Monday, June 30, 2008

Monsieur Gorgonzola Salad

The other weekend at Julienne my lactose-intolerant self decided that she has a thing for Gorgonzola Cheese.  Despite my general hesitancies with blue-veined fromage, Monsieur Gorgonzola has proven attractive in diverse situations - primarily pear salad and open-face omelette, melted and crumbled - and his allure was too much to resist. I knew he was not good for me, but what could I do? I took the good with the bad (and the lactose pill with the cheese) and pursued the passion in my heart.

This affair resulted in a spur-of-the-moment trip to the store, where there was only a tub of crumbled, generic-brand Mr. G - but better than nothing. It turned out to be a bit dry, but the flavor was what I was looking for.  I was too tired to assemble an inspiring salad that night, but the chunks of Gorgonzola fit perfectly inside capped strawberries.  Definitely an appetizer waiting to happen!

A few nights later, however, the inspiration came, and the salad pictured above came to life: red leaf lettuce, mango, strawberries, blueberries, pecan bits, balsamic vinaigrette, and Mr. G.  This Monsieur Gorgonzola Salad is the less-sweet and more fresh counterpart to the Mistress Salad I had in Israel (not necessarily a statement about male v. female food characteristics); rather than caramelized dressing and pears, the dressing was tart and the fruits straight-up .  I ate it alone in my kitchen and actually made exclamations out loud while I ate it - "That is so good!", "oh my goodness!", "mmmmmm."  Profound observations, yes?

Monsieur Gorgonzola Salad

1 head red leaf lettuce
1 whole mango
4 large strawberries
1 small handful fresh blueberries
(substitute/add any fresh fruits in season or your faves)
light dusting of crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
light dusting of roasted unsalted pecan bits (TJ's has a great package of these)
Trader Joe's Fat-free Balsamic Vinaigrette

For one large salad as a one-person entrée, wash and tear up a plateful of lettuce (approximately 1/3 of the head).  Peel and slice the mango, wash and slice the strawberries, and arrange these with all the rest of the ingredients artfully on the lettuce.  Lightly dress the salad, and enjoy!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

From L.A.

Recently I've been coming to terms with the idea of being from L.A.; I moved here five years ago, and it looks like I'll be here another five, so at some point I will probably identify myself as "from L.A."  This identity change will take a while to get used to, but I've realized that there are a lot of great food opportunities here that I appreciate.  While some folks in other parts of the country, and even the state of California, do not have many food choices, I have options representing many ethnicities and cuisine trends.  I thought I would share a few photos of food I've eaten out just in the last week in L.A. - and by L.A. I mean everything in the L.A. Basin, from the coast on the west, north to the edge of Ventura County, south to the edge of the O.C., and east to Pomona.

The photo above is from a vegetarian restaurant in Eagle Rock called Fatty's; my friend ordered this lovely pear gorgonzola salad which made me quite jealous after the one bite I had.  The cheese was pan seared and breaded crispy on the outside but melty on the inside, the pears and oranges were sweet, and the vinaigrette light but tasty.  I love how the slice of blood orange sits on the cheese like a hat.

This is dessert at Babalu on Montana Street in Santa Monica - a trendy hangout that a friend introduced me to - a fabulous follow up to excellent entrées.  In the foreground you see the opera cake, made with thin layers of white cake filled in with cream and lots of almond chunks, coated in dark chocolate and served with thick, sweet whipped cream.  In the background you can see a bit of the Italian wedding cake, which is covered in cream cheese frosting and coconut on the outside, packed with walnut bits between the cake layers inside.

Back at Fatty's, this appetizer was a hit: whole dates, stuffed with walnuts and wrapped in veggie bacon, drizzled with a balsamic syrup.  Definitely something I'll try to replicate with turkey bacon - the smokey flavor of the pseudo-meat with the sweetness of the date was a marvelous combination, as was the crispiness of the bacon with the soft chewy date.

Not a great photo, but one of my childhood favorites: Beef Chow Fun.  As a kid I called it "fat noodles" (although these noodles aren't that fat), and it was one of the things alongside of sweet and sour pork that I would gobble up at the time at Chinese restaurants.  Usually smokey flavored, greasy, and great.

