Monday, January 31, 2011

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"New rule: If you're paying less than a buck for a taco you can't be shocked that the meat in it isn't really meat. Your 'meal' costs less than gum. There's a reason taco spelled backwards is O Cat." -- Bill Maher, "Real Time..." Jan. 28, 2011.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It's been years since I've had a cold. My body tends to find more creative ways to be uncooperative and fail me, but this sniffling, sneezing, getting chills and feeling achey stuff is so foreign that I hardly know what to do.

Feed a cold, right? Is that what they say? Sure. It just so happens that I also feed a perfectly healthy body. But let's not quibble. Sniffle.

When I first started feeling icky, I went to my refrigerator with one word in my mind: healthy.

After recently wishing I had fresh fennel and teasing out that craving with brown sugar fennel ice cream in San Francisco, I had stocked up on my favorite crunchy vegetable, which happens to be favored as a digestive aid by the Italians. I also had some delicious ruby red grapefruit in the pantry. Which are the two ingredients I need for one of my favorite salads.
Segmented grapefruit, sliced fennel, salt, pepper, olive oil.

If I were feeling a bit fancier (or even the slightest bit energetic, really) I would have put this over baby arugula and topped it with parmesan shavings and toasted pine nuts. But just like this, it made me feel like a million bucks. For a few minutes.

The next day, I was still feeling fairly terrible. Call me Californian, but there is no comfort like Mexican food if you ask me. I decided that if I was going to feel like crap, I might as well have a drink to take the edge off. I proceeded to pick up tacos from my favorite stand (which happens to have won a James Beard Award and is within spitting distance of my apartment). They serve them with these pickled jalapenos that I love; they are so spicy that I bet they cure diseases by scaring them out of the body.

I mustered the energy to try and recreate the Michelada Classica that I liked so much from Loteria Grill, and I think I definitely got it right but I need to get the Dos Equis lager next time instead of Corona Light (which is truly awful).

Carnitas tacos from Yuca's, two jalapenos. Michelada cocktail with Tapatio, Worcestershire, lime and a rim of salt and crushed boullion.

I proceeded to pass out immediately after eating this last night. And haven't quite recovered yet.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light." -- my teabag is trying to enlighten to me
Growing up bilingual means knowing some things are so hard to translate that they will never be communicated properly, and sometimes the more effort you put into an explanation, the less understood it ends up being.

This feels particularly true in the kitchen. The hardest thing to explain to my adventurous food-loving friends who have asked me how to cook Iranian dishes is the concept of jah oftadan, which means "falling into place." You just have to keep cooking the food until it hits the right flavors, long after individual elements are thoroughly cooked enough to be edible. Though cookbooks will tell you that it's an hour or two for flavors to fall into place, they lie to sate marketers and publishers. Few Iranian dishes can be pulled off without 4 to 5 hours of straight simmering. On rare occasions, I've overdone it and overcooked dinner. But rarely.

If it wasn't clear before, it should be apparent now why European and American cooking is conceptually refreshing to me. The appeal lies in their embrace of the concept of overcooking as a flaw -- steaks are served medium rare, pasta is served al dente and the French like to cook a la minute for fresh fare, fast.

Maybe part of the intrigue is the mouth-wateringly long wait it takes for foods stew in their own juices, allowing for unlikely marriages of flavors like cinnamon and eggplant. It's fairly normal to not see a scrap of dinner before midnight at many Iranian dinner parties. The hunger and excitement such food repression creates is immeasurable.

A facet of jah oftadan goes beyond the melding of tastes, and deals with consistency and tenderness. You never want a soup or stew to be ab o doon jodah, which literally means "water and bits separate." When I think of this phrase, I can almost see my mother in my head, frowning while spooning at a bowl of Campbell's style chicken soup, allowing the broth to drip and splash before bits of carrots plopp into the bowl. You want herbs to have cooked into melting smoothness, meat that requires little chewing and beans and vegetables that are mushable with a spoon.

I tried to capture the difference with pictures of an ash e joh or barley soup that I made this week. It's made by browning stew beef with onions and turmeric. Add various beans (dried kidney, white, lentils, split yellow peas and garbanzos in this pot) and water to the pot, boil an hour. Add barley, boil an hour. Add a huge mess of herbs and spinach, boil for an extremely long time until everything is perfect.

Ab o doon jodah. See how you could fill a spoon with a wad of very green herbs or a hunk of beef and a bit of water, never getting everything the soup has to offer in one great bite? No good.

Ja oftadeh. See how the greens have boiled down into an olive-colored base for the broth and the soup is dense enough to stand up to its fried medley of garnishes (onions, garlic and mint)?

