Mermaid Elixir

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As a child, from the moment I learned to swim, I was in the water. I was one of those kids whose mother had to constantly check my skin during ten-hour marathons in the pool to make sure I hadn’t shriveled up and turned into a raisin from all the hydration soaking into my every molecule. Growing up in the desert, that’s how we survived the long hot summers – by staying wet. And in the summertime we would spend any moment not at home in some remote place that was also near a body of water like a lake, beach, or river. Most of my cherished memories from age six through fourteen consist of me alone underwater, pretending I was either a mermaid or an Olympian doing a series of convoluted moves and gymnastics I had made up on my own. It was a haven for me, away from the normal world, where my imagination could create any number of identities  for myself far removed from the human one I always felt a little odd-man-out within. Being underwater made me feel alive and clean and pure and particularly when I would swim under the tumultuous pounding waves of the sea, I would imagine that I was absorbing through osmosis the most potent vitamins and minerals of the gods, drinking in all the nutrients of the deep dark blue just like the plankton, coral, fishes and other creatures.

Recently, I discovered Vitamineral Green Powder and feel like I hit my mermaid eureka, discovering something that I can only describe as being exactly like what I imagine mythic gods of the sea might consume on a daily basis. It is simply an algae-colored, nutritionally dense, green superfood powder that supports blood sugar, detoxification, the immune system, liver, kidneys, blood, bones, colon, pancreas, muscles, brain, regularity, circulation and longevity. It’s full of naturally occurring, absorbable and non-toxic vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, chlorophyll, soluble and insoluble fibers, phytonutrients and other organic nutrients. It’s an actual food and when mixed into a smoothie, it tastes like drinking an ancient waterfall (or what I would imagine one tastes like.)

At Local 1205, my favorite smoothie shop in Venice Beach, I am currently addicted to the Jade Mountain. This monstrous and thick, spoonable slurpie-like concoction actually looks like a Jade Mountain. Consisting of vitamineral green, almonds, maca, vanilla, agave, cacao nibs and tocotrionols, it is mixed only with ice and topped with bee pollen to make a refreshing meal substitute. It’s a bit pricey at $12 but you feel instantly energized after you drink up the last of its clarifying remnants into your body, feeling not full at all but worthy of climbing a comparably sized mountain of the one you just consumed. Every time I order it and walk home along Abbot Kinney I undoubtedly run into some stranger who extols its virtues like the recent doorman on a stool outside a club who announced, “Oh yes, the ever mighty Jade Mountain! That drink is the best!” as I passed his perch.

I no longer spend a lot of time in the water wary of chlorine and toxic sludge and flotsam and jetsam and all the other stuff we’ve polluted our H2O sources with but I am happy to have found a way to drink up the goodness I used to imagine would be served at a banquet reigned over by Neptune himself.

Perfect Popcorn and Hard Lemonade

IMG_6213What do you do when you come back from a strenuous hiking trip too tired for a late Friday night out on the town with a bushel of lemons that fell from the tree while you were gone? Why make hard lemonade, a perfect pot of popcorn and rev up the DVD player for a marathon couch slouch of watching rerun episodes of a favorite television show of course.

Our chosen show was Arrested Development, catching up on old episodes in a preemptive memory move for its long overdue return to Netflix this fall. So it was rather apropos to think up a dry, astringent drink to match the dry, astringent comedy.

IMG_6214Over twenty lemons were squeezed to make about a quart of country-style, pulpy juice to which we added a mere smidgeon of sugar syrup, a dash of orange bitters and cherry syrup and a shot of vodka. It was a cocktail worthy of puckered lips so we decided a simple batch of popcorn would be a nice, balancing complement.

One of the Cute Gardener’s claims to fame is that he seduced me (and allegedly a few women before me) with his perfect popcorn. I have had it a few times now and always marvel at the light and savory consistency he manages to maintain. Sometimes he seasons it with sophisticated barbecue mixes from nice spice stores like Savory’s or Penzey’s but mostly he serves it plain and simple in its extraordinary natural light. This time I scribbled down fastidious notes as he cooked it to make sure I could replicate it again on my own as well as share with my unorthodox readers. It certainly comes down to an exact science but is well worth the effort.

