The Elevated Ingredient

IMG_2161Puffed smelt over beet wasabi

My life in food over the past decade has changed pretty remarkably from that of a person raised to eat and cook similar things from the family’s traditional archives to that of a person who is wildly adventurous and counts culinary sojourns, whether in a restaurant or in my own kitchen, as opportunities to discover and explore items vastly diverse. But even in this wide-open forum of a curious palate, I still find it important to eat responsibly. Enjoying food to me is not about being able to buy the most exotic ingredients from far away places or to experience luxury items that take labor and resources to find their way to my table. It is not about finding bigger and better perfectly grown tomatoes nor is it about promoting the production-oriented fish farms or hormone-injected meats. It’s almost the opposite—to find the gems of whatever is currently around me: fresh, available, natural and seasonal. Sure, there is a time and a place to splurge, but in the ordinary course of my meals, I like to know that purity is at each dish’s base.

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 Smoking goat’s cheese with pretzel loaf accompanied by pickled onions and cauliflower over kalamata paste

I also appreciate the chefs who cook from this premise. It’s a difficult feat to take a few essential ingredients and make them shine over a repertoire of dishes in a way that leaves the diner delighted in every bite and not bored by redundancy. On one of my earliest dates with the Cute Gardener, I was highly charmed by the romantic lights strung from the trees in the Lucques’ courtyard but then irritated by the rote application of root vegetables in just about every plate I chose off of the menu from pasta to salad. Even though I respected Suzanne Goin’s desire to utilize that, which was abundant, I wondered why there wasn’t a bit more creativity involved: root puree, diced steam root, cold root in salsa –that sort of thing.

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Blackened cauliflower with pickled onions.

I love it when I find the chefs who do this extremely well though and actually end up surprising me. One of recent note is Phillip Lee of Scratch Bar. When the CG and I ended up at the tiny La Cienega space for a small plates dinner, we were anticipating Chef Lee’s finesse with vegetables, which had been alluded to in many write-ups about the young vegetarian-niche cook.

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Roasted bone marrow in a sourdough “bone” with pickled onions

We ordered a smattering of meat and veggie dishes including the trendy and highly popular fried smelt puff and immediately noticed that every dish had the bright purple poignancy of beet somewhere alongside a curly pile of pink pickled onions. At the second dish, we got a little leery but by the end of the evening, we realized that each dish still had that magic ability to shine all on its own. The fact that neither beet juice nor pickled onions accompanied any of the descriptions of the wildly varying dishes made the inclusion of both on everything a very brash choice. A bold and risky move for a young chef that in this particular case not only worked, but showcased some of the best things about eating this highly accountable and resourceful way.

IMG_2163Cured pig’s head in a splatter of Pollock-esque beet sauce

Taking Tips from Bourdain’s Book of the Bold

IMG_2262Pork belly nachos

I have been a die hard Anthony Bourdain fan for a decade now. Over that time, I have seen many other food personalities come and go but he’s remained my favorite due to a few key traits. He is actually a literary person so he narrates his travels with a serious wordsmith’s flair. He genuinely cares about places and people in the world beyond the semi-shallow layer of life foodies dwell in. I am one of those foodies but I always appreciate when people show me more than the thick slab of foie, but also the life and times that surround it. When Bourdain delves into politically harsh geographies that aren’t necessarily pretty for television and manages to do so with sensitivity while also showcasing authentic local cuisines, I feel bloated by a well-told and relevant story and not just the copious amounts of food. Lastly, he’s not afraid to dive into the funky stuff, unveil his non-political correctness in a world sterilized by it (especially in food circles) or belly up to the bar fully soaked in his particular vices for all the world to see. That’s human, and oftentimes also leads to being humane.

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 Crab grilled cheese

This past weekend I discovered his show Parts Unknown on my streaming Netflix so I binged on four in a row. I quickly realized that he has also influenced some of my habits and rules surrounding foods, particularly the following:

  1. When in a new territory that you may only visit once, order a bunch of dishes that you want to try without regard to strategy or hunger and try it all.
  2. If you are intrigued by something, then by all means try it no matter what you’ve heard or what stereotype or cultural biases create a conflict upon your table.
  3. Sometimes you hit eureka with a dish you think you will love and sometimes you miss it but the potential delicious discovery around the corner always makes the trying worthwhile.
  4. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do, eat what you want to eat and enjoy the heck out of life while you still have it.
  5. A meal just isn’t a meal without a great glass of wine, compatible cocktail or indigenous liquor and every nation in the world has a distinct version of this.
  6. Don’t always believe the hype but go with your gut when it comes to finding good food.
  7. Never be a snob – real good food can be found just about anywhere.

Never have these rules applied more to me than when it comes to Thai and Thai-fusion style food. Although I love all types of cuisine, Thai food brings out the adventurer in me. Whereas I know what fishes I like with sashimi or general types of pasta and sauce for my Italian restaurant sojourns or the spice mixes in my Indian dishes, etc. when it comes to Thai, I honestly never know what I am going to order until I read the menu.

