Monday, June 29, 2009

Product review: POURfect measuring cups and spoons

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One of the benefits of being a food blogger is that sometimes nice companies send you free stuff. I've gotten a few things I'm not particularly interested in, and when that happens I don't write about them (much to the dismay of the PR people involved). But last week I got a pretty cool sample I wanted to share with you. It's a new line of measuring cups and spoons called POURfect.

Yes, I am such a kitchen geek that measuring cups and spoons can get me breathing heavily. So sue me.

The POURfect gadgets have two distinct advantages over the other measuring devices I usually use. One, they pour beautifully because they have little spouts at the front - a big deal for me, because I am left-handed and most measuring cups or spoons that have spouts or lips have them on the side (the WRONG side, if you ask me). And two, the sets I got each have at least twice as many sizes as what you normally find. The spoons, which clip onto a rubber ring (but can be easily removed while you're using them), go from 1/64 tsp to 2 Tbsp. And the cups go from 1/8 cup to 2 cups, with many gradations in between.

I have not seen the POURfect bowls, beaker and Scrape-A-Bowl (pictured above), so I can't comment on those, but I imagine the beaker and bowl pour similarly to the cups and spoons.

All the POURfect items are dishwasher and microwave safe - a must in my kitchen.

All items are available on the POURfect website at The set of spoons lists for $12, the measuring cups $18.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Polenta pesto zucchini casserole recipe (or at least a methodology)

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Every year, the city of Santa Monica has a big fireworks show on the Saturday before the 4th of July. When we're in town we always go, and this year we were lucky enough to be invited to a festive potluck around the corner before the fireworks. I can never keep track of exactly who in Sue and Paul's house is or is not eating meat, but I think the answer right now is no one - which is why I brought a vegetarian dish.

I had some leftover polenta in the house, which, when I made it, I'd mixed with some homemade pesto sauce. I picked some basil and a few zucchini from the garden. My son thinly sliced a few of the small sweet bell peppers he and his brother like to snack on. I chiffonaded (is that a verb?) the basil. Somehow I knew it would all go together.

I sliced the zucchini thinly on a mandoline (come to think of it, we could have used the mandoline for the peppers, too - ah, but then the son wouldn't have had the chance to practice his knife skills). Then I sprinkled them with a little salt and left them to sit for 20 minutes, to draw out some of the water.

I sprayed a baking dish with cooking spray. Then I started layering. Chunks of polenta, which I crumbled with my fingers as I dropped it in. Zucchini. Peppers. A sprinkle of basil. A shower of shredded mozzarella cheese. A few dollops of goat cheese. Salt and pepper. And start again.

I think I made everything come out evenly for three rounds. I finished with the shredded cheese, although by that time I had run out of mozzarella and was using a Mexican shredded blend. I sprinkled it all with olive oil, popped it into a 350-degree oven, and baked it about 45 minutes.

I suppose that if the polenta had been in neat rectangles instead of uneven clumps, it might have looked more like lasagne. But as it was, it had a sort of rustic look. And it went quite quickly on the buffet. In fact, I only got the photo above because when I realized how fast it was disappearing I hijacked the plate of a complete stranger before he took a bite. Thanks, Michael (I think that was your name!).

I'm becoming a bigger fan of polenta. Gluten-free, right? It's always good to have a few gluten-free recipes in the hole for when those celiacs come around.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A riff on peaches and cream at Santa Monica's Hotel Shangri-La

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[Note: I just heard that Nick, mentioned below, is no longer the pastry chef at the Hotel Shangri-La. Lots of turnover for a new venture. Now how am I going to taste that whole wheat ice cream? Darn.]

Last week my friend Sarah took me to lunch at the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica. It's a beautifully renovated deco-ish building that looks as though it belongs in South Beach rather than California.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that we ate there because Sarah does publicity for the hotel (which is also why I didn't pay for lunch). After my first visit to the Shangri-La, I wrote a little article about Noah Rosen, the chef who was heading the restaurant last month when it opened (he left shortly after the article was posted). Not a review - I don't really do reviews - but some random things I learned about him from our conversation during the half-hour I spent with him in the kitchen watching him cook this amazing wild Alaskan cod. But I didn't actually get to taste the food, so when Sarah and I made lunch plans, she suggested we eat there.

