Fried Green Tomatoes, Sort Of

IMG_3670

Fried red and green tomatoes with a few pieces of fried, unctuous chicken skin for garnish ….. yum ……

When I was 14 years old, I read a book called Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. It opened my eyes for various reasons.

For one, it was a mainstream account of a burgeoning and joyful lesbian relationship, which at the time, I had absolutely no knowledge of. I like to think it started the seeds of framing in my mind to accept the fact that everyone in the world would not always be a carbon copy of me and that would be okay, because, folks, LOVE IS LOVE.

For two, it showed me the power of stories. The entire narration is basically centered upon a middle-aged housewife named Evelyn who visits a woman in a nursing home weekly just to sit by and silently receive and witness another ill woman’s stories about her life that have long come to pass as she enters the years in which she will finally succumb to the inevitability of death. It branded within me, the idea that stories shared are nuggets of gold, and feeders of empathy, and bridges that build worlds I still, excitedly, have yet to know.

But the third most resonant thing for me was in the title. Fried Green Tomatoes. Ha? Who would eat unripe tomatoes? I was particularly fascinated with this culinary item and put it on my “to-eat” list, which had been boiling in my teens, ever since I went to my best friend Sylvie’s house one night and had frog legs and red wine at fifteen, proffered by her French chef father at midnight after returning from his post at one of the most iconic French restaurants near my childhood home. The whole experience made me reek with the redolence of difference and what that can do, as in shoving a wedge into reality, for a person more accustomed to Midwestern casseroles and all things cheese.

In any case, the first time I actually tried fried green tomatoes was at a down-home BBQ place in the low-nethers of Boston with an ex-boyfriend who insisted on getting the catfish and hushpuppy combo. I agreed, but also ordered a nice side plate of the fried green tomatoes. It was weird taking a train to a tony side of the famous Paul Revere city, only to duck into a shanty that held a mass of people slinging fish and grease to eat upon picnic tables thrown out for the occasion, yet we did. Everything was great, but my favorite was the fried green tomatoes, served fluffy with a coating that was crunchy yet allowed for the inner juices to roam without sogging in every single bite. Hard to explain. But I will try. A touch of crunch hits the teeth, followed by a warm sensation as the acid from the tomato swarms, then all get embroiled in the coating’s sweet embrace.

So, that was my experience, the one I was going on in my annals of lovely meals. But then, the Cute Gardener stepped in. Last night, I entered the kitchen and saw his pre-ripe tomatoes on the counter. Are you making fried green tomatoes, I asked. Yes, his answer was swift, but his body demeanor proved otherwise, I could tell he was trying to figure out the rest. Cornmeal, I stated, and I have milk in the fridge.

What resulted was a magnificent array of purple tomatoes and green unripe unknowns – each smothered in the same batter which felt like a blanket wrapped around the tongue before the inner juice, exquisite itself, put out a world of its admiring taste buds. YUM, I gave up the rest of my bacon-laden gnocchi, and even the remains of a phenomenal salad just to stuff my mouth with whatever spare part I could of those fragrant and soul-affirming deep fried tomatoes.

Soothing Sukiyaki

IMG_3124

This year in Los Angeles has been a strange one weather-wise. It seems like summer never fully arrived until winter, which was warmer than usual. Now we are experiencing cold grey days and scattered rain as we supposedly transition into the rites of spring. The garden is behaving like a tempestuous child whose normal schedule has been thrown off kilter by irresponsible parents. Indeed, Mother Nature has been acting like a woman in her middle-pause years. In respect to all this sudden erraticism, we’ve been eating unusually, interspersing items from the yard with an eclectic mix of ingredients from the Asian markets, which always seem to have a bevy of exotic produce, meats, and fishes with which to experiment.

When people typically think of Japanese cuisine, their thoughts often roam to sushi, rice, and other seafood centered preparations. They oftentimes think of elegance and exquisite presentation, subtlety, and artistry, which are all traits that quintessentially describe the general cultural aesthetics of the Japanese. Aesthetics put in place over a century ago during the Edo Period when the country was under the rule of a shogunate, closed off to the rest of the world, and quietly cultivating an identity that would be admired and emulated globally as a bastion of all things creatively refined. In the Mejii Period when Japan opened its ports to worldwide trade, Western influences introduced a variety of new possibilities for the Japanese in art and food and many other sectors of society.

One new dish that came out of this exposure to the rest of the world was sukiyaki. In a largely Buddhist culture, meat had been previously forbidden yet the West brought an introduction to using things such as beef and milk in their cuisine. Sukiyaki, prepared in the nabemono (Japanese hot pot) style, consists of thinly sliced and simmered meat alongside vegetables and other ingredients in a shallow pot of soup made with ingredients such as soy sauce, sugar, and mirin. It is shared directly from the pot and was originally a celebratory meal for the annual end of the year drinking parties in Japan.

