Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cheese Flops

When I first bit into a gougères, a savory French cheese puff, at Tartine in SF, I wondered, "Where have you been all my life?" The treats are crisp on the outside, puffy on the inside and infused with fresh thyme and gruyere.

I was delighted to learn later that Fraiche in Culver City baked their own gougères and even served their hamburgers on the puffy buns.

But, alas, I discovered during my September visit that Fraiche no longer bakes or serves the bread.

"Where can I buy fresh gougères?" I asked the Food Librarian, who had just posted about the perfect puffs she made at home.

"In your own kitchen," she wrote back.

I was about to pop open a bottle of champagne I'd been saving and decided that gougères would be the perfect accompaniment.

I turned to the master source, the Tartine cookbook that I had purchased during a recent visit to the venerable bakery. I'd no longer have to journey to SF to sink my choppers into a gougères.

But this beautiful cookbook was not a fit for baking-challenged moi. The ingredients and directions were listed on two different pages and I had to keep flipping back and forth. The directions were written in long, narrative paragraphs, not bullet points. And the directions left some confusion. (It said to stir in the flour. Should I turn off the flame first or keep it on high?) They didn't say, so I guessed wrong and turned off the flame.

Perhaps that's why my puffs were a flop, as flat as giant buttons. But that didn't stop friends and family from asking, "Are there more?" I baked up tray after tray of the flops, and they greedily ate them.

Just imagine how gaga they'll go over a gougères done right. (Next time I'll follow Tartine-loving Jen's instructions on Oishii Eats.)

(PS It may be a while before I can bake up another batch of gougères. I broke a hip, had pin surgery and will be hobbling about on a walker for a few weeks.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Foolproof Fried Rice

When you forage through your 'fridge in hopes of finding enough ingredients to assemble a meal, what do you find?

In our household, eggs are a given. And I can always count on those "baby" carrots that we buy but seldom eat. Some kind of leftover meat - ham, Canadian bacon or leftover chicken - is usually lurking. I can unearth wilted green onions and half of a forgotten red pepper. And I'm never without peas in the freezer and garlic in the pantry.

I have the fixings for one of my favorite go-to meals - fried rice. It's easy, delicious, nutritious and a great way to use up the bits and pieces in your fridge.

The trick is to have cold, leftover rice on hand. You can bring home the uneaten rice from an Asian restaurant. Or you can make extra rice and chill. Both are good options, but aren't always available when the urge for fried rice strikes.

So I'll share with you a little secret to ensure that you always have all the fixings for fried rice on hand: brown rice from the freezer section at Trader Joe's.

No need to defrost. Just dump a bag of the frozen grains into your sizzling wok or fry pan. And, believe it or not, the results are superior to the leftover Japanese short-grained brown rice that I sometimes use. The TJ's frozen rice produces beautiful, separate grains, and that's the secret to a great, mush-free meal.

The young adults in my household thumb their noses at plain brown rice, but when it's fried with meat, veggies and egg, they gobble it down. Even my one-year-old grandson can't get enough. And, best of all, we never get bored because the variations are endless.

  • Go to Wandering Chopsticks for several fried rice recipes, including this one with Chinese sausage, frozen vegetables and egg. I credit her for teaching me to make fried rice.
  • Some fried rice recipes call for cooking the egg separately and adding it in later. Another technique (my favorite) is to saute the meat and veggies, push them to the side and cook the egg in the well in the center.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

More Than One Way to Brew a Cup of Coffee: Roaster Family Coffee

I had hoped to meet my morning caffeine quota with jasmine tea from Lunasia (my current favorite non-cart dim sum restaurant). But when I learned the wait for tea and dim sum was 45 minutes, I dragged my un-caffeinated self across the street for a quick cup of java at Roaster Family Coffee.

I expected the barista to serve a cup from a pot or urn. Instead, she measured and ground fresh beans. Just for me. What came next was even more surprising. I was familiar with percolating, pressing and dripping methods for brewing coffee. Roaster Family Coffee uses a siphon brewing method. Invented in 1840, the brewing contraption looks like something from an antebellum mad scientist's lab.

