Girasol Reignites My Foraging Fire

IMG_1480Marinated and grilled pork satay with caramelized onion puree,
California olive oil, grilled lemon and fennel pollen

The Cute Gardener and I enjoy seeking out and trying the food of Top Chef contestants whenever we get a chance. Not only are we avid fans of the show, we tend to come away each season with favorites like Paul Qui (whose food we have yet to taste) and Stefan Richter (whose food we tasted and liked but whose restaurant service was highly dissatisfactory). I liked CJ Jacobsen when he appeared on the show but not as much as others so when I saw us slated to dine at his Studio City restaurant Girasol recently, I was only mildly anticipating the meal. After all, the menu seemed rich with dishes I’ve seen an overabundance of lately on the California cuisine landscape. Was I wrong.

IMG_1483Rabbit rillettes with moist roasted carrot, root veggies, green almonds and sweet buckwheat tuile

What I learned very swiftly after receiving our first dish was that CJ’s artistry comes not so much in orchestrating the wildly creative entree or the ground-breaking and new appetizer, but in treating common dishes with such whimsy and foraging fervor that you are introduced to delightful flavor combinations and gleeful mouthfuls that you were not expecting in the least. Each plate was articulated in what is clearly the chef’s own voice—an earthy and casual simplicity built through completely complex and extraordinary ingredients found in the Angeles National Forest and our own backyards.

IMG_1481Dried fava bean puree with house chorizo, cherry tomato, parsley and grilled flatbread

Everyone who knows me knows how much I am fond of foragers. I constantly make the CG pull over whenever we encounter wild food along the road. It was very cool to see the fruits of Jacobsen’s own treks into the woods on our table such as a slight dusting of citrus yellow fennel pollen on succulent, light pork or the slivered, tart green almonds that spiked and livened our chunks of tender rabbit. A buckwheat tuile immediately had me wanting to think of other ways to use the slightly sweet ingredient in other applications back home like crepes, crusts and spreads. It didn’t surprise me to learn that CJ spent time working for one of my favorites—acclaimed Chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma Restaurant—a hero in the soulful, foraging department.

IMG_1482 Whole fried snapper, crispy greens, fermented Fresno chili,
sauce of kumquat, sorrel and citrus

A highlight of the evening was the whole fried snapper, which arrived with a curved tail as if plucked mid-swish from the lake. Atop a pile of bitter fried greens and alongside a mild sweet sauce, it was a refreshing departure from my fried fish oeuvre of late at Asian restaurants that seem to favor too hot sauces and heavy oils, all of which typically compete with the flakiness of the fish. I would order this one again.

IMG_8222Cute Gardener-grown arugula flowers

After dining at Girasol I spent a Saturday afternoon chomping on arugula flowers in our garden, suddenly seized with the propensity to look at every specimen as a potential ingredient. Much like the leaves, the flowers were peppery but had sweetness mingled with bitterness and smelled slightly like peanut butter.

IMG_8225 My kale, swiss chard, arugula flower, arugula, and mushroom salad with
walnut oil and foraged grapefruit vinaigrette.

That joyous discovery landed in our salad bowls later at dinnertime. CJ’s passion for finding in the field has definitely infected our household in the most positive of ways. It also made me realize that you can find new things constantly, even if you think you are looking in all of the same old places.

 

Is Your Tea Ritual Killing You or Healing You?

IMG_8194After quitting caffeine for New Year’s two years ago and starting a course of herbal studies, I have become highly appreciative of tea. I love the ritual of choosing the proper tea for my moment whether it is to wake and energize my senses for the day or lull me calmly to sleep at night. I enjoy the various forms of making tea whether boiling water to the proper temperature to pour over a bag in my brown ceramic mug, creating a homemade medicinal decoction from garden grown lemongrass, astragalus or dandelion root; sipping green fresh-stirred matcha slowly from little Japanese cups alongside my Little Tokyo teapot; or going all out for a batch of customized masala chai in my tomato red Le Creuset French oven pot.

