Summer in January and Dropping Dinner on the Floor

Well, since it was just like a lovely California summer day today, January 16 (yes, I know that was a few days ago now, but it wasn’t as summery and warm today), I figured this would be as good a time as any to relay my food adventures in Arkansas this past summer. For about the first two weeks of June 2010 I found myself happily in Arkansas visiting family, taking in new surprising tastes, reveling in old favorites, and having pretty much the biggest kitchen catastrophe I can think of to date in my time cooking. By the way, isn’t it totally awesome that it was like 80 degrees today, a bright pink sunset coloring the sky and providing a beautiful backdrop at the beach for the glistening water?! Oh…it was snowing where you were? Oh, gee, well, that’s really too bad… ;)

The night before I left for Arkansas I made no-knead bread and rainbow cookies for the first time. The bread blew me away (okay, maybe just the crust – a post is forthcoming) and the rainbow cookies were kinda a total pain, but I think once I get ’em down a bit better they’ll be unquestionably worth it. They were still worth it taste-wise.

Speaking of firsts – and getting back to the topic at hand – I was introduced to Whataburger for the first time on this trip. So what exactly is Whataburger you ask? Whataburger is hamburger joint. A casual, old-fashioned hamburger joint. The first one opened in 1950 in Texas and they have since spread out around the South. I believe the one we visited was in or near Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was a bit shocked, I must say, at having never previously been taken to or even heard of Whataburger having been visiting Oklahoma and Arkansas for almost twenty years (yeesh!! has it really been THAT long!?!?). My aunt and cousin seemed to find this shocking as well and expressed fondness for Whataburger. Apparently the name comes from the original owner (it’s still family owned and operated) wanting people to enjoy the burgers so much they exclaimed, “What a burger!” upon eating one. Given that it’s been over six months since I ate there I couldn’t really tell you much about the burger. Truthfully, I couldn’t even really tell you what exactly I ordered. My best guess is a cheeseburger and I know I had fries. I almost think of it as blasphemy not to have fries with burgers. What I do remember is having a good time with my aunt and cousins. So that, to me, indicates it would be worth returning to – even more often than once every twenty years. One notable observation though – a Whataburger super hero lives in a case with a beach umbrella in the particular location I ate in. And they’re open 24 hours.

See, I don’t lie.

And here’s the “famous” McDonald’s that has often been used as a meeting place/passing off point from the Oklahoma family to the Arkansas family. Aw, memories. No, really. :)

And when we finally got home I just couldn’t resist…

What a time was had at Whataburger.

Aside from the normal excitement of seeing family, I was also excited to try new restaurants on this trip recommended by cousins. The first outing occurred two days into my trip at Pho Hoang, a Vietnamese restaurant. Seeing as how I neglected to take photos of my cousins’s food I couldn’t tell you what they had. But fear not – I did take photos of my food! Given the name of the restaurant, you’d think at least one person at our table would have gotten pho. Maybe they did, but it wasn’t me. Truth be told, I’ve never had pho. I’ve never been a big soup person anyway, but seeing as how I’m becoming more of a soup person this might have to be amended soon. Anyway, I digress. First, I sampled a spring roll with a peanut dipping sauce. I’m usually sold on pretty much anything as soon as I see the words “peanut dipping sauce.” Most notably – at least to me – the spring roll had a mint leaf in it. As noted in an earlier post, this past year I finally started being less afraid of mint in savory dishes. This continued by progression along this path. To take it one step further, I had a vermicelli bowl with beef, green onions, lemongrass, and even more mint – and I loved it. Lemongrass is also still kind of new to me, but I wasn’t as afraid of it in savory applications as I was mint.

Another two days later brought more beef in the form of a home-cooked meal at my cousins’s house. I believe it was brisket and had a little smoky flavor, wonderful gravy, slightly charred corn on the cob, and creamy mashed potatoes. Of course, I had some sweet tea alongside – one of the best parts about visiting family in these parts. Dinner was followed by a very appropriate summer dessert of strawberries over pound cake with whipped cream. Thankfully, I have plans to see these people again in the not-so-far future. I also managed to sneak a taste of my cousin’s tomatillo salsa. I do love me some tomatillos.

And yet another two days later (the two-day rule really wasn’t planned, I promise) I got to cook for my aunt and even more cousins. This time it was all about pork. And kitchen catastrophe. Coming from a family of Razorbacks, as in the Arkansas Razorbacks, pork seems more than appropriate (although maybe in a somewhat skewed way). Add that onto being in the South it was pretty much mandatory to make pig. Right? The kitchen catastrophe part may not have been appropriate per se, but it was an integral part of the evening nonetheless. And so it begins…

Pork – it’s what’s for dinner. That was pretty much the slogan of the night. Babyback ribs and “the” green beans, which by now many of you know to be green beans with bacon and garlic, were the pork heavy hitters. Cole slaw, buttermilk biscuits, and chocolate cake with my great-grandma’s fudge frosting were on the menu as well.

Kitchen mishaps made up the rest of the evening. The months of May and June saw some important firsts: the first time I ever set my dinner on fire – unintentionally that is – and the first time I dropped dinner on the floor. I feel no requirement to specify that action as unintentional, as dinner is never supposed to be dropped on the floor – at least not insofar as I’m aware. Well, I guess dinner isn’t really supposed to be set on fire either. Maybe unless you’re flambeing something…

For the ribs, I made a dry rub and a Coca-Cola-inspired barbeque sauce. I couldn’t recount the ingredients or even any real particular method for you all as it’s been so long. As I remember it, it was tasty. I know onion and garlic were definitely in the dry rub. Chili powder or cumin, paprika, cayenne – those are some of the other probable ingredients. The BBQ sauce had ketchup, brown sugar, garlic, possibly some mustard, and definitely some vinegar. The green beans didn’t stray too far from what their normal deliciousness – at least not until another two or so days later courtesy of my wily aunt, but that’s another story.

