The Perfect Nightcap

IMG_7051According to popular old boy’s club websites the proper way to drink bourbon as a beginner is to take something sweet like Maker’s Mark and put it on ice, swirl it with ginger ale, or drink it neat diluted with a tad bit of water until you get used to the taste and can move up to more manly applications.

My history with bourbon dates back to one torrid June afternoon in high school when I skipped last period class with some friends and we raided a parental liquor cabinet for booze. Choosing bourbon, which we knew nothing about, to mix with our lemonade and cokes, seemed like a wise choice at the time. But by the end of that afternoon of getting waterlogged in the pool and nearly heat stroked by the combination of alcohol and sun, I spent the next twenty five years trying my hardest not to even get a whiff of the stuff.

Considering I am female and not all that interested in the wood oak-paneled and brown leather-chaired dens of the male hair-on-the-chest drinking traditions as well as a lifelong rebel, I decided to take cues from the Cute Gardener who also beats to his own drum and dive into the start of my own bourbon affair by sipping it straight up. You see, after nearly two years of watching the CG enjoy a disk of imported dark chocolate with a swish of bourbon as the perfect nightcap, I was inspired to try my own taste of the buttery caramel colored liquor. It didn’t seem to smell like lame teen drunkenness to me anymore from the bottom of my honey’s glass but depending on the version being tried each night ranged from deep oaken barrel aromas to the kind of belly warmness that comes alongside a fire in the snow.

The moment that sealed the deal for me though, in my newfound bourbon lust happened over a tub of freshly churned, Whole Foods honey-roasted peanut butter. I learned that there is nothing in my nightcap world so far that tastes quite as exquisite as dark chocolate dipped in gourmet peanut butter, then into a pile of cacao nibs for crunch and then into the mouth washed down by a swirl of bourbon. All the tastes melt together into a hot swath of nuttiness and down into the belly where another fire is struck of its own.

Hatch Chile Cornucopia

IMG_0600Last summer this time of year, the Cute Gardener and I enjoyed a spree through Albuquerque, New Mexico. Our first day, after a strenuous hike at Tent Rocks, we explored the town hungry to find the source of a remarkably green and spicy aroma permeating every invisible inch of the atmosphere. We discovered various grocery store parking lots equipped with massive black, rolling and roasting machines into which we watched enormous amounts of bright, hatch chiles being fed. We bought a few bags of the charred, smoky chiles for a few bucks apiece and enjoyed our late nights in the hotel haphazardly deseeding and deveining the chiles, smashing them between thick flour tortillas and drizzling the whole lot with honey acquired earlier in Santa Fe. We also sought out as many green chile food items we could muster over the course of the next few days including a bowl of verde, soupy chili in the middle of a pharmacy run by female waitresses straight out of the 1960s.

New Mexico, we learned, is very proud of “their” hatch chile pepper. It makes sense that the pepper, a member of the genus Capsicum (think nature’s niacin), and part of the nightshade family of flowering plants related to the tomato and potato, would be a staple in southwestern fare. But we also surmised that it would be an easy ingredient to integrate into the Mexican and American items that we were more accustomed to at home as well.

A year later, and finally recovering from the copious amounts of mouth-related heat from last summer, it is hatch chile season again. This time the CG planned a whole morning around the torrid little suckers, driving us to a grocery store thirty miles away for the opportunity to purchase a ten pound box, freshly roasted for only $16. I then spent the good part of a Saturday methodically slicing, cleaning and flattening half of the box and freezing the other. We were left with a heavy tub of peppers and the challenge of using our imagination to make it go away over the course of the next week. This is how we did it.

IMG_0601The simple quesadilla was an obvious starter dish – perfect for the morning after a wine-soaked dinner party for lazy Sunday on the couch. A few hatch chile strips and white jack cheese melted together between two tortillas were dressed up with dollops of sour cream and ribbons of sage honey.

IMG_6944The CG then grilled up burgers that left my mouth smarting hungrily for days. The meat was perfectly rare and topped with hatch chiles, marinated tomatoes from the garden, slices of Monterey jack and sheep’s milk cheese, bits of bacon, home grown arugula, and a potato bun.

IMG_6948Homemade dough became a welcoming bed for hatch chile pizza also studded with sliced san marzano tomatoes from the garden, leftover black olives, and mozzarella cheese.