The Cute Gardener’s version at our supper table was served in cast iron, swimming with creamy strips of steak, garden radishes, yam noodles, carrots, baby king mushrooms and cubes of soft tofu. Although not on the occasion of a drinking party, it was the perfect antidote to the colder weather that also soothed our souls, and yes, paid great homage to the blending of all things East and West, a yummy cultural exchange.

Easing Into Green

Salad ingredients

“Plant-based diet” has become the catchphrase for eating well and living long in contemporary society. Whereas old-school models of eating centered on a now arcane food pyramid, today’s healthy-minded people know the trick to feeling good and maintaining a disease-free body lies in eating green. But how does one forego meat,  cheese, and sweets (mostly) without growing bored of the same old steamed veg or the variations on a tossed salad? The answer lies in finding creative ways to mix the healthy with the craved, in a ratio where the bad stuff lies low and the good stuff looms high, but the taste still remains.

saladsandwich

Non – Lettuce Salads

I like to keep bulk, non-perishable ingredients like dried fruit, nuts, seeds, hemp hearts, and chickpeas in my cabinets so that I always have fun, textural salad adornments at hand. Then, I pluck whatever produce is in the garden, or whatever vegetables are most abundant and cheap in the grocery store, and chop them up and add. Mingle this all with a simple vinaigrette made by shaking two parts oil to one part vinegar in a Mason jar and some small bits of sin for flavor in the form of crumbled feta cheese. Over 50% of the salad is green. A small percentage is fat. The toppings are various forms of superfoods or grains. And the possibilities are endless enough so you could eat a non-lettuce salad every day simply by following the seasons. One of my favorite combinations is below.

Squash and Cucumber Salad

¼ raw zucchini diced
¼ raw cucumber diced
¼ c. dried chickpeas
1/8 c. dried barberries
1 oz. diced feta

Toss all ingredients together.

Dressing:
1 tbls. olive oil
½ tbls. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried marjoram

Whisk all together and pour on salad.

sandwich

Green Sandwiches

Similarly to the non-lettuce salad concept, is the non-meat sandwich concept. To me, there is nothing better than a great piece of high quality, bakery bread with layers of fresh veggies and a good piece of cheese.

My special trick with these sandwiches is to always have a jar of homemade pesto on hand to use in place of mayonnaise. The richness makes the meal heartier and the herbs and nuts I use pack lots of antioxidant power into lunch.

havarti

Homemade Herbal Pesto

1 large bag cilantro
1 large bag basil
¼ c. pepitas
½ olive oil

Blend herbs in a food processor until minced. Add the pepitas and blend until relatively, uniformly minced. Continue to pulse while adding oil in a slow stream until the mixture reaches your preferred consistency. I tend to like mine chunky and less liquid, but it is a matter of personal taste.

Idea: This pesto is remarkable as a base on a soft piece of Jewish rye, layered with havarti and melted under a broiler, and then topped with ripe, halved, grape or cherry tomatoes.

Best Dishes of 2017 – #4

IMG_1855LOBSTER FRIES at HOLIDAY HOUSE’S THE PANTRY in Palm Springs, California

A lobster lover’s typical lament lies in the commonly botched dishes found in restaurants worldwide in which lobster is supposed to be the star of the show yet ends up being the bastard child of cheapness and invisibility. Oftentimes I will (salivating for that plump, yummy meat) order a lobster roll only to be delivered a buttery bun with mayo-saturated meat in meager proportion to the bread. Or, I will order a lobster ragu pasta and find myself digging beneath the effusive vodka cream sauce trying to find the meat. I have come to eschew lobster dishes altogether.

This was entirely not the case, though, when earlier this week a friend convinced me to put away my prejudice and share a pile of lobster fries at the new, chic resort Holiday House in Palm Springs. What arrived from The Pantry’s kitchen was a basket of perfect fries, crisp on the outside and creamily, puffy on the inside piled with lobster meat only tenderly infused with truffle oil, not enough to overpower the dish. The lobster was a generous pile, with 4 claws (!) in a dish meant to be shared by two. Nary a potato was left at the end of our meal, accentuated by a scrumptious burger and a cocktail made from rose wine, basil and gin.

IMG_1854

P.S. You can even play with LEGOs at the bar.

 

Filipino Umami at Rice Bar

IMG_7280

Chef Charles Olalia of Rice Bar in downtown Los Angeles has managed to do what many Patina-trained chefs do, which is to elevate the cuisine most special to them to its utmost level, then introduce it to the world. Olalia has done this with the Filipino food of his youth—specifically humbly, comforting rice and grain bowls—which one would be hard pressed to find elsewhere with his caliber of flavor. There are grain and rice bowls everywhere these days, it seems, yet none come even close to the quality or deliciousness found here.

