Friday, February 29, 2008

Hidden Treasures at Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica

Driving on the freeway, looking at the streets and neighborhoods below, I often wonder what fabulous restaurants I'm missing.Tacos Por Favor is one of those places that I had heard about for years, but had always driven by without stopping.

Today I decided to stop.

A cantina-sized Mexican restaurant on the corner of Olympic at 14th Street,Tacos Por Favor sits on the border between the two-Santa Monicas. It is well-known to the people who work in the auto repair and building supply businesses nearby as well as the students of the upscale private school, Crossroads and the well-heeled who could eat at the upscale Buffalo Club down the block, but prefer Tacos Por Favor's casual atmosphere and lower prices.

Long before it was hip, the restaurant made its reputation on the quality of its ingredients. Abandoning lard and searching out the freshest vegetables to make its salsas, Tacos Por Favor prides itself on serving "healthy Mexican food."

On this first visit, I tried a selection of the soft tacos: carnitas, chicken, cheese, shrimp, and the potato (delicious). One of the day's specials was shrimp soup. Six corn tortillas came with the large bowl of spicy soup, filled with whole shrimp, bell peppers, roasted red peppers, celery, and onions.

Delicious, filling, and affordable.

Stimulated by the flavors, I knew what I was going to make for dinner: carne asada with avocado and homemade salsa.

Carne Asada, Avocado, and Salsa

Instead of buying the meat at the supermarket, if you're close to a Mexican or Asian market, you'll find the cuts of meat you need at half the price.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes


1 pound flank or skirt steak, thin sliced
1 ripe tomato, washed, stem removed, chopped
1 carrot, washed, peeled, sliced into thick rounds
1 medium sized ripe avocado, washed, peeled, the pit removed, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped yellow onion
1 teaspoon chopped cilantro leaves
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
1 small serrano chile, washed, cut in half, seeded
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Mexican hot sauce or Tabasco
Olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
6-8 large tortillas, corn or flour


Marinate the steak in olive oil, seasoned with sea salt, black pepper, and a bit of hot sauce. If you have the time, overnight is great, but as little as an hour will help tenderize and flavor the meat.

Toss the carrot pieces and serrano chile in a bowl with olive oil and sea salt, then grill, 3 minutes on each side, remove and chop. Put them back into the bowl. Add the chopped tomatoes, onions, avocado, and cilantro. Mix well. Drizzle with the lemon juice and season with hot sauce, if needed. Marinate 30 minutes.

Grill the steak on a hot grill, 5 minutes on each side or until the edges are charred. Transfer to a plate, cover with a piece of aluminum foil, and set aside for 5 minutes.

Grill flour or corn tortillas and keep warm in a covered basket.

Roughly chop the steak, put the pieces into a bowl, pour the juices over the meat, and serve with the salsa and hot tortillas.


Grill 6 scallions--washed, ends trimmed--until charred and serve with the tacos

Grill 1 ear of corn--shucked, silks removed, washed--take off the kernels, add them to the salsa

Roast 2 garlic cloves in their skins over an open flame until their skins burn off, let cool, mince, add to the salasa

Add 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro to the salsa

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Trying Something New: Shrimp with Lemongrass

Today I spent an hour at Barnes and Noble browsing through the cookbooks. The ones that seemed most interesting to me featured cooking from Asia. Nobu and Masahara Morimoto have incredibly beautiful books about Japanese cooking. But it was James Oseland's Cradle of Flavor, with his account of cooking in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, that was most appealing. What I liked was his description of street-vendor food, full of flavor and easy to eat.

Years ago when I was experimenting with Vietnamese food, I planted lemongrass in the garden. I didn't use it very much, so the plant grew undisturbed until it had taken over most of the garden. Looking through the Asian cookbooks reminded me about all that lemongrass in the back yard. When I got home I cut off a stalk and came up with an incredibly easy to make shrimp dish.

Shrimp with Lemongrass, Garlic, and Bacon

The shrimp can be served with sliced avocado, steamed rice, pasta, or steamed vegetables.

12 shrimp, raw, washed, the shells removed and saved, deveined
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
1 piece of bacon, finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely grated, fresh lemongrass
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon nam pla (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper

In a small pot, boil the shrimp shells with 1 cup of water until the liquid is reduced to 2 tablespoons, then discard the shells. Marinate the deveined shrimp in olive oil, black pepper, and the grated lemongrass. For a Southeast Asian flavor use the the nam pla, otherwise sprinkle a pinch of sea salt on the shrimp.

Sauté the garlic, bacon, and shallot in the olive oil until lightly browned. Deglaze the pan with the shrimp liquid and reduce by half. Add the shrimp and the marinating sauce to the pan. Cook the shrimp no more than 30 seconds on each side. Serve with the sauce in a bowl.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 5 minutes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

To Market, To Market to Buy Everything Fresh

Sundays in the Palisades, Wednesdays and Saturdays in Santa Monica, these are good days because that's when we go to the local farmers' markets. Most neighborhoods in LA have a farmers' market one day of the week. Southern California is blessed with a climate that allows us to enjoy dozens of varieties of fresh flowers and a wide selection of vegetables all year long.

My first experience with non-Southern California produce happened when I moved to Rhode Island. At the local supermarket, the produce section looked like a science experiment. The tomatoes were the worst. Most of them were pale green and trapped under a tightly sealed plastic wrap. I picked ones that had a reddish tinge, thinking they were more ripe. My friend informed me, knowingly, that the tomatoes were red because they'd been gassed. I was happy when I moved back to LA.

