Saturday, March 14, 2009

Recettes Secrètes: A Perfect Poach

Last weekend I woke up on Sunday morning passably hungover to overcast skies, wanting nothing more than to enjoy a perfectly poached egg. Congruous was the realization that though poaching is my preperation of choice, I had never actually poached an egg myself. It was the perfect simple project for a day with such limited ambition!
I decided to do a simplified benedict (no drive or patience for hollandaise this particular morning), with english muffins, Niman Ranch apple wood smoked bacon and green heirloom tomatoes.
As much as I love my cast iron skillet, I've been enjoying my thick cut bacon prepared in the oven. It is far less greasy and a nice even cook. To do so, preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Line a lipped baking sheet with tin foil, then place a wire cooling rack over the foil. Lay the bacon flat across the rack and cook for about 15 minutes or to desired crispness. Turn off the oven and let sit until your eggs are ready to serve.
Common Poaching mistakes I've learned are using too much water and with too much heat. The water shouldn't be rapidly boiling, rather a torrid simmer. I also remembered hearing that adding vinegar and salt to the water will aid in holding the egg white's form. My first pass was sub-par, overcooking the yolks. After a second pass, this is what I found worked best:
First, retrieve a medium-sized skillet or shallow pan that has a lid. Fill the skillet with only about 3 inches of water. Put the skillet on high heat and cover to speed up the heating time. Meanwhile, carefully crack each egg into individual measuring cups or small bowls.
When the water in the skillet boils, remove the cover. Add one tablespoon of vinegar (I use apple cider) to the water, and some kosher salt. Lower the lip of each egg-cup 1/2-inch below the surface of the water. Let the eggs ease out into the water. Immediately return the lid to the pan and turn off the heat. Set a timer for exactly three minutes for medium-firm yolks. More or less for runnier or firmer yolks. While the eggs cook, you have time to toast the english muffins and slice the tomatoes. When the timer goes off, remove the cover and lift each egg from the water with a slotted spoon. Lay the bacon and tomato slices on each piece of toast and then gently top with a poached egg. Add salt and pepper to taste. I like a little chipotle hot sauce on mine. Enjoy!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Croquer: A Class Act Brunch at Cecconi's

Upon approaching the recently opened West Hollywood outpost of legendary Venetian (by way of London) institution Cecconi's in the old Morton's location at Melrose and Robertson, the last thing you might expect is a sign reading "complimentary valet". Having strolled a few blocks from my street spot on Melrose, this was only the first of many unpretentious surprises Cecconi's had in store.
Once past the vine-sheered terraces flanking the host station and through the welcoming french doors into Cecconi's, it is impossible to resist the arresting chic color pallette of black/white marble and tourquoise velvet/leather upholstery throughout the room. All of the fixtures are imported relics of exquisite craftmanship, the chandeliers linked hand-blown glass.
Beyond the bar (filled by a family of suspended dried meats and sausages, as well as glassware), to the back of the restaurant is the screened-in exclusive Butterfly Room, impressively presided over by a striking Damien Hirst original.I saw one of my companions seated in a plush velvet corner banquet across the room and joined her, admiring the modest prime location with a view of the entire restaurant. Our extremely good-natured server appeared to fetch us drinks while we waited for our third.
Without needing to be told, I knew from first sip that my cappucino was LAMill espresso, which always scores big points in my book. The mimosa, though made from delicious fresh squeezed oranges, could have used a splash more sparkle. I did not taste my friend's bloody mary, but it looked spicy, thick and peppery, as I prefer mine.
What impressed me immediately upon viewing the menu was the accessibility and affordability of this high-end brunch fare. Starting from eggs any style & toast or an egg white omelette ($6) and delights such as waffle with mascarpone & raspberries or ricotta hotcakes with preserved blueberries ($8), who can really complain this is overpriced Westside dining? Because it's one of my favorite brunch dishes to prepare myself at home, I had to order the Panettone French toast with maple syrup ($9) and a side of applewood smoked bacon ($4). The custardy housemade panettone was thin but in no way flat, bursting with rich cream and dried citrus flavor. The chunky homemade orange marmalade was a perfect match. The bacon was also thinner than my liking, but lean and cooked to perfection; both chewy and crispy.One of my companions splurged on the scrambled eggs with shaved black truffle ($24), which was a divine luxury for the tastebuds.. The eggs were scrambled on the softer side, and the side order of mushrooms she ordered were simply butter and garlic sauteed; nothing special. An eclectic bread basket accompanied the meal, along with an array of other homemade jams, the strawberry which was my second favorite to the marmalade.
After a French toast breakfast, dessert was nowhere near my mind, but after truffles, my guest was ready to sample something on the sweet side. Of course it was no arm twist for me to agree to *try* whatever she ordered. It was unanimous that the blood orange cake with caramel & yoghurt ($9) was the best bet. And it was exquisite. The whipped yogurt was tart and light, a perfect foil for the tacky rich pool of caramel that footed the moist pudding-rich, orange-veined cake. A perfect way to finish off a top-notch afternoon nosh.
Yes, fair Cecconi's with your vast offerings from breakfast through afternoon "Chichetti" and into your Midnight menu, it is safe to bet I will be back - especially for your handmade pastas, which our server's eyes rolled back for a moment trying to put into words.
'Til we meet again..

