was at the grocery store two days later hunting for cranberries to make a tea bread, a butcher was trying to coax me into buying ... king crab. I promptly told him "no thank you."

And was quite huffy in explaining why.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I Can Eat Again ... The Election is Over

Kudos to the Amateur Gourmet for reminding me of one of the greatest musical and patriotic moments of our time -- Whitney Houston singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl. Her passionate rendition of the classic stirs a thrill in my veins like no other song has -- a reminder that we can be proud to be Americans on November 5. While this has nothing to do with food, Barack's win signifies not only the returning of my appetite, but also the start of a new beginning. Fifty years ago, I would not be able to eat in the same restaurants as whites, drink their water or stay in their posh hotels. I wouldn't have been able to enter the same restaurants or go to the same gyms. I wouldn't be able to work at the same corporations. The Chef Jeff Project (my new favorite addiction) wouldn't be possible. And now a black man is the President. Despite my elation (and sleepless night) I know that the battle isn't over.

But this is a really good start.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What I Hate about Election Day

The top five reasons I can't wait for it to be over.

I know, I know. As this is a food blog, I am supposed to write about food, yes? However, this political election has left me so frazzled that food is the last thing on my mind. Thus, I bring to you the top 5 things I hate about Election Day:

1. Celebratory libations consist of alcohol, alcohol and more alcohol -- at work and on the blogs. Can we say sparkling cider? I hope to get home before the election is called so that I can avoid drunken idiots on Los Angeles' already crowded roads.

2.I got up so early to vote that I didn't have time for breakfast.

3. I am so nervous that nothing seems tasty. Doesn't a Naked Juice count as a full meal?

4. Food creativity? Please. Tonight I will be so glued to CNN that dinner will most likely consist of Ezekiel bread spread with peanut butter.

5. Businesses like Ben and Jerry's and Krispy Kreme are giving out tons of free stuff all over the country. And I am soooo tempted.

UPDATE 9:30 p.m.: Barack Obama took the presidency!!! I can now have my glass of wine in peace.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pan Seared Salmon -- With a Little Extra

I am beginning to love children again. I must admit that I didn't always -- the whining, the tantrums, the fatigue, the dirt, the poop, the stretch marks and extra weight -- not to mention the fact that the women around me discuss the disasters and crazy ordeals of parenting more than the joys, definitely haven't made me want to become a mama.

Maybe my sudden baby "oots" could be the batch of hormones that is coursing through my veins -- or quite possibly, the man who kissed my knee cap earlier this week totally won me over like no one else could have. As for the for hormones, who knows? But as for the man, his name is Jett -- and he was going to be my food critic for the week.

Jett is super handsome -- he has creamy cafe au lait skin, dark eyes, spiky hair, a great laugh and a deep affinity for parmesan cheese. He literally jumps up and down when I walk through the door. But before people think I'm getting too serious, I have one more description to add: He's two. And he WAS going to be my food critic -- until I realized that the salmon fillets I bought for the pan seared salmon had bones. I figured his parents wouldn't appreciate it if I threatened his life with my dinner.

As for the salmon, the lemon juice-based marinade was a light but flavorful seasoning for the fish. Combined with an arugula salad with bell peppers, grape tomatoes, bell pepper and cucumber, I was ready to eat. However, (like always) my manic tasting during the cooking process left me without an appetite.

As for Jett, he was more than happy to eat a less life-threatening meal (sausages with pasta), play Wii and try on his Halloween turtle costume (again) and parade it for all of us to see.

Life is so much simpler when you're two.

Check out my junior gourmet (and me):

Pan Seared Salmon
(Adapted from
2 center-cut salmon fillets (6 oz. each)
1 1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the salad:
3 cups baby arugula leaves
2/3 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup thinly slivered red onion
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp red-wine vinegar
A Pirouette addition: 1/2 cucumber, 1/2 medium-sized red bell pepper.

1. Place the salmon fillets in a shallow bowl. Toss well with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Let rest for 15 minutes.

2. Cook the salmon, skinside down in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes, shaking the pan and carefully lifting the salmon with a spatula to loosen it from the pan.

3. Reduce the heat to medium. Cover the pan and cook until the salmon is cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes more. The skin should be crisp and the flesh medium rare. (I like to make sure my salmon is VERY well done, so I cooked mine for close to 15 minutes total).

4. Meanwhile, combine the arugula, tomatoes and onion in a bowl. Just before serving, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with oil and vinegar. Toss well.

Friday, October 31, 2008

From My Plate to Yours

The best of this week's food blogs.

Smitten Kitchen gets the pretty picture award (again, see above): I don't know what this woman does to give me the gasp every time I go on her site, but she certainly knows how to give me some food envy. Her peanut butter bars, which she says are definitely not good for you, made me seriously want to stretch my calorie intake.

The slow cooker gets a makeover: I confess that I've had the stereotype that slow cookers aren't real cooks. What creativity is there in throwing a bunch of stuff in a pot and coming home to have it done already? But this post over at Epicurious could convince me otherwise.

I heart garlic: Don't ask why I've begun to speak in text message language, but I truly heart garlic. The Complete Book of Garlic made me happy that my hands routinely stink from chopping the savory herb.

A Martha Moment: Yes, I have had many days where the seemingly perfect, gorgeous idea lands on my brain -- though the execution doesn't always have the same flair. Chez Pim's Martha Moment involved a roast pig, butcher paper and some outdoor dining. Trust me, it looked far more elegant than it sounds.

And, a little eye candy for Halloween:

He's definitely not a meal, but this baby is deliciously beautiful. No, he's not mine, but if I were trying to pretend to be a "baby mama," my little cousin would be my first choice.