The summer will always have the best tasting produce, but what I saw at our local farmers' market this week looked great. For the easiest meal, winter or summer, lunch or dinner, nothing beats grilled vegetables, seasoned with olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Because vegetables take so little work to prepare, a feast is easily within reach: roasted tomatoes, grilled broccoli, carrots, eggplant and corn on the cob in the summer, steamed artichokes with melted butter. There is no more satisfying meal.

Grilled Vegetables

Cut the broccoli into bite sized pieces. Peel the carrots and cut them into slabs ½" x 1". Slice the egg plants in half. Husk and clean the corn on the cob, but leave them whole. For all the vegetables, the recipe is the same: drizzle them with a little olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper, put them on a grill, and turn frequently.

Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 20 minutes.

Steamed Artichokes

Delicious as an appetizer or a side dish, artichokes are healthy and easy to make.

2 large artichokes, washed
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
¼ cup sweet (unsalted) butter, melted

Trim the stem and snip off the sharp ends of each leaf with kitchen shears or household scissors. Put 2" of water into the bottom of a large pot. Put the artichokes in the pot on top of a steamer. Cover and cook on a high flame. After 30 minutes, use tongs to pull a leaf off one of the artichokes, and taste to see if it's done. If not, add 2 cups of water and cook for another 10 minutes, taste another leaf, and continue cooking until done.

Serve with melted butter and sea salt.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 5 minutes. Cooking Time: 30-50 minutes.

Oven Roasted Whole Tomatoes

At the farmers' markets there are always vendors who want to sell their over-ripe tomatoes at half price, so you can buy a lot.

4-5 lbs. whole tomatoes, washed, stems and blemishes removed
4 garlic cloves, peeled, julienned
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet, parchment paper, or tin foil. Put several garlic slivers in the top of each tomato. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and roast in a pre-heated, 350 degree oven for 1 hour.

1 tomato serves 1 person as a side dish with grilled chicken breasts, Italian sausages, or a steak.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 1 hour.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Peel off the skins and discard. If you want to use the tomatoes in a stew or as pieces added to pasta, tear them apart with your hands, collecting everything in a bowl. Save the liquid in the roasting pan. Some of that is the olive oil, but most of it is a flavorful, clear liquid given off by the tomatoes as they cook. Add the liquid to the bowl.

If you want a smooth, thick sauce, run the tomatoes through a food mill. You'll have a quart of high-quality tomato sauce.

Preparation Time: 15 minutes.

Pasta Sauce

To make a good pasta sauce, the liquid has to be reduced and flavor has to be added.

1 quart roasted tomato sauce
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 medium onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
6 mushrooms, brown or shiitake, washed, thinly sliced
½ cup bacon, finely chopped (optional)
2 cups homemade chicken stock (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, washed, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Sauté the garlic, onion, parsley, mushrooms, and bacon (optional) until lightly browned. Add the tomato sauce, oregano, and cayenne. The chicken stock adds a sweetness and another layer of flavor, but if you want to stay meat-free, the chicken stock is optional.

Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent the sauce from burning. Taste and adjust the flavor by seasoning with sea salt. Use the sugar if the sauce is too acidic. Stir and simmer another 30 minutes, then refrigerate overnight. Reduced, you should have 2 pints of sauce. When reheated, taste and adjust the flavors again.

The sauce will keep for several days in the refrigerator or weeks in the freezer.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 75 minutes.

Where's the Beef? Tracking Down Free Range, Grass Fed, Hormone Free Beef

I like eating meat. But the recent, disturbing news report about downer-cattle coming into the food supply didn't engender confidence that what's available at local markets is always healthy. Being an alarmist doesn't help, but it's good to learn more about available alternatives.

One of the benefits of starting this web site has been hearing from people who email me recipes and their own food-stories. In response to my posting about buying affordable meat, a colleague from United Hollywood, John Jabaley sent in a note about his experience buying beef directly from an organic rancher. Here's John's account, together with his family's recipe for Bolognese Meat Sauce.

from John Jabaley:

We typically order every year and get a quarter of a cow for ourselves, sometimes just for ourselves and sometimes we'll split it with other families.

I found the farm around four years ago when my wife, Erika, read "Fast Food Nation" and asked me to read it as well. At the time she was a "fishetarian." Though I was mightily swayed by the book, I wasn't willing to give up beef. So I started looking outside the big food chain.

When you google it, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that there isn't enough rain in Southern California to raise free range grass fed, hormone free beef. Lake Tahoe and Northern California are the closest places that have enough space and rain to support that kind of ranching. Chileno Beef finally popped up after more searching than I thought would be necessary, so I called them. The owner, Mike, happened to be coming down to L.A., so we bought a quarter with another family. Two weeks later, I met him in the parking lot at the Tam O' Shanter in Los Feliz.

I brought 60 pounds of beef home, which raised some eye-brows, but Erika soon came to the decision that she wouldn't sit idly by as the kids and I enjoyed free range, grass fed beef. We were astounded by the difference. It is lean and actually has flavor, not so much as say bison or venison, but more than the corn fed hormone addled stuff you get at most grocery stores, and of course at a third of the price you pay for the same thing at Whole Foods.

We have bought as much as a whole steer, which we split with 3 other families. We all like the flavor so much, that one of the families wasn't getting through all of their allotment, so they split their quarter with another family. Because it comes frozen, the meat lasts quite a while, but if we were to buy more than a quarter for ourselves it would sit too long before we finished it. We have a separate freezer and it fills two shelves and half the door.

Since that first time, I started to drive up to the ranch to pick up the beef. It's a bit of a haul, since it's north of San Francisco, but worth the drive. Even adding in the cost of the gas and lodging, if you spend the night, you end up paying under 5 bucks a pound.

