Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Not Well

Hello, dear reader.

This is an apology note to you. My plan was to write up a big Thanksgiving review on Sunday night, detailing how awesome my soup was, and how Ray's brined turkey was succulent and moist. Instead, I had the most horrible food poisoning from some French cheese-- yes God, I hear you, abstain from all things French (cheese, men) for a while. I think I threw up 7 times in 8 hours. So the thought of food is still a little eeeccccccchk for me right now.

Maybe tomorrow I'll have something clever and delicious to say. For now, it's all Gatorade and crackers. I need a nap. sigh.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

T-Day Countdown, II

So the cranberry sauce didn't happen last night. I got caught up in the surprise final pass of the avocado cookbook and that was it. This is usually how my plans work out: I make them, they sound good and organized, and then the world intercedes and I get to readjust. I find holidays are all about living life on life's terms.
The new plan: tonight I will make the cranberry sauce and fabulous Wild Mushroom Soup, and tomorrow morning I'll celebrate my favorite part of Tory's Thanksgiving Ritual.
For the last 9 years I've been by myself when I rise on T-day, and before the cooking begins I give myself a space to reflect. I make a delicious cup of coffee (in recent years a latte, mmmm), and write out a list of everything I'm grateful for. People, sofas, works of art, songs, small animals-- some years the list is long, some years pointedly short, but always this leads me to a peaceful space on a hectic day.

But I'm ahead of myself. Tonight, Wild Mushroom Soup and cranberry sauce, soundtracked by my friend Scott's DJ-genius. Fingers crossed it comes out tasty!


I just e-mailed off my last set of corrections and changes for the avocado cookbook I've been editing. This project lasted much longer than I expected, although the Chileans I've been working for have been incredibly pleasant, flexible, and overall a delight. The book looks great, and I'm proud to have my name in it. I know more about Chilean Hass Avocados than I knew there was to know.
But I am so darn tired. It's 1 in the morning. I don't want to look at another avocado until 2007. I'm avozhausted.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

T-Day Countdown

Two days and counting, dear reader! Are you ready? Or preparing to be ready? I have my next few days all planned out, I love this time of year.
My Thanksgiving dinner should be great: I plan to spend it with some excellent friends, several of whom are part of my chosen L.A. family. I love these cats; the year my Uncle Tyler died and I had to catch a red-eye Thanksgiving night, they moved dinner earlier so I could still participate. They were also patient and kind when I freaked out at a friend who accidentally added my soup garnish (delicate fried apple peels) to the salad. You can't ask for a better family experience than that. We've celebrated assorted holidays together through divorces and break-ups, promotions and moves, deaths and new loves. Good times.
This year I will be contributing 3 items to the table
1) A Wild Mushroom Soup, which started out as a recipe by Michele Scicolone but has evolved enough that now I consider it my own. I was not planning on making soup, but Ray and David tag-teamed me in a flattery throw-down on Sunday. I was helpless to say no.
2) An Italian Broccoli and Cauliflower "Flan" with Spinach Bechamel Sauce (though it's really more of a gratin), and
3) Cranberry Sauce. There are 3 cranberry sauces on the docket... it's not a competition, but I predict mine will rock the house. It has a secret ingredient that makes the flavor pop. No, not MSG. Ok, I'll tell you, but you have to keep it between us (no one needs to know how basic these things are): just add a dash of salt. Every year I turn out a nuanced and interesting cranberry sauce that is embarrassingly simple. That's my favorite kind of cooking.

This afternoon David and I will make a pilgrimage to IKEA to purchase the remaining plates and wineglasses for our crowd of almost 20, and afterwards I will head to the grocery store to buy fresh mushrooms and cream, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach. I wisely purchased cranberries this weekend- Ray would have a fit if I showed up sans sauce! Last year I had to elbow past an elderly lady to snatch the last bag of cranberries, oh it was ugly. (Yes, I know there's a tart circle of hell reserved just for me. Mmmm, but my sauce was fantastic...)

Tonight I will make the cranberry sauce, tomorrow the soup, and the morning-of my house will smell of broccoli and butter. And you, dear reader? What are you making (or buying!) this year? Let's put it out there- you know me, I love the dish.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Stood-Up Scampi