Come back next week for another "From My Plate to Yours."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bonsoir, La Dijonaise

La Dijonaise is a little cafe and boulangerie (aka bakery shop) tucked in the art district of Culver City, CA, an area that pulsates with "I could get discovered tonight" energy. Flanked with a sports bar with lines out the door and an Asian fusion restaurant, this cafe definitely doesn't sport itself as a mecca of haute cuisine, especially as their portion sizes were closer to Texan than Parisian. However, with a Parisian waiter names Nicolas, I was more than happy to be mesmerized by the way he sounded when he asked for my order and practice my shoddy French vocabulary.

As a friend and I sat and gabbed about careers, men and babies, we sipped still water and enjoyed the warm night air. Nicolas (my new bff) brought out crab cakes as a starter. Crab cakes I have usually enjoyed are usually dense and moist in consistency. These, which I devoured quickly, were surprisingly closer to cornbread in texture and lighter on the fish. Followed by salmon with dill sauce -- complete with a bed of long green beans and wild rice -- this little cafe won me over before we even hit dessert.

In between chomping and refusing to let my friend touch his food before I took pics, I couldn't help but grow thoughtful as recent events have brought some major life decisions to the forefront. Despite what many of my friends may think, I have a lot more cowardly lion in me than I would like to admit. Hence, I'm afraid, constantly battling between what's comfortable and familiar or deciding to leap into an unfamiliar (and potentially frightening situation). As I love being in control, rolling with change is not something that comes naturally to me.

Sometimes, the only adventures I like to take are edible. But anyone can change, right?

Dessert: Lest I get too deep, I hacked into the Napoleon and lemon tart with vigor, tossing aside my silent vow that I will only eat sweets on Saturday.

I let yesterday be Saturday.

Friday, October 24, 2008

From My Plate to Yours

The best of this week's food blogs.

A little gasp factor: I found the above pic of a pink lady cake over at Smitten Kitchen. Everything they post makes me makes me 1. gasp and 2. want to bite the computer.

Preparing for warm cider, stockings and knubbly sweaters: Orangette's description of the transition from summer to fall sounded as if it was a chapter from Wuthering Heights. Not necessarily a new post, but one that I can't stop reading over. And over.

An easy weekend breakfast: The Skinny Gourmet had my mouth watering with her olive and artichoke quiche muffins. Definitely better than the Trader Joe's frozen version.

Boire du petit-lait: Clotilde over at Chocolate and Zucchini continues in her weekly French idioms lesson. Sounds dry as toast? Only this woman can make French vocabulary interesting on a Friday. Check it out.

A yearning for home: Raphael Kushin over at Epicurious took me for a walk along Michigan Avenue today, taking me through the best of Chicago's hotel restaurants. His story took me back to the slow walks that I used to take throughout, enjoying the process and excitement of discovering new flavors and nooks -- whether it was 8 degrees or 80.

Come back next week for another "From My Plate to Yours."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Recession Style Stir Fry

Last Sunday was one of those days in Los Angeles that only a good breeze can produce -- beautiful sunshine, a blue sky and air I can breathe versus see. In obedience to my financial counselor, I was on a quest to cut costs in my grocery shopping wherever possible (even though I silently thought if he expects me to cook boring food in an effort to save money, he's crazy). Armed with all the ingredients to make what I like to call "recession" style stir fry -- and full of happy hormones from a run along the beach -- I was ready to cook.

Consistent Pirouette readers know that cooking mistakes are part of my charm. After all, what fun would it be if I didn't burn something every so often or think that I was getting the correct ingredients for a soup, only to get home and realize I didn't have anything I needed? However, my latest gaffe didn't have anything to do with what I was cooking, but the fact that I got into an argument with a dear friend as I was in the middle of stirring a garden of vegetables and whole wheat noodles.

Making a casual observation to a friend turned into a 30 minute (tense) conversation, covering years of "you're also this way" and "I could say the same thing about yous." I maniacally focused on stirring the tomatoes and onion, while inside all I was thinking was, "How on earth did we get into this?" and verbally looking for a way out. Which never helps.

It took everything in me to not just focus on stirring so that I could reign in my emotions as my friend looked like she was going to burst into tears. The conversation ended in awkward silence -- me holding a wooden spoon tightly. The kitchen (and my hands) smelling like ginger and garlic. Little drops of tomato sauce on my favorite Northwestern sweater. And a kitchen full of vegetable peels.

We decided to part ways for the day -- she got leftovers, and I got my thoughts and clean-up.

Relationships are so wonderfully fragile (especially when we're hormonal) that they're like fine silken threads -- pulling it just a little too hard can break them. In those moments when gritting your teeth is better than saying anything, I try to remember that no one is really right when it comes to such matters. I always talk about how blessed I am with friends, but to be frank, that day wasn't a stellar example of me being the bigger person -- that didn't come until later.

Instead, I took solace in my whole wheat noodle stir fry -- as I watched "Chef Jeff" and cooks make city skylines out of cake.

Recession Style Stir Fry
(adapted from Budget Friendly Stir Fry,

1 small piece of ginger, peeled and chopped fine
1 red onion, chopped
1 cup of broccoli
1/2 an eggplant, chopped
1 chicken breast, cooked and chopped (I steamed mine, using a little garlic salt and lemon pepper)
1 red pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
1 can of diced tomatoes
whole wheat noodles
soy sauce

1. Heat 2 tbs. of vegetable oil in a skillet.
(in a separate pot, boil about 3/4 a pack of wheat noodles in lightly salted water and cook until al dente)
2. Add ginger, onion, red pepper, eggplant and cook for about a minute, stirring continuously.
3. Add garlic, broccoli, and the can of diced tomatoes. Stir thoroughly.
4. Add about 3 tbs. (or more, depending on your taste buds) to the mixture.
5. Add the chicken and stir.
6. Last, add the cooked noodles. If you need to use a pair of tongs and a spoon to make sure the noodles are thoroughly moisturized, then do so.
7. Enjoy!