I also love the way herbs and spices affect and nurture the body naturally. I know that chicory, rosemary and ginger are the best bets for breakfast to electrify the brain for a hard day of work. I know that thyme is soothing yet stimulating midday for keeping the productivity and the bowels flowing. I know that rice genmaicha is perfectly fortifying before a long hike. And I know that nothing creates comfort and peace and that warm and fuzzy “blankets on a cold day” feeling like a warm nightcap of chamomile.

With all the beautiful health benefits and mental well being that tea brings, it’s a shame to see it counteracted grossly when it comes to the mass marketing department. Earlier this year, Food Babe came out with a post on all of the tea companies in the markets that were selling teas stuffed with artificial and unnatural flavors as well as poisonous plastic and paper tea bags. Basically her findings say that only Numi, Rishi and Traditional Medicinals are pure. Another source at Clean Plates goes further to confirm that EDEN Organic, Organic Stash, Choice, Two Leaves, Organic Yogi Tea, and Tetley Black and Green Tea get a passing grade as well.

This was so disheartening to me. I know I am prone to living with Pollyanna glasses on in general but if a company is going to go so far as to state they are trying to make something that is healthy and good for you, why not do their homework and integrate some integrity into their choices in consideration of the overall product? I mean, don’t just throw good tea leaves into a bag that’s going to eventually kill me and call it holistic because the leaves came from the ground. This really bothers me and continues to feed my disillusion in the capitalist model of moneymaking in general.

What disappointed me most was the realization that I would have to give up all of my favorite teas. No more Celestial Seasons Sleepytime or Roasted Chicory. No more stepping into Teavana to buy a bag filled to the brim with vanilla cream Earl Grey. But then I got excited realizing that I could actually practice what I preach and support the businesses that are doing it right.

I went about on an escapade to find new favorites. So far Choice is doing a good job at keeping my tea palate titillated. Their flavors are strong especially the lovely and sprightly ginger, and the prices are reasonable. I can find them in places like Mother’s, Trader Joe’s and some common grocery stores.

IMG_8199The verdict on Good Earth is still out. While their Sweet and Spicy tea was my all time favorite tea ever with its blend of rooibos, cinnamon, chamomile, lemongrass, peppermint, papaya, jasmine tea, anise seed, ginger root, orange peel and orange oil; this article has me scratching my head in confusion as to whether it is bad or not. I guess I will have to finish my current box and then look elsewhere for a replacement.

Lastly, I am on the hunt for valid information on a tea that I find often in Chinese markets in pharmacies called Alvita. The boxes are a botanical illustrator’s dream and they come in hardcore medicinal flavors like burdock root and stinging nettle with descriptions and instructions for healing anything from stomach pains to liver pain and overconsumption. I love the concepts and the tea tastes really good but I can’t find critical information on whether they are pure or not. If anyone knows anything about these guys, I would love some more information.

Until then, here’s to righteous sipping!

Asian Spice Trail Food Porn

IMG_1421The Cute Gardener has a habit of following ex-Patina chefs around Los Angeles. I don’t blame him because anyone who can hold high court in Patina’s exquisite dining room is bound to evolve on their own once leaving those hallowed kitchens.

I have a habit of following the trail of exotic Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors around Los Angeles always looking for the next pickled pepper, puffed bread or sour cheese that will tickle my fancy.

Together these two habits brought us to Acabar where we heard Patina and Palate alum Chef Octavio Becerra was creating a taste bud’s tour along the ancient Asian spice trail. Housed in a Moroccan-style pimp’s palace of a building complete with lots of mirrors, mosaics and a lounge area reminiscent of an opium den, I was a sucker from the moment we stepped foot through the gaudy, over-sized golden door.

I haven’t done a flat out food porn blog entry in ages but this restaurant merits it completely. Original concoctions, bold and addictive flavors, and a respectful nod to the proper quantities of spice had me scrambling to remember ingredients and recipes in my head all evening so that I could attempt to imitate them later at home.

IMG_1424We were told to order the porn bread early as it would take 25 minutes to cook and we did. Who could resist with a name like that? I was envisioning cheesy and crusty sin. It did get delivered to us, slipped erotically from a hot metal tube onto our plate but resembled more of a mushy sweet potato cake studded with aged cheddar and bacon than bread. Still, the flavors were delicious and I could have eaten the whole log alone not to mention the almond honey butter that compelled me to stoop so low as to actually lick the knife.

