Saturday, January 17, 2015

Winter Kale Slaw

New Year's Day is a big deal in my family - far bigger than that whole champagne-until-you-drop New Year's Eve business, which, to be perfectly honest, I'd really rather skip through entirely. This year I did mostly that, uncorking a bottle of blanc de blanc and watching a very sanitized-for-TV version of Pretty Woman before conking out at 11 pm in true rockstar fashion.

It was everything I dreamt it would be when all other plans for the evening fell through at the last second, mostly due to my hesitation to spend $300 on an Uber.

This, my friends, is real life. (At least in Los Angeles.)

But New Year's Day is another story entirely, a story that has been repeating itself for as long as I can remember. Every year, my dad takes over the kitchen at my folks' house down in Newport Beach, and cooks up a huge Mexican feast that includes no fewer than four baking dishes filled with chicken enchiladas, carne asada, guacamole, rice, and, depending on my family's interest level that year, black beans with salt pork.

It's a bold move for the first day of January, a moment when everyone is feeling slightly remorseful about eating and drinking far more than usual in the preceding days/weeks (see "champagne-until-you-drop"), and is toying with the idea of resolutions that preclude the ingestion of anything remotely fun at all.

Naturally, everyone in my family chooses to go in the opposite direction - skirting around the notion of lightening up in favor of, well, skirt steak tacos. We pretend that words like "cleanse" and "resolution" and "new year, new you" don't exist, each of us singing a chorus of "La la la, I can't hear you" in our heads.

And, so we feast.

Doing horrible things like grating cheddar cheese over nacho cheese Doritos and sticking them under the broiler to make "nachos," and piling our plates precariously full with my dad's enchiladas topped with an obscene quantity of guacamole. Because we all know that guacamole is basically a salad, right?

Amidst all this reckless (and hence glorious) gluttony, I usually find myself in the minority contingent that actually does want something leaf-like to provide a bit of contrast on that over-loaded plate. Not because I plan to eat any less of everything else, but because I genuinely enjoy having a kale palate cleanser between bites of white trash nacho Doritos (the best).

This year, I pushed a winter kale slaw salad (adapted from Sprouted Kitchen) on my family, forcing them to briefly acknowledge that there is an outside world where vegetables do exist on January 1st. For once, my efforts weren't met with eye rolls, but rather nods of appreciation.

This salad, while virtuous, is by no means a wimpy, wilty, sad sack situation. With its cinnamon-spiced cubes of roasted butternut squash, tart pomegranate seeds, and aggressive garnish of both toasted pumpkin seeds AND parmesan reggiano, it is a salad with substance. It can stand alone on those days after January 1 when nothing more is needed, but still hold its own as an interloper in the midst of a robust holiday feast.

In other words, it's a true rockstar. (Even if its maker is decidedly not.)

Winter Kale Slaw with Roasted Shallot Dressing
Adapted from Sprouted Kitchen
Serves a lot of people

Notes: The original version of this recipe calls for dried cherries and pecans, which feels like a completely reasonable thing to do in a winter slaw recipe. Because I was serving this alongside Mexican food on the first go, I opted to use pomegranate seeds and pepitas instead and have stuck with this route for the time being. Most of everything else remains fairly enact other than with regards to the dressing, which I've tweaked slightly - reducing the olive oil, using the full recommended amount of apple cider vinegar, and nixing the chives, simply because I didn't have any. You won't need all the dressing (unless you like things VERY dressed), but it will keep in the fridge for a few days, so can be repurposed on other salad-type things. Tis the season, right?

3 cups butternut squash, cut into 1/2'' cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pinch of salt, smoked paprika and cinnamon

2 bunches lacinato/tuscan kale, stems-removed, washed and dried, and sliced into thin ribbons
1/2 head red cabbage, sliced into thin ribbons (hello, knife skills!)
1/2 small red onion, sliced thin (Pro tip: If you are adverse to raw onions, try soaking the slices in cold water for 30 minutes or so before using)
3/4 cup pomegranate seeds
Sea salt, to taste
3/4 cup shaved parmesan reggiano
3/4 cup toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
Roasted shallot dressing
2 small or 1 large shallot (skins on!)
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon each sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim the ends off the shallot (or shallots), drizzle with a bit of olive oil and wrap up in foil. Place in oven and let roast for approximately 45 minutes or until tender. Let cool slightly before handling. Once you're able to confidently touch it without scalding your fingers, peel off the skin. Place the peeled shallot in a blender with the vinegar, mustard, olive oil, lemon juice, honey, salt, and pepper, and puree until smooth.