Next, I ventured on to the coleslaw. I think biscuits came last, and of course the chocolate cake was the finale. While I do have some record of how I put together the coleslaw, that’s still not exact. Here we go anyway… I used one package of coleslaw mix and for the dressing combined 1 cup of mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon of the horseradish mustard my aunt had on hand, 1 tablespoon of salad vinegar, 1 tablespoon of honey, 1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley, and salt and pepper. I may or may not have added somewhere between a pinch and 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar to the dressing, but I can’t remember for the life of me. I’d say, if I were doing it again, add everything, season it with salt and pepper, taste it, and then decide if you want more honey or to add some sugar. The buttermilk biscuits were based off my now-standard recipe, which happens to be Alton Brown’s.

So now what you all really care about – the kitchen catastrophes. There was a main event and then a couple side shows. Onto the main event… It literally was kind of like a scene in a movie or T.V. show. It was comical and heart-wrenching all at the same time. Picture it. The ribs were placed precariously on a short tower of other pans and dishes. They weren’t level. I was doing a million things at once. I picked up a saucepan with the barbecue sauce in it, was awkwardly walking to/leaning over to the ribs, already running around frenetically and frazzled, and hit the rib pan at just the right angle to make it go crashing down onto the floor. Boom! As the pan crashed to the floor and the ribs flew out of the pan sliding onto the floor – into the cat food naturally – the noise from the conversation in the living room was just sucked into the air – a collective gasp. Then silence. After a few “Oh, crap!” panicking moments in my head I tentatively yelled out, “I’m okay…” and started hurriedly picking up the pan and ribs, pondering what exactly to do. You see, while the ribs were in foil packets, small portions of them were exposed and had met the floor. And quite possibly the dry cat food. Hey, at least it wasn’t the wet cat food bowls, right? My cousin, Jennifer, came rushing into the kitchen. She saw the ribs on the floor and we looked at each other totally shocked and I somewhat expectantly and most definitely completely mortified. After a short pause she assured me the ribs were still fine – I picked them up right away – and she then promised not to spill about my spill. Later in the evening, when I slyly referenced the great fall, she said, “I said nothing.” So, of course, here I am telling you all about it. Smooth, eh? Somewhat more assuredly, I finished cleaning up, brushing the ribs with BBQ sauce and put them under the broiler. See, they hadn’t even been under the screaming hot broiler yet. The heat would definitely take care of the cat food and floor germs.

That incident kind of set me off for the rest of the night. I ended up dropping my aunt’s crystal sugar bowl – right on top of the fresh-out-of-the-oven biscuits. Once ensuring the bowl was unscathed (thank goodness biscuits are soft; no crystal was harmed during the process) I calmly let it roll off me and said, “Eh, sugar never hurt biscuits,” which, I must say, I believe to my core is mostly kinda sorta true.  Many people like sugar with their biscuits in some form. Me? I go the honey route. But sugar had also found its way onto the floor. And the counter. As it turned out, after everyone had left and my aunt and I were cleaning up the kitchen we found sugar in all sorts of places. Score!

To top the night off,  later in the evening, when discussing three-lettered names, I enthusiastically offered “Bill” as an option. I was proud and surprised no one had come up with it yet because it was a relatively common name and like names were being offered up. Everyone looked at me kind of funny. And then it hit me. I had been totally convinced “Bill” was a legitimate option. I blame the early rib fall.

The end product.

And lest we not forget the chocolate cake with fudge frosting. How bad can that be? I mean really – chocolate cake AND chocolate fudge. And vanilla ice cream on the side of course. :) Last year my aunt introduced me to her grandma’s frosting for the first time and making a batch of it with my little cousin after dinner that night really was icing on the cake…wah, wah, wah. But it really was a nice moment being part of the passing down of family recipes.

Then my aunt and I had the oh-so-fun task of clean-up. Such is the nature of cooking.

Instead of the random two-day rule that I somehow inadvertently instituted my next Arkansan food adventure happened the very next day. I met two of my cousins for lunch at Rolando’s, a self-described “nuevo Latino” restaurant. One of the owners is Ecuadorean and the other an Arkansan. One of my cousin loves the tortilla soup and tamales. I ordered the goat cheese quesadilla with chicken. It was adorned with an Argentinean sauce, which I think was a chimichurri or something similar,  a mango sauce, and brown sauce. The fruit was very present in the mango sauce and it wasn’t cloyingly sweet, which was nice, and had a very slight undertone of tea to me. The brown sauce had a little heat to it – I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it had a slight smokiness – maybe chipotle – and reminded of something similar to a mole. The black beans and rice came with green onions, peppers, and cheese and tasted very Cuban. Pickled cucumbers and onions were served as an accompaniment as well. I LOVED these. They were quite sour and I got hints of lime and maybe coconut – and this might sound weird – but the flavor was reminiscent of a coconut mojito to me.

And isn’t the plate so fun and festive?!

For dinner that night, I was treated to a dinner made by my aunt. I can’t remember exactly what she called it. She made ground beef patties cooked in a tomato sauce with buttered (and I believe Parmesan-ed) noodles, biscuits, and reheated some green beans from the night before…or so I thought. Tricksy, tricksy auntie. Of course, she also made her sweet tea, which I absolutely adore. If I could package it and bring it home with me, I would. After we’d enjoyed a yummy dinner – and I was telling her so – she slyly let slip that she’d doctored up my green beans. Scandal! She added some vegetable seasoning to the green beans and I can’t deny that they were very tasty. Tricksy, tricksy, tricksy.

