Friday, April 24, 2015

The District by Hannah An, Upscale Vietnamese near the Beverly Center

The District is a few blocks from the Beverly Center. A Vietnamese restaurant with an upscale menu and a friendly bar, chef-owner Hannah An has created an airy space with a large menu featuring organic poultry and meats, fresh seafood and a great variety of vegetable dishes that will keep vegans happy.
Many of the Vietnamese restaurants that have appeared in Los Angeles over the past year have focused on modified versions of street food: pho (the richly flavored beef or chicken noodle soup) and banh mi (French baguette sandwiches with meat and pickled vegetables). Both are available at The District, but these are versions made with high-quality, fresh ingredients and they are only two of several dozen dishes on the menu.
The chef-owner behind the restaurant is Hannah An, the eldest daughter of the family behind Beverly Hills' Crustacean, a restaurant known for the quality of its seafood and the elegance of the dining room. By comparison, the District is more casual. With an outdoor patio and windows that open to the street, the restaurant is light and airy and elegant in its own way.
Recently I joined half dozen other food writers for a tasting. We ate land animals and creatures from the deep. Some were crispy fried, others were braised with a layering of flavors. We ate steamed rice, soft braised noodles, light as air spring rolls, deeply flavored soup, a salad topped with a beautiful piece of crispy-skin salmon, an excellent Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk and a delicious cocktail that had plenty of heat.
The menus (lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch) overlap with dishes like pho (beef and chicken) and fried calamari available any time of day. Some like cha go roll are favorites in Vietnamese restaurants. At The District, the fried rice paper rolls practically evaporate in your mouth. There is not a drop of oil on them. Inside the well-compacted roll is a mix of ground chicken and vegetables. The garlic lime dipping sauce has enough heat and sweetness to compliment the other flavors. 

The affordably priced dishes are large enough to share. For those who want to splurge for a celebration, there is fresh lobster and filet mignon.
The best dishes at The District draw on the flavor combinations that immediately tell you the chef is from Vietnam. Whether combined in a sauce or used in the dish itself, freshly squeezed lime juice, cilantro, peppers and pepper flakes, fish sauce, fresh fruit, garlic and lemon grass are used by a practiced hand that knows exactly how much is the correct amount.

We were served black cod in a clay pot. In Vietnam the fish used would probably be catfish. Flaky and moist, the cod has a silken texture familiar to anyone who has eaten a version of Morimoto's miso-black cod, a dish served at many upscale Japanese restaurants.  Chef An uses lemon grass, fish sauce and a five spices mix to put a little edge into the darkly rich sauce. Chinese broccoli and thin uncooked ginger strips add texture.  On the very bottom of the hot pot were two triangles of fresh pineapple lying in wait for anyone who needed a bit of sweet-acid to add to the already complex flavor profile of the dish.
The calamari plate was another standout. Topped with a salad of purple kale and frisee, the crinkly leaves complimented the crispy calamari. The dipping sauce, another classic Vietnamese mix of fish sauce, peppers and lime juice rounded out the flavors. A selection of cocktails accompanied the calamari. The colorful cocktails have colorful names: Hot Asian, Side Car to Vietnam, Love You Long Time and Face Down in Saigon. 
The playfully named cocktails are well-crafted drinks designed by David Shoham, a mixologist well-known in Los Angeles. The freshly squeezed juices and the mix of heat and sweet are masterful. 

My hands down favorite of those we tasted was the Hot Asian. I could describe it, but I'll let the menu do it for me, "lemon gras infused Loft and Bear Vodka, organic Vietnamese chili agave, fresh squeezed lime juice, garnished with lime zest and Vietnamese chili." Hopefully you noticed that "chili" appeared twice in the description. Topping the ice filled glass was a whole, bright red pepper for those who wanted even more heat. 
I didn't need more heat, but I would have happily consumed another Hot Asian if I had brought along a designated driver. The cocktail was that delicious.

