Viva Les Fusion

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sweetness Personified

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 You can learn a lot about a person by looking at their candy profile.

Take the Cute Gardener for instance. In life he is rather pointed about what he ingests and what he surrounds himself with. He is balanced and non-indulgent. He likes to maintain a cadre of regularly cherished things that have been tried and are true and give him delight. This lends itself to his cabinet of specialty bourbon, his repetitive varieties of produce in the garden, and his love of high caliber dark chocolate and cacao nibs. Waxy grocery store chocolate will never find its way into his grocery cart and he can smell upon entering a candy boutique whether they are using cheap ingredients or not. For him, his candy profile is direct but not simple, narrowly fixated in high class, not overly fatty and slightly bitter, much like him.

Then there was my Grandmother Jeanne. Her home throughout my childhood always maintained the presence of floral shaped crystal dishes on every tabletop in the living room or den that held candy. The candies were mostly hard, translucent and bright like glassy jewels. Not much more than colored sugar individually wrapped in noisy cellophane (impossible to sneak by my greedy little hands without waking the whole household). On Sundays after church she would give us butterscotch gems from her pocket for the car ride home, which she had already enjoyed herself, sucking on one piece slowly during the psalms and hymns. Startlingly, when I saw a psychic in my late 30s, he mentioned the presence of a black-haired woman who watched over me in heaven, who was perpetually taking hard candies from her apron to stick between her pink Max Factor lips and I knew this was Jeanne. She was clear, super sweet, savoring of life and slightly rigid, just like her ever-present candies. She was also a prolific oil painter, which complemented her desire to have bowls as palettes holding the various hues of sweets in her immediate environment.

For me, candy has become an occasional event embraced with gusto. I am more in touch with the inviting in of joy and pleasure into my life as a regular occurrence yet as an adult who has learned that balance is the key to all things, for a hedonist like me, this means I need to be careful with abundance. Whether we are talking about my hips, my relationships, or my well being … I have accumulated the habits of one who knows that delving into too much of a good thing isn’t always the best thing for me. So my relationship with candy is a special thing, like going out to dinner for my birthday, which I set up and plan for in advance and enjoy for a brief moment in time.

Three or four times a year, I get the itch to visit Sugarfina, which, as I have written about before, offers a treasure chest of delights to a girl like me. When I enter the clear glass jewelry box in Beverly Hills that is its home, I feel like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And in fact, the walls of this illustrious candy palace are indeed the same shade of Tiffany blue. Yes, the tiny clear boxes only hold 5-20 small candies per each. Yes, those boxes range anywhere from $7 to $12 a piece. I know that is an exorbitant amount to spend on candy. But I don’t care because it is a rare and celebrated encounter. There are candies from all over the world, chosen for their unique beauty and attributes, and I like to dabble in such a broad selection. As for my sugar profile, what this says about me, is that when I am being bad I want to be bad with only the utmost quality of sin and I am willing to pay big bucks for it so that I don’t take advantage of my treats or treat the occasion as if it is something that can become a regular thing. These are all careful barriers I put up between me and my love of the sugar rush to ensure I appreciate it while it lasts but am cautious not to partake of all too often.

As for my actual choices—they range. They spotlight my fickleness, spontaneity and sense of adventure. They also denote other smaller idiosyncrasies of my personality and tastes such as a constant desire to try new things. On my most recent visit I stocked up on Jamaican Rum Snowballs and Scotch Cordials-each filled with real liquor to satisfy my current love of dessert and booze combinations like the cocktails Brandy Alexander and White Russian. A box of matcha covered caramels matches my interest in traditional Chinese medicine and the healing elixir of green tea. A cube of dinosaur egg-reminiscent Dionysus Dark Chocolate Covered Walnuts piques the lover of Greek god/goddess culture in me with its fortifying nuts imported from the place that boasts the birth of knowledge and my inner mourning for the lost library of Alexandria.The soft outer layer of the Toffee Peanut Butter Truffles reminds me of the basic flour and peanut butter balls stuck in the center with an M&M that I used to make in preschool. It was a primal snack made with messy fingers and fun and now this adult version comes stuck in the middle with surprising bits of chewy gourmet toffee. The Acai Dark Chocolate Covered Blueberries make me feel as if I am incorporating superfoods into my decadence and along with the Dark Chocolate Covered Bananas, fulfill my cravings for small, sweet bites to accompany my morning or afternoon tea time.