IMG_6218Perfect Popcorn

Ingredients
3/4 cup of your favorite store bought popcorn kernels
3/8 cup canola oil
Half a stick of butter
Salt

Heat a 2-gallon metal heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat for a few minutes to get it piping hot. Pour in the oil and if it does that elastic thing when you swirl the pan where it rolls in and out from the sides in waves, you know it is ready. Or you can get a thermometer and anything between 450-475 degrees is fine. Pour in the corn and put on the lid. Within a minute it should be popping. If it starts to pop immediately or sooner than a minute, turn heat down slightly. At a minute it should be popping nicely. Separately, melt the half stick of butter on the stove. Pop until the popping slows down to about four seconds between pops and turnoff heat immediately. Keep in pot and hold in your hands and shuffle it around while it finishes the last few pops.

While still in the pot season the popcorn with this patient method. Pour one third of the butter slowly around the top of the popcorn evenly then dash three shakes of salt across the top as well. Hold the pot in both hands and shake/toss the popcorn so that more fresh, undressed pieces move to the top. Repeat this procedure two more times until all the popcorn is seasoned and you are ready to enjoy!

P.S. I spend a lot of time in this blog on my soapbox about being a healthy, responsible eater because we live in a world of consumption misalignment. But for the record, and in the case of this post as evidence, I do believe in having a little fun and indulging every once in a while. I have been studying food in regards to nutrition, science, and medicine for a few years now and know that balance is the key to health and happiness. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t enchant our pleasure points every now and again with a buttery tub of popcorn as an essential ingredient for life. Although there is a vast amount of butter fat in the mix with this popcorn recipe, in the end, a fourth of the batch (the amount I tend to easily consume in one sitting) clocks out at 370 calories which is much less than most slices of cake or other pastries for dessert and rather equal to things like sherbet, fruit tarts, and more healthy dessert fare. Timing is also important. I wouldn’t want to eat this popcorn the night after Thanksgiving dinner but it is perfectly acceptable after three days of hiking the mountains of Sequoia burning over a thousand calories a day and drinking more than an average day’s worth of water.

Cinnamon Chicory Roast in the Captain’s Quarters

IMG_6149Over the weekend I attended a special party hosted by the Los Angeles-based performance troupe Lucent Dossier, of which my friend Erin is an integral player.

What makes this troupe and performers stand out above the rest is that they don’t simply put on shows and invite people to watch them. They embody and represent a lifestyle that encompasses the community that I belong to in which people have sidestepped the normal route of existence of our parent’s paradigm and are forging our own ways through a life lived with conscientiousness in spiritual, mental and physical pursuits where work and play all become one breathing entity and wherein all humans are connected and loved rather than separated and materially-motivated. Their parties are pleasure and show for sure, but they are also dotted with integrative experiences between audience and star where no hierarchy dictates one superior over another and where being yourself is wholeheartedly encouraged, even to the point of being heralded from stage by an announcer who says at the end of the evening, “I invite you to be whomever you want to be and when you wake up tomorrow you have absolute permission to still love yourself entirely!” By the end of the night, everyone becomes one equal populace and individual experiences pepper the space that Lucent has created in their downtown Los Angeles warehouse for people to partake in. You can enter a room to cuddle platonically with strangers. You can have your face painted for free by a miraculous artist in a blonde jeweled Afro. You can buy a raw food meal at the vegan kitchen or try a special drink made of kombucha. You can dance with a white-faced juggler on the dance floor before being shooed off with a gigantic broom by a glee-faced chambermaid preparing for the next aerial acrobat to grace the stage. You can try on clothes in an upstairs attic occupied by a living doll. Or you can interact with artists who work on their pieces along the periphery of the room coaxing spirits out from the blank canvas inspired by the energy of the participants of the party. You walk away from the event feeling fortified not only in fun but also within the deepest confines of your psyche as if you’ve had a four-hour intervention of your soul wherein you’ve been given secret instructions on how to go forth and prosper. Eat healthy and well, dance hard and be strong, love each other without judgment because we all are one, play with joy because you can, work doing what you really love and live as an example in the world sharing and mushrooming the glow that is individually you.