I actually did all the chopping the day before. But that doesn't make me a cheater.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Why I Hate Rachael Ray

Don't get me wrong. I don't typically get too ticked at morning show hosts -- or use the word hate. Maybe it's just that I've been feeling a bit of morning show condemnation, now that I have a tv in my office that doesn't feature snow. Between Rachael's supposedly quick meals and Martha Stewart's "oh-so-simple" Tiger Lily costumes for babies (made out of orange felt and wire), I've about had it with things that take only 30 minutes, but really don't. Thus, after watching an episode of Rachael where she made stoop (a cross between stew and soup), I feel more than justified to write this post. Here are the 10 reasons why I hate Rachael:
1. She uses the word "EVOO."
2. She loves biscuits -- my arch nemesis.
3. Her kitchen is an odd cross between NY chic and the 1950s. Can anyone say frigidaire?
4. She is one of the many people Oprah has made famous -- I'm suffering from envy. Drat, if I can just that woman my manuscript, I'll never have to work another day.
5. She tries to pretend that she is just like us, clutzily (is that a word?) dropping food and telling us that she once set the kitchen on fire.
6. When I go to the supermarket, it's Rachael Ray mania. I can't even grab a gift card without seeing her smiling face holding a casserole dish.
7. Her dry laugh works my nerves in the morning before I've had my chai latte.
8. Her carpe diem attitude towards fatty foods is great, but tell that to my waistline.
9. She makes a mini-cheeseburger salad. This should be an oxymoron, but it's not.
10. Worst of all -- she makes me love her. Even with her cackle-like laugh and fetish for potatoes, I still rush to turn on her show every day. I just can't help myself.

Do you have food hosts you love to hate?

Friday, October 10, 2008

From My Plate to Yours: Election '08 Edition

Besides having a momentary panic about whether my roommates and I needed to buy canned goods and quarantine ourselves to the house, the state of the economy didn't really take a toll on me this week (unlike Wall Street). Like the rest of the country, I was consumed with the debate -- and was curious to see who (as I like to say) would bring his "A-game." Unfortunately, I do think McCain brought his A -- and I don't even like the man.

In the midst of all the money, war and healthcare talk, the toll the election and the economy are taking on the food world was buzzing in the blogs. Here's a quick recap:

Update: A Detroit pizzeria is offering McCain supporters free pizza if they trade in their lawn signs. Weird.

Steven Colbert gave his laughing audience a rundown of the fluctuating Dow. The only stock to rise on Sept. 29's historic drop? Campbell's.

Michael Park of Epicurious told us why a gourmet should care at all about November 4, namely that the artichoke hearts you love to prepare may not be so accessible depending on the man (or woman) in office.

McCain and Obama now have chocolates that would-be supporters (or haters) can buy. Blogger Heather Tyree was vehemently accused of using her blog for political ends. I said get over it -- it's just chocolate.

All four Prez/VP candidates have burgers that bear their name -- from Sarah Palin's hockey puck sliders to Biden's Bluehen-Footinmouth. McCain's burger was the only one that didn't have a cool name -- I wonder what the Early Show was trying to say?

Who knew food could get so political?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Taste of Seattle

When I was a little girl, I used to stick my nose out of the car window to smell the bread baking at the Wonder Bread factory on Seattle's Jackson Street. I'm sure passersby thought that I looked like a dog. I, on the hand, loved the smell so much that my grandmother would drive me by the factory on purpose just so I could take a sniff.

I haven't been back to the Emerald City for more than 15 years, avoiding family rifts that are better left unspoken, but -- needless to say -- must be dealt with now. When food blogger Esther Sung mentioned an upcoming trip to Seattle and gave a shot out to ask for coffee shop and restaurant recommendations, many memories spiked like little earthquakes in my mind -- some with pain, others (admittedly) happy. Thus, this post is born out of that moment -- that sweet shaft of pain through my chest that told me her story struck a nerve.

My food memories of the city are simple ... I grew up watching my 5-foot grandmother, an expert southern cook, give a pinch of this and a dash of that, and emerge from the kitchen with a banquet. Hey, no pressure, Pirouette, as you grow as a cook ...

She used to begin the rue for her gumbo at 6 in the morning on holidays. As I cracked crab legs and enjoyed the dish she was famous for, I didn't realize until last Christmas how much work it took to make. What took her three hours took me five -- and I had a sous, two cookbooks and her on speed dial.

These are the little threads that hold me to the city.

I am going back in just a few weeks, ready to see the skyline, smell fresh air, hit up a few raved-about restaurants and face my past. More pics and reviews to follow ... as well (I hope) a closed door on some longstanding issues.

P.S. I am on the hunt for some of the best restaurants and cafes, because I have three days to do a lot of eating. Any suggestions?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Just a Little Tequila ...

I lost my eyebrows this weekend.

Just kidding. But when I saw a recipe on Epicurious for Tequila Shrimp, which required me to light the alcohol on fire in the pan, I will admit I was a little bit terrified. Couple that with the fact that I -- pretty much an only wine-drinking Christian -- went to the store, bought a large bottle of white tequila and a box of matches and brought it home to my new roommates (at 2 in the morning on a Saturday), I must say the experience was interesting. I convinced them that I was not a closet alcoholic, but rather, that I use alcohol for cooking purposes only.

