Thursday, July 17, 2014

West Hollywood's RivaBella Ristorante: Italian Luxury Just Off The Sunset Strip

RivaBella Ristorante is in West Hollywood on the border of Beverly Hills and within sight of the Sunset Strip. From the outside, RivaBella has the look of an expensive fine dining restaurant.  Walk inside and the friendly bar men will offer you a cocktail or a glass of premium wine, then you'll enter a dining room with rustic wooden tables, brick walls and a massive hearth. The spacious restaurant has the feel of an upscale country inn. 
RivaBella balances elegance with casual dining. On the evening we had dinner, some diners were dressed in business suits while others wore shorts and colorful sport shirts.  A retractable ceiling opens to the sky. Natural light floods into the room through floor to ceiling windows. At night, candles on the tables and strings of white lights give the room a romantic, festive aura. 
RivaBella puts on a show
You'll experience the restaurant's theatrical side when you enter the dining room and pass the DJ who is working through a play list of pop songs. Order the mushroom risotto and the waiter brings a cart to the table heavily laden with a Parmigiano Reggiano wheel large enough to fit on a Mini-Cooper. 

The server ladles the hot risotto on to the wheel of cheese. As he swirls together the delicate grains of slow cooked Acquerello rice and sautéed mushrooms, the Parmigiano Reggiano yields to the heat forming a more perfect union of rich deliciousness. 
At the other end of the spectrum, Carmelo, our waiter, encouraged us to order the ice cream prepared table side using liquid nitrogen. The menu describes a dessert that you expect will be a dish of vanilla bean ice cream and a choice of toppings as varied as candied pistachios, chocolate pearls, fresh strawberries, salted caramel and Nutella sauce. But the dessert arrives not in a bowl but on another one of those carts, this time with enough machinery and "smoke" rising into the air to make Willy Wonka swoon. The liquid nitrogen supplies the pyrotechnics. The waiter works the machinery and presides over the transformation of mere mortal ingredients into a memorable sweet feast.

The menu
Executive Chef Luigi Fineo and Chef-Partner Gino Angelini created a menu that draws on many traditions. Northern Italian dishes like cavatelli with broccolini come directly from chef Fineo's grandmother's kitchen. So too the bucatini carbonara and shellfish caciucco are classics of Italian cuisine. But the chefs are open to discovery, which is how the popular lamb reuben with pickled cabbage materialized on the menu.
As a starter, we ordered the corn soup with crab. Everyone dipped a spoon into the bowl for a taste. By the time I pulled out my camera, the soup was half gone it was that good. Somehow chef Fineo created a "creamy" soup without cream that tasted like summer. Bits of steamed crab and finely chopped chives were a great addition.  I liked the dish so much, chef promised I can come back to the restaurant and he will do a video demonstrating the recipe. 

For a salad antipasti we had a plate of prosciutto di Parma topped with wild arugula and chopped burrata. Salty prosciutto was mellowed by the burrata and countered by the spicy arugula. 

Chefs Fineo and Angelini are masters of contrasting textures and flavors. That was apparent repeatedly through out the meal. A dish of roasted octopus had the right amount of char to bring out a sweet chewiness that was balanced by oven roasted fingerling potatoes, salty olives and spicy salsa verde.

We enjoyed the strozzapreti with langoustine. The slender, twisted pasta and the soft, pink langoustine paired well together and both benefited from a musky sautéed wild mushrooms-brown butter sauce. 
Their preparation of a ricotta chicken breast also made good use of wild mushrooms. The bottom of the flat bowl had a thick pool of sauce flavored with Hen of the Wood mushrooms and Padron peppers.  


When we asked about the bone-in ribeye steak, Carmelo said the 20 oz. cut was large enough to share. Covering a rectangular wooden platter, the thick steak had a beautifully charred crust. Seasoned with salmoriglio, the lemon-garlic-chili flake topping brightened the moist, fatty meat. Accompanied with a large side of oven roasted vegetables, the shared steak was perfect for two. 


The dessert menu had a good selection of choices. Besides the liquid nitrogen ice cream sundae, there were classics like tiramasu, sfogliatelle, crostata, a selection of gelato, an inventive milk chocolate pana cotta layer cake and sweets fabricated to look like a plate of charcuterie. The desserts sounded delicious but we had eaten too many antipasti and entrees. Carmelo was disappointed that all we wanted to end the meal was a round of double expressos and macchiatos.  Next time we'll save room for the sfogliatelle, a favorite from my days living in Providence, Rhode Island and I'd definitely like  to be entertained with a nitrogen ice cream sundae.