IMG_6954I made an uber-fresh salsa to enjoy with corn chips – a take on salsa verde but minus the cilantro therefore turning it into a salsa rose. It was a simple puree of hatch chiles, momotaro and grapette tomatoes, garlic cloves and white onions.

IMG_6960The CG made one of his famous pressure-cooked, one pot chicken dinners by throwing in leftover bits of carrots and celery and other vegetables laying around the kitchen and adding the hatch chiles for a final dose of flavor at the end. The chicken fell apart in a savory, perfectly spiked pile atop a steaming heap of white rice. I served some fried chickpea and butternut fritters on the side with sage cream.

IMG_6976Lastly, we blended chiles with avocados and a touch of sour cream for a wonderful guacamole to eat atop potato, zucchini and butternut hash.

Our two-week fling with hatch chiles was a very heated affair and we were left panting and flushed at the end. Now, that my entire body has been cleansed of toxins and burned to the core, I will take a few months break before deciding how to tackle the remaining five pounds of chiles dominating the freezer.

Foods for the Summertime Snooze

IMG_6968Strata Study by Kimberly Nichols

The lazy days of summertime always conjure a malaise in my bones when it comes to cooking. No one wants to labor over a hot stove in one hundred degree West Coast weather when there is wine to drink and good friends to laugh with at the table. That coupled with an economy towards time that one acquires as one grows older, not wanting to waste convoluted hours in the kitchen when there are blue skies and breezes to enjoy to the fullest while we’re all still here, makes meals in the hot season beg for simplicity.

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Two meals of late are examples of this season’s greatest fare inspired by favorite memories of mine from times gone past.

IMG_6983The fish taco has been a large part of my upbringing having been raised in Southern California where a large Hispanic population imported the cheap and easy dish into my cultural lexicon at a young age. I am not talking about the coated and fried versions served in stucco-laden restaurants with roaming mariachis but the kinds that come on tiny, plain corn tortillas heated slightly and topped with good grilled fish and not much else. These are the type I would buy for a buck a piece from a roadside cart on trips to La Bufadora to squirt with lime while sipping tequila overlooking an ocean at sunset. Or from the street vendor in San Felipe after dancing all night on the walk home to my hotel next to a bordello painted with butterflies. It’s one of those dishes that can be created in minutes from only four ingredients that leave you feeling light and sated rather than leaden and puffy on a warm and balmy night. Last weekend, while overlooking the gorgeous sea from a cliff in Rancho Palos Verdes, the Cute Gardener and I were treated to a perfect version made from pan sautéed tilapia chunks laid atop small corn tortillas smeared with a dollop of guacamole, a splash of hot salsa and some freshly chopped cabbage. It was a recipe that I will definitely repeat. Our only accompaniment was tomatoes Provencal, which we had coincidentally cooked ourselves not too long ago.

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Another gem of the season is the stone fruit and there can never be enough praise for the delight of plucking a peach straight from a tree and rending its perfectly ripe flesh with your bare teeth, juice running over your lips in a sticky stream. But for those of us who rely on the store bought bounty in bulk, I always enjoy experimenting with light desserts to extend the fruit eating into the nighttime. Recently, I tried a recipe I had found on Foodie Underground only I exchanged the apricots called for into peaches. I also tweaked the cooking times and realized that for me less is more when it comes to cooking fruit. Just like my pasta, I prefer my pommes al dente. The basic recipe (with adjustments added by the CG) is as follows:

Herbal Goat Cheese Peaches

Cut 3 ripe peaches in half and discard pits. Put into a greased pan. Place a tablespoon of goat cheese into each peach center. Sprinkle chopped, fresh lavender and rosemary over the peaches. Drizzle honey over the tops of the peaches in a thin stream. Roast in a 350-degree oven for 10-20 minutes depending on your preference for firmness. Remove, let cool a bit, and then serve with a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Banana Bombshell Breakfast Sundae

IMG_6963My friend Blakely has been one of my biggest inspirations in the cooking and eating department. I met her over a year ago through a mutual friend while I was living in Venice Beach as she was roaming the city with her surfboard looking to catch some waves before heading overseas to start an onsite chef’s gig at Bamboo Yoga Play in Costa Rica. Even though she had attended French culinary school and worked the prestigious line at New York City’s Scarpetta, she chose to eschew a restaurant career for her passion of conscious catering and teaching the world to eat nutritious whole foods and to live life to the fullest. Today, we keep up with each other through the Internet waves sharing our adventures in raw foods, probiotics, organics, and all things yummy.  I am constantly inspired by her recipes that come from the natural fruits and vegetables that surround her, wherever she may currently be in the world, combined with her uber-creative chef’s wizardry. She is truly the epitome of whole health and radiant beauty and a major role model for young girls everywhere. I oftentimes find myself taking her recipes and creating twists on them in my own kitchen.