IMG_6155Consciousness in food always runs a sub-stream at these events. There are always opportunities to try raw food and other healthy delights by various catering companies and specialists. This time food played a part in the unique experience that my friend Erin offered up to guests. A special room was created to look like the innards of an old steam punk style captain’s quarters of a ship in which Erin reigned in headdress and fishnets welcoming all captains into her fold. Once seated she poured hot water over our hands into a silver washing bowl and grated pink Himalayan sea salt over our palms for rejuvenation. Then she presented us each with an exquisite cup of Celestial Seasonings Roastaroma tea made with roasted chicory and barley, a hint of chocolate from roasted carob and a touch of cinnamon and allspice that instantly sparkled up the senses. Next, she shuffled a deck of handmade cards and splayed them in front of us from which we chose a card. The underside revealed a special word signifying the direction created for all of us as captains of our own lives by the North Star. Mine, appropriately was marked INDEPENDENCE – denoting the way I live my life as a lone wolf carving my own course in my writing, art and spirituality and not easily falling prey to any group mentality or social pack mores. Then she presented us with a ship’s log to write our name and a personal mantra (love is mine) before sending us off on a four-clue scavenger hunt throughout the party.

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The clues eventually led to a treasure chest of snacks! The night before the party Erin had asked me and other friends what kind of special things we liked to eat and I had told her anything with nuts, cacao, dried fruit or coconut. In the treasure box I discovered a bag written with the words “Inspired by Captain Nichols” that was full of miniature bags of dried mango and cashews to my utmost delight. Another friend’s bag was full of grapes and so on.

I made a mental note to find the tea she had served as I left the party inspired by the special magic that is Lucent. You leave most parties with an alcohol hangover and the need for a bed but I found myself leaving this one with a head full of inspiration to become the absolute best specimen of human being I can in the remaining years of my life on this planet.

Bulgur, Bourbon and Blues

IMG_6127There are very few people in life who you can simply hang around with for hours in the same space, no talking required, and just the simple act of being dominates time with just occasional interaction. Most likely your partner falls into this category, or the person you live with, maybe your best friend … but rarely any others. My brother has always been one of these people for me. Yesterday on his monthly visit, we realized we’ve been listening to music together while individually immersed in our individual creative projects for the past quarter century since the days he used to run up my steps every morning upon waking and jump into bed with me, begging me to dress him up and pose him around the house for yet another of my photography sessions in which he enthusiastically would star as muse. Of course, I no longer dress him up in little white tuxedos and pink tee shirts of the Don Johnson Miami Vice years and nowadays we tend to hang around while I write fiction and he creates music for his band El Burro and regales us with a continuous stream of the blues. The only thing that has changed is that as adults we have both become avid cooks and this means whenever he is around he also doubles as my guinea pig for whatever recipe I have lying around that I have been dying to try. He’s the most adventurous eater I know and nothing is off limits.

Because of this, I am constantly compelled to whip up something illustrious and complex that no one else would be game for when he’s around. Last night after feeding him a proper light bistro dinner of pate, blue cheese, goat cheese, apricots and sprouted rye bread this meant that I got a strange inspiration at eleven p.m. halfway through a reminiscent play list of the Allman Brothers to make a bulgur pudding for desert, inspired by this past weekend’s Los Angeles Times article on the sweet little wheat gems. Of course I completely altered the recipe with whatever I had on hand and the results were a magnificently rich, risotto-like pudding that was not too sweet which turned the accompanying bourbon in our glasses to liquid caramel.