It is very ceremonial how I set up these beautiful little boxes under the coffee table vowing to have one piece a day until they are gone. Then the boxes get relegated to the LEGO collection where they become transparent containers to separate parts. In actuality, what ends up happening is that I use this functional need for the LEGOs as an excuse to make the candies disappear a little more quickly than intended and my Sugarfina affair slowly dissipates over the course of a week or two.

And then I become a normal human again, content to ignore the leftover Mounds bars in the hallway bowl leftover from Halloween.

Earning My Chops

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The first time I had sushi I was in Las Vegas on a spur of the moment weekend date with a boy I had met on a dance floor. It was one of those thoughtless things we do in our twenties. I was grooving with friends in my new leather jacket and Kevin approached me to tell me he liked my moves. He was from out of town and asked me on a proper date after we had danced together all evening. I drove to LA for the date but because his roommates had commandeered the household to work on a film project, we had no privacy to get to know each other over the dinner he had planned to make. So naturally we decided to drive to Las Vegas. The drive was one long questionnaire in getting to know each other and by the time we arrived in Sin City, it was pretty clear we did not have a love match. He liked pop music and I liked alternative, jazz and classical. He liked bubbly, career-oriented professionals and I was a funny yet brooding artist. So we went to the world’s biggest buffet at the Rio Hotel & Casino and decided to just be friends.

When I picked up a slice of sushi roll with a fork, he (who was half Asian and half French) said incredulously, “I’ve never seen anyone eat sushi with a fork before.”

My face reddened in shame. The truth was I didn’t know how to use chopsticks—had never even tried to before.

Twenty years later, I had still not learned how to use chopsticks. You know what happens when you are embarrassed by something once in your life? You tend to shy away from that moment for the rest of your life. Sure, I had faked it many times at Chinese restaurants with friends, holding the sticks improperly and using them more as a scoop, adhered together between my awkward fingers to dig into rice, avoiding the meatier chunks of vegetables or meat. But no one noticed. That is, until I met my current boyfriend.

He’s Asian and loves his cultural cuisine full of fatty, slithery foods meant for twirling around those trickery implements with grace. So inevitably we ran into the moment where I was sitting across a table with him, clumsily wielding two wooden sticks. He noticed my klutzy hit-and-miss attempts between the bowl and my mouth and decided to help me out by giving me a crash course in the proper way to use them. After a hilarious meal of hand cramping I at least had the concept down and told myself I would use them every chance I got. Which was easy, because he made plenty of homemade bowls of steaming Asian soups in our kitchen over the course of our first year together.

My biggest moment of fear came when, at Christmas, it was time to meet his parents. I wanted to make a good impression, which meant that in the very least, I had to get my chopstick acumen down before I met his mother. I also prayed that the opportunity to use them might conveniently NOT come up. I offered suggestions when we were planning our many meals out together for the holiday. How about the steak house? What about a good burger? Let’s go to that fancy Italian place with the arancini and panzanella salad. But it did no good.

Eventually, we were sitting down at a casual Japanese restaurant and I had a threatening bowl of ramen before me with the fattest and most slippery noodles I had ever seen swimming in a broth slick with oil. Acting all confident with my newfound skills, I leaned over to try a bit from my boyfriend’s bowl. As I pulled up the noodles to take a slurp, they dropped right off my sticks in a slosh, spewing hot liquid all over him.

“What are you doing!?” he blurted out as he jumped back to escape the mess.

His mother pulled up the big porcelain spoon on the side of her bowl and tried to give me a tip about first scooping the noodles into the spoon but enveloped in mortification I could only hear what I assumed was going on in her brain, damn fool, what kind of idiot woman is this with my son. Of course, that is probably not true, but nonetheless, I pretended to be full a lot faster than I was that evening so I could stop my awkward chopstick dance.

