Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Fresh Look at Fraiche and the Ultimate Buns

Both Angeleno Magazino Magazine and the LA Times Magazine named it "Best New Restaurant." Irene Virbilia of the LA Times and Jonathan "Mr. Pulitzer" Gold of the LA Weekly undoubtedly salivated all over their keyboards when they wrote their reviews. And New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it on his list of top ten restaurants in the United States.

Even though the raves for Culver City's
Fraiche Restaurant had been pouring in faster than opinions after a Sarah Palin interview, I still hadn't bellied up to the bistro. It took Jen at Oishii Eats to get me to cross to the "other" side of town to sample one of the best restaurants in LA.

After I commented on Jen's blog about my love affair with the gougères at
Tartines in SF, she clued me in that I could get a burger on a golden roll at Fraiche. I've always considered the bun the weak link of the hamburger, but a gougères, a savory cream puff, could become the ultimate bun. I hadn't been this excited about a new food pairing since I dumped my sour Gummis into my popcorn at the movie theatre.

So when a friend asked me where I'd like to go for my birthday lunch, I didn't hesitate. "Let's get Fraiche," I answered.

With all the accolades, I was prepared for a bit of airs from our waiter, but he couldn't have been more unpretentious. I asked him, "Now how do you pronounce that wonderful French bread that comes with the hamburger?" (Strangely enough, the menu doesn't mention the type of bread.) He hadn't a clue, but looked at the menu and saw the word "gruyère" and attempted to pronounce that. I explained, "No, gruyère is the cheese that's in the gougères and on top of the hamburger." Even though he didn't know a gougères from a gruyère and I still couldn't pronounce gougères, I liked our waiter.

The burger was everything that I dreamed it would be. Prime beef cooked to perfection, melted gruyère on the ultimate bun - crusty on the outside, light and airy on the inside and infused with herbs and the same yummy "king of the Swiss cheese" that tops the meat.

I ate mine with just a touch of homemade mayo, but my friend loaded up her medium rare burger with the tomatoes and lettuce.

These photos are fuzzy, but check out Eat Drink & Be Merry's review for some tantalizing shots and a more comprehensive rundown of lunch items at Fraiche.

Check out the golden gougères surrounding the cash register.

Look for the "Royale with Cheese" on the menu. It's served with a side of herb fries for $13 and is only available at lunch. No matter how you order it ("The hamburger on the French bread I can't pronounce"), you're in for a treat.

9411 Culver Blvd
Culver City

Consider combining a visit to Fraiche with one or more of these other Culver City activities:

- Do the write thing at an IWOSC (Independent Writers of Southern California) meeting on the fourth Monday of the month.
- Get lost at Surfas, the Mecca for cooks and food lovers.
- Yield to affordable massages and facials at the Massage Garage.
- Sip a Manhattan at the bar and check out the historic Culver Hotel, where parts of The Wizard of Oz were filmed in 1939. Find out if those rumors about the Munchkins are true.
- Catch a play at the Actors' Gang at the Ivy Substation.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Summer

Bare feet on the first day of fall in So Cal

I love fall, but I find myself reluctant to let go of summer this year. In Southern California, the temperatures are still in the low 80s. My toddler nephew watered plants in his bare feet in the morning and dipped those same toes in the surf at Newport Beach in the afternoon.

I especially want to hang on to the tastes of summer for just a little longer. That's why I've been on a tomato and basil binge. In the last two days, we've enjoyed penne pasta with tomato and basil; BLTs with ripe, juicy tomatoes; and bruschetta with more tomatoes and basil. When the last tomato has ripened on the vine, I won't be able to eat another red fruit until next summer. (I cannot stomach the thought of eating a tasteless store-bought facsimile.)

Even though I want to cling to summer , threre's a part of me that's eager to move on. The angle of the light has already shifted. I sensed it the moment I woke up on September 22, the first day of autumn. And, in spite of the warm temperatures, the air is just a little crisper. As the thermometer drops, I look forward to indulging in curl-up-by-the-fire, hearty soups and stews.

Goodbye tomatoes and basil. Hello soups and stews.