Despite the fact that the restaurant is between head chefs, I thought the kitchen turned out a pretty good soft shell crab open-faced sandwich:

It was light, not at all greasy, and it came with a salad of Little Gem lettuce (I think) with a delicate vinaigrette. I was pleased.

I'm not much of a dessert person, but Sarah talked me into sharing the donut. I wasn't expecting much, but then this gorgeous plate came out:

The sorbet on the left I assumed to be peach. But Sarah and I both tasted something boozy. When the pastry chef came out - Nick, last name a mystery, looks like he might just barely be old enough to have graduated from high school - he explained that it was a Bellini sorbet. Peaches and champagne. Of course. The peaches on the right, intense in flavor and soft enough in texture to make me believe they'd been cooked, had been marinated (raw) in orange juice with lemon verbena - that's the brown squiggle you see on the bottom slice of peach. The acid in the orange juice softens the fruit, especially when it's sliced thinly like that. It made the slices almost transparent.

Oh, yes, and the donut was fine. I suppose, anyway - I don't remember much about the donut compared with the sorbet and the fruit.

I got into a fascinating conversation with pastry chef Nick about ice cream. He likes making bread ice creams - yes, you heard me right. Whole wheat ice cream, he says, where the custard is infused with wheat bran. Sourdough ice cream. French toast ice cream. He promised to invite me back to the kitchen to show me how to make that one. I'm not the biggest ice cream fan, but now I'm obsessed with these unusual approaches - I can't imagine what they'll taste like, so, of course, I have to taste them.

The best part of the lunch was reconnecting with my friend Sarah. Our children went to preschool together and we'd fallen out of touch. My food blogging brought us together, actually - when the hotel opened and sent out a release about the new chef, I inquired about a sit-down, and there was Sarah's name on the return email. Luck? Fate? Small world? No matter. As Martha would say, it's a good thing.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Artichoke advice from Hans Rockenwagner himself

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It's a whole week of date nights, because our kids are visiting their grandparents until Friday (thank you, thank you, thank you V & Z for giving us time to reconnect!). Tonight my husband and I walked through the blissful Santa Monica evening down to Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice, a chic street of boutiques and beautiful-people restaurants. We had dinner at 3 Square, the latest in Hans Rockenwagner's string of very pleasing eating establishments.

I had an appetizer of grilled baby artichokes with chipotle aioli. They weren't the tiny little ones I've been seeing at the farmer's market - they looked like normal artichoke hearts and stems with just a few of the inside leaves left on. The flavor was incredible, and the texture a perfect blend of smoky-charred outside with tender, smooth flesh inside.

I assumed the artichokes had been cooked before they went on the grill, but I wasn't sure how. Luckily, Hans Rockenwagner himself sat down at the table next to us as our drinks arrived. I asked whether the artichokes had been steamed before grilling. Actually, he said, they're stewed in white wine with carrots, shallots, and a few other things he named but I can't remember. Truthfully, I was a little star-struck: I've eaten at his restaurants many times over the years I've lived in California, and I've seen him from a distance before, but he's - ahem - quite a pleasant-looking guy. And talented, and creative. So I got distracted before he got to the end of the ingredient list for the artichoke bath.

I wish I'd had the courage to introduce myself and tell him about this blog and my LA Cooking Examiner column while he was still at the table by himself. But then his chef came out, and another guy who might have been a supplier or perhaps just a friend, and by the time we were ready to leave they were engrossed in conversation. So I gave my card to the waiter and asked him to tell Hans it was from the woman who asked about the artichokes.


Oh, what else did we eat? White asparagus soup with shrimp, very light and delicate, not too creamy. A bowl of chili. And a pretzel burger, with Swiss cheese and carmelized onions on one of their famous pretzel rolls. A really excellent dinner.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A foodie day in San Diego

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My husband took our kids to see his parents this weekend. It was the first 48-hour period I've had alone in my house for more than eight years. I needed it. Looked forward to it. And planned it meticulously.