Toss the butternut squash with olive oil, and season with salt, smoked paprika and cinnamon. Spread out in an even layer on a baking sheet and roast until easily pierced with a fork (around 20-30 minutes depending on the firmness of the squash). Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

In a very large salad bowl, combine the slivered kale, cabbage, red onion, roasted butternut squash, and pomegranate seeds. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Drizzle part of the dressing over the salad and begin to toss, tasting after the first application to gage whether to add more. (Note: You may even want to let it sit for 5-10 minutes before tasting, as the dressing with start to soften the kale/cabbage and you may not need to add much more!) 

Once the slaw is dressed to your liking, serve, topped with parmesan and pepitas.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Best Restaurant Bites of 2014

I know. Just when you thought I was done, my hands wiped clean of 2014, I had to go and do this.

Basically, I'm aiming to write as many best of 2014 posts as I did actual posts last year. Or, the far more boring truth that I just really really like lists and felt compelled to eke out one more before I take down my Christmas tree and move on with 2015, already.

So, here we go… my favorite dishes I enjoyed outside of my apartment this year [with the usual (yawn) disclaimer that this list excludes any items I had at clients, even if they were, potentially, worthy of inclusion].

Squid Ink Spaghettini with Dungeness Crab, Uni Butter, Sardo Cheese, and Charred Kumquats from Orsa & Winston in Los Angeles
When Cathy and I made plans to dine at Josef Centeno's arguably most culinarily ambitious restaurant in what has become a veritable Centeno Complex at 4th & Spring Street in Downtown Los Angeles, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd read about the buttery, Japanese milk bread, stared into the eye of the "Breakfast in a(n Egg) Shell" across many an Instragram feed, and heard rumors of an exquisite, almost redundantly creamy risotto crowned with sea urchin and texturally reprieving geoduck. Centeno's foray into fine dining requires the diner to exhibit trust - to submit to his culpable hands via a tasting menu format that does not defer to dietary preference. As Cathy and I learned last February, to the trusting go the spoils. What was most unexpected, aside from the near flawless progression of courses that seamlessly balanced precision with nuances of whimsy, was the supplemental dish we ordered on a, well, whim. The squid ink spaghettini's al dente strands could have stood alone with perhaps no more than a sheen of oil or gloss of butter and been spectacular. But the marriage of the noodles with sweet crab, luscious uni butter, sardo cheese, and game-changing charred kumquats brought this dish into closed-eye-revelation territory. Nearly twelve months later it still stands out to me like an exclamation point amidst a block of punctuationless text. 

Courtesy of Republique's Facebook
French Fries at Republique in Los Angeles
In the moment I remember thinking, "These are really good fries." Then, a minute later, pausing mid-fry to, again, reflect, "Really really really good fries." Partially provoked by the assistance of splashy pours from Wine Director Taylor Parsons, two orders of the assertively salty, crisp strands barely seemed sufficient to cover our party of three girls, even with the roast chicken, agnolotti, crusty baguette with Normandy butter, and roasted cauliflower that were also nourishing our table. The next day I thought perhaps I was mistaken in my over-hyperbolic response, blinded by too many sips of whatever it was that was keeping us so well-hydrated that evening. Yet, within weeks Jonathan Gold proclaimed himself similarly enamored, and I pumped my fist in vindication. These truly are the best fries I've experienced in Los Angeles. 

The BeeSting Pizza at Roberta's in Brooklyn, New York
A study in the reasons why savory needs sweet, and sweet needs spicy, and we all need this pizza. Thin slices of spicy soppressata find their foil in a seemingly misplaced drizzle of honey on this now iconic NYC pie that also demonstrates the importance of a crust with enough character to stand up to its toppings. Obviously, there's something in the water out there. I'll take a pitcher. 

The Strawberry Cronut at Dominique Ansel in New York
The not-so-humble pastry that started it all: Multi-hour lines. Pre-ordering frenzy. Imitators peddling all iterations of imitations. The thing is? The cronut really is everything one hopes and wants a croissant-donut hybrid to be... maybe even more. 

Santa Barbara Prawns with Lentils at Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos
These prawns, likely still moving 10 minutes before we were served them, provided ample justification for the spontaneous road trip my brother and I took up to Santa Ynez on a Sunday afternoon this past June. We were there, of course, to sample the acclaimed flatbreads for research prior to his October wedding in the area, but left with a taste memory that superseded that of even the prized pizzas. The prawns, a delicacy on their own, became even further superlative against the earthiness of the stewed lentils. We scraped the plate clean, and then I sucked the heads. 

Rhubarb Crumble Ice Cream from Salt & Straw in Los Angeles (via Joan's on Third)
My initial introduction to Salt & Straw, Portland's beloved small-batch ice cream purveyor, came via a scoop of Rhubarb Crumble with Toasted Anise from Joan's on Third on one of the hotter days of the summer. I finished it before my co-worker and I could make it back to the office - a mere five-minute work from the cafe. I could say it's because I didn't want the ice cream to melt in the hot sun, but the truth? I couldn't pause to take a breath between bites. I had the same problem when we bought a pint of the California Peaches and Lemon Crumble for a birthday luncheon, and when I visited the brick-and-mortar shop on Larchmont for a scoop of Almond Brittle with Salted Ganache. Salt & Straw makes homemade haute. And ridiculously irresistible.

