Ramen Sunday Fundays

IMG_7443Out of all the places I’ve learned to love in Los Angeles through the past two and half years of living here, the place I’ve both frequented the most and feel most at home within is the Little Tokyo area. I am not referring to the trendy hipster pocket near the brewery buildings and SCI-ARC that boast pop up art galleries and overpriced, semi-bland pie shops but the authentic Asian neighborhoods near the Buddhist Temple, industrial fish merchant, Japanese grocery store and plethora of noodle joints that abut Skid Row. When I used to live in the desert, I enjoyed the Hispanic neighborhoods and that is how I feel in Little Tokyo – as if I have entered another culture where I may not always speak the same language but feel comforted in the absence of pretension and overall joie de vivre found in the workaday people living amongst a bevy of great food and traditions. I love walking down the street on a Sunday morning in Fall to see the balconies on all the 1950s style apartment buildings, each decorated individually with plants, prayer flags, flowers or ruddy benches. I love watching the old women dressed in their polyester suits heading to the stores while long lines full of people of all ages start to converge in front of the food shops. It’s a frequent Sunday Funday outing for the Cute Gardener and myself.

Recently, we’ve decided to start a hunt for the best ramen in L.A. We have a simultaneous endeavor begun for udon as well. Ramen, like udon, has been a relatively new venture for me in that I’ve only eaten at a handful of places in my lifetime and they haven’t been good places. Or at least, I didn’t realize they weren’t good places until being introduced to the Los Angeles noodle scene. My sixth taste in L.A. was a recent stop at Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi in Little Tokyo – a place we’d been eyeballing for a year while visiting the neighborhood for other occasions and always seeing a packed house there.

This visit gave me a winner so far for my favorite ramen as well as a bonafide list of what a special bowl of ramen means to me:

Good broth – this one was light brown and belly warming like a good chicken soup without being overpowering with seasoning.

Skinny and firm noodles – these were long and lean but densely textured rather than being flimsy or scrawny and they didn’t wilt or get mushy as they sat in the broth.

Toppings – Gotta have my superfood wakame for the essential dose of sea algae vitamins and a sense of salt but beyond that I discovered I love crunchy pig ears and fried onions that go from crispy and hard to soft and chewy the longer they sit and are fun at every level during this gradient shift of texture. I also love the hard boiled egg halves as well as a poached egg that gels up as it swirls into the hot soup.

IMG_7445Another thing I love about the Asian culture is how strange and funny its obsessions can be. Hot pink colored fish cakes? Okay, not sure why, but they are pretty and they taste good. A million pieces of leftover fishing boat inventory mushed and rolled into fish balls … a little strange but excellent when added to soups and other dishes. Mung beans cooked, smushed and rolled into tiny square moon cakes … what other culture would consider beans to be like a sweet filling or a frosting, but in reality, I am more addicted to them than to chocolate pastries. And the funniest one of all – $2.00 oversized cream puffs. I don’t know where in the heck they came up with the strangely white Santa character Beard Papa for the well-known franchise of cream puff shops but I am glad they did because I can’t get enough. Now it’s customary on our trips to Little Tokyo for me to end it on a bench slurping from a puff. The previous time it was matcha green tea cream from a chocolate puff and this time it was banana cream from an éclair puff. I admit it; I am a total sucker for all things Asian.

Next month I have plans to take the train solo to Little Tokyo for an entire day to hunt for the perfect teapot.

Wintry Radish with French Butter

IMG_7447Until I tried French butter I thought butter existed only to melt on bread, drizzle over popcorn, or massage into pastries and sweet things. I was never a straight butter eater, nor have I ever slathered a ham sandwich with it, and I even eschew it while cooking for my much-preferred olive oil. Little did I know that it could actually be something worthy enough to star on its own, or licked straight from a knife tip into a parade of four simultaneous salty and creamy experiences one after the other in a period of five seconds on the tongue.

There’s a reason French do butter better – the biggest being that their cream is  cultured prior to churning giving it a slightly tart underlying funk similar to that which makes crème fraiche tower over sour cream in the taste department. They also feed their cows very well, especially in the Normandy area where farm cow milk is known for its very high butterfat content.

And only a people known for their love of stinky, rich and decadent foods would elevate the status of a mere fat such as butter to a perfectly good food item in its most bare form.