Here are three that I'm itching to try:

Black bean pumpkin soup (Smitten Kitchen)

Beef stew (For the Love of Cooking)

Navy bean and ham soup (Kitchen Girl)

Because, even in Southern California, summer doesn't last forever.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Martha Immersion Monday: Chocolate Chip Cookies and the Martha Stewart Show

Thin, chewy and buttery - Alexis's Brown Sugar Chocolate Chip Cookies

What do you call an afternoon spent eating Martha Stewart's Fried Chicken 101 for lunch and baking Martha's daughter's favorite chocolate cookies while watching the Martha Stewart Show? I call it Martha Immersion Monday. The only things missing were a Chow at my feet and a celebrity at my elbow.

With out-of-town guests coming for a Saturday wedding at our house, I decided to create a little care package that included Alexis's favorite brown sugar chocolate chip cookies. These became our family favorite after I baked them for the Take Comfort party I hosted in March.

The care packages, along with a bottle of sparkling lemonade, are ready for hotel delivery.

Unlike more traditional chocolate chip cookies, these chewy treats are so thin that the chocolate chips rise up like mini Mount Whitneys. I think it's the mass quantity of butter - one whole pound (four sticks) of it - that's responsible for the rich taste and the flat-as-a-crepe shape.

The Alexis favorite uses twice the amount of butter found in classic
Nestles Toll House recipe. And it's four times the amount of butter used in the infamous Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe that went viral before personal computers even existed. (Remember Xerox machines and intra-company memo envelopes?) Even the recipe that the NY Times recently dubbed "the best" comes up a stick and a half short.

Alexis's Favorite

Brown Sugar Chocolate Chip Cookies


  • 1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for baking sheets (No need for the "more" butter if you're using Silpat mats or parchment paper)
  • 3 cups packed light-brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 cups best-quality chocolate chips (I use 2 cups.)


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with Silpat baking mats or parchment; set aside.
  2. Cream butter until smooth; add sugars, and beat until smooth.
  3. Beat in eggs and vanilla.
  4. Into a large bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Slowly beat dry ingredients into wet mixture.
  5. Fold in chocolate chips.
  6. Drop 2 to 3 tablespoons dough per cookie onto prepared baking sheets; space dough at least 2 inches apart to allow for spreading. Bake until golden, 8 to 10 minutes.
  7. Remove cookies from baking sheets, and allow to cool on baking racks.
Makes fifty 4-inch cookies

So when people ask me, "What makes these cookies so good?" I answer, "It's the butter, baby."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cauliflower Cravings

Some crave dark chocolate.

Others get yearnings for Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream.

Still others go through withdraw without daily infusions of caffeine.

Me? Well, there are times when a bag of salty chips and a cheap sour cream dip hit just the right spot, but lately I've been craving cauliflower. Not the mushy kind with cheese in the frozen foods section. And not the crunchy stuff that usually goes untouched on the crudite' platter at the Super Bowl party.

What I crave is roasted cauliflower with garlic and Italian parsley - the kind I first tasted at Zinc Cafe and Market in Corona Del Mar a year ago. Since I first sank my teeth into this easy, tasty concoction, I find myself craving the roasted flower in the same way that other friends long for Valrona chocolate.

And, in case you haven't noticed, I lean toward dishes that are simple and have less than a handful of ingredients. When they're delicious and nutritious, like this one, that's just like dip on the chip.

What you'll need:
- One head of cauliflower
- Garlic (to taste)
- Italian parsley (to taste)
- Olive oil
- Sea salt

1) Preheat the over to 450 degrees.
2) Break the cauliflower into little florets.
3) Slice three or four cloves of garlic.
4) Chop a handful of parsley
5) Spread caulifllower, garlic and parsley on a rimmed baking sheet. Douse with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.

6) Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, turning the veggies after 10 to 15 minutes.

I ate this for lunch as a side dish with a piece of cold fried chicken left over from the trespassers picnic. Then I had it again for dinner the next day over penne pasta with a little extra olive oil and some freshly grated parmesan cheese. (Sorry I don't have a photo. I was too busy eating.)