A year later during their next Christmas visit, I was sure I would be better equipped to eat a chopstick meal. We went to a dim sum restaurant where the shumai came oversized. I cringed inwards as I held my hand to the middle of the table to pick up one of the dumplings with my sticks. The minute I raised one from the plate, it wiggled free and plopped right back down on the plate. In my embarrassment, I poked the chopstick into the food and lifted it up, primitive spear-style like a dunce.

My boyfriend’s mother promptly asked the waitress for a fork, handed it to me, and said, “The pieces are so big, just use a fork.”

With blood red cheeks, I finished the meal realizing that any attempts to win the parents over were now forever doomed. I had to dig into a well deep within me to realize that I was not perfect, never would be, and that was okay. That was a liberating lesson in itself.

And of course, every liberating lesson comes with a Murphy’s Law dose of corrective action because after my boyfriend’s parents left on that particular visit I became a chopstick pro. This was partly due to the fact that I started eating my lunches at home with chopsticks. I became the queen of the expertly tossed rice bowl. I even began to enjoy the unseen benefits of chopstick utilization which included slow eating, the savoring of individual ingredients, getting full faster on a smaller amount of food and most of all, reestablishing some modicum of my pride.

Table For Two, Please

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For the past month I have been doing research for a book I am writing on the mother-daughter bond. In Gabor Mate’s exquisitely profound In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he presents evidence that babies need to feel attunement and connection from their mothers in order for proper brain development. If they lack these important ingredients in their evolution, they will grow up hungry for love and look for it externally through various means—oftentimes in addictive substances and through pleasure-seeking and non self-regulating behaviors. The book was heartbreaking and explains a lot of crises within the psyche of today’s humanity where we are constantly too busy to connect intimately with those we love.

I have been actively seeking instances over the past six months to bond one-on-one with friends and family rather than relying on social media to give me curated glimpses of their lives. During this time I have noticed visceral changes in my own sense of wellbeing and the poignancy of life. Whether spending three hours at a fancy afternoon tea, floating in a swimming pool drinking rainbow sherbet floats, or enjoying a pot of bibimbap at the Korean Spa – these moments with singular friends have taught me that there is simply no substitute for a great conversation over food between two people. Those are really the only moments I care to have and they make up a great percentage of the life I share with the Cute Gardener – a duo bellied up to a bar or glancing across the landscape of table at each other.

My daughter and I have a tradition that has carried on since she was a child that I share with nobody else. When she was little I turned her on to Thai food at a popular joint in town. Our first meal together consisted of a simple steaming, silver, donut-shaped pot of Tom Kha Gai soup spiked with lemongrass, chicken, and coconut milk and a small bowl of white rice back in those days when, as a single mother, I was too poor for much more. In the years that followed, the table merrily expanded to include fried potstickers, pad Thai and Thai tea—perhaps a small salad of iceberg lettuce with peanut sauce. Fifteen years later and the menu remains the same.

Only nowadays I am not driving us down to the corner restaurant to enjoy my Thai for two mommy and daughter meals. Today, I drive an hour to my daughter’s place to a restaurant she frequents with her boyfriend. She was beaming with pride the first time we ate there when, upon our entrance, all of the staff knew her name and called out with smiles making us feel right at home. She was so proud to show me her favorite booth and to order our traditional meal only with her novel addition of egg rolls and some fried donuts in coconut frosting at the end as a splurge. During these times we never stop talking while pouring rice into our soup, filling each other up on news from our lives while slurping boba from the bottom of our glasses, sharing the stop-and-go interrupted bouts of conversation and laughter while licking sweet sauces from our spoon, asking each other advice as we reveal secrets and point out bits of milk on each other’s lips –all the while exposing both confidence and vulnerability. We’ve been doing it since day one and although the subjects have changed the content never has – that of a mother and daughter bonding in a pocket of time held sacred for only them. This is as essential as breathing and needs to be fed.

