Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Last Night's Dinner -- Steak Diane

I used to believe that a good steak, like a perfect Spring day or Jessica Alba, was something that couldn't be improved upon. What I mean is, a steak was something to be eaten sans sauce. I was wrong. After all, not all steaks are created equal in the flavor department. Some steaks, like your rib eye or your New York strip, are bursting with beefiness, while the more tender cuts of meat, like filet or tenderloin, are a little on the flavorless side. If you're serving up some nice tenderloin, it's perfectly acceptable, maybe even necessary, to sauce it up a bit.

This is why the French invented steak au poivre. Nothing like taking a nice cut of beef, coating it in crushed peppercorns, and pouring melted butter and cognac all over it. Nothing like it except steak Diane, that is. Steak Diane is basically steak au poivre with a little Dijon mustard and some cream whisked in at the end. For those of you who are a little uneasy about making something on a weeknight that requires tossing a flammable liquid like cognac into a scorching hot pan, let me tell you, it ain't that hard. Yes it requires veal stock (and demi-glace), but you can pick that up at Whole Foods. And yes, it means having a little cognac kicking around, but is that such a bad thing? A little Courvoisier might be just what the doctor ordered on a cold winter night. It took me about half an hour to make this, start to finish (I crushed the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle while watching The Simpsons. That's called multitasking).

The recipe I made is from, who else, Anthony Bourdain.

(I halved the amounts listed below to make it for two people instead of four.)

4 8-oz steaks
2 oz olive oil
2 oz freshly cracked peppercorns (crushed, not ground into powder!)
4 oz butter (I actually used less than half of that)
1 oz good cognac
4 oz strong, dark veal stock (and a spoonful of demi-glace, if that's how you roll)
salt and pepper
1 oz Dijon mustard
1 oz heavy cream

Cook the steaks

Preheat the oven to 425. Moisten the steaks very slightly with oil, then dredged them in the peppercorns to thoroughly coat. Don't be shy with pepper. Heat the remaining oil in a skillet over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add 2 oz of butter. Place the steaks in the pan and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook to desired doneness, about 5-7 minutes for rare, 10 minutes for medium (If you're eating steak well-done, why are you reading this?...No, seriously, why are you still here?). Remove the pan from the oven and remove the steaks from the pan to rest.

The Sauce

Return the skillet to the stove top and carefully stir in the cognac. (Yes, you can start a fire with this stuff, so Monsieur Bourdain recommends adding in to the pan off the stove, then returning the pan to the fire.) Stir and scrap with a wooden spoon to get every scrap, every peppercorn every rumor of flavor clinging to the bottom of the pan. Cook down, reduce by half. Stir in the veal stock (and demi-glace) and reduce over medium heat until thick enough to coat the back of the spoon (If you've cut the recipe in half, as I did, it shouldn't take long). Whisk in the remaining butter and season with salt and pepper. Whisk in the mustard and the heavy cream. Serve immediately with French fries or sauteed potatoes.

What results is a rich, thick sauce that clings to the meat and complements the fire of all those peppercorns. In fact, the sauce was so good, we poured it over the leftover potatoes, creating a diner-style potatoes and gravy effect. Damn good eating on a weeknight. I know, I should've cleaned the rim of the plate before serving. Gordon Ramsay would have me shot for this.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Few Quick Things to Get Your Weekend Started

  • Here is an interesting, if slight, article in Slate about food distribution giant Sysco. Growing up, I remember seeing huge cans of Sysco tomato sauce sitting open on the prep counter in my high school cafeteria. Being an ignoramus, I thought Sysco only made tomato sauce -- and bad tomato sauce at that. That's why it was so shocking to learn that not only do they supply military bases, hospitals, and public schools with prison-grade cuisine, they also supply many fine restaurants. Thomas Keller himself uses frozen Sysco french fries in his restaurants. I'm sure they're totally fine but...ew.
  • I haven't eaten at a Taco Bell or KFC in about five years, and this is why (Listen carefully to the color commentary; it's the best part of the clip).
  • This is old, and probably everybody's already read it, but I'm posting it here anyway, because I think it's pertinent to the discussion we had last week about convenience. According to Salon, you should just burn those four boxes of Annie's mac-and-cheese you have stocked in your pantry. After all, isn't just as easy to make mac-and-cheese from scratch? (I'm kidding. It is not easier, despite what the author says. Also, as a kid growing up, my parents frequently made mac-and-cheese from scratch, so hats off to them.)
  • I was going to do a long and pointless post about the music they play at my local Albertson's, but since your time is valuable, I will simply say it here. What is going on with the music they play at Albertson's (and at most supermarkets)? It's like the music that was too bland to be played on the "lite hits" station. There must be quite a few artists getting by solely on royalties from supermarket chains. Mike and the Mechanics? Air Supply? Bonnie Tyler ("Total Eclipse of the Heart")? Yeah, they're all in heavy rotation at Albertson's. As are the lesser-played selections from the catalogs of Billy Joel, Janet Jackson (pre-nipple flash), Anita Baker, and Mike MacDonald. One time I heard "Hungry Heart" by Bruce Springsteen, and I nearly pissed myself with joy. Then they interrupted it to tell me there was a special on Coca Cola -- buy five three liters, get five free. Or something like that.
  • The Academy Awards are this weekend. It's going to be a wine and cheese affair at my place. None of the movies I really liked got nominated this year, so I'm devoting all my energy to rooting against every film Paul Haggis had anything to do with. I don't have a clue who's winning what except that Helen Mirren is a mortal lock. So, Wilbon, who ya got?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Whole Foods Continues March Towards Global Domination

According to the Los Angeles Times, Whole Foods has purchased its main rival, Wild Oats, for the low low price of $565 million. According to the article, Wild Oats stores in areas competing with current Whole Foods stores will be closed, and eventually, all Wild Oats stores will be renamed Whole Foods. Whole Foods made the move to counteract growing competition from "normal" supermarkets, most of whom are investing heavily in the natural and organic food markets.