Perfect. I now have a massive pot of this in the fridge and a bunch of it frozen for cold days... assuming we get any more of those this winter. Oh, California.

Equally perfect but much less labor intensive is this black cherry Jell-O, morello cherries and whipped cream dessert parfait.

You are so beautiful... to me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

San Francisco, what a treat. I didn't take any pictures. I forget the names of the places we went, though I'd been to the taqueria in the Mission that Shannon and I went to with Rebecca before. And there was a place with skewered chicken hearts that were truly amazing. And a stabbingly great show, where we got real close to the stage and sang along like we were still teenagers. There were donuts at a donut stand: I ate the spiced chocolate donut and made my friends try it. It was awesome. There was ice cream at Humphrey somethings. I couldn't get through the buttery scoops of Vietnamese coffee or brown sugar fennel, but loved them both quite a lot. I feel like I lost my breath for a second there. There was other food, but it wasn't the best part. Good times.

Friday, January 14, 2011

My friend Carrie in New York sent me a very good-looking recipe for a lemony escarole soup recently and it came to mind this week while I was feeling a little under the weather. My fussy stomach and tired brain had me craving something clean, simple and light, and her recipe basically calls for a stewed head of greens doused in grated hard cheese. Perfect.

Carrie's recipe, and at one time this was Carrie's haircut but she pulled it off better.

Doesn't the word gorgability have a fantastic ring to it?

Less perfect than this lovely piece of mail was my brain function while at the Whole Foods in Glendale, shopping for the recipe. Blame it on feeling yucky, but I not only failed to get escarole, I got radicchio instead. I can't explain why. They don't look anything alike, taste anything alike. I don't use either in cooking very often, though I like both quite a lot. As I stood in front of the wall of organic greens, watching the water mister go on... and then off... and then on... I absently picked up a bunch of scallions (why? no idea.) walked up and down the aisle twice and finally asked the hippie employee where the radicchio was. She showed me, I put two heads of it in my cart, and continued to wander around the store for long enough to spend $100. So, 20 minutes.

It's like she knew I was going to blow it without a visual -- that is clearly not a round bulb of radicchio.

I got home and realized my error, but was feeling a little too weak to fight it. So I decided to make a radicchio soup in the style of Carrie's escarole soup. Also, because I didn't get chicken broth (though I definitely stood in an aisle staring at it for a time), I browned red onions to boost flavor and I added some whole fennel seeds. I'm always trying to add fennel to things and it seemed like maybe they'd like eachother, the fennel and the radicchio, as paesans. I love fresh fennel and kindof wished I had some after I got home with the wrong groceries. I wonder if fennel is easy to grow; I would grow that if I had a garden. And lemons. I digress.

I struggled against the urge to dump some balsamic vinegar on this and carmelize the radicchio and onions and fennel seed. Maybe next time.

Escarollin' with it.

As if the grated parmesan on top wasn't enough, I thought a little toasted olive bread topped with Swiss Emmental cheese would be this meal's fat and protein content.

Raddichio is fairly bitter, but cooked down in this way I didn't mind the slight bitter aftertaste at all -- in fact, it felt almost medicinal in my diminished state. I love the purple color of the broth. The dish inspires me to try a different recipe altogether -- some day, I should make an Italian Radicchio-Onion Soup in the style of French Onion Soup. Maybe the balsamic vinegar would be good for that base to draw out more flavor, deepen the color to mimic ze French version. Little crocks with cheesy Fontina toasts on top. Ohh, sounds yummy.

Thanks, Carrie. I enjoyed it tons, even if I did it all wrong. I'll write you soon, xoxo.

Sadly, no trip to Whole Foods is complete without serious regrets. In addition to TWO trips to the olive bar (almond-stuffed olives are such a sick weakness with me), there were some pretty eye-popping budgetary failures.

Olive loaf, made by local favorite La Brea Bakery. $8.

Tiny pasta that suckered the girl who's always nostalgic for New York. $8.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I once read that anxiety induces cravings for crunchy food.

I just ate an entire celery heart.

Draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

If you've ever been to Costco, you know what this is.

An admission: the quarter-pound Hebrew National all-beef hot dog is one of the more cherished delicacies of my upbringing. Let's be clear: it's a boiled meat product in a smushy white bun, typically loaded up with sodium-rich condiments. Even if this thing is blessed by all the appropriate religious officials, it just can't be healthy. It is 360 delicious calories of Meat.