Another wonderful thing about the ranch is that Art Ibleto is the butcher. You pick up the meat at his place where he also sells all kinds of handmade pastas.

You have to be very careful with the roasts as there is not a lot of marbling, but they're delicious if done properly: rub them with olive oil salt and pepper, heat a cast iron skillet until it smokes, brown them, throw the whole thing in a medium oven until rare. The ground beef makes the most amazing Bolognese.

Bolognese Meat Sauce

1 lb. ground beef
3 celery stalks, washed, chopped
1 large onion, peeled, chopped
4 large carrots, washed, peeled, chopped
3 ½ cups roasted tomatoes, peeled, chopped or canned Italian whole tomates
1 6 oz. can Italian tomato paste
½ cup red wine
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper, add the ground beef and crumble in the pan with a fork. Saute until browned, then remove and drain on a paper towel. Drain off excess fat. Saute the celery, onions, and carrots until browned, add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, and ground beef. Simmer on a low flame for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavors.

If it's too thick, add the red wine. Come to think of it, add the red wine anyway. Continue cooking until the sauce is thick enough. Don't eat it the first night. Refrigerate it. It's better the 2nd day.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Home Alone: What to Do When Your Family Leaves You to Your Own Devices

I work at home and the days can be a bit like Chinese water-torture: wake up, do the laundry, clean up, run around doing errands, cook dinner for my wife and son, make a fire, watch TV (In Treatment; The Daily Show; Colbert), and crash. It's not a bad routine. It's actually kind of great. And yet I'm not in control of my choices or my time.

Yesterday Michelle told me she had to go to a reception for work. Normally our youngest son, Michael, would be home for dinner, but he was flying up to Seattle to look at a college. I had one of those envy-flashes: "They're having all the fun." What was I going to do? I could go to a movie, but I don't like going to the movies alone. I could stay home and make dinner for myself, but cooking just for me sounded sad.

Then I had an epiphany: Home alone...I could eat anything I wanted for dinner.

Michelle doesn't like blue cheese, so I could make an Arugula Salad with Crispy Bacon and Blue Cheese. Michael doesn't like steak, so I could defrost and grill a nice rib eye steak. And what about a drink before dinner? A Perfect Manhattan with a twist. A Caipairina with Lime and Kiwi Fruit. A tumbler of the rum we brought back from our trip to Havana in 1990. Or maybe a Dirty Martini.

Doing an errand, I passed Bay Cities, a great Italian deli in Santa Monica. I decided to stop and get some treats. Inside there were aisles of olives, cheeses, salamis, Italian sausages with fennel, hams, prosciutto, breads, pastas, anchovies, and snails. I got carried away and bought enough to eat for days.

Back home I found another treasure, a jar of American caviar that Michelle had gotten in one of her Sundance Festival goodie bags.

My mind was racing. If I didn't calm down, I'd need a Lipitor chaser and an epi pen at the end of the meal. I decided against the Arugula Salad with Blue Cheese and focused on basics: a charcuterie plate with prosciutto, mozzarella, green olives, and fresh Italian bread. The caviar I'd have on slices of bread. The main course: the rib eye steak, grilled medium rare. For a side dish, artichokes with melted butter. To start, a Perfect Manhattan.

A Perfect Manhattan

4 oz. Bourbon or Whiskey
½ oz. Sweet Vermouth
½ oz. Dry Vermouth
1 twist of lemon peel, 1" long, ¼" wide

Keep the Bourbon in the freezer so it will be extra cold. Pour the Bourbon and both vermouths into a martini glass, stir, drop in the twist, and sip contentedly.

Serves 1. Preparation Time: 2 minutes.

A Charcuterie Plate

From a good deli, pick out a selection of your favorite meats,. Some of the best are handmade by Paul Bertolli for his Fra' Mani label. You can find a selection of his salumi all over LA, especially at Joan's on Third, Whole Foods, or Surfas. For my plate, I laid out paper thin slices of prosciutto, slices of my favorite salami, felino salami, green olives, and mozzarella dredged in seasoned olive oil, with slices of Italian bread, drizzled with olive oil.

Grilled Steak

In college I was a vegetarian, but ultimately I missed eating meat too much and I re-discovered hot dogs, hamburgers, roast chicken, and steak. There is nothing that tastes quite so good as a steak, simply grilled, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper.

1 10 oz. steak, T-Bone, Porterhouse, Rib Eye with the Bone-in, washed, pat dry
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

I've talked before about the advantages of marinating meat with a simple, seasoned olive oil marinade before freezing. The meat stays tender and fresh-tasting, even after weeks in the freezer. Defrosted and brought to room temperature, the steak was ready for the grill. Seared on one side for 5 minutes to get the grill marks right, turned over for another 5 minutes to get that side marked, then for 5 minutes on each side again. The steak came out cooked perfectly: medium rare. Letting the steak sit for 5 minutes, covered with tin foil, the juices began to run. The steak was ready to join the feast.

Grilled Artichokes with Melted Butter

1 artichoke, washed, the stem trimmed, the sharp ends of each leaf cut off
2 tablespoons sweet butter, melted
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Cut the artichoke into 8 sections. Use a sharp paring knife to remove the choke from each section. Drop the artichokes into boiling, salted water, cover, cook for 30 minutes, drain, and put into a large bowl. Drizzle the artichoke sections with olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper. Toss well, then grill on the bbq on all sides. Serve with the melted butter and sea salt.