I know you don't want to hear about how I cleaned out my closet (I did) and made bags of clothes and shoes for Goodwill (seven) and a neighbor (one). Or how I spent many hours on the couch watching reruns of House and Big Love.

What you want to hear about is the day I spent "foodblog geeking" in San Diego. Lucky for you, I took lots of pictures.

First I met up with Caron Golden, a San Diego food writer I met via Twitter. She took me to the Little Italy Mercato (farmers market), with its gorgeous view of the water and luscious artisan foodstuffs.

I was starving when we got there, and Caron recommended the tiny Thai coconut pancakes, so I tried them. They were soft on the inside, crispy on the outside, and absolutely delicious.

The produce didn't interest me much - I get plenty of that, and probably better, at the Santa Monica farmers markets - so we concentrated on the unique food products not available up here. I started at Heartland Harvest, where Seth, the owner's son, did a fine sales job, nudging me to sample their honeys and grain mixes. I came away with a spicy ginger honey mixed with bee pollen, plus packages of Moroccan Chowder, Bolivian Pilaf and East Indian Khichiri (Seth gave me a taste of that, and it was outstanding).

Next I sampled, and bought, some handmade sausages from Knight Salumi Co: uncured soppresatte and cacciatori, both dry salumi with a smooth, spicy flavor. That was for my husband (lucky guy).

I also bought the husband some dark bar chocolate from Eclipse Chocolat, in exotic flavors: Moroccan spice, blackberry sage, and sea salt with cocoa nibs. He's only tried the blackberry sage so far, but he seems to like it - it's almost gone. And he is indeed picky about his chocolate.

I came home with two bottles of avocado oil, a product I'd never seen before. According to the young woman from Bella Vado who sold it to us, it's equally good on salads and on your face. Avocados have a lot of vitamin E, so I can imagine it would be great for your skin, but I haven't tried it yet. Anyway, I bought one bottle of straight avocado oil, and one flavored with lemon. For the latter, they press the lemons with the avocados, rather than adding the essence afterward, and it was certainly intense and aromatic.

I finished up my market morning with a very, very nice soy latte from a lovely guy in a big orange truck. Embarrassingly, I can remember the names of neither the guy nor the truck. But he makes a mean coffee. (Note: Caron kindly supplied me with the names: David Wasserman of Joes on the Nose. Sorry, David, and thank you for the delicious latte!)

Then Caron and I continued on to Specialty Produce, a gourmet produce distributor. Kelly, who works there, is also a Twitter friend, and she very graciously came to work on a Saturday to show me around. She also slipped a few treats into my bag for me to take home and play with. Recipes to come, I promise.

We wandered the aisles of the warehouse, peeking into boxes, thinking aloud about what we'd do with this or that. For example, coconuts:

Micro-greens of all colors and flavors:

Dragon fruit (tastes like melon, I'm told) - this is Caron holding one:

Fresh taro root (it took us a while to figure out what this was):

and popcorn shoots, which really do taste like corn. They're yellow because they're grown in the dark.

There were all kinds of other things on the shelves, like truffle stuff, oils and vinegars, and salt of all kinds:

I brought home some of the popcorn shoots, which I think I'll use in a little salad dressed with walnut oil, lemon and coarse salt. I also got a few apriums, a celery root, a few small watermelon radishes (they're green on the outside and veined pink inside), a bunch of baby white carrots, and a large golden beet. What will I do with them? Wait and see....

After our tour of Specialty Produce, Caron, Kelly and I had lunch at Saffron, a local and much-loved Thai place. The noodles were terrific, as was the house-made ginger beer.

Many thanks to both Caron and Kelly for showing me around. I really enjoyed myself.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Recipe: Erika's ultimate spaghetti sauce with meat

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Here's a tip from one of the laziest cooks I know (me): Real spaghetti meat sauce, from scratch, does not take long and is one of the most delicious things you will ever turn out in your kitchen.