I've never had the pleasure of shopping at Wild Oats, as there isn't one near my neighborhood; my only exposure to it is through "Top Chef." I do shop at Whole Foods, relying on them for high quality/semi-obscure meats and produce (I don't buy organic milk or whole wheat pasta. I know, I'm a cretin). Maybe someone who has been to both stores can tell me how they differ? Aside from the general idea that it's always nice to have a choice, should I be worried about Whole Foods' acquisition? Will it lead to some sort of organic foods price fixing (as if the stuff at Whole Foods could possibly get any more expensive)? In an urban center like Los Angeles, is there any competition left for Whole Foods?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Two Dinners

For Valentine's Day, Edan and I stayed in and made moules normande. I have to say, if you like shellfish (and if your religion allows you to eat it), mussels are the absolute easiest, most satisfying dish to make. You can prepare them as simply or as dressed up as you like. We've been making the same basic mussels recipe for a few years now -- the Barefoot Contessa's mussels in white wine -- mussels cooked in a broth of white wine, plum tomatoes, shallots, and saffron (we make a slight alteration and add some spicy chicken sausage; it adds a little spiciness to the buttery flavor of the wine). It's delicious. Edan usually drinks the broth with the empty mussel you know her secret shame.

This time, we steered off the path, making Anthony Bourdain's mussel dish, which had cream, apples, and Calvados, along with the obligatory bacon and shallots (Everything tastes better with bacon...and shallots don't hurt, either). I thought the flavor of this dish was terrific. The sweetness of the apples blended perfectly into the creamy broth, and the crispy bacon on top gave the dish a textural element that our standby mussels lack. But Edan wasn't convinced. She called it a good "cold weather dish," which is Edan-speak for "a little heavy." She was probably right, in that it was more of a chowder than I was expecting. I suspect we'll make the dish again, but probably not before we make our standby.Sorry you can't see the mussels very well (They're the little black things). If you peek behind the Pinot, you'll spy Omar Little. "Oh fo sho."

Through Edan's job at the cheese store, she procured some really good, blood-red Portuguese-style chorizo (which I totally wish I'd photographed...), so we decided to try paella. We had a whole chicken, cut up, in the fridge, so when we found this recipe for seafood paella (which, for some reason, has chicken in it), it seemed like God was speaking through the interwebs. We picked up the requisite seafood -- shrimp, clams, and, of course, mussels -- at the local fancy supermarket, and we were ready to go.

Paella, the traditional Spanish rice dish, is usually made in a big pan over an open fire. We live in an apartment, so the fire thing was out. The recipe we found called for baking the paella in a very hot oven for 45 minutes, I think mainly to cook the chicken through. After browning the chicken in bacon grease, sauteeing the chorizo with onions and garlic, and stirring in two heaping cups of rice, I started to wonder if we were making too much food. Edan assured me we weren't, and I figured the paella would make good leftovers (if one removed the shellfish; I love mussels, but not on the second day). As you can see, by the time I arranged the chicken, chorizo, shrimp, mussels, and clams, then sprinkled bacon and peas all over the dish, there was hardly any rice visible at all.

After a while in the oven (I didn't use the chicken breasts so I lopped about ten minutes off the baking time), it was ready. I pulled the foil off, and an incredible aroma wafted up. Salty and earthy, with a smoky taste I can't explain, the paella tasted perfect to me. The chicken was overkill, for sure, but it did make great leftovers. The only problem with the dish was that the chorizo, which was cooked and cured (I think) when we got it, got pretty dried out. Maybe this wouldn't be the case if we'd made paella in a pan instead of baking it. I dunno.

Now that I've made this type of paella, I'm curious if anyone with more experience can point me in the direction of a more authentic paella recipe. I don't think I'll have access to an open fire anytime soon, but maybe a stove-top recipe? Anyway, if anybody out there has one, let me know. Paella is officially in the repertoire.Thanks to all you Apronites who've sent in links. If I haven't gotten to them, it's not because I didn't find them interesting, it's because I'm a lazy, pathetic person who can't be bothered. Oh, and I have a small puppy that I have to chase around my apartment.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Duck a la Papelbon