Clockwise from top left: 1) Grind beans. 2) Place beans in vessel over pot of water. 3) Water vapor forces hot (but not boiling) water from the pot into the vessel. 4) See how the vessel is filling up? Alchemy or physics?

1) A quick stir 2) Physics in action again: When heat is turned off, coffee returns to pot. 3) Fresh siphon-brewed coffee 4) Elegant service in a china cup for just $1.80.

The brewing method might be so two centuries ago, but the heating method - a halogen burning system - is 21st century.

The decor is a lot like the brewing system - a mix of the old and new.

How was the coffee? Strong and rich without a trace of acidity or bitterness. Come for the show, but stay for the coffee.

Roaster Family Coffee
521 W Main St.
, CA 91801
626. 282.8879

713 W Duarte Rd.
Suite F

Arcadia, CA 91007

For more information about syphon-brewed coffee, visit the Coffee Geek or the New York Times.

Coffee on FoodistaCoffee

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness: Ice Cream for Breakfast

Our new tradition: Ice cream for breakfast on the Fourth of July

One of my high school/Facebook friends recently shared her family's Independence Day tradition: eating ice cream for breakfast. She wrote, "It's a coal camp thing," one that's endured for five generations in her family.

I searched the Web for references to ice cream for breakfast on the Fourth of July and came up empty handed, but that didn't hold me back. When I announced my intention to start a new tradition, I received enthusiastic endorsement from the young adults in the family.

We would declare our independence and pursue our happiness by starting off the day with a bowl of vanilla. Of course, to show our colors, we added bananas, strawberries and blackberries to the bowl.

When it came right down to it, I didn't have the constitution to eat early morning ice cream. Instead, I started out with an egg in a toast cup and a cup of Joe. (Cut a hole in a slice of bread, fill the hole with an egg and fry in butter. Make sure to fry the round piece of bread in butter too, and then dip it into the soft egg yolk.)

Image from Wikipedia. Eggs in a toast cup, also known as eggs in a basket

After my savory dish, I still wasn't ready to indulge in a frozen dessert, but I ate the sliced strawberries, bananas and blackberries. Everyone else, including the grandson, shoveled down their ice cream and wished that every day was the Fourth of July.

Happy Independence Day!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reminiscing and Reproducing Thai Crab Fried Rice

A few years ago, when I worked at a small marketing communications firm in Old Pasadena, I became a regular at a local Thai restaurant. A colleague and I never grew tired of sharing the lunch special four times a week at our desks. The owner Sue, aware of our frugal ways, would always slip in an extra order of brown rice.

When I worked late, I would often slide solo into my favorite seat by the window, listen to the sounds of the water wall and order Thai crab fried rice and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Sue would always top off my glass with whatever was left in the bottle.

Alas, Sue eventually sold the restaurant to a clueless entrepreneur who replaced the wall of water with a giant flat screen TV. Not a good sign. When he changed the menu, the crab fried rice was one of the the first casualties.

I've ordered crab fried rice in other Thai restaurants, but it never measures up. Maybe it was Sue's nurturing or the soothing sounds of the water or that extra touch of white wine that made that dish so special.

I was about to give up until I found this recipe on Wives with Knives. I made it for lunch today, and it was nearly as good as the version that Sue's mom used to cook up for me at Nana.

Thai Crab Fried Rice
  • 3 to 4 cups rice, cooked the day before and refrigerated overnight (I used Japanese brown rice because it's more nutritious than white, but I think basmati rice makes the best fried rice.)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup raw carrot, grated (I used frozen, but I like the idea of fresh.)
  • 1/2 cup peas, fresh or frozen
  • 1/4 cup green onion, sliced in 1/4 inch slices
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 4 ounces or more Dungeness crabmeat (I used lump crab meat from Whole Foods.)
  • salt to taste (I found that, with the salty soy and fish sauce, salt wasn't necessary.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • cilantro (Original recipe called for parsley, but I prefer cilantro with Thai food.)

Mix together the fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and sugar in a small bowl. Set aside.