Nacho Weakness

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Gus’s BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos

I believe it is true in the case of anyone who calls him or her self a foodie that they are more often than not a lover of all foods with little exception. Perhaps an allergy keeps them away from hot spices or an early, traumatic bite of mayonnaise from an overeager sandwich-making mother might form a lifelong aversion to the spread; but these are rarities. Part of being a foodie means having an adventurous and ever-curious palate. So we eat all kinds of things considered both high and lowbrow and tend to live by the “one bite rule” of boldly trying everything once before making absolute decisions. We are more prone to continually tasting new things than we are to consistently repeat old things. But there are those special “weakness” dishes that every foodie can account for that they will eat time and again, even hunt through endless cities for, and revisit the same locations on multiple occasions for—demonstrating the kind of behaviors borrowed from addicts and hedonists. My Achilles Heel, without a doubt, remains a towering plate of nachos.

I have come a long way since my high school days when I would come home off the big orange bus and head straight to the kitchen where I would pile a paper plate with Tostito rounds, a pile of grated cheddar, a dash of garlic salt and then nuke it to oblivion. This always produced a kind of nacho Frisbee that I had to pull apart—a chewy here and crispy there disk of salt and fat with no real culinary value. But the initial lust was the same as it is today—a want for a crispy chip, a hankering for gooey cheese, and a desire to dip that all into toppings that when blended create an effortlessly delicious and creamy swath of lust. This is my comfort food of all comfort foods.

What makes a perfect plate of nachos for me? Thick house made tortilla chips with a wicked crunch are essential. I have bypassed ordering my favorite dish at many a restaurant upon hearing they use store bought chips. If they aren’t house made I will make an exception, but it better be a damn good chip befitting my description above. They can’t be flimsy or fragile in order to be able to heft up a good amount of dip and they better not get soggy before I reach the bottom of my pile. Then it is all about layering toppings in a balanced ratio so that it’s possible to get a bit of each in every bite and one ingredient better not run out faster than another. Whether it is a traditional plate of Mexican style nachos with beans, guacamole, sour cream, shredded beef or chicken and a savory chorizo cheese sauce or a gastro pub artisan plate with carne asada, queso cream and diced tomatoes, the ratio is elemental. Other than that, I am not a nacho purist.

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Napa Valley Burger Company Nacho Waffle Fries

Today, I don’t eat nachos much. My hips would be gargantuan and my heartbeat an erratic misfire of cardiac pulsations. But I have become a nacho connoisseur, seeking out the best from a sea of the ordinary rest, and when I find them, it’s just like unwrapping that exact thing we want on Christmas morning. So instead of a top ten nacho list, I keep mine at a manageable top three.

  1. TLT Pork Belly Nachos in Westwood, Los Angeles, California – This perfect one basket meal for the UCLA college students consists of braised chunks of tender yet crusted pork belly, pico de gallo, and a signature pinkish cheese sauce over fresh chips.
  1. Gus’s BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos in South Pasadena, California – I will sidle up to this bar again and again for a lazy Sunday afternoon cocktail and a plate of these exquisite nachos to share with the Cute Gardener. The best homemade tortilla chips hands down come topped with pulled BBQ pork, four cheese sauce, BAKED BEANS (!), smoked mozzarella, jack cheese, tomato, red onion, guacamole, pickled jalapeno and a drizzle of BBQ sauce.
  1. Nacho Waffle Fries at Napa Valley Burger Company in Sausalito, California – Perfect puffy waffle fries with airy centers and crispy nooks and crannies are piled high with shredded cheese, chopped bacon, guacamole, sour ream and house pickled, tangy jalapenos. It is like a potato skin that has gone to finishing school and returned home knowing how to salsa.

I have visions for my nacho future, too. I am always dreaming up combinations. Lately, I have been visualizing and looking out for a good plate of Peking duck nachos. I have never seen nor heard of this but imagine it as something dark and smoky, sweet chunks of hoisin-coated duck with tiny slices of green onion, a cooling white cream sauce, and those crispy Chinese noodles fried to powdery smithereens on top. Maybe this college football season while the CG and I resume our seasonal Saturday spots on the couch I will do some nacho experimentation and create a top three for the home.