This proves that I can have my cauliflower and eat it two (times that is).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Bounty Hunting

When we moved into our Altadena home on a third of an acre, we inherited an orchard.

The problem was that there was no way that a family of three could use all of the lemons, oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, avocados, persimmons, plums, apricots and figs that our yard produced.

Thanks to COFE, the coop food exchange of Altadena, that's no longer a problem. You can read my first-person account of the group in the Home and Garden Section of the LA Times.

It will hit the stands on Saturday, September 13, but you can read it online by going here.

Old Fashioned, End-of-Summer Picnic

Southern-fried chicken on an old-fashioned picnic basket herald the end of summer.

Where did the summer go?

Kids are back in school, moms and dads are packing lunches and driving car pools, the days are getting shorter and Target is already hawking Halloween candy and costumes. Thanksgiving and Christmas can't be far away.

To celebrate (and mourn) the end of summer, I invited some friends for an old-fashioned trespassing picnic. We could have enjoyed our picnic lunch in our back yard, any one of the dozens of parks in Altadena/Pasadena or a nearby wilderness area, such as Eaton Canyon, but what would have been the fun of any of these perfectly legal options?

Instead, we packed up our baskets and blankets and walked a few feet down our street to a small, private vacant wooded lot. The owner of the lot, which is scattered with California Live Oak trees and native plants, lives in an imposing Mediterranean home next door. So we felt a little naughty trespassing on her lovely undeveloped property, but that always makes the chicken taste just a little better.

When our daughter, now 19, was in elementary school, we often smuggled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to our "secret garden." It had been nearly a decade since I'd enjoyed a picnic among the oaks.

Not your typical "vacant lot"

We started with an assortment of appetizers.

A simple crab salad served on endive on a bed of tarragon. Rainy Days and Sundays served a similar salad at her father's retirement party.

No picnic would be complete without deviled eggs. These, filled with sour cream, Japanese Kewpie mayo, a touch of dijon and dill, are served on a bed of dill. I got a little carried away with the condiments, so these were a little too "wet," but still tasted great.

One friend brought homemade pesto and home-grown tomatoes, garlic and basil served on a crusty French bread

Our main course was the buttermilk fried chicken from Martha Stewart's Fried Chicken 101. The secret is an 8-hour brine bath followed by an 8-hour buttermilk bath. Hey, I think I'd be pretty succulent too after all that soaking. Then the chicken is dredged in flour, salt and pepper and fried to a deep mahogany color. Another friend provided a crisp green salad filled with vegetables from her garden.

And, of course, no picnic would be complete without a chocolate layer cake. This decadently delicious one was a belated birthday cake baked by another friend.

Just for good measure, another friend brought yummy chocolate cookie bars.

I came home, cleaned the ants out of the picnic basket, took a well deserved nap and dreamed of throwing an Autumn picnic.

(And don't worry. I have my neighbor's "tacit" permission to use the secret garden.)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Can You Trust a Skinny Food Blogger?

I've heard that you can't trust a skinny cook.

What about a skinny food blogger?

Some of you may wonder why I was conspicuously absent for the entire month of August. Among other things, I was fighting some serious health issues, including an alarming weight loss. I'm a statuesque 5' 10", but, at one point, my weight had plummeted to 105 pounds.

If you're interested in the agony and ecstasy of regaining 25 pounds, check out my other blog, Cancer Banter, and read "Are We Having Fun Yet: Losing and Finding 25 Pounds."

And tell me: How would YOU go about gaining 25 pounds?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Spam-a-Lot: Spam Musubi and Spam Fried Rice

Spam Musubi: The perfect Hapa-Hillbilly treat

My Japanese-American friend Carol gave me a can of Spam for Christmas.

At first I wondered what she was trying to tell me, but since the can came with a lucite rice mold and a package of dried seaweed, the message was simple: Make Spam musubi.

Spam musubi, a simple snack consisting of steamed white rice topped with fried Spam and wrapped in seaweed, is one of our favorite guilty snacks during vacations in Hawaii. The popularity of Spam musubi among the Locals helps explain why the per capita consumption of Spam on the islands is four cans per person per year, higher than any state in the Union. (I hear that Hawaiians are 20% water and 80% Spam.)