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gala Parfait: North Dakota Church Basement Casserole Cookoff.. Party

My good friend Britt has been steadfast throughout my formative years, always lending a helping hand, warm smile and good ol' Midwestern hospitality. She is a proud Bismarck, North Dakotan of Norwegian descent who relishes in the quirks of her family and regional traditions. So when she decided to make casseroles for her birthday on a Sunday afternoon, in the “church lady basement” style, none of us flinched, and already began to brainstorm what to wear.
The spread was impressive (yes, on a rooftop patio in Santa Monica - not *quite* a North Dakota basement). Britt had been cooking for days; When we arrived, several casseroles housed in jadeite warmed in the oven, the fridge was stocked with jiggling jello molds crusted with pastel colored mini marshmallows, and "Slush" (formal name in the Stabo Scandinavian Imports ND regional cookbook) chilled in the freezer, ready to be served up with a spritz of 7-up. I brought a modest offering of Andrew Murray Sanglier "Pink Wine", but immediately wished I had made my infamous picnic standby Fusilli Pasta Fruit Salad (MmHmm). Two dishes really stuck out to me as the big winners, so thought I'd share them.. In case you might find yourself wondering what the heck to bring to an after-church potluck of your own!!!
Britt did give a disclaimer with these recipes: "I never really measure things... so, measurements are approximate. But...the beauty of casseroles...they need not be an exact science! Just whatever mama's got in the kitchen will work!"Glorified Rice
2 cups precooked white rice (arborio works nicely, but any kind will do)
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 can pineapple tidbits
1 sweet apple (Gala or Fuji is quite nice)
1 box lemon jello
maraschino cherries
Do it:
Make jello according to box instructions & mix rice into dissolved jello. chill in refrigerator for a few hours until somewhat firm-- 2-4 hours (You can prepare before bed & mix the rest when you wake up). Chop an apple into bite-sized bits. Squeeze lemon onto apple if desired. Mix jello/rice with pineapple tidbits (drain the juice first) & chopped apple. Make whipped cream either by hand (arm workout!) or with a hand blender. It should be a thick & fluffy consistency. Fold whipped cream into mixture until all is light & fluffy. Use enough whipped cream so that the dish looks more white than yellow. Place in serving dish(es) such as a bear head bierstein and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
Let the angels sing! Of the casseroles, the vegetarian (though defnitely NOT vegan) option was the clear crowd-pleaser..Tator Tot Hotdish! (Vegetarian style)
1 10 oz bag vegetarian beef crumbles or other similar product
1 can French cut (Fancy!) Green Beans
1 can cream of mushroom soup
about 1/3 cup milk
1 small yellow or white onion
1 can mushrooms (optional)
1/2 bag Tator Tots
lots of shredded Cheddar Cheese (maybe 4 handfuls)
oregano if you've got it
Do it:
Saute onion in butter on medium high heat. Add veggie beef crumbles & saute about 5 minutes. Season with pepper/ oregano. Add cream of mushroom soup & enough milk to moisten the mixture well. Layer mixture into bottom half of casserole dish. Maybe 9-12 inches. Drain the green beans & mushrooms & spread over mixture. Sprinkle cheese over mixture. Add Tator Tots- distributing over entire top of dish. Sprinkle a light layer of cheddar cheese over tator tots. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. Start peeking at about 30 minutes to make sure it's not burning. Should brown nicely. Depending on your oven power, you may want to turn on the broiler for the last 5-10 minutes to brown the tator tots until crispy.
Voila! MMMM... Taste that culture! Now clear your plate before goin' to play with those cattails, ya hear!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Croquer: Sushi, Two Ways