Finally! A post about baseball. Sorta. Red Sox reliever -- er, starting pitcher -- Jonathan Papelbon recently went duck hunting with New York Giants Quarterback Eli Manning. Afterwards, he told reporters that his recipe for duck beats the hell out of Ted Williams' recipe (which I can't find; a shiny nickel to the Apronite who can dig it up):
("I tried it and it was terrible, dude" he said.) "What I do," Papelbon said, "you marinate it in Coke and Italian dressing, right. What the Coke does, the carbonation takes out all the game flavor. So you marinate it in Coke and Italian dressing in a Ziploc bag. Then what you do, you slice up a breast, quarter it in fours, and then you wrap those four little nuggets in bacon, jalapeno, and sour cream, so you wrap it all in a piece of bacon, throw it on a grill. It's amazing."
Mmm, duck marinated in coke. Now I know what I'm having Friday night. (via With Leather)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Three posts in one day! Because I took Monday and Tuesday off!
  • Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey are going to meet face-to-face in San Francisco in a debate entitled "The Past, Present, and Future of Food." It's February 27, and if you don't live in the Bay Area, and aren't likely to make the trip (or if you're legally banned from the area by a restraining order), you can watch it on a live webcast. (via The Grinder)
  • Remember Stephen from "Top Chef: Season One"? Sure you do. He was the guy that everybody hated (although no one tried to shave his head)? The sommelier? Ringing any bells? Anyway, he's opening a new wine bar in downtown L.A. called Tastevin. But this isn't your daddy's wine bar. Tastevin will be aimed at hip 20-somethings who are rapidly developing a taste for wine (and maybe pretension, too). I think it's great. I'm super excited to go be lectured by Stephen about why I'm not sufficiently enjoying the Malbec he poured me. Finally there's a place for hip, wine-loving 20-somethings like -- Wait a minute, I'm thirty. Can I still go to this bar? (via Eater L.A.)
  • If you're wondering what we're doing for Valentine's Day, I'll tell you. We're making moules normande from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. It's basically mussels with white mushrooms, apples, slab bacon (everything tastes good with bacon), and Calvados. Mussels are sort of "our thing." We've eaten them before for romantic dinners, and we both love them. Eating out on Valentine's Day is overrated. Usually the specials are ridiculous "romantic" food, and all of the desserts are laden with chocolate. Plus, the wait staff treats you like you're in Venice or something. And the restaurant around the corner from us has a prix fixe menu. The price? $95 per person. Basically, people who eat out on Valentine's Day are suckers. Unless you're eating out, in which case, have a great time!

Two Dinners

Saturday night, I needed to improvise a good meal. I felt like eating chicken (mainly by default...after all, chicken is what people eat when they don't know what they'd like to eat), so I picked up some chicken thighs from the grocery store, and figured I'd find a way to make them. I stumbled across a post at the Amateur Gourmet about chicken breast braised in hard cider. I didn't want to braise anything, as I got a late start on the cooking for the evening, but I liked the description of chicken browned in bacon fat, then slow roasted in some sort of alcohol. I had bacon, and I had wine (I don't keep hard cider in the house. What, do you?). I chopped up a shallot and a few pieces of bacon, threw a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pan, and I was in business.

For a side dish, I'd gotten pears, endive, and walnuts. I knew I had some Roquefort in the fridge, so I figured I'd make a classic salad. There was also anise (which I thought was fennel...Have you seen them? They look exactly the same), which I grilled with olive oil, and a head of radicchio, which I sliced into disks, grilled, and topped with a lemon juice vinaigrette (in so far as this is a recipe, it's from Italian Easy, a cookbook about which I frequently rave).

Slightly out of focus endive, pear, walnut, and Roquefort salad. Don't stare too long at, you'll get a headache.

The salad was quite good. Of course, you could put Roquefort on a Ritz cracker, and I'd ooh and ah over it. The chicken browned up nicely, and the bacon added some punch to the dish. The radicchio was the surprise hit of the meal. The lemon juice neutralized some of the intense bitterness of the cabbage and gave it a complex flavor that opened up in the mouth. Not a bad meal for one that started with chicken thighs and little else.

Chicken thighs cooked in bacon fat and white wine, anise (not fennel!),
and grilled radicchio.

Monday night wasn't quite so scatter shot. I knew I wanted pasta, and I felt like trying something new. This meant diving into our new Mario Batali cookbook again. What jumped out was linguine with monkfish, zucchini, and thyme. Since I would be near a Whole Foods, and consequently able to lay on some decent monkfish, this seemed like the right fit.

The only challenge of the recipe, which wasn't really a challenge at all, just a bit of a time issue, was that it required some basic tomato sauce, which I hadn't yet made. Luckily, for the first time in months, I'd started cooking at an appropriate time. I whipped up the sauce with no difficulty, and now I've got a batch of it in the freezer for next time.

Other than making a batch of sauce ahead of time (not hard) this recipe is easier than sleeping in on Sunday. Basically, you chop up the monkfish and the zucchini, chop the thyme (looking back on it, this may have been the most difficult part of the recipe. I hate chopping thyme. Those little annoying leaves. Rosemary. Now that's a spice made for chopping...), and boil some water.

Monkfish was made to go into pasta. Perfect texture (kinda chewy, but not in a gross way), perfect color, perfect flavor (buttery and salty, like it'd just swum out of the sea). This dish garnered high praise from Edan -- she ate the leftovers for lunch the next day (leftover pasta has a way of lingering in our fridge until it has worn out its welcome).

(Sorry. No pictures of the monkfish. You'll just have to imagine its incredible chewy perfection. Here, I'll help. Picture a really good pasta dish you've recently eaten. Now add monkfish. Yeah, I know. It's good.)

Food, for Convenience Sake

See what happens? I step away for a few days, and Anthony Bourdain goes nuts. First, my blog mentor Max posted on the Millions about Bourdain's Food Network rant at Michael Ruhlman's blog. Now David Lebovitz has chimed in with his two "centimes." (I haven't written about David Lebovitz before, but I will now. He's a pastry chef and chocolate aficionado who lives in Paris. His blog is always entertaining, especially if you've ever been to Paris. Check it out.) Lebovitz comments on the message board at Simply Recipes, wondering why people find value in shows about convenience cooking (Rachel Ray, Sandra Lee, etc.).
I'm curious when people say they appreciate these time-saving cooking shows. But really, how long does it take to make good food? A roast chicken can be tossed with a broken up head of garlic and some herbs in less than 30 seconds. And how many seconds does one save by opening a bottle of pre-made salad dressing as opposed to mixing together a few spoonfuls of olive oil & vinegar? Is it really that much easier to rip open a box of cake mix than to drop a stick of butter in the mixer, add some eggs, then stir in some flour?

