Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Final LA Favorites: Nancy's Living Large in LA

Erin's Kitchen has (almost) left LA! Before I go, I'm asking Angelenos to share their favorite food spots--east to west, high to low. Read previous LA Favorites, including recommendations from Jonathan Gold, Russ Parsons, Evan Kleiman and fellow foodbloggers here.

LA Favorites #12: Nancy of Living LArge

How long have you lived in LA?
insert bold tags
5 years. I'm one of those cynical Midwest transplants who bags on LA until I go home one winter into sub-zero temps and freezing hail and decide, hey, it's not so bad after all.

What neighborhood do you call home?
WeHo! Love the 'hood, hate the meter maids.

Quick--a favorite LA food memory. What's the first one that comes to mind?
My first trip to a farmers' market in California. The farmers' markets out here just don't compare to anywhere else in the country. Some friends and I went to the one in Hollywood (near Ivar and Sunset) and gathered up some peaches, strawberries, grapes, plums, gouda cheese, salami, fresh bread, fresh-squeezed lemonade and headed up to Zuma Beach for a hike and picnic.

It's lunch time, you've got $20 bucks in your pocket, and traffic is magically non-existant. Where do you go?
I head east on the 10 and stop at the first banh mi place that I see (probably Lee's or Mr. Baguette) and get a sandwich for lunch, one for dinner and one for lunch the next day. And I'll still have $10 left over.

Top three food or drink experiences I should have before I leave LA?
1. Getting ridiculously housed on wine at Bin 8945 one night and then curing your hangover with a big bowl of ramen at Daikokuya the next day. (That's two experiences, but they go hand-in-hand.)
2. Scoops (on Heliotrope and Melrose) for Tai Kim's extraordinary ice cream, gelato and sorbet. He's a genius with flavors - Raspberry Chimay and Kombucha Brandy have induced tears of happiness. True story.
3. At least one LA food event. Many of them feature great restaurants, and it's a chance to sample a lot of food from many different places as well as meet chefs. Events can be pricey, but the money often goes toward a charitable cause. Some of the biggies include Best of LA (Concern Foundation), Taste of the Nation (Share our Strength), Great Chefs of LA (Kidney Foundation), Savor the Season (Break the Cycle) and American Wine & Food Festival (Meals on Wheels). So eat up, it's a tax deduction!

Whole Wheat Triple Berry Bread

Triple Berry Bread
Perhaps I'm crazy for choosing to bake this quick bread in the middle of my packing adventure, but I had a lovely breakfast all week, and I was able to use up a bit more of my jamfest product. Plus, I needed a break from smashing wine glasses (dropping a bubble-wrapped glass on the floor to see if you've cushioned it enough is NOT a good idea).

raspberries and blueberriesThe whole wheat flour and relatively low sugar content let the berries steal the show, and the jam helps moisten the bread. I used three mini-loaf pans, but one regular pan works fine too. This is my entry for Bread Baking Day #2 hosted by Columbus Foodie.

Whole Wheat Triple Berry Bread
(adapted from Baking Bites' Raspberry Lime Bread)

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp vegetable oil
3/4 cup half and half
3/4 c. blueberries
3/4 c. raspberries
1/2-3/4 c. strawberry jam

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly butter three mini-loaf pans.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

In a large bowl, stir sugar, egg, vanilla and vegetable oil until smooth. Stir in 1/2 of flour mixture and all of the half and half. Stir in the rest of the flour mixture until just combined.

Gently stir in the blueberries and raspberries. Fill all three pans 1/3 full. Spread the strawberry jam on the batter in the pans. In each pan, cover the jam with more batter.

Bake for approximately 45 minutes at 350F, or until a tester comes out clean when inserted into the center of the loaves.

Turn loaves out onto a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

C Stands for Corn Mold:
Testing my Limits at La Morenita Oaxaquena

Enmoladas at La Morenita OaxaquenaEnmoladas (Tortillas drowned in black mole and queso)

Here in LA, the Health Department gives restaurants letter grades that must be displayed on the premises: A, B or C. Though the Department describes a C as "generally acceptable" in food handling and many a Chowhound consider it a badge of honor to eat at C-level restaurants, the bright red letter (A's are blue, B's are green) makes me nervous. Until yesterday, I'd never knowingly eaten at a C--and you know what? I survived.

A few weeks ago, the LA Times gushed over La Morenita Oaxaquena, a cozy Oaxacan spot near Koreatown. Close to my old office, it was a convenient spot to meet with my friend and ex-coworker Axel, a Mexican food expert who has explained to me the real way to make cochinita pibil and generously cooked me his grandmother's delicious chocolately black mole.