Perpetually Seeking Pastry Perfection

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When I was a 27-year-old, I prided myself on the fact that I was NOT a shortbread girl or a sugar cookie fan. Both represented to me all the things that were wrong with pastry. Who wants a plain white brick or disk of hard, crumbly, butter dough without the presence of chocolate or spice or adornment? Who wants sugar without some form of nut or chip or accompaniment to gussy it up? Clearly I hadn’t met a good version of either to make this case…that was until I met Big Dog Dave (BDD). BDD was a handsome and rocky-muscled sixty year old gay man who worked as a data entry clerk at an HIV/AIDS service organization I served as marketing director for in my early career mom days. He was a quirky fellow, thus my attraction, and loved dogs and baking more than anything in the world (well, perhaps not the gym). Every Christmas, he would whip up batches of his famous sugar cookies as gifts and throw a dozen or so in a tin for me. The first time I tried one, merely to be polite, I fell into a hopeless love affair with the very cookie I had avoided for life. It was like falling into a soft pillow covered with a swirl of pink buttery frosting delight. I hid this fact, along with the rapidly emptied tin, in a kitchen cupboard for a long time. Was it really okay to embrace a fondness for something made strictly from sugar, flour and butter into a life that otherwise considered itself healthy? Was it really okay to use my close proximity to BDD’s desk in the workplace to connive his leftover holiday cookie plates to take residence on my lap when he wasn’t looking?

And thus my affair with pastry began—quickly, sordidly, and shamefully. Although now, 20 yeas later, I am a full-blown salacious whore for the myriad confections formed on cold counters across the world, meticulously crafted to either failure or perfection by the flick of a discerning tongue and a toothy chomp down.

What makes a perfect pastry? Is it the messiness of the flake that alludes to a solid use of butter or the density of bite leading one on to believe a whole lot of sin is packed in one square inch of goodness. Should the bite be sweet or slightly salty? Should the dough be unadulterated or frosted? Should the dessert be traditional or contemporarily updated for modern taste buds and considerations of the waistlines? Should it be gluten free or full force old school? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but am having a hell of a lot of fun trying to find them.

Current Top Ten Pastry Experiences (Aside from BDD’s Sugar Cookies):

  1. Oversized palmiers at Jean Phillipe’s Patisserie at Aria in Las Vegas
  2. Kouign Amann at Lincoln Bakery, Pasadena
  3. Cream puff at Eagle Rock Italian Bakery
  4. Praline Le Mervilleux at La Mervetty in Beverly Hills
  5. Almond croissant at Il Sogne in Palm Desert
  6. Guava and cheese pastry at Portos in Glendale
  7. Root vegetable tart at La Boulange in San Francisco
  8. Salted caramel bar at Huckleberry in Santa Monica
  9. Buttercup at Sycamore Kitchen in Los Angeles
  10. Chocolate ginger scone at Wild Flour Bread in Sebastopol

Birthday Cake Truffles Bliss

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Warning: If you are going to read this entry further you must admit to being one of those children who would soak the Lucky Charms in milk for fifteen minutes before eating breakfast so you could drink the white creamy juice down afterwards like a sweet bubble of sin. Or alternatively, be one of those children who wadded up pieces of Wonder bread and rolled it between your dirty palms to produce dense balls of doughy, snack goodness. If you have gotten this far without throwing up you will appreciate the rest of this story.