My current dim sum favorite: Siu Mai, or shrimp and pork meatballs.  Certainly not kosher nor vegetarian, but so, so good.  The best are at NBC in Monterey Park, where I practically go into raptures while I eat their siu mai and exclaim after every bite "these are so good!"  I don't know how the juicy flavor is the way it is, but I will not ruin the experience by overanalyzing it.  NBC also has the best general dim sum offerings and squab lettuce wraps, among other things.  Monterey Park is the current living Chinatown of L.A., and the place of my birth.  If you go for Chinese food in L.A., you gotta go here sometime.

I felt I had to represent Malibu in some way; these are the hugest glasses of Diet Coke ever (another unhealthy vice of mine; there's something classic about picturing unhealthy diet vices in Malibu...) at Paradise Cove, a restaurant where you not only can see the beach and the waves, but you have your feet directly in the sand.  Very pleasant on the evening of one of the hottest days of the year.

Last and far from least, some crême brûlée french toast with fresh strawberry sauce at Julienne, a quaint French-ish café in San Marino.  The inside of the bread barely has a bread texture, as it probably has been soaked in egg and cream for a tremendously long time, and the top has a small layer of torch-burnt sugar.  This was not as sweet as I was expecting, and the bread was a bit eggier than I prefer, but this was a unique breakfast with excellent sauces.  I would order it again to work out the secret of the bread texture - but then again, there are so many other things I want to try on the menu, and so much to browse in the attached store...

1627 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock, CA  90041

1002 Montana Ave.
Santa Monica, CA  90403

NBC Seafood Restaurant, Inc.
404 S. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA  91754

28128 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA  90265

2649 Mission Street
San Marino, CA 91108

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Guimauve Part Three: Gelatin Sheets

It's always fun to have food that you can get down and dirty with; the gelatin sheets that I brought home from France required squeezing out by hand, which made me feel that much more involved in the process of making guimauve. Perhaps not as satisfying as kneading bread or pounding turkey cutlets, but still a new way to get physical with food!

The gelatin sheets are unlike any other food ingredient I've used (but then again, isn't gelatin of any kind always a strange thing to work with?): translucent, almost brittlely stiff rectangles, criss-crossed with perforating indented lines. I first heard of them in Chocolate and Zucchini's guimauve recipe, and ever since have been nagged by the idea of gelatin sheets and what the lack of them was doing to my marshmallows.

Since I was able to pick some up in France at a grocery store, I put them to use on some guimauves after my return.  I found them easier to use than gelatin powder, since I did not have to worry about the amount of liquid I might be adding to the mixture; all I had to do was soak the sheets for a while in water, which made them become floppy and gelatinous, so I could squeeze them out together with my hand (the fun part!) and just add them as sheets to the syrup phase, when they dissolved.  The mystery to me is that the sheets hold their shape after they've been soaked, and that they don't fall apart when squeezed.  They kind of remind me of a softer version of pickled jellyfish, like the jellyfish appetizer at Chinese banquets.

In the end, the result was not significantly different from the Knox-gelatin marshmallows, but the simplicity of the gelatin sheets reduced my anxiety over the proportions in the recipe.  This time I made green tea marshmallows flavored with powdered green tea dissolved in a few teaspoons of water (pictured above) and rose/almond flavor with 3 teaspoons of rose water and 1 teaspoon of almond extract, rolled in a combination of powdered sugar and ground almonds (below).  Both turned out to be nice and subtly flavored, so yum on both accounts!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cranberry Pecan Broccoli Slaw

My time in Israel reminded me that salads can be a real treat to eat; at sit-down meals the first course was often 5-7 small bowls of a variety of salads, from mayonnaise-based salads to barely-dressed mixtures of fresh vegetables. There were grains, diced fruits, dried fruits, pastas, meats, shredded vegetables, or cubed vegetables tossed with fresh herbs, spices, vinegar, yogurt, or mayonnaise in any combination you could invent. I am constantly on a quest to discover foods that are interesting and tasty at the same time as healthy, so this experience was an inspiration towards experimenting with new salad combinations.

This also brought to mind one of the few recipes for which I can truthfully claim authorship - a broccoli slaw flavored with dried cranberries and pecan bits. I enjoy the bite of the vinegar and pepper with the sweetness of the fruit and vanilla yogurt (yogurt also being an important Middle Eastern ingredient), held together by the crunchy broccoli slaw that lends such great health benefits. I hope you find this easy salad to be a treat!