(Sorry for the poorer-than-normal quality of the last three photos – they’re phone photos.)

The next day brought one of the most exciting events of probably my whole summer. SNOW CONES!! We went to Snow To Go by The Little Red Caboose in a strip mall parking lot. For the past few years at least, I know it’s been in the same lot – maybe longer and I sadly don’t visit it often enough to remember. Either way – snow cones! For as long as I can remember, that’s always been one of my favorite things to do when visiting Arkansas. Flavor-wise…it’s all about the Chocolada. Chocolate and coconut. Best thing ever. My aunt always gets some Hawaiian something or the other thing. It’s bright yellow. Maybe it has cream in it… I kinda get tunnel vision when I go or talk about these snow cones. CHOCOLADA! I don’t know how they do it, but they are amazing. They’re creamy without being like a milkshake or ice cream, the flavor is balanced perfectly, and when they melt the liquid isn’t too watery and is just as good to slurp through a straw as it is to scoop up with the “spoon” end of the long red straws. I love these things. I’d bring these home with me too if I could. While on our afternoon snow cone adventure my aunt drove me by Miss Laura’s, Forth Smith’s visitor center, which is the first former brothel listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the concert venue down by the river. Snow cones AND brothels – clearly this was an exciting day!

To top off my last night there I ate cold ribs out of the fridge and made a second batch of buttermilk biscuits because I was slightly disappointed in the first batch. The second batch was indeed better. The next morning on the way to the airport in Tulsa we stopped off at Sweet Bay Coffee Co. I wanted to pick up some beans for a fellow coffee-lover back home and had to pick up some beans for myself as well. I’d heard good things about them, but also they’re a local company meaning I can’t find them elsewhere. I got two pounds of their Double French Roast beans, which were sufficiently rich and strong. I also got a Vietnamese French Coffee for the road, which is basically an iced coffee made with sweetened condensed milk. This was my first time having such a drink – and I liked it. I’m interested in finding more of these at home.

And with that I bid Arkansas 2010 adieu and look forward to Arkansas: the 2011 edition. Hopefully it’ll be written about before 2012. And hopefully wintry weather – although not too wintry of course, this is SoCal after all – will bring us back to January in January soon. ;)

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Why I Love Jamie Oliver, Installment 3

So, as has been documented earlier, I not-so-recently-anymore developed quite the fondness for Jamie Oliver (the date of experimentation with this particular recipe is May 29, 2010). After the revelations that were Cheat’s Home-made Pappardelle and the risotto with mint in it I was more eager than apprehensive to try another J.O. recipe. This time it was Parsnip and Pancetta Tagliatelle with Parmesan and Butter. I tried to keep with the whole “trying something new” theme – I wasn’t all that familiar with parsnips. Really, I’m not sure I’d ever had a parsnip before that night. I already knew I loved pancetta and having a giant rosemary bush (this is listed as an herb for the dish) in my front yard I’m definitely no stranger to – or hater – of the woodsy herb. Combining the comforting and familiar with the unknown. Really, I don’t have much to say about this dish – other than it was abso-freaking-lutely fantastic and I’ve fantasized about it ever since I ate it. Oddly, I’ve yet to make it again. I’m thinking my grandma might be part of the next recreation of this dish, as she’s new to parsnips as well – and I feel the need to tell everyone about parsnips now. Also, I feel the flavors of this dish make it a great wintry dish so since it’s January and all – and parsnips’s peak season is late fall through winter – get to it!

If you haven’t tried parsnips before and are a bit unsure about them, I definitely would give this recipe a go – Jamie’s right – parsnips and pancetta are fantastic friends and the rosemary, Parmesan, and butter make this an elegantly comforting dish. Also, if you don’t have tagliatelle like I didn’t, don’t worry about it – spaghetti worked just fine. While parsnips aren’t the prettiest veggie in the garden, they’re definitely one of the tastiest and now one of my favorites. They look like white carrots, but have a much earthier (when describing the flavor to my aunt I said “dirty” – she offered the much more elegant and appealing “earthy”) flavor and not as much sweetness (at least to me/given they were bought in late spring – or the earthy + the sweet = better than less earthy carrot), and very slightly citrusy. I’m not a hater of carrots, but they’re not always in my top ten – er, like three since if we’re being honest about how many veggies I eat on a regular basis. I can’t wait to try parsnips in lieu of or in addition to carrots when, say, roasting a chicken or making a soup. Maybe I’ll find myself at a farmers’s market soon…

See...the parsnip's not that scary.

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(One of) The Best Sandwich(es) I’ve Ever Eaten

Bay Cities Italian Deli is located in Santa Monica. The first time I heard about them was on an episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” on Food Network. This was awhile ago, too. Like at least a year. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, owners of Border Grill not too far away from this deli, raved and raved about this sandwich, the Godmother, on a sandwich episode. The bread, the meats – Genoa salami, mortadella, coppacola, and prosciutto, the veggies, the cheese – provolone, the pepper salad – it was all good. As I soon found out, Bay Cities is kind of a “thing.” I received many very positive reviews from friends and family encouraging me to go.

Well, April 30, I found myself in Santa Monica for a book signing at Williams-Sonoma for Giada De Laurentiis’s newest book, “Giada at Home.” This was the fifth Giada book signing I’d been to, and I FINALLY managed to say something other than “Thank you!” while smiling profusely. Yes, yes, I can get starstruck rather easily. Anyway… Since I was so close, I might as well go to Bay Cities, right? Right.