Oh, how I love it. It was the reward for a successful trip to Costco (and before it was called that, Price Club). Oddly, as an adult, it reminds me of my grandfather, may he rest in peace. My father's father was a military man, very disciplined but very sweet. When I was in the third or fourth grade, he came to live with us for a time. Every day, he would do morning calisthenics in his bedroom, counting his exercises out loud. Like clockwork, he made his bed, combed his silver hair and shaved his face using a little brush and a little bowl of lather. Sometimes, he'd let me work the brush. He could recite hundreds of poems, and would sit for hours during the day, reading and writing in journals. He would tell me stories from Shahnameh, though I don't remember them; I remember the sharp smell of his French cologne and the way he'd play with his voice to entertain me, and giggle at his own silliness. He enjoyed a quiet, rigorous life _ and I admired him a lot.

His diet was unadventurous. Every day, he would eat cornflakes for breakfast, with a spoon of sugar sprinkled carefully on top. For lunch, he would have one Costco hot dog plain, with a fork and knife. No bun, rarely a smattering of ketchup. And for dinner, every night, if he could get it, he would eat baghali polo ba maycheh, which is a rice pilaf with dill and lima beans, paired with a lamb shank stewed in onions, turmeric and saffron. Every once in a while, after a meal, he would indulge: one scoop of vanilla ice cream. Though he would protest if you gave him a big scoop, he would quietly run his spoon along the bottom of the bowl to catch every last bit.

No matter how many times I tried to turn him on to the things I loved eating at the time, he would express smiling disinterest _ which, in hindsight, was the correct thing to do when dealing with a precocious child's palate (rainbow sherbet, anyone?). I used to fear he wouldn't like America or staying with us if I couldn't get him to like junior Western cheeseburgers from Carl's Jr. or all-you-can-eat salad bars. But really, he was like so many of the parents of his generation: torn between homeland and his children who had left it for far-flung places. He wasn't going to while away the end of his life in an unfamiliar land for seasoned criss-cut fries, despite my youthful conviction that they made life -- anywhere -- worth living.

Nowadays, I take my dog with a bun and ketchup. In my grown-up defense, the bun is one of those fake white buns that's secretly whole wheat but they somehow mill it to look, taste and feel like white bread (yeah, I don't really buy it either) and the ketchup is organic and from Trader Joe's. Thank god these kosher delights come in packs of 4 and no more. Though, now I have four spare hot dog buns and don't know what to do with them.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

"If you're trying to lose weight or save more money this year, go on an austerity plan as it comes to spending: don't hang out with the spenders and the eaters." --self-help guest on CNN, for the segment on resolutions.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Stick a fork in it, 2010 is done

I spent New Year's Eve at a whisky club, sipping Manhattans in downtown Los Angeles. It was a stellar evening. Understandably, I wasn't feeling particularly imaginative when it came time to cook the first dinner of 2011, but luckily, the meal was already in the works for a couple days. I'd thawed some chicken thighs I bought from Costco and marinated them in my completely incorrect recollection of Thomas Keller's Buttermilk Fried Chicken recipe. But it came out great: Buttermilk + 1tbsp each of smoked paprika, granulated garlic, cumin, salt, pepper.

I paired it with an arugula, pine nut salad and pappardelle with baby portobello mushroom and Marsala sauce.

Don't make fun of me for pairing this with a diet Coke.

I really kindof needed a carb-heavy, fried meal after ringing in the New Year with cocktails, but this still didn't feel terribly unhealthy. The Marsala sauce is thickened with a dark blonde whole wheat flour roux and part-skim ricotta cheese. And the boneless, skinless thigh was coated in light Panko crumbs and fried in no cholesterol special vegetable oil.

A couple photos and tidbits for you that have been adding up in the camera. Out with the old, in with the new...

This was a recent Sunday lunch. Celery, the world's best peanut butter, golden raisins, shredded coconut. Coffee with milk.

Oh artichokes, how I love thee, let me count the ways... 1... 2... 3... 4...

The consistency of this was awful, but the flavors were great. Fava bean and dill stew with lamb shank and roasted potatoes.
This is a delicious vat of frothy Mountain Dew. Just kidding, trick photo. This color is a result of the bergamot-scented Shiseido bath salts I bought in Little Tokyo with biscuiterie.

What we actually ate in Little Tokyo was amazing: ramen at Daikokuya. The bright red bits are this really sharp, fresh pickled ginger that is served in a little pot on the table, alongside pureed garlic that you add to the bowl yourself. The soy-tinged white of the egg protects a perfectly creamy yolk. The noodles and green onions fill a massive bowl of steaming pork broth. Underneath it all, somewhere, are tender pieces of buttery kurobuta pork.

oh, and I finally got a picture of my lentil recipe up. Looks pretty.