Add 1/4 cup vegetable oil to a large wok or fry pan and heat until it just begins to smoke. Add peas, carrots, green onions and ginger and cook for about one minute, stirring so it doesn't burn. Add rice and lightly mix, then add liquid mixture and blend well. Fry for 4-5 minutes, watching that the rice doesn't burn.

Make a well in the middle of the rice and pour in the beaten eggs. Wait for about 30 seconds and then cover the eggs with rice. Leave for another 30 seconds and then continue to stir fry until the eggs are cooked and are mixed well with the rice.

Remove from heat and gently stir in the crab meat, garnish with chopped cilantro or parsley and serve with lime wedges.

The only thing that could have made it better is a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Breakfast Theatre

As I bite into my early morning burrito at Clockers' Corner, I can't decide which is more magnificent: the San Gabriel Mountains and palm trees shrouded in mist or the thoroughbreds running at full throttle.

The photogenic setting at Santa Anita Park has been featured in films from the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races in 1937 to Seabiscuit in 2003. But, unlike a typical day at the races, the morning mood is serene. The only sounds are the steady clip clop of walking horses, the staccato clapping of running hooves or an occasional snort as jockeys and trainers work out their horses.

It's the perfect backdrop for my morning meal, where everything from bagels and breakfast burritos to pancakes and omelets is available at Clockers' Corner, the casual counter restaurant at Santa Anita.

As for that breakfast burrito? I'll be honest. It's easy to find a better one just about anywhere in town, but you won't find a better place to eat it. (Next time, I'll play it safe with a toasted bagel with cream cheese.)

Clockers' Corner
285 W. Huntington Dr.
Arcadia, CA
Hours: 7:00 to 10:00 am
Parking is free before 10:00 am. Enter Gate 8 from Baldwin Ave.

Modest prices, magnificent views.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Comfort Food: Macaroni and Beef with Tomato Sauce (Or How to Deal with a Dead Dog)

A bowl (or two or three) of comfort

It's a funny thing about comfort foods. Nobody says, "I think I'll make a big green salad because I need to calm myself." Or, "I'm steaming some broccoli because I'm totally bummed." I suppose that's what's wrong with us Americans. We've been programmed to turn to foods from our childhood, usually heavily laced with fat, carbs and sugars, when we're seeking comfort.

Today, Betty, my beloved dog of 13 years, died unexpectedly. So, needless to say, I'm bummed, and I need some quick and easy comfort. I abandoned the idea of a spinach salad with goat cheese, dried cranberries and toasted almonds. That's a delicious lunch, but it's not the kind of dish that wraps its arms around you and says, "I know it hurts, but it's going to be alright."
For that, I needed macaroni and beef.
Macaroni and Beef with Tomato Sauce
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground chuck
  • 8 ounces macaroni, uncooked
  • 1/2 cup onion, minced
  • 1/2 cup green pepper, chopped (didn't have this today)
  • 1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
Brown beef, onion and pepper in a large skillet over medium heat. Add tomato sauce, water and remaining ingredients. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. It's as simple and easy as Hamburger Helper, but without all of those naughty processed ingredients.

This makes 8 servings, unless your dog has just died, and then it feeds three ravenous grievers.

Macaroni and beef won't bring Betty back, but at least it will get me through the afternoon. That and a quart of mint chocolate chip ice cream in my freezer.

(And if Betty was still here, I'd have let her clean out that bowl.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

'Tis the Season for Berries

When I was growing up in West Virginia, strawberries were a rare treat. Once a year, an itinerant strawberry salesman came to our front door hawking boxes of the bright red berries. My mom purchased two boxes and whipped up our annual indulgence of strawberry shortcake. We savored every morsel because we knew it would be 365 days before a strawberry would pass our lips again.

Now that I live in Southern California, strawberries appear to be everywhere - the grocery store, the farmers market, a temporary strawberry stand and the back of a vendor's truck. And, when they're in season, I can't get enough of them.

I've eaten them whole and dipped them in chocolate. I've dunked them in creme fraiche and crushed them into strawberry lemonade.

I love to eat them sliced and macerated with sugar, tossed with blackberries, a splash of cassis liquer and a zest of orange. Don't they look stunning in a blue bowl?