Home alone...not so bad.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ramen at Home, Quick and Easy

At some point in their lives, everyone eats Cup o' Noodles. They're so easy to make. Just pour boiling water into the styrofoam cup with it's nest of noodles and bits of dried vegetables, cover, and a minute later you have overly salted "soup" and mushy noodles. On a cold, drizzly day, that can be ok, but it's not a meal-of-choice. Ramen is a step up from Cup o' Noodles, but the same principle applies. Boiling water + instant noodles + "flavor packet" = soup and noodles with vegetables bits. Real ramen bears no resemblance to the packaged ramen in the market. In Japan, ramen restaurants are favorite neighorhood hangouts, usually with a counter and several tables. I've noticed that patrons in ramen restaurants don't do as much talking as they do in other kinds of restaurants. I think that's because the ramen is simply too delicious to want to talk.

People who love ramen get very obsessive about their noodles. The Official Ramen Homepage has hundreds of recipes for packaged ramen contributed by fans. Rickmond Wong is the ramen fan-extraordinaire. Profiled in the LA Times by Russ Parsons, Wong's web site gives a comprehensive survey of ramen restaurants in LA. Everyone has their favorite. Anne Lai sent me to Little Tokyo to try the ramen at Daikokuya (327 E. 1st Street, Los Angeles 90012, 212/626-1680).

A narrow passageway of a restaurant, Daikokuya is on the north side of 1st Street, half-way between San Pedro and Alameda. Of the half-dozen ramen restaurants on the block, only Daikokuya is packed with people at the tables and bar. Besides ramen, Daikokuya also has other traditional Japanese dishes: rice bowls, bento boxes, chicken teriyaki, mixed tempura, pork cutlet, sushi, and sashimi. But it's the ramen I came for, and while there are a dozen varieties to try, I wanted the specialty of the house: Daikoku Ramen, a large bowl of pork soup with noodles, fatty Kurobuta pork, a whole boiled egg, seasoned bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and green onions.

I took my place at the counter and watched the cooks drop baskets of noodles into the large pot of boiling water. The customer to my right, Jason, could tell I was a first-timer. He helpfully suggested I add some of the minced garlic and pickled ginger condiments to the soup. A good call.

All the ingredients are delicious, but it's the soup itself that makes the ramen at Daikokuya so memorable. If you've seen the Japanese comedy, Tampopo, you know how hard the shop keeper struggles to perfect her pork bone broth. She has to work from early in the morning until late in the evening to get the flavors just right.

I like to adapt restaurant techniques to cooking at home, but while I love the broth, that's too much work for me. I'll use homemade chicken stock instead. What I do take away from Daikokuyo is the realization that fresh ingredients can turn a lifeless package of noodles into a sumptuously refreshing meal.

At home, ramen is quick and easy to make as long as you have a good supply of homemade chicken stock in your freezer. For the dried ramen noodles, there are hundreds of brands, flavors, and varieties. Try to find one that has the least amount of chemicals in their ingredients' list. Health Food stores sometimes carry packages of organic ramen. Almost any of your favorite fresh vegetables and cooked meats will work.

Ramen at Home

Yield: 1 serving

Time: 20 minutes


1 package ramen
½ carrot, washed, peeled, cut into thin rounds
½ cup broccoli crowns, washed, sliced
1 shallot, peeled, thin sliced
2 Italian parsley sprigs, washed, use only the leaves, whole or chopped
½ cup shredded chicken, cooked
2 cups homemade chicken stock
1 teaspoon scallions, washed, sliced into rounds, green and white parts (optional)
1 hardboiled egg, sliced (optional)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce


Follow the directions on the package to make the ramen noodles, then drain them and set aside. In a small pot, sauté the vegetables and chicken in the sesame oil until lightly browned, add the chicken stock and soy sauce and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the cooked noodles. Stir well and serve in a large bowl, topped with the scallions and the hardboiled egg if you want.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

La Bruschetta Celebrates the End of the Writers' Strike with a Free Meal

La Bruschetta Ristorante, a West LA landmark, generously hosted a buffet lunch for members of the Writers' Guild. For 24 years, Angelo Peloni, the owner, has proudly served high-quality, affordable Italian food. Twenty years ago, at the end of the last writers' strike, he told his friend, George Kirgo, then the President of the WGA, that he wanted to make a meal for the writers to celebrate the conclusion of the strike. Today, he did it again.

In addition to the delicious meal, Angelo provided the opportunity to get together one more time, to remind us how much we all liked the community of writers we discovered on the picket line. With his lunch, Angelo was telling us that we should stay connected, and what better way than to do that than with a good meal.

We enjoyed a tasting from the menu. An Antipasto Misto Della Casa started the meal with an array of meats, marinated and fresh vegetables, and cheeses. On the buffet line, those taste treats were followed by 2 pastas (Pasta Farfella al Pesto and a Penne Bolognese); then a Vegetali Misti, steamed broccoli, carrots, and zucchini; and at the far corner of the long table, 2 meat dishes (Polpette di Carne, meatballs in tomato sauce, and Pollo Cacciatora). The meal ended with beautiful squares of Tiramisu.

There's nothing better than a good meal to stimulate conversation. To my thinking, the Italians are the best at doing that. They don't allow any one dish to dominate the meal. Progressing by differences, small portions lead through a series of flavors, textures, and sensations. Today, at La Bruschetta, that stimulation provoked conversation that was sometimes about the food ("Did you taste the grilled eggplant rolled around the goat cheese? And that roasted red pepper!"), but mostly the conversation was about our lives. What did we do during the strike? What are we doing now that things have returned to normal?

The center piece of the brunch was Angelo's pastas, the sauces perfectly balanced. In the interest of stimulating meal-time conversation, I'd like to contribute a pasta recipe of my own.