Recently her recipe for vegan, tahini, and banana ice cream inspired me. Although I do not own a Vitamix, which is essential in getting a true, creamy ice cream consistency, I opted for a dish I could easily make without any machinery. My result: Banana Bombshell Breakfast Sundae. This is a beauty bar in a bowl chock full of food to make your skin glow like butter and your hair shine in golden liquid waves.

BANANA BOMBSHELL BREAKFAST SUNDAE

Combine in a bowl: one frozen banana chopped into chunks, one half cup of frozen blueberries, 2 tablespoons tahini, 1 teaspoon cacao nibs, one tablespoon of steel cut oats, ½ ounce of dried coconut strips. Let it sit for a few minutes and then mash all together and enjoy!

Bursting Momotaros Provencal

IMG_6936This is the time of year I take various breaks from my writing during the day to look out my office window and down into the verdant garden where I am blessed with a view of vines bursting with tomatoes. Widely pregnant orange and yellow Cherokees, slim, ovular San Marzanos, perfectly globe-shaped red Momotaros and tiny, thick-skinned grapelettes all waiting to be plucked and transformed into a variety of spreads, salsas, and dishes. The Cute Gardener spends many hours in the kitchen creating jars of sauce to freeze for a year of pastas and enjoys bringing paper bags of the luscious fruits to friends and family when the overflowing bounty grows too much for one household.  Many get sliced at room temperature for avocado and cucumber sandwiches, diced as a cooling accompaniment to hatch green chile soft tacos, added to lazy Sunday BLTs or popped straight into the mouth offering up a beautiful summertime ratio of soft flesh to juice.

IMG_6908The challenge at this point then becomes the discovery of new ways to enjoy the constant parade. Although a facet of French cuisine lies in the realm of heavy butter, cream and pastry, I oftentimes, especially in the warm season, prefer its more rustic shadows where vegetables are given a pedestal to shine upon in their most simple form. For this reason, I chose a Tomatoes Provencal to use up a batch of Momotaros that were dying for the spotlight. Instead of using this as a traditional side dish, we spooned the roasted tomato halves on top of pasta and as we dug into them with our forks, the juice and pulp that ran from their steaming interiors became a nice, fresh spaghetti sauce perfectly light for the warm weather.

TOMATOES PROVENCAL

Heat an oven to 375 degrees. (We used a toaster oven.)
Grease a nine-inch round baking dish by swirling a tablespoon of olive oil.
Cut six tomatoes in half crosswise through their midsections and place the halves in the baking dish.
Sprinkle a mixture of three to five herbs across the tops of each tomato half. We used a blend of oregano, rosemary and thyme straight from the garden.
Drizzle a thin stream of olive oil lightly across the whole batch.
Cook in the oven for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve!

This Little Piggy Went to Market – Asian Style

IMG_6881One of the beautiful things about life in Los Angeles is the access to good ethnic markets. My favorites are the Armenian strip mall marts that pepper the San Fernando Valley, the Greek boutique spots in Santa Monica, the Italian delis that sprawl the East and West sides and the Asian clusters in Little Osaka, Gardena and Little Tokyo. With a spoiled palate, I tend to shop for my most basic needs at the local VONS while preferring trips to these multicultural treasure chests for everything else. Because of this, if you took one look in our kitchen cupboard you would think that I was an old macrobiotic Chinese man and that the Cute Gardener was really a portly Italian chef de cuisine.