Life is just a bowl of berries.

I throw those same berries into a cocktail glass and make a breakfast parfait with Greek yogurt. I have a large collection of stemmed glasses and don't believe in waiting until happy hour to use them. The glasses were gifts from a group of friends who figured that the stemware would raise my spirits when I was trying to pump out stem cells for a stem cell transplant nearly three years ago. (Get it? Stemware, stem cells?) Every time I eat or drink from one of the glasses, I think of my good friends and my good fortune.


But, of course, my favorite thing is still that strawberry shortcake. This
recipe from the LA Times calls for orange zest in the dough and a splash of orange juice with the strawberries. I also added a little zest and a wee bit of cassis liquer to the whipped cream. I think it's my favorite shortcake recipe ever. It's even better than the Bisquick mix and cream from a squirt can of my childhood.

See the flecks of orange zest in the shortcake?

And the best part? I won't have to wait an entire year to eat this again.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mary's - Sierra Madre's Hidden Gem

You know you’re in for an experience when the first question you’re asked before entering Mary’s Market and Café is, “Do you wanna paint a rock?”

I look down and find a bright, hand-painted collection of river rocks that pay homage to Mary, the namesake of the market and café in Sierra Madre.

“I don’t have time today,” I explain, in an attitude not in keeping with the laid-back vibe of Mary’s, The tiny restaurant and store is tucked into the foothills of Sierra Madre, off the beaten path of the two main drags in town, Baldwin Avenue and Sierra Madre Boulevard.

Drive less than five minutes away from that downtown intersection, up a couple of narrow, curving roads, and you’ll find Mary’s, in the center of a quaint mountainside residential area. Mary’s looks as though it’s always been there. In fact, the institution has served the foothills community since 1922.

Walk in and you’ll find old-fashioned bar stools at the front counter or by the front window over looking the tree-lined street. Or choose one of the three comfy booths or one of the tiny outdoor tables.

The oil-splattered menu, glued on to the back of a brown lunch bag, is as simple and unpretentious as the setting. On my first visit, I chose Mary’s equivalent of an egg McMuffin for $3.50. On my last visit, I went with yogurt, served in a vintage brown transfer-ware bowl, with fresh granola and three kinds of fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries and bananas) for $3.50. I’ve paid nearly $10 for a similar bowl at high-end cafes. Other options include a breakfast burrito, bagel with cream cheese or oatmeal.

Wherever you choose to sit, take some time to lounge outdoors for a few minutes before moving on. Breathe the fresh mountain air. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of chirping birds and water streaming down the storm drain. Watch the sycamore tree leaves blowing in the breeze.

And, before you head back to the hustle-bustle world, don’t forget to take time to paint a rock.

Mary’s Market and Café

561 Woodland Dr,

Sierra Madre, CA 91024


No need to rush after that second cup of coffee - free parking for 48 hours.

Special thanks to Altadena Hiker, who introduced the Restless Chef and me to Mary's.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Ramping It Up

Am I crazy?

After all, would a sane person fly more than 2,500 miles for a small town event that lasts four hours? Would a sane person then drive six hours from Columbus to Southern West Virginia just so that she could make it to the last hour of the event? Would a person playing with a full deck take a chance that she'd miss the event entirely if she took a wrong turn down a country road? Would a gal with both oars in the water travel for 18 hours just to eat ramps at the Feast of the Ransom in Richwood, West Virginia?

Maybe not crazy so much as obsessed with wild ramps, a cross between a leek and garlic that grows rampant in woodsy areas from South Carolina to Canada.

Of course, when you consider the scenery in West Virginia, the insanity case becomes a little weaker.

The last hour of the drive was alongside a tree-lined stream.

The ostentatious gateway below is not typical of the ramshackle homes that line the country roads. I thought at first this was horse property, but the stone facade is strictly for show. In fact, you'll see more church steeples than stables in this part of the country.

It was easy to tell when I'd entered ramp country, but I had no time to stop. I had a festival to attend.

