Saturday, February 26, 2011

I ate the best kale salad I've ever eaten in my life on Friday.

The restaurant I got it from is located right downstairs from my gym, where I stopped in with a friend after we took a very intense yoga class. Later, during a delightful drizzly afternoon in Laurel Canyon, we pondered the recipe, among other things.

I had thought that the kale was blanched, perhaps -- the texture was so interesting, cooked but not soft. Today I found the recipe and for a moment, rejoiced. Until I started really reading it. This was going to require math. And a lot of it.

The All Hail Kale Salad apparently calls for 6 bunches of kale to serve 8. Now, I'm fairly certain I could tuck away 2 servings a day for a couple days, so maybe I could halve the recipe. But then that means changing the rest of the recipe. How does one measure 1/2 an ounce of ginger, I ask you? And how many cups is in 1 1/4 quarts of Ginger Papaya Dressing? And how many cobs of corn does one roast to acquire 1 cup of roasted niblets? And am I going to be swimming in corn salsa if I make it as directed?

Recipe math is always tricky, too, because even if you get all the numbers right, the chemical reactions may be totally off. For example, I suspect that the enzymes in the papaya are what makes the kale have such a unique type of bite in this salad -- soft but maintaining the rough integrity of the leafy green. So if I halve the papaya in the dressing, will the kale soften as much? Questions, questions, questions. The questions are actually the way I talk myself out of running out to try and make this right this second. I'm sure I could spend the time to figure it all out on the internet. Or just suck it up and swim through kale for a week.

Or maybe one day, I'll feed an army of friends and loved ones this dish at a potluck. Until then, you taunt me, All Hail Kale salad.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When I was very young, my mother reveled in the kitchen, working side-by-side with my father to recreate delicacies that couldn't be found in America. Traditional, complicated foods were plotted and savored with some regularity. Deep fried fritters that required a strange powder for the dough to hold were prepared in our little kitchen and doused with honey. The skins of the oranges we snacked on after dinner were saved for weeks so that we could make dried slivers of zest to tuck into rice, along with pistachios and barberries and saffron. We would pick the stems from leaves of parsley while watching The Cosby Show, before my father would take a big mezzaluna to chop it down into a fine mass along with other picked over herbs, before my mother would fry the herbs until they turned a very dark color, and they were ready to be stewed with onions and meat for several hours before being served with rice. There were nights when we would sit at a picnic blanket in the living room, smacking and sucking marrow out of bones, eating a mash of beans and meat with our fingers, using thin lavash bread to scoop it up.

Then came the doldrums, roughly the years surrounding my grandfather's long illness and his death. With his passing, something in the house unraveled, the tie to fatherland grew dim, and my mother's enthusiasm for filling the house with the smells of her childhood home seemed to wither for a time. And so, the cooking began to fall to me.

There was one dish that I made for many years, at the direction of my mother. Chicken with onions and turmeric. It is exactly what it sounds like, a most unenthusiastic recipe that filled our bellies without flair or nostalgia. Sliced onions were briefly sauteed before raw chicken and a heaping tablespoon of turmeric were added to a pot. A cup or two of water was added and a long simmer was set under way. I'd make a little pot of white rice and a salad of lettuce and tomato dressed with lemon and olive oil and that would be that. I was probably 11.

I later joked that eating this chicken so frequently made me become a vegetarian for 10 years once I turned 15. That might be true.

Tonight I came home somewhat late, and decided to bank a bit of cooked protein for the remainder of lunches this week to tie together all the loose bits of leftovers in my refrigerator right now. I'd thawed some chicken, but I cook chicken so rarely that I hardly know what to do with it, really. So I made the chicken with onions and turmeric, slopping it together in the pot on a sort of auto-pilot that hadn't grown rusty in the many years since I last made the dish. Then that yellow smell filled the house, and I remembered how long it had been.

Monday, February 21, 2011

As a new gym devotee, I've been trekking over to West Hollywood pretty regularly to take pelvic-thrusting dance classes and ambitious yoga classes. It's been really great, except for one thing... the gym is a bit of a commute from my place and, though I kinda love driving, the route can be a dangerous gauntlet when one is hungry and feeling entitled to a bit of a splurge post-workout.

I'm not typically tempted by fast food, but a lot of weird L.A. favorites lie between my apartment and the gym. If I were giving directions on how to get there from my house, they might include "turn right at House of Pies," to give you an idea.