And doesn't homemade foods taste better, and is far healthier for you (and much less-expensive), than all those convenience foods? Other than as a gimmick, I don't see how how saving a few minutes is really worth sacrificing your family's health and well-being for by using all these processed foods. While I don't begrudge any tv chefs cooking with real ingredients, it's quite a disservice to spray things with aerosol cheese and call it dinner.
This is always my thing with the Food Network, and with American food culture in general. I know I'm in a unique situation, working from home and whatnot, but I actually enjoy cooking. The process of taking raw ingredients and turning them into something delicious and nutritious is one of the best parts of my day. I'd hate to have to rush through it. Everybody has nights when they've got to throw something together; not every night is seven hour leg of lamb night. I know this. But what Lebovitz is saying, I think, and what I fervently agree with, is that a meal that takes minutes to prepare will likely also be eaten in minutes, and this ain't a good thing.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Freeze Relief

As you may recall, it actually dropped below freezing here in California a few weeks ago. That was bad news for local farmers, many of whom lost their entire crops. In response, some of L.A.'s finest restaurants have gotten together for Freeze Relief, a benefit for small local farmers affected by the freeze. Chefs are designing special menus incorporating as much local produce as they can and donating 100% of the profits to the farmers. Local farmers will even be present at a few of the restaurants.

Here's a list of the restaurants participating:
If you can't get excited about a few of those places (Angeli! Lucques! AO Freekin' C!) then you don't like eating. If you've got the money (most of the events are in the $40-60 per person range), I hope you'll consider heading to one of the meals. Most of the events are this Sunday, February 11, but a few are later in the week.


I won my poker game this week, which meant we could eat at a fancy restaurant on Friday night. We chose Vermont for a number of reasons, the primary one being that it's a two minute walk from our apartment. I pass it whenever I go to the bank, and everybody in there always looks happy, so I figured it must be pretty good. Since it's so close, we were bound to try it eventually. We made reservations for 7:30, and prepared to eat some "contemporary American cuisine."

A big frosted tree sits smack in the center of a dining room loaded with exposed brick and soft white lighting. The room fills with just enough ambient noise to remind you you're out, but not enough to force you into someone else's discussion. It's surprisingly elegant for a place located next to a crowded bus stop. We had a table in the back of the restaurant, near the kitchen.

Our server was definitely more concerned about whether he got the callback for "NCIS" than he was about our meal. I can't blame him, though, as poor service seemed to be the norm at Vermont. They gave us bread before our meal (my olive bread was burnt to a charred crisp), which was fine, except that we later realized that everyone else got some sort of pesto dipping sauce. Also, we weren't given water, and no one asked if we wanted any. Even in France they ask if you want water ("Gaz ou non?"). Not, apparently, at Vermont.

The menus at Vermont could use a little work. I don't mean the selection of food, I mean the actual physical menus. Twelve point Times New Roman on multi-purpose computer paper? Slipped into one of those restaurant supply store plastic sleeves (you know, the ones with the brass corner reinforcers)? Really? Come on, Vermont. I'm going to spend 50-70 bucks a person and this is what you give me to read? Even at Elf Cafe, a tiny, newly-opened hole in the wall, the menus are multi-color ink on craft paper card stock with an artfully torn edge. At least hire a graphic designer. When your only design concept is to put the prices in bold, you need help. I've seen better menus at a Knights of Columbus pancake breakfast.

What the menu did have, which I thought was a nice touch, were little descriptions of what each wine tasted like. Now, they weren't the most well-written descriptions, mind you, but at least there was effort. For a relatively ignorant wine guy like myself, I found it helpful to know what I was getting (Of course, at other restaurants the servers might be able to tell you what each wine is like, so maybe Vermont is just covering for its wait staff?).

We ordered wine by the glass, thinking we'd each try something different. I got a 2004 Cote du Rhone, and Edan asked the waiter to choose a Syrah for her, which he did. Of course, when he brought it, he didn't tell her what it was. That's not a huge deal, but it would've been nice to know (I looked on the bill when it came: a McManis, of some sort). I guess he thought that since she couldn't choose, she wouldn't care to know what she was getting.

We got tuna tartar to start (We wanted to get the seared foie gras, but they were out of it. Sigh). It was cleanly presented -- chopped and formed into a little disk, and crowned with a dollop of wasabi mayonnaise. It was tuna tartar. It was fine. The best part of the dish was the wasabi mayo. Usually whenever wasabi is cut into something else, like mayonnaise, it loses its edge. Not this time. It had that great, nasal-clearing hotness that wasabi should have.

For a main course, Edan got the braised lamb shank served on a bed of beets and pearl pasta, and I got the fennel-encrusted breast of duck (because you know how I feel about fennel). I thought the duck was decent, although not as good as the duck I've had a few miles down Hollywood Blvd, at Sanamaluang. Served nice and rare, just like I asked, it came with a really delicious puree of potatoes and celery root. The puree had a sneaky extra flavor lurking under the potato, very subtle. Edan said it was the best part of either dish. She didn't like the lamb. I thought it was tasty, but nowhere near tender enough. All in all, I agree with her that I've had better lamb in about a dozen places. After looking over the dessert menu and finishing our glasses of wine, we decided to skip dessert. Nothing looked all that great to us, and when you haven't been pleased with your meal, do you really want to linger over dessert?