Savory Bread Pudding with a Fried Egg at Sqirl in Los Angeles
When Chef and Jamstress Jessica Koslow tells you to order something, you comply. So while we had already requested two orders of the sorrel pesto rice bowl, a slab of brioche toast with fresh ricotta and Santa Rosa plum jam, and more sweets than I care to admit here in honor of Daniela's last-days-of-LA brunch, we ordered it. It, being the piece de resistance of our two-person feast - a square of warm, cheesy, savory bread pudding with a fried egg on top. Though I'd already taken half my rice bowl to task when it arrived, I couldn't stop stealing bites from the cast iron skillet. It was, after all, a farewell-to-LA brunch. Even if it wasn't my farewell. 

Courtesy of Yelp

The Catalan Tomato Toast, or "Pa Amb Tomaca" at Smoke.Oil.Salt in Los Angeles
In a year defined by toast - of thin tartines strategically draped with smoked salmon and chives, of avocado mashed into sturdy whole grain platforms, and of highfalutin nut butters smeared over highfalutin heirloom grain breads - Chef Perfecto Rocher's "Pa Amb Tomaca" was, quite literally, the toast of the town in 2014. Even now, typing this as the rain falls outside my window, I am thinking how lovely a meal it might make tonight. Just a plate of rustic bread, purposely charred into caramelization, imperfectly garnished with crushed tomatoes and their jus.

Ode to Zuni Chicken at a.o.c. in Los Angeles
Suzanne Goin's Ode to Zuni is an ode worth playing on repeat. The presentation of this chicken-for-two (or more), mounded atop an oblong platter with vibrant green olives, greens, and torn, toasted bread, invites a communal experience. It says, "Pull up a chair. Stay a while." It says, "Drink a little too much. Laugh louder than you may think is acceptable in a restaurant of this caliber." It says, "There is no other white meat. Drop mic. Suzanne Goin, out." 

Nectarine & Raspberry Vacherin with Crème Fraîche and Almond Nougatine at a.o.c. in Los Angeles
My favorite sweet dish of the year undoubtedly goes to Pastry Chef Christina Olufson's sorbet and meringue layered vacherin cake, an inspired take on the classic French dessert. While it's tempting to attribute this praise to the timing of its presentation as the culmination to a laughter-fueled 31st birthday dinner spent with friends, it would be negligent to do so. This show-stopper straddles the divide between cake and sorbet, over-the-top and not-enough-on-top, and sweet and tart, never veering too far in either direction. It's just... right. And the perfect way to end both a meal at a.o.c. and a final best of 2014 list here.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Top Ten Recipes of 2014

Another year gone by in a blink.

It was a good one, as years go. I didn't fracture my finger by tripping over the sidewalk, my brother got married (and I only sliced up my leg a little bit from a chard of broken wine glass), and I actually went places that were like totally not just my parents' house in Orange County.

I mean, we're talking Phoenix, guys. And San Diego. And the Valley.

But in all seriousness, I did push myself outside my comfort zone a little bit more than I did in 2013 - traveling to New York City by myself, indulging in not one, but two spontaneous road trips up to Santa Ynez, and accepting invitations to parties where I didn't know anyone other than the host. (If you know me, the real me, you'll understand that the lattest is a very very VERY big deal.)

My goal, as it is every year, was to say "yes," more than "no." It's a struggle for me to be open to letting life happen at times, or, more accurately, all the time, because I hate being in situations where I don't feel in control. It's funny how those words just tumbled out, but that's basically… me.  Which, likely, is why I enjoy cooking and baking so much. I get to make the decisions. I can follow along or riff on the recipe at will. I'm in control of the outcome.

Most of the time.

You know, when life isn't getting in my way.

These recipes, my favorite of the year, managed to come out unscathed. They were, in many ways, the antidote to the highs and lows of my year. The steadying hand that brought me back to my center during the moments when I was feeling stuck or sad or nostalgic for something that would bring me comfort amidst the chaos of my vocation and, often, imprisoning daily rituals. If these recipes didn't similarly move or inspire you before, I hope this summation breathes a second life into them. They're worth one last look before we dive forward, fearlessly, into 2015.