An astonishing thing happened today. I had a date (a cooking date, no less) with a handsome Frenchman and *he stood me up.* I kid you not. This has never happened before. I looked cute and had shaved my legs, for heaven's sake. I'm still sad and mad and thrown... but forgive me, dear reader. This is a food blog. I will not prattle on about feelings when there is cuisine to be discussed.
The plan was to go to the Hollywood Farmers Market, one of my favorite spots in L.A., then return to my place to cook. He was going to teach me how to pronounce the names of French recipes (hablo Espanol), and I would teach him how to make spinach risotto topped with an elegant shrimp scampi. Trés magnific, no? Cooking is sexy, French is sexy, and I have desperately wanted to know how to say bourguignonne for many years. Seriously.
I will spare you the depressing details, suffice to say I was a class act, he is fired and I should have listened more closely to my English grandfather's rabid denouncement of all things Frog as a child. Oh well. Maybe you were right, Grandad.
So as my icky day came to a close, I realized I still had a pound of thawed shrimp in my fridge waiting for some action. Raw shrimp (as with all creatures of the sea) should not sit in the fridge more than a day. The meat is too delicate. Far better to cook it the day you bought it and eat leftovers the next.
***A note on frozen shrimp: unless you have the good fortune to live in South Carolina or Louisiana, the shrimp you buy has been previously frozen. Most shrimp is flash-frozen on the boat or at the dock right after it's caught, then shipped halfway around the world. Even if it's "fresh" on ice at the fishmongers or grocery store, odds are good you're looking at thawed little suckers. I prefer to buy it raw and frozen, then thaw it myself under running cold water; that way I know exactly how long it's been sitting around (10 minutes, versus all day at the fish counter).
I couldn't bring myself to make the lovely risotto I'd planned, but instead walked to my corner grocery store and bought a lemon and some Italian parsley, and watched the sun set. Back at home I boiled some Italian spaghetti, then made my shrimp scampi. I sautéed garlic in some olive oil, then stirred in the thawed shrimp. When they were almost pink, I added some salt, lemon zest, the juice of half a lemon and some not-great Chardonnay (it was all I had). Stir stir stir. Let it reduce a little. Then I poured the pasta into the pan, along with the chopped parsley and a knob of fantastic Irish butter. Used tongs to mix it all up, and voila: Stood-Up Scampi fit for a queen. I put Michael Penn's newest CD on the stereo, lit a candle, and poured myself a glass of the suspect Chardonnay. I used the tongs to swirl the pasta into a pretty cone shape in the rimmed bowl (I learned that watching Lidia Bastianich, she's so cool), and invited the Goddess to join me for dinner.
And you know, it was delicious. The shrimp was tender, the pasta firm, and the bright lemon flavor was balanced by the mellow garlic. Fortunately the conversation was witty and engaging, the candlelight gave everything a soft glow, and the cook! Well, let's just say anyone would be lucky to share a meal with this lady.

Stood-Up Scampi
serves 3-4, or 1 with great leftovers

1/2 pound good spaghetti
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 big cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 pound shrimp, thawed, rinsed, shelled except for tails
zest and juice of 1/2 lemon (add more if it makes you happy)
2/3 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley, plus some for sprinkling
2 tablespoons butter (the best you've got)

In large pot of salted water, boil spaghetti until tender but still firm to the bite. Drain.
Meanwhile, in large nonstick skillet sauté garlic in olive oil over medium-high heat until golden and fragrant, about 1 minute. Add shrimp, sprinkle with salt and sauté until nearly pink, about 3 minutes. Add lemon zest, juice, and wine; simmer until slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour in pasta, chopped fresh parsley, and butter. Using tongs, mix until butter is melted and pasta is incorporated into sauce. Serve warm in rimmed soup bowls, sprinkled with additional parsley.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Pepper Kapow!

Pepper is not something I grew up thinking about, even though it was the co-starring spice in my mother's cooking (Salt & Pepper, that was it. No wonder The Man is so intent on invading spicier countries). Our pepper appeared in a little round canister, like our Parmesan cheese, and had about as much flavor. As a kid I eschewed it mostly for the color-- it looked like dirt sprinkled on my food, yuck.

Fast-forward a lifetime: I'm at the magazine and in charge of bringing in new products, testing them, and writing up the ones that make our mouths sing. My buddy Janet, a genius in the Test Kitchen, pushes a package of stuff from Nirmala's Kitchen into my hands. Their tagline, Bring Home the Exotic, seemed a little stank to me; I've yet to find a friend who likes to have their food (or self) called exotic.

But then I opened a tin of the whole Tazmanian Pepperberry, and all political thought stopped. The fragrance was from deep in a magical pine forest, spicy without being harsh, with a whisper of dried green bayleaf and a citrusy brightness. For tasting, the Test Kitchen simply cracked them and pressed them into a steak. The result was magnificent: the peppercorns were the color of black velvet and the kicky, floral flavor developed slowly in the mouth, like a good pinot noir.

I was thinking about good gifts for cooks for the coming holidays, and though the price is a bit gasp-worthy at $13 a tin, this one's a winner. Also as a gift for oneself...

Disclaimer: if you go to the Press portion of Nirmala's website, they quote a snippet of my review in Bon Appétit. I'm not a slacker! They're just so excellent I wanted to mention them again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Candy Connoisseur

I never considered my friend Jeff a foodie. When we met in college, his diet was almost exclusively burgers and pizza, with pancakes in the morning. (Yet he magically retained his ripped physique.) On occasion I'd find him eating lasagna and spaghetti, and oh, the Twizzlers. Good Goddess did he eat a lot of Twizzlers. At the movies I'd order popcorn with enough "butter" to make me queasy- what is popcorn but a vehicle for butter and salt?- and Jeff would sit down next to me twenty minutes before the previews started with a lap full of Twizzlers, Sour Patch Kids, maybe some Spree or Bottle Caps, Nerds if he could find them, and polish off the lot halfway through the film. I don't recall any SnoCaps, with Jeff it was pretty much straight sugar.