Ziti with Mushrooms and English Peas

1 shallot, peeled, finely chopped
½ cup English peas, shelled, washed
2 garlic cloves, peeled, julienned
4 mushrooms, brown or shiitake, washed, thin sliced
½ box De Cecco ziti
½ cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
1 cup pasta water
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sweet butter
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Parmesan or Romano cheese, freshly grated

A very simple pasta that is perfect as a second course, between a salad and a meat course, or as a side dish with a grilled chicken breast or steak. For my vegetarian friends, the sauce is made with pasta water, sweetened with a pat of butter.

Make the pasta first. Fill a large pot with water. Add 2 teaspoons of Kosher salt and bring to a boil. Add the ziti and stir well. Put a colander in the sink. Stir the pasta every couple of minutes. The pasta is done when it is firm but not too soft, probably after 10 minutes. Put a heat-proof measuring cup in the sink next to the colander. Empty the water and pasta into the colander, making sure you capture at least 1 cup of the salted, cooking water. Set the cup aside. Return the pasta to the pot, drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon of butter, and season with a little freshly ground black pepper. Toss to mix well and lay a sheet of tin foil over the pot to keep warm. Set aside while you make the sauce.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a sauté pan, over a medium flame, and lightly brown the garlic, shallot, mushrooms, and peas. Add 1 tablespoon butter and 1 cup of pasta water. Reduce on a medium flame until the liquid has begun to thicken. Add the pasta and the Italian parsley and toss to coat the pasta with the sauce.

Divide the pasta into 2 portions. Top with the freshly grated cheese. For ultra-fine grating, use a microplane grater.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 20 minutes.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Twofer: Roast Chicken with Fresh Rosemary & Chicken Stock to Use Later

Every home cook has one foolproof recipe. Mine is a roasted chicken with fresh rosemary. Easy to make and, with just one more step, the recipe produces a quart of homemade chicken stock.

Rubbing on olive oil and seasoning the outside with fresh rosemary, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper adds layers of flavor to the chicken as it roasts.

The chicken can be prepped ahead, trussed and seasoned, then wrapped in plastic wrap, put into a Ziploc bag, and either refrigerated or frozen. What I've learned with beef and chicken is that seasoned oil protects the meat from being effected by freezing.

Prepared this way, even the most ordinary supermarket chicken will taste good. Finding a better quality chicken will improve the flavors. Antibiotic-free chickens should always be preferred for health reasons, although I'm not entirely certain that you can taste the difference. In my experience there's no question that a Kosher chicken and free range, organic chickens do taste better. The meat is more tender, the flavor "cleaner." In Los Angeles, Trader Joe's carries several varieties of high quality chickens, as do upscale markets like Gelson's, Whole Foods, and Wild Oats. The best place to buy the freshest, healtiest chickens is at a local farmers' markets. In our neighborhood, Lily's Farm sells the freshest eggs and chickens at the Santa Monica and Palisades's Farmers' Markets. The prices for these chickens vary greatly: $1.29/lb at Ralph's to $3.75/lb for Lilly's. If you can afford it, you'll taste the difference.

Roast Chicken with Rosemary

1 whole chicken, 3 ½-4 ½ lbs., washed, pat dried
Fresh rosemary, a 2" sprig, washed, the leaves removed
2 cloves garlic, peeled, thinly julienned
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Line the bottom of a roasting pan with tin foil to help with clean up. Put a small rack on top of the tin foil. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

With kitchen twine, tie the legs together and the wings. Rub the olive oil all over the chicken, season with sea salt, black pepper, garlic, and the rosemary leaves. Put the chicken on the rack breast side down and put in the oven for 60 minutes.

Using tongs, turn the chicken over and return to the oven for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and check for doneness: the legs should move easily and the juices should run clear. If needed to make the skin crisp, roast a final 15 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and let it rest for 5 minutes. If you're going to make a gravy, now's the time to transfer the pan drippings to a small sauce pan, add a pat of butter and 3 tablespoons of chicken stock and quickly reduce.

The chicken can be presented whole or cut apart so the pieces are easier to serve and can be served with a great many side dishes. A plain green salad with the chicken is perfect for a simple meal. Adding roasted vegetables, like potatoes, string beans, asparagus, or Brussels sprouts, makes a feast. If you want a gravy, that's easy enough, just make a simple reduction of the pan drippings, a pat of sweet butter, and a few tablespoons of chicken stock. Delicious.

Serves 4. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 2 hours.

Homemade Chicken Stock

To make the chicken stock, just gather up all the bones and put them into a large pot with 3 quarts of water. Simmer for 60 minutes. Strain out the bones and discard. Refrigerate the stock. In the morning, peel off the fat and discard. The stock will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days or, put into pint sized Ziploc bags, for several months in the freezer. Use the stock to make sauces or soups.

Preparation Time: 5 minutes. Cooking Time: 60 minutes.

A Vegetable Sauté for a Farmers' Market Lunch

After weeks of cloudy, cold weather, today was all blue skies and 70's-warm. The Santa Monica Farmers' Market had a selection of Southern California winter produce: sugar snap peas, English peas, carrots, broccoli, spinach, turnips, beets, Yukon potatoes, fingerlings, asparagus, artichokes, mushrooms, bok choy... Some days a simple vegetable sauté makes the best meal. Today that was our lunch.