There is so much more to be said about The District by Hannah An. We ate a great many delicious dishes -- pho bo (beef with noodles), Hannah's noodles with crispy whole lobster, shaken beef with filet mignon so tender it really did melt in the mouth, chicken curry with fava beans, peas, thickly cut red onion rings with Thai basil and a kale Caesar salad topped with a crispy-skin salmon filet. 
There are many more dishes on the menu I want to try. I love the idea of chef An's take on French onion soup that uses bone marrow and Vietnamese spices. I want to have the roasted ginger chicken, crispy tofu, braised short ribs, District salad with prawns, kale and curly endive, duck confit salad with Vietnamese herbs, roasted cauliflower with pistachios, coriander-crusted lamb and the flatbreads (chicken, pork belly and heirloom tomato-burrata). 

They all sound delicious.

The District by Hannah An, 8722 West Third Street, LA, CA 90048, 310/278-2345.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

When The Water Runs Out: Farming In A Drought


I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.
Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.
Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.
The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.
The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.
Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.
Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.
In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.
Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olivesand grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?
The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.
Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.
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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt
In the spring he knew the snowpack was below normal so he planted potatoes and squash early because they need less water and could be stored for months without damaging their quality. Hoping for the best, he also planted leafy crops.
After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.
In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.
But Birch is in a bind.
Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.
Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.
To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.
Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.
To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.
In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.
And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.
Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Easter Sunday Deviled Eggs & Sunday in New York City

New York has had some pretty difficult weather during the winter. Yesterday and today feels like spring has come back. Bright and sunny, I walked around the upper west side. Ate $1/each raw oysters at Cafe Tallulah (corner of Broadway & 70th). Sweet and briny. Really delicious.

Then later in the evening and a quick train ride up to 103rd Street to Buchetta Brick Oven Pizza between Amsterdam and Broadway for a Salsiccia e friarelli (sausage and broccoli rabe, mozzarella & parmigiano) pizza. Also really delicious.
For Sunday we'll have bunch in the city with friends and enjoy what is predicted to be another beautiful, sunny spring day. Yay for beautiful, sunny days!

Just before I left for New York I finished writing an article/recipe about making a very cool riff on deviled eggs by adding capers and sautéed anchovies. The recipe posted on Zester Daily. Take a look. It's easy to make and really yummy.

http://zesterdaily.com/cooking/dress-deviled-eggs-fresh-take-classic/

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Toast Goes Savory at Superba Food + Bread in Venice

I'm enjoying doing chef cooking demonstrations for my YouTube Channel Secrets of Restaurant Chefs.  A dozen chefs have taken me into their restaurant-kitchens to show me signature dishes. I've learned so much.
Chef Taylor Boudreaux demonstrated how to get crispy skin on salmon filets. That session changed my cooking because he turned me on to carbon steel pans which are better than cast iron pans. At the moment I have only found them at Surfas Culinary District (8777 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232),  although regrettably, they are often sold out of the pans.
High heat is now my mantra as I use my carbon steel pans (10", 12.5" and 14") to make crispy skin fish filets, charred tofu, sweet scallops finished with butter, steaks with dry rub crust, vegetables caramelized by high heat and seared Japanese noodles.
Some chefs have kitchens that are expansive work spaces with the latest high tech tools like David Codney at the Peninsula where he and his staff demonstrated making mac n' cheese with truffles, a fine dining riff on a childhood favorite.
In the only hotel restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, in a tiny corner of his compact kitchen, David Padillo showed me how easy it is to make a spicy, citrus drunken shrimp, Mexican style.
In the city of Napa at the entrance way to the Napa Valley chef Paul Fields prepares gluten-free meals for guests of the Inn on Randolph. When I stayed at the Inn he made gluten-free chocolate chip cookies and a breakfast of Beluga lentils with roasted vegetables topped with a poached eggs.
For Zester Daily I posted an interview and video cooking demonstration with the baker and chef at Superba Food + Bread (1900 S. Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90291). Chef Jason Travi and baker Jonathan Eng used their partnership to create savory toasts, elevating that most simple of snacks into a gastronomic delight. A signature toast is one that uses a grilled slice of Eng's pain au levain topped with Travi's Lebanese red pepper-walnut muhammara sauce and finished with spoonfuls of fresh burrata.
Take a look at the Zester Daily article with a video by Travi and Eng. The toast in the video is the toast I ate after the demonstration. It was absolutely delicious. And easy to make at home.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Citrus Pistachios and Vietnamese Spicy Wings Heat Up Super Bowl Sunday Snacks

What are you going to serve on Super Bowl Sunday? Chips and dips, frozen pizza and grocery store salads. No way! Special events deserve special food. Snacks that reach out and grab you, that make you stop watching TV and say, "That is amazing!"

