Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Recettes Secrètes: Le Pigeon's Famous Cornbread Cake

I may live in Los Angeles, but my heart still belongs to Portland, OR. You can count on many mentions throughout the life of this little outpost. The main reason? Portland dining RULES.
My last trip to Portland had many near-perfect dining moments.. But one dessert might have taken the cake - literally.
Portland's culinary darling de jour Le Pigeon has been making some serious waves since it opening in a small storefront on Burnside, in the shadow of the Jupiter Hotel/Doug Fir complex. The trucker cap-wearing hipster chef Gabriel Rucker would look more at home on stage with MSTRKRFT than behind a line, but obviously revels in his slacker-chic in-your-face style of loudly entertaining while serving up the most delicious food in the hood.
Le Pigeon is a tiny bistro, and after my 2 hour wait ended up at a cramped counter spot facing the 3-in-a-hole open kitchen. As we ordered our entrees, Chef Rucker shouted to the house (all of one small room) that there was only one cornbread cake left. My server got a stricken look and I knew this was some secret I wasn't in on yet, so turned to the man and said it was taken. The moustached Rucker grinned at me and promised I treat i wouldn't soon forget. He was right.
The delicious short rib I had that night pales in my memory now compared to the rich "dessert". This delcious fluffy buttery cake is served warm drizzled with maple syrup, dappled with juicy diced bacon and apricots, and topped with a scoop of house-made maple ice cream. Every part of your tongue is exercised tasting this treasure..

Thank goodness for the New York Times. Within a week of my return to LA, this article and recipe was forwarded to me - Apparently I am not the only person who raves about this dessert. If you don't forsee a trip to Portland or Le Pigeon in your immediate future but are dying to indulge, try your hand at this simplified recipe yourself!

Cornbread Cake
Adapted from Gabriel Rucker, Le Pigeon, Portland, OR
Time: 1 hour

Butter for greasing pan
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, more for dusting pan
3 slices bacon, diced small
1 1/4 cups cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon molasses
1/2 cup (about 2 ounces) thinly sliced dried apricots
Maple ice cream

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch-square baking pan; set aside. In a large skillet, fry bacon until crisp. Drain on paper towels; reserve.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Whisk to blend, then mound and make a well in the center. Pour in eggs, buttermilk and milk; stir with a fork until lightly combined.
3. Add honey, molasses, apricots and bacon bits. Mix again until evenly combined. Pour into pan and bake until it has risen and center is firm and dry when a toothpick is inserted, about 35 minutes. Allow to cool, then cut into small squares and serve with a dollop of maple ice cream on top.

Yield: One 8-inch square cake (12 servings)

The Reality of TV: My Hell's Kitchen

After several hours of waiting in a drab Culver City studio warehouse, sitting on rickety folding chairs in our formal dining duds, we are motioned to enter into the "restaurant", feigning pulling up in our car at valet. Luckily we passed the casting standards and are upgraded to a front booth rather than the off-camera loft in the back we were initially promised. Things are looking up. However, as we do look up, it becomes crystal clear this is a TV studio set, not a functioning restaurant. The cavernous rafters above where the wallpapered walls end are adorned with hundreds of studio lights. It is a very bright set - the ambiance is purely a camera trick. In fact, there is not even a restroom in the fancy Gordon Ramsey dining establishment.. There are ushers that make sure you don't get hit by the swooping cranes or backward running camera men and give you the complex directions to the port-a-potties out in the parking lot. All of this aside, we are starving and EXTREMELY grateful to be seated. Our lovely server is with us immediately and actually seems to be a genuine server, rather than an actor (oh wait.. he's probably both). He immediatley makes us laugh and rushes out some massive balloon glasses of cheap-but-drinkable Chardonnay and Cabernet and a basket overflowing with various breeds of bread product. Drooling, we excitedly review the descriptive coursed menu.. the decision is not easy, but we each pick a different appetizer, entree and dessert, as directed. It sounds like way too much food, but we graciously accept the assignment.
Our waiter is quick to take our order and rush it to the expeditor. Suddenly this all seems to be speeding along. We sit back and enjoy our bread and wine, turning our eyes to the chefs skittering behind the glass wall. We can't hear the drama, but we can clearly see Chef Ramsey's glistening forehead and spitting shouts.
Another round of wine is poured.. Worried about filling up before our food, we try to ease up on the bread basket. It is starting to seem a little odd that our appetizers have not come. Of course in any normal restaurant, this is where things would go different. Only here, at our inquiry, the waiter makes a joke and rolls his eyes toward the kitchen like "this is how it goes, sorry."
We recall the explicit pre-shoot warning that we are not guarenteed a meal.. and suddenly that bread basket is looking more appealing. So we wait, we munch on carbs for survival and down several more glasses of wine. They chefs in the kitchen do NOT look happy, and we see plate after plate get sent back or thrown by Ramsey. Nothing appears to be leaving the kitchen anymore. A few tables near us got their apps, but nothing beyond that. When Ramsey kicks over a garbage can and marches out of the kitchen, we all exchange a look, down our glass and motion for another pour. Our server smiles apologetically and lets us know that the kitchen has in fact closed.. two hours after we ordered. He ends up staying and chatting with us, keeping our glasses full as we drown our disappointment. We thank him for being so good to us, and trudge out to the lot with the rest of the famished diners.
We decide we are relatively drunk and accept the cab vouchers as well as the $20 each "pay", solidifying our experience as extras rather than diners. A security guard stops me as I go to take a grainy picture of the restaurant exterior with my cell phone and I decide that it is BEYOND time to get off this lot. We return to the car, pop open the back and get changed out of our stuffy clothes (not really caring who's watching), then return for our complimentary cab and tell him not to stop until he hits the Hollywood.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Croquer: Street Dogs!

