Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Summer Travel - Time to Plan a Picnic at 30,000 Feet




When you board an airplane and walk past the first-class passengers settling into their double-wide seats, it’s difficult to avoid feeling like a second-class citizen. The issue isn’t only personal space. As the curtain closes behind the lucky few, you know the crew is preparing a nonstop feast for those with plenty of disposable income.
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 or the Chicken Bánh Mi Sandwich is a relative bargain at $7, but Delta charges $9.99 for a grilled chicken wrap, and a vending-machine-type pastrami and cheese (cheese on pastrami?) sandwich is $9.99 on American Airlines. Delta’s “Eats Treats” is a choice of three snack boxes with packets of easy to eat chips, cookies,  cheese spread, nuts and dried fruit for $5.99-$8.99.
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 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, or carrot rounds — those salad-dressing containers work well for these items, too.
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.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Get Ready for Summer with Sangria Fruit Salad

When I was served a glass of sangria in a bar in San Sebastián, a small resort town on the coast of Northern Spain, I loved the way fresh fruit added flavor to the wine. Fortified with brandy and  sugar, sangria goes well with small sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Visit Spain and you'll see sangria pitchers wide at the base and pinched at the spout so when poured, the wine not the fruit fills the glass.

The result is a wine beverage that carries memories of the fruit but not the fruit itself. Sitting in that small bar, enjoying a relaxed afternoon, I wondered at this exclusion. Why keep the fruit out of the glass?
When peaches, apples, limes and oranges go into a sangria, they are sliced but not peeled. The thought that played around in my head was why not peel the fruit and cut everything into spoon sized pieces? Doing that would allow the wine and fruit to be served together. 

Place a dozen on a tray, with an espresso spoon in each glass and your guests will enjoy an appetizer and cocktail in one.

Sangria Fruit Salad

Using a bottle of quality wine to make sangria is a waste. The same goes for the brandy. Because so many of the flavors will come from other sources, select a drinkable, inexpensive red wine and brandy. Supermarkets and Trader Joe's sell good wines and brandies at a low price that work well. For the wine, I like Merlot, but the choice is entirely up to you. If you prefer white wine, fumé blanc and chardonnay are good. 
Use firm and ripe fruit that is in season. Stone fruit like cherries, peaches and nectarines, grapes, oranges, limes, strawberries, Fuji apples and pears work well. 

Cut up and add the fruits just before serving so they don't become soggy by absorbing too much wine.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

1 750 ml bottle red wine
1/2 cup brandy
1/4 cup white granulated sugar
Juice of one lemon or lime
3 oranges, preferably Valencia
2 Fuji apples, washed, peeled, cut into quarter sized cubes
2 white nectarines, washed, peeled, cut into quarter sized cubes
6 large strawberries, washed, stems removed

Directions

In a large pitcher, mix together the wine, brandy, sugar and lemon juice. Chill in the refrigerator. 

Using a sharp knife, peel the oranges, removing all the peel together with the rind. Hold the peeled oranges over a bowl to catch all the juice. Cut the orange sections free from the membrane. When all the sections have been removed, squeeze the membrane to capture the last bit of delicious juice.

Just before serving, add the orange sections, orange juice and cut up strawberries, apples and nectarines. Stir well.

Use a ladle to fill glasses with a good amount of the fruit. Top off with the sangria. Place an espresso spoon in each glass.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Spring in New York, Time to Explore Lower Manhattan and Eat at the Food Courts in Brookfield Place

Friends in New York talked about the weather all winter. Between ice, snow, rain and cold temperatures, the last winter was memorable for being unpleasant.

Now, temperatures have risen and cold weather is a distant memory. Flowers are blooming. The grass in Central Park is green. God's in Heaven and all's right with the world. This week New York is actually warmer than Los Angeles!

On a recent trip to the city, we enjoyed the good weather. We walked miles around the city each day. Thanks to the health app on the iPhone 6 I can track how many miles I walked. One day that was almost 8 miles. So much fun.

I visited with friends and took foodie-tours in different parts of town. I stopped at the Met (the Metropolitan Museum of Art) to check out the amazing art in the special exhibit of Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.
I cooked a couple of meals for our friends, shopping at the Fairway Market on the upper west side (Broadway and 74th Street) and had a day revisiting favorite restaurants around the city like the Vietnamese Nha Trang One Restaurant (87 Baxter Street, NYC 10013, 212/233-5948)  in Chinatown to have the salt and pepper shrimp and to eat at a new restaurant, Mission Cantina (172 Orchard St., New York, NY 10002, 212/254-2233) south of Houston on the Lower East Side.
I had walked past the restaurant several times without investigating, assuming it was just another wanna-be New York City Mexican restaurant. A good friend showed me the error of my ways. The wildly colorful, very small Mission Cantina is a very interesting mash up of a restaurant.
Vietnamese dishes are served for breakfast and Mexican-ish dishes during lunch and dinner.  We had Mexican-style dishes for lunch. They were unlike anything I had eaten in LA. The flavors were jazz-riffs rather than representations of traditional Mexican dishes like mole.