Tartine's Salted Chocolate-Rye Cookies
These cookies. When I posted about them early last year, I couldn't even find the words to properly pontificate why they were so hauntingly good. I simply informed you that I ate eight, hoping that was enough to incite you to drop everything to make them immediately. In case it did not, and in case you are reading this right now, ignorant to what happens when chocolate and rye intermingle within a cookie, please do drop everything (including that post-holiday diet). It's worth it for these - an articulation of the best parts of a cookie and a brownie, kept from going over the edge into too-sweet, too-rich territory by the sharp tang of the rye flour. It should come as no surprise that this recipe comes from Tartine No. 3, an astonishingly beautiful guidebook to baking with whole grains. I whole-heartedly recommend it, as well. 

Alice Water's Brown Sugar Rosemary Shortbread

And while we are on the subject of cookies, these sweet & savory shortbread wedges via The Essential New York Times Cookbook were my sleeper hit of the year. I made them on an impulse one week night when I probably should have been, well, sleeping or, at the very least, watching something terrible on television, and was immediately transfixed by their texture and depth of flavor. Shortbread seems like the kind of thing that adults eat because it's a very adult thing to do, but I assure you this shortbread is something you'll eat solely because it's just so darn delicious. I consumed nearly this entire pan in three days, which, now that I think about it, wasn't very adult of me at all.

Curried Butternut Squash Soup
Lest you think I only subsist on a diet of cookies, let there be soup. Specifically, this soup, an intoxicating slurry of curried spices, sweet butternut squash, coconut milk, and nutty chickpeas that manages to be far more soulful than "health food" has any business being during the time of year when hearty braises and roasts are the typical piece de resistance. While intended to be a means to repent for the sins of a very very merry Christmas, I fell head over bread heels for this recipe, eating it for four days straight without a single moment of protest or regret that I wasn't eating, well, cookies instead. 

Eleven Madison Park Granola
While the granola I make most frequently is still Earlybird Granola (via Molly Wizenberg over at Orangette), this replica of the version gifted upon diners at the end of an epic meal at Eleven Madison Park is pure addiction. It teeters on the border of too salty/too sweet, but is really just everything you want it to be spooned over a bowl of cold banana slices and Tillamook Farmstyle Greek Vanilla Yogurt (the best). It's also everything you want it to be spooned shoved, by the handful, directly into your mouth. 

Peanut Butter & Jelly Baked Oatmeal
The second of three, yes, three, breakfast recipes within this roundup undoubtedly goes to this iteration of baked oatmeal, which gets its inspiration from, predictably, the sandwich of the same name. It's what I imagine a hug would taste like - it's comfort, nostalgia, the happy ending in a romantic comedy, home, and everything that is warm and fuzzy and Hallmark Channel-worthy in this world. 

Chocolate Chia Pudding with Cherries
This. I can't even look at the photo without feeling utterly depressed that it will be months before cherries are in season, and this… situation can happen again. I won't draw this out too long, but let it be clear, this is the best possible excuse to eat chocolate for breakfast while still managing to be irritatingly healthy to all your friends and family members.

Zucchini Fettuccine
I don't know that I've mentioned it here before (at least not explicitly), but for the past couple years, I've been creating healthy recipes for this here blog. No, I did not link to the official Power Rangers' blog for parents of kids who watch the show by mistake. This is real life, guys. And this is also why I don't always get around to telling you about my latest misadventure in dating or my new quinoa salad obsession or insert other thing you couldn't possibly care that much about anyway.

So, let me tell you something that you should care about - this zucchini fettuccine. Constructed with grated zucchini that's sautéed with garlic and red pepper flakes, and then tossed over whole wheat fettuccine with brown butter, parmesan, lemon zest, and a heady amount minced parsley and mint, this dish defined my summer. I would pile it into a bowl with a plate of heirloom tomatoes on the side and it was… everything. I'm thinking a version with slivered Brussels sprouts may be an appropriate winter variation, and if it is, indeed, appropriate, I'll be sure to tell you all about it. Likely with another regrettable dating story served on the side.

Chili Roasted Tofu with Minted Pomegranate Salsa
One of the first new recipes I made last year, I knew as soon as I tasted this tofu from Sara Forte's Sprouted Kitchen that it would make this list. It can be a challenge to create vegan, gluten-free recipes that feel special, but Sara nails it with this wholesome, yet vibrant dish that is a study in textures and assertive, flavor contrasts. It's something that I can see serving to not just company, but mixed company - ie. people who usually think a meal is not a meal unless half the plate used to come with a face.

The Creamiest White Beans & Leeks with Parsley Pesto 
I remember writing about this dish on the train ride from New York City to Baltimore this June and thinking that if I wasn't confined inside a train for 2 1/2 hours, I would likely not have the stamina to detail out all of the steps required to make this recipe. I say this not to discourage you from clicking through (none of the steps are particularly hard), but more to reinforce that this whole white beans and rice thing is kinda a big deal. It's not just, you know, rice and beans. It's Sunday Supper. It's break-open-a-nice-bottle-of-white-and-stay-a-while. And it's fantastic as leftovers on a night when you can't be bothered to do much of anything at all.

