Monday, December 31, 2012

For New Year's Eve: A Favorite Cocktail

The holidays are a great time to break the work routine, slow down the daily tempo, and hang out with friends and family.

Cold weather makes the outdoors less hospitable. A warm kitchen invites like no other room in the house.  Pulling together appetizers, a salad, main dish, and a couple of desserts, is a lot of work but also great fun. 

With New Year's Eve tonight, I'm turning to an old favorite, a drink that evokes the sweetness and excitement of the tropics.

Because there are edible pieces of fruit at the bottom, include a spoon so the cocktail can be enjoyed as a drink and an appetizer all in one.

Tropical Rum Cocktail

Yield: 4

Time: 10 minutes


1 cup white rum
2 Fuyu persimmons, ripe, slightly soft, finely chopped
1 cup fresh orange juice, sweet
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
16 ice cubes


Pour the white rum into a pitcher, add the powdered sugar, and stir well to dissolve. Add the finely chopped persimmons, orange and lime juice, and stir well to combine.

Put 4 ice cubes and a spoon into each glass, pour in the drink, making certain that the persimmon pieces are divided equally and serve.


Top with a fresh sprig of mint

Adjust the proportion of orange and lime juice, to taste

Substitute finely chopped mango, strawberries, kiwi, or fresh passion fruit for persimmons

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sexy, Seared Scallops Help Say Goodbye to 2012 and Hello to 2013

Cooking long hours is fun on Thanksgiving but on New Year's Eve nobody wants to be in the kitchen except to pass through on the way to the freezer to grab more ice.
The perfect at-home meal on New Year's Eve is one that has pazazz, great flavor and doesn't take long to prepare.

With expectations high, everything about a New Year's Eve party needs to be special
Take-out deli sandwiches are fine to watch the weekly football game. Pizza and beer works for a Netflix festival of Tarantino movies. But for the night when you say goodbye to a whole year's experience and celebrate what's-hoped-for in the coming 365 days, it isn't enough to simply put food on the table.

If you're having a small gathering of friends and loved ones, easy-to-make scallops are an elegantly delicious way to tell everyone how much you love sharing this end-of-the-year evening with them.

Experimenting with samples of Alaskan seafood sent to me by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, I have been happily trying out different techniques with their halibut, cod, king crab legs and salmon.

The Alaskan scallops, caught off the Kodiak coast, were beautifully plump and firm. The size of fifty cent coins, since they were thick, they could hold up to the high heat of searing.

Scallops play well with others
Because scallops have a delicate flavor, they work well with buttery, sautéed spinach and earthy shiitake mushrooms. They are also good sliced and sautéd before being tossed with pasta in a sauce of roasted tomato sauce and garlic.

With dense flesh, scallops mimic the hearty flavor of steak so they can be seared whole with thick cut onion rings.
Scallops go well with a crisp, chilled white wine, an icy cold beer or, my favorite,  a perfect ManhattanWhatever beverage accompanies your scallops, you can toast all that was good about 2012 and all that you hope for in 2013.

Seared Scallops on a Bed of Sautéed Spinach and Shiitake Mushrooms

As with any seared dish, obtaining the best quality ingredients is an essential starting point. Whether you are searing fish, shellfish, poultry or meat, high heat creates a blush of caramelized sweetness on the outside. After that, the dish is all about what's on the inside.
Key to searing is using a pan that can tolerate high heat. Stainless steel pans should not be used because too much work is required to clean them.

A cast iron pan or one designed specially for high heat cooking is preferred and can be found in restaurant supply stores like Surfas in Culver City. To prepare this dish, I used the French de Buyer carbon steel frying pan which is designed to be used at very high heat with only a small amount of oil.

Serves 4


16 large scallops, washed, pat dried
1 bunch spinach, root ends removed, washed in clean water, dried
4 shallots, ends and outer skin removed, cut into rings
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, washed, dried, root ends trimmed of any dirt, thin sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
Sea salt and black pepper to taste


Cut off the spinach stems, finely chop and sauté  in a frying pan with 1 tablespoon olive, the shallots, garlic and mushrooms until lightly browned. Roughly chop the spinach leaves and add to the sauté. Cook until wilted and set aside. The vegetable sauté can be prepared ahead.

In a bowl, season 1 tablespoon olive oil with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and cayenne (optional). Add scallops. Toss well to coat. Set aside.

Place a cast iron or carbon steel frying pan on high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place the scallops in the hot pan. Do not crowd the scallops. If they are too close together, they will steam rather than sear.

Using tongs, turn the scallops so all sides are lightly browned. When each scallop is cooked, place on paper towels to absorb excess fat.

Reheat the sautéed spinach and place on a serving platter. Arrange the scallops on top.