My weekend was filled with the typical runaround that characterizes my days off:

1. Get hair done -- check
2. Balance the checkbook that hasn't been done in a week -- check
3. Wax eyebrows that look like Groucho Marx's -- check
4. Neurotically check food websites for what I want to cook -- and plan when I can make a mad dash around the store -- check

To multi-task, I roped my bff into shucking and "deveining"/"depooping" a pound of shrimp for the dish that I was so eager to light on fire. Maybe I am an undercover pyromaniac -- whatever -- but like the nerd that I am, I kept telling everyone that I got to light the alcohol in the pan. I was so excited that I put more tequila than the recipe required just so I could light it twice.

All in all, the recipe had to be tweaked a bit in order to bring out that famous "bite" that the recipe author swore it would have. But once the improvising was done, the white tequila added a unique flavor. Coupled with fettuccine, the shrimp was the perfect way to end my Sunday -- carbs and a double chick-flick: "Meet Joe Black" and "Forget Paris."

Tequila Shrimp
(adapted from
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp in shell (21 to 25 per pound), peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup white or reposado tequila
3/4 cup crema or sour cream
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon garlic salt
About a palm size minced onion

Toss shrimp with kosher salt, 3/4 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper, garlic salt and onion.

Heat butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until foam subsides, then sauté shrimp, turning, until pink and just cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce heat and add tequila, then increase heat to medium-high. Tilt skillet over gas burner to ignite tequila (or ignite with a long match; use caution, as flames may shoot up high). Cook, shaking skillet gently once or twice, until flames subside. Remove from heat and stir in crema. Serve sprinkled with scallion.

Friday, October 3, 2008

From My Plate to Yours

Confession: There are few things I enjoy more than reading a description of a good dish, food experience or a well-written recipe. Fortunately for me, I have the privilege of coming across food writers daily who inspire me to new heights of culinary creativity and writing -- who take a souffle from a batch of eggs to a waltz or a shrimp recipe to a sublime experience.

I'm not kidding.

I decided not to hog all of the food blogs I consume (you won't get me to admit how many blogs I read -- it borders on shame). Thus I present to you "From My Plate to Yours," a collection of the best of this week's food blogs. Judging by what made the cut, I would definitely say I had France on the brain this week, as every article that struck me either mentioned the country or reminded me of it in some way:

David Lebovitz consistently get me into trouble by posting something delish that I am all of sudden desperate to make -- from gelato to fresh pesto. His gorgeous pics of cheesecake brownies (see above) made me want to run to the store and buy the ingredients (I settled for showing all my co-workers the recipe), and his description of the French response to cheesecake, "le cheesecake is always spoken of with a reverence normally reserved for the finest cheeses and most exclusive wines" made me laugh. He never disappoints.

In southwest France, Kate Hill's one-paragraph description of her Gascony home made me want to see its beauty in the fall: golden leaves, dew, that first crispness in the air and foods like pumpkins, mushrooms and pears that I've been waiting to be in season all year.

And while I was happy that Chocolate & Zucchini is having its fifth anniversary party, I must admit that I was a little bitter that the soiree was (sigh) in Paris. Clotilde, I wish I could hop a plane this week to meet you, say congrats and thanks for all your insightful tips and fun stories.

It's funny how reading all these blogs made me remember how much I missed Paris -- a city that I was in for only eight days but whose culture and food I can still taste and remember. I was able to eat bread three times a day and not feel guilty. A simple breakfast of yogurt and fruit never tasted so fresh. And the wine I enjoyed held a category of its own.

I hope I will be landing in France again soon. But for now, I will settle for singing "La Vie en Rose" in my Kia and promising myself yet again to order Rosetta Stone's French edition. I gotta grow beyond saying "Where is the bathroom?" in French.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mourning Lost Cafes

Seeing a closed restaurant -- especially if it was popular -- similar to a death in its finality. There's an experience that you wished to have but now can't, people you wished to meet that you are now unable. My latest sad moment was driving through Hollywood and passing by LA Doughboys Bakery and Cafe -- and seeing it boarded up.

I had often seen this Hollywood restaurant packed to the windows with artistic and tattoed souls desperate for their morning bagel, and sworn that I would go there when I had time -- and now I can't. Call me a bit sentimental, but I get attached to those familiar landmarks in my daily life; they keep me sane when I'm in traffic.

This artsy scene has now morphed into a no-name cafe, a place without roots that has to build a history -- not become a part of mine.

I like to have places that I know I can go to -- where the cashiers know me. I can be sure that my chai latte doesn't scald my mouth, the pastries are fresh and I don't have to fear a third-world quality bathroom. I like being able to pass by these places on the street and know that I have a group of safe havens. LA Doughboys was supposed to be one of those places. And now it's gone.

In the last two years, a different cafe (one of my faves) has gone through several owners -- and with each change of regime, the name changes. It's almost as annoying as Puff Daddy changing his name to P. Diddy -- and now he's just Diddy. Maybe next year he'll just be "D."

The cafe formerly known as "Cubby's" became "Synergy" and is now just "The Spot." Synergy's sister cafe became Vinoteque, a wannabe miniature disco in a Culver City neighborhood known for children, dogs and an ice skating rink as old as Jesus.

I could be a bit melancholy tonight, but this foodie wishes for a bit of stability in her palate.

Is that too much too ask?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fall Foods and Musings

The first thing I said when I logged on to Pirouette today was, "God, I've missed blogging!" My faithful readers have probably been wondering why I have been MIA. I only have one thing to say in my defense -- I've wandered into the morass of quick and lazy cooking. I decided to escape last night, realizing that my palate was slowly dying of boredom. More on that later.