I am not doctrinaire about my meat sauce. There are four essential ingredients: ground meat, garlic, onions, tomatoes. But what kind of meat? I've used it all and have liked every version. What kind of tomatoes? Again, I've tried everything from puree to whole tomatoes to bottled sauce (and yes, I still consider the dish "from scratch" if you use bottled sauce - so sue me). It all works.

My two sauce "secrets" came to me quite recently, actually. Last winter I was ill, and when I finally felt well enough to cook and eat, what I wanted most was this sauce. I wanted it thick, and I wanted it flavorful. And thus came the addition of a touch of flour (thick) and a sprinkling of chopped bacon (flavorful). Now the recipe is done and ready to share with you.

Sometimes I add more vegetables - grated carrot, which melts into the background; grated zucchini, ditto - but mostly it's just like this. The kids eat it over pasta. My husband and I are just as likely to eat it alone, cold, with a spoon, out of the container (well, that's me - he's more civilized).

= = = = = = = = = = =

Erika's ultimate spaghetti sauce with meat
  • 3 lbs ground beef or turkey (or a combination)
  • 4 slices bacon, diced (or 1/4 cup cooked bacon, crumbled)
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 Tbsp flour
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 1 small can tomato paste
  • 2 large cans tomatoes with juice or puree (whole, or diced, or even good store-bought sauce)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp Italian seasoning or dried basil
In a large pot, brown the ground meat and the bacon over medium-high heat. (If the bacon is already cooked, add it when the meat is almost done.) When the meat is no longer pink, add the onions and cook a few minutes until the onions are softened and coated with the fat from the meat.

At this point, if you're feeling virtuous, drain some of the fat from the pan. Normally I don't, but I do use lean ground beef and usually mix it with turkey. It's up to you. But don't drain it all, because you'll need some for the next steps.

Add the garlic and stir one minute - the garlic should not brown. Now sprinkle the flour over the meat mixture in the pot and stir it for a minute, until the meat is coated with the flour and everything looks a little less wet and a little more sticky. You are essentially making a roux with the fat in the pan (see, I told you you'd need it) and the flour, to thicken the sauce.

Add the red wine and stir. Now add the tomato paste, tomatoes, and dried herbs. If you're using whole tomatoes, try to break them up with the back of a wooden spoon against the side of the pot, although admittedly this will be easier when they have cooked a bit.

Now bring the whole pot to a boil, turn it down to a simmer over very low heat, cover it, and walk away. For an hour. Or two. Or eight. Come back once in a while to stir things around if you like, but it's not necessary. The sauce will melt and meld and become luscious without your having to do a thing.

Serve over pasta. If you're watching your waistline, use my mother's trick and serve it over shredded iceberg lettuce, which is surprisingly satisfying. It will keep in the refrigerator - and will improve substantially in flavor - for the next five days at least.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Another nod to Weight Watchers: More vegetable recipes from my files

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It's week two for me on Weight Watchers, and it's all going well. I'm eating more fruits and vegetables, less refined flour, and smaller portions overall. And even in this short period of time, I'm already feeling better. Go me!

To celebrate, I dug up a few more vegetable-based recipes from my files. I know you'll like these too.

Spinach, apple and endive salad - a light year-round salad shared with me by La Grande Orange Cafe, which started in Pasadena and, lucky for me, just opened another location in my Santa Monica neighborhood.

Yin-yang roasted pepper soup - Monika Reti of Hipcooks, a cool cooking school here in Los Angeles, contributed this recipe, in which two colors of bell peppers are turned into healthy soups and then plated together. A quick snap of the wrist creates the visual effect.

Stuffed portabello mushroom - a raw vegan recipe from Nwenna Kai, author of The Goddess of Raw Foods. I'm not much on the raw vegan stuff myself, but when I posted it I got lots of positive comments from the vegan crowd. Your mileage and all that.

Lowfat no-cream creamed spinach - my own somewhat healthier version of the steakhouse classic. I use a bechamel sauce made with lowfat milk to thicken my dish and give it that creamy mouth feel.