But that's only if I take Franklin across town. Usually, I go on Sunset. Which means there's a standing battle on every commute: me vs. Zankou Chicken. I don't know what Armenian magic is wrought on these birds _ on appearance alone, it seems like they should be no different than your average grocery store rotisserie. The restaurant itself holds no charms, whatsoever. It's located in a fairly sketchy mini-strip mall, where there seems to be a screaming match over one of the few parking spots almost every time I'm there. The hard, plasticized seating tends to be greasy to the touch and I have to make a mental note not to inspect the floors too closely. There's a stuff-in-the-grout problem down there. And the employees working the register are ladies who have eyebrows that are either drawn on in an unflattering angle that makes them appear angry or... they're just truly pissed off to be there. Either way, I don't think they have ever smiled at me.

But the chicken is amazing. It comes with a little, bitty cup of a garlic paste that is completely delicious -- and I actually tend to avoid garlicky foods. And there's a little salad, a little tahini, a little hummus. Really, it's almost impossible to talk it up without overselling it, because it's a really simple meal. But the siren song of that chicken makes me have to squeeze the wheel and floor it past the corner of Normandie and Sunset with some regularity.

Also en route:
_ Toi, my favorite Thai restaurant in L.A., a title earned by nostalgia rather than epicurean assessment. They have my favorite vegetarian pad see ew, but I mostly love Toi because it's open until 4 a.m and we used to eat there after coming up to the big city from the burbs to see a band.
_ YogurtLand... it's a whole land of yogurt. And toppings. And pleasure. Sprinkly my ashes into the sliced almonds, please.
_ In N Out... note to future self: the protein-style double-double is still a double cheeseburger, albeit sans bun.
_ The Griddle... though there's always a million people outside and the wait can be brutal, this is easily my favorite breakfast place in LA., with really great huevos rancheros. It is also kindof a dump.

You also have to go through Little Armenia and Thai Town... And then there are all the places I go past in my neighborhood, which I happen to think has some of the best restaurants in town...

Ah, but it's a small price to pay to get to take classes in this fine facility.

(full disclosure: I have not taken the pole-dancing class.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Though I've been an apartment dweller for the last decade, I do spend a considerable amount of time fantasizing about having a garden. This is among my more unreasonable pastimes because, unless I marry well, it's unlikely I'll ever own a plot of land large enough to host it.

This nesting desire-cum-tree-planting desire manifested, for a short time, as a semi-serious Farmville addiction. You know Farmville, the game your 8-year-old cousin can't stop thinking about at the dinner table as she rearranges her dinner into perfect rows and makes clicking noises every time she "harvests" a spoonful of mashed potatoes and eats it. It was fun to play for a time, but I had to stop before Dr. Drew showed up at my door.

So, now I think about what my real garden would have. I think I'd want a big orchard actually, too. That way I could have lemons, limes, grapefruits, tangerines... and all manner of nuts, like almonds, walnuts, pistachios... It would be nice to grow my own salad vegetables, too. And to have a berry patch. And grapes growing on arbors. Look at me, I'm quite fancy with my multiple arbors, aren't I?

But if I had limited space in my fantasy yard, and had to choose between garden or hot tub, I would choose hot tub. For the record.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ugh. Two reasons I wish I hadn't ordered Thai for dinner tonight:
1. Tub Tim Siam is the best Thai place in my delivery area, I've established this. But it is still greasy as hell.
2. The apartment smells like Thai takeout in what I fear is a permanent way, despite repeated spraying of orange-scented Lysol.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

When I was 11, we took my first trip to Iran that I wasn't in diapers for. Customs officials around the world met my families deepest, darkest food fantasies while rifling through our luggage in search of contraband.

It was a long flight to Germany, then to Iran. We flew Luftahnsa, and I remember feeling cold for the whole flight, and that my mother was furious that we were seated one row ahead of the smoking section. I also remember dutifully eating the hard, dark brown bread with strange cheese they served in-flight because my mom told us that this was the sort of food her father had eaten in Germany, where he was educated.