Farmers' Market Fresh Vegetable Saute

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes


2 large carrots, peeled, cut into large rounds
1 lb sugar snap peas, washed, ends & strings removed
4 Yukon potatoes, washed, cut into chunks (not peeled)
10 brown mushrooms, washed, sliced
2 bunches asparagus, fat ones, washed, bottom end trimmed
4 garlic cloves, peeled, thin sliced
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup water or chicken stock
2 tablespoons sweet butter
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper


Sauté the potatoes and gralic in the olive oil on a medium flame until browned. Add the carrots, sugar snap peas, mushrooms, and asparagus. Cook for 5 minutes, turning frequently. Add stock or water and butter, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the cover, raise the heat, and reduce the liquid to coat the vegetables.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Save a Nickle, Save a Dime: Braised Beef Ribs with Vegetables

For me, shopping isn't fun if I don't get a bargain. My grandmother taught me well, "Never pay retail. If you want to be a good shopper, you have to pay less than other people and still get as good." In our neighborhood, Gelson's is the quality supermarket, carrying a full line of antibiotic-free, naturally raised meats. Which is great, except that they're pricey. The trick is to buy the meat when its been reduced, when a rib steak that was originally priced at $18.99/lb, is discounted to $7.99/lb. Any meat that's been reduced is still fresh, but it needs to be cooked that day or frozen.

Yesterday I stopped by and it was like my birthday. There must have been a dozen packages of prime cuts of meat, all reduced. I couldn't possibly eat all that meat in one day. But no way was I going to walk away from those bargains.

I bought half a dozen packages and prepped them for freezing. Years ago, after much experimentation, I learned a cool trick: if meat is marinated in olive oil seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, wrapped in plastic wrap, and sealed in a Ziploc freezer bag, it will stay fresh for months without any loss of flavor. The olive oil appears to protect the meat from dehydration. The plastic wrap and Ziploc bag protects against freezer burn. Our older son, Frank, likes this system alot, since this way I can load up his freezer with plenty of steaks.

I wasn't going to freeze all the meat. I held back two packages of the beef rib bones. A simple braised dish, this is 1-pot cooking at its best. All you'll need is a covered Dutch oven or high-sided frying pan to make an entire meal, complete with meat and a variety of farm-fresh vegetables. The only special instruction is that it's a 2-day process. To get rid of the fat, the ribs have to be cooked one day and eaten on another day. By cooking the ribs ahead, this is a serve-anytime meal. Adding the vegetables at the very end, gives the dish a delicious, just-cooked presentation.

4 lbs. beef rib bones or short ribs, washed
5 cloves garlic, peeled, roughly chopped
2 medium onions, peeled, roughly chopped
3 medium Yukon potatoes, peeled, roughly chopped
3 broccoli crowns, washed, the florets cut apart
3 large carrots, peeled, cut into thick rounds
10 Brussels sprouts, trimmed, quartered
1 cup Italian parsley, roughly chopped
2 celery stalks, cut into 1" lengths
6 brown mushrooms, washed, sliced
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary
4 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sweet butter
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a Dutch oven or high-sided frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Brown the ribs on all sides, then remove, and discard the fat. Put 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the pan and brown 1 onion and 2 garlic cloves. Deglaze the pan with the water, add back the ribs, cover, and put into a 400 degree oven for 1 hour. Remove the pan, turn over the ribs, and bake for another hour. Check the ribs. The meat should be tender and almost falling off the bone. If you're using short ribs, you may need to increase the cooking time another hour and you may have to add another cup of liquid.

Put the ribs into one container. Strain out the onions and garlic and discard. Put the braising liquid into a second container and refrigerate.

The next day, peel the thick layer of fat off the braising liquid and discard. In the same pan you used the day before, heat the olive oil and butter. Brown the potatoes, mushrooms, and onions, then add the ribs and the braising liquid. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the carrots, celery, broccoli, parsley, garlic, and Brussels sprouts. Cover and simmer another 15 minutes.

Serve the ribs in bowls with plenty of vegetables, the braising liquid, and a nice piece of baguette.

Serves 4. Preparation Time: 30 minutes. Cooking Time (over 2 days): 2 hours 40 minutes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Chicken with Rice and Beans from a Restaurant Turns into Homemade Soup

Figuring out what your kids want to eat can be a challenge. Our son, Michael, has gone through a lot of food-phases. When he was little, he became a vegetarian after he saw Babe. A few years later at his grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary dinner, he announced that he was going to eat a hamburger to celebrate their marriage. Now he's the starting quarterback on the high school football team, so he's on a training regimen. He stays away from fats and prefers to eat whole grains. We don't always know what to cook for him, and fast-food is a big no-no. Luckily a staple for him is the roast chicken from an LA landmark, the Cuban restaurant Versailles. The chicken comes with fried plantains, rice, and black beans. Michael likes it all, except for the beans. Which is ok with me, because I use them to make a black bean and vegetable soup.

I love getting another meal out of left-overs. From Michael's take-out, I use the roast chicken bones to make stock. He doesn't eat all the rice, so I have some for the soup. As is traditional with many Cuban dishes, a mound of raw, sliced onions comes on top of the chicken. Needless to say, he doesn't eat any of the onions, so they're all for me.

The result is a delicious soup, with latin-flavors and a healthy, clean taste. I like to add bacon or sausage, but if you're a vegetarian, like my friends Marjorie and Grace, don't add the bacon and use water instead of the chicken stock. If you're making the soup with ingredients from the market, you can use the black beans made by any of the Latin brands like Goya. (Just a side note, the best black beans I've ever eaten were ones I had in Costa Rica where my parents lived for 20 years. Unbelievably delicious.)

Black Bean and Vegetable Soup

½ cup chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 ½ cups black beans, cooked
1 piece of bacon, finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped carrots
¼ cup finely chopped broccoli stems, peeled
½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley
½ cup cooked long grain rice
2 cups homemade chicken stock
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sour cream (optional)
Homemade croutons (optional)

In a saucepan, sauté the onions, bacon, garlic, carrots, and broccoli in olive oil until lightly browned. Add the beans, rice, and chicken stock and simmer for 10 minutes.