Cranberry Pecan Broccoli Slaw
1 package broccoli slaw (I like Trader Joe's Organic Broccoli Slaw)
low-fat, low-sugar vanilla yogurt (like Dannon's Light-n-Fit)
white vinegar (also substitute fruit-flavored vinegars)
2 T sugar or 2 packets Splenda
dried sweetened cranberries
pecan bits
dash of cayenne pepper (optional)

Dump the broccoli slaw into a bowl with stirring room and add yogurt until it looks well coated and creamy. Add vinegar to taste. Sprinkle sugar/Splenda over the salad and mix in; add more if it tastes too tart for you. Mix in cranberries and pecan bits in desired amount, and top with cayenne pepper.

For a less sweet and more natural version, replace the low-sugar yogurt with plain yogurt and eliminate the sugar/Splenda. If you're interested in adding more fresh vegetables, baby spinach and white or red shredded cabbage go well with this. It might also be interesting to add some smoky flavor with bits of turkey bacon...or perhaps fresh mint leaves...and some different, I'll have to make it again soon!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cupcake Playdate

Three weeks of cooking nothing but s'mores + birthday in the office = time to get creative!

After traveling for so long, my cupboards were pretty bare, but my cooking fervor motivated me to scrounge up enough goodies to make 6 different flavors of cupcakes for this week's birthday party. I found a white cake mix on the shelf and decided to use that as a launching point for fun in the kitchen.

With the cake mix made according to the box instructions (I prefer Duncan Hines brand), I then divided the batter into 6 equal parts and began playing. I flavored the batters and spooned up 4 cupcakes of each flavor (one box mix makes 24 cupcakes). While they were baking I prepared a double batch of firm buttercream frosting, half of which I reserved as is, and half of which I made into chocolate buttercream by adding unsweetened cocoa powder to taste (I had planned that half of my flavors would take chocolate icing). These are very generously frosted. Once the cupcakes were cooled I customized the icing; some of them took straight chocolate or vanilla icing, but for others I added flavoring to the chocolate or vanilla base.

Hope you can use these ideas for your own kitchen playdate!

Chocolate Cherry Cupcakes
Batter: Mix in 6 frozen sweet cherries, chopped and defrosted with juice, and 1 or 2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
Decoration: Chocolate buttercream icing: Pipe with a large round tip in a spiral and then bury the tip in the middle and squeeze tube to form icing cherry. Top with red sprinkles and cherry stem (fished from jar of maraschino cherries!)

Almond Cupcakes
Batter: Mix in pure almond extract to taste and dish into cupcake pan; in small bowl in microwave heat 1 Tbsp. butter with 4 tsp. almond paste, then mix the butter and paste thoroughly and press 1/4 of mixture into the middle of each cupcake before baking.
Decoration: Vanilla buttercream icing: Mix in a splash of almond extract. Pipe with a medium star tip in a spiral around the top, weaving tip back and forth to create waves and building up with concentric spiral layers to create a dome. Top with sliced almonds (roasted if desired).

Chocolate Cupcakes
Batter: Mix in 2 or 3 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder to taste and dish into cupcake pan; press a square of chocolate into the middle of each cupcake prior to baking. Squares of Hershey's would work.
Decoration: Chocolate buttercream icing: Pipe with medium star tip in a spiral around the top, building up with concentric spiral layers. Top with a broken piece of chocolate.

Pistachio Cupcakes
Batter: Mix in several teaspoons of finely chopped pistachios, 1/2 tsp. honey, and a drop of green food coloring.
Decoration: Vanilla buttercream frosting: Mix in 1 tsp. honey and then pipe onto cupcake with petal tip in a spiral on top, then create sweet pea petals in a circle in the middle and then in groups concentrically around the edge. Top with whole shelled pistachio.

Mocha Cupcakes
Batter: Combine 1 1/2 tsp. instant coffee with just enough boiling water to cover granules; stir until dissolved. Mix dissolved coffee and 1 or 2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder into batter.
Decoration: Chocolate buttercream icing: Prepare instant coffee as for batter and mix into icing. Pipe with petal tip in spiral on top, building up in center with layers of concentric spirals. Add coffee-bean-like form on top with petal tip wide end up.