When we visit these markets, we also like to plan other activities in the area that revolve around food into our jaunt. Recently, we took an early morning field trip to Little Tokyo on the hunt for some groceries and found so much more. We started out in downtown L.A. in the flower district looking for a sewing needle at an industrial art supply store. I never knew the neighborhood existed and it was a thrill to watch the bustle of event planners, dinner party throwers, and pushy men and women cramming into warehouses and roll up garage door spaces for fresh orchids and potted plants galore in the stark beaming sunshine. Rolling into Little Tokyo, we stopped at Frances Bakery. Their most famous item is their signature donut, which is really what L.A. is currently raving about being the ultra-trendy cronut. Although most of their items were gone by the time we walked in (bare cases must portend that we need to go back and try their pastries), I fell head over heels with their macarons, of which I sumptuously enjoyed a green tea and coconut variety. We then went to the new Marugame Monzo for udon and were delighted by the housemade noodles and the wickedly, textural tempuras. With bellies full, we ventured into the cause of our field trip – Woori Market.

IMG_6882My mission was simple: a tub of miso for soups and sauces, anything I could find made out of matcha green tea chocolate (yes, I plunked down way too much money for matcha Kit Kats), rice wine vinegar for dressings, toasted rice tea, salted umeboshi plums to drink in soda water as an aid to digestion, and sheets of dried nori to add to rice dishes and stir fries. While I was shopping, the CG was on a hunt of his own, one in which I benefited from lavishly later that night at home.

IMG_6884The CG has a knack of taking simple ingredients and creating a world-class meal out of them. Typically, this is done Italian style with simple, fresh things plucked from his garden and mixed with pasta. But this meal was straight out of one of our favorite Japanese restaurants only for about one fourth of the price. Green beans, a Japanese cucumber and Crenshaw melon were plucked right from the backyard while everything else came straight from that day’s shopping trip and included: tofu, yellowtail (cut into sashimi), eel, king trumpet mushrooms (pan sautéed to buttery perfection), uni, rice and seaweed to roll various bites of it all up in. A nice bottle of sake helped us wash it all down.

As much as we eat out to try new things, I am convinced that my favorite foodie moments are when we decide to step out of our box, hunt for meals inspired by our most memorable trips to restaurants, and then try to recreate the experiences for ourselves at home.

Blasting My Way to Health With the Nutribullet

IMG_6870The way I eat has gone through an incredible transformation over the past five years, as I have become a serious student of holistic health. Today, Hippocrates famous words “Let your medicine be your food and your food, medicine,” float over my daily diet as the basis of everything I consume. I have become a huge fan of greens and grains and fatty Omega 3s as well as knowledge imparted by such food philosophies as Chinese macrobiotics and Ayurvedic energetics. It doesn’t mean that I don’t splurge on the weekends or indulge in the pleasure of dairy creams and sweets now and again (I will be the first to admit my love of rich cakes topped with butter cream frosting and buttery, French cream dishes), but in general I stick to healthy fare because it simply makes me feel better and that’s all the motivation I need.

I’ve wanted to incorporate juicing into my routine for a few years now but have been baffled by the choices in machines and blenders. Do I spend $400 on a trendy Vitamix knowing it can create juice, smoothies, butters and other raw food delights or do I go with an old fashioned machine that cold presses juice and leaves out all of the pulpy bits? I love the taste of fresh celery and apple pressed into a nice clear green tonic but I also love the taste that was created in my sister’s simple Magicbullet one summer consisting of whole stalks of kale, apples, chia seeds and water. After much deliberation and word of mouth from friends, I decided to plunk down $107 at Bed, Bath and Beyond for the Nutribullet and I have never been happier.

IMG_6842Considering I used to spend $7 to $12 a pop for superfood smoothies at my favorite Venice eatery Local 1205, in less than a month of owning this machine I have already drank enough smoothies to bypass my money’s worth. In its most basic form the Nutribullet touts an every day recipe of throwing fifty percent vegetables, fifty percent fruit, and a nut, seed or superfood (chia, flax, goji, acai) boost into the cup with water and blasting the smithereens out of the lot to create a luscious, life-affirming drink. You would think that there would be some strategy in the items you place in the mix for this simple recipe in order to get a good tasting drink but the miracle is in the fact that no matter what blend of fruits, veggies or boosts you choose, you always end up with something that tastes good. Which makes sense if you think about it. If all we did from the beginning of earthly time were to eat the natural things that grew on the earth, we would be blessed with the benefits of things that are natural including good taste and vital health.

After a few weeks of daily drinking these blasts, I feel like I have ten times the amount of energy in a single day, my skin is glowing, my work outs at the gym seem to carry more power and strength, my hair seems to be growing faster as are my fingernails, and my entire disposition has become more calm.