I first ran into a description of French butter’s charm while reading a recipe in which Dorie Greenspan was describing a special sandwich she used to make for her husband every year. The sandwich consisted of a slab of cold French butter, seasonal black truffles and salt between two slices of soft white bread – the simplicity of which had my mouth smarting dangerously along with a hunger for this odd French butter. The sandwich was like a Hemingway novel – concise, easy, made up of three plain parts but together, a masterpiece.

Then I heard someone talk about how cold butter goes well with radishes.

The idea of pushing a smudge of cold and perfect butter on icy cool radishes like some Tolstoy heroine might do with good vodka late at night was highly appealing to me. It not only titillated my literary heart with its pure elegance and over the top regality but it gave me an excuse to ask the Cute Gardener to dig up the three bulbous French breakfast radishes currently growing in the garden as a precursor to a meal.

I stumbled upon some French butter at the Cheese Store of Silverlake and snapped it up for a whopping eight bucks. I trimmed the radishes and then sliced them into ¾ inch coins and then placed them in a bowl of ice water while the butter softened on the counter. When it was ready, I dried the radishes and dusted them with sea salt. Then we went about eating them with the butter and I learned that French butter is miles above the norm.

IMG_7454Because radishes with butter is most likely to be a once a year indulgence, we decided to have an equally indulgent dinner of accompanying cheeses and wine.

End of the Melon Granita

IMG_7384Right as Halloween rears its head each year, we see the dwindling of the summer bounty from the garden. Gone are the green beans and squash. Stocked away are multiple jars of tomato sauce. Whatever is left of berries sit frozen in jars in the freezer as tart purees. All that remains are the last few massive and oblong Crenshaw melons begging to be rescued from their final rot.

Crenshaw melons are the very sweet and juicy bastard children of casaba and Persians which have orange flesh and make their way into cubes at the end of most our dinners throughout summer. But by this time of year, we can’t eat them faster then they spoil so we are always looking for ways to rescue them from imminent death. The last mottled bunch became quite intimate with the chinois a few weeks ago as we first pureed all of the flesh and then squished it through the mesh to extract a gorgeous, rich and brightly colored pure juice. Alone the juice was sublime and spiked with gin or scotch as a cocktail as well. The juice even went perfectly with a homemade bowl of miso, spinach and fish ball stew that I made for dinner one night. Melon and anything Asian are a perfect pair.

But the true pleasant surprise came when we decided to make the juice into a granita for dessert.  I grew up loving the Italian coffee granitas at my local poetry and coffee shop in the desert during long summers when we were constantly craving cool refreshment. I decided to experiment a little with the clean melon juice so that it would keep its integrity, not get too diluted and be sweet enough for a cold nip after dinner. With a little lime zest to brighten it up, it was the perfect soothing way to end a hot and busy day. Because we resisted adding too much sugar and no water at all, we ended up with a texture that got creamier as it melted and avoided many of the ice crystals that normally pop up jarringly on desserts of this nature.

MELON GRANITA
Serves 6
(I am sure any melon would do the same thing if used from it’s strained pure juice form.)

3 cups straight, pure melon juice, pureed and strained from the fruit pulp
1/8 c. sugar
One lime

Place melon juice, one tablespoon of lime juice and sugar in a blender and whip. Pour all into an 11 X 7 glass baking dish. Put into freezer for two hours until a crust starts to form around the edges. Take out and crunch up peripheral crust with a fork and pull towards middle of dish. Then place back into the freezer for two hours and do the same crunching method. At this point you should have a nice slushy yet firm pile of melon shards and rocks. Place into bowls to serve and garnish with grated lime zest. They also go lovely with chocolate or hazelnut rolled up wafer cookies.

Sailor Worthy Salty Pasta

IMG_7361I swear the water beads were starting to boil to the beat of Art Blakey’s lively version of “Mayreh” on Pandora as I watched the tall stainless steel asparagus pot (which doubles as our pasta cooker) mid-way through preparing my tweaked and unruly version of spaghetti with anchovies for the Cute Gardener this week.

Yes, it was MY turn to cook again and I was on a special mission – to elevate one of my favorite chef’s recipes while also adding a few signature Unorthodox twists of my own. I have decided that on the rare occasions I am able to make a meal, I am damn well going to make it special.