Fall is here. Fruits like pears and apples are beginning to adorn food websites. I am tempted with a childish delight to crunch every fall leaf (the few that I see -- I am from LA) and kick every cone on the ground.

But I am also thinking about the recent changes and decisions in my own life. I made one in particular while huffing on the elliptical trainer at 6 a.m. this morning: I am going to spend more time on the things that are important and a little less on things that are urgent. Important things are defined as that "life to-do list" -- making that creme brulee recipe you've been dying to try, sending a thank-you note vs. an e-card, taking the time to kiss and spend time with your kids vs. checking the mountain of email newsletters that are piled up in your inbox. As I am a perfectionist with a million things on her to do list at all times, this will be no easy task.

But I am willing to try.

Here are a few that I thought about (in no particular order):

1. Laugh more, worry less.
2. Cook meals that take contemplation and time.
3. Start the novel that's been brewing in my mind for the last few weeks.
4. Escape the quick-food rut -- which I did by making roasted chicken with grape tomatoes, cilantro and garbanzo beans last night.

The weeks of summer heat and reluctance to turn on the stove to 450 faded away as I lovingly massaged the spicy garbanzo bean mixture, adding a little extra garlic because it is my personal belief that garlic makes darn near anything taste good.

Gone were the summer days of salads (and only salads) because of the elusive tone that I am determined to see in my upper arms.

And gone were the days of speeding through the organic food market and silently wondering what cooks the fastest.

I explained to someone today that good food is all about experience -- taking the time to include the things that are important, yet not urgent: flavor, texture, color and presentation.

He laughed.

So here's my personal urge for important cooking, in a little less highbrow language: If it ain't pretty, don't eat it.

Roast Chicken Breasts with Garbanzo Beans, Tomatoes and Paprika:
(Adapted from Bon Appetit)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, pressed
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspooon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
1/2 cup plain yogurt (I prefer Greek yogurt)
4 chicken breast halves with bones
1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans
1 12-ounce container cherry tomatoes
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Preheat oven to 450F. Mix first 5 ingredients in medium bowl. Pour 1 teaspoon spiced oil mixture into small bowl; whisk in yogurt and set aside for sauce. Place chicken on large rimmed baking sheet. Rub 2 tablespoons spiced oil mixture over chicken. Add beans, tomatoes, and 1/2 cup cilantro to remaining spiced oil mixture; toss to coat. Pour bean mixture around chicken. Sprinkle everything generously with salt and pepper.

Roast until chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup cilantro. Transfer chicken to plates. Spoon bean mixture over. Serve with yogurt sauce.

Monday, August 18, 2008

My Visit to Thailand

Random food adventures are the best. There's something secretly thrilling about having absolutely no plan to discover something new, only the desire to explore a little nook and cranny that you've passed by a million times. My recent food encounter was with a little Thai restaurant called Chan Darae here in Los Angeles. It certainly didn't look like much from the outside--it was on a dirty stretch of road called Cahuenga East in Hollywood(weird) across the street from the local CNN bureau and kitty corner from an adult video store. Homeless people milled from corner to corner.

Ok, so I didn't go to Thailand, but we Angelenos consider Hollywood its own country. Definitely not my typical stomping grounds.

But since a local food site raved about it, I was willing to give it a try. Crossing the gum-filled sidewalk to enter the restaurant, I must say I was immediately welcomed by the decor. The small restaurant was filled with warmth, accented by the earthy tones of red and yellow on the floor and walls. Complementing all things feng shui, there was a water fountain by the door. Golden idols sat above the door as well, as if keeping watch. Gorgeous Thai waitresses served eager customers--I secretly believe that facial beauty and bust size are requirements for working there.

Happily breathing it all in, I immediately ordered a Thai iced and sat down. The restaurant was empty, but quickly filled as the afternoon hours slowly ticked away.

I decided to break my typical curry obsession and ordered chicken with basil and red chilies. The basil added a fresh burst of taste while the chilies had a sneaky heat--ok at first, then spicy enough to have steam coming out of my ears. But I loved every bit of it.

When I lived in Chicago (only the greatest place in the world) I was infamous for looking for new places to discover. And despite being a Los Angeles native, I am sure that I have a lot more of the city to see.

I'll be starting with the food.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Spicy Fettuccine with Pesto

Basil has been an intoxicating spice for me of late, one that I have been craving for most of my dishes. When chopped or cooked, it gives me the same feeling I get when I walk by freshly cut grass, where the smell literally assaults all five senses. It is a tangible smell of freshness.

This craving recently led me to search through three cookbooks and two food sites until I found what I was looking for: a fettuccine with pesto recipe. According to cooking guru David Lebovitz, a proper pesto is made with a mortar and pestle. Taking his advice, I eagerly ran to Williams and Sonoma in order to buy one. Seeing it on the bottom shelf, I thought the white marble mortar was smooth and beautiful--perfect for crushing aromatic basil leaves for fresh pesto.

I then saw the price tag--and went home to pull out my food processor.

My first experience making pesto was everything it should be--fun, and I completely trashed the kitchen. After ensuring that all parts of the food processor were put together correctly (a chore in itself), I tossed in the garlic and basil for the first stage of pesto making. Upon opening the lid, I was struck by the potence of the smell--a fresh burst that made me cough at first, but swell with pride as I added salt and pepper, olive oil, fat free feta cheese, toasted pine nuts and two green chiles to the paste. After tasting it, I considered it far too spicy for my palate, but after a few dips and a thumbs up from a Nigerian friend, I felt that the extra chile was worth the risk.

