Langer’s Luscious #19

IMG_0993 With stark Southern California sunshine illuminating the historic area on South Alvarado Street across from MacArthur Park with white icicles of light on a post-holiday wintry morning we were on a quest to try legacy pastrami on rye. At eleven a.m. on a Saturday the streets were alive with Latino men and women opening their knock off shops, audio warehouses, trinket emporiums, curbside flea markets and hot food roadside tamale stands. After parking in the lot devoted to the restaurant, we walked the block to Langer’s Deli which sat on the corner no more weary for wear beckoning the throngs of visitors who would come for no nonsense meat and sandwiches churned out like they have been for the last 67 years. Thanks to the conveniently adjacent Metro station, today eaters from all over L.A. can frequent this almost forgotten neighborhood for a bite.

If ever there were a place to belly up to the bar, it was here, where old-fashioned and generously padded, tufted brown faux-leather seats swiveled with a direct view into the glass enclosed counters revealing cooks in white smocks and paper hats carving up smoking hot roasts of pastrami and corned beef, smoke curling up and away into the ethers where cans of tuna, sardines and matzo flour sat aligned on wooden shelves. There are no glass displays of overstuffed baked goods or large rows of bread loaves or cutesy, framed sayings on the walls. It’s a simple joint where people come for that plate of bread and meat accentuated with none other than a simple pickle slice, enough to fuel them up on their way from one place to another. An institution serving lunch to the common man one rapid forkful at a time.

We ordered the famous #19 and a corned beef, both served on the softest beds of rye with a surprisingly thick and sturdy crust that I’ve tried. The #19 was stuffed with buttery, tender slices of pastrami that melted into the warmly sweet Russian dressing and perfectly light-on-mayo cole slaw in a flavorful combination that was all married by the slightly sour tang of a slim piece of Swiss cheese. Although Brent’s Deli in Northridge still boasts my favorite pastrami meat, Langer’s definitely serves my favorite overall pastrami sandwich.

IMG_0992It was also nice to eat in a place where you know you could have been sitting any number of decades ago while encountering the same young Jewish waitress, hair back in a ponytail who watches your first bite to make sure it’s followed by a smile, the same old grey haired server who although getting long in the tooth, still enjoys his smoke breaks outside where he teases all the young senoritas who pass by with tall combs in their hair and the wise-cracking cashier decked out in gaudy jewelry and harsh half moons of cheek rouge who hands you your change in coins with a “Have a great day now, you hear.”

Old school food institutions that actually serve great tasting food are getting harder and harder to come by and as we finished our visit at Langer’s I found myself stepping back out onto the streets, seeing the fresh line that had formed of waiting diners of all different stripes and colors, and hoping that it would be one of those places that lasts. I can see myself visiting again in old age only with a newspaper and an egg cream this time, slowly sitting through lunch in a booth watching the next generations grow delighted by that luscious #19.

Momofukud Up

Momofuku Milk Bar 131210-01I spent four days on a Chinese macrobiotic cleanse a few weeks back while the Cute Gardener went to New York City for a business trip. When I told him I was all clean from the Thanksgiving food onslaught, he told me I better be ready to get dirtied up again because he was bringing home cookies from the Momofuku Milk Bar. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I just spent all this time clearing out my organs, skin and pores so I will go light on the cookies when he brings them home,” I immediately starting feeling the joy a cocaine addict gets knowing he’s going to score later in the evening while imagining just how many cookies I could possibly stuff into my newly minted and hollowed out gut.

Momofuku Milk Bar 131210-02Because you see, these weren’t ordinary cookies but indeed more like crack. In fact, the Momofuku Milk Bar actually makes a dessert called Crack Pie, served in a small cardboard sheath akin to an alcoholic’s brown paper liquor store bag made of nothing but brown sugar, copious amounts of butter and cream.

I stumbled upon the Milk Bar and its noted pastry chef Christina Tosi while watching an addictive television series called Mind of a Chef about the creative genius of Chef David Chang. Chang is one of my favorite chefs because he takes every day ordinary things and makes them extraordinary. It’s not that watching him make gnocchi out of cheap, grocery store ramen or doing amazing things with dried milk powder makes me drool; it’s the crafty thought process behind taking things that he was forced to eat growing up and then turning them into wizardry combined with new ingredients from his grown up palate that stokes my admiration. Non-pretentious and joyous creation is what made him famous more so than being just another guy cooking up delicious dishes. His zest for the craft shows and takes me back to the days when I sat in my own bedroom with a Ready Bake Oven, powder chocolate bags, an adjacent science laboratory kit and lots of bottles of lotions, oils and half used lipsticks. I loved pouring them all together and lighting them on fire in ways only a former latchkey kid can truly grasp the bliss within. Only Chang’s grown up combinations have landed him with over half a dozen restaurants where the fun continues.