Tuscan kale chips - leaves of dark green kale, tossed in olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and roasted until crispy. These are as addictive as potato chips (I swear!). Works well with the more commonly available curly kale too.

Roasted fennel - my favorite way to cook my favorite vegetable. This method works for almost any other vegetable too, incidentally, including green beans, carrots, parsnips, celery, onions, etc.

Happy vegetables!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Recipe: Raspberry limoncello cake

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I know, I know, I said I was all about the vegetables from now on. Don't worry, I am. I made this last week. It's just that I'm only getting around to writing about it today.

This is a variation on the limoncello cake I wrote about last week in my LA Cooking Examiner column. It's made with that delicious Ventura Limoncello, a syrupy sunny-yellow elixir made right here in southern California. I took the very same cake and put some raspberries on top before I baked it. And it turned out looking like this - completely gorgeous.

Raspberry limoncello cake (makes 8 generous or 12 small slices)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup plain yogurt (I used Greek yogurt, but any kind will do)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup oil (canola or another neutral-tasting oil)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 5 Tbsp limoncello liqueur, divided
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 6-oz containers fresh raspberries
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, sugar, oil, lemon zest and 3 Tbsp limoncello. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ones and mix with a rubber spatula. Do not overmix or the cake will be tough.

Spray a 9-inch cake pan with cooking spray and pour the batter in. Smooth the top and arrange the raspberries on top, pushing them down a little into the batter. If you're a little OCD like me your raspberries will end up in perfect concentric circles. If not, you're probably happier overall, and your cake will still turn out beautiful.

Bake about 45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean and the top of the cake is golden. Cool the cake in the pan for 2 minutes, then pop out the cake and put it on a rack, underneath which you've put some newspaper.

While the cake is cooling, mix the powdered sugar with the remaining limoncello in a small bowl and stir until smooth. Spoon this glaze over the warm cake and spread with the back of the spoon (now you know the newspaper is there to catch drips). The glaze will set in just a few minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature. The cake is just as good the next day.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A nod to Weight Watchers: Vegetable recipes from my files

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So last week I joined Weight Watchers - again. For the third time, actually. It's kind of hard to be a food blogger when food is suddenly the enemy, I'm discovering.

Unfortunately for my blogging career, the recipes that have gotten the most attention historically have been the sweets. Well, I hate to break it to you, readers, but vegetables are better for us than brownies or caramel sauce. It's time to concentrate on veggies. (And if you insist on sticking with the sweets, take pity and don't tell me about it.)

I looked through my files and found some really interesting vegetable recipes. You may think I'm nuts, but I find these as appealing as dessert. At least that's what I'm telling myself....

Radish salad - thinly sliced radishes dressed in lemon, good olive oil and sea salt. This is good plain as a side dish or as a sandwich topping. The radishes wilt a bit from the salt and acid, and the whole salad turns a lovely pink.

Cauliflower vinaigrette - warm steamed cauliflower dressed in a tangy, mustardy vinaigrette. This recipe uses an orange cauliflower, but the regular white ones work just as well. I've served this both hot and cold and it's a hit either way.

French lentil salad - tiny French lentils, dressed with that same mustardy vinaigrette and tossed with fresh chopped herbs. This version has a little chopped cooked bacon, but I'll probably leave that out if I'm trying to make this diet-friendly. (It's a lot better with the bacon, to be honest.)

Sauteed kale or chard with curry sauce or tahini - two vegan recipes from personal chef Missy Costello, who cooks for fitness guru Tony Horton and thus knows her way around a bunch of kale. I prefer the tahini, my 10-year-old son likes the curry. Try them both and decide for yourself.

Tunisian carrot salad with fennel seeds and turnip salad with red peppers - two unusual and refreshing salads (originally posted for Passover, but good all year round!) from chef Alain Cohen of caterer Got Kosher? near Beverly Hills.

Carrot-sweet potato soup with fresh ginger - a delicious orange puree from TV chef Nathan Lyon. The recipe calls for a little half-and-half, but leave it out if you're trying to slim down the recipe - it won't hurt the final product too much.