Sugar Rush for Adults

IMG_1399They had me at the chocolate typewriter …

I admit that I am a true blue snob when it comes to my sweet tooth. For example, I have been telling the Cute Gardener for the past two years that I love candy but he’s yet to see me eat anything other than dark chocolate Valrhona baking squares from the upscale foodie warehouse sales we frequent twice a year, which basically provide the mainstays for dessert in our household.  I have no desire to purchase waxy, tasteless candy bars or jelly beans at the grocery store but I am always on the look out for good quality marzipan, caramels, honeycomb and watermelon or grapefruit slice sweet and sour gummies. In Los Angeles, I have only found good varieties of this on a whim at Bottega Louie. I simply can’t find good candy so I never buy it even though I am a self-admitted sugar addict. Maybe this rarity of quality is a good thing.

IMG_1389All of that went out the window when I was invited to a party at Sugarfina in Beverly Hills, which touts itself as a candy store for adults. At the front door we were greeted by a smiling woman holding a tray of black cherry centered balls and fruit loop reminiscent crunchies and told that the back room had Champagne and whiskey waiting for us. I think I, along with all the other ladies in the room, released a communal swoon.

IMG_1391But seriously, as far as candy stores go, this one has the chops to back up its overwhelmingly Tiffany-blue, girlie bling on-site seduction. The store’s periphery is lined with shelves carrying multiple varieties of all things sugar that you can buy on average for $7 or $14 bucks a pop in a see-through, toy-like box. A high price to pay for dollops of sweet stuff? Not when it’s good and it was. There were so many things to choose from but the immediate objects of my affection were tiny lemon-infused, white chocolate covered marzipan ovals called Lemon Cakes; crystal sugar-coated brown gum drops that tasted exactly like apple pie and gummies that swirled flavors of Bourbon and Coke onto the tongue. I was also itching to try the various forms of licorice from fruity to sweet to salty as well as the many forms of small chewy balls covered in flavored chocolate like green tea and cinnamon.

IMG_1390The owner Rosie O’Neill explained that the inspiration for the store came on her third date with her co-owner and husband while they were watching Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. They wanted to create a candy store for adults.

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On that note the CG and I went home, broke out the honey whiskey, Bourbon and LEGOs and enjoyed an R-rated evening with Sugarfina’s candy while creating our own individual versions of Pasadena’s Gamble House.  

Sockeye Sings in Earthly Lentils

IMG_8081When I took Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table down from its place on our four-cookbook living room shelf (the other three volumes being Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook, Paul Bocuse’s Bocuse in Your Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe) last week, I was guiltily reminded of my grand intentions for cooking its entire contents for the Cute Gardener and then the slow as molasses journey I have been on to do so. A note card placed inside used as my bookmark, had a lonely four notations of recipes made over the last two years: mustard batons, tomatoes Provencal, olive-olive Cornish game hens and gougeres. I didn’t add the salad nicoise I attempted once minus the actual nicoise olives—for obvious reasons.

How pathetic, I thought! * And then went about remedying the situation immediately.

I chose a dish of Roasted Salmon with Lentils because salmon is one of the top five things I can cook as well as one of the CG’s favorite meals. His own father has told me twice on Christmas that I cook the fickle fish perfectly and I take pride in delivering new ways to adore yet not overly adorn its simple yet complex filets. Of course these days, the CG and I go the full mile in sustainable fish integrity and will only eat the approved varieties so it took a few phone calls to discover that I would have to drive the fifteen miles to another city to retrieve a slab of wild sockeye to fit the bill. But the fish karma worked in my favor regardless as it ended up being severely on sale.

The end result was deliciously earthy, grounding the delicate fish. It reminded me how much I love my lentils, especially the French version simmered slowly with classic carrot, onion, celery and bay leaf.

IMG_8080Because I wanted the dish to be the star and didn’t want to overburden the already hearty lentils with traditional cheese desserts or anything heavy, I settled on a light and tangy avocado tartare that had synchronistically arrived in my Food and Wine e-letter a few days earlier to start the meal. Served slightly below room temperature on small slices of baguette it was a perfect palate primer for the evening.

Now I have five notations on my bookmark and a renewed motivation to step up my cuisine Francaise.

IMG_8084*In my defense, it’s hard to summon the constant desire to cook when I live with a man who can throw pasta in a bowl with some leftovers and make it taste like nirvana; or, whose vegetables from the garden, even when mutant and odd like his recent batch of caulifower, taste better than most things I eat in restaurants. 

