Daunting Task of a Whole Roasted FIsh

IMG_8579I was very excited this past week when I found myself with the luxury of an hour at the Chinese market. It is one of those places that always has everything I could possibly want: a sea of manila mangos for thirty cents a piece; long, freshly dug burdock root to shred, dry and make tea out of for under a dollar; huge bags of unique, greens; small mung bean moon cakes and miles of bags of cheap aduki and black beans. Not to mention the pharmacy with the wooden cabinets stuffed with herbs including my favorite weekly brew addition—astragalus root.

But this time I was also on an important mission. I had taken on the daunting task of making a whole roasted fish for dinner for the Cute Gardener. I have cooked a lot of things but whole fish are note in my repertoire so I was intimidated. I knew that red snapper would be available at this particular store because it was a fish we’d eaten plenty of times out amongst the Asian culinary scene. But I still felt a little shy when stepping up to the fishmonger to choose from a long vat of iced creatures, as I truly knew not what I was doing.

I was lucky to get a nice guy because in the past at this store while buying other meats, the butchers had been less than patient with my white girl inability to understand certain standards of butchery. I’ve been sighed at when asking if the skin could be removed from a pork shoulder and hand waved with frenzy to signify a need to hurry while trying to buy a lesser portion of a pork loin to have ground. I guess that’s why I forgot to ask for the fish scales to be removed but I did manage to go home with the guts retrieved and the flesh cleaned.

I found one of Grace Parisi’s recipes from Food and Wine and was surprised at how easy it was to make. I served it with a cold soba noodle salad dressed simply with ginger and oil and tossed with blanched green beans, shredded carrots, and sesame seeds. It turned out so well that it passed the CG’s carcass test, in which by the time he’s finished with it, there is literally nothing left but a bare skeleton on the plate. I am now inspired to return to the Chinese store to walk down the ice vat counter and choose a different fish to roast once per month until I have tried them all.

Whole Asian-Style Roasted Red Snapper

One whole 3-pound red snapper, cleaned and scaled
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1 tablespoon canola oil, plus more for rubbing

1. Chop the cilantro, ginger, scallions, and garlic clove together with a large pinch of salt.
2. Transfer the paste to a small bowl and stir in the oil.
3. Make 5 parallel 3-inch-long slashes on each side of the snapper, slicing almost through to the bone.
4. Lightly season the fish with salt and fill the slashes with the paste.
5. Rub the fish all over with canola oil.
6. Preheat the oven to 425°.
7. Transfer the fish to a heavy rimmed baking sheet so it stands upright. To keep the fish stable, splay the belly flaps and set a crumpled foil ball under the tail.
8. Roast the fish for 30 minutes, until the flesh just flakes.
9. Transfer the fish to a platter. Using 2 forks, lift the fillets off the bones and serve.




Post Hike Pupusa Eureka

IMG_2189Twice a month, the Cute Gardener and I spend a weekend day on a morning hike. We’ve ignited our mutual love of nature this year and so far have trekked together all over the West from the Grand Canyon to Death Valley to the waterfalls of Yosemite. 2014 will go down in our relationship history as our National Park pass year. Our local at home weekend hikes are more geared towards endurance and strength maintenance work to keep us in shape and we enjoy finding new untapped areas in the hills surrounding Los Angeles—of which we have discovered are surprisingly aplenty.

Hiking also burns a LOT of calories; a surprising amount even. Being the foodies that we are, this of course has meant that on our hike days, we tend to seek out something laden with calories to fuel us back up for the afternoons. Post-hike food is different than our typical fare. The CG rarely eats lunch and mine are traditionally heavy with beans, green and grain. But after walking up the sides of steep mountains and skip tracing ourselves back down, it’s always high time for something that can be consumed and enjoyed with gusto. This has meant build your own pizzas at Blaze Pizzeria and hearty egg and Spam hashes at home. Recently, it meant trying pupusas the size of a small dinner plate in Mission Hills at Mestizo.


The CG and I have a saying that we don’t care whether a dish is authentic or not as long as it tastes good. According to LA Times food critic Jonathon Gold in a recent column, Rivera chef John Sedlar is a good example of this non-authentic yet sought after rule with his pastrami tacos—something that would make the street vendors in Baja cringe yet satisfy the odd palate of L.A.’s Latino-food, craving hipsters. I’ve had strangely delicious taquitos decked out in cilantro, green puffy shells and Sonoran hot dogs treated like burritos so can definitely attest to not being in the food purist’s league myself.