Sprinkle Cupcakes
Batter: Mix in sprinkles as desired; solid thick sprinkles last better than non pareilles (pictured on top of this cupcake), which dissolve in the batter.
Decoration: Vanilla buttercream icing: Pipe with middle round tip in spirals on top, building up with layers of concentric spirals. Top with desired sprinkles.

Create your own cupcake playtime and let me know what flavors your kitchen produces!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

From MacDo to Magnum

A few thoughts on my varied food experiences in Israel...

That's right, I sampled McDonald's ice cream in Jerusalem, and it's just as good.

When I started traveling internationally as a teenager, it was comforting to me to see McDonald's, Burger King, and Coca-Cola products in other countries. I am still fascinated by how each of these enterprises is marketed in other cultures: kosher McDonald's in Israel, Coke Zero in glass bottles in Paris cafés, two-story McDonald's in Beijing serving pineapple sundaes, Coca-cola logos painted on the streets in Guatemala in front of Catholic cathedrals. In Israel, hamburger patties were served on pita bread with tomato-cucumber salad and French fries. The McDonaldization of the world is happening, but not without some contextualization that keeps worldwide McDonald's packed. You know they're doing well in Jerusalem when you see signs blocks away from the restaurant pointing the way there! For better or worse, this is what I've observed in my travels.

On the other hand, Old City Jerusalem offers places like the Armenian Tavern, where one descends a staircase into a stone building to order stuff like this. To be honest, I wanted to try something new, so I just ordered an assorted plate of items I can't identify. The folded bread in the bowl is Armenian pizza (not very cheesy but tasty), the balls on the left are fried dough stuffed with ground meat, the dark sausage on the lower right was an intensely flavored something, and in the upper right there is a marinated dried kind of meat. An adventurous meal, even with the lack of food names.

Can't beat falafel! The best was freshly fried at Damascus Gate (only 7 shekels!), but this one was good too. I gotta learn how to make it from scratch.

Lovin' on the varieties of salads available at meals...this was the amazing dining hall at kibbutz vacation resort Ein Gev on the Sea of Galilee.

We had opportunities to buy these ice cream bars at every stop; they're unfortunately not distributed in the States. My favorite Magnum Desire bars have thick, quality chocolate on the outside, and rich, creamy ice cream with chocolate chunks on the inside.

Intense chocolate! Definitely worth the lactose pills.

And last but not least, Israeli s'mores ingredients: kosher pink and white marshmallows (strawberry and plain), Petit Beurre cookies (the Hebrew on the package is "Petit Beurre" transliterated), and milk chocolate bars. Some students claimed these were the best s'mores they'd ever had...

Isn't Israel fabulously diverse?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tmol Shilshom (תמול שלשום)

I've got a few posts coming up on my travels in Israel, beginning with this glowing report of my now-favorite cafe in Jerusalem: Tmol Shilshom. The approach to this cafe in New Jerusalem increases its intrigue for me: down a side street, past the pictured sign into a small alley, to a larger alley, up a corner flight of stairs and through a half-hidden door. Thus one enters this cozy bookstore cafe, which my friends and I made our home for long conversations and study sessions over the past three weeks.

The eclectic and warm ambiance at Tmol Shilshom plus its wonderful coffee and food (healthy and creative options with beautiful presentation included!) make this almost my ideal cafe (ideal = lower prices and closer to home). The photos I am posting here are a sampling of the beverages and food that we ordered, and I hope they take you one step inside this lovely home away from home.

soy latte in adorable cup and saucer

fresh and filling breakfast:
 granola and fruit with pourable yogurt, 
fresh bread with yogurt spread, cheese, and jam

a group favorite: 
iced coffee served with warm liquid sugar

I love that they serve free carafes of water with lemon slices and mint leaves!

a luscious tart: 
shortbread crust with smooth, hot melted chocolate in the middle

saffron ravioli

a Sinai Sahlab in the signature Tmol Shilshom mug: 
thick custardy sweet drink with bananas and nuts on top

The Mistress Salad (marvelous!): 
arugula, chopped apples, walnuts, caramelized pears, 
caramel dressing with cheese on the side for me

the Submarine (amazing!!!):
steamed milk so hot it melts the bar of chocolate in it, 
with almond liqueur mixed in and pink and white marshmallows

Much thanks to the multiple friends that recommended Tmol Shilshom to me!