IMG_6121Bulgur Blues Pudding  (Adapted from the Los Angeles Times recipe)

1 1/2 cups bulgur
3 cups vanilla almond milk
½ cup chopped hazelnuts
6 dried apricots, divided
1 small orange
6 tablespoons organic sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup canned garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup canned cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling

Combine the water and salt in a heavy, medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the bulgur, stir and return to a boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the water is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Stir in 3 cups almond milk and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring often. Cook uncovered over low heat, stirring often, until the bulgur absorbs most of the milk, 12 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, coarsely chop 4 tablespoons of the hazelnuts. Halve the remaining ones and reserve for garnish. Dice 3 of the apricots. Cut the remaining apricots in thin slices or slivers and reserve for garnish. Grate 2 teaspoons of orange zest. Cut off the remaining orange rind and the pith, and cut the orange in small dice; reserve for garnish.

Add the sugar and honey to the bulgur mixture and mix well. Add the diced apricots, garbanzo beans and cannelini beans. Cook over low heat, stirring gently to avoid crushing the beans, until the sugar dissolves and the honey blends in, a few minutes. Remove from the heat. Add the grated orange zest and chopped nuts and mix gently. The pudding should be creamy, not soupy and not dry.

Serve the pudding warm, cold or at room temperature.

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I sunk a square of dark chocolate in my bowl and as it melted, it added an extraordinarily sweet sense of depth to the otherwise earthy dish.

Pickled with Pleasure at Littlefork

IMG_0196Right in the center of a Hollywood neighborhood alive at night with missions serving the needy and impromptu after-hours church congregation pop-ups sits a nondescript beige building with the cursive sign Littlefork delicately penned atop its façade. We had come out of curiosity of late for gastropubs leaning towards a New England bent knowing full well that this experience would find inspiration a little further up into the Northeast coast including Canada.

We were greeted upon arrival by the multi-tiered sight of shelves above a hostess stand lined with jars of various pickled vegetables. We heard this was an in house specialty so were doubly delighted when presented with a small jar of coriander spiked watermelon radishes as the first item to make use of our little forks. With tongues smarting furiously from the extremely addictive snack, a glance around the place unveiled a spot not unlike the sort Humbert Humbert may have stopped on his 1950s sojourn with Lolita – half hipster forest lodge and half European hostel dining hall with faux wood wallpaper, bleached wood tables, and stuffed bobcat taxidermy. Hypnotized beneath a surreal, milky dimness like that which would occur in the magical hours between dinner and bedtime on long lost summer vacations, we settled in for a stream of extraordinarily yummy and highly shareable fare.

IMG_0197Gimmicky plastic cups, again harkening to the gadget-heavy fondue party days of mother’s yore, came carrying heavenly bits of scrambled eggs floating atop maple syrup soufflé and a stick of bacon to lick it all up with.

IMG_0198An expertly blended mushroom and cabbage salad was dressed smartly in a fennel dressing with high caliber shavings of Parmesan to add sharpness after each bite of the marvelously plump and juicy varieties of fungi.

IMG_0200Again, the pickling skills shined wizardly with a raw ceviche, floating with creamy nuggets of ivory scallop and crisp, diced onion to sop up with slivers of tuber chips. After hunting endlessly for an authentic style lobster roll throughout Los Angeles, I finally found it in this version within a proper buttered roll, boasting luscious chunks of meat in perfect savory proportion to the minced celery of the mayonnaise sauce.

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Three homey medallions of puffy and moist monkfish breaded in fresh herbs and laid atop a cheesy potato puree found textural enhancement and pizzazz by a side order of charred Brussels sprouts braised in apple cider and sprinkled with pieces of good old fatty fried chicken skin.

IMG_0207Relatively stuffed to the gills by this point, I could have easily eaten some buttermilk maple or whoopie pie in homage to the nostalgic puberty-camp contentment I was feeling but we chose the more sophisticated option of apple cider donuts, crunchy on the outside and sparkly with sugar to dredge through some rich apple butter and salted caramel for dessert.

It took all of my willful resistance not to break out into an off key version of Kumbaya on the way out.