Mestizo’s pupusas fit into this non-authentic but highly addictive category for us. At 2-3 dollars a pop, they are large and doughy with the hint and scent of corn. They are not the small greasy, fried disks that I am used to popping into my mouth in a few bites. This is due to the vat of fresh masa that is hand scooped and shaped by the heavy set senior lady who meticulously reigns a stove top that spans the length of one whole side of the store. From the cheese to the watery squashes to the chicharron and pork fillings, everything is top notch and filling if not a little one note due to the large size. We are obviously not the only ones who liked them as we saw by the myriad of guests who showed up at noon on a Sunday, and a couple of other parties who had smartly called ahead to pick large up large bagfuls. My Horchata-addict heart was also pumped full of puppy love when I tasted Mestizo’s version, shot up with hot and spicy chocolate to throw an El Salvadorian curve onto the traditional Mexican rice drink.

Like our oversized empanadas from Alex Meat Market and Carniceria in North Hollywood and our bao buns from 99 Ranch Market in Van Nuys, these pupusas are earning a mainstay on our list of foods to pick up for the couch buffet during our upcoming annual college football season.

Honey Rose Strawberry Moon Summertime Meals

10268644_10152134790424080_5406738666010982166_nTwo nights ago, on Friday the 13th, Mother Nature bestowed us with a golden colored-full moon that is typically referred to as a honey, strawberry or rose moon. Strawberries are currently burgeoning in our garden and one of my favorite things to do with them is cut them up room temperature, scatter them atop real, thick coconut Greek yogurt and drizzle them with a bit of organic honey. This, of course, would make the perfect afternoon meal for the summer washed down with an expensive glass of rosè wine. Rosè, a wine commonly maligned, yet with a proper and respectable place during the long hot summer is something I enjoy seeking out during the three torrid months a year which complement its light and fruity characteristics.

These full moon reveries also led me to think about summertime food and how it is the ideal time to change up our eating patterns. Hot, Southern California days slither in too heavily to merit three full meals. The bounty of produce that springs from our paradise soil along with farm-raised local meats and briny jewels from the Pacific Ocean are all we need to dine light and fresh until Fall.

Taking the seasonal eating shift one step further into the restaurant experience, it is an ideal time to find single appetizer dishes that are too large for a simple pre-meal bite but small enough so that they aren’t as filling as normal entrees. Elevating these types of appetizer dishes to a meal during summer can be a delight, especially eaten alone at the bar of a bustling restaurant with nothing other than a glass of wine. For under $40 in downtown Los Angeles alone, you can find plenty of opportunities to have this type of sumptuous summer supper.

Recently the Cute Gardener and I dined at the hot spot Bestia—a trendy Italian joint complete with frighteningly sexy meat hook décor and a loud playlist of 1980s hardcore hip hop music. Everything was top notch and above average but two appetizers entirely bowled us over—both of which would completely qualify for a lone dinner at the bar with a glass of rosè.

BestiaLambNeckThe lamb neck deserves a prize. Seriously, a “golden way to rock a bone-y piece of meat” prize by the likes of Chris Cosentino or Lucky Peach magazine or some old French bastard who appreciates toiling for hours over a funky cut of sheep. For 18 hours, the neck is braised and then some magical forces of caramelization are accomplished before the brick-sized hunk hits the plate. This chunk of tender flesh is then covered in a refreshing green sauce that carries only a hint of mint amongst its lemony goodness and accompanied by a small, sparsely oiled green salad. The meat falls apart at the touch, is full of savory nuggets and sweet bits to slurp out from between the bones, providing not only an outstanding and unusual meal but also it’s also fun to eat.

BestiaGizzardsSecondly, the chicken gizzards appetizer really surprised us. We are chicken gizzard aficionados and typically order them whenever we see them (our favorites being at Kokekokko, grilled and skewered plain with a shot of sake). But these were the best I’ve had so far, tender and meaty on the inside and charred on the outside. They arrived in the form of a salad pile, individually tucked into leaves of endive and topped with a shaved flake of exquisite capra sarda cheese. The whole lot was then dressed with tangy balsamic lending a hint of summer BBQ.

Although the pastas that followed were nice and crafty, it’s these two dishes that we would return for. I am now inspired to seek out some more opportunities this summer to find other types of this one plate with wine experience until the Fall when a more “meat on my bones” mentality becomes more acceptable again in the cold.


My Fervid Fig Fetish

IMG_8414 I recently watched the 2012 film The Fruit Hunters which thrillingly documents exotic fruit fanatics and people who are obsessed with planting and growing fruits internationally. The opening scene made me realize how much I can clump myself into this population as the fruit porn montage of luscious cross sections of pears and glorious globes of dew dripping cherries and perfect plump ovals of loquats and grapes had me transfixed to the scene like a twisted fetishist. I blush to admit that just the other day the Cute Gardener had to remind me under his breath in the outdoor aisles of the garden center that I couldn’t just forage the grapefruit on the ground underneath the potted tree that was for sale of the same name. Still earlier I scoured a Granada Hills hike hoping to find citrus in the orchards that weren’t already brown with rot. I’m addicted to fruit like others are to sex.