Heart Day Hangover

IMG_8053When two foodies fall in love special occasions take on a reverse sense of meaning in the dining department. As a couple, the Cute Gardener and I spend most of our “entertainment” budget on dinners out; rather than saving for electronic gadgets or high tech toys, we’d rather try a new restaurant on a weekly basis. We get excited over cheese shops more often than blockbuster films in the movie theaters, preferring to watch the flick a few months later with our own lavish charcuterie spread on the living room coffee table. So when Valentine’s Day rolls around every year, we look at each other glad that we won’t be braving the mad dash towards limited restaurant reservations and ask each other what we are going to make to eat at home—our version of honoring the day with something completely out of the ordinary for us. We also feel it’s silly to act as if one day is special in a year where we love each other every day, but we give in regardless and start putting together a menu.

IMG_8051The Cute Gardener’s funkadelic chicken liver mousse. No more ordering this in restaurants as it will surely never again live up. (I am also banned from ever ordering butterscotch pot de creme unless it is at Gjelina’s, BBQ unless I am in Kansas City, or macarons unless I am in France.)

This year we decided to create a French bistro in our living room filled with dishes that we have collected as particular favorites throughout the years. The menu included my prized mustard batons from Dorrie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, chicken liver mousse (something we both love but find to be overly fat or cream filled and not funky, bone marrow-y enough in restaurants), a version of French onion soup by Comme Ca Restaurant chef David Myers (whose food we tend to enjoy) and the sinful pot de crème from Gjelina which remains my number one favorite dessert of all time (the recipe of which was graciously printed in the Los Angeles Times at one point by chef Travis Lett.) – all of which would then be accompanied by some prosciutto, country pork pate and radishes with French butter.

IMG_8054Our mutual love for food is not the only reason we fell into perfect synch together. Like I admitted on a Valentine’s video card made last minute in a store parking lot on Friday while I was procuring a loaf of French bread for our dinner, I truly found my perfectly interlocking puzzle piece when I met the CG. Now for normal people, that may not sound all that hard to do – find someone who complements all the things you are and are not. But for an oddball female artist who gets more excited over cardboard boxes in the dumpster than Nordstrom’s and a gardening curmudgeon with meticulous ways that’s downright miraculous.

IMG_8056So for our decidedly un-Valentine’s Day we started cooking on Thursday night after a visit with my daughter and her new boyfriend in which their googly-eyed, twenty-year-old, candy box in the shape of a red heart style love permeated the house with the scent of solitary roses. We got rid of that aroma quickly with the musk of Cognac spiked chicken livers and a mass pot of onions weeping into oblivion for the soup. With our two main dishes set, all we had to do on Friday night was pop the Champagne, toss up a salad of hard boiled egg, arugula and peas from the garden and dive into the second season of House of Cards on the couch—spending that annual night where others swoon over each other in love with the Underwoods, the most evil, conniving and manipulative couple on television yet.

IMG_8060A few episodes in, we took a break to make the pot de crème, a multiple step, complex dessert that took over an hour and had us enjoying it halfway comatose before retiring to bed.

IMG_8059But that wasn’t all. On Saturday, we decided to continue the at-home food fest by enjoying a post-six-mile-couple’s-hike sausage feast from our favorite Continental counter with subtle bockwurst and cheese bursting kasekrainers. Today, we enjoyed a Southern style shrimp and grits breakfast at The Hart and the The Hunter after a visit to LACMA where James Turrell lit up my heart with his light. And tonight we are slicing up our version of the heart shaped cake – a slice of lamb’s heart terrine from Lindy and Grundy butchers topped off by a cherry hamantaschen from the delightful Diamond Bakery on Fairfax.

IMG_8067For two people who profess not to need a special day to celebrate our love, we are still knee deep in gorgeous and sexy food decadence three days later.

Happy heart weekend to all!

American Girl Chinese Breakfast

IMG_7990I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of breakfast and how different Americans treat the ritual meal than the rest of the world. I loved reading Jumpa Lahiri’s book the Interpreter of Maladies where she would describe her East Indian characters eating puffed rice and spices for breakfast. I loved visiting England and eating the traditional English breakfast of mushrooms, beans, tomatoes, sausage and toast. The fatty bacon grease and oozy omelets, overly dough heavy world of pancakes, processed sweet cereals, sugar crusted donuts and chocolate stuffed croissants of America never jibed with my stomach’s deep, guttural desire to be properly nourished in the morning. When I stumbled upon a Gourmet magazine essay from the early 1940s written by a reporter who was observing daily life in a lumberjack camp, it suddenly made sense to me. American breakfasts had stemmed from days when people had to get up early on farms and in labor fields and eat enough carbs to fuel them up and get them going for the day. But that is no longer so relevant to the majority of Americans who get up in the morning to drive to an office and sit on their bums all day.