Last week the Cute Gardener and I did something we NEVER do … drove to Koreatown’s Line Hotel during rush hour traffic simply for the chance to stand in line and buy some of Christina Tosi’s baked goods. As co-owner of Momofuku Milk Bar in NYC along with celeb chef David Chang, she is renowned for desserts like Crack Pie that causes sugar addicts to relapse. We aren’t star fuckers, so Tosi in person signing her new book of savory recipes did nothing for us … it was simply the opportunity to buy compost cookies on the West Coast that baited us out of our normal hermit-tude. While she penned autographs five feet away with L.A.’s most famous POThead Roy Choi we stood in line for the baked goods, knowing where our priorities lay. We were of the lucky set that was able to order multiple menu items before the growing demand topped the orders off at three items per customer. Which is great, because I not only wanted my favorite cookies of Tosi’s which the CG picks up on his annual business trips to New York but also, I was craving a chance to taste the Birthday Cake Truffles.

With a load of sugar bombs in a brown paper bag, we left the mob of Tosi groupies and went for ramen downtown before heading home to our couch and ripping open the box of bizarre sprinkled truffles that would come to ironically steal my heart.

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As I share the beauty of the Birthday Cake Truffles, I am reminded of my saucy Aussie friend Charlotte who I’ve spent many an afternoon with during my life cooking food curiosities. On one occasion I was quite taken with a mythological, traditional food from her Australian upbringing called Fairy Bread, which she was making en masse for her daughter’s birthday party. This concoction was basically a sandwich of rainbow sprinkles on smeared butter on white bread. It sounded so utterly gross that I knew it had to be good. Birthday Cake Truffles are the grown up version of Fairy Bread.

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Through some online research, I learned that these truffles are basically the remnants of white frosted birthday cake that get all squished together at the end of the day. The squishy mess is then soaked in vanilla milk, rolled in melted white chocolate to create a shell coating and then dusted with sand (sugar and rainbow sprinkles). The box of 12 was 16 dollars and after eating one I was worried that we had bought too many. Biting into just one was like injecting liquid cane syrup directly into the veins. It was super sweet with a crumbly shell and a mushy middle that tasted like a supreme cake pop center when frigidly cold. But within days, the balls had mysteriously all rolled themselves down my throat.

That’s what Christina Tosi does best though—takes us on a stroll through the latchkey kitchens of our youth where we did the best we could with those convenience ingredients we had. All the leftover Golden Grahams cereal bits thrown into a batch of cookie dough for crunch and texture? Absolutely brilliant idea! Tang on toast? Of course! When you’re twelve that sounds divine. Mushed up cake with bleeding sprinkle color trails? Makes perfect sense. It is a good thing for me that her creations are normally the length of a continent away.

Edna St. Vincent Millay Mac and Cheese

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In my real life as a writer, I am currently enrolled in a memoir class at Stanford University—a ten-week gig I hoped would kick start a project about my mother. And it has. But is has also conjured many other memories that arise like pleasant little gifts to be chewed over and savored, reflected upon and digested. When looking back with concerted effort into our lives we find ourselves embroiled in patterns and themes. One thing I recall with fondness and a hint of curiosity, is how many friends I had in which our bonds were sealed through food.

I recall Marnie, whose house I went to for weeknight studying because I knew her mother always kept fresh gallons of mint chip ice cream in the fridge. There was punk rock Roxanne whose larder was stocked with my favorite blueberry cheesecake. Dori had a freezer full of pepperoni hot pockets and Melissa’s family owned a Jewish deli. Their pantry boasted fruit roll ups, granola bars, Doritos; an array of snacks that would put a convenience store to shame. Sometimes, I sheepishly admit now, I would make the decision to visit a friend because I was secretly hungry for something in their kitchen that I didn’t have in my own.

During my sophomore year I lived for a bit in Minnesota with my father. One of my favorite friends to hang out with was Katie. She lived a few snowy blocks away from me and made the best macaroni and cheese from scratch. Having been raised on boxes of Kraft’s fossil-hard noodles with fluorescent powdered cheese, the idea of “real” mac and cheese was completely foreign. Katie and I would spend Sunday mornings trolling the used bookstore near our homes for fifty-cent copies of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets. We would spend entire gloomy white afternoons shacked up in her bed beneath covers under her ceiling with its glow in the dark stars reading things like: “She is neither pink nor pale, And she never will be all mine; She learned her hands in a fairy-tale, And her mouth on a valentine” while cradling a hot bowl of four cheese covered noodles. She had taught me her secret recipe of cooking a pot of medium shells and then grating Swiss, cheddar, mozzarella and jack with a half a stick of butter right into the pot to mix. A healthy dose of pepper was the ingredient that sealed the deal. Looking back, I realize that so much of my love for that dish had nothing to do with it being palatable—it was shined up by our love of sappy antique literature and our secret faux starlight club. But I would spend the rest of my life seeking a mac and cheese that tasted as good.