RivaBella Ristorante, 9201 W. Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069 (310/278-2060), http://www.innovativedining.com/restaurants/rivabella

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bring Your Own Food on the Airplane For An In-Flight Picnic


You can almost see the French cheeses and crackers on a tray with glasses of bubbly Champagne, an opulent first course meant to stimulate the appetite before a gourmet entree — chateaubriand, perhaps, or line-caught salmon with roasted asparagus. If you listen closely, you can hear the flight attendant whispering to leave room for the hot fudge sundae with fresh whipped cream and toasted almonds.
In coach, nothing is free. Sure, for now the sodas, water, and coffee are still complimentary, but if you’re hungry, have your credit card ready. Alaska Airline’s cheeseburger with chips is a relative bargain at $6, but Delta charges $9.49 for their hamburger and $10.99 for one of their wraps, and a vending-machine-type sandwich or salad is $9.99 on American Airlines. 
You’ll do a lot better if you brown bag it and pretend you’re on a picnic.

Choose food with staying power

Pack food that travels well: trail mix, your own tea bags and sunflower seeds. Fresh fruit is good, but avoid berries that bruise easily. Carrot and celery sticks are great, as are sandwiches. One caveat: Remember that you can only take 3 ounces of any liquid through airport security, so go easy on the salad dressing or condiments you bring.

Assemble sandwiches carefully

Sandwiches are an easy-to-eat option for in-flight meals because everyone gets to choose what they want. There are an infinite number of combinations from ham and cheese on rye to a grilled shiitake mushroom and watercress sandwich for vegetarians. Meat eaters in the family can go crazy and build a feast of turkey breast, salami and provolone on deli rye.
To keep your bread pristine, put the mayo or mustard (as well as tomatoes or lettuce) between the meat slices, not directly on the bread. Or, for really long flights, wrap the bread, meat and cheese in plastic wrap sealed in Ziploc bags and assemble the sandwich with condiment packets while you’re flying.
Avoid fillings that might disturb your fellow passengers. Overly messy food or condiments, like chopped liver and garlic paste are a bit too aromatic for an airplane’s close quarters.

Keep it fun for the kids

If kids like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stop at a camping supply store and pick up a couple of refillable plastic tubes. The kids can choose their favorite peanut butter and jam and pre-fill the tubes at home. Now they have something to look forward to on the plane.

A salad bar in the air

Make carrot, potato or pasta salad at home and pack it in plastic containers. Keep a green salad fresh by assembling it when you’re ready to eat. (A tip: You can pick up a couple of the empty salad dressing containers at your grocery store’s salad bar.) At home, give everyone the chance to pack their favorite salad fixings. Besides lettuce or arugula, bring chopped tomatoes, scallions, croutons, olives, hardboiled egg slices, crumbled cheese, and carrot rounds — those salad-dressing containers work well for these items, too. A grilled vegetable salad is a treat anytime, but at 30,000 feet, the sweetness of charred vegetables are especially delicious.
Besides salad dressing in one of those little containers, bring sea salt and black pepper as well.
Want to make your salad even more delicious? Try this simple vinaigrette. Just heat ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar over a low flame until it’s reduced to a teaspoon, then mix it together with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. The reduced balsamic adds depth and natural sweetness to the dressing.

Let your deli do the work

To glam up your meal, nothing says classy like a charcuterie plate and nothing is easier to prepare. Pick up a selection of favorite meats, pâtés, cheeses, and a small baguette or a selection of rolls at your favorite deli. Bring along some olives, a few cornichons — those tart French pickles — and a packet of Dijon mustard, and you won’t care what the first-class passengers are eating.

Celebrate your sweet tooth

For dessert, go wild and stop at your favorite bakery. Fresh fruit tarts don’t travel well, but cookies, muffins, scones and even eclairs do quite nicely if packed in plastic containers, like the ones used at the deli or the lidded containers sold by Ziploc and Glad.

Don’t forget the basics

Bring paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils so you can feast in style. A plain kitchen towel makes a perfect airplane tray tablecloth and helps with spills. Pack everything in plastic containers. Be a good neighbor and carry plastic bags for easy clean up so you don’t leave any trash behind. Take along sea salt and freshly ground pepper in empty 35mm film canisters (remember those?) or even the plastic containers used for prescription medication.