Nothing cures a post-rockshow alchohol-only-filled-belly snack attack quite like a greasy condiment-dripping bacon-wrapped roadside-roasted Mexican Hot Dog. Best $3 you can spend.
Like, ever.

Braisin' In The Sun

My new hero of the culinary world is none other than... my sister!
For the past 5 years, Megan has been volunteering for Tucson's Primavera Cooks!, a series of charity dinners at the hottest restaurants in town to raise money for the Primavera Foundation ("provides pathways out of poverty for Tucson's homeless and working poor").
She's not just dishing out food though.. Megan actually donates to the organization for the opportunity to be an apprentice chef in the kitchen for one of these wine-paired, multi-coursed dinners, working with some of Tucson's top chefs from menu conception to prep to the line. After four years at Pastiche, this year she tried her hand in the kitchen of world-renowned chef Janos Wilder at his french-inspired southwest institution Janos.
Check out this great Tucson Weekly article featuring Megan!
I am ashamed to admit that I have never made it back to Tucson for ANY of the charity dinners Megan has participated in these past years, and after seeing pictures of the meal... This time it REALLY hurts!
Get ready to be hungry, this is what they made...

Hors d’Oeuvres

Mini Achiote Chicken Tostadas with Spicy Black Beans and Roasted Corn Vinaigrette

Peruvian Purple Potato Chips with Moutabel and Moorish Black Olives

Chilled Coconut Milk, Pineapple and Lime Soup with Caramelized Pineapple, Mint and Jalapeno Syrups

Dinner in Great Room

Brandy Flamed Mushrooms, Heirloom Tomatoes, Pearl Onions, Vella Dry Jack and Frizzled Leeks on Garlic Toast with Leek Vinaigrette

Roast Duck Breast with Darker Meat Braised with Sultanas, Creamy Polenta, Pea Coulis and Baby Local Beets with Amarena Cherry Syrup

Molasses, Coffee and Red Chile Adobado rubbed Bistro Filet with Chipotle Molasses Sweet Potatoes, Whittled Jumbo Asparagus, Agua Linda Fava Beans, Spicy Red Wine Syrup and Anaheim Chile Vinaigrette


Honey Caramel Chocolate Praline Bombe with Kahlua Ice Cream

Mmmmm Bon Apetit!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Croquer: Malo Mañana

Malo Cantina on Sunset, perched on the border of Los Feliz and Sunset Junction (and cozied up to Elliot Smith's famous wall) has long been one of my favorite spots for an all-around pleasant dining experience. While from my first visit I admit to taking petty issues with this and that, it was the content satisfaction upon leaving and desire to return that made the lasting impression. Sure, the bar is dark, cramped and sticky, the dining room drab and dinny, and the patio an extension of the concrete parking lot... But Malo is also the first tequila bar I've frequented where a bartender has gone out of her way to engage me with her vast knowledge of her subject, where I actually learned a thing or two about tequila-making and mescal, and enjoyed samples from their extensive collection to wash down the scrumptious beef and pickle tacos. She kept me coming back, saddling up at the bar, ready for my next course (and tastes!).
Then I tried the Al Pastor.
It's been a happy honeymoon ever since!
So when I heard the news about Malo's new weekend brunch undertaking, naturally I was excited although aprehensive. Could they make the cut and hold onto quality? Or would they suffer the common fate of a watered-down excuse for more open business hours?
True to form, I was quick in line to find out.