Parking was a bit complicated, but I eventually decided on the grocery store parking lot across the street – the lot that had signs telling drivers that it was grocery store parking ONLY. Oh, well. It wasn’t crowded. I was a little afraid as there was a security guy walking around, but my car was still there once I returned. The line inside was everything I’d heard about it – horribly long. The place was packed. But about 95% of the people were there for the Godmother, the famed sandwich. They had some pre-made in baskets, but I wanted a freshly made one.

Finally it was my turn to order. A small Godmother with (most of – no pickles) all of the works with sweet pepper salad in lieu of the hot. (The works include mayo, mustard, onions, pickles, lettuce, Italian dressing, and hot or sweet pepper salad.) I think it was the sweet anyway. Either way, I had to smell it the whole way home. That was like at least 45 minutes. It was ridiculous. What was I thinking not just eating it right away…in my car…while I was pseudo-illegally parked?? Next time, next time…

I unwrapped this so-called godly sandwich…and I wasn’t that impressed. It looked good, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t get what the big deal was. Then I tasted it. And then I knew what the big deal was. This was, hands down, one of the best sandwiches – one of the best “Italian meats” sandwiches – I’ve ever had, if not the very best. The flavors are amazing together – the pepper salad definitely stands out – as does the bread – even though it didn’t look like too much to me. For now, it’s the epitome of what an Italian deli meats sandwich should be for me. And without further adieu…

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Umami Burger on La Brea

The date was April 7, 2009. The event was my first trip to the famed Umami Burger in LA. “Umami” is the fifth taste in Japanese and is supposed to be that “extra something” that heightens the flavor of a dish. As a sidenote, the dictionary on my Mac tells me that fifth taste is supposed to correspond to glutamates, specifically MSG. Nice. Also, it tells me “umami” literally means “deliciousness” in Japanese. That really is nice. Anyway, my friend Katrina and I went. When we arrived, it all came off as very “L.A.” The host outside monitoring seating, the valet, the people coming in with shopping bags, all the trendy outfits mixed with the uber casual, and the setting sun against a bustling Los Angeles, the air faintly warm.

It was a surprisingly small location on La Brea. (There are at least four locations total: La Brea, Los Feliz, Hollywood, and Santa Monica.) We were told there would be about a 20 to 30 minute wait unless we wanted to sit at the bar. Knowing how hungry we were we agreed to sit at the bar. And there weren’t even any distracting pictures on the wall to entertain us. Thus we made our way back to the small group of people waiting outside the restaurant. Yes, the restaurant is so small there is no room to wait inside. At least the host waited and mingled outside as well.

Finally it was our turn to be seated – at a rather small table next to kitchen entrance. I’m actually not complaining – just observing. When it was time to order I had to ask our server what he recommended as it was my first time at Umami. Given this was my inaugural trip he suggested I try the classic Umami Burger – I would have future trips to be more adventurous. Their namesake burger comes with roasted tomatoes and mushrooms, a Parmigiano frico (basically a little “cracker” of just grated cheese), and some of their house-made ketchup. Katrina got the Port & Stilton Burger with blue cheese and port-caramelized onions. Her side was a salad, mine was the side of fries. This was done to encourage bite-trading.

Overall, I thought the burgers were good. I may have liked hers more, but I was satisfied with my choice. I thought the signature burger was good, however, I didn’t feel I could taste all of the individual flavors as well – maybe it needed to be seasoned better? The meat was good; didn’t taste overly charbroiled, but had a little of that going on, and maybe medium beefiness. As time went on, I thought it tasted more and more like a pizza burger with the roasted tomato and shitake mushrooms and the ketchup. I really liked the ketchup. The ketchup was a major win for me. The pink of the meat seemed almost like pepperoni red-orange. A couple bites of my burger in the middle left me wondering if fennel was in the meat; the first bites did have a slight sweetness or warmth to them – like from spice. Maybe allspice-ish. Bread was good – slightly sweet and a little greasy, but not too fatty.

I liked Katrina’s burger, although she said she wished for more blue cheese. I agreed. The onions were super yummy though and overall I think her burger was better. She described some of her last bites as buttery. (Sorry for the super bad photo.)

Our fries were grossly undercooked; you could tell just by looking at them. It was kind of an abomination. They had decent flavor, but we had a really rough time getting over their undercooked state. Her salad was good – it reminded me of a certain candy that I can’t remember. A little grainy flavor not texture, fruity, and sweet. My first bite left me tasting a little honey. She thought it was good at first, but then started to taste more like potpourri toward the end. The service was good overall and the décor was nothing to write home about.

If memory serves me right, I’ve been equally or more impressed with other L.A. burgers. I think Henry’s Hat may be beefier. I think I like 25 Degrees better as a whole – it’s actually probably my favorite burger in L.A. right now, although I’ll be sure to conduct further research. Father’s Office and The Library Bar burgers aren’t slacking off either.

I know a return trip to Umami is in my future. How do I know this you ask? The Manly Burger. I have been told it is absolutely delicious. Beer-cheddar cheese, smoked salt onion strings, and bacon lardons. That sounds like pure manly deliciousness. Aaaand I’m hoping I can get a better batch of fries. Sheesh! And , of course, I’m still dreaming about the ketchup… Until next time, Umami…

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Easter Sunday 2010

Once again the troops converge at this time of year, usually at my grandma’s house. This year was no different. To be honest, and I know I’m committing some sort of foodie blasphemy here, I don’t remember exactly what we had. Gimmie a break though – it has been over six whole months.