Why we love flying

With all the inconveniences, we easily forget that flying is a manmade miracle. Think about it, a hundred-plus people and all their luggage powering through the sky above the highest clouds. Amazing. If only we didn’t feel so claustrophobically uncomfortable, we could return to the wonder we felt as kids when we pressed our noses against the window and looked down at the earth below.
We can’t regain that lost innocence, but enjoying a delicious home-prepared meal, maybe we can reconnect with the fun of flying. A really good sandwich, some olives, and a crisp Fuji apple from the farmers market can do that for you.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Fourth of July Picnic Favorites: Rosemary Fried Chicken, Carrot Salad and Potato Salad

I wrote this post several years ago. It is a tribute to how much we enjoy the holiday and how much good parts of our lives remain the same that I want to reprint this post. Why? Because we are eating this delicious picnic food, spending the time with our friends (whom we don't see often enough) and watching the fireworks at the high school with lots of ooohs and aaaahs.

The serious underpinning of 4th of July should never be forgotten. In these perilous times we have good reasons to appreciate our good fortune as we celebrate independence, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness.

For us, our day is spent going to the breakfast 5k in Pacific Palisades, our small town overlooking the Pacific Ocean. After lunch we cheer on the parade that slowly winds its way up main street, then we go home and cook our part of the pot-luck picnic dinner.

At 6:30 we gather in the nearby park, meeting up with friends and family as we eat, talk, and wait until night falls when the fireworks at the high school begin.

We contribute favorite picnic dishes to the pot luck. Nothing could be better on the 4th than crunchy-salty, rosemary fried chicken, sweet carrot salad with the added kick of lemon soaked raisins and a bit of cayenne, and the comforting creaminess of Yukon Gold potato salad.

Rosemary Fried Chicken

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes to prepare, marinate the chicken overnight in buttermilk

Ingredients

2 whole chickens, washed, cut apart, skin removed if desired, wing tips, bones, and skin reserved to make chicken stock
1 quart buttermilk
5 cups flour
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1/4 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 quarts safflower or canola oil

Method

When you cut up the chicken, separate the two parts of the wing and cut the breast meat off the bone. Keep or discard the skin as you wish. The breasts can be left whole but will cook more evenly when cut into strips or tenders. The legs and thighs can be cut in half if you have a heavy chef's knife.

Toss the chicken pieces with olive oil and season with sea salt and pepper. Put the pieces in a container, add the buttermilk, 1 tablespoon of the rosemary, stir, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Using a wok or deep frying pan, heat the cooking oil to 325 - 350 degrees or until a piece of parsley browns immediately when dropped in the oil. Before you begin cooking, prepare your counter. Have a slotted spoon or an Asian style strainer ready. Lay two paper towels on top of a piece of brown grocery bag paper on a large plate.

Reserve 1 teaspoon of the rosemary to use just before serving.
In a brown paper bag mix together the flour, sea salt, pepper, rosemary, cayenne (optional), sugar (optional), and onions (optional). Remove one piece of chicken at a time. Shake off the excess buttermilk, drop the piece into the paper bag with the seasoned flour, close the top of the bag, and shake. Repeat with all the pieces, assembling them on a plate or cutting board.

Cook the chicken in batches. Gently drop each piece into the hot oil, making sure it doesn't touch the other pieces so each one cooks evenly.

Turn over when browned on one side. Remove when golden brown and drain on the paper towels. The pieces will cook quickly: chicken tenders (breast) 2-3 minutes; wings 7-8 minutes; thighs & legs 10-12 minutes.

Just before serving, lightly dust the chicken pieces with 1 teaspoon of rosemary, sea salt and pepper.

If you are making deep fried vegetables like onion rings or broccoli florets, they cook even more quickly: thick rings cook in 30 seconds, thin rings in 5-6 seconds; broccoli in 30 seconds. Soak the vegetables in the seasoned buttermilk for a few minutes, then process like the chicken pieces.

Carrot Salad with Lemon-Soaked Raisins

Yield 6-8 (makes 1 quart)
Time 20 minutes

8 large carrots (preferably farmers' market fresh), washed, peeled, ends trimmed off
1 scallion (optional), finely chopped
1 small bunch Italian parsley, washed, dried, stems trimmed, finely chopped
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Pinch of cayenne
Sea salt and pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise

Soak the raisins in lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight Grate the carrots in a large mixing bowl.

Roughly chop the raisins, reserving the lemon juice not absorbed into the raisins. Mix together the carrots, raisins, parsley, and scallions.

Season with the cumin, cayenne, sea salt, and black pepper and toss. Add the lemon juice and mayonnaise. Mix well.