IMG_7281

The restaurant is really a tiny box with a counter and a few chairs spread out with a view directly into the kitchen commandeered by three massive rice pots. You pick your bowl and then which rice you want of three specially imported choices: a brown, a garlic fried or a jasmine, although they might change from time to time. On a Saturday at noon, we chose the pork longanisa and fried anchovy bowls. Olalia is a hands-on chef and we watched him oversee the line cook and then add his personal touches to the dishes like sprinkling scallions, strands of pickled vegetable atchara and crushed up nuts over the soft and delicious, richly pink, house-made pepper and garlic pork sausage. Or, the way he made sure the anchovies bowl had perfectly distributed ratios of julienned radish, tiny fried fishes, fresh avocado and cured tomatoes before pulling out a bowl of tender bits of squid and asking my Cute Gardener if he would like some on the dish too because he wanted feedback on its potential in the dish. While we ate, we heard Olalia say he was done with kale for the season. I got the impression that this chef was constantly playing, experimenting, having fun, and evolving his creations. It made me want to come back and try everything else on the menu.

When I was in junior high, I had a large number of Filipino friends and couldn’t wait to spend the nights at their houses on the weekends because the food was so interesting to my American girl tongue. I recalled loving the unexpected sweetness of the dishes, the combinations of odd ingredients like fish sauce and sugar, the starchy rice and noodles so far removed from my mother’s Uncle Ben grains and boiled pasta. Olalia’s kitchen was much the same, with lively music playing on the radio, umami in my belly, and a smiling chef transporting us to his island heritage with elan.

Best Dishes of 2017 – #3

IMG_1548

TACOS AL PASTOR at EL FARO TACOS in Sylmar, California

You park out front on the curb and enter the tiny restaurant where two men never stop working the meats on the grill. For $1.24 a pop, you order as many of these succulent and divine no frills, street style, tacos as you think you might eat. Two tortillas topped with perfectly marinated pork and pineapple chunks. Perhaps a smattering of cilantro and a dot of salsa from the condiment bar on top. Unpretentious perfection.

Viva Les Fusion

DSC_0153

I have a slew of favorite chefs who I look up to, not for their celebrity status or sex appeal, but rather, for their truly inspired notions of cooking and the philosophies around eating. Within that canon is a quintet of Asian chefs: Filipino Paul Qui, a past Top Chef winner who brings a Zen minimalist’s flair to the manly food scene of Austin, Texas; Edward Lee, a Korean-American form of the hearty Marlboro Man delivering up a Southern hybrid of Asian spice in Kentucky; also Korean, Kwang Uh with his exciting vegetarian fermentation lab in Los Angeles; David Chang whose latchkey kid, stoner skater food creations border on the brilliant with their everyday cabinet ingredients elevated to gourmet plateaus, and my very own Cute Gardener who brings the most Japanese refinement to everything he touches even if that means country fried chicken, Austrian noodles, Italian pastas, or Michelin-star status macaroni and cheese. What I specifically love, though, about these five chefs, is the way they have taken the techniques and cuisines of their nationalities and expanded upon them via exploration and practice into defining their own versions of what it means to eat American.

On the latest season of Mind of a Chef, Lee is profiled as saying that one of the greatest things about the contemporary American food scene is the proliferation of fare inspired by the multitudes of dishes from all over the world being made on this vast continent that so many different ethnicities call home. Fusion is no longer a tres chic restaurant description but a true method of cooking for today’s national palate teethed on so much more than mere hot dogs and hamburgers.

DSC_0152

Take the taco for instance. There aren’t many neighborhoods in the states where you can’t find a simple strip mall counter serving up standard street tacos. Simple pastor, carne, pollo and even lengua meat on tiny disks of authentic masa are par for the course and whether fifty cents or five bucks a pop, rather guaranteed to always be good. What’s exciting though, are the myriad ways chefs and home cooks are co-opting the concept of taco and making it their own. Think of the tortilla as a blank canvas; strip away the typical Mexican connotations, and the possibilities become endless.

IMG_1490

The Cute Gardener recently served up a fusion style taco of Italian Milanese-style, breadcrumb coated and fried skirt steak with a smattering of sliced red cabbage, pickled shallots and cotija cheese on warm corn tortillas. Recently, I have been having a blast with tostada shells, discovering all the various ways I can fit my health food-bent lunch palate onto their crisp, corn crunchiness. My favorite so far has been a topping of turmeric and olive oil roasted sweet potato, melted Monterey Jack cheese, purslane from the garden, strips of basil and cherry tomatoes, dotted with Vietnamese chili garlic sauce. No origin story, no historical precedent, no label of identifying cuisine—just pure yummy goodness.