Well, for one, I know we had potato salad, as two of my cousins and myself went over to our grandma’s on Saturday to assemble said salad. Grandma had the potatoes boiled, we were there for the chopping, mayonnaise-adding, seasoning, and – most importantly – tasting. Truth be told, the tasting part was actually pretty important and not just for my cousins’s and my benefit. You see, our family has some very passionate views on mayonnaise. Most of us like it – at least to some degree – but there are some of us who do not – who rather loathe it quite vehemently. Our grandma happens to be one of those people, thus she was not about to taste it to see what, if anything, it needed to reach potato salad perfection. That being said, there are very strict requirements for how to make the potato salad. Green peppers, red onions, celery, hard-boiled eggs, chopped pimentos, and mayonnaise are mandatory. My grandma’s potato salad was actually the content of my very first post, except that particular potato salad was for Mother’s Day. There was probably a ham and some other sort of salad. I know, I know – total foodie blasphemy.

So to try and detract attention from my horrible culinary sin let’s talk about the food I do remember. For as many Easters as I can remember back – so for the past 3-5 years – I’ve made an almond cake. The first year I made it for our family’s Easter dessert table, the year after that I may have brought it unsolicited (I’m just that excited about it), but this year I didn’t bring it – in part because I hadn’t yet finished it. I had to leave the house and it had just come out of the oven. It had to stay home and patiently await my return. I won’t lie to you – it wasn’t one of the prettiest cakes of all, but it was no Cake Wreck either. Just a little scruffy around the edges and, thanks to my oven and lack of turning it halfway through, a little darker on one side – but only very slightly! It was then dusted with powdered sugar – usually a step I’m not fond of in recipes for whatever reason, but one I’m coming around to, especially when it covers up little blemishes. My next order of business, naturally, was to have a slice of said almond cake. And, boy, was it good! Just like always. :) Aside from the prominent almond flavor thanks to almond paste – which I’ve since fallen in love with – one of my favorite parts about the cake is the addition of cornmeal to the batter. It provides a sort of graininess and extra crunch, if you will, that is just so satisfying to chew on. It’s not too light, not too heavy, with a lovely tender crumb. I like that it is a little heft to it, but definitely won’t weight you down. Its beautiful yellow color doesn’t hurt the experience either. I guess I should mention where I got the recipe from. It’s from Giada De Laurentiis’s first book, “Everyday Italian.” She says that it is an adaptation of an Il Fornaio recipe. Coincidentally, Il Fornaio was one of my favorite restaurants as a little girl. But that’s a whole other story for a whole other time. I cut down the cornmeal by half, however, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted that much crunch the first time I made it. I added extra cake flour to compensate. I haven’t changed it since.

Now onto my Easter dinner. Sure, sure, I’d already had the holiday feast earlier in the day, but, hey, can’t a girl be a little gluttonous? It was a holiday after all, and what are holidays for if not over-eating? Given the success of my first foray into Jamie Oliver’s recipes and given that it was Easter – which means lamb or ham and we’d already done the ham earlier in the day – I planned (yes, I was planning on being gluttonous a few days ahead of time) on making his Asparagus, Mint, and Lemon Risotto. I was so intrigued by this recipe – mint in a savory dish? Hmm, I wasn’t so sure about this. But it had definitely caught my attention. Plus, mint and asparagus just scream spring and, therefore, would be very appropriate for an Easter dinner. Having made a small lamb loin to accompany my first attempt at my grandma’s lentil soup only a few days prior, I decided to go with another small lamb loin. I marinated the lamb for about thirty minutes in some garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh rosemary, salt, and pepper. Once the risotto was all but done I just cooked the lamb in a skillet, trying to make sure it got a decent color of brown and was cooked through. In the meantime, I started on the risotto. This was my first time ever attempting a true risotto. I got so much joy from making this dish. The cute cut up pieces of asparagus, the surprise of the mint, the fresh citrus zing from the lemon zest, and the final addition of the Parmigiano-Reggiano made this a dish I dreamt about and craved for days after. Truthfully, I don’t know why I haven’t yet made it again. That actually makes me kind of sad. Hopefully it will be remedied soon. But to anyone that is afraid of mint in savory dishes I highly recommend you try this. I’ll admit I was a skeptic – even after the revelation that was Cheat’s Homemade-Pappardelle with Quick Tomato Sauce – but Mr. Oliver did not disappoint. At all.

The lamb needed to declare its own (backwards) Italian heritage apparently.

Almond Cake
Adapted from “Everyday Italian” by Giada De Laurentiis

¼ cup fine yellow cornmeal
¾ cup cake flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup almond paste, cut into small pieces
½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups confectioner’s sugar, plus more for dusting
4 large egg yolks
2 large eggs
¼ cup sour cream

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan.

Whisk together cornmeal, cake flour, and baking powder. Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and almond paste on high speed until smooth. Reduce speed to low and beat in vanilla extract. Gradually add 1 1/4 cups of confectioner’s sugar, beating until the mixture is light and fluffy. Increase speed to high and beat in egg yolks and whole eggs, one at a time. Reduce speed to medium and add sour cream and dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake about 35 minutes, or until sides slightly come away from the pan. Transfer cake to wire rack and let cool, then dust additional confectioner’s sugar.

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Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes

Well, apparently the last full week of March was a big food week for me. March 28 was the Day of Guinness Cupcakes. I felt the end of March needed to be commemorated, and I thought a St. Patrick’s Day-inspired treat would be appropriate. Plus, I’d been wanting to making Nigella Lawson’s Guinness Cake for awhile. Chocolate. Beer. How bad can that be? The answer: not bad at all.