We left feeling underwhelmed. When you spend $117 dollars on a meal (that's tax and tip included), you want something special. Even if it's only one thing, you want to be able to say, "OK, that was really good. There's no way I could've pulled that off at home." There wasn't a single thing like that in our meal. Nothing rose about the level of "not bad." Sorry, Vermont, that's not good.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Last Night's Dinner -- Pork Chops with Peppers and Capers

A trip to the Hollywood Farmers' Market on Sunday morning yielded some really great finds. We decided to get whatever looked good and figure out a way to use it. There were lots of winter vegetables available, and we eventually settled on some leeks, bulb onions, broccoli, and fennel (I love fennel. There, I said it). Additionally, we found something called crosnes (pronounced crones), little white tubers that bear a resemblance to grubs. The guy who sold them to us said they are a favorite of Marilyn Manson, who enjoys their wormlike appearance. We tried a few raw at the market and found them pleasantly earthy and chewy, kind of somewhere between a potato and a radish, in terms of texture. Mmm, grubs.

On our say out, we stopped by the meat stand and got some bratwurst, some skirt steak, and two very good-looking pork chops.

I grilled the skirt steak that night for a late, post-Super Bowl dinner. Covered in crushed peppercorns and kosher salt, and served with the broccoli, it made for a good quick meal. For the pork, we decided to go with a recipe from Mario Batali's Molto Italiano cookbook, a recent gift from Edan's mother. You've probably seen Mario on the Food Network, where he constitutes something like two thirds of their total programming. Known for his orange shoes, be they clogs or Converse, he's a big red-headed lug who can really cook. Here in LA, he's one of the people responsible for the city's hottest restaurant, Pizzeria Mozza (He does the toppings, Nancy Silverton, of La Brea Bakery, does the crust). The recipe we settled on is Pork Chops with Peppers and Capers, or Cotolette alla Zingara , which means "pork of the gypsy."

I set out to make the recipe, heading to the market to get some bell peppers (I didn't see any at the Farmers' Market, which means the ones I got at the supermarket are probably from New Zealand or Jupiter or someplace where it's summer). What I didn't do, and should have, was read the entire recipe. It turns out I was supposed to brine my chops overnight, which I totally could've done if I had known to do it. As it was, I soaked them in a salty, sugary mixture for about two hours. It was more of a marinade than a brine. In spite of my error, I soldiered on, rinsing off the chops, patting them dry, and dredging in flour.

From there on out, things went well. The I fried the chops in oil, then removed them from the pan and put it my peppers (sliced nice and thin), my bulb onions, some spicy red chilies, and the capers. I didn't use any green peppers, because whenever I do, they dominate the entire dish, and I didn't use any olives, because I don't really care for them (I'm trying very hard to get into olives, but it's a slow go). After frying the peppers and onions for a while, I poured in some white wine and returned the chops to the pan to simmer. As I made the pork, I cut the fennel and leeks into big chunks, tossed them in olive oil and salt and pepper, and roasted them in the oven at 450 for about 20 minutes.

I was all set. Everything was ready. "What happened to the crosnes?" Edan said. The crosnes! I'd completely forgotten about those nasty little worms. Quickly, I threw them into a pan with some butter, freshly ground pepper, and salt. I sauteed them for about fifteen minutes, and they softened up to the texture of a just-done potato. Finally, we could eat.

The pork looked nice, with the peppers looking very colorful despite the lack of green. The flavors were good, but too salty. If I'd brined it, it might've been different, but who knows. Soaked in the capers and wine, the peppers and onions tasted delicious. I overcooked the veggies a little (Since the leeks roasted quicker than the fennel, I probably should've put them in later). As for the crosnes, well... When the rubber hit the road, Edan couldn't stomach them (mainly due to their appearance). I thought they tasted like butter and little else. I would try them again, maybe as part of a salad or something, where their texture would be a real asset, but I'm in no rush. At least I know what to serve for my Halloween feast next year. Cotolette alla Zingara
"I will gaze on your treasures now, gypsy. Understood?"

Monday, February 5, 2007

Elf Cafe

Saturday night continued Edan's Birthday 2007 (It's a week-long festival and a state of mind) with dinner with a couple friends, Stephanie and Charlie, one of whom happens to be vegan. They wanted to try Elf Cafe, a new vegetarian restaurant in Echo Park. I don't tend to eat vegetarian (and I doubt I've eaten a single vegan meal in my life), but I was curious to see what they had on the menu. Online research proved difficult, as Elf Cafe has no website. While that's a little odd in this day and age, it's not altogether unheard of. What's a little more annoying is that they have no phone. And no sign, either. Really, Elf Cafe, get over yourself.

It's a tiny place next to a now-defunct movie theater. They have one or two tables outside, but since it's on Sunset Blvd, would you really want to sit out there? (Actually, you might. I'll explain in a bit). Inside, there's a fair amount of exposed brick and a distressed, Spanish-style tile floor. Some very chic lamps hang from the ceiling, giving the place a dim, warm feeling. A large mirror hangs on one wall, adding the illusion of space, very important to a little sliver of a restaurant like Elf Cafe. They had hung a few Pier 1 Imports-style bamboo dishes and faux-Thai wall hangings that seemed like they were bought at auction from a failed Asian restaurant, both of which seemed out of place. A counter with seating for four or five flanks an open kitchen. While I've always liked the idea of an open kitchen -- something about transparency, I suppose -- there were some unwanted side effects from this one. The space is so small and the ventilation so poor that by the end of our meal, we were all sweating like offensive linemen, and Edan was cursing her cashmere sweater. In total, though, it is a very cute place. Small and welcoming, if way, way too hot (God help them come summer).