There’s been lots of debate recently about cultural appropriation and whether it is right or not for people to dabble in identifications non-indigenous to their own. Thank goodness the food world is absent of these arrows because, to me, one of the most beautiful things about being human (and eating!) is being able to discover for one’s self the things that most lick our fancies and then creating a world of our own not relegated to such a narrow act as the pigeonhole. In my eyes, today’s American cuisine is a broad field not confined by definition and boundless in its ever-expanding permutations.

Best Dishes of 2017 – #2

DSC_0145

BRAISED DAIKON by the Cute Gardener

A subtle, al dente rendering of an iconic Japanese root vegetable in a surprisingly simple broth that carries the tiniest hint of dark caramel to counteract softened briny kombu. The daikon acts like a tofu, soaking up its surrounding flavors. A perfect appetizer that goes down like a whisper, barely audible yet entirely complex.

DSC_0148

Insanely simple recipe

Slice one daikon radish into 1/2-inch rounds.  In about 3 cups of water, place daikon, 3 small strips of kombu, 1 tablespoon mirin, and 1 tablespoon Japanese soy in a pot.  Cover and gently simmer until daikon is soft, but not mushy. 

Baroo Brings It

IMG_1260

Long gone are the days when the term “health food” meant bland textures, weird grainy fake meat tastes, funky faux cheeses or a million variations on the veggie and sprout sandwich on cardboard stiff wheat bread. Thanks to the resurgence of macrobiotic concepts, the superfoods explosion, the contemporary plant-based and whole foods movements, and our general continuing enlightenment surrounding the importance of tending to that internal stove inside our guts that is our digestive system, health food has slowly crept up the culinary ladder as a viable competitor in the foodie world. Not only are many noted chefs exploring vegetarian dishes to co-star on menus alongside meat dishes, but some chefs are making a mark by focusing totally on more healthy fare that’s elevated for a sophisticated foodie audience. Matthew Kenney is a prime example of a chef who has turned raw food principles into some of the best tasting gourmet dishes I’ve ever eaten. When I lived in Venice Beach, I made it a point to walk to his Santa Monica restaurant (sadly now defunct) weekly for a plate of exquisitely stacked raw lasagna, or kelp pad Thai, which carried so much of a flavor punch that I was certain I could give up the fattier, meatier, carb-heavy alternatives if I were forced to make a choice. It has been exciting for me to search for and discover food of this sort and it has been sadly too few times that I have succeeded.

The Cute Gardener, who is not as big of a fan of this type of cuisine as I am, did a very sweet thing for my birthday this year. He took me to Baroo, a relatively new restaurant in Los Angeles that has been getting rave reviews for its largely vegetarian menu (of under ten dishes at any given time) and use of fermentation. Their most unusual dish Noorook even boasts the use of the latest trendy Koji (a steamed rice with koji-kin mold spores cultivated into it), which I was dying to try because of its reputation for being an authentic source of umami.

IMG_1259

I was also interested in a Chef who would name his restaurant after a bowl that Buddhist monks are allowed to possess and use for their meals until their last breaths. It brought to mind the time I sat sesshin with a group of Buddhists for three days straight in my twenties, during which we kept completely silent and did nothing but meditate for eight hours a day, only breaking every couple hours to run in a circle around the room to get some circulation, or at noon and night to eat. I had to learn a complex ritual of eating called Oryoki that required setting out my bowl, and a precise way to receive food, eat and wash my implements that emphasized presence, respect for the sacred and grace. I thought about this as we drove to the tiny, stark white space located within a minimalist and ordinary strip mall and bellied up to the tiny, unpretentious counter to taste five dishes lovingly prepared in front of us by Chef Kwang Uh and his team. I wanted to give each taste that same respect.

Respect was indeed due, for the meal was not only extremely creative and satisfyingly healthy, each dish was jam packed with so many layers of complex ingredients and juxtaposing textures that I realized with each bite that there was no way I would be able to find, or even make at home, food like this. I had my own little religious experience while sitting there.

IMG_1261

An example of what I mean:

Celeriac pasta: Handmade pasta with celery roots, celery crudité with pickled mustard seeds, celery ash and crispy celeriac chips.

Asian fever salad with a sous vide egg: Basmati rice, lemongrass and coconut foam, Asian-inspired veg mix, crispy shrimp chip, heirloom cherry tomatoes and line supreme.

Noorook (Koji): Job’s tears, kamut and faro, roasted koji beet crème, concentrated kombu dashi, toasted seeds, macadamia nut, finger lime and rose onion pickle.

Bibim salad: Grains with oat, quinoa & bulgur, vegetable crudité w/fennel, celery, asparagus, baby radish, heirloom carrot, toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, gochujang, san marzano tomato dressing, herb coulis, passion fruit powder, baby kale and Asian pear.

To wash it all down? A gloriously housemade Tepache with fermented cherry juice.

Of course, after the heavenly birthday meal, we drove to a burger joint to feed the CG who considered Baroo’s lighter portion sizes and fare mere appetizers.