First I will admit what I initially was going to omit, that in one weekend, I actually brunched at Malo.. twice. So then, now that it's out in the open, Saturday: It was a late start, we rolled up outside a 1:15 (brunch ends on both days at 2:00pm). The dining room only had a few occupied tables, but we opted to dine al fresco, which was equally sparse. I was immediately taken with the menu, the cover listing many new "brunch cocktails". The first several were standards, with "brunch" tacked onto the name, but as I read my mouth began to water (and wonder). I decided to try the refreshing sounding Cucumber Margarita (fresh cucumber, Milagro silver, tabasco, lime, agave nectar) and my date decided on the Watermelon Margarita (fresh watermelon, Milagro silver, basil). Both hit the spot, although the cucumber was slightly on the watery side. I ordered the Chilaquiles con Huevos, which were delicious if not overwhelmingly one-noted - The large mound of homemade chips were sauteed with eggs, cheese, drenched in a tangy salsa roja and sprinkled with green onion. What the dish lacked was a side. A small dent into the mountain and I was ready for a flavor compliment of some kind. I would recommend this dish, but definitely to share. My date had the Huevos Rancheros which were picture-perfectly baked in a cast iron skillet, made up of 2 fried eggs, black beans, corn tortillas, cheese and ranchero sauce. After another round of Malo's tart house margaritas, we were sufficiently pleased and ready for our day sitting on astroturf sunning, in a warehouse parking lot sipping carbonated wine in a can and Colt 45 (that's another post entirely).

When Malo seemed the only logical choice for brunch on Sunday, I knew I would definitely get a review out of the weekend. We arrived before noon, to a surprisingly similar desolate scene. A table outside was harder to score this time however, as there appeared to be several long tables reserved. We were seated in a sunny corner, so immediately required margarita refreshment. Despite the multitude of options, I went with the Cucumber again, as I was told the Fresa Margarita was incredibly sweet (though the allspice and black pepper listed ingredients intrigued me). Today I opted for the Pozole Poached Eggs, and my date the Scrambled Egg Tostadas per the server's suggestion. Not a bad hint at all, the homemade tortillas were piled high with black beans, scrambled eggs, cheese, tomato, green onion and nopalitos (cactus meat), covered in a spicy creamy "Oaxacan" sauce. Delicious! I was envious, until I tried my pozole.

I had missed this on the menu the previous day, thank goodness for second chances. This dish is truly an innovation. Two foods high on my fave list are perfectly poached eggs and homemade chicken pozole. I can't say I would have ever thought to combine them though. The cast iron skillet set in front of me held two eggs exquisitely poached in the rich tomato broth (adding an amazing depth of flavor to the eggs) with shredded white chicken, hominy, corn tortillas, cheese and green onion. The only thing left to be desired was a little spice, which a few dashes of Tapatio completed.
It was the perfect brunch meal.. Not too heavy, but tantalizing and comforting.
I know Malo is only a couple of weekends into their brunch service, and in maintaining their reputation for reliability, I know in coming weeks nabbing a patio table, much less any won't be nearly as easy.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Buvare: Michelada

The first time I saw someone order a Michelada, I must have had a look somewhere between disgust and wonder on my face. It just didn't look right: A salted glass filled with ice, hot sauce and...beer? Thankfully I'll try [most] anything once and gave it a go. Nowadays, the Mexican drink is one of my favorite summer refreshers.

The origins of the drink, namesake, and even ingredients remain points of contention among Cocktail Historians, some calling it a Cuban drink, others crediting its conception to Mexico's Revolution General Augusto Michel. Some think the name merely comes from the spanish pronunciation of "Michelob", while others think (more understandably) that it comes from "Mi Chela Helada" - My Cold Beer.
Regardless, the drink is shockingly tasty, and here Readers is my version of the debated recipe.

- Squeeze the juice of 1/2 lime into an ice-filled, salt-rimmed glass
- A few dashes of your favorite hot sauce (I use Tapatio)
- Dash of Worcestershire sauce
- Add a pinch of salt
- Pour in your favorite Mexican beer
- Stir, garnish with lime, and enjoy!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Buvare: Margarita

Nothing says lazy weekend Summer afternoon in the West quite like a frosty salt-encrusted thirst-quenching Margarita. They are also my favorite cocktails to mix at home and for guests, whether squeezing from fresh fruit, experimenting with different flavors or guiltily indulging in an americana bastardization of the libation. Here are some of my notes on making a crowd and tastebud pleasing marg.