He chose a perfect person to hold court at Milk Bar in Tosi because she does equally zany, fun in the preschool playground things such as making ice cream flavors inspired by the taste of leftover cereal milk and banana cream pie from the gross, black rotten bananas that her experimentation has taught her produces the absolutely best flavor.

This is why I wanted to taste her cookies so bad, especially the odd pure corn version that was touted as a densely, sugared, sweet creamed corn bread. That and the blueberries and cream beast that was so moist it had the heft of a baseball in my hand. And the double chocolate sin fest that held the perfect ratio of crispy outer crunch to inner, soft and mushy core. The crack pie never made it back to California, which is probably best because by the time I downed the three baked-to-perfection cookies (still amazing after two days in a plastic bag and a flight across the states) not an ounce of my internal cleanse perfection remained – only a severely worthwhile sweets high and a desire to visit New York City soon if only to lap up the Milk Bar’s mile high cakes next.

Singing Chicken Riesling

IMG_7607I re-stumbled upon the writer Joyce Maynard recently when she popped up in the middle of the movie Salinger. Because I recalled reading a few things of hers while growing up which I liked, I was inspired to look her up to refresh my memory of her voice. I found a hilariously pert essay about her attempts at cooking Julia Child’s “Chicken Melon” – an affair that required her blowing of the skin off a chicken through its behind that left me in stitches.

It reminded me why I like making complicated recipes, because I never know what kind of adventure will ensue in the process. I’ll never forget making gnudi from scratch with my good friend Charlotte one afternoon as her daughter was potty training and continued to present us with “packages” she was proud of in her plastic baby toilet. Her tiny little poos looking just like the ricotta pasta we were painstakingly trying to extrude from mushy lumps of dough and a pastry bag. I know it’s taboo to talk about bodily functions alongside making dinner but that occasion made it clear to me that even if the meal doesn’t pull itself off for serving, the comedy alone can make it all worthwhile.

Of course now that I actually live with someone I have to be a little more considerate of my risks in the kitchen. While making dinner for me, I am also making dinner for two, so I can’t just go off on a whim without some kind of notion that the end result is going to be satisfactory to all.

I’ve talked a bit about the fact that I am now banned from certain recipe resources online due to an overactive zeal towards making any old recipe that looked good to me, as was my habit of the past. This rule keeps me from making things that are off proportionately or come from places I shouldn’t fully trust. There are a lot of people out there making things they might like but that I do not. Although I enjoy reading many eclectic food blogs such as David Lebovitz, Foodie Underground, Christy Majors, Food and Think from the Smithsonian, Tastespotting (for the visual food porn alone), Nouveau Raw, Linnet Moss, and Kansas City Gravy Company, I am more prone to frequent them for the personalities of the writers and stories of the food rather than to find something to put in the oven. I have also become such a discerning foodie over the past year that when I do cook I want to make sure that it will at least taste good so the tried and true of Cook’s Illustrated, Bon Appetit, Gourmet’s archives, Dorrie Greenspan’s and Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks are to what I turn.

Food and Wine online continues to be a trusted source, which is where I recently ran across a Coq Au Riesling made with the sweeter wine and crème fraiche.  Chicken oftentimes plays center stage in our household and I’d wanted to develop a signature poultry dish that I could call my own and make time and again as a classic. The Cute Gardener has a miraculous fried chicken, a homey shredded Asian-style on rice and a tangy Mediterranean tomato and olives version so I was looking for a French or Italian rendition. In true Unorthodox Foodie fashion, this one brought out all of my usual culinary attributes like taking more than an hour and more than a handful of pots, pans, plates, utensils and equipment to prepare and cook. Much to the Cute Gardener’s simultaneous curiosity, fear, dread and delight; that’s typically the sign that I am in the kitchen.

from Food and Wine

4 pounds chicken legs, split
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
2 medium shallots, chopped
1 1/2 cups dry Riesling
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
4 thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound mixed mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup crème fraîche
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Finely chopped tarragon, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 300°. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. In a large, enameled cast-iron casserole, heat 2 tablespoons of the canola oil. Add half of the chicken and cook over moderately high heat, turning, until browned, 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Cook the remaining chicken, then pour off the fat and wipe out the casserole.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of canola oil in the casserole. Add the onion, carrot, celery and shallots and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 8 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for 1 minute, scraping up the browned bits from the pot. Add the chicken stock and thyme and bring to a boil.