VariationsUse cilantro instead of Italian parsley

Add chopped capers

Top with roasted chopped almonds

Yukon Gold Potato Salad

Yield: 4-6 servings
Time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds potatoes, preferably Yukon Gold, washed
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
3 quarts water
1 scallion, washed, ends trimmed, finely chopped
1 carrot, washed, peeled, ends removed, grated
1 ear of corn or 1/2 cup corn kernels
2 tablespoons olives, preferably Kalamata or cracked green, pitted, finely chopped
1 tablespoon capers, drained, finely chopped
2-3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Put the potatoes, kosher salt, and water into a pot, bring to a gentle boil, and cover. Cook 30-45 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the potatoes. They should be firm, not mushy.

The potatoes are done when a fork goes in easily. Remove from the salted water. Let cool. Peel off the skins.

Grill an ear of corn and cut up carrot seasoned with olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Cut the kernels off the cob, finely chop the carrot and add to the potato salad along with the chopped scallions, olives, capers, and mayonnaise.

Taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper.

Variations

Add 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only.

Add 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh celery.

Add 1 broccoli floret either grilled or lightly sauteed then finely chopped

Monday, June 16, 2014

Advice If Your Child Is Traveling On Their Own

International travel is a great way for kids to have fun experiences in worlds beyond school and home. For parents it can be a really good time but also stressful when children travel on their own. Our sons are good travelers. They are smart and careful. They love experiencing other cultures and landscapes.

Over the years I developed a to-do list for them so they are ready to get the best out of the experience. The to-do list helps me as well. I want to know they are having a good time and that they are safe and know how to navigate their travel environment.
Because there is a great difference between travel destinations, we are lucky to have the internet to research the attractions and safety issues of just about any venue.

Here is an email I sent our son when he was getting ready for a week's vacation to an island in the Caribbean.

Good morning. We’re very happy you’re going on your trip. That’s so cool.

It’s going to be beautiful there. Remember to bring sunscreen. From the iPhone weather app, it looks like you’ll have sunny warm weather (88 hi/79 low). That’s great.
Send us the confirmation email for the round trip airline ticket you bought so we have your travel information.

I put money in your ATM and paid your Credit Card bill.

PACKING
Pack as lightly as possible. Figure out what clothes you will need for each day. Pack that plus an extra day. Find out if the hotel has self-serve laundry facilities. Avoid using the hotel's laundry service. The rates are very high. As in, $5.00 for a pair of underwear. $3.50 for a pair of socks. $18.00 to launder a shirt.

If you don’t need your laptop, leave it at home and just bring your camera, phone and iPad. Remember to pack your adapters and extra batteries.

RESEARCHING YOUR DESTINATION
Take a look at the articles about your destination I emailed yesterday. Even if you don’t go off the resort property, they had good tips for dealing with crime and how to deal with people who approach you. Like the articles say, don’t wear jewelry, openly carry your electronics or pull money out of your pocket.
When you are at the airport you are vulnerable and criminals are looking for the right moment to grab a suitcase or backpack or wallet or phone, so hold on to everything you have with you at all times. Even in the bathroom.

CREDIT CARDS - TRAVEL NOTIFICATION
3-5 days before you leave, you need to call all of the credit card companies and banks with credit and ATM cards you use, to notify them that you will be using the cards on your trip. They will want to know your dates of travel and where you are traveling. That way when you use them out of the country, the banks won’t think it’s fraud when charges show up outside your normal area of use. The numbers to call are on the back of each credit card. 
CASH
Exchanging US currency at the airport or hotel is usually pretty expensive. Some people like to buy the foreign currency in the US before they leave, but that is also expensive. The most cost effective way to acquire local currency is from an ATM at your destination. The exchange rate is favorable and depending on your ATM bank, the fees may be low. When you call the credit card/ATM company you use to give them your travel notification, ask them what those fees are.

In my experience, an airport ATM that supports your bank's card is a good place to get local currency. 

Each time you use your ATM card, there is a fee, so don't use it to withdraw small amounts a lot of time. Withdraw what you need for 3-4 days. 

When you use an ATM machine, be aware of the people around you. Crooks like to grab money from people who have just gotten money from an ATM, so be watchful.
COPIES OF YOUR DOCUMENTS
Make 2 copies of your essential documents:  passport, credit cards (front and back) and medical card. Keep each set of copies in a separate place. When you are traveling, carry the original documents and one copy with you. Keep them in separate places.