IMG_2255Fish kidney curry

Two recent examples I tried that ran from one end of the Thai spectrum to the other were the notorious Jitlada in Los Angeles and TLT in Westwood.

IMG_8611Shrine in Jitlada’s restroom

Jitlada has been around for a while and boasts a traditional Thai restaurant environment with the ambience you expect from Thai restaurants: dingy interiors full of ornate ritual tchoctkes on the walls, loads of hipsters sharing steaming pots of Tom Ka Gai, lots of wooden mirrors, and candle and toy shrines in the restrooms. A menu that goes on for days offers anything you could possibly want from traditional pad thai noodles to exotic and strange silkworms to famous, spicy curries that are known for their flame-ability. I chose a chicken pad thai because the Cute Gardener is not a fan of the overly spicy and then I went gonzo by ordering the kidney fish curry which Jonathon Gold touts as one of the top dishes you need to eat before you die. I also picked a simple salad of blanched watercress and braised pork belly. The kidney fish curry definitely stood out with a murky briny funk richened with ground shrimp and red snapper but the egg omelet that accompanied it was too salty to help me relieve my tongue from the all-consuming heat.

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Leftover kidney fish curry on brown rice

Of course, all-consuming heat aside, I still managed to eat the rest of the curry at home the next day atop organic brown rice over a period of two hours so that each bite’s heat would fade before the next. I am one of those people who truly is a glutton for spice punishment, craving its addictive tang when it is done right in dishes like this one.

IMG_2263Chimmy bowl

This past weekend, the CG and I visited TLT after a trek through an exhibition at the Hammer. TLT used to be The Lime Truck, rolling through the streets of L.A. dispersing over-the-top stoner and comfort food to the masses. It became so popular that a brick and mortar was opened, very organic-fast food-style in its streamlined graphics and communal dining room set atmosphere, yet highly impressive with a menu that does a roster of things extremely well and just packs in the customers because of this. The menu is actually more representative of a Thai and street food fusion place with items like pork belly sliders, crab grilled cheese, chimmy (churri) noodles with peanuts and sambal and even chorizo laced breakfast burritos. All of that tasted great, but the coup d’etat for me lay in the pork belly nachos, in which I found my own nacho nirvana. Number one now in my book reigns this basket of on-the-spot fried chips that are puffed and crisped perfectly with no sogginess by the bottom of the pile. These chips come smothered in a luscious sweet cheese sauce, pico de gallo and generous chunks of pork belly cooked tender and juicy with a caramelized bite. A complete surprise.

IMG_2256Thai omelet

Perhaps, these forays into exploratory eating will open up my horizons with other cuisines I love—inspiring me to follow my mental book of Bourdain rules in the French bistro or the gastropub. The taste buds are now itching for the new, the brave, the bold, and the out of the ordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frogs and Berries

IMG_8417When I was a little girl I obsessed over France. It started with a dream I had of lying on my back in a large bowl cut into the earth that was filled with rows of terraced flowers in various colors—a convex dome of strata. As I lay on my back at the bottom and looked up to see nothing but a mile long circle of the bluest sky, something in my soul knew that I was in France. In junior high I told all of my friends that I wanted to live in Paris one day. In high school, this turned into the French countryside and I changed my name to Quimberlie on homework assignments much to my teachers’ chagrin. In my twenties my future home morphed into a barn somewhere in the South where I could paint all day and drink hard liquor with the old men all night. These fantasies have fallen to the wayside but I still maintain my affinity with the country through my love of its food and carry within my French blood (from my grandmother and her whole side of the family’s lineage of Doucettes) a propensity for the perpetual red lip, dank and stinky cheeses and an earthiness of being that is both sensual and dirty.

IMG_8416One peculiarity of my palate that rings with a decidedly French funk is my love of the frog leg. I used to frequent the bizarre smorgasbord of people that patronizes The Nest in Indian Wells after art gallery openings specifically for the dish, which was the only decent version of it I could find in the Coachella Valley. When I moved to Los Angeles, I was thrilled to eat some buttery, roasted legs at Le Petit Bistro alongside a nicely dressed Roquefort salad. I was even more delighted when, recently, the Cute Gardener bought a bag of them at a meat market and served them up for dinner in a rustic, simply fried style that brought out their frogginess along a plain rice and cabbage side. I found his take superior to the few I’ve tried because they tasted like frog as opposed to chicken, something I am sure will freak some of my readers out just a bit.

IMG_8418As we have had a climax of strawberries over the past few months this, I have had a glorious time choosing a different strawberry recipe every week to make for the CG. For the light and simple frog legs, I decided to make a more complex dessert of strawberry Napoleons, or mille-feuilles as they were originally described in Francois Pierre La Varenne’s Le Cuisinier Francois in 1651. To keep in line with the lightness both the CG and I strive for in summer dining and in maintaining our healthiest hip diameters (of which it is more difficult for me than he to obtain), I chose a pared down recipe, which substituted ricotta for the traditional cream and crisply frail, sugared phyllo dough layers in lieu of heavier pastry. The recipe, by Ann Taylor Pittman in Cooking Light, can be found here.