Serve hot with a cold beverage.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Il Fornaio Santa Monica Closed

It is strange the assumptions one makes. Some places seem fixed in your life like anchors. Long-lived businesses become friends-of-the-family and, as such, seem guaranteed to be experienced whenever one wants. And then, just like that, they are gone.
 For seventeen years we had a dining out routine.

During the first two weeks of every month, we would go to Il Forniao across from the Santa Monica Pier for the Festa RegionaleWe would enjoy dishes and wines that celebrated specific culinary regions of Italy: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Piemonte, Umbria, Sicilia, Toscana, Campania, Lombardia, Lazio, Abruzzo and Marche.
Antipasti, salads, soups, pastas, risottos, grilled and baked meats and fish, and braises would come to the table flavored by the unique preferences of the region's traditions.
Designed to fight off the cold, Northern Italian dishes had a "rib-sticking" quality, featuring luscious, thick sauces and soups topped with croutons and cheese. From the south, the dishes were lighter and featured the seafood found in local waters.
Coming to the monthly Regionale also meant participating in the Pasporto program. When we visited, we were given a gift: a small bottle of balsamic vinegar, flavored olive oil, dried pasta, beans or flour to cook at home, a calendar, an apron and, best of all, a hand-painted dinner plate.
Full disclosure: I have collected 74 Il Fornaio dinner plates, which officially qualifies as obsessive compulsive behavior.
Also, every June and December, drawings were held. The grand prize winners were sent on an all-expense paid trip to Italy. The runners-up took home bottles of premium wine, Il Fornaio olive oil or balsamic vinegar and gift certificates.

Besides good food and gifts given to visitors to any Il Fornaio during the Regionale, the Santa Monica restaurant was a friendly place to visit all the time. The waitstaff was welcoming, Luis, the executive chef, and managers like Fernanda and Chamal became friends and always stopped by the table to see if we needed anything.

Even though the interior was large, with two levels for dining, an open kitchen area and a long bar, the restaurant was warm and cozy, dominated by the colorful accents of a Venetian mural and dark wood.
If there was time after dinner, a walk onto the Santa Monica Pier or along the Santa Monica Promenade with a view of the beach and Pacific Coast Highway below was a good way to talk and walk off the meal.
For posts about Il Fornaio, please go to: Putting Romaine's Feet to the FireValentine's DayThe Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region Comes to Il FornaioAbruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica, Il Fornaio Heads North to LombardiaIl Fornaio Serves Up a Recession Busting Tasting MenuIl Fornaio Heads South to CampaniaA Trip to Italy,   A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Couscous, and Plate Envy
On the regular menu, we had our favorites. The Il Fornaio salad with creamy dressing, topped with sheets of quality Parmesan cheese, the paper thin pizzas, the branzino with mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach and roasted vegetables and the gelato ice cream.
As with most stories that have an unhappy ending, there is a villain.
Over the years, Il Fornaio opened many restaurants. Santa Monica was an early addition. Across from the Santa Monica Pier, the location had the advantage of attracting tourists. But that also made the restaurant vulnerable to seasonal and economic fluctuations.
The building landlord seemed indifferent to the vagaries of reality and every year increased the rents not just on Il Fornaio but the other tenants. The spaces opposite and behind Il Fornaio had been home to many restaurants which opened and failed with alarming frequency. No restaurant lasted very long. Il Fornaio held the course for seventeen years.
Finally, this year, the landlord insisted on increases that were not sustainable. When management was notified of the latest demand, a decision had to be made quickly. Just after Thanksgiving, the restaurant closed, the staff given their choice to work at the other area Il Fornaio restaurants.

We only learned of the closing when a friend emailed saying she was meeting friends and needed a place to eat in Santa Monica. Since Il Fornaio was permanently closed, she said, where else would I suggest.
Happily Il Fornaio survives elsewhere in the area. For the holidays we are staying in Carlsbad, south of Los Angeles, and we will visit the Il Fornaio in Del Mar. The web site lists all the branches so if we want to enjoy affordable, well-prepared, authentic Italian food, we know where to go.

There is talk Il Fornaio will find a new, more affordable space in Santa Monica. That would be great.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Yo, Yo, Yo, "Bubala Please" Hanukkah Episode

It's topical, coarse and incredibly funny.
And the latke recipe is pretty good. All I would add is some matzoh meal.

Don't forget that Chanukah starts early this year: Saturday, December 8th.

Apple Pie Gets Whisky Tipsy

For the holidays, old favorites are entitled to a sprucing up. Case in point, the apple pie. Nothing is more American and no dessert is more satisfying than apple pie, hot from the oven, topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Delicious as it is but don't special occasions call for special ingredients?

Whisky's smoky sweetness seems like a perfect companion for apple pie's richly comforting wholesomeness.

My mother made apple pie for Thanksgiving and Chanukah. The peels would be turned into apple sauce, a side dish that was delicious with corn bread stuffing or latkes. Her recipe was the essence of simplicity. One of those dishes that intuitively adheres to the principle of "let the ingredients speak for themselves."