Charlie Bird's Farro with Pistachios, Mint and Parmesan
If trail mix could take salad form, this recipe would be that dish. Based on the farro I ordered at Chef Ryan Hardy's Charlie Bird when visiting New York City this June, I couldn't get enough of it when I got back to LA, my soul lusting for the city I've come to view as a home away from my home. It's exemplary not only because of its sentimental value, but for its arresting juxtaposition of textures and flavors. Crunchy raw vegetables and chewy nubs of farro; fresh herbs, tossed in like lettuce leaves; and a liberal application of pistachios and parmesan that simply gild the lily into the zone of edible fetish. Even now, sitting here on the couch, getting ready to finish things up here, so I can watch a movie on Netflix, I'm thinking that it sounds like something I could eat by the fistful like popcorn.

* * *

A few final words before I move on… I would feel remiss if I didn't mention two other recipes that stood out from my 2014 kitchen archives, but didn't make it to my site for one reason or another. The first is a five-grain salad, inspired by this recipe via one of the chefs I represent, that exemplifies why we go to restaurants. Cooking five grains separately is A LOT of work, but this stunner of a salad was well worth the effort for my family's Thanksgiving in Phoenix this year.

The second, at the opposite end of the labor spectrum, is the two-ingredient chocolate banana ice cream pictured at the top of this post. It completely blew my mind this summer. Two ingredients, guys! Though I would be negligent if I didn't mention the flaky Maldon sea salt I sprinkled on at the end… it was, indeed, the perfect cherry on top.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Curried Butternut Squash Soup: That'll do

It's amazing how quickly the switch flips. When I swatted the sleep out of my eyes on Friday morning, my head still hazy from perhaps one too many glasses of red wine the night prior, I couldn't even contemplate eating a radish.

It was a grand departure from the days proceeding it when I had feasted on Butterscotch Cashew Bars and Christmas Cocoa Cookies and Walnut Sea Salt Caramels as though they were the building blocks of a healthy, balanced diet. My five-a-days, if you will. (I most certainly did will.)

In the moment it seemed impossible to stop this no-holds-barred style of eating and drinking for the monotony of regular food that doesn't come dusted with powdered sugar or dipped in chocolate. Yet, as soon as December 25th gave way to December 26th, my desire for sugar-driven sustenance gave with it, as though my body was finally putting up a Babe-esque protest.

"That'll do, Pig. That'll do."

As I slugged out of bed, I wanted nothing to do with the batches of cookies that still lingered, uneaten, on the kitchen countertops nor my favorite dark chocolate turtles, a gift from my dad. The hours that followed seemed marked by a resistance to anything edible. A half-hearted bowl of Greek yogurt with banana, raspberries, and a scant amount of almonds after a long, purging run by the beach, then nothing until nearly 3 pm when my mom and I decided, reluctantly, that food was probably a necessary order of business.

And so there was soup.

A cinnamon and cumin-scented butternut squash puree from our favorite local haunt, Zinc Cafe, that was everything we wanted in that precise moment. Soothing, delicately-spiced without edging into the territory of over-eventful, and satisfying enough that hunger wouldn't nag our consciousness again until dinner.

A re-creation at home was an inevitability.

The soup you'll find here is far from a consolation prize during a period that, for many, becomes an exercise in self-flagellation. Instead, it feels like an appropriate and welcome interlude to transition from a place of gluttony to one of, well, less gluttony. The curry-flavored butternut squash puree gets further heft from the addition of blended chickpeas, and a silkening ribbon of light coconut milk melds everything together just as the soup is about to be doled out into bowls.

With two sturdy slices of Clark Street Bread's Danish Rye (startling even in its unfettered, unbuttered state), this is holiday rehab at its finest. It'll do. It'll do perfectly fine.

Curried Butternut Squash Soup
Serves 4-6

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium white or brown onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon tumeric
6 cups cubed butternut squash
1 16-ounce can chickpeas, drained
5 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup - 3/4 cup light coconut milk

Heat olive oil in the base of large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the onion and sauté over medium heat for 7-10 minutes while breaking down your squash. Stir from time to time to ensure the onions don't burn, turning down the heat, as needed.

Reduce heat to low, stir in the spices, and cook for 1 minute.

Add the squash, chickpeas and chicken broth, and bring to a low boil. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, or until squash is completely tender. Remove from the stove.

Using either a blender, or immersion blender (which will make this task far easier), blend the squash, chickpeas and broth together until smooth. If using an immersion blender, you can do this right in the pot you cooked the soup in, but if using a blender, you'll need to work in batches.

