Classic Cars and Cozy Cioppino

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My father was one of my earliest buds, someone who seemed to inherently “get” me when so many others, and specifically my own self did not. I could hang out with him for hours feeling no pressure to be anything other than me. Some thought he was too casual, detached and perhaps even aloof but I knew of him differently, he was the one with which I could simply hang out with and be. No expectations, no airs, an intolerance for bullshit, we would spend hours making mixed tapes on a Saturday morning sharing our love of music.

He was much more comfortable hanging around his garage mastering the art of the putter, preferring to live in jeans and a tee shirt rather than a tie and suit. I think I saw him dressed up a few times in his life, and both of those times he did not look altogether comfortable. One of my fondest memories of him was sharing our love of old cars. He even snuck me into the front passenger seat of one of many of his old hot rods for drag races when I was nine to the chagrin of the officials at the end of the line who would scold him for allowing a child to partake. Of course, I would ignore them, begging him to sneak me in again for the next thrill ride.

When I was older, right before he passed away, this was what we partook in together in a Minnesota basement while he was succumbing to cancer. There was no mention of disease, just a four hour long dialogue together about music on the couch while the Indy 500 played on the television set. It was then that he told me that I should never feel the need to change for others, that one day I would learn the value of letting the ones who truly “got” me to become naturally attracted to me.

Throughout my life, one of these friends who naturally was attracted to the real me was found in Leslie; one of my closest gals who I don’t have to be the sophisticated writer or artist around but instead, can revert to a twelve year old who wants to play in the garden and ride bikes. When I met her parents Gloria and Dan a few years back, I felt an instant sense of family in their embracing of my quirks that has sustained an important gap where my dad’s absence has always been felt. Recently, on a trip to the desert, I found myself spending a lot of time with them, preferring their down-to-earthiness for any other social occasion and found myself invited to their home for a night of hearty cioppino.

I was thrilled to spend time with them and get to know them better. At the door, I took off my shoes and was handed a pair of fluffy socks by Gloria, put on while enjoying the smells of rich broth emanating from her amazing open kitchen. She told me that the recipe she was making that evening was from the book Trattoria Grappolo Simple Recipes for Traditional Italian Cuisine procured on their visit to the Santa Ynez, California bistro of the same name. We enjoyed her special cakes of goat cheese rolled in nuts that accompanied our salads while waiting for the fish stew to simmer. A light red wine was shared as we ate the lighter version of the classic dish accentuated with flaky salmon, scallops, shrimp and shelled delights of the sea. A perfect chocolate mousse was a nicely light end to our gluttony, which came with the low rolling belly sounds of those contented by nourishment.

Just prior to dinner, Dan gave me a tour of the home that was capped off by a visit to his garage, home to a bevy of shining classic cars that evoked instant memories of my father.  It was then that I realized how much Dan was like my dad – loving, no nonsense and the bearer of girls who also knew the value of just simply being. Between he and Gloria, I felt encompassed in the kind of love that makes the belly swell and mid-dinner I had to quell a tear of gratitude for the whole experience.

The simplest forms of appreciation in life don’t arrive at the tail end of blaring trumpets but tiptoe up quietly around a dinner table, fueled by conversation between those who enjoy just being together with no other lofty regard than to enjoy the company of others. For that I am eternally blessed.

The Muse Worthy Butternut

GARDEN CROUPIEsmallThere is a reason the butternut squash is used in the photograph for the Garden Groupie section of this blog. Out of all the luscious and delicious produce that the green-thumbed Cute Gardener cultivates year round in his garden, this beautiful beige voluptuous food, which when split open bursts with the most glorious hue of orange, is my single most favorite thing to eat. Butternut has become one of my top ten flavors in fact. The buttery, sweet and firm flesh when roasted is divine thrown into just about any earthy, harvest dish from noodle to medley or as a hearty accompaniment to meat.

When I first met the Cute Gardener, a bountiful still life of a dozen squash sat waiting on his kitchen counter for the slice of a knife and was one of the hundred or so reasons I fell head over heels. I am on the tail end of my second season with the beauties, and although they grow in July and August and come to maturity in September and October, they are so plentiful that we are just seeing the end of them now as we scurry to come up with more recipes with which to enjoy them.