When you are in the hotel, keep your passport and credit cards locked up in a safe. If there is not an in-room safe, usually the front desk has a safe available for guests.

To protect against pick pockets, always carry your wallet and passport in your front pocket never your back pocket or backpack. 

CELL PHONE USE
Call the cell phone company and tell them about your travel. Ask if there is an inexpensive payment to roam so you can use your phone for texting and emailing on the trip and find out the cost of cell phone use where you are traveling. Let's talk about the options.

When you call the phone company, ask what you have to do to activate your phone for roaming. For some carriers you have to enter a roaming code before you leave, turn off your phone while you travel, then when you arrive at your international destination, you turn your phone on, enter and send a roaming code.

When traveling internationally, only use roaming in emergencies or infrequently to use Google Maps and check for urgent messages and emails. The cost to roam is very high. Sharing one or two photographs, emailing and surfing the web can cost hundreds of dollars. Some carriers like Verizon offer discounted roaming plans, but even those do not solve the problem.

Once you have activated your phone for roaming on arrival, immediately turn off Cellular Data in Settings and only turn it back on as needed.

When you are in the hotel, presumably they have complimentary WiFi (if not in your room, then in the lobby), in which case you can email and text without charge. If WiFi is not available, most hotels have a lobby or Business Center desktop computer with internet access. If not, then check for important emails and texts a couple of times a day. Avoid sending photographs and, if you do, send them at the lowest file-size.
LANDLINE PHONE CARDS
We use iDPhoneCard which has dial-in numbers in most countries in the world. The rates are usually very low. Go on line to find others and compare. See which one you want to use. The way they work is you set up an account and make a deposit. Then when you are traveling, you can call in to the US for a low per minute rate. With iDPhoneCard there is no charge for making a call other than the minutes used. Some phone cards charge for each call + the minutes used.

ADAPTOR PLUGS
Find out if you need adaptor plugs for the hotel. If you have a toll free phone number for the hotel, call them and ask if they have plugs free-for-guest use you can use during the stay. If they do have them, ask them to please put aside 2 for you.

You can also go to a travel store to buy an adapter plug. They don’t cost much. All you need is a plug that attaches to the plug on your AC adapter. Traveling in most places, you don’t need a voltage regulator. But ask the hotel about that as well.
THE HOTEL CONTACT INFORMATION 
Make sure you bring with you the local phone number and address of the resort. Confirm with the hotel how you will get from the airport to the hotel. Ask if you need to give them your travel information & cell phone number so they have a person pick you up free of charge or is there a shuttle at the airport. In either case, ask how and where you will find the person bringing you to the resort. If you are expected to take a cab or bus, get all of those details and ask how much the cost will be.

Bring copies with you of your hotel confirmation.
Lots of small details but they are important. Once you get all this done, then you’ll be ready for a great adventure.

Let’s talk this afternoon.

Love, 
Dad and Mom

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Father's Day Deserves a Feast, Start with the Grill

This year I will be out of town on Father's Day. I'll miss being with my sons on that special day. We already have a bealted-Father's Day date two weeks later when we will all be in town. I can hardly wait!

Since Father's Day coincides with the start of summer, grilling is the best way to celebrate male parenting.

For me, nothing is better than a platter of grilled Italian sausages with sautéed onions, deveined shrimp seasoned with olive oil, sea salt and black pepper, corn on the cob, charred red peppers mixed with capers and garlic and lobsters split open and doused with pats of sweet butter.  With a tossed arugula and carrot salad, a loaf of freshly baked bread and a fresh fruit salad and I am happy.
The best grilling is the easiest kind. Buy good sausages, seafood and chicken, drizzle with olive oil, season with sea salt, pepper and any dried herb you fancy, put it on a hot grill, turn diligently to prevent burning and serve when it's done.

When the boys come to the house to celebrate a birthday, mother's day or father's day, they frequently take command of the grill. As my younger son, Michael, reminds me, they are my sons so of course they are good cooks. And that makes me very very happy.

Our other son, Franklin, doesn't regard a meal a proper meal unless there are appetizers. The secret to a great grilled meal is what's served on the side. My contribution to your Father's Day celebration are three of my favorite sides. 

All three are addictive so you may find you'll be eating them all summer long. They are all easy-to-make. The tapenade and lavash crisps can be made a day or two ahead. The grilled corn salsa is best made fresh.