I followed Nigella’s recipe for Guinness Cake found in her book “Feast.” Instead of the spring form pan she calls for, I used a cupcake pan with liners. I’ll admit I was a little weary about the final products since this is a pretty wet batter and is supposed to yield a rather moist cake. There were no real problems with the cupcakes, although the ones from the darker pan did come out with little dimples in their centers. Not entirely sure why that was, although the cupcakes from that pan usually have a little more color than my other pan. I attribute that, again, to the darker color and finish on the pan. A couple of the cupcakes in the other tin suffered the same fate, although it wasn’t as pronounced.

See? Dimples.

They almost look like thumbprints, huh? Well, they’re not. Unless, of course, there are little stove gnomes hard at work messing with my mind.

While the little guys were cooling I whipped up some frosting. I followed Nigella’s suggestion for a cream cheese frosting, but I thought why not add a little more Guinness? I had another thought to add some Bailey’s instead of the Guinness, but since a Guinness was already open… I found myself having to add more than I thought of the stout to get a discernible flavor in the frosting, but my advice is start off with a teaspoon or two and adjust to desired taste and consistency. I think my frosting came out a little runnier than I had anticipated because of the additional Guinness, but I don’t think it was any worse for it. Actually, I was rather pleased with the frosting – beautifully cream in color and oh-so-glossy.

I couldn’t be bothered with properly applying frosting to all the cupcakes – or even one for that matter – before tasting, so a cupcake was lifted out of the tin and eagerly bitten into by yours truly. Very moist, pretty light, and provided an almost gooey-like (but totally cooked) satisfaction. The beer definitely came through and, to me, it lent slightly floral undertones to the cupcake. It had an almost flowery and yeasty scent from the Guinness. I always like to taste the cake in its pure state, the frosting in its pure state, and then the combination. So, finally, a sizeable dollop of frosting was plopped onto the cupcake with a bite out of it. Wonderfully squishy indulgence all around. Don’t forget, the frosting has cream in addition to the cream cheese. Creamy, dairy goodness.

I know that’s not the best photo technically, but I find something about it so appealing. I think I liked the way the frosting is slowly drooping down the bite mark just glistening there, inviting another bite…

I’ll confess I’m not gaga for cream cheese frosting – I don’t think I ever will be – but this was a good application. Grapefruit cupcakes with grapefruit cream cheese frosting also hit a happy spot. Maybe I’m a sucker for flavored cream cheese frostings. Being gaga for chocolate like I am, I think these would be good with a dark chocolate frosting too. Maybe chocolate cream cheese? Or chocolate Guinness? Experiments will have to be conducted.

And to give you an idea of the finished product…

I really think the posh paper towels I lined them up on make all the difference, don’t you? ;)

Recipe From “Feast” by Nigella Lawson

Cake:

1 cup Guinness
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups superfine sugar (I used regular sugar.)
3/4 cup sour cream
2 eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

Frosting:

8 oz. cream cheese
1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream (I added a little Guinness to this.)

 

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and/or line a 9-inch springform pan or 2 cupcake tins. (I got 19 cupcakes total.)

Pour the Guinness into a large wide saucepan, add the butter – in spoons or slices – and heat until the butter’s melted, at which time you should whisk in the cocoa and sugar. Beat the sour cream with the eggs and vanilla and then pour into the pan and finally whisk in the flour and baking soda.

Pour the cake batter into the greased and lined pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. (I started checking at about 40 minutes.) Leave to cool completely in the pan on a cooling rack, as it is quite a damp cake.

When the cake’s cold, sit on a flat platter or cake stand and get on with the frosting. Lightly whip the cream cheese until smooth, sift over the confectioners’ sugar and then beat them both together.

Add the cream and beat again until it makes a spreadable consistency. (I added the Guinness at this point.) Ice the top of the black cake so that it resembles the frothy top of the famous pint.

Enjoy!

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Tapas at the Beach

Three days after my Jamie Oliver revelation I had Friday night dinner plans with an old friend. We go way back. Like to first grade. Technically, kindergarten, but I think our friendship truly blossomed in first grade. Anyway, dinner. Our venue of choice was Mediterraneo, a restaurant on the Hermosa Beach pier that specializes in tapas. Personally, I was rather excited as I’d always admired the outside decor and the idea.

We began with their red sangria (they also offer a white). Being ambitious we went ahead and decided to split a pitcher. Turns out that was a little too ambitious. I won’t be too ashamed to say we didn’t finish the whole pitcher. But, I will say, it was rather yummy. Actually, technically we began with their focaccia, which was also very yummy.While we were munching on the focaccia, sipping on the sangria, and taking in the atmosphere, I noted that I was impressed with the overall ambiance and I thought it would be a great place to go for a casual or slightly gussied-up night out with friends. Dates surrounded us on both sides, so I’ll venture to say it’d probably be a good date place too. Not all that intimate, but casual enough for the nervous and tapas for sharing.

Finally it was time to order. We went with four items – their house salad and three tapas. My choice was the plate of chilled mussels with a Spanish vinaigrette, she chose the salad, and we both agreed upon the tortilla espanola (this seemed almost imperative to me since we were having tapas, and I think it was a first for us both), and the roasted dates filled with Cambozola blue cheese and wrapped in prosciutto. I thought the salad was pretty standard with a decent vinaigrette.