Here are two of my favorite snacks. One, the pistachios, I figured out last week. The other, the Vietnamese-style wings are a long time favorite. What they have in common is an addictive salty-sweet heat.

Have a great game!

Citrus Pistachios

My only debate about this snack is whether to use pistachios in the shell our shelled. Personally I like the fun of cracking open the shells. If you want easy-snacking, use the shelled pistachios. 
I prefer to use raw pistachios. If the only pistachios available are already roasted, check to see if they are also salted. In which case, do not salt the nuts.

Serves 10-12

Ingredients

16 ounces pistachios (in the shell or shelled)
1 cup citrus peel (oranges, grapefruit or tangerines), fresh, washed, dried
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (do not salt if the pistachios are already salted)
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon 
1/2 teaspoon raw sugar
Pinch cayenne 
Directions

Using a sharp chefs knife, cut the peels off the citrus of your choice. I like a mix of flavors, so I use equal amounts of grapefruit, orange and tangerine peels. Once you have removed the peels, you can cut the citrus into segments and make a delicious fruit salad by adding cut up apples and pomegranate seeds. 
Lay the peels out on a cutting board and select portions of the peel that are unblemished. Use a sharp knife to carefully remove most of the pith from the back of the peel. Leave a little white layer for flavor. Cut the peels into thin ribbons approximately 1/8 inch thin.

Heat a nonstick pan on a medium flame. Add the citrus peel, spices, sea salt and sugar. Toss frequently. The goal is to flavor and dehydrate the peels.

When the citrus peels are lightly browned, remove from the pan. Using the same pan, heat the pistachios and toss until lightly browned.

In a bowl mix together the citrus peels and pistachios. 

Serve warm in a bowl.

Spicy Sweet Ginger-Garlic Chicken Wings

Make the wings a day or two ahead. Reheat the wings just before half-time and feast.

Serves 4 as an entrée or 8 as an appetizer
Ingredients

2 pounds chicken wings, washed, disjointed, wing tips discarded or reserved and used to make stock
½ cup white sugar
½ cup warm water
¼ cup fish sauce--preferably a light caramel colored brand
¼ cup white vinegar
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
4 cloves garlic minced
1 dried Chinese Szechuan pepper, stem removed, seeds and skin minced
3 tablespoons or 3” ginger, peeled, minced
2 tablespoons brown sugar, to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a large non-reactive bowl, dissolve sugar in warm water. Add other ingredients, stir to mix well. Place chicken in marinade. transfer to a sealable plastic bag and refrigerate one hour or, preferably, overnight.

When ready to cook, separate wings from the marinade. Pour the marinade into a small saucepan. Add brown sugar. Stir to dissolve. Over a low flame, reduce by half. Taste and adjust for more sweetness if desired by adding more brown sugar.

Line a large baking sheet with a sheet of aluminum foil for easy clean up. 

Place in oven. Turn every ten minutes. Cook until tender, about thirty minutes.

Serve on a plate of Asian noodles, steamed rice or shredded lettuce. Just before serving, pour the heated marinade over the top of the wings.

Monday, January 12, 2015

One Pot Winter Pleasure - Lentils

Yesterday the rain beat down steadily all day. At first more like a mist at a car wash, then in steady sheets that drenched any one deciding the time was perfect to visit a favorite restaurant. Which is exactly what we did. We met our sons at Yabu in West Los Angeles (11820 W. Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064, 310-473-9757)  for a 2015 New Year's dinner.

Outside the weather was damp and cold. We were happy to be inside the warm busy restaurant. We ordered our favorite dishes: udon with mushrooms. tempura vegetables and shrimp on seasoned rice, salmon sashimi with pale white daikon threads & wispy pickled seaweed, spinach salad seasoned with mirin and sesame paste, sea urchin (uni) sushi with quail yolk, egg omelet sushi (tamago), baked crab hand roll and hot soba in soup with thinly sliced scallions and paper thin sheets of fatty duck breast.
We talked, shared a bottle of hot sake and looked at photographs from our holiday trips. A great way to begin the new year.