Once completely smooth, transfer the soup back to the stove to re-warm. Stir in the coconut milk, starting with half a cup, and adding more if you prefer a thinner soup. (Note: The soup will get thicker as it sits, so hold on to that extra coconut milk to thin out the leftovers.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Dirt Behind My Worst Instagram Moments of the Year

There's a fairly good reason why platforms like Iconosquare don't offer to curate a video montage of one's worst Instagram moments of the year. Most people don't like to advertise their failures, particularly in a space that's supposed to only show the sanitized, shiny version of real life.

I mean how else are we supposed to shame our former high school frenemies who are eating ugly dinners while we eat caviar, and are fighting the crowds at Walmart while we're by the pool in Palm Springs, if not through social media?

Obviously, I'm not very good at this game because I have no qualms about telling people when I've just spilled wine all over my dress, burned my kitchen floor with a hot pan, or tripped over the sidewalk and fractured my finger. In many ways, I feel more comfortable airing details about my screw-ups than I do about my supposed successes.

So, of course, it would follow that the second I finished my "Best Moments of Instagram" post yesterday, I immediately regretted that I hadn't shared my "Worst Moments" instead. Clearly, this situation needed to be rectified with a counter post today.

Whether because of their content, photo quality, or my overexposed and chipped fingernails, these photos were the least liked of my year.  Which kind of makes me like them even more. #sorrynotsorrry #noreallynotsorry #seriouslynotsorry

#5 - Close-up of Green Juice from Whole Foods. (14 likes)
Caption: "Diana is feeling…"
I thought I was super clever with this one. It was New Year's Day, and I was, as my caption would suggest, feeling green after indulging in more Champagne than was necessary the night before. Maybe no one was paying attention to Instagram because they were also feeling, well, green, or maybe everyone was just appalled that I would dare post a picture of my unkempt fingernail still sporting the residual sparkly nail polish from a two-week-old manicure. Maybe let's go with the former?

#5 - Two Striped Black & White Dresses Hanging in a Nordstrom's Dressing Room. (14 likes)
Caption: Fetish
2014 was the year of the horizontal striped dress for me. I bought no fewer than seven, including both of these black & white numbers in an exercise of complete redundancy. Juxtaposed against the textured white and black wall of a Nordstrom dressing room, I thought I had a really compelling scene going on here. I mean, I didn't even need the Inkwell filter, guys! Or perhaps that's where I went wrong?

#4 - Windmills in the Distance Near Palm Springs. (13 likes)
Caption: Where am I, LA?
I snapped this shot during the home stretch of a six-hour car ride back from Phoenix with my parents over Thanksgiving weekend. At this juncture in the trip, I'd already read all four of my magazines, nearly expired the battery on my iPod shuffle, and was reaching the point of AREWETHEREYET WHYARENTWETHEREYET, SERIOUSLYWEARENTHEREYET?! I should have just posted another shot like….


#3 - Iced Tea from Seventh Tea Bar at the OC Mix. (11 likes)
Caption: Matches to a…tea.
Again, I thought I was supes clever with the caption here. I mean c'mon people, "Matches to a… tea"?! Clearly, I totally underestimated the interest level in cups of things that are not alcohol (yet again). Does it make it more interesting if I tell you I drank this after getting my taxes done? No?

#2 - Manhattan Cocktail and Glass of Champagne at Acabar. (11 likes)
Caption: Raising two glasses for this occasion… Happy Birthday, @kristasimmons!!!!
So, my whole logic that people like pictures of alcohol better than not alcohol goes completely out the window here, because… TIE GAME. I thought this shot was super artistic at the time with the candlelight shining through my cocktail glass, but I was also three deep by this juncture in the evening, so it's possible my judgement was... um... altered? Regardless, no regrets, people. None at all. And I still wish Krista Simmons a "Happy Birthday." 

#1 - Northwestern (NU) Reunion in San Diego Commemorated with Picture of our Feet in the Sand. (10 likes)
Caption: I (purple heart emoji) my college friends.
Solid proof that nobody cares where you went to school after you graduate. Also, feet are really really ugly, and no one should "heart" anything past the age of 12. (Unless, of course, you are double-tapping an Instagram photo. Like, um, this one. Cough. Cough. Help a girl out?)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Story Behind the Food Porn

To judge by the current content on every news outlet, blog and social media platform, it's not possible to move forward into 2015 without first recapping 2014 through lists and more lists. Best songs ("Shake it Off?"), best movies, best new restaurants, best bites, best recipes made to solicit pins and repins on Pinterest, and, naturally, one's best moments on Instagram according to the number of likes received.

Iconosquare, a platform that analyzes Instagram account activity, conveniently packages these "moments" together in a short little video that users can then post and share to feel very special about all the accolades they received on the shot of their pedicured toes in the foreground of a beach setting, their avocado toast on an Anthropologie plate, and another shot of their toes with a different pedicure in a different beach setting.