I had high hopes for my mussels. I never really knew I liked mussels until I had them, caught the same day, at a family feast – “feast” really is the right way to describe the table spread , but after that meal I was sold. That story’ll be forthcoming – hopefully in the not so far future. Anyway, back to the beach – and the mussels. They weren’t bad…better than unforgettable. The vinaigrette had nice flavor and a nice tang, but the mussels tasted more fishy, if you will, than I was accustomed to. I hope this doesn’t mean I really don’t like mussels. I think maybe I wanted more of a less chunky vinaigrette.

Next, the dates. As in the fruit, not the four people surrounding us. The dates I also had high hopes for after my visit to Cafe Was. The dates made it 0 for 3. Sad. They were so small! And the cheese was almost nowhere to be found! I thought that was pretty unacceptable. As for the package as a whole – not bad, decent especially if you’ve never had blue cheese-stuffed dates before, but definitely not the best representation. Not to be too picky…okay, I’m being picky – but the presentation left something to be desired as well.

Okay, onto the tortilla espanola. Just knowing how I feel about egg dishes I wasn’t too crazy about the idea of this, although I thought since this was my first tapas experience I ought to try a classic. I like eggs, don’t get me wrong, but usually not for dinner. I’m usually one of those people who doesn’t like to eat cold pizza from the refrigerator for breakfast and who doesn’t like a good plate of eggs and potatoes for dinner. Call me crazy. However, for what it was supposed to be, I think I liked this dish best of all the tapas. Plus, it came with a decent side of aioli. I love aioli. A lot. Aioli makes almost anything worth eating. That definitely biased me towards this dish, I’m sure. By the way, the aioli was good. No complaints there.

You’d think at this point we’d be full. Well…we were. However, yes, there is a but, Nutella panna cotta was on the dessert menu. Nutella panna cotta. Now the first time I ever tasted panna cotta I fell in love with it. The first time I ever tasted Nutella I fell in love with it. I couldn’t say no. Plus, Marcona almonds and sea salt accompanied the panna cotta. Marcona almonds are totally Spanish and we had a totally Spanish-influenced dinner. It must be meant to be. The biggest problem with the Nutella panna cotta was that I had to share it, but that’s OK because the company was good. It was probably the best thing I ate that evening, although the focaccia was up there too – yes, I just gave free bread a shout out. :)

All in all, a pretty good experience, and I wouldn’t protest too much about going back. Especially if I were promised Nutella panna cotta.

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How I Fell in Love with Jamie Oliver

OK, so on March 23, I finally gave in and made my first Jamie Oliver recipe. I don’t know why, but for some reason, unbeknownst to me, I had never really researched much about Jamie Oliver or his cooking. I had been mildly intrigued by the very little I had been exposed to his products, but I had also been mildly put off – mainly because I assumed I wouldn’t like much of his food. His food seemed to be too full of flavors that I thought I already knew. The combinations of flavors either seemed too familiar or unappetizing to me. So how did I finally come around to making my first Jamie Oliver recipe?

Of all places, I first saw it on Joe Jonas’s Twitter. Don’t ask what I was doing there in the first place. Anyway, apparently he likes to cook, and, apparently, he likes Jamie Oliver. I noticed they had even tweeted back and forth. Of all the places. Clearly, this is going to be an interesting story, right?

I remember the photo of the recipe looking pretty appetizing – both on Joe’s Twitter feed and on Jamie’s Web site. Olive oil, crushed tomatoes (recipe calls for chopped tomatoes, I crushed a can of whole canned tomatoes with my hands), fresh basil, garlic, a red chili pepper, Parmesan cheese, and fresh pasta – not homemade, just fresh. Usually, recipes like this don’t appeal to me often because, hello!? I totally know what tomatoes and basil taste like together, right!? – and I’m not often in the mood for such a fresh sauce of tomatoes and basil. I love Caprese salad, I love dried basil in my tomato sauce – just never been huge on fresh tomato and basil pasta sauces. Of course, they’re good, but I don’t usually crave them, and I do usually bypass those recipes because I think to myself, well, I can totally do that, I don’t need a recipe. Also, as many who know me might be able to tell you, I’m not what you would call a stickler when it comes to following recipes. All of this being the case, I have no idea exactly what about this recipe so called out to me that I had to make it as soon as possible. But something definitely did. Maybe it was that I was so intrigued by the use of a chili pepper. It’s true, I definitely was intrigued by that. I must say, I even made special trips to two stores, on opposite sides of town mind you, to get that red chili pepper. (Admittedly it was very odd that the first store didn’t have any.)

Look at the chili pepper! It's so red! And shiny!

Home from the store, it was time to cook. All the ingredients were laid out on the cutting board and my pan was on the stove. I followed the recipe exactly. This is significant because that means I didn’t even add more garlic than the recipe called for. See? Like I said, significant. :) Probably unsurprisingly I was intoxicated by the scent of the vegetables and fresh basil hitting the hot olive oil-glossed pan. I would say that’s when I officially fell in love with Jamie Oliver, but, as I’ve learned sometimes the hard way, just because it smells heavenly as it’s cooking that doesn’t ensure the most heavenly end product. I was worried I may have burned the garlic a little, but it didn’t taste bitter. The house smelled amazing – I really think it must be the garlic in olive oil. Of course, it all goes back to the garlic. In the meantime, I cut the lasagne sheets into “pappardelle,” as instructed and cooked the fresh pasta.

The most heavenly end product!

So finally it was ready. So simple, yet so good. Amazingly good. It really surprised me. It tasted so quintessentially Italian –  good Italian – simple, fresh, and rustic. I could taste the tomatoes, the richness of the oil, the garlic, and faint hints of the red chili pepper that lent earthiness and freshness. There was no real heat from the chili. I did remove the seeds, so next time I will leave some, if not all, in. And the basil was awesome, too – so fresh. The Parmesan added a nice but subtle richness and nuttiness. I literally could taste all of the elements – all of the dimensions. This really impressed me actually. So yummy. And the flavor of the fresh “pappardelle” was eggy, doughy, and just plain yummy.