It started with a can of leftover anchovies just begging to be utilized as a form of salt in a noodle dish that led me to Chris Cosentino’s Food and Wine version of spaghetti with anchovies. Of course Chris, whom I love for the way he utilizes every inch of an animal (most iconic of which is pork), usually uses a tuna heart for the salty fish, grated on at the end of his preparation of the dish. But F&W dumbed it down a bit for us humble home cooks. I was also a fan of the use of egg yolk in the mix.

IMG_7359I had stopped on my way home earlier at my favorite Armenian market for a bag of three dollar spinach the size of a pillow to add a side dish to the pasta meal. That’s when I met the salty old sailor in line before me at the deli counter who graciously shared a slice of his fresh cut mortadella as we waited for my French feta to be packaged up. This in turn inspired me to purchase a few slices of the Italian bologna myself to add to my dish.

And before I knew it I was standing in the kitchen listening to jazz again (like I am prone to do while cooking) at 6:30 p.m. watching water beads dance in the pot again as bucatini slid in amongst the watery mist begging to be inwardly filled with hot juicy joy and the itch to be plumped.

A bottle of Heitz Cellar’s Sauvignon Blanc whittled away the last remaining bits of its wine cellar warmness in the fridge as I chopped warm toasted walnuts to spruce up my spinach.

The end result was a pasta dish salty enough for generous old sailors, bastardized enough for palates that like to cross cultures, and worthy of the thick girthed bucatini that carried its skinny-legged sauce.

IMG_7357Bucatini with Anchovy Carbonara
Adapted from the Food and Wine recipe

8 ounces bucatini
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
One 2-ounce can flat anchovies, drained and chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon chopped oregano
1/8 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 large egg yolk
1 slice of mortadella, rolled up and thinly sliced to produce strands
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the bucatini until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.

In a large, deep skillet, heat the oil with the garlic and anchovies and cook over moderately high heat until the anchovies have dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add the mortadella, red pepper, zest, oregano and parsley, then add the pasta and toss to coat. Remove from the heat.

In a small bowl, whisk the yolk with the reserved cooking water and add to the pasta. Cook over low heat, tossing until the pasta is coated in a creamy sauce, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

IMG_7358Walnut Spinach Feta

4 cups fresh spinach
2 ounces French feta, crumbled
¼ c. chopped walnuts, toasted
2 tbls. olive oil
Lemon
Salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large skillet and toss the walnuts in it. Add the spinach and wilt to your liking. Right before serving toss with the feta crumbles. Season with salt and pepper and spritz some lemon juice over the whole bunch.

The Decadent Art of the Dunk

IMG_7309My first encounter with the decadent art of the dunk came while visiting my grandmother Milly in Iowa as a preteen. A summer spent lolling in the slow, lazy days of Midwestern molasses heat waves in a farm town was full of many hours around the kitchen table catching up on life with the woman in my family whose cloth I am wholeheartedly cut from. At ninety plus she is still square dancing with younger men with her savvy fuchsia bee stung lips and ebony teased beehive bangs but back then, she was my wildest and closest friend. Whether it was in the morning to plot our day’s antics at the local county fair where we’d ride the Ferris wheel, screaming together, a good four or five times after strolling the pigs and cows; or post-dinner while plotting to sneak me into the VFW with her so we could dance together to our favorite jukebox songs; or just to ponder the creations we would make together that afternoon downstairs in her ceramic studio – we always converged with a food item that was sweet and a liquid in which to dunk it. Milly baked and cooked and canned and frosted so many things that summer that I am sure I came back laden with extra meat on my American thighs. We had warm coffee cake crumbles in light café mochas, gooey chocolate chip cookies in freezing cold Blue Bunny whole milk, crisp and buttery shortbread wafers in fresh squeezed orange juice, spoonfuls of pecan and maple pie in tepid sweet tea. I definitely became a dunker and the habit has stuck with me long into my adulthood. Even though these days my tastes run more towards high caliber dark chocolates and nut butter flavors of cakes and cookies and my choice of wet stuff seems to revolve around liquor and tea – I am still a product of my grandmother’s habit.

And it is a true art. The trick lies in dipping something only a portion into the liquid so that when you take a bite just above the wetted line you get both a quick bit of crunch and then something bready and sweet that squishes joyously between the teeth and onto the tongue. It’s also a skill in itself to wet a piece of food only enough to make it pliant and soggy but not so much that you lose it entirely to the bottom of the glass.