In the morning, I loved the Vietnamese duck and scallion congee topped with a fried egg and served with an enormous shrimp baguette with deep fried whole peanuts and mashed garlic. So good. What an amazing way to begin the day.
I spent most of one day with another friend in Lower Manhattan at Ground Zero where most of the public areas are open. One Trade Center dominates lower Manhattan as did the Twin Towers it replaced. At the 9/11 Memorial, cascading water disappears into a dark cavern, the perimeter above is inscribed with the names of those who died.
People take selfies against the memorial and bend backwards to frame a shot of One Trade Center to include the very top.
Construction continues on the east side of the area but the area to the west is now open to the Hudson. On the ground floor of Brookfield Place (before 9/11, the World Financial Center) a broad patio faces the water. Two food courts inside look out into a large atrium.
Le District opened in the spring. Wanting to be a French version of Mario Batali's Eataly, the shops in Le District offer a variety of specialty products that will stimulate a Parisian sense memory.
Affordably priced, inside the market you can buy cookies, crepes, strong freshly brewed coffee, sandwiches on crusty rolls, rotisserie chickens, croissants, cheeses, charcuterie and fresh meat, fish and poultry.
Hudson Eats on the second floor is a large food court. Light pours in through tall windows facing the river and a patio planted with trees. While downstairs focuses on the French experience, upstairs you can range the world in search of culinary treats, including pizza, hamburgers, Thai dishes, sandwiches, baked goods, sushi, barbecue, Mexican food and freshly made salads.
With so many choices, a good friend was my guide. We chose Texas style fatty brisket with cole slaw,  cucumber pickles and baked beans from the Mighty Quinn and an order of pork and chive dumplings from Northern Tiger.



They were as different as dishes could be. They were both delicious. Each in its own way, perfectly prepared. Moist where moist was needed. Crisp where crisp was wanted.
Hudson Eats is definitely worth a stop when you are near the 9/11 Memorial or visiting Wall Street.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Los Angeles Restaurant Recommendations for a Friend who Lives in New York

Sometimes out of town friends ask for restaurant recommendations. The restaurants I love in Los Angeles are spread all over town and they usually aren't ones that are famous. 

I just emailed a short list to a good friend who wants to give a present to an old friend who has just completed a difficult film project.

I thought I'd share the list with you.

Adana Restaurant
6918 San Fernando Road, Glendale 91201 818/843-6237
Delicious food. Written about by me, Mark Bittman and Jonathan Gold. We all love it. The chef, Edward Khechemyan, is a hard working, inventive man. The food is freshly made. Affordable. Delicious.
Here are links to reviews:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/magazine/this-armenian-life.html?_r=0
http://www.latimes.com/food/la-fo-0307-gold-adana-restaurant-20150307-story.html
http://menwholiketocook.blogspot.com/search/label/Adana%20Restaurant





Yabu 
11820 W. Pico Blvd
LA CA 90064
 (310) 473-9757
The best affordable sushi, tempura, udon and soba in LA. An intimate, cozy, friendly space. (There are two Yabu restaurants. The one in West Hollywood I don’t like. This is the one on the west side.)
Here is my review:
http://menwholiketocook.blogspot.com/2011/08/yabu-in-west-los-angeles-authentic.html

Liquid Kitty

11780 W. Pico Blvd
Los Angeles CA 90064

Half a block east of Yabu, on the same side of the street is Liquid Kitty, possibly one of the coolest bars in LA with very large, well-made drinks, walls painted black and soft-core porn or 70s melodramatic movies showing silently on a screen in the back. Out front there is a neon martini glass that changes into a burning cigarette

My favorite evening is a massively large dirty martini up at Liquid Kitty, then dinner at Yabu (tendon (seasoned rice with tempera shrimp & vegetables), uni sushi with a quail yolk, crab handroll, tamago sushi, yellow tail sashimi, black cod with soy sauce). Yum.

La Fiesta Brava
423 Rose Avenue, Venice, CA 90291
310/399-8005
A hole in the wall restaurant owned by a family. When you walk through the front door, you enter what used to be the living room of a home. This is as close as you’ll get to eating in a Mexican family’s home as you will get without going to a Mexican family’s home. The chicken mole is fantastic. Michelle loves the pepper shrimp in the shell with beans and rice. The fish taco is actually a whole grilled fish filet on a handmade tortilla topped with creamy salsa. The food is really good. Unfortunately Rose Avenue is undergoing a very rapid redevelopment, with upscale restaurants and shops taking over the neighborhood. The days are numbered for La Fiesta Brava. It is really worth experiencing as many times as possible before it is forced to leave.
http://menwholiketocook.blogspot.com/2014/09/la-fiesta-brava-delights-with-old.html




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.
latt-drought6
Picture 1 of 5
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