My favorite creation so far has been this:

East Indian-Worthy Spicy Coconut Smoothie:

Ingredients:
6 raw cashews, soaked
¼ cup coconut milk
1 scoop green superfood powder
1 leaf and stalk of Swiss chard
1 leaf and stalk of kale
1 cup of almond milk
1 peeled dime-sized coin on ginger
1 celery stalk
1 small red delicious apple
2 sweet red peppers

Combine all in Nutribullet and blend.

Calorie count: 400
This is a great lunch, filling and revitalizing at about 200 calories less than is the normal healthy allotment for lunch for women.

IMG_6846All things green are good!

Click here for some other useful recipe ideas.

 The possibilities are really endless but here are some tips I have learned:

  • Using almond milk and/or coconut milk makes things more shake-like and creamy and works equally with bitter greens or with dessert-like yogurt and honey blends.
  • Apples and celery make bitter greens taste sweet.
  • Lemons and ginger brighten up most mixes and the peel/rinds can go in too to enhance the cancer-fighting properties of the drink. Try them with fresh tomatoes for a virgin bloody Mary that is divine.
  • Dates and cacao nibs make drinks taste like chocolate.
  • Matcha powder is great in breakfast drinks that include milk and fruit for an extra superfood boost.
  • Soaked cashews thicken any drink and don’t conflict taste-wise with most ingredients.

My next endeavor is going to be working on a string of cold pureed squash and stone fruits soups. More to report on that later.

 

Admiration for the Wiener

IMG_6828This post is written by my guest blogger Carlita Danger. Some photos are blurred to protect the innocent.

Unlike the popular news and media as of late, I like to write about and showcase wieners.

IMG_6769… Irish bangers, meaty Midwestern brats, hearty German frankfurters, milky Austrians, Chinese porkers and yes, even, to be fair, those tiny Viennas. Hopefully, I’ll be able to guest blog about those too in the future, but for this one, let’s focus on the Italians.

Italian sausages are robust and can ease their way into virtually any dish. Which is why I was head over heels happy to find the Monte Carlo Deli in Burbank. Walking in past the amazing case of homemade biscotti and cannoli, I encountered a nicely zipped up meat and cheese display centered with a large, gleaming, stainless steel butcher’s bin of bulging, raw authentic fennel links underneath dangling balls of provolone. You could tell the sausages were a big seller because there were so many fresh ones in a pile as if they were expected to continually slip off the shelves through the course of the day. We unloaded half a dozen of our own and enjoyed them three ways over the course of the next few weeks. First in vanilla fashion, we coaxed them to bursting in the toaster oven before slicing and enjoying with cheese and berries from the garden. Secondly in traditional missionary style, we plumped them up firm as an accompaniment to simple tomato-dressed pasta and olive oil-sautéed zucchini. And finally with a twist of S&M kink, we cut them up and incorporated them into a pot of homemade sauce with girth-y spaghetti.

IMG_6826For all of you home gardeners who are experiencing a bounty of San Marzanos in your garden right now, this is the perfect recipe to utilize a bunch of those ripe beauties at once.

IMG_6825ITALIAN SAUSAGE SPAGHETTI SAUCE

INGREDIENTS
2 large fresh, spicy Italian fennel sausage links
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot or 1/2 large carrot, finely chopped
1 small stalk of celery, including the green tops, finely chopped
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1-3/4 pound of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 teaspoon tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

The secret of this sauce is to first slow cook the sausage links in a heavy pan on low for about an hour until they are heated all the way through, watching them carefully and flipping them over regularly to cause a nice burnt (but not overly) line here and there on the link. This causes the sausage to become multiflavored and textured adding to the complexity of the final sauce. Once done, keep the links at room temperature, reserved for the sauce.

Heat olive oil in a large wide skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and parsley. Stir to coat. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are softened and cooked through.

Remove cover and add the minced garlic. Increase the heat to medium high. Cook the garlic for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, including the juice and shredding them with your fingers. Add the tomato paste and the basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low simmer, reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered until thickened, about 15 minutes. If you want you can push the sauce through a food mill, or blend it with an immersion blender, to give it a smooth consistency but I like it chunky and textural.

During the last 15 minutes of cooking the sauce, cook the pasta.

At the end, cut the sausage links into one or two-inch chunks and throw into the pan of sauce and toss. Let it sit and heat for about two minutes. Then, serve over a bed of thick spaghetti.