The menu was entirely organic and vegetarian, and mostly vegan (the exceptions being the dishes that had cheese in them). Each table gets an amuse bouche of potato-garlic puree with crostini, a nice touch for a smaller restaurant. In France, the tiny neighborhood restaurants we went to always had a small taste of something to get you started. More American restaurants should consider this. The puree itself was only okay, and it was a group serving, rather than individual ones, making this more like chips and salsa at a Mexican place, but it's still a nice gesture. It's BYOB, and none us bought any B, so we had to stick with the beverages offered on the menu. I got a limeade that was very nice. Edan got a mint iced tea. Now, when I think of iced tea, I think of black tea. If you add mint to it, it becomes mint iced tea. What they call mint iced tea is ice water with mint leaves in it. This is not "tea;" it isn't steeped. This is mint water. Not the same thing. Edan sent it back and got a limeade. Charlie got a vegan "kola" that was sweetened with an exotic ingredient called honey, instead of high-fructose corn syrup. He said it tasted like soda used to taste. There's a website for it somewhere, but I can't remember the brand name. Maybe an industrious Apronite could find it?

For starters, I got a crock of lentils with roasted mushrooms and caramelized onions. It was like a thick, tasty lentil stew. Served piping hot, in a slightly larger serving size this dish could've been a main course. Others at the table got a tomato puree soup that I thought was tasty, but a little like tomato sauce (probably because there was no cream in it), and an incredibly good vegan potato salad made with Dijon mustard and perched atop haricot verte.

For a main course, I got their Mac and Cheese, which was actually penne and cheese. This is no small matter, since the penne in my dish didn't hold the cheese sauce very well. What resulted was dry penne on top, and a rich cheese sauce sitting on the bottom of the dish. The flavor was good -- they use a blue cheese (we couldn't get our server to specify which blue it was) and Parmesan. As one of us pointed out, it was more of a penne dish, and less of a loaf or casserole, which is more what I think of when I think mac and cheese.

Stephanie ordered the potato and blue cheese tart, while Edan ordered the tomato and feta tart, both served on a bed of mixed greens, and Charlie got the grilled beets and fennel. I thought the beets and fennel were excellent, grilled whole and simply presented on the plate. Very flavorful. Edan said her tomato and feta tart was more pastry puff than tart, and while she liked the flaky crust, the best part of the dish was the greens, which were very fresh.

We ordered the entire dessert menu. OK, it was only two dishes, but it sounds more decadent when you say "I had the entire menu." There was a saffron pudding and a pear tarte tartin. The saffron pudding (which was not vegan; I guess they haven't figured out how to make a decent vegan pudding) was tasty, but quite soupy. I can get kind of skeeved out by odd textures, so I would've preferred a firmer pudding. It came topped with pistachio pieces and raisins. The tarte tartin was vegan, and I thought it was delicious (Edan didn't like the tart, thinking it tasted too "vegan"). It had a honey flavor, and a chewy crust that was more like the inside of baklava than a typical tart crust (which got me thinking...what do they substitute for the butter in a vegan tart crust? I looked online, and the Whole Foods recipe substitutes margarine, which is actually really bad for you. So, here's an instance where being vegan may have an adverse effect on one's health. Of course, if you're eating a tart, you're probably not too concerned about health anyway, right?).

In total, for four of us, with no corkage fee, our tab came to a little over a hundred dollars, which isn't cheap. As a birthday present to Edan, Stephanie and Charlie paid (Thanks, guys!). I felt like the mac and cheese could've been better, and they should regulate the temperature a little more, but it was still a great meal. The ambiance was cozy (and scorching hot). It wasn't too loud, and our service was prompt and attentive. I will definitely go back, but I might think about sitting outside, Sunset Blvd traffic noise be damned.

Saturday, February 3, 2007


AOC stands for Appelation d'Origine Controlee, which means something along the lines "label of origin controlled." It's a classification system used by the French to denote that a specific wine or cheese comes from a specific region of France (you'll find it somewhere on the label). It is also a standard of quality, denoting a first class product that meets certain criteria.

That Suzanne Goins, the famed chef of Lucques, chose AOC as the name of her newer small plates restaurant is no coincidence. The place is loaded with wine and cheese. Additionally, it's no coincidence that Edan, cheese lover and budding wine enthusiast, chose AOC as the restaurant of choice for her birthday dinner (Happy Birthday, Edan! Groundhog's Day babies are the best!). We got reservations a few weeks in advance (probably a good idea, since the place started to fill up as we ate). It's one of the hotter restaurants in Los Angeles (Jennifer Aniston was there the night before we were), and we were more than a little excited to go.

[Quick note here: We didn't take any pictures. I know it's nice to have a visual to go with the descriptions of the food, but we didn't want to be rude or gauche. Also, it was Edan's birthday, and I wanted to keep the attention on her. Maybe next time we'll take some photos, but for now, you'll just have to imagine.]