I was very excited to get my first guest blog submission from my friend Ashley via text last week! She was in New York, sitting at the West Village vegetarian (Red Bamboo off-shoot) Soy & Sake Village (47 7th Ave S #49, NYC 212.255.2848). "You'd be proud, Nathan," she beamed (yes, via text) and told me she'd send a photo of the glorious animal-less sushi roll she was thoroughly enjoying. Check out the Village Roll (faux rock shrimp, tempura, cucumbers topped with fried banana and avocado with spicy vegan mayo). "Deliciousness x a million," she claims. I believe it!
On my way to a concert at the Wiltern Theatre this week, I found myself craving a little sushi myself (shocker), and wanting to find a GOOD spot nearby (instead of the eeny-meeny among the fishy strip malls) my passenger pulled up a Yelp location search for the area on her phone, which directed us to Sushi Eyaki (5040 Wilshire Blvd. 323.930.2636). Though it was a discreet strip mall storefront, I already got a good feeling from Eyaki. We sat at the small sushi bar and promptly ordered salmon sashimi, a spicy tuna crunch roll and the Rock n Roll (shrimp, baked fresh water eel, avocado & crabmeat, tempura fried). First on my radar were the details - the fresh pickled ginger and sweet cucumbers set before us first were the most delightful I've tasted in LA. The salmon was butter-smooth perfection, trumping any sashimi I personally have had before (note: I am a sushi novice - though my seasoned guest did agree to its superior quality). The following rolls were complex and very tasty, though perhaps overly ornamented with eel sauce and spicy mayo drizzles.. I had a little trouble tasting the tuna and eel. Which brings me to a critical point: This semi-fish-phobic (me) might just be growing his chops a bit!
..And it never tasted so good!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Croquer: KOGI BBQ - May Require Hard Hat and Thick Skin