Adding the pesto to a waiting pot of fettuccine and peas, the pasta was light with just the right spicy kick--and the feta (and additional parmesan cheese) melted to add a sticky zest to the dish.

No, I didn't create my pesto in the authentic grinding method. But I was more than happy with the results of breaking tradition.

Spicy Fettuccine with Pesto

(adapted from Working Mother)
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, plus extra for garnish
2 large green chiles, seeded (only use 1 1/2 if you're not a fan of spicy foods)
1 small clove garlic
sea salt
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/3 cup exra-virgin olive oil
3 1/2 ounces feta or goat cheese, coarsely crumbled
freshly ground pepper
8 ounces fresh or frozen peas, thawed
14 ounces fettuccine
freshly grated parmesan (optional)

1. Place basil, chiles, garlic and a large pinch of salt in a food processor; process until coarsely chopped.

2. Toast nuts in a small dry pan over low heat, shaking occasionally until golden on both sides, about 2-3 minutes. Transfer to basil mixture in food processor and process until coarsely chopped. Add half of the oil and process until almost smooth; transfer to a bowl. Add remaining oil and the feta and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Bring a small saucepan of water and a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add peas to small saucepan and simmer 5 minutes if fresh, 3 minutes if thawed; drain. Add pasta to large pot and cook according to package directions; drain and return to pot. Immediately add 2-3 dollops of pesto and the peas to pasta and toss until pasta is well-coated (I added the entire mixture to make sure the pasta was well-coated). Serve with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Round Pancake

On Saturday, I woke up with a smile on my face and an intense craving for pancakes. I used to have a deep love for the warm fluffies until a friend of mine said (in a sickeningly-sweet-I-go-to-the-gym-six-days-a-week sort of way) "You know that pancakes have absolutely no nutritional value, don't you?" Banana-nut pancakes haven't tasted the same since.

But tossing all love-hatred of carbs aside, I decided to whip up some cakes. As a nod to my pals over at The Second Pancake, I was thinking about that first satisfying pancake for the cook. Unfortunately, a not-so-deft flip ended up with my pancake on the floor. Another couple of flips introduced my feet and forearms to a couple of splashes of hot batter. Lovely.

Round pancakes are a dish that somehow I haven't mastered yet. Sure, they are fluffy and comforting with whipped butter and organic syrup -- but never round. They usually end up as some strange variation between an oval and an amoeba. I once made Swedish pancakes that looked more like a bacteria than a pancake. But they were delicious.

Despite all of her cooking deficiencies, my mother can make perfectly round pancakes every time. I may be able to make fettuccine with fresh pesto (come back in a couple of days for that), create salmon recipes and experiment with fruit and fresh greens, but I can't make a round pancake to save my life. I can do complicated, but it's the simple things that get me twisted.

I wonder if that's a sign?

My mom's pancake recipe (which also works great for waffles):
1 cup of flour
2 tbs. of oil
3 tsp. of baking powder
1/2 tsp. of salt
1 tbs. of sugar
1 egg
1 cup of milk

1. Mix dry ingredients together in a bowl.
2. In a separate beat and the egg and add the milk.
3. Mix dry and wet ingredients together until smooth. Once all mixed together, add oil to the mixture. If you want to make fruity pancakes, add berries or bananas at this time.
4. On a lightly oiled griddle or skillet over medium heat, spoon 2 tbs. of batter to make one pancake. Flip when it bubbles in the middle.
5. Repeat until done. Voila!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Workouts and Wine Glasses

After the backbreaking week I've had, I only wanted three things by the time it was Friday: a tough Pilates workout, a good Bible reading and a glass of wine. In my fantasy life, I am a hot Parisian food writer who hits a cute bistro in a different arrodisement once a week. In the real world, I am a sometimes crazy writer/foodie who just got promoted to copy chief at a great (but non-food) site. Knowing my love for all things culinary, one of my coworkers got me a fabulous bottle of red wine as a congratulatory gift. I considered it a gift for surviving my first week.

This 2006 Gnarly Head Zinfandel was full and hearty on the nose and first taste but peppery and spicy on the finish. According to its maker, it is paired well with hearty pastas, chili and ribs. I disobeyed and had it with a piece of lightly battered fish, which gave me a slight thrill that I was bending the rules.

After the endorphins were high, the goblet empty and the last verses read, I went to bed relaxed, with the satisfaction that I worked hard and did my job well.

Perhaps all Fridays should be celebrated with wine.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Crunchy and Peachy Greek Yogurt

There is something about a good walk that lifts the spirits like nothing else. I am blessed enough--spoiled enough--to have spectacular mountain views and eucalyptus trees lining the residential streets behind my building. I take advantage of these streets almost daily--striking out from the whitewashed walls and stress to be alone and calm my spirit. Which is why on a random afternoon walk at work, I was surprised to see two men in business suits emerge from behind a building, arms laden with peaches.

In my office community in Burbank, odd sites are a rarity--unless you count badly dressed tourists who must take 500 million pics with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, or girls with far too many tattoos. I (without dignity) cautiously walked into the wilderness--um, building foliage--where they just came from. Sure enough, there was a peach tree.

Plucking one ripe, fuzzy fruit, I eagerly smelled it to see if it smelled as good as it looked--and I tell you, visions of peach cobbler were dancing in my head. The possibilities were endless.

After going home, I settled for something a little simpler and a heck of a lot quicker--a crunchy Greek yogurt recipe, drizzled with brown sugar with peaches on top. It was a perfect 9 p.m. dinner.