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I tend to use mine in an assortment of pastas that hint at Fall with various butter sauces and toasted seeds that I envision Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest, serving at a grand dinner party to her minions. As a matter of fact, I have fed many of my own muses with a particular dish I have come to call Muse Fettucine. Last month, I needed a photo of reference for a painting in my series-in-progress The Fool. I called upon a friend of twenty years to come over, dress up, collaborate with me in capturing the essence of an Empress, and then fed her for her time.

MUSE FETTUCINE
Serves 2-4

8 ounces fettucine (or linguine)
*1 c. lemon butter sauce
1 medium sized butternut squash
¼ c. shelled sunflower seeds, freshly toasted

IMG_4459Peel a medium-sized butternut squash with a vegetable peeler. Cut it in half length-wise and scrape out the seeds and pulp. Dice the rest into one-inch cubes and toss in a bowl with one-tablespoon olive oil and one-teaspoon salt. Roast in a 400-degree oven for 30-40 minutes until fork tender but still firm. You don’t want the pieces too mushy so they still have tooth in the pasta.

Cook your pasta and make your lemon sauce.

*What makes this dish extra special is the lemon butter sauce borrowed from Emeril Lagasse’s Fish en Croute recipe. I use the same recipe but don’t go through the trouble of pushing the sauce through a sieve at the end. You can start this sauce as you put on the water to boil for the pasta and it will be done around the same time the pasta comes to al dente.

I like to toast my sunflower seeds in a toaster oven right before everything else is done. It only takes about four minutes and they are still hot and add a crisp crunch by the time they are tossed into the rest of the dish.  Watch carefully so they don’t burn, it’s easy to do as I know from experience.

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When the pasta is done, transfer it with tongs into the same pan you’ve cooked your sauce in and twirl it around to coat nicely. Add in your squash and seeds and toss well. Add salt and pepper and serve! This makes a full meal in itself but could also go with a simple side salad of greens and carrots.

A Pair of Piccolos and Prized Pig Ears

I have eaten at a dozen Italian restaurants in the Los Angeles area over the past year, but the one that reminds me most of being in the actual country of Italy is Piccolo in Venice. This is partly due to its location which, like many of the places I loved in Italy, is a quick pedestrian turn off of a main road (in this case the freak filled boardwalk) onto an alley walking street and voila, you feel as if you’ve entered a charming Italian home. An intimate room where a fireplace glows, waiters are snappy in the dim light to take your coat, and once you sit and start to settle the smells from the small kitchen float to the nose full of deep dark meats and doughy delirium.

Piccolo was also the first restaurant I ever tried in Venice, marking both a friend’s birthday dinner and the night I decided I was going to move to the beach to finish my novel so perhaps maintains an elevated rosy hue in my mind for those reasons. In any case, I wanted to take the Cute Gardener there for a while now and finally got a chance to this past weekend.

Overall, our meal was as delicious as I remembered. It included adorable, tiny black balls of squid ink bread with verdant olive oil; a moist focaccia I actually liked (nine times out of ten I don’t); a yummy sweetbread patty starter that arrived atop a dollop of polenta underneath a runny quail egg with tangy marsala sauce; a subtle quail sugo spaghettini; and a top-notch beef tenderloin agnolotti of perfectly thin pockets of meat swimming in an aggressive garlic oil and rosemary sauce. The only downfall to Piccolo is that it is very expensive per dish when you consider the actual amount of food you are getting so we decided to skip a third course, headed straight to a tiny mascarpone and ganache dessert and ended up seeking out another place in town for more food.

As we were eating at place number two for the evening, we were thinking about the price of Piccolo. It doesn’t happen to me often, but when I thought of the maybe eight tiny pieces of pasta in my bowl, I got a little frustrated. How can anyone possibly get sated on something so scant?

So we decided to do an experiment. The next day, after ice-skating in Santa Monica, we went to Piccolo’s supposedly cheap and cheerful sister Hostaria del Piccolo, owned by the same people but offering simpler and less sophisticated fare. It seemed to be doing well considering they had opened a second Hostaria location in Venice just a few weeks ago.

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Lured in by the egg dishes on the brunch menu, we ended up beginning with pig ears instead and what a beautiful thing they were. Super julienned and fried perfectly so that you got some crunch but didn’t lose your teeth, the generous pile was served with a side of mellow salsa verde that provided a perfect soothe to the fry. We were also instantly impressed by the service, almost as if we were still in the upscale version from the night before.