Grilled Corn Salsa

Adding corn caramelized from light grilling gives this salsa it’s distinctive sweetness. When you buy corn from the market, look for plump kernels. Avoid ears with wrinkled or shriveled kernels.
You can use any kind of ripe tomato you enjoy, but I prefer cherry tomatoes because they are sweet and they hold their shape after being cut up. For added color, select a basket with a mix of yellow and red cherry tomatoes.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 ear of corn, husks and silks removed, washed
1 8 oz basket of ripe cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
1 large shallot, ends and skin removed, washed and roughly chopped
½ cup Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Lemon juice to taste (optional)

Directions

Pre-heat the grill to medium-hot.

Drizzle the olive oil on a large plate and season with sea salt and black pepper. Roll the ear of corn to coat. Using tongs, place the corn on the grill.  Turn frequently to prevent burning.  Remove the corn when all the sides have light grill marks. Let cool. Cut off the kernels and place in a large mixing bowl.

Use a rubber or silicone spatula to transfer the seasoned olive oil from the plate into the mixing bowl with the corn.

Add the quartered cherry tomatoes, shallot and parsley. Toss well and season with the cayenne. Taste and adjust the flavors with more sea salt, black pepper, olive oil and lemon juice (optional).

Tapenade with Charred Garlic

A secret weapon in last minute cooking, tapenade brightens any meal either as an appetizer or a condiment. If you use pitted, canned olives, making tapenade will take 10-15 minutes.
 
The taste of your tapenade depends on the quality of the olives.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

1 can pitted olives, drained weight 6 oz., preferably green or kalamata olives
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves with skins
¼ cup Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, roughly chopped
¼ teaspoon pepper flakes (optional)
Black pepper to taste

Directions

Skewer the garlic cloves on the end of a knife or a metal skewer and hold over a gas flame to burn off the outer skins. Let cool, remove any pieces of charred skin and roughly chop the cloves.

In a small blender or food processer, place the drained olives, olive oil, garlic, parsley and pepper flakes. Pulse until the olives are roughly chopped. Taste and adjust the seasoning with the addition of black pepper, sea salt, pepper flakes and olive oil.

Pulse again until the tapenade achieves the desired texture. Personally I like a tapenade that has a rustic look with the olives coarsely chopped rather than puréed.

Refrigerate until ready to use and serve at room temperature.

Variations

 2 anchovies packed in oil, roughly chopped and added with the olives. If salted, rinse before adding.

1 tablespoon capers added with the olives.

Lavash Crisps

Served in the Middle East, lavash and pita are commonly used instead of bread. Flat, unleavened lavash has a delicious, lightly grilled flavor when fresh. Making crisps makes use of lavash that might otherwise have gotten stale and gone to waste.
Lavash crisps have more flavor and are more flaky than commercially manufactured chips. Serve them with salsa, tapenade, dips or thin slices of cheese.

The crisps will last for weeks if kept refrigerated in an airtight container. 

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

1 large or 2 small sheets of lavash
1 cup olive or safflower oil
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
5-6 paper towel sheets

Directions

Cut the lavash sheets into 2” squares by cutting the sheet in half, placing the halves on top of each other, cutting those in half and doing that again until the pieces are 2” wide. Cut the 2” wide strips into 2” squares and set aside. If not cooked immediately, store in an airtight container.

In a large frying pan or griddle, heat ¼ cup of the oil. Season with sea salt and black pepper and heat on a medium-low flame. Be careful not to burn the oil or cause it to smoke.

Lay a paper towel sheet on a large plate or baking sheet.

Add the lavash squares to the hot oil. Do not overlap. Using tongs, turn over the lavash when they are lightly browned and cook the other side. They cook quickly so watch them closely.

Remove the cooked crisps and place them on the paper towel. Cook another batch. Place a clean paper towel on top of each layer to absorb excess oil.

Replenish the oil in the frying pan as needed and season with sea salt and black pepper. Allow the oil to reach the proper temperature before adding more lavash.

Discard the paper towels when the crisps cool. Store refrigerated in an airtight container. Serve at room temperature.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Authentic Guatemalan Ceviche and Mexican Ice Cream on West Pico Near Crenshaw

Anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows this is a great city to enjoy ethnic food. It is easy to eat affordably priced meals at any number of national and regional restaurants including those that serve Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Brazilian, Thai, Jewish, Korean, Vietnamese, Armenian, Persian, Peruvian, Guatemalan, Ethiopian and Indian dishes. 