Huitlacoche Empanada at La Morenita OaxaquenaHuitlacoche Empanada

As I walked up to this strip mall restaurant, I immediately noticed the bright C in the window, but the call of mole overcame my worries, plus the LA Times writer hadn't mentioned it, right? I like to eat out with Axel because he encourages me to try new things--yesterday it was huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on ears of corn. The Aztec name translates to "raven's excrement" and in Mexico the smoky black mold is prized. We ordered the huitlacoche empanada (looked like a quesadilla to me). The mold mingled with chewy queso, and Axel pronounced it good but canned (canned mold?!?) because of the saltiness.

Axel's Barbacoa at La Morenita OaxaquenaBarbacoa Stew

Axel's barbacoa (goat) soup was rich and red, full of fork tender chunks of goat. My emoladas (tortillas drowned in black mole and queso) had bite and I nearly cleared my plate. The Times article highlights the red and green mole here, but I'm a sucker for black. They also serve tlayudas, crispy tortillas topped with all sorts of goodies--a Oaxacan pizza if you will.

Prices are reasonable but not ridiculously cheap--most main courses were in the $8-9 range. If I was still working in the area, I'd work La Morenita into my lunch rotation---and cross my fingers that they get that B soon!

La Morenita Oaxaquena
550 W. 3rd St.
Los Angeles, CA
10 AM-1o PM, and they take credit cards

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Adult Kool-Aid: Pomegranate & Mint White Iced Tea

Making sun tea
Packing + 80 degrees + no air conditioning = grumpy, sweaty, tired Erin. Fortunately, this barely sweet, grown-up "Kool-Aid" keeps me motivated.

Pomegranate & Mint White Iced Tea
For tea:
4-5 Pomegranate White Tea bags (Trader Joe's has some)
1 quart water in glass jar/container

Place tea bags in water and close jar or cover container. Place container/jar in sunny spot for at least 1 hour, up to 2. Remove tea bags and store jar in the fridge.
For one glass Kool-Aid:
1 tsp. (or less) simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar heated until sugar dissolves)
4-5 mint leaves, torn in half
ice cubes
Pomegranate iced tea
slice of lemon

In the bottom of a glass, muddle simple syrup and mint leaves together. Add ice cubes and fill glass with iced tea. Stir well. Add lemon slices. Repeat all afternoon.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tasting vs. Viewing a Top Chef at Perilla

Intellectual snob alert: I don't own a television. Hypocritical-intellectual snob alert: I love me some TV, and watch with reckless abandon when in a hotel, at a friend's or on JetBlue. It was on a cross-country flight from Long Beach to JFK that I caught nearly the whole first season of Top Chef, and became smitten with the quiet, industrious, eventual winner, Harold Dieterle.

Though I can count the number of TV celebrity chef restaurants I've visited on one finger (Babbo, and that was inspired by a New Yorker article, not Molto Mario), when wandering the West Village late last Friday, I happened by Perilla, the restaurant that sprang from Harold's Top Chef earnings. Recalling my flight-long crush on this dark-haired cutie, I decided to give his food a try.

These pictures are so dark and fuzzy, not sure it helps to post them, but on the left, duck meatballs, on the right, farro risotto.

At 10:30 PM, a seat at the bar was easy to find, though the restaurant was definitely still buzzing. The gracious hostess and bartenders made me feel at home, and I was soon savoring a humidity-cutting, heat-reducing Hitachino White Nest Ale as I perused the short menu. I settled on spicy duck meatballs with yam gnocchi and farro risotto to ease my late night hunger pains. I tried to pace myself with the fatty, smoky meatballs, enriched by an over-easy quail egg, but they disappeared quickly (the yam gnocchi faded under the glare of the decadent duck--I forgot they existed). The large portion of nutty, creamy farro, a side dish on the menu, lasted longer, but only because I was full. It was well accented with thinly-sliced sweet-tart purple grapes that helped cut the richness. Both dishes were $10 and more than satisfied for a late snack and could have comprised dinner. Main courses range from $20 for a sauteed skate wing to $29 for a grilled rack and breast of Colorado lamb.

Toward the end of my meal I headed to the ladies' room and was surprised to see Harold himself, noshing and canoodling with a lady friend in one of the restaurants booths. It was late, but on a Friday, in the first few months of a restaurant opening, shouldn't he still be barking orders in the back? Or, perhaps, as a TV star, diners want to see him, not taste food he's cooked? Regardless, the dishes I sampled were solid and his cozy restaurant's a pleasant spot for a single at the bar.