Back then I was obsessed with trying every dish at the one tiny Vietnamese restaurant off campus, figuring out what that mysterious herb was in the salsa at the Dutch Cabin (answer: cilantro. I come from white folk), and perfecting my one-dish couscous suppers. Jeff was always in the mood for a burger... he had other fine qualities.

After school he moved to L.A., and when I had the good fortune to join him in Lalaland we picked up where we'd left off. Here his diet had expanded to include the occasional salad. No one can resist the Los Angeles "I'll Just Have a Salad" ethos; it's an unavoidable part of the culture even Jeff got sucked into. So far it hasn't killed him, and fortunately hasn't affected his well-defined abs. (How does he do that?)

About a year ago we were wandering through a candy store after a roller coaster at Six Flags. I was expounding on my working theory of Fast Food French Fry Superiority when a funny thing happened: Jeff started talking about Swedish Fish. Or rather, complaining. Apparently, most Swedish Fish are stale. They sit too long and get stiff and tough. I'd never thought about "candy freshness" before. I watched Jeff feel up every bag in the store; when he finally abandonded his search in disgust, it occured to me I may have underestimated my friend. I suggested perhaps Red Vines would suffice? and the look on his face reminded me of my own when people tell me they know a great "Philly Cheese-Steak" place. His eyes held the contempt I usually reserve for militant vegans and "compassionate conservatives."

A lengthy treatise followed: I was schooled on the horrors of Red Vines in all their West Coast-Twizzler-Imitator-Evils, how they're hard, not pliable and the flavor is weak and tastes of chemicals. It was like watching an inverse image of me in the mirror, his blue eyes ablaze, squawking about the finer points of candy texture. He was beautiful. He finally settled on some Skittles (regular, not the Tropical kind).

We had brunch yesterday. As Jeff ate his pancakes, he explained to me that the Nerds Cherry and Sour Apple flavor combination was terrible, the importance of buying the smaller packages of Laffy Taffy (the easier to switch between flavors), and we had a lovely seasonal chat about the best brand of candy corn. Apparently, one company makes it too grainy and soft, though Jeff is wary of tough candy corn as well. I made a mental note for next year to buy him a package of the uber-fancy, homemade candy corn sold at Boule, an elegant patisserie on La Cienega. I just hope it's good enough.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Matzoh Balls, Brisket and Babies! Oh My!

On Sunday night my fabulous Cooking Club convened for a comforting evening of Jewish cuisine, and I made my beloved matzoh ball soup. Beloved because
a) I render the schmaltz (chicken fat) myself; the purity of chickeny flavor that results is the best I've tasted. I think Canter's, Jerry's and all the other Jewish faux-deli's in L.A. use margarine in their sodden, salty lumps. Wretched. The other reason my matzoh balls are beloved is
b) they remind me of these German dumplings my Pop-Pop (grandfather) made for soup when I was small. Elaborate discussions always followed the meal on how heavy or light they were that day: was it his gentle blending that made them so buoyant? Was it the humidity that made them doughy rocks? (Surely it couldn't have been his cooking, oh no.) My matzoh balls achieve the same feathery lightness his best efforts produced; when I eat them I swear Pop-Pop is next to me, nodding in admiration despite himself.

The Cooking Club has been one of the best parts of my year. Every month or so a group of foodies as insanely into eating as I am gathers at our friends Susan and Wylie's place to put our best fork forward for a different cuisine. We started with a Spanish noche of paella, divine despite its blanket of peas, and have chopped, stirred, nibbled and baked our way through Persian, Italian (you know the pasta was homemade), Indian, Vietnamese (God's food), Carribbean, White Trash BBQ (I cannot deny my heritage), a Brunch when we were tired, and Jewish food. We've scoured Indian markets, Chinatown grocers, bodegas and Iranian mini-marts in search of authentic ingredients and the best cooking advice.
The passionate opinions in the flurry of e-mails as we decide which dishes will star in the next feast, the intensity in Susan's kitchen as we finish the last bit of prep (I'm forever behind schedule) and the hearty good cheer around the table have produced stellar results, both in my belly and out in the world. We were featured in The Christian Science Monitor and on the Bon Appetit blog (which included a photo of the torso and spring rolls of yours truly). All we need now is a series on Bravo. Hmm, I'll make some calls...

This past feast was especially sweet because two of the ladies announced they are pregnant. We toasted to the tiny members-to-be, then dug into meltingly tender brisket, a sweet and nearly healthy kugel, some Sephardic couscous-stuffed eggplant, and rounded out the meal with Nina's stupendous chocolate-cherry rugelach (thanks, Hashem) and Josh's first attempt at chocolate-dipped macaroons. You'd never guess he was a novice, that one. My matzoh balls compared favorably to several folks' grandmas, high praise, and I thought my belly might pop by the time I rolled home. I left with block of kugel and three more rugelach, score!
In December, we're throwing ourselves a party filled with holiday treats and sparkly drinks to celebrate our excellent year of eating and good cheer. We have plans to compile a cookbook and heck, who knows what's next. Maybe Inuit cuisine? I always wanted to try Polar Bear...