Living near the beach, I don't come into town as often as I would like. To meet a friend close to where he lives meant we needed to find a restaurant near the 10 Freeway at the Crenshaw Boulevard exit.
Not knowing where to go, I turned to Bobby Rock, who knows the area well. He had suggestions.They all sounded good. We wanted a light meal, so we figured we'd try La Cevicheria (3809 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019, (323) 732-1253).

As I parked in front of the restaurant, my friend called to say he would be late. A car issue, easily solved in ten to fifteen minutes. Ok, no problem. That gave me time to explore the area. 

Across the street, Jay's Market (4000 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles 90019) is a Latin grocery store with a really good fresh produce section, a meat market with Mexican cuts and a well-stocked liquor department. I mention the latter because I really enjoy Quezalteca Especial, a grappa-like, Guatemalan white rum I used to buy from Golden Farms (6501 San Fernando Road, Glendale, CA 91202), an Armenian supermarket in Glendale near Adana (6918 San Fernando Road, Glendale, California 91201, 818-843-6237), an excellent Armenian restaurant I've written about. 
Golden Farms stopped selling the rum last year. Jay's Market carries it. Not knowing when I would be back in the area, I bought two bottles.

Back to La Cevicheria. 

Ethnic restaurants in LA are often family run and draw heavily on the home cooking taught by one generation to the next. Serving the local community, La Cevicheria reached a wider audience when the restaurant was reviewed positively by Jonathan Gold, LA's premier ethnic restaurant critic, and included by S. Irene Virbila in her ceviche round-up. 

Waiting for my friend, I sat down at one of the two small sidewalk tables to read the newspaper. Enjoying a quiet moment, even though a large truck was idling in front while the driver made a delivery, a man in a black t-shirt stuck his head out of the restaurant's front door to ask, "May I help you?" "Just waiting for my friend," I explained. He invited me inside because sitting next to an idling truck wasn't all that pleasant.

At that moment, my friend arrived, so inside we went and found a table in the middle of the restaurant. The man in the black t-shirt handed us menus and introduced himself as Julio Orellana.  He waved his arm in the air, gesturing at Jonathan Gold's review on the wall. He was happy to meet us, he said, although the person we really should meet was chef Carolina Orellana, his wife, but she was not there. 

A gregarious person, Orellana gave us a thumbnail description of the restaurant. The recipes came from Guatemala. Carolina made everything in the kitchen. Ok. there were a few hot sauces in bottles because people fancied them, but everything else was made in the kitchen, the way his wife cooked for the family at home.

We read the menu. Hip hop music played overhead. More people came into the restaurant. The truck deliveryman came inside and found an empty table. A woman, her mom and a friend sat across from us. She ordered and when her food came, she told us about the dishes.

La Cevicheria is the kind of place where people start conversations with strangers. Everyone wants to talk about their favorite dishes.
The woman told us we should order the Chapin, described in the menu as "Guatemalan style with shrimp, crab, octopus, tomatoes, onions, avocado, mint, lime, Worcestershire sauce" ($12) and the Campechana ("shrimp, bloody clams, octopus, abalone, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, cilantro, avocado") served with crisp corn tortillas ($12). 

She also told us that because La Cevicheria doesn't have a liquor license, we could bring our own beer in brown paper bags. But, no bottles, only beer in cans. 

We shared a plate of Aguachiles, a ceviche appetizer with 4 jumbo raw shrimp, deveined, the shells peeled back to the tails. The shrimp were placed in a thick, spicy-hot green sauce, flavored with pulverized jalapeños, lime, cilantro, onions and garlic. The translucent shrimp quickly turned pink under the withering glare of the jalapeño-lime marinade. The heat surrounded the sweet shrimp and coated the inside of my mouth. The dish satisfied on so many levels. 

We had the Campechana. Arriving in an unglamorous, large metal bowl, bits of shrimp, clams, octopus and abalone float in an ink-dark liquid. Lacking the visual appeal of the Aguachiles, the Campechana cocktail needs to be eaten to be appreciated. Cilantro, avocado and peeled cucumbers brighten the seriousness of the ceviche. Eaten on pieces of crisp corn tortilla, each mouthful becomes an experience of contrasting textures and flavors--crisp, soft, chewy, sweet, acidic. After each bite, mouth empty, a quiet heat envelopes your palate like the sweet remembrance that comes when a lover leaves and you yearn with anticipation for her return. 
As a contrast to the two first dishes, the Mariscadas, a seafood stew is an intermezzo of quiet. Served in a mild tomato based sauce with steamed white rice ($15), the dish is visually elegant and easy on the palate, as if to say, Guatemalan cuisine isn't all about heat. Mariscadas comforts where its companions sought to excite and challenge.