Toes and toast are like so hot right now.

A product of my generation, I am, admittedly, equally narcissistic and obsessive about how many people like the image of my bowl of chia pudding. (#health #superfoods #mydayinla) I've even been late to work on more than one occasion this year because I had to "style" my breakfast for optimal Instagram engagement. You know, with a mismatched bowl and plate and one of those little tea towels "casually'' thrown to the side as though an afterthought. (It's never an afterthought.)

So, obviously I love all this Iconosquare analytical business and was quick to jump on the train to make my best Instagram moments of 2014 video. Yet, as I sat there all Gen Y-like watching my five "best" images fly by on the screen of my iPhone 6, it felt slightly depressing that my entire year was condensed into a 20-second video montage. While the cliche dictates that a picture tells 1,000 words, the inherent model of Instagram only shares a very small piece of the story behind each image.

While it's probably, again, narcissistic of me to assume that anyone would want to know the story behind a handful of food photos that supposedly were my "best moments" of the year, I feel inclined to say a bit more about each picture for my personal gratification. Not because I expect people to care, but because it's the holidays, and I'm feeling nostalgic about another year gone by… in an instant.

#5 - Heirloom tomato salad. (102 likes)  
As soon as summer hits LA, everyone starts going insane for heirloom tomatoes, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't similarly smitten. My ritualistic Sunday morning visits to the Melrose Place Farmers Market were always punctuated with a stop at the heirloom tomato vendor, a trip that was subsequently followed by the production of some form of salad that was basically an excuse for me to eat an entire gargantuan tomato in a single sitting.  This excuse, scattered with fresh shucked corn, slices of avocado, and copious amounts of basil and mint, was perhaps my favorite of the bunch. If summer could be summed up in a single dish, this would be that summation.

 #4 - Homemade English muffins with housemade cultured butter, sea salt, and rosemary. (103 likes)
Since I started working in restaurant public relations 3 1/2 years ago, I've maintained a strict no-fly-zone policy when it comes to mentioning clients in this space. Beyond the obvious (that whole conflict of interest thing), I've wanted to keep my identity as a publicist separate and distinct from my identity as a writer. It's often frustrating to keep that part of my life so carefully concealed, particularly as it occupies so much of my time, heart and headspace. The restaurants I'm privileged to work with come to feel like my children, and I get excited when they do great things and receive praise, and it all makes me want to go do weird things like brag about them on Facebook and affix their accolades to the bumper of my car. Instead, I just post pictures of their food to Instagram with lots of annoying hashtags. (#sorrynotsorry) These particular English muffins came from this incredibly talented chef at this new Manhattan Beach restaurant that opened this past November. And, yes, they are as good as they look.

#3 - Ricky's Fish Tacos. (109 likes)
My friend Sam Kim was one of the first people to respond to my often asinine tweets when I joined Twitter in 2009. I remember thinking, "Who is this @samkimsamkim person who keeps giving me advice on where to eat?" While not affiliated with the food industry in a professional capacity, Sam Kim (we always refer to him by his full name), has an incredible ability to bring like-minded people within the dining community around a table to enjoy a great meal. Likely, immediately followed by another great meal (and trip to the bakery around the corner to get cookies for later). He lives in New York City now, but whenever he's back in LA, he brings a laundry list of things/places he wants to eat while he's in town. Sarah and I were more than happy to help him check Ricky's Fish Tacos off the list during his most recent visit this fall. And because we were with Sam Kim, we went to Go Get 'em Tiger for coffee/tea after, where we snacked on the chocolate chip cookies he'd picked up at Gjusta earlier that day for later

#2 - Christmas Cocoa Cookies. (111 likes)
I wasn't sure I loved, let alone even liked, these cookies when I first tasted them this past Sunday after nearly three hours of mixing, rolling, baking, and glazing. I had bookmarked the recipe in Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook years ago because they sounded like trail mix in chocolate cookie form, which is basically everything I love in the universe in one convenient Christmas… package. Naturally, I was a little confused when I took a bite (see: Diana Takes a Bite) and didn't immediately want to shove all 44 in the batch in my mouth. In spite of this initial hesitation, I've found myself continuing to sneak a cookie here and there over the past few days, each time liking the contrast of the tart lemon glaze against the spiced chocolate more and more. I'll save the rest of my words on the matter for when I actually share the recipe with you, but for now, know that these cookies are very much worthy of their #2 ranking on this list. 

A booze-fueled brunch with your two closest friends in LA is the best excuse to spontaneously cancel an appointment to get your car serviced. Who needs to get their tires rotated when there's smoked trout and avocado toast, French fries, vegetable and white bean soup, Moroccan eggs, and lots and lots of sparkling Rosé to be had? Of course, you can see all that from the photo above. Not pictured? How hard we laughed at everything and nothing at all for four hours.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Isn't it Romesco?