IMG_1422The best dish of the evening was a long and horizontal plate filled with caramelized cauliflower, braised perfectly tender with simultaneously buttery and tangy sauces of currants, dill and za-atar. The accompanying pile of pickled peppers was the best I’ve had in a decade.

IMG_1425More like dense little meatballs than what I usually consider arancini, these mini rice balls were stuffed with lamb, crispy risotto, winter squash and went soothingly well with a mint and pickled walnut salad.

IMG_1427I normally order shrimp toast when I see it because I love the concept. I always imagine it will be plump bits of shrimp and the crispiness of toast but what I normally find is soggy breaded shrimp pastes or the like. This was exquisitely fried to a puff with a dandy little fried egg on top, encapsulating nice bits of rock shrimp, Thai basil and notes of fish sauce.

IMG_1432The krispy kelebek dessert, although verdict is out on how authentically made, was a flaky, heavenly pile of sweet layered dough accented with persimmon, cassia and rum preserve and a honey pistachio labneh. Just those three words: honey, pistachio and labneh spell Unorthodox Foodie in Armenian.

The roasted pear duo tartlette’s tart shell was too hard for the beautiful fruit inside of it but I let the CG polish that off while I dove into the cinnamon, tahini, date ice cream. Another three words that describe objects created for my specific tongue.

A cocktail list by historical eras offered up fun ways to order drinks. I, of course, chose an archaic sazerac of cognac, rye, Peychaud’s bitters and an absinthe rinse while the CG went for a classic Cuban of cognac, apricot liqueur and lemon, which I fancied immensely. For dessert we shared a nice light rum, of which choices were many alongside a rambling bourbon and other spirits menu.

Striking Recipe Kismet with Caldo Verde

IMG_8148Recipe kismet is an odd thing and only happens once in a while which makes it ever so much more beautiful. Recipe kismet occurs when you find a recipe that upon reading simply calls to your soul and sense of palate for a variety of emotional, aesthetic and culinary reasons. It then continues when you set out to make that recipe and discover all of your necessary ingredients at one store conveniently located on your daily route. It ensues when you make the recipe later at home and discover that it turns out exactly how you envisioned it would without a kitchen, equipment or taste hitch. And it finalizes when you write the recipe down in your trusted little book or box knowing that you will make it again and again.

IMG_8149I was granted recipe kismet from the foodie gods this week when I stumbled upon a Cook’s Illustrated version of caldo verde soup. I have always loved the idea of this traditional Portugese soup floating with my favorite Spanish chorizo sausage, hearty Yukon gold potato chunks and tufts of kale. But I’ve always thought it sounded a little too weak to make a dinner worthy bowl or a comfort meal go to. Cook’s writer Lan Lam thought the same thing and created a contemporary version with sweet collard greens rather than kale and a trick of pureeing part of the nearly ready soup and pouring it back into the pot for an extra dose of lush richness and depth.

IMG_8151

Served with a hunk of ciabatta, perfect for soaking up the just-spicy-enough soup while still retaining a chewy, textural crust, it was a lovely belly warming variation from our norm. I had the leftovers for breakfast the next day and it was even better after sitting all night. This is going to be my version of Jewish chicken soup for the soul for years to come.

COLLARD AND CHORIZO CALDO VERDE
from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
November 2013
Serves 6-8

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
12 ounces Spanish-style chorizo sausage, cut into ½ inch pieces
1 onion, chopped fine
4 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
2 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾ inch pieces
4 cups chicken broth
4 cups water
1 pound collard greens, stemmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

  1. Heat one tablespoon oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add chorizo and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 4-5 minutes. Transfer chorizo to bowl and set aside. Reduce heat to medium and add onion, garlic, 1-1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper flakes and season with pepper to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add potatoes, broth, and water, increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are just tender, 8-10 minutes.
  2. Transfer ¾ cup solids and ¾ cup broth to blender jar. Add collard greens to pot and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in chorizo and continue to simmer until greens are tender, 8-10 minutes longer.
  3. Add remaining 3 tablespoons oil to soup in blender and process until very smooth and homogenous, about 1 minute. Remove pot from heat and stir pureed soup mixture and vinegar into soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve. Can be refrigerated for up to two days.