9 Jones Street (between West 4th and Bleecker Sts.)
New York, NY 10014

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Moving Cuisine: Pantry & Freezer Concoctions

Wanting a bit of a break before beginning grad school, I left my job on June 30. Instead of spending my days off baking bread, exploring Mangoes and Curry Leaves or constructing three-course feasts for lunch, I'm packing our apartment and attempting to clear out our pantry and freezer.

Some of my concoctions thus far are detailed below. If you have ideas that can help me finish off canned tomatos, tomato paste, canned artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, cannelini beans, tuna in olive oil, smoked sardines, spaghetti, red curry paste, couscous, basmati rice, rice noodles, pearl barley, arborio rice, chicken stock, vegetable stock, frozen corn, frozen peas, frozen cranberries, frozen hamburger buns, frozen tortillas, and a frozen bag of ham hocks (?!?) please share in the comments.

Upper left: Pearl barley with parsley pesto and spinach; citrusy green bean salad (from Super Natural Cooking).

Upper right: Trader Joe's "spanish" rice; garbanzos marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar with red pepper flakes and garlic; tinned smoked trout; goat cheese.

Bottom right: Tortillas spread with goat cheese; pinto beans cooked with onions, garlic and stout; sauteed summer squash.

Bottom left: Bell peppers stuffed with couscous, Merguez, mystery sausage (not labelled in the freezer), harissa, spinach and feta.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Apartment-Hunting Antidote-Little Branch, West Village

Bar at Little BranchAfter two days of hoofing up and down Manhattan's west side on a quest for an apartment, having submitted an application for a perfect spot and nothing left to do but cross my fingers**, I needed a drink. Though nothing was clear about where I'd soon live, I knew exactly where to drink, thanks to a recommendation from Damian at LA's Seven Grand. He told me to check out Little Branch, so I did.

This subterranean bar, a sister to the reservation-only Milk and Honey, takes cocktails very seriously. The mixers and garnishes are as top shelf and artisanal as the liquor, and the talented bartenders know more drinks and tricks than your Mr. Boston ever dreamed of. The light are low, music's jazzy, and the booths require a bit of a wait on a Friday night. I snagged a corner step in the no-stool bar area, but many folks just leaned against the pressed tin bar.

There's a seasonal cocktail menu (all clocking in at $12) or you can ask for the bartender's choice. I explained my love of bourbon, and the bartender suggested a left-hand (or left-handed, my memory's fuzzy). Being a southpaw myself, I was intrigued as he described the "love child between a Negroni and a Manhattan." Basically--sweet vermouth, Campari, bourbon and bitters. He stirred it over ice, then strained it into a champagne coupe. Like a Negroni, it was the reverse of a mullet--party in the front (sweet), and business in the back (mild bitter aftertaste), with a stronger punch due to the bourbon. After a few sips, my apartment worries, while not erased, certainly seemed less important.

Little Branch (cash only)
20 Seventh Ave. South
New York, NY 10011
at Leroy St.
7 PM-3 AM

**Obviously, this time-honored technique works, as we signed the lease yesterday for a lovely one-bedroom near 96th and Broadway. No broker's fee!! Boo-yah.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Look at Lark Cake Shop, Silver Lake

Fortunately I'm moving, otherwise Lark Cake Shop's $1.50 cupcakes would become a regular reward for the pain my eyebrows suffer at Stark Waxing Studio next door. Actually, the tasty cupcakes at this new bakery in Silver Lake are small enough that they're not ridiculously indulgent--in my book, a good attribute.

When I visited, late in the afternoon on the 2nd day of business, the cases featured coconut, lemon and red velvet cupcakes, as well as carrot, chocolate and other full-size cakes in various flavors. The whimsical cake decorations have a Martha Stewart meets Dr. Seuss vibe, perfect for the rocker moms of Silver Lake. Scones, Mexican wedding cookies, buttery nut caramels, and pecan bars rounded out the edible wares (the store also sells a handful of cake plates/stands, birthday candles, etc).

Though the cupcake craze is tired, old news, Lark's confections could spark new life into the trend. I ordered coconut, and was warned that it would taste best at room temperature. Not a patient gal, I sat down on one of two benches in the front of the store and gobbled it up. I understand the saleswoman's admonition--the dense cake would certainly be less chewy if you'd let it sit for 10-15 minutes. However, the flavors and texture were spot on. It managed to taste light and dreamy, and the fluffy frosting neither coated my teeth with buttercream slime (a common cupcake crime) nor did it cause my teeth to ache with its sweetness.

Another fun Lark attribute is its glass walled kitchen, so you can see the bakers in action. While they had a fair number of full cakes in the display case, quite a few had a slice or two cut out, so if you need a cake for a celebration, I recommend calling ahead.