Crunch and Peachy Greek Yogurt
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup walnut
1 peach

1. Instructions are easy.
2. Cut the peach into eighths and set aside.
3. Add the honey to the yogurt, then add nuts.
4. Arrange the peach pieces however you like.
5. Sprinkle brown sugar on top.
6. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Loving Fraîche Foods

Culver City restaurants are not necessarily known for their chic-ness -- cute and quaint, but rarely chic. However, one restaurant I kept driving past every week looked more like a place where the paparazzi could easily feel at home than a restaurant in my neck of the woods -- not to mention that the valet services blocked up traffic every night around five.

When a friend of mine suggested that we go to Fraîche, I was excited to go to the restaurant that is Culver City's new hot spot--so much so that I was ready to tell off the maitre d' if I couldn't get a table. Though it was still daylight outside, the inner section of the restaurant was ready for the night crowd; an intimate lighting complemented the terra cotta walls accented by paintings of the French countryside. Women were dressed as if they were going to the opera and not to dinner. Next to the open-style kitchen, at least 14 different cheeses held their place of honor. Eager diners watched each plate being brought to the tables and commented -- not so subtly, mind you -- on the beauty of other's dishes.

And the food definitely lived up to the hype.

Sitting outdoors on a gorgeous day in LA, I started with a lovely heirloom tomato salad with avocados, onions and tarragon aioli (pictured above). My appetizer was followed by some of the lightest pasta I have ever tasted -- a four cheese tortelli --ricotta, parmesan, robiola and pecorino -- topped by hazelnuts and cooked in brown butter.

Though I usually avoid carbs like the plague, I ate the entirety of this dish -- and I felt satiated and not stuffed. My beef-eating friend started with a colorful beef tartare and chose the monkfish for his entree, which had a savory, lemony flavor and tender texture.

For dessert, we had a simple cookie platter, but these weren't your mother's Toll House -- each cookie from chocolate chip to macaroon, was intricate, flavorful and well-designed -- the work of Miho Travi, a quality pastry chef.

It was one of those rare restaurant experiences where you are sure to put your next reservation in your Blackberry before leaving. And I did.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

To Brownies, With Love

Certain dishes have stories, like ballads that remind you of fond relationships. Gumbo means heritage. Cornbread dressing means work. Bread is my constant struggle. Chocolate brownies also fall into that category, a dessert I don't typically crave but always make for friends. When I make them, I am automatically taken to the smile of a well-satisfied palate and the instant gratification well-cooked food gives. Seems like nothing says love and appreciation more than a batch of chocolate brownies.

The first time I made this recipe, I was nervous beyond belief because it was the first time had ever I made it (and I was hoping I didn't over sell myself to the person that I was making them for). I checked the recipe every five minutes to make sure I was doing it right and looked in the oven every 10. And once I pulled them out, perfectly moist with a slight crunch on top, I felt like I graduated to next level of cooking. The next time I made them wasn't so successful; I learned never to try to double baking recipes. They came out more like brownie gum than a pastry--a beautiful letdown.

Brownies are the one sweet that has grown with my ups and downs over the past year, something I have sought to perfect as much as I have sought after personal growth. And as I made them quickly today--stirring the melting butter and chocolate at the same time as beating the eggs, vanilla and sugar (and watching Ratatouille)--I knew I hadn't arrived as a cook, I instinctively knew that I was further along than my college days of pasta made 10 different ways and boiled chicken now and again. And more pasta.

Looking at a half-empty pan a day later, I realize I love making them as much as the recipient loves to eat them. And on the days when my desserts turn out perfectly and I have no disasters to report, for a brief moment, all is right with the world.

Chocolate Brownies
(adapted from Betty Crocker)
2/3 cup butter or stick margarine
5 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate cut into pieces (Baker's is a good brand)
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped walnuts

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease bottom and sides of square pan, 9 x 9 x 2 inches, with shortening. I spray it with Pam; it's a much healthier option.
2. Melt butter and chocolate in 1-quart saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. Cool 5 minutes.
3. Beat sugar, vanilla and eggs in medium bowl with electric mixer on high speed 5 minutes. Beat in chocolate mixture on low speed, scraping bowl occasionally. Beat in flour just until blended, scraping bowl occasionally. I usually beat the flour in gradually--doing it all at once can make the batter REALLY thick. Stir in walnuts. Spread in pan.

4. Bake 40 to 45 minutes or just until brownies begin to pull away from sides of pan. Cool completely in pan on wire rack, about 2 hours.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Frrrozen Hot Chocolate

Los Angeles may have its charms--perfect weather year-round, accessible beach and enough plastic surgery treatments to dizzy the mind of any woman--but Manhattan has many culinary claims to my affection that LA cannot share. One of which is Serendipity's Frrrozen Hot Chocolate, a dessert love of mine that I can only get by
mail and taste by memory.

I first had the pleasure of this "hot chocolate" two years ago. Excited to have a whole summer in NY and interning for Essence (which, by the way, I didn't know half as much as I thought I did) I quickly mapped out every famous restaurant and museum in the area. I imagined a spacious and adorable locale, courtesy of the Kate Beckinsale movie that bore the same name.

When I got there, it was adorable, but its cuteness went out the door when I saw the mile-long line. The 95 degrees of humid heat and a hour-long wait was quickly forgotten, however, once we were seated and orders received. To be honest, all of my dietary one-bite rules went out the door; I ingested enough sugar to float on a sea of glucose-induced bliss. In addition to tasting all of my friend's desserts, I had a decadent, face-sized piece of black chocolate cake and three scoops of vanilla ice cream. I shared, of course.