And that, kids, is the story of how I fell in love with Jamie Oliver. However, the story doesn’t actually end there. As it’s continued, you’ll see how my love and appreciation grew deeper and deeper and how I’ve come to the point where I can say, “In Jamie Oliver I trust.” This isn’t, of course, to say I’ll never find a recipe of his that I won’t be mad over, but I have a feeling that the hits are going to heavily outweigh the misses. So the moral of the story is this: if you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with Jamie Oliver, do it. Now. And here is the link to the recipe on his site just to make it super easy for you. Thank you, Jamie, for opening my eyes, pleasing my palate, and making me come down off my high tomato and basil horse.

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Watching Vancouver 2010, Part 3: The Story of Alejo’s and the Pink Sauce

March 9 there was an Olympic reception to honor Evan Lysacek, the men’s figure skating champion, at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo. I found myself there, and afterwards Alejo’s came to mind.

Alejo’s is an Italian restaurant just past LAX in Westchester. I first heard about Alejo’s from a cousin. She told me they had the best bread and dipping sauce of minced garlic in olive oil. I was sold on that alone. Well, that and the family recommendation. I eventually made my way to Alejo’s maybe a year and a half or two years ago for the first time. I was really intent on trying their pink sauce, as I’d heard it was really good. I also, however, wanted meat sauce. I asked for pink sauce with meat in it. I was easily accommodated. I added a little of the garlic and olive oil mixture to my pasta which easily enhanced the dish – surprise, surprise, I like extra garlic. The second time I found myself at Alejo’s was last spring. It was a nice occasion indeed – a family dinner. I’m not entirely sure what prompted it, but we ended up with a good-sized table. I love few things more than sitting around a table sharing a meal with people I love. Not like I talk about that a lot or anything. So especially after that meal, Alejo’s has conjured up a familial connection for me.

Since Alejo’s is near El Segundo and the airport, which isn’t exactly what you would call “close” to me (although comfortably close enough when traveling), I thought I should take advantage of its proximity and order some take-out. Apparently, the Olympics inspire to-go orders in my world.

Anyway, back to the story. When I walked into Alejo’s that night I felt calm and comfortable and it came off as quintessentially “L.A.” in there (beachside neighborhood vibe included). I loved it. I felt kind of like I was home. See, all that backstory was leading up to something. ;) I walked up to the bar/counter and tried to explain the pink sauce/meat sauce spaghetti I desired. I got a strange look from the lady taking my order and she wanted to make very sure that I had ordered this before because it’s not on the menu and, apparently, other people had asked for it and then not liked it. I assured her I knew what I was getting into. I happily sat at the bar taking in the atmosphere and waiting for my order. After a few minutes had passed the telephone rang and the woman answered. She was taking another take-out order. I heard her ask the person on the line if they had it before and if they were sure that’s what they wanted because some people will order it and not like it. I smiled to myself and wondered if they had ordered the same thing as me. Once she hung up the phone she looked at me, smiling. She said the person on the phone had just ordered the same thing as me and commented it was funny because it’s not an order they receive often. Laughing, she said, “That wasn’t your boyfriend, was it?” Amused, I said no, but was intrigued as to who this “Mystery Pink Sauce Man” was. My order was ready before he came in, so I never got to see him – he remains a mystery.

And now without further adieu, I give you Alejo’s  off-the-menu pink meat sauce. One order lasted me about 5 meals. The bread, however, didn’t last that long.

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Watching Vancouver 2010, Part 2: A Gyro Plate and Poutine

Come the Saturday night after Ash Wednesday, I was – finally – willing to entertain the idea of something other than French onion soup for dinner. I found myself with a pretty intense craving for Greek food. I came across a restaurant near my home that looked like it would fit the bill, Redondo Beach Café. What sold me on that eatery was that not only did they serve Greek food, but they served Canadian food – and one dish in particular that was of great interest to me – poutine. After all, I was watching the Vancouver Olympics. Canadian just felt right that night. I had recently read about poutine – fries with gravy and cheese. That can’t be too awful now can it? We’re talking about taste here, not health – obviously. If it makes you feel better – it made me feel a little better – I didn’t eat my entire following order that night. It actually lasted me about 3 meals, although I don’t know if I would call the third serving a “meal,” per se.

I placed my take-out order: an order of poutine and a beef and lamb gyro plate. The poutine came slightly different than it would have in the restaurant – the fries and cheese were kept separate from the gravy. I couldn’t begrudge them for trying to keep my fries from getting too soggy. The cheese was creamy and had a very slight tang to it. The gravy had a very concentrated meaty, gravy flavor. The meat was very flavorful, although it all looked and tasted the same, leading me to believe that maybe beef and lamb had been combined and cooked into some sort of loaf and then sliced. It was very savory and my guess would be there was some combination of parsley, maybe basil, and garlic amongst other flavoring agents. The rice seemed to be pretty standard saffron rice with peas and carrots, and the tzatziki was very tasty and sufficiently garlicky for me. Tomato slices, slices of white onion, and feta topped with oregano, to which I added fresh chopped parsley, accompanied the dish.


I was happy to find a restaurant serving Greek food that wasn’t a fast food joint. A beloved, albeit not spectacularly tasty in all its endeavors, local Greek restaurant closed earlier this year leaving a gap in for Greek food in our general neck of the woods. Redondo Beach Café also advertises itself as a sports café with an emphasis on hockey.

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