But Hawaiians aren't the only ones who love their Spam. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is rumored to eat a fried Spam sandwich on white bread with mayo three times a week. Maybe that's why he's called the "king of pork barrel."

No matter how you slice it, Spam musubi is a perfect Hapa-Hillbilly treat, combining the low cost and convenience of the much-maligned canned meat with traditional Japanese white rice and seaweed.

The pale pink meat looks unappetizing straight out of the can. But fry it up and it turns a luscious brown caramel color. I used my new rice mold to form the base for the musubi, topped it with the fried Spam and then wrapped the concoction with a strip of seaweed.

After eating the Spam musubi, I had to admit that I like Spam-a-lot. While I was on a Spam roll, I decided to make Spam fried rice with the rice left over from the musubi.

Start by sauteing three chopped green onions and half a can of chopped Spam in a tablespoon of oil.

Move the sauteed meat mixture to the side and scramble two eggs in the well in the center. I learned this technique from Wandering Chopsticks.

Add 3 cups of day-old rice and one cup of frozen peas. Mix thoroughly and then add soy sauce to taste. I also added a tablespoon of fish sauce.

Top with freshly chopped cilantro.
The end result was surprisingly beautiful and delicious.

So don't be embarrassed. Sneak a can of Spam into your shopping cart and whip up these two easy treats. Your family will thank you.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Comfort and Joy - Beans and Greens

Tuscan Beans and Greens - The Source of My Comfort and Joy

All of us have rules of the road when we travel.

You will not get there any faster by refusing to let a car in front of you. The driver gets to select the music. And if there is a Cracker Barrel within a 15 mile radius, you must stop.

I'll admit that most of the food at Cracker Barrel, the chain that specializes in "country" food, is mediocre at best, but I never pass up an opportunity to eat their beans and greens. It's not just comfort; it's comfort and joy. I top my Cracker Barrel white beans with pickle relish and a chopped white onion. Then I crumble my corn bread into the savory, pork-flavored greens. I'm in beans and greens Heaven.

Growing up in West Virginia, a bowl (or two or three) of navy beans cooked with ham hocks was one of my favorite meals. Daddy always said that's why I grew so tall, and he could be right. Beans, dense in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. Pair that with a nutrient-dense dark, leafy vegetable, and we're talking power lunch.

It's no wonder that beans and greens have jumped off the menus of humble diners and country homes and onto the entree or appetizer course of some of the country's chicest restaurants. On one of my trips to San Francisco last summer, friends Mary, Kim and I discovered a rustic Tuscan version at Bar Bambino, a hip, happening Mission District Italian restaurant. (Bar Bambino is even featured in the October issue of Gourmet Magazine.)

The greens were swiss chard, sauteed in garlic and onions, and the beans were cannellini. After one bite, I thought, "Where have you been all my life. I could eat you every day."

When I came home and discovered this dish is both delicious and EASY to prepare, I started making it on a regular basis. I prepared a batch of Tuscan Beans and Greens for my lunch today. (If it was dinner, I would have paired it with a nice crisp glass of Pinot Grigio.)

Start with a bunch of swiss chard. I cut out the tough stem that runs the length of the leaf.Chop roughly, one inch across.

Saute' garlic and white onion in about two tablespoons of olive oil. If you like some heat, throw in some hot red pepper flakes.

Add the chopped chard and stir. Saute' for a few minutes, add a fresh chopped tomato, and then turn flame to low and cover for about five minutes. Add a can of cannellini beans (drained) and heat through. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

I purchased my beans at the same place where I buy my Swiss chard, Lake Ave Produce in Pasadena. $1.49 for the chard and .99 for the beans made a delicious lunch, enough for two, for $2.48. What I really need to do is start growing my own chard. (I subsequently found this same brand at another Pasadena Armenian Market for .79)

Bar Bambino served this dish as an appetizer with crostini, but I like to make it my main dish.

This dish meets all my criteria for a great meal: Easy, delicious, nutritious and beautiful. (Click on photo for a closer look.)

Is there any more left?

How do you prepare your beans and greens?