In China, Japan and many Asian countries, a version of rice pudding called jook or congee is typically served for breakfast. The dish basically consists of rice and lots of water cooked for hours into a thin porridge consistency. Herbs, roots and other nourishing things like ginger, dates, vegetables, and meats are added at the beginning and end of cooking to accentuate the dish, turn it savory or sweet and add medicinal or tonic properties to the stew. In China, a typical grocery store pharmacy will sell bags of “weekly soup” that consist of locally grown, seasonal herbs, barks, seeds and the like for people to add to that week’s batch of rice pudding that is made on Sunday night and eaten for breakfast throughout the entire week. A root like astragalus is typically thrown into the water all year to boost the immune system.

Inspired by this idea but wanting to make it my own, I created a special rice pudding. Instead of white rice though, I use organic brown rice, which I prefer for its heartier textural bite and fortifying nutty taste. It is also one of the main ingredients in kicharee, which is purported to be a food of the gods for its miraculous healing components. Brown rice is known to strengthen the spleen, nourish the stomach, quench thirst, relieve irritability, and astringe the intestines. To make it a little special for breakfast, and because I do love my healthy sweets, I cook it with red Chinese dates and add coconut milk to the finished bowl. A meal just wouldn’t be a meal in my home without a little mixed up, patchwork and planetary ingredients twist!

IMG_7986Sweet Brown Rice Breakfast Pudding

1 cup organic brown rice
2 cups water
7 pieces astragalus bark
1 red Chinese date dried with pure sugar cane
¼ cup coconut milk
¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Bring the water, astragalus bark and red Chinese date to a boil in a pot and then add the brown rice. Cover and simmer on very low for 45 minutes then take off cover and fluff with fork. Pick out the astragalus bits and discard. The rice will now be about 4 cups worth. Take a cup of rice out and put in a bowl. Save the rest of the rice in the fridge for the rest of the week to reheat per meal. Add the coconut milk to the bowl of rice and stir. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top.

At some point don’t forget to eat the chewy, sweet red Chinese date as well for an extra little treat!

Planetary Coconut Cole Slaw

IMG_7928In my herbal studies, I am learning to combine the ancient teachings of three schools of herb lore: Chinese, East Indian Ayurvedic and Western (United States) into a massive body of knowledge that will inform a material medica for me to choose from when assessing, diagnosing and prescribing remedies for individuals to maintain health and counteract illness and disease. This large, new culmination becomes a planetary medicine cabinet.

I have started to apply this same principle to healing, fortifying medicinal foods as well.

Although people who read this blog may think of me as a pork, egg and cream whoring foodie, the bottom line to my diet is that I take care during the week to fill myself up with valuable nutrients and life-affirming foods. The “unorthodox” part of my eating regimen is that I live by a pretty strict code of ingestion Monday through Friday so that I can spend a night or two every week enjoying sweets, fats and meats at leisure. This maintenance not only brings both pleasure and balance to my palate; it creates moderation of the sinful stuff and an overabundance of the vitamin stuff in ways that all equal out to a healthy body, sound mind and strong heart. Whether I am in the “good” parts of the week, or the “bad’ parts of the week, I try to stay true (and for the most part do) to my personal rule that I will not eat anything from a box, a bag, or a jar that contains preservatives and chemicals or is already pre-cooked. There is no microwave in my home.

So when searching for breakfast and lunch dishes, I love to put on my herbalist’s hat and create combinations of foods that come from a planetary perspective of all the best nutritive ingredients in whatever is fresh at the moment.

Recently, I perfected a cole slaw that brings in the coconut creaminess of Thailand, the cilantro brightness of Mexico, the breath of fresh coriander air that is India alongside the crunchy, cabbage goodness that birthed this traditional American dish. It turned out sweet, silky and highly addictive with every bite delivering an earthy undertone from a decidedly Chinese choice in sesame oil and the addition of toasted pecans to the sauce.

Planetary Coconut Cole Slaw

1/8 cup sesame oil
½ cup toasted pecans
½ cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon coriander pods
1/2 to 1 oz. dried coconut strips

1- ½ cup chopped cabbage
1- ½ cup shredded carrot
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

In a blender, blend the oil, pecans, coconut milk, honey and lemon juice to make the dressing. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and then toss with the blended dressing. Serve immediately. Makes 2-4 servings.