Back in my hometown, I don't have the Alice's Tea Cups and Seredipity's of the world to visit when I'm in the mood to read Anne of Green Gables and contemplate life and existence. So I went through the roof with joy when a friend of mine brought me back a package of the Frrrozen Hot Chocolate Mix. Sacreligious (I know) for any cook to make something from a mix and not from scratch. However, for the sake of my happy palate and a bit of nostalgia, I am willing to make the exception.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

All I Needed to Learn in Life, I Learned From Wine

I was going through some photos for a scrapbook that I am pretending to start when I came across the one above. Despite the fact that it was easily 105 degrees in Paso Robles, Calif., that day (and I almost knocked out from heat exhaustion and tasting too many wines--um, four--for my lightweight self), I can remember the taste of the wine like it was yesterday. The 2007 Viognier was a lovely golden hue and complemented by hints of apples, oranges, vanilla and pears. In the midst of breathtaking mountain views, silence that never happens in my Los Angeles hometown and a humbling that only comes when around debaucherous beauty, I was struck by a simple truth--vintners probably understand life better than I ever will.

Those who tirelessly labor to get a plump Cab or Chardonnay know that it doesn't just happen overnight--that it takes a ridiculous amount of hard work and struggle for the plants to push up through the soil. Plants must be nurtured and loved to make it to maturity. Vintners understand that many stages have to happen in order for an unripe grape to become a full liquid paired with a crisp piece of salmon or heavy roast. And so it is with us.

I am encountering the reality that personal growth only comes when we accept that the growing process isn't pleasant. But what really matters is the fruit that comes out in the end.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Zesty Veggie Frittata

In the Bible, a Psalm says that we are to thirst for God like a deer pants for streams of water. Well, this week my body was thirsting for one word with three syllables: frittata. Since my chance encounter with the beautiful and fluffy egg pancake with basil, chicken and tomatoes at a little Italian cafe in LA, my craving was insatiable. I thought about it when I woke up, dreamed about eating one in the night and couldn't wait until Friday when I could make my own. Which also explains why I was up at 10 p.m. on Friday chopping zucchini, bell peppers (red and yellow), basil, garlic and tomatoes while watching Where the Heart Is and sobbing over a teenager having a baby in a Wal-Mart. Don't ask.

No disasters to report; it turned out exactly as it should have been--fluffy with a zesty hint of flavor from the Parmesan cheese crust. Unfortunately, my glory was short-lived (literally). My family ate the entire thing after a couple of hours.

Zesty Veggie Frittata
(inspired by The Bed and Breakfast Cookbook p.80)
Serves 5

10 eggs
1 zucchini
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1 large tomato
5 fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup of milk
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to a low broil setting.
2. Slice the tomato, bell peppers and zucchini and combine into a bowl. Finely chop the garlic and add as well. On a separate plate, slice the basil and set aside.

3.Heat 1 tbs. of the olive oil in a 10-inch skillet, add the tomato, bell peppers, zucchini and garlic and saute until almost soft. Remove from pan and set aside.

4. In a large bowl beat the eggs, milk, salt, pepper and chopped basil.

5. Add the remainder of the olive oil to the pan, heat and pour in the egg mixture.

5. Cook over moderate heat until fluffy, add the veggies and cook until semi-firm.

6. Top with cheese, paprika and basil. Pop it in the oven on the top rack and let it cook for a few minutes until the top is a little crispy. Slice as a pie and enjoy!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Grechka...Say It Again?

Attempting not to be rude (and failing miserably), I couldn't help but stare at a co-worker's lunch one day and try to figure what was on her plate. It looked like an interesting cross between couscous and brown rice. After going through a mental list of grains--flaxseed, barley, millet? I guessed it was quinoa. Risking rudeness, I just asked.

"What is that?"



Gre-ech-ka," she said slowly. (My lovely Armenian friend could have told me it was cheese from a cow on Mars--I had no idea what she was talking about.) "That's what we call it, but I have no idea what it's called in English." Thus began a four-day quest to figure out what the heck she was eating. She looked it up online. Nothing. Her mom didn't know what it was called in English. Finally she brought me a bag to work. "Just combine 2.5 cups of water to every one cup of grechka. Add a little salt and oil and you will be fine."

After some cooking rebellion last night in which I kept trying to convince myself that I wasn't going to cook, I pulled out some salmon to go with the dish that I couldn't pronounce. Another lesson learned: When you're going to make a baked salmon recipe, make sure that you have all the ingredients BEFORE you start. I ended up having to create a recipe after I already pre-heated the oven and thawed out the meat. But never mind.

As the salmon was baking to its crispy best, I followed her directions: "Bring 2.5 cups of water to a boil, add the grechka, a tsp. of salt and about a tbsp. of olive oil and bring to a boil again. Reduce to low heat." Of course, no new recipe of mine is complete without its dash of excitement: I didn't know whether I supposed to cover it or not. Calling two coworkers and checking directions for everything in my house that looked like a grain, I decided to cover it and let it simmer for about 20-25 minutes. It turned out perfectly: a light but filling grain with its own unique flavor--more filling than white rice, not as boring as brown.

When I first was playing with the idea of cooking grechka, I assumed that it was a classic Armenian staple, and that I was getting a quick but fun introduction into another culture.

It turned out to be buckwheat.

Simple Salmon
(adapted from Betty Crocker baked fish recipe)

1 pound salmon
1 level teaspoon Tony Chachere
1/4 teaspoon salt
the juice from two small lemons
1 level teaspoon parsley flakes
3 tbsp. melted butter

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray rectangular 13 X 9 X 2 dish with Pam and lay salmon inside of it.
2. In a separate saucepan, melt the butter, and add salt, Tony's, parsley flakes and lemon juice once melted.
3. Pour mixture evenly over salmon and pop in the oven for about 18 minutes, or until it flakes easily with a fork.