Perfect Scratch Cadillac Margarita
All you really need for a perfect margarita is decent tequila, lime juice, orange liquor, and salt. The classic Cadillac uses Cuervo 1800 and Grand Mariner, but I also like Suaza Hornitos and Cointreau.
Follow a 3:2:1 ratio - 1 1/2 oz. tequila, 1 oz. fresh lime juice, and 1/2 oz. Grand Marnier. Shake over ice and serve in salt-rimmed glass.

Fiddling with a Classic
I always tend to follow this basic mixing recipe to start, but sometimes when I'm in the kitchen my puckish (if not wreckless) creative side takes over. Muddled fruits, juices, peppers and herbs later, I either have a new favorite or an occasional sour frown. When mixing in bulk or for large numbers of people, sometimes the hand-crafted details (particularly the fresh squeezed juices) can prove awfully laborious. Luckily Trader Joes has introduced a remarkably affordable ($1.99 bottle) and tasty mix, sans nasty preservatives. This weekend while entertaining I tried muddling fresh pineapple with a lime wedge to start, adding Hornitos, triple sec, splash of OJ, splash of Guava nectar and topped the shaker off with a dash of Trader Joes mix. Shaken and served on the rocks, glasses rimmed with margarita salt I tossed with some smoky chili powder. It was a hit! Moral: Don't be afraid to experiment and see what a Jalepeno Cilantro Margarita might taste like. In fact, one of my favorite cocktails of all time was a spicy twist on a margarita. Colosso, a [sadly now-deceased] tapas bar in southeast Portland concocted the Zirkpatrick, a delicious cocktail combining housemade black pepper-infused Tequila shaken with pure pomegranite juice and fresh lime, served on the rocks with a salted rim. The spice of the pepper was perfectly offset by the juicy tannin of the pomegranite and tartness of the lime. Simple tweaks anyone can do that can add a whole new dimension include adding some fresh clementine or tangerine juice, muddling a fresh apricot or some mint leaves, shaking in a couple blackberries, mixing in coconut and other tropical fruit juices, or simply floating some nice cognac on top. Have fun with it!

The Trailer Trash Margarita
Sometimes the foodie in you needs a vacation. For lazy days by the pool, I prefer this old "family" recipe (apparently a priest taught my mother... Amy Sedaris also endorses it in her hospitality book I Like You). This margarita has a different effect than the standard tequila-only brand, creating a mellow buzz that is just right for an afternoon in the sun. Start by emptying 6 oz (1/2 can) of frozen limeade concentrate into a blender. Save the other half in another container for the second round! (There will always be another pitcher.. be warned!)
Fill the empty concentrate can 2/3 with tequila of your choice (don't waste the fancy stuff on this recipe). Fill the last 1/3 with triple sec. Pour in a bottle of light mexican lager beer (I like Pacifico) and top the blender with lots of ice. Pulse until smooth and watch for the froth (I sometimes add the beer slowly as I blend so as not to overflow). Pour in Schlitz glasses, garnish with lime and enjoy the float down the river!

Another Round, Please!
Now that we've thoroughly discussed margarita-making at home.. what about those warm Los Angeles summer days that are SO lazy, you don't even feel like making your own margarita? Well, Lord knows this is most of the season, so let's quickly one-off the prime watering holes for margs in the neighborhood.
Drumroll, please.

10. Barragans: Go on Wednesday for $2.50 margs - But you'll need about triple your average intake (the buggers are deceptively small).
9. El Compadre: Home of the famous Flaming Margarita - Just don't spill the singed 151 into your drink.. Makes the whole thing taste like lighter fluid.
8. Casita Del Campo: Serve doubles and a darn good blended marg, great patio too.
7. Mexico City: A dependable, appropriately dosed, balanced margarita every time.
6. El Chavo: A classic - No frills, but who can complain about a $5 marg??
5. Malo: A tart, stiff standby. Great with their pineapple-infused tequila too.
4. El Carmen: Knows how to make a good 'rita. Just avoid the spicy jalepeno version.
3. Lava Lounge (RIP!): I swear there were egg whites in this frothy masterpiece.
2. L' Scorpion: Solid top shelf tequila bar delivers - and has a killer happy hour.
1. El Conquistador: Heroin moonshine trumps any day. (But if you don't feel like blacking out, try the banana blended margarita - I know, I know, just TRUST ME!)