At a time when farmers markets didn't exist in cities, my mom would pack my sister and myself into her Dodge and we'd head out to the farms in the areas surrounding Banning, California, the small town on the way to Palm Springs where we lived during my high school years.

Sometimes we'd stop at stands along the highway and buy a basket of apples, maybe a pumpkin or two, and a grocery bag filled with lettuce, beans and onions. When she had decided we would make a whole day out of the trip, we would go to one of the many U-Pick 'Em apple orchards in the area. My sister and I would clamber up the tall ladders, my mother holding on to the bottom as we picked apples and deposited them in the pails provided by the farmer.

Happily we don't have to travel as far now, since farmers markets bring fresh apples to our neighborhood on Sunday in Pacific Palisades and Wednesday and Saturday in Santa Monica. The Fuji apples from Ha Farms are firm and sweet and make an especially good apple pie.

The nice folks at Maker's Mark gifted me with a bottle of their whisky, the idea being I would come up with a nifty cocktail for the holiday season.
It didn't take much effort on my part to mimic the beautiful version of the Manhattan served at the Westside Tavern (10850 W. Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064) in West Los Angeles.

Called the Proper Manhattan, the secret to their upgrade of the classic cocktail is the addition of Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6, manufactured in New Orleans by the Sazerac Company and sold locally at Wally's (2017 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064).
Thinking about my mother's apple pie and eyeing the Maker's Mark on the counter, it was easy to put two and two together.

The addition of whisky to cakes is well established, but to pies, not so much. For many years, I've been tinkering with my mother's apple pie recipe--adding cream and crystalized ginger to the crust--so including whisky with the apples seemed like the perfect addition for a holiday apple pie.

Normally I wouldn't use whisky in cooking because the alcohol cooks off and I would much rather sip whisky than use it for flavoring, but a whisky apple pie, topped with a premium vanilla ice cream and served with shooters of Maker's Mark whisky and Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6 seems like a fine way to celebrate the holidays. Nothing like double-downing on a good thing.

Manhattan Shooters
Yield 1


1 1/2 ounces premium whisky
1/4 teaspoon dry vermouth
5 drops Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6


Keep the shot glasses, whisky, vermouth and bitters in the freezer. When ready to serve, take everything out of the freezer, measure, mix, pour and consume the shots along with a slice of the whisky apple pie.

Whisky Apple Pie

Use any variety of apple you enjoy. I like Fuji apples which are sweet so I can use less sugar.

6 large sized apples, washed, peeled, sliced 1/2” thick
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup whisky
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon golden raisins
2 tablespoons roughly chopped raw almonds
5 large pieces crystallized ginger
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3 teaspoons raw sugar
1-2 tablespoons ice water


Make the pastry first. Hand chop the crystallized ginger as fine as possible. Put the flour, butter, sea salt, 2 teaspoons of raw sugar, and the crystallized ginger into a food processor and pulse until well-blended.  

While the food processor is running, slowly add the cream and then a little water at a time until the dough forms a ball.

Sprinkle flour onto a cutting board. Remove the ball of dough, divide into two pieces, put onto the flour and flatten into two 6” disks. Wrap each disk separately in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 60 minutes. Just before you are going to roll out the pastry, remove the disks from the refrigerator and allow to soften for five minutes.

On the floured cutting board, remove one disk from the plastic wrap and roll out the dough so it covers a 9” pie dish. 

Gently lay the dough over the pie dish and press down to fit. 

Trim the excess dough off the edge with a sharp paring knife. 

Make a dozen holes in the bottom of the dough. Weigh down the dough with ceramic pastry balls, uncooked rice, or beans and bake 15 minutes in a preheated 375 F oven.

Remove. Let cool on a wire rack. Remove the weights.

Roast the chopped almonds on a piece of aluminum foil in the 375 F oven for 5 minutes and remove.

For the filling, put the whisky, lemon juice, raisins, and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl. Toss the apple slices in the mixture so the apples don’t discolor.  Let sit 15 minutes. 

Spoon the apples, raisins and almonds into the prebaked crust. Pour 2 tablespoons of the liquid on the apples. Reserve the rest of the liquid.

Roll out the top crust on the floured cutting board as before. Lay the pastry on top of the pie. 

Trim away the excess. Use a fork to press together the edges of the top and bottom crusts. The tines will make a nice design along the edge.

Use a paring knife to poke half a dozen slits in the top pastry to allow steam to escape.

Bake in a preheated 375 F oven 30 minutes. 

Place the reserved whisky-brown sugar liquid in a small saucepan. Reduce to one quarter the volume over low heat, stirring frequently.

Remove the pie from the oven. 

Brush the whisky syrup on top of the pie and dust with a sprinkling of raw sugar.

Return to the oven for an additional 25-35 minutes or until the crust is nicely browned.  Remove from the oven, place on a wire rack and let cool.

Serve warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.