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!