I'm trying to think back to whether there was specific instance that I can pinpoint as the start of it all. I'm sure it stemmed from some seminal restaurant experience, a sensory a-ha moment reserved for those of the food-oriented persuasion. There was likely a closed eye moment of revelation, followed by a cessation of vocal ability, and then, upon its return, audible groans of approval and something along the lines of….

"OMGsogood! Whysogood? O.M.G. sooooo gooood!" 

Judging by the trajectory of the past few years, the specific a-ha moment likely occurred somewhere circa 2009 when suddenly everyone realized that vegetables are demonstrably better when tossed in olive oil and roasted at a high temperature until they caramelize and become more like candy then, well, vegetables.

As someone who grew up on steamed broccoli and green beans, my mind was completely blown by this seemingly progressive preparation. Think lightening bolts firing off all over the sky above my head as if I were starring in my own food-centric cartoon (named "Diana Takes a Bite," obviously). Cue the subsequent demise of my beloved Crate & Barrel steamer (unnamed), and dramatic incline of my gas bills to cover what would soon become near nightly oven escapades with every vegetable suitable for a roasting pan.

One would think that this fetish would have waned some in the years that have followed, particularly given the prominence of these same dishes on every restaurant menu everywhere, regardless of the style and type of cuisine. Italian concept? Roasted cauliflower with capers. Mexican cantina? Roasted cauliflower with salsa verde. New French bistro? Roasted cauliflower and… butter.

Shockingly, this constant exposure did nothing to desensitize my palate to their allure. My default answer when it comes to all matters of vegetable things is still to torch them under the aggressive heat of a 400 degree oven - something that has been very frequently catalogued here.

It shouldn't be surprising then that over the course of my brother and sister-in-law's wedding of the century in Santa Ynez, a wedding weekend where we feasted on Los Alamos' iconic Full of Life Flatbread; sipped on craft cocktails curated by Red Clay and LA master bartender Michael Nemcik; and gorged on crispy pork belly skewers and a multi-coursed dinner from the epicurean geniuses behind Whoa Nelly Catering; I must regretfully admit that the thing that stands out the most in my mind was a platter of roasted vegetables. 

The platter in question was presented mid-way through the Full of Life-catered rehearsal dinner in the wine cave at Sunstone Winery, where this be-all, end-all wedding would take place the following afternoon. My heart nearly seized and collapsed with joy (joy!) when the servers paraded it down the linear space and deposited it directly in front of my place at the table. Heaped with cauliflower, sweet delicata squash, gooey strands of onions, still-in-season summer squash, and draped with a romesco sauce and a chiffonade of basil, it was a presentation that clearly indicated its purpose: This was a plate meant to be shared family-style. Perhaps even passed and moved up and down the table to the guests to my right and left.

Instead, it remained firmly planted in front of me for the duration of the evening. Spoonfuls were deposited on empty plates upon request, but by the end of the night, I'm confident that I consumed nearly a third of the beastly portion myself. 

Naturally, a recreation was inevitable upon my return home. Which brings me to tonight, and brings us to the sauce that sealed the deal on this particular iteration of roasted vegetables that caused a closed eye moment of revelation, temporary cessation of vocal ability, and audible groans of approval.


Isn't it romantic?

Romesco Sauce
Adapted from the NY Times
Yield: Approximately 1 cup

Notes: I'm tired now, so just know that I made a lot of changes, as per usual. The takeaway? If you want to see the original that doesn't have wheat germ, calls for more olive oil, features different proportions of ingredients, and has a completely alternative procedure of instructions, click the link up above. Gracias. 

1 red bell pepper, cored, de-seeded and sliced into chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 plum tomato
3 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts, skins removed (see a handy method for that here)
2 tablespoons wheat germ (I'm weird sometimes)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1/2 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
3/4 teaspoon hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss red bell pepper pieces with one tablespoon olive oil and place in an oven-safe baking dish.  Roast for 30 minutes or until tender. Simultaneously roast tomato in a separate baking dish, while also roasting the garlic on a sheet of aluminum foil. Basically, you are going to do a lot of roasting until everything is tender and squishy enough to puree. So have fun with that.

Once red pepper, tomato, and garlic are all ready for action, remove the skin from the tomato and peel the garlic cloves.

In a food processor or blender (or using an immersion blender if that's your jam like it is mine), pulse skinless, toasted hazelnuts until finely ground (though not pureed to a paste). Add the tomato, red pepper chunks (some people might feel inclined to remove the skin - I did not), garlic, wheat germ, vinegar, pomegranate molasses, paprika, and salt. Puree until smooth.

Store in an airtight container in the fridge until ready for use, or apply immediately to a pile of roasted vegetables. And then eat too many of them. Because OMGsoooogoood.