Lark Cake Shop
3337 West Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA

Semi-Homemade Tortilla Chips

No, this isn't an ode to a Sandra Lee monstrosity. It's a report on the one item I actually "cooked" while in Yelapa.

Every tienda (store) in Yelapa stocked thick and fragrant fresh corn tortillas, but not prepackaged tortilla chips. I like something crisp for scooping guacamole, so I decided to try my hand at what I assume every restaurant in town did--fry the fresh tortillas. The result was a heap of triangular chips, with a slight satisfying chewiness, that disappeared in a frenzied afternoon nosh session (because doing nothing, it makes ya so hungry).

To make the chips, cut as many tortillas as you want into small triangles. Heat vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat--you'll want enough that it's about 1/4 deep or so. Add the triangles (it's okay if they overlap and fill the pan). Stir gently and frequently, making sure to flip the chips. You'll easily see when their ready--they'll curl at the corners and start to turn light brown. Remove chips to a plate and salt. We didn't have any available, but I'd recommend lining the plate with a paper towel to soak up the excess oil.

LA Times Food Blog and Magazine Giveaway

Eater LA reports that the LA Times has launched a food blog, The Daily Dish. Other than the fab Eater, it's a total shut out for LA foodbloggers on the tiny blogroll. Ouch. Another case of the Times trying to demonstrate that really, honestly, truly we're a NATIONAL paper, not a local one?

In other news, my pending move means I'm getting rid of stacks of food magazines--Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Everyday with Rachael Ray and a few Martha Stewarts. If you'd like to get your hands on some of these, shoot me an email (erinskitchen [at] gmail [dot] com) with your address, and I'll happily send some your way.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Cassell's Hamburgers -- Koreatown, Los Angeles

Shopping in Beverly Hills, or waiting to get into the latest club on the Cahuenga Corridor, you'd never know of Angelenos penchant for burgers and fries. However, drive any of our major surface streets and examine the strip malls, or ask a roomful of life-long SoCal residents to name their favorite burgers and you'll realize ground beef patties are central to this city's gustatory consciousness.

Cassell's, an anachronistic lunch spot in the heart of Koreatown, regularly lands on lists of "LA's Best Burgers", yet maintains a low profile. Perhaps its limited hours (lunch only) and location relegate it to remain in the shadow of its more talked about fellow travelers--Apple Pan and Pie 'N Burger. Or perhaps its that the burger just ain't that great.

I really wanted to love Cassell's--instead I settled for mild appreciation. You order at the counter, choosing a whopping 1/3 lb. or 2/3 lb. burger, with or without cheese. The rest of the toppings you get to add yourself once the burger is grilled and on its toasted bun--options include lettuce, tomato, thousand island, ketchup, mustard and homemade mayonnaise.

These burgers are fairly flat, making anything other than medium to medium well difficult to come by. They are made from freshly ground meat and hand-shaped, which should lead to a bomb-ass burger, yet mine was just a bomb. What it lacked in flavor and juiciness, it made up for in size, but a 1/3 lb. burger makes for an unproductive afternoon of work.

The french fries, however, were another story. Golden and fiercely potato-y, crispy outside, soft inside, and magically salty all the way through, these were a revelation. Usually I'm strongly anti-thick fries--most are mealy and lacking flavor. Not these. I'd go back for a basket right now, if Cassell's stayed open just a bit later!

3266 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles CA
(213) 387-5502
open 10:30 AM to 4 PM, Monday-Saturday

Monday, July 09, 2007

Yummy Yelapa:
Fish Tacos, Ceviche, Pozole and More on Mexico's Banderas Bay

(Roll over the photos with your mouse and click to see them full size. Click on the words "photo link" on any picture above for a detailed description. It will open in a new window.)

J and I thoroughly enjoyed our car-less, computer-less, media-less vacation in Yelapa, a small fishing village in Banderas Bay, about 45 minutes by water taxi from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We stayed at Casa Pepe, one of a handful of rustic palapas that make up Casas de Isabel, a short walk from the main village.

Other than the beach, sun, wildlife, and our palapa's hammock, the food, particularly the fish, was a highlight of the vacation. Since we visited in the off-season, the village was even more sleepy than usual, and most restaurants (many of which were just patios outside someone's home kitchen) were open one or two nights a week. Other than the tourist-oriented Hotel Lagunita, every place was cash-only.

My favorite meal was the fresh ceviche whipped up by our day trip guide to the Marieta Islands. While we relaxed on a private beach, our guide Severino took the boat out to catch a few fish. We ate standing on the beach, spooning the cuke, tomato and lime-rich mixture onto crispy tostadas.