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.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Girl on Grill: Part Two

I think my wedding vows will go a little something like this, "I solemnly promise to love and to cherish you all the days of my life...and can you promise to clean the grill whenever I want to cook on it?" Readers of my last "Girl on Grill" column will remember that cleaning the grill was (of course) the least fun part of my experience. But, as it was the Fourth of July, I geared myself up to enter the male grilling territory once again.

Taking boneless, skinless chicken breasts, I marinated them in a concoction of lemon juice, fresh chopped rosemary, fresh garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil for eight hours. After I did what I like to call "the sniff test" the next morning, I knew that my chicken would be a savory and crisp addition to whatever veggies I decided to serve up the next day.

Getting on the grill was a cinch this time; the chicken had just the right amount of charbroil, I didn't drop anything on the flames, and I even had time to paint my toenails and watch a piece of the "Gladiator" while grilling. All was perfect.

Until I tasted it.

Turns out that sometimes even marinating something for eight hours can go wrong, and I am back to my original theory: Never Trust A Cook(Book). It reminds me of a moment in the movie "No Reservations" when a shrink told the OCD chef that it's the recipes you make yourself that turn out the best. It tasted all right (emphasis mine), but not the lemony zest, crisp taste I imagined. So I tossed it over a salad with bell peppers, carrots, grape tomatoes, romaine lettuce and nectarines.

Waste not, want not.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Mission: Impossible Tiramisu Gelato

Clotilde, I have a bone to pick with you. Since you posted your delicious recipe for pistachio gelato, I became obsessed with making my personal fave: tiramisu gelato. My favorite little Italian cafe in Culver City has the smoothest and creamiest gelato I have ever experienced. In efforts to get their recipe, I nonchalantly called the restaurant to see if their recipe was def con five top secret. Turns out, it was.

According to the host, getting the recipe was a maybe. An Italian gelato maker comes in once a week to make all the gelatos in house with special Campagnale machines. All the ingredients were imported from Italy. So, unless I could get my hands on some very big (and expensive machines) and transport myself to Rome this weekend, it wasn't happening.

Not to be defeated, I went to Ugo's later in the day and begged the guy behind the counter to slip me the recipe. He again told me that the machines are huge and their gelato has to go through a specific and long pasteurization process in addition to blending the flavors in those blasted machines that I couldn't get my hands on. I then spent a 20-minute talk with a really cute Brazilian guy who (again) told me with a thick Portuguese accent that it wouldn't be possible for me to make the gelato on my own. I begged and pleaded, but no success.

It would seem that the fates are against me on this one. Epicurious doesn't have a recipe and neither does the Food Network. Even David Leibovitz left out my favorite. And like Mission: Impossible, the pic of the tiramisu gelato on my cell phone camera self-destructed after five minutes. Sigh.

So, after hours of dessert lust, all I am left is the sweet memory of tiramisu gelato in all its creaminess, and the fantasy (pictured above) of making it on my own. And like I like to say about some relationships--perhaps this one just isn't meant to be.