The time now is 12:58am
This may be the first time I have written on an experience immediately following.. But this could not wait. Too rich.
This isn’t really a post about food. More about cultural phenomena, the power that is word of mouth, trends, and innovation. It’s about hunger. I thought I was simply going to get tacos tonight, but in addition I was pinned by a mob, saw some celebs, witnessed a fight (over tacos), laughed with strangers, and awoke my taste buds.
I’d been flirting with the Kogi truck’s website for a solid week or two, fantasizing about the trucks’ schedule.. Trying to imagine myself in those places at those times, how long the line would be and who might be there. The closest it would be to my home was in Silverlake tonight, Thursday at 10:30pm, parked outside of the 4100 Bar. I vowed to be there.
OK back story: For several months now I’ve been hearing rave reviews about this roving taco truck. A Korean taco truck. Yeah, we’re talking Korean BBQ short ribs wrapped up in tortillas and Kim chi quesadillas. Only in LA. What’s more, since the truck is always on the go, you have to follow it on Twitter to get the current location. Luckily for the Twitterless, the website hosts a feed of the most recent posts, as well as a rough weekly schedule.
So there I was earlier tonight, 10:00pm, pulling up beside darkened Sunset Junction shop windows and scoping the scene. I saw a small gang of loiterers outside of the 4100 down the block. They were already hovering.
“First time?” a tipsy Korean girl in a furry hood asked as I approached the crowd and settled beside her. I nodded excitedly. Everyone was abuzz; the electricity in the late winter air was tangible. The 40-some-odd of us were shifting from one foot to the other in anticipation of something that hadn’t even arrived yet. I checked the time; it was now past 10:30 and still nothing. The crowd was mounting, in an unorganized sprawling continent spanning from the bar door down to the parking lot around the corner. I anticipated madness. Within minutes, I heard chirps and shouts, as if a gleaming tour bus was approaching an alley of adoring fans. A modest catering truck driven by insta-celebrity Kogi MVP Chef Roy himself pulled alongside us, he hung his baseball-capped head out of the window to address his people with a raised party fist. “Aziz!” he shouted to the Human Giant star and loyal customer in the crowd. Everyone cheered.
The truck pulled up literally onto the sidewalk where we had been standing, so the mob was ushered backward to the parking lot, where you could feel the tension thickening. Everyone started murmuring complaints about who was there first, and when. I understand the concern, but I for one had zero choice where I was going to end up in the line, I was pinned firmly to the wall, where I stayed planted for the next 20 minutes until the line inched forward. The truck teetered ominously on its perch and someone behind me commented that this was a Darwin Award waiting to happen. A wily taco lover in the back shouted something about cutting in line to a few people toward the front; the usual offensive remarks were tossed back and forth from each ‘gentleman’ until someone must have bit their thumb, because the escalation became very real. People laughed, others taunted, while most rolled their eyes, huddled against each other in the cold, and squinted ahead toward the aromatic truck. Chef Roy stepped in, further delaying Taco time, to appease his people and exorcise the drama with his winning grin. Inside the truck Roy’s cooks worked furiously. Tacos began filing out of the small window. Somehow, I made it to the front of the line, and I felt like Charlie approaching that chocolate factory for the first time. I decided to sample three tacos (which, coincidentally is the limit per customer!). I ordered a Korean Short Rib, Spicy Pork, and Spicy BBQ Chicken. Each was dressed with sesame-chili salsa roja, julienne romaine lettuce and cabbage tossed in Korean chili-soy vinaigrette, cilantro-green onion-lime relish, crushed sesame seeds, and sea salt. Eager to escape the twisted juju of the mob, I crossed the street to taste my bounty is the serene glow of the Jiffy Lube. Bite one converted me. The Short Rib was a (pardon the cliché) true explosion of complex and intricate flavors. Deeply savory with a bbq tang, rich smoke, brown sugar sweetness, hint of nuttiness and a vinegar-sweet/tart finish. Yes, I think I finally understand you, elusive umami. The Spicy Pork was less spicy than expected, but similarly flavored and robust. The Spicy BBQ Chicken too could have benefited from more of its namesake (or a healthy dose of Sriracha), but had a delightful crunch that I wanted more of. Much more. I devoured all three tacos before I made it to my car, delicious sweet grease dripping from my fingers. My palate was content, still trying to process what it had experienced, as I too tried to piece together how the last couple hours of my life were spent. I drank the [Korean] Kool-Aid, I jumped on the tacowagon. I know I’ll see Aziz again, and hope when I do it’s not at the end of mile-long giant human line.

Kogi is also available in a reliable, stationary sit-down format Mon-Sat from 6pm-12am at the Alibi Room (12236 Washington Blvd, Culver City), which I recommend for the weak of heart and/or claustrophobic.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Buvare: The Varnish

The first time I went to the Association, I thought it was the rumored bar to be opening in "the back of" Cole's French Dip (A recent reopening of the old LA Landmark and sole contender with Phillipe for prestigious title of Originator of the French Dipped Sandwich), as it is tucked, unmarked, next to the Cole's restaurant. The bar in question however is NOT the Association, but freshly opened the Varnish - Yes, literally "in the back of" Cole's dining room.
But plan to do some searching like me. There is no immediately apparent swinging bar inside Cole's. I poked by the bathrooms and then the kitchen before turning to a wooden panel, sans doorknob and only a set deadbolt holding a crack open for me to hear activity behind. The sinker was a small framed drawing of a coupe glass on the door. To my guests' surprise, I pried the mystery door open to find a lovely dim speakeasy on the other side. I use the term speakeasy loosely of course, as the Varnish is a bona fide bar, opened by Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey in New York; mixologist Eric Alperin of Mozza and the Doheny; and Cedd Moses, owner of Cole’s and downtown bar scene kingpins Golden Gopher, Seven Grand, and Broadway Bar.
Given these weighty ties, the Varnish was remarkably down-to-earth and pleasant (then I did say that about the Edison after its soft opening as well). The room consists of a handful of booths - one of which we were lucky to score - a couple of small tables and a modest bar covered with chemistry glassware full of high-end mixers (Violette anyone?).
The cocktail menu is simple and classic, with a few twists.
My friend got the top drink on the list, called "the Business" (gin, lime, honey). It was light, fresh and slightly reminiscent of a Luden's natural honey-lemon cough drops (in a good way) - perfect for a summer day or a night out, with a cold. I opted for their amalgamation of two of my favorite whiskey classics, called "Remember the Maine"
(rye, vermouth, heering - a Danish cherry liqueur, and absinthe) - a cross between a Manhattan and a Sazerac (while everyone's claiming dibs, the Sazerac is often called the FIRST cocktail).
And after several other classics on the list like a Hot Buttered Rum and a Stinger (Brandy, Creme de Menthe, crushed ice) is the option for Bartender's Choice ("Allow us"). One of my friends went this route and after a short interview with her, the bartender started whipping up something far more special than what we had ordered (birthing slight envy). She ended up with a tall frothy glass of what he was calling a Bonded Apple Brandy Fizz. Now, Laird's Applejack (the more household sibling of Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy) is one of my favorite liquors, and a true [eggwhite] fizz is a pastime I could use a little more of in my life. So yes, I did taste this drink, and boy did it floor me. Frou frou done oh so right.
Thus, the next time you want to impress an out of town guest (this is no "LA" a visitor would ever expect), or just get a sexy nightcap to seal the deal, swing by the Varnish for a couple of mugs of fancy-ass moonshine.