I only use the sexual metaphor because it is an obvious one. From the Garden of Eden to the liquid-stoked orgies of Dionysis, fruit has been matched up with risk, pleasure, rebellion and sin for centuries and what could be more taboo and sexy than that? Not to mention the way fruit looks as it blooms from the copulation of pollination into a fleshy and juicy adult. In fact, my first memory of eating fruit is a highly sensuous one.

I don’t recall the geographic location I was at nor do I recall who I was with, and I know I was only somewhere near six years old, as I sat in some shady lawn in someone’s front yard and bit into a ripened purple fig. And just like that bittersweet moment of first puppy love or that stomach ache feeling of the first time we are physically attracted to another human being, the butterflies in my guts took flight leaving me halfway filled with anxiety and halfway filled with a pure and astounding bliss. There must have been a tree close by because I have distinct and visceral visions of plucking more and more off of the grass and stuffing my face with glee.

IMG_8415To this day the fig holds its special reign in my heart as my “first” affair with fruit. I have never bought a fig in the market in all these years. Instead, throughout my life, I have managed to seek out kind friends and neighbors with an overabundance of figs in the summer who gladly donate their overages to my delight. I tend to seek out trees close by and stalk them until they dump their delicious fare onto public spaces of ground. I am a self-proclaimed charity case for any and all fig donors in my environment and no amounts are too big for me.

I was recently granted a beautiful bounty of green figs by a friend who remarked over tapas one night at the sumptuous Racion in Pasadena that her tree was currently in burst. The CG and I ended up following her home after our meal to gratefully receive a bag of the fruits. One was down my throat before we even arrived home. The rest were scattered out over the next 48 hours into a series of my meals as I devoured them heartily.

They were diced into chunks and sprinkled on top of coconut yogurt and Armenian sesame bread and rolled up like a lavosh for breakfast. They were halved and sprinkled with feta and drizzled with honey for lunch. They were sliced in half and stuffed with a hunk of Parmesan and splashed with balsamic vinegar for an afternoon snack. And finally, they were gobbled down with tea (which the CG thinks figs actually taste like) first thing in the morning.

It was a fast and fleeting two days that, like all illicit affairs, still leave me a tad guilty at my loss of control as well as secretly pleased with my ability to indulge in those times when it is absolutely worth it.

Braving the Heat for a Good Rack of Lamb

IMG_8403I recently found myself staying a week in the Palm Springs area during the 100-degree end-of-spring heat. I discovered very quickly that my body is no longer tolerant to the dry torrid sun that beats down on everything with a relentless whip, rendering even an iron man completely jellied into oblivion. The only way to survive is to stay cooped up behind drawn blinds in an air-conditioned tomb somewhere. That, or lounge in a pool for 24 hours, only stepping out to refill the margarita glass or duck into a room full of whipping fans to sleep away the day. Driving in a car is impossible when the steering wheel is hot as a frying pan. And any form of social interaction is shelved until August because the smart restaurateurs and shop owners simply close. Those who have money flee town and those who don’t learn to adjust their schedules, only venturing out past sundown when the temps creep under a breathable 80-90.

But the promise of a good meal at the end of my self-imposed exile in a locked home had me creeping from the darkness at 4 p.m. on a Saturday to visit one of my surrogate families. And when, high above the East Valley while dangling my feet in an infinity pool overlooking the glorious tawny tumbleweed and smoketree strewn landscape, my friend Gloria asked me if I liked rack of lamb, I realized there are some things you risk dehydration for – like good friends who love you and your favorite piece of meat.

I have never had anyone cook rack of lamb for me before, nor have I tried to myself. I am not sure why it is such an intimidating thought but I’ve always seemed to view the dish as something luxuriant to order at restaurants. But contrary to my outdated belief, I learned that grilling lamb is as simple as other meats and the results are mouthwatering. I am going to put this on my dinner list to make the Cute Gardener this summer, minus the 100-degree heat wave of course.

Gloria’s Glorious Grilled Rack of Lamb

1 rack of lamb
Three long sprigs of rosemary
Herbes de Provence
3 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Rub the rack with a little olive oil, the herbes de Provence, garlic and salt and pepper. Put in the fridge to marinate for a few hours with the rosemary sprigs laid on top of it. Heat a grill to moderate to hot-hot heat. When the coals are ready, place the rack of lamb on for six minutes on one side and then flip and cook the other side for about 15 minutes more. This creates a medium well rack, soft and juicy with not much pink. If you like yours pinker or more well done, adjust.

This one was served to me with cranberry sauce. Very different from mint jelly or the usual accoutrements but very good –it may be my new favorite lamb condiment. We also had grilled peaches and chocolate brownies for dessert. And of course, don’t forget the bottles of good red wine.