Serve in a bowl and top with croutons or sour cream.

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

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dim Sum at Din Tai Fung and Ginger Chicken with Sushi Rice at Home

Today started out as a really bad day. I had an important business meeting, but it...canceled. I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch, but he...rescheduled. A day that looked incredibly full was now...completely empty.

I checked the TiVo in the bedroom and watched the Chocolate Battle on Iron Chef America (Bobby Flay v. Graham Bowles). Since I had nothing better to do, it seemed as if it was time to finally clean off my desk. That's when I found a review I'd cut out from the Los Angeles Times by Susan LaTempa about Din Tai Fung, in Arcadia. She made their dumplings sound amazing, but Arcadia?

That's miles away from where we live. Besides which, how accurate a review is depends on the taste of the writer. I hadn't read her reviews before, so she was an unknown quantity. But I love dumplings and, if they were as good as she said they were, maybe it was worth the drive.

From where we live near the beach in Pacific Palisades, Arcadia is on the far, eastern edge of LA, a good 40+ miles by freeway, taking me east across the LA Basin, north through Downtown, then across Pasadena, and finally east again into the San Gabriel Valley.

The review had predicted there'd be a long line out in front. She was certainly accurate about that. I joined the queue and waited 45 minutes before I got a table. With some friendly advice from the waitress and guided by the review, I spent the next hour enjoying the highlights of the menu: a mound of sautéed garlic-string beans, 10 pork/crab dim dumplings, a large steamer filled with pork shumai topped with whole shrimp, and stir fried noodles with shrimp and spinach. One of the condiments that came with the lunch was a small bowl of finely shredded fresh ginger. Adding soy sauce into the bowl with the ginger made a dipping sauce that added the right amount of edge to the sweet dumplings.

Susan LaTempa's review accurately reported about the special qualities of dishes like the pork/crab dumplings: usually a Chinese dumpling has a stuffing of meat and some vegetables, but here the dumplings had an added "spoonful of fragrant broth in each".

Happily, the meal put me in a very different frame of mind. More than an enjoyable lunch, Din Tai Fung's dumplings made me want to go home and cook. The julienned ginger and soy sauce combination had given me an idea.

Passing through Downtown, I made a quick stop in Chinatown to pick up ingredients. An odd fact about Chinatown is that virtually all the large Chinese supermarkets are gone. What's left are mom-and-pop style stores like the Far East Supermarket at 758 new High Street. Although small, the market has a good collection of Chinese vegetables, fresh fish, and meats. I decided on deboned chicken legs, a nice piece of fresh ginger, baby bok choy, and some shiitake mushrooms.

Ginger Chicken with Italian Sausage and Bok Choy

You can use breast meat, but dark meat holds up better and won't dry out as easily. Asian markets sell deboned leg meat very inexpensively. If you're buying chicken legs from the local supermarket, cutting the meat off the bone isn't difficult. Combining the chicken and Italian sausage with the ginger and soy sauce puts an edge on the sweet and savory meats. You can serve plain, steamed rice, but using sushi rice adds another layer of tartness. The generous amount of broth holds all the flavors together.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 60 minutes.


2 pounds deboned, skinned, chicken leg meat, washed, cut into 1" pieces
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1" piece of ginger, peeled, julienned
2 Italian sweet sausages, cut into 1" rounds
1 bunch baby bok choy, ends trimmed, quartered length-wise
6 shiitake mushrooms, washed, thinly sliced
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cups Japanese rice
2 ½ cups water
2 tablespoons Japanese rice vinegar
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper


In a wok or chef's pan, brown the sausage rounds in the olive oil then remove, drain on a paper towel, and set aside. Sauté the chicken meat, shiitake mushrooms, ginger, and garlic until lightly browned. Add the chicken stock, soy sauce, and the sausage. Simmer for 20 minutes, then add the bok choy, lightly cover with a sheet of tin foil, and simmer for another 15 minutes.

Making the rice: I have to confess I have used a rice cooker for so many years, I couldn't begin to tell you how to make Japanese rice without it. With the rice cooker, add the rice and water, cover, push the button, wait for the button to pop up, use chop sticks to fluff the rice, put the cover back on, and leave alone for 5 minutes. Put the cooked rice into a large metal bowl, add the Japanese rice vinegar and sugar and toss well. Cover the rice to keep it hot.

Put a large spoonful of the sushi rice in the middle of a bowl. Ladle the chicken, sausage, and bok choy with plenty of liquid over the rice.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Phở, Cupcakes, Coffee, and More in Silver Lake and Then Home to Make a Bread Pudding with Chocolate and Almonds

The routine of daily life makes me really jumpy. The repetition of wake up-work-errands-go to bed-and start all over again is depressing. What breaks the bad mood? My favorite food magazine, Saveur, can help, because I lose myself in its personalized, travel narratives.

One article takes me to Austria, another to Spain, then Texas, Tokyo, Vietnam, France... I'd love to experience the pleasure of eating skewers of grilled meats from sidewalk vendors in Hanoi, oysters on the Gulf Coast, tapas in Barcelona, desserts in Paris... Reading Saveur stimulates my ideas about cooking, showing me how different cultures use familiar ingredients and introducing me to new spices, fruits, and vegetables.

Short of an unexpected windfall though, I'm not going to travel to far-away places. Luckily I've discovered that it's possible to take day-trips in LA and rethink the ordinary.