Nestle the chicken in the casserole; cover and braise in the oven for 1 hour, until tender.

Meanwhile, in a very large skillet, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the mushrooms and cook over high heat, without stirring, until well browned, 5 minutes. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until tender, 3 to 5 minutes; transfer to a plate.

Transfer the chicken to a plate. Strain the braising liquid through a fine sieve into a heatproof bowl, pressing on the solids; skim off the fat. Return the braising liquid to the casserole and boil until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in the crème fraîche and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms and chicken to the sauce and simmer for 3 minutes. Garnish with tarragon and serve.

IMG_7609I made Dorie Greenspan’s French gougeres and a pile of sautéed mustard greens to go alongside the meat. The greens added a perfect juxtaposing tart bitterness to the addictive Riesling sauce and the earthy mushrooms.

At the end the CG asked if I thought the Riesling really made it better than one of his quick pressure cooker one pots of chicken steeped in pure broth. Although his versions are certainly every bit as soft, savory and delicious as mine was, I still answered that it was worth doing. Because every once in a while when trying various recipes, you actually stumble upon one that makes you proud, makes you not think twice about the hours it took to cook, and makes you want to make it for many different people in your lifetime because you’ve found another signature dish in the realm of comfort food. This was one of mine.

Corny Girl Cornbread

IMG_7648Growing up with a mother who was born and raised in the Midwest, I learned very early that corn was our family’s number one food group. At our dinner table corn was the vegetable of choice, normally heated up from a can and poured on top of a big pile of freshly whipped mashed potatoes with salt and pepper (potatoes being our family’s second major food group.) Summer time thrived with grilled corn on the cob greased in our family’s signature way of putting your hand through a plastic sandwich baggie like a glove, grabbing a wad of butter in its slippery folds and then rolling the hot cob through the palm until it was fully coated. Christmas Day was typically spent waiting for dinner at which I would dig a large spoon into my mother’s famous scalloped corn made with the creamed version and topped with Saltine crackers that had been obliterated into crumbs by the barrel of a fat, wooden rolling pin. I would live on this savory casserole for days after because left over and topped with lots of cracked pepper, it was even better.  Because I overdosed on corn throughout my childhood, it was typically the last thing on my plate once I left home and embarked out on my own.

In my twenties, I did fall head over heels for cornbread though. It was something I could eat that reminded me of home yet was also new to my palate. It became the dish I could order instead of a blasé entrée when forced to endure long business lunch hours at places I didn’t normally frequent like Marie Callender’s where the corn bread came top hat high, smoking hot and dolloped with sweet cream whipped butter or those odd soup and salad restaurants where I could get a square of it and pour the honey on heavily. As I got older, I discovered the joys of studding my own home-cooked batches with real fresh kernels, curry powder or diced jalapenos.


Recently I embarked on a new cornbread undertaking with a heavy bottomed cast iron skillet version that incorporated creamy chunks of avocado into its hearty, crusty and granular belly. From Food52, this version went perfectly sliced like a pie, hand held and dipped into a bowl of homemade corned beef vegetable soup – both the bread and the soup containing a tiny little bite of heat from the beef and some cayenne pepper. I may be a corny girl but when it comes to my mouth, it’s all about the spice. And I am very proud that my end result looked exactly like the photo on the page I took the recipe from — a true foodie score!

Avocado Cornbread
Serves one 9-inch round cornbread

1 cup stone ground cornmeal
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons cumin
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 ear corn cut from the cob (about 1 1/2 cup)
1 large ripe avocado in 1/2″ cubes (about 1 1/2 cup)
Juice from 1/2 lime (about 2 teaspoons)

Heat the oven to 400. Put 2 tablespoons butter and 1 teaspoon cumin in a 9-inch iron skillet or a cake pan and stick it in the oven.

Whisk the remaining dry ingredients together. Melt the remaining butter and honey together (honey measuring tip – give your measuring spoon a spritz of no-stick before pouring in the honey – it will slide right out). Mix the corn and avocado – squeeze the lime over and toss gently to coat. In a large bowl – whisk together the egg and buttermilk. Yes, you have now dirtied up 4 bowls. But you can wash them while the cornbread bakes.

Slowly whisk the melted butter and honey into the buttermilk and egg. Next stir in the dry ingredients and then gently fold in the avocado and corn. Get the hot pan out of the oven and pour in the batter.

Put the cornbread back in the oven and reduce the heat to 375. Bake 30-40 minutes until it is golden brown and a tester comes out clean (unless you hit avocado!)

Allow to cool some before you serve.