As luck would have it, I arrived in time for the crowning of the Ramp Princess. I love the crossed ankle pose of the girl on the right. I think she learned that in Ramp Charm School.

I followed this pony-tailed couple to the ramp feed.

The line for the ramps was so long that I felt like I was waiting for a Korean taco at the Kogi BBQ Truck in LA. While I waited, I chatted with folks about their favorite ways to prepare ramps. West Virginians like to par boil them and then saute them in bacon fat with eggs or potatoes. When I was growing up, my mom sauteed them with scrambled eggs. We rolled the stinky concoction in flat bread that we bought from our Syrian neighbors.

The man on the left had time to grow his beard.

I fell in love with the sassy tea, the perfect ramps pairing. I'm looking for a local source for sassafras root so that I can brew my own sassy tea at home.

While waiting in line, I passed many Richwood volunteers wearing Feast of the Ransom aprons and ramp brooches. And I couldn't resist stealing a raw ramp or two from the plates scattered throughout the tables.

At last it was time for the ramp feed. The ramps were boiled and then sauteed. I wish that the cooks had also added ramps to the beans and cornbread.

In true West Virginia fashion, the ramps are cooked to within an inch of their life.

I like 'em raw.

After I returned to Los Angeles, I had a hankering for ramps. I satisfied that craving with a trip to Pizzeria Mozza, where I ordered the ramp pizza.

I brought home three slices of pizza, but when I went to retrieve my left overs, I found that the pizza was gone. The only things in the box were the sauteed greens and bulbs of the ramps. And that suited me just fine.

Now, how crazy is that?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Power of Two: Pacific Dining Car and Langer's

Two LA Landmarks: Pacific Dining Car and Langer's

Remember the 80s? We didn't walk; we power walked. We didn't eat breakfast or lunch. We had a power breakfast or a power lunch. And a suit wasn't a suit. That's right. It was a power suit. The whole thing made me want to power puke.

When a friend invited me for breakfast at the venerable Pacific Dining Car in downtown LA, my first thought was, "What should I wear?"

I considered wearing a power suit (or at least a power jacket) while we ate our power breakfasts, but settled on a look that was more casual Friday than uptight Tuesday. After all, I figured the ultimate power comes from having a flexible schedule that allows you to take off the morning for a downtown breakfast outing. (Don't ya' love stickin' it to the man.)

Sure enough, all of the other diners were dressed in suits and ties and gazed at spreadsheets and pie charts between sips of coffee from a china cup. To fit in, dining companion and I studied Jonathan Gold's list of 99 Things to Eat Before You Die while we developed a strategy for our next take over of a restaurant.

I hadn't set foot in the Pacific Dining Car since the 80s, when I worked downtown as a briefcase-lugging corporate drone. I was happy to see that it hasn't changed a bit. Some icons become stodgy over time, but not the Pacific Dining Car. It still looks and feels fresh and elegant, refined and special with its rich colors, linen table cloths and fine china and silver.

Butter rosettes and a fresh rose at every table

I ordered the breakfast hash, which is made from the left over steaks from the night before. Unlike most hashes, which tend to be at least 50% potato, this one was 85% steak and 15% potato, all swimming in a rich, savory gravy. The steak came cubed, not shredded, and was so tender that I barely needed to chew. It came topped with a poached egg with two biscuits on the side. Power breakfast indeed.

Dining companion went for the Cajun style eggs benedict, featuring sauteed mushrooms and a crab cake instead of Canadian bacon.

After our two-hour breakfast, we realized that it was time for lunch. So we did what any food-loving duo would do: we traveled a few blocks away to Langer's to try one of their legendary pastrami sandwiches.

When the sandwiches arrived, the first thing I noticed was the warm, untoasted bread. Then when I bit into the sandwich, I immediately noticed the crisp, chewy crust. I was enraptured. Apparently, this is what rye bread is all about. Why doesn't everyone do it this way?

We packed up our sandwiches to go, and I vowed that I wasn't ever going to eat again. That is until I returned home and that rye bread started calling my name.

Of course, I did what any good girl from the 80s does. I powered down the pastrami sandwich and then I took a power nap.