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was that the wine is indeed front and center at AOC. There are stacks of bottles in the foyer and racks and racks on the walls. Not one, but two wine bars border the main dining room on either side. Both bars were already crowded when we arrived. I guess it's a hot place to grab a glass of wine, too (Food service is available at the bar). The room is very attractive. I would guess the main room sat between forty and fifty people, but there was another room off in the wings, as well as a loft-like second floor, which I didn't see until we left. The dining room we were in was beautiful, bathed in buttery light with tall windows on one end looking out into the street. It was immediately identifiable as a Los Angeles restaurant. As Edan put it, it seems like every restaurant in LA hires the same interior designer. The tables were fairly close together, which gave the place a comfortable feeling, encouraging one to get to know the neighbors a little. We were seated next to a talkative guy (an actor) who was a regular there. He recommended a few dishes, and we chatted a bit about finicky eaters, and how we hate them.

As I said before, the menu is small plates. Each plate ranges in price from $9 to $15, and there are dozens and dozens of dishes from which to choose. We started with a cheese plate...but you probably could've guessed that, right? We got three cheeses for $15: Marcilly sur maulne, a goat cheese from France, Sable du boulonnais, a French cow's cheese, and Rogue River blue cheese, from the Rogue Creamery in Oregon. All three were amazing. Edan was familiar with the Marcilly, having had it once before. She was a little disappointed that it was riper than the one she'd had, meaning it had firmed up considerably. The Sable was our server's choice, and she was right, it was good -- smoky, with a soft, slightly chewy texture. I preferred the Rogue River, as I like cheeses that double as chemical weapons. It's a pretty strong blue, but it still has a very creamy flavor and firm, crumbly texture (I could cut it with a knife without it breaking apart).

Next, we had roasted dates with parmesan and bacon. These were eerily familiar for some reason. People had talked these up as if they were tiny nuggets of heroin wrapped in sex. They weren't quite that good. They were intensely sweet, and the parmesan was very subtle, maybe too subtle. I didn't feel like I tasted it at all for the first two dates. Edan said mine were just as good. I wouldn't go that far. After all, I don't think they were using Farmer John bacon on these bad boys. At least, I hope not.

For our next round of plates we tried chicken liver crostini with pancetta, a salad of beets, blood oranges and mint, and beef cheeks with paprika and buttered noodles. The chicken liver corstini was some of the best food I've had in a long time. The tangy, livery taste mixed with the salty, chewy pancetta was incredible. I even liked the frisee salad underneath. Next came the beet salad. This was another revelation. Slices of red and yellow beets intermingled with incredibly tangy slices of sweet-sour blood orange, topped with some sort of dressing. So simple, so beautiful, so tasty. You taste the beets, and they're good. They're sweet, and they have that pleasantly just-firm texture that beets have when they've been cooked to perfection. But then you get a bite of the blood orange, and it bursts in your mouth and adds a whole new dimension to the dish. The mint wasn't overpowering at all. It served as a sort of counterpoint to all the sweetness going on in the dish. It was a next-level salad, for sure.

There was a brief pause at that point, and we sipped our wine and relaxed for a second. When confronted with a wine list as daunting as the one at AOC, I can never make up my mind. There were about fifteen varietals on it that I'd never encountered before, so both Edan and I enlisted the help of our server. We told her what qualities we like in a wine (Edan likes big fruit, I like a wine that laughs at my jokes), and she chose for us. She got Edan a Syrah from Strange Wines in Napa, and she gave me a Toro, a very nice, very earthy Spanish wine (I apologize that I don't have the vintages of either of these). Both of us were happy with her choices. We both got a second glass.

The beef cheeks arrived at exactly the right moment. We'd had the "appetizer" plates and were ready for something a bit more substantial. The problem with the cheeks was that they were a bit too substantial. I'd never had beef cheeks before, so I don't have a point of reference to compare it to. They were a bit like brisket -- so tender I could cut them with a spoon, and with a very beefy flavor and some woody undertones. Neither of us were thrilled with the cheeks. They were too rich. It's not that they were bad per se, but with so many tantalizing options on the menu (the coq au vin, the pork confit!), there must be something better.

We could've stopped there. I was getting full, and despite the somewhat underwhelming beef cheeks, I was very satisfied with the food. But it was Edan's birthday, and we had newly-filled glasses of wine, and we figure, lets try one more. So we got arroz negro, squid with saffron aioli. It was an intimidating dish, so blue-black we could hardly tell where the pieces of squid were. The flavor was nice, although the saffron aioli was much more garlicy than saffrony. I think if we'd had this dish at the time we had the beef cheeks it would've been better. It was too rich, too savory, too intensely flavorful to have at the end of the meal. I would get it again, but I don't think Edan will be joining me with it. In short, I think we pushed it one dish too far.

So of course we got dessert. Again, we asked our server's opinion. She recommended the gateau breton with calvados, caramelized smokehouse apples and creme legere. Again, she was right on the mark. She'd described the dish as "a French version of a pound cake," but it was much better than that. It was a thin cake that had a crunchy brulee top that cracked when we put a fork to it. Edan called it a "deep-fried madeleine," a description I thought particularly apt. We devoured it. Edan said it was the best thing we had all night. It was definitely close. The perfect end to the meal. Now I'm glad Edan didn't let me skip it and get Pinkberry.