In Praise of the Neighborhood Italian Place

IMG_6025We were by no means rich when my parents started a weekly tradition of schlepping my sister and I out to an Italian dinner on Friday nights in the destitute town of Desert Hot Springs where we lived prior to my junior high years when my stepfather found business success and a move for our family out of that strange place.  The light at the end of our weeks was the five minute car ride downtown to the tiny corner restaurant called Capri where our paper place mats were printed with a geographical boot and the skinny breadsticks in the water glass that sat center on our table were the first things we frantically grabbed for knowing the snap of them between our teeth harkened our favorite meal.

It wasn’t long before our Friday sojourns taught us we would rather have the veal marsala than the child’s play bowl of regular old ravioli. We loved the sauce that covered the paper-thin cutlets and tangy mushrooms, oftentimes soaking our garlic bread in the leftover puddle to cap off the meal before dessert. Dessert was always, without a doubt, real cappuccino ice cream, before the drink cappuccino became another borrowed trendy American drink in all the cafes in the late nineties. The ice cream was black as night, bitter, and studded with exquisite little sugary nuggets of dark and caramelized crushed coffee beans.

IMG_6023Although there were no red and white checkered tablecloths in the place, it was still a joint bustling with Italian home-style hospitality and we came to know the owners very well including the grandpa of the clan who prided himself on bringing in osso buco whenever good cuts of shank were available in the Southern California butcher’s sphere.

That experience informed my knowledge of what a good neighborhood Italian joint should be – not a place for the gourmet white napkin or the perfect epicurean pizza; nor even a place of necessarily authentic cuisine. It was a place where you could count on a favorite dish made the same every time and handed over by your favorite server, and time and again could find comfort in a classic take on a dish based around love, family and pasta.

When I was an adult I opened up the Friday night ritual to my daughter with our weekly stops at a new place called Caffé Italia, a spaghetteria where the Italian foreign exchange students I had loved talking passionately with in high school now commandeered their own versions of massive pizza pies and the best oversized fennel meatballs around – not to mention my daughter’s favorite lemon sorbet frozen in real halves of lemon rind. We would sit for hours under the stars of paradise desert nights talking with Manuela and her sisters as we watched them birth babies, raise kids and keep whipping up special versions of ricotta stuffed shells that made us drool.

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Recently, I found another version of this while visiting the desert again on the most unlikely street of El Paseo – more known for its high-jangle department stores, May-December romance diners and a new flagship pizza emporium by Wolfgang Puck. A friend of mine who used to wait tables at 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro and consistently turned me on to amazing discount bottles of red wines that tasted four times their worth just so happened to be the new general manager of the place called Pizza Vino and had my favorite bottle of Sean Minor pinot ready upon my arrival with a friend. It wasn’t long before I realized that the place could certainly become my contemporary version of a hometown Italian regular as the feel good dishes started to arrive amidst a constant flow of all sorts of other people. There were nice flat bread pizzas with salty, yeast crusts – the polpette meatball version being my favorite with lots of the small pork and beef globes quartered across my pie revealing nice and juicy pink insides – and a dish of fried zucchini squash blossoms stuffed with cheese and drizzled with honey. IMG_6026

Imagine my surprise when at the end of the meal I ordered the cappuccino ice cream and was presented with a generous bowl of the same exact ice cream I remembered from my youth but had not been able to find on many other effort-driven hunts.

Fairy Tale Food at Hinoki and the Bird

IMG_0162Tartare

Maybe it was the way the evening began as one of those Murphy’s Law types where everything that can go wrong will go wrong that initially lent an odd taste in my mouth concerning Hinoki and The Bird. I had driven in high level traffic to the Cute Gardener’s house on a Saturday afternoon ready for an exquisite dinner with one of our favorite Top Chefs Kuniko Yagi from her newly opened kitchen when I realized I had forgotten my dress. With less than an hour to drive fifteen miles to a bandage-level store specializing in irregular designer clothing, pick out a dress, get back and change for a “dressy” evening out that didn’t allow for any of the usual accoutrement enjoyed prior to a nice, weekly dinner with my partner, my feathers were a little ruffled.