Take same-ole-same-ole soup, for instance. West of Downtown LA and south of Dodger Stadium, Silver Lake mixes up the neighborhoods, taking the best from them all: Salvadorian, Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, French, Bohemian coffee shops, and New Age Vegetarian.

My producing partner, Dean, and I had made plans to have lunch and talk about tv series ideas. We are in such a lousy mood that we can't even figure out where to eat, then Dean remembers the Phở Café in Silver Lake. Normally, in miserable, grid-locked LA traffic, Silver Lake is half-a-world away. But, for some reason, today we make it in 20 minutes, barely enough time to finish complaining about how lousy our lives are.

Phở Café is a narrow hallway of a restaurant that specializes in Vietnamese comfort food: phở (pronounced 'fuh'), a deeply flavored, fragrant beef broth with thin slices of flank steak and soothing, hot vermicelli noodles. The large bowl of phở calms us down. Maybe life isn't so bad after all.

Even though we are stuffed, we start to talk about dessert. At the next table, a young woman on her lunch break overhears us and says she knows the perfect place for coffee. Sharlene's husband works at Intelligentsia, a hip, Direct Trade coffee shop. And near Intelligentsia is Pazzo Gelato where, she says, they serve the best gelato in LA.

Energized by phở , armed with Sharlene's tips, now we're on a mission. But we don't get far. Easily distracted by good-looking pastry, how can we pass by the glass case at Lark, with its rows of cup cakes and perfectly formed cakes?

A vision of dessert heaven, Lark takes itself seriously enough to have a lot of fun with perfectly flavored classics: carrot cake, red velvet cupcakes, brownies, ice box cakes, and a dozen varieties of cookies from the familiar (chocolate chip) to the odd (Earl Grey tea cookie). Eating a Chocolate Brownie, a Spring Fair Pecan Bar, and a Vanilla Cupcake with Italian butter cream icing gives us a sugar rush that powers us back on our search for Sharlene's perfect coffee.

Getting closer to Intelligentsia, we stumble across the Casbah Cafe, a North Beach style Bohemian cafe that is part clothing store and part French-Moroccan coffee shop, with, incongruously, the most incredibly fresh-looking tomatoes I've ever seen.

Across the street we find Pazzo Gelato, with a dozen freshly made sorbets and gelatos in its glass case. Dean happily eats a cup of the white chocolate with raspberry swirls.

We take a minute to enjoy the heady smells of The Cheese Store of Silverlake, where the rich display of French and California cheese would rival any in Paris, and finally we reach Intelligentsia and join the queue stretching out the door. Amazingly, we run into Sharlene again. Luckily she helps us navigate through the dozens of coffee choices. She orders for us: a cup of Direct Trade coffee made in the Clover brewing machine and another with a 60's style Chemex brewer. The flavors are as different as night and day.

Sitting at the marble coffee bar, we're in no rush to leave, so we sip our 2 cups of coffee and start talking about work. We're so productive, we lose track of time, until Dean realizes he has to pick up his daughter. We quickly leave and race cross-town only to get trapped in a horrible traffic jam that materializes out of nowhere. We are very slowly carried back into LA. Luckily Dean makes it to 'Bella's school just in time.

At home I'm not ready to get back to work, besides which it's time to start dinner. Something simple: an arugula-avocado salad with an entrée of Japanese rice and grilled chicken marinated with ginger, sesame oil, garlic, onions, cayenne, and black pepper.

Seeing all those great looking cakes at Lark, I want to make a nice dessert, but I don't want to put the time in to make anything complicated. I decide to make a Bread Pudding with Chocolate and Roasted Almonds, a comfort-food dessert, incredibly easy to make, plus it's a good way to use up the loaf of day-old bread that's in the back of the refrigerator.

Bread Pudding with Chocolate and Roasted Almonds

Yield: 6-8 Servings

Time: 2 hours


6 slices, white bread
3 eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups, heavy cream
1 tablespoon sweet butter, melted
1/2 cup, grated dark chocolate
1/2 cup, toasted almond slivers, baked in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes


Unlike traditional bread puddings, this dessert is designed to come out of the pan.

Pre-heat the oven to 350. Toast the bread in the oven for 5 minutes. Set aside and make the custard-base by using a fork to beat together the eggs and sugar. Add the cream and stir well.

Put water into a small bowl. Taking one slice at a time, dip the bread in the water for 5 seconds, then carefully squeeze out the water and tear the now soggy bread into pieces and drop into the custard. Mix well.

Instead of using a standard baking pan, use a 9" round take-out container. Why? Because the thin, aluminum-sided take-out container is flexible and that makes removing the bread pudding easy.

Paint the inside of the take-out container with melted butter. Pour in the custard-bread mixture. Sprinkle the grated chocolate over the top. Using a fork, push the chocolate down into the custard. Top with the toasted almonds and put into a water bath (1" of water in a pan larger than the take-out container).

Bake for 30 minutes, then turn it around in the oven to insure even baking and cook another 15 minutes. Check to see that the custard has set by pressing lightly on the top. If it is firm, it's done. If not, bake another 15 minutes, then remove and let cool on a wire rack.

The custard will shrink, making it easy to flip over on your hand, while the other hand slowly peels off the take-out container. Carefully place the serving platter on the bottom of the bread pudding and turn over, so the top is, well, on the top. This sounds way-more complicated than it is.

It's not necessary, but your guests will be happy if you dust the top of the bread pudding with powdered sugar. That's the simple presentation. For a special occasion, surround the platter with bowls of fresh berries, ice cream, and homemade whipped cream. In either case, you definitely need to serve the bread pudding with a good pot of tea or freshly brewed coffee.