In total, with tax and tip, we spent $150, which included dessert, coffee (for me), and two glasses of wine each (Edan's wine was $9, mine was $10...or vice versa, I don't remember which). I was full, but not like I am when I leave a steakhouse. It was a pleasant feeling. I was satisfied on every level, but I didn't feel gluttonous or sick. Basically, it was how I'd like to feel after every dinner. If only every dinner could be at AOC. It's an ideal place to try if you don't have tons of money and can only eat a dinner like this once and awhile (which is how it is for us). I say that not only because it's top quality food (it is) with terrific ambiance and service, but because you can try so many things. If they're all great, good for you. If one or two of them aren't what you'd hoped for, there's always the next plate. On a flavor level, you leave feeling like you ate several meals. I can't recommend it enough.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Top Chef Reaction -- Bourdain

Via Chow's The Grinder blog. Anthony Bourdain breaks down the "Top Chef" contestants he met when he was a guest judge on the show. Other than calling Carlos "Alex," he pretty much nails it.

Super Bowl Eats

It's Super Bowl weekend, which means that all sorts of people who usually don't watch football are going to sit down and take in a game. The interweb will be full of ways to enhance one's enjoyment of said game, including recipes and recommendations to make your Super Bowl party the awesomest party ever. Topics will range from which beer to serve to healthy dishes to help keep you alive past halftime (including tips from Super Bowl legend and world-renown money-grubber Joe Montana!). There are even some suggestions from Wine Spectator, if that's the way you roll. Thankfully, this year there won't be any of those stories suggesting you make the native cuisine of whichever cities are battling it out in the big game. The people who write those articles had to be pulling for New England in the AFC Championship, right? I mean, what the hell do they eat in Indianapolis? I say steer clear of the deep dish pizza and the polish sausage. Chicago has dropped a few notches in my book with its fascistic foie gras ban. In fact, part of me wants to eat some foie gras on Sunday, just to stick it to the City of Broad Shoulders. But most of you probably want a little more traditional fare. To help you out, I've come up with a few helpful tips to make your Super Bowl party better than OK.

1. Forget trying to be healthy. I know Joe Montana says you can make totally kicking personal pizzas that are good for your heart, but we all know that he's wrong. If you want to be healthy on Super Bowl Sunday, don't watch the game. Alright, you can probably avoid that third helping of nachos, too. Otherwise, pig out. After Thanksgiving, Fourth of July barbecues, trips to the movies/ballgame, birthday parties, impromptu trips to Krispy Kreme, and Friday Fajitas Fiesta night at Chili's, Super Bowl Sunday is one of the only days Americans have to eat way too much of stuff that isn't good for them. Let's all just try to enjoy it, OK?

2. Make What You Can from Scratch. It's really not that hard to fire up a batch of your own wings. Just buy some wings, throw em in the oven at 425 for about 45 minutes, then toss them in a mixture of butter and Frank's Red Hot sauce. And, please use Frank's. I love Tabasco on eggs and hashbrowns. Love it. But for wings, you've got to go with Frank's. I guarantee these wings will be better than the frozen ones you've been buying. You know, the ones with that Martian-red powder all over them? And while we're on the subject, you know that gelatinous, Syracuse University-orange colored queso you've been buying? Yeah, don't. Buy it, that is. As Michael Pollan would say, that's not even food. Seriously, how hard is it to melt down some cheese? The benefit of making stuff yourself (aside from the godlike feeling of creation you get from it) is that you can control what goes in it. Like jalapeƱos? Throw em in. Don't like em? Prefer habaneros? You know what to do.

3. Don't skimp on the product. Is there anything worse than bad corn chips? I mean, they're already corn chips, so it's not like they have far to sink. But when you get some stale, bland, nasty chips that fall apart as soon as you dip them in salsa...guh. Buy the good stuff. Those blue corn tortilla chips they sell at Whole Foods are worth the extra 79 cents. Of course, you could make your own. And don't have a case of Bud in the fridge. Spring for some Stella or whatever fancy yuppie beer it is that you like to drink. And if somebody shows up to your party with a sixer of Bud, don't let them drink your good stuff. Let them sip their Bud, and think about what they've done.

4. Stagger your menu. There are plenty of things you can make ahead of time so that when people start arriving you've got food out for them. Also, if you're making something more substantial, try a casserole. You can make it ahead of time and throw it in the fridge. All that's left is to toss it in the oven. The same goes for skewers. Marinate them and get them all set so all you have to do is fire them. That way you won't be in the kitchen missing Peyton Manning's meltdown or the latest ad with the guy who inexplicably works for apes.

5. Have paper plates and napkins. It's worth the investment. Buy the ones made from recycled paper, of course. At the end of the game, you're going to be tired, drunk, and irritable (because they didn't make the overs). The last thing you'll want to do is dishes.

There you have it. Five quick and somewhat easy steps to make your party a little bit better than last year's debacle (Also, don't invite that guy who says "Boo Yeah!" whenever there's a big hit). Enjoy the game!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Top Chef -- No Surprises, Please

So, Ilan won "Top Chef." Just like Food & Wine Magazine, one of the show's top sponsors, said he did. A few days before the finale. Nice work, Food & Wine. Why don't you tell me who wins the Super Bowl while you're at it? Ilan's Spanish cuisine topped Marcel's gastro-chemist fare. I'm not sure what it is about Ilan that I don't like. Maybe it's the way he wears multiple watches at the same time. Or maybe it's his bizarre Super Mario Bros-esque red suspender getup (Is this some kind of chef-wear I'm not aware of?). Or maybe it was how he ripped last season's winner, the infinitely more likable Harold Dieterle. Or maybe it's because he's a dick. Whatever it is, I don't like him. Sure, Marcel seemed like a prick, too, but at least he had something original going on with his food. I mean, Spanish cuisine? That's so two nights ago.

[Note: Yesterday I wrote a long post about Michael Pollan's article in the New York Times Magazine and misspelled his name throughout. I apologize. The error has been corrected.]