Yesterday the rain was reduced to a light drizzle. Not enough to soak through a thick sweater but enough to chill skin and bone. When it was time to think about dinner, I had only one thought. Cook something easy. Cook something in one pot. And make sure it is hot, filling and delicious.

A few years ago a press trip took me Spokane, Washington and Moscow, Idaho. The area is well-known for its agricultural products, most importantly lentils. A representative of the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council gave us a "Lentils 101" talk that described the many varieties of lentils, their nutritional value and economic importance to protein-starved regions of the world. Each of us was given a copy of The Pea & Lentil Cookbook: From Everyday to Gourmet which has recipes using dried legumes in dishes as varied as appetizers, soups, salads, entrees and desserts.

Cooking with lentils is easy.

The basics are wash and rinse the lentils, discarding any broken or misshapen lentils. For four servings one cup of dried lentils are mixed with two and a half cups of water. Simmer covered for 30-50 minutes, tasting the beans as they cook and removing the pot from the stove when they are to your taste. Cooking them longer, lentils will soften and can be used in purees for soups, dips, sauces and spreads.

I like the lentils to retain their shape so cook them only until they are al dente. Surprisingly easy to cook, healthy lentils have a delicious nutty flavor.

Lentils with Shiitake Mushrooms and Vegetables

The roasted tomato thickens the sauce and adds a pleasing acid. Canned tomato sauce may be used, but it is less expensive and more flavorful to make your own by placing a whole tomato onto a Silpat lined baking sheet and roasted 45 minutes in a 350 F oven. If you have already roasted tomatoes and made sauce, use the frozen or canned sauce. For Zester Daily I wrote about making roasted tomatoes and sauce to keep in your freezer.

Lentils come in many colors and varieties. They are not all the same. Find the ones you like. My favorites are Beluga or black lentils and Spanish pardina lentils, which I used last night.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 cup lentils
2 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 garlic clove, washed, skin removed, minced
1 medium sized yellow onion, washed, paper skin, root and stem ends removed, finely chopped
2 cups mushrooms, preferably shiitake or brown, washed, the ends of the stems removed, finely chopped
1 medium sized carrot, stem cut off, peeled, washed
2 cups spinach leaves, washed and thin sliced
1 large roasted tomato, washed, stem removed or 1/2 cup roasted tomato sauce

Directions

Rinse the lentils, discarding any that are broken or discovered.

In a 2 quart sauce pan, heat the olive oil. Add the dry spices and garlic. Lightly brown.

Add the onions, mushrooms and carrots. Saute until lightly browned.

Add the lentils and water. Stir well. Bring to a simmer. Cover.

The lentils may take 25-45 minutes to soften. How long depends on many factors. Cook them covered for 25 minutes, then taste a few lentils. If they need more cooking and the liquid has evaporated, add enough water to keep the lentils covered. At this point also add the the roasted tomato sauce.

Stir well, cover and continue cooking, checking the pot every 5 minutes until they have achieved the desired texture.

Serve hot.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2 Great Cookies for New Year's Eve or Any Fun Time

Planning New Year's Eve with friends, the big question is: celebrate a one of our homes or go out. The question was answered quickly.

None of us wanted to go out to a restaurant or go to a club. So the plan is we'll have a pot luck dinner. We'll hang out. Watch movies. Cook together. Try some new cocktails and a good wine (I was on a press trip to Napa last month and brought back a delicious bottle of Luna Vineyards' Pinot Grigio).
Right now we're putting together a pot luck menu that includes a hard boiled eggs with anchovies, grilled side of salmon, a chicken dumpling dish with lots of shiitake mushrooms and fresh vegetables, a cole slaw recipe I've been working on, assorted salads, maybe a thick cut steak to char on a carbon steel pan and assorted desserts including home made hot fudge sauce and caramelized almond slivers to make hot fudge sundaes.

I'm definitely bringing plates of the cookies I made when I wrote two recipes for Zester Daily. The "magic" of the two recipes is one uses egg yolks, the other egg whites. They are completely different. The pound cake cookies are crispy and light-as-air, perfect for dipping to coffee or tea. the financier cookies are adapted from a French cake recipe. They are chewy and filled with nutty flavors from the hazelnut and sweet from the orange simple syrup.

Making The Most Out of Yolks and Egg Whites

So, Happy New Year to everyone. All my best wishes for a healthy and happy 2015.