Providing a through line for all the dishes, we had glasses of freshly squeezed, tart-sweet limeade.

After all the heat, we needed something sweet. My friend remembered Mateo's, an ice cream store on Pico, just west of Crenshaw. 

As we walked to our cars, we passed Restaurante Puerto La Union (3811 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles 90019, 323/373-0429). A quick look at the menu with its list of affordable, large plates of familiar Salvadorian dishes and we knew we would come back. Maybe next time we would have appetizers at La Cevicheria (surf) and an entrée at Restaurante Puerto La Union (turf).
Mateo's Ice Cream has three locations (1250 S. Vermont Avenue, #105, Los Angeles 90006, 213/738-7288 and 4929 S. Sepulveda Boulevard, Culver City 90230, 310/313-7625). We stopped at the West Pico store (4234 W. Pico, Los Angeles 90019, 323/931-5500). 

The ice creams and paletas (fruit bars with and without milk) are made in the Culver City store. All use fresh ingredients. When paletas are made right, they are sweet but not too sweet. They are all about flavor. 
The flavors are familiar--vanilla, pistachio, caramel, rum with raisins, egg nog with raisins, neapolitan, banana split, coffee, strawberry, banana and lemon. And not so familiar--mamey sapote, melon, pepino and chile, watermelon, smoked milk, tamarind and chile, pitaya, nance, tejocote, yogurt and dried fruit, guanabana, mango and walnut. 

Mateo's is rightly proud of their ice creams.

Besides ice cream scoops, fruit bars (paletas), smoothies, milkshakes and freshly squeezed juices, Mateo's also has a short menu of sandwiches so if you are hungry you can eat before you feast on ice cream treats.
I had a vanilla paleta with strawberries. Delicious. My friend had scoops of smoked milk and caramel. I wanted to try the coconut, pineapple and mango with chile paletas but after the lunch at La Cevicheria, I was too full.

I'm looking forward to my next visit to West Pico and Crenshaw.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

An Easy-to-Make Meal Perfect for Mother's Day

Since Mother's Day is a day when mom is celebrated and pampered, it would be counter-intuitive to expect her to cook. On the other hand, putting too much burden on the other members of the family (dad and the kids) would also be ill-advised.

There is the classic New Yorker's solution of serving lox, bagels, and cream cheese or avoiding cooking entirely by visiting a restaurant, but a home cooked meal makes such a personal statement. The key is to prepare a simple meal so you don't spend more time in the kitchen than with her. That and flowers tells her, "I love you."

Arugula Salad with Hazelnuts, Carrots, Avocado, and Croutons

1 bunch arugula, washed, stems removed, leaves torn into bite sized pieces
1/4 cup raw hazelnuts
1 carrot, washed, peeled, cut into thin rounds
1 avocado, peeled, pit removed, roughly chopped
1/4 cup croutons
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and pepper

On a low flame reduce the balsamic vinegar to 1 tablespoon. Set aside to cool. Roast the hazelnuts in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes, shaking the pan every 5 minutes to cook evenly. Remove, put into a dish cloth, rub roughly to remove the skins, let cool, and crush with the side of a chefs knife.

Put the arugula, hazelnuts, carrot rounds, croutons, and avocado into a salad bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar. Season with sea salt and pepper. Toss and serve

Serves 4. Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 20 minutes.

Chicken Breasts Sautéed with Spinach

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, washed, dried
1 bunch spinach, washed thoroughly to remove all the grit, dried, stems removed, leaves roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled, finely chopped
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1/4 cup water, chicken stock, or white wine
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Use one frying pan to cut down on clean up. Sauté the garlic and shallot until softened--about 2 minutes--add the chicken breasts and sauté until lightly browned on both sides, then remove and cover with aluminum foil. Sauté the spinach until wilted, then remove. Deglaze the pan with the liquid. Add the butter. Season with sea salt and pepper. Reduce the liquid by half, then add back the chicken breasts and coat with the sauce. Remove the breasts and cover to keep warm. Put the spinach back in the pan and mix well with the sauce. Slide the spinach onto the serving plate. Slice the chicken and arrange on top of the spinach.

Serves 4. Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 15 minutes.

For the dessert I'd suggest my mom's favorite: Banana Cake With Chocolate Chips and Almonds. The recipe is on New York Times Dining. The cake can be made the day ahead. Before serving, bring to room temperature and serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.