IMG_4690We tried a sausage and pepper pizza although were surprised when the “pepper” came as really just a drizzle pureed pepper sauce on the already cooked pie. The dough was a little soft for my taste but the nicely sliced sausage was wonderfully integrated with the melted cheese and the green olives. I discovered that green olives are a perfect salty compliment to melted cheese and dough.

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The spinach tagliatelle pasta was homey and savory like chicken noodle soup albeit a tad bit overdone on the noodles. All in all, for an impromptu lazy Sunday stop for a bite it was above the norm. It was almost akin to my enjoyment of Pizza Antica, other Sunday funday faves.

The bottom line is I love both Piccolos. One, I can go to once a year or on special occasions when I have a bigger budget to order more dishes and the other I can duck into with friends for a scrumptious, eight dollar plate of pig ears. I can equally see myself doing both.

Piccolo was chosen by Zagat as one of Los Angeles’ Top Ten Restaurants in 2012. Not Top Ten Italian restaurants, but restaurants in general. That is certainly saying something … that I have excellent taste … (said with a wink and a smile as I try to determine what else I am going to make on a green olive pizza at home for my next restaurant-inspired challenge…)

Dreams of Becoming a Baton Girl

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I wanted to become a baton girl. Not the leotard wearing spangled hair ribbon type from the marching band, but the uber-chic bearer of the ultimate appetizer amongst my foodie friends. It all started when I bought The Cute Gardener a copy of Dorie Greenspan’s “Around My French Table” for Christmas two years ago. My grand plan was to cook a French meal for him every so often from the book and become adept at the laissez-fare dish that begs copious amounts of wine on a lazy afternoon with bread. Upon first glance at the book, a recipe called Mustard Batons instantly struck me.

Mustard Batons are the French version of Italian breadsticks only fluffier and hinting at a savory bite from an internal swath of Dijon. Stuffed into a tall clear glass on a table with or without a meal, they are the perfect wands of carbs to go with various types of wine. I had immediate visions of serving them at dinner parties or when I would invite one of my many girlfriends over for a morning chat with tea or an afternoon gabfest with good wine.

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 Making them couldn’t be simpler. The full recipe is here but the concept is remarkably easy. Take puff pastry. Roll it out thin.

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Spread a thin layer of good Dijon mustard, grainy or smooth, across the lower half.

IMG_4707Fold the top half over the bottom and cut into one-inch strips. Brush the top with egg wash and sprinkle on some poppy seeds then bake for less than twenty minutes.

IMG_2030What comes out is the perfect bite for many occasions, looking remarkably complex for such little effort. It becomes a beautiful objet d’art, golden and dense, with flaky layers and a soft inside fancied up by the sting of mustard in the middle.

I also discovered that they are extremely versatile. I have served them in their original form to my family with a meal of chicken mushroom Marsala with leftovers in the fridge that got eaten up cold overnight by the snacking Cute Gardener. I have included them in a French dinner party with my supper club before a luscious beef Bourgogne with St. Germain and Champagne cocktails.

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I brought them to a farewell party for a girlfriend wit a bunch of Parisian gypsy themed entrees like French onion soup and we floated them on top of the broth with broiled gruyere on the top.

Recently, I decided to shake things up and experimented with some different ingredients for a lovely tea visit at my home with an artist friend.

IMG_4695I made a few with rose jelly and butter in the middle and sprinkled with French thyme on top that came out savory and strikingly good.

IMG_4697The second batch was strung on the inside with strands of sea salt caramel and drizzled honey with a topping of crushed coriander that became a sweet bite that would be great for dessert. Now I am obsessed with thinking of the endless possibilities ahead. Olive tapenade, pesto, cheese, caramelized onions, and crushed nuts … the ideas go on and on.

Now it is customary when I receive social invitations to hear, “Can you please bring those baton things to our party?”

I guess my dream of becoming a baton girl has manifested beautifully.

IMG_4711P.S. I hate to waste food and so every time I whip up an egg to brush the top of the dough while making batons, I end up with leftover egg. In typical French fashion, I throw it in a small tin into the oven, still hot from the baking, and let it set for a few minutes creating a beautiful little omelet. That becomes my after cooking treat topped with a sweet little pile of whatever I have handy in the fridge, in this case a dollop of roasted red pepper sauce.