The Varnish, 118 E. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 622-9999

[Top photos via mattatouille]

Monday, March 2, 2009

Croquer: Let's Be Frank

Is it the recession? The food cart is the IT way to 'dine' these days in LA, especially with cheap gourmet the likes of Kogi steadily on the rise. Not that I'm complaining.
My current haunt is Taqueria El Pastor (5179 Santa Monica Blvd, just West of Normandie, LA 90029; 323-644-9806) where the late-night Carnitas and al Pastor are scrumptious, but the extra spicy house-made hot sauces take the cake.
On the other side of the lake, brought to you every Thursday night courtesy of Silverlake Wine's hookup, another special brand of affordable delight is double-parked. Behold Let's Be Frank gourmet dogs. From San Fran comes this purist for the Pink's set, hand-making delicious brats and dogs with the highest quality ingredients available. AND at the cart they're only $5 a pop. I swung by last Thursday and stood in line between zin-lipped couples during Silverlake Wine's Thursday Night Flights for a taste of the dog.I opted for the bratwurst - always do (which felt like cheating so close to the Red Lion Tavern). The extra long brat came topped with freshly grilled onions and homemade bread and butter pickles (YUM), to which I added saurkraut and deli mustard. I must say that I was NOT disappointed. The best part that I really didn't expect was the bun - obviously homemade as well, chewy and soft, steamed to perfection. More substantial and less spongey than your average bun. The brat was perfectly spiced, beery and smokey; a touch of sweet anise to leave the last bite as satisfying as the first.
Though there was no way I could try the hot dog on the same night, on my drive home I realized I would be passing Scoops at Melrose and Heliotrope.. A phenom so revered in these parts that I am literally embarrassed and don't often share that I have NEVER HAD IT. Not for the sake of not trying, however.. In fact, I have tried to go to Scoops on MANY occasions, often after a filling jackfruit faux-pulled-pork sandwich across the street at Pure Luck. I have even begged for the famous Brown Bread ice cream through the gate being pulled in front of me at 10pm on the dot. But there was no sympathy in the icy scoop-slinger's eyes on the other side. I would have to come back, again. So on Thursday night when I turned onto Heliotrope at 9:45pm and saw some people still sitting on the patio and the gate only partially pulled out to signify closing time, I held my breath, parked and RAN. I made it inside, breathing hard, and the silent room turned to look at me blankly, licking their tiny plastic spoons. The lanky casual guy behind the counter seemed unphased as I began checking out the daily selection in the cooler case. Deciding would be too difficult, especially since the Brown Bread container was emptied, so I asked what was good today and set my destiny in Cool Hand Luke's chilly palms. He pointed to the near-empty Oreo Marscapone pan, said though he doesn't eat ice cream ("if [I] can believe that"), this was easily the fluffiest, cheesiest, lightly sweet treat available. I took him up on it, and boy.. was it tasty! Basically cookies n' cream.. but with smooth Marscapone-cheesiness. Delish.
Yes, it was a two for two Thursday! I can't wait to go back to both!