My favorite combinations are:

Anise biscotti in orchid oolong tea,
Almond croissants in soy cappuccinos,
Hazelnut milanos in hot green matcha,
Dark chocolate and almond biscotti in premium Champagne,
Peanut butter cookies in chicory tea or bourbon,
Tall skinny Italian breadsticks in dark, red wine…

…and the Cute Gardener’s dark chocolate sable cookies in Kahlua liqueur or Earl Grey tea; the recipe of which I will share below. This recipe comes with a warning though. Every time I eat these past eight p.m. I have trouble sleeping because they are dosed with caffeine. And, every time I eat these I can’t stop at one; even when I get a tummy ache and tell myself that I won’t ever do it again. They are that dangerous.

CHOCOLATE SABLE COOKIES

28 cookies

½ c. butter
¼ c. brown sugar
½ tbls. vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
1-1/2 c. flour
¼ c. + 1 tbls. cocoa powder
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. baking soda
1 c. chocolate (70% cocoa, chopped)
Zest from 1/6 lemon
½ egg white

In mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt.

In a large bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking soda.  Mix into butter mixture until well combined.  Mix in chocolate and lemon zest.  Add the egg white and mix until blended.

Roll the dough into two 1-1/4 inch diameter round logs.  Wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill several hours or overnight.  Cut the logs into rounds about 3/8 inch thick.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the sables on parchment lined baking sheet.

Bake for about 10 minutes until slightly puffed in the center.  Place the baking sheet on a rack and let cool for 5 minutes before removing from paper.

 

Thelonious Monk and Hens That Overdose on Olives

IMG_7323There’s something really special about cooking for my man. And no, I don’t mean the “barefoot in the kitchen” version of sublimated, antiquated femininity. I mean the, “gee, he cooks exquisite dinners from his exquisite garden on his exquisite collection of cast iron pans ninety percent of the time for me so when I get a chance (which isn’t often) to return the favor, I pull out all the stops with something extra special in his honor” version. And it’s usually French.

Last night I got the urge to roast some Cornish game hens for his supper. You see, the Cute Gardener has a thing for birds and will ravish them from wing to bone with nary a scrap of waste so I figured I would give him a whole one on a plate.

Along with some inspiration from my favorite cook of all things French — Dorie Greenspan — I decided to dress the birds with homemade olive tapenade and serve with a fresh salad and some buttered radishes. The beauty of this meal was that it was done in 30 minutes – almost unbelievable for a bird, yet producing perfect, tender, juicy and flavorful meat.

The entire dish manifested without a wrinkle and I am convinced a big part of it included: my accompanying Thelonious Monk cooking soundtrack; the decision to make a pilaf out of basmati steamed in bay leaf and olive oil simmered minced onion; the fresh arugula from the window planter that went into the spinach, walnut and pomegranate vinaigrette salad; and the way I put my heart and soul into the rare occasion ultimately arriving with something sublimely beautiful and beyond the ordinary.

IMG_7321Dorrie Greenspan’s Olive-Olive Cornish Hens

2 Cornish hens at room temperature
2 teaspoons black olive tapenade (*recipe included at end of blog)
Olive oil
Fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Oil a shallow roasting pan.

Working with one hen at a time, using a chef’s knife, cut down along both sides of the backbone to remove it. (The CG used the bones to make stock on the stove after dinner.) Turn the bird breast side up and press on the breastbone to crack it so the birds lie more flat. Gently loosen the skin from the flesh just enough to push the olive tapenade up between the skin and the flesh of the breast and the chubby thigh. Transfer the hens to the roasting pan, skin side up and give the skin a rubdown with some olive oil. Sprinkle over with some lemon juice, season with salt and pepper and put into the oven.

Roast the hens undisturbed for 25-30 minutes (mine took exactly 26) until the skin is deeply golden and crisp and the juices run clear when you prick the thighs.

*Black Olive Tapenade

½ cup pitted, oil cured black olives, chopped (I couldn’t find oil cured so used the regular can of olives in water and it worked fine)
1 anchovy, drained
Grated zest and juice of ¼ lemon
Pinch of rosemary
Pinch of thyme
Pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Put all of the ingredients in a food processor and process until pureed to your taste consistency wise. (I kept mine a little chunky.)