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From the outside, the highly touted new restaurant by David Myers looked freshly elegant, with a valet awaiting your arrival while disguising its silk road-inspired cuisine inside. The place is on the bottom of a very high end condo tower for the Century City rich accessed through a gated entrance. But the moment we entered and surveyed the sunken dining room I realized I could have been dressed in jeans or hardly anything at all if the attire of the wait staff and hostesses were any inclination.

IMG_0164Chili Crab Toast

What could have been a fun and nicely, sensual nod to the Japanese geisha vis a vis Hollywood through the bevy of tall and leggy hostesses that were in overabundance to cater to your beck and call seemed more like a borrowing of Lisa Vanderpump girls from Sur in their oversized “boyfriend button downs,” long bed-ruffled hair and little else. Although I realize it is to be expected in Los Angeles, I was slightly confused about what vibe the place was trying to express which seemed at odds from the wonderful and inspiring things I had read and was expecting. The natural wood was there, the large windows letting in hints of an outside garden as well, and the atmosphere of boisterousness abounded through loud chatty guests and a constant come and go but the Japanese metaphor was lost in the entertainment industry hub setting.

IMG_0167Short Rib

I decided to slough off my irritation and wardrobe mishaps and settle down to enjoy what I had come for – reminding myself of how I had been anticipating the brilliant, delicate and wonderfully creative dishes from Yagi. Her story seemed as much a fairy tale as the restaurant’s name – having been hand plucked from a noodle joint by David Myers and given a once in a lifetime chance- and we had enjoyed her reign at Comme Ca for a while through the fluffiest quiche we’d ever tasted in our life. Now we were itching to see what signature style would emerge from a canvas created just for her.  I was lucky enough to be seated in direct view of the bustling kitchen where she ran back and forth, ponytailed and birdlike, efficient and industrious as I would have imagined, not shaken by the loud and consistent calls of the brisk expeditor.

IMG_0165Cod with Flaming Wood Chip

My submission came full circle as the dishes started to arrive. A tiny ceramic bowl of beef tartare was a perfect pile of room temperature flakes of meat topped with a sinfully light dusting of Parmesan cheese, some pickled jalapeno and a teensy quail egg yolk. A gorgeous circle of pink grapefruit flesh alternated with translucent raw snapper and lime leaf that although needed more fish than fruit in the presentation ratio, was certainly a gorgeous first bite. A triad of chili crab toast on small slices of crostini delivered interesting swaths of crab and coriander – an unlikely combination that played well with the spicy cucumber. The black cod entrée was cooked so tenderly well albeit paired oddly with a chunk of overbearing sweet potato and plain pistachios. Short ribs arrived expertly charred and delicious with a mandolin slice of green apple accenting the sear. Even though all of these aforementioned items started a bit jarring in their unusualness, the overall experience became one overpowered in the end by the complements of unique inspiration and novelty by someone seemingly making up the story as they go.

 IMG_0166Braised Shiitake

The true redemption of the evening came with the shiitake mushroom dish – a shallow plate of six shiitake caps, compressed into flat pancakes of the most unctuous earthiness. I didn’t have to touch the small daub of yuzu shishito puree because the mushrooms needed nothing to accentuate their true essence brought out marvelously by magical hands.

IMG_0168Dessert

I also could have eaten just about everything off of the dessert menu as it was written just for me: mochis and rice creams, matcha donuts and ice cream, sour kogi milk concoctions and odd Japanese fruit-inspired sorbets.

I think my experiences in culinary La La Land have been opposite to those that occur when I read a thick and meaty book that leaves me breathless and then am left feeling cold about the movie adaptation. I fall for the celluloid exploits of these chefs on my weekly addiction of high concept cooking shows and then the live scene leaves me wanting more of the fluorescent and scripted bells and whistles that have informed my expectations.