Because each passenger was allowed two suitcases, my mother, me and my younger sister each lugged two massive suitcases to Tehran. That was the first flight I'd ever been on where you got off the plane and stood on the tarmac _ I had only experienced travel in the cool confines of American terminals. Ever the anxious child, as we stood in the middle of the night on a runway that smelled of fuel, I kept whipping my head around, certain that we were standing in the takeoff path of a zooming jet. We rode a very quiet bus in to the terminal, where everyone seemed anxious for what lay ahead of us: customs. After we managed to get our hulking suitcases onto carts and get in line, we watched as bored, sweaty customs officials rifled through the suitcases of the people ahead of us under unforgiving fluorescent lights. Everyone looked so wan and tired. There was a large sign greeting arrivals at Mehrabad Airport in those days, with Ayatollah Khomeini's beatific-seeming visage and the words Death to America on it. I felt offended but kept this to myself _ after years of playing the de facto (and sometimes unintelligible) translator to the numerous newscasts we watched in my home, I knew this was a common refrain.

Customs officials were flipping through books, asking if travelers intended to resell the 8 pairs of Levis in their suitcases that still had tags on. Many terse words seemed to be exchanged and I remember assuming the travelers' innocence and pitying their lack of foresight -- we had snipped tags from all the new clothes we'd brought as presents for our family, careful only to leave the small plastic tag-holders so that they would know they were not receiving hand-me-downs.

Our turn came. It wasn't long before our customs official became quite amused with our suitcase. He picked up the jar of peanut butter -- Jif, because my mother is quite choosy (and because she wanted to fatten up my cousin who was a picky eater). Laughing, he showed it to other customs officials. He picked up the salami, beef jerky and other meat products my uncle had come to miss in Iran, after spending his college years in the States. There was more laughter. I hoped they wouldn't see the pièce de résistance: in my mother's carry-on was a cold Big Mac, a food that I'd never eaten as an American citizen, but her brother had fond memories of. The customs official joked that Iran had food and asked if we were afraid of starving. My mom said no, playing nice. He then asked if we'd been back since the Revolution. My mother said we hadn't, and it was my first trip. He took pity on us, or deemed us to be the harmless weirdos we are, and let us through without further scrutiny. I breathed a sigh of relief that my most valued possession, the Donkey Kong handheld game in my backpack, had survived the trip without being confiscated.

When we came back to the States, we went through customs in Los Angeles. Again, we lugged all sorts of foods that are hard to explain and smelled a little funny to the table in front of a bored customs official. He was a tall white man, a little sweaty, a little tired, wearing a variety of uncomfortable things: a tightly tied necktie, a belt that must have dug into the underside of his considerable gut, and plastic gloves in the dog days of August in a windowless corner of an airport basement in Los Angeles.

"Tokhmeh? Pesteh? Badoom?" he asked, in accented Farsi. My mom, my sister and I giggled at this big white man asking us if we were smuggling in toasted seeds, pistachios or almonds into the country _ which did not amuse him. So as not to undermine his sense of authority, my mom dutifully showed him everything in our suitcase, trying to explain what things were.

"What's this?" he asked, raising a small mass of piroshkies wrapped in many layers of plastic. Knowing me, I'm fairly certain my mouth watered involuntarily at that moment, as it does now remembering it.

"Piroshki," I chirped, feeling very protective of one of my favorite foods. "It's like a jelly donut, but with custard or cooked ground beef in it," I said, underselling it a bit. My mom had brought a bag home for my dad _ they've been sweethearts since they were 15, and on their dates they would often go to a special vendor to get their piroshkis. I breathed a sigh of relief when he let us through.

My parents recently returned from Iran, bringing back a bunch of food souvenirs once more, including two favorites. Iranians eat lots of seeds and nuts, and one of my family's favorite snack foods (sold in movie theaters and the like) is berenjak, a mix of puffed basmati rice, sesame seeds and shahdooneh, which are hemp seeds or pot seeds, I'm not sure which. The seeds are toasted and salted, and the mix seems tart with lemon juice to me, but I'm not sure how it's prepared. To eat it, you scoop some into a saucer and dip your tongue into it, letting the tiny bits stick to your tongue. It's not the most attractive thing to watch, but the crunch and snap of the seeds and rice are endlessly satisfying.

Berenjak: from top to bottom, sesame seeds, puffed rice, shahdooneh.

Something we've only discovered in recent years are the delicious crackers of Iran. Again, it's the same ingredients in a sense: finely milled rice flour, sesame and shahdooneh.

From left to right: sweet, cardamom-scented morning crackers with sesame; savory shahdooneh crackers and sesame crackers.