The truth is that in real life a good ramekin of macaroni and cheese is almost impossible to find let alone an exceptional one. Although the concept of our favorite al dente form of curvaceous, cavernous pasta infused with multiple, blending, melted cheeses sounds divine, there are so many things that can and typically do go wrong. First of all, after boiling pasta and then attempting to re-cook it with a bake in the oven, it almost always ends up dry and no amount of liquid, cheesy goo can disguise that fact. In fact, I am convinced that the reason there is so much cheese in mac and cheese in the first place is that some peasant women was sincerely trying to sex up her nightly pot of cheap noodles to feed her brood and realized only three pounds from the sheep was going to do it. Even when I run into pots of the dish studded with exotic ingredients like lobster chunks or chorizo or truffles, I end up feeling like the mac and cheese has somehow sullied their glory and distilled their taste. The only exception to boring comes when the Cute Gardener makes me his version pilfered from a fancy L.A. restaurant and re-imagined in his mind but refined through the use of elegant tiny elbows and a sauce that is actually a sauce and not globs of grated cheese.

Regardless, I stay hopeful on my search. You would think I would just give up but then things like Bon Appetit’s pimento version come along, teasing me with the inclusion of tangy red pepper and peppadews, hinting at a toasty panko crunch explosion in my mouth. Instead I spend hours making the dish for dinner and it is the inevitable dry noodles made wet with heart attack-inducing amounts of expensive cheeses. Unfortunately, it tastes better cold and congealed after a hike the next day.

Maybe I just need to splatter some faux comets and constellations on my kitchen ceiling and whip out the graying pages of poetry tucked away in my high school journals the next time I am compelled to try the supposedly universal comfort dish again.

Foie Floodgates

IMG_9437Last Wednesday the California culinary scene celebrated when a federal judge overturned the statewide ban on foie gras that has been in effect since 2012. The decision to lift the ban wasn’t a judgment about whether the practice of force feeding fowl to fatten their livers before killing them for food is animal cruelty or not. It has to do with state versus federal jurisdiction over food products.

When the ban was lifted the Cute Gardener and I had a conversation on the couch, pause button pressed on whatever we had been doing at the moment as we are prone to do during intense discussions post-dinner in our home, about the level of outrage foie gras has provoked in our society. News of activists outside of French restaurants and deli counters and meat distribution businesses still refusing to sell foie on principle abounded over the past week. Our questions weren’t geared toward the hardcore vegans or vegetarians or the people who already think meat is murder, but to the people who generally eat meat. Why are they so inflamed about the treatment of ducks and geese in the making of foie gras, when they regularly sit down to meals of chicken, turkey or beef? Turkeys have been so overly stuffed that they are too heavy to fly. Chickens are packed into cubicles and given growth hormones. Kobe beef is grazed until veins of marbled fat become so entrenched in their flesh that it is almost impossible to discern pink from red in the meat.

It seems like the true question at hand for those people should be whether or not they eat meat at all? If you eat meat, it seems rather morbid to try and discern what types of killing are better than others? If you eat meat because of its historical precedence in the societal food chain, then it doesn’t seem like you have much room to spout off on either side of the humane treatment of animals debate. Which is why I stay out of it. My diet is not overloaded in meat but I do factor pork, beef, chicken, lamb and turkey protein into my balanced palate on a permanent basis. I try to source sustainable meat whenever possible because I don’t want an assortment of foreign chemicals in my body and won’t go out of my way to expend major amounts of energy procuring meat otherwise.

For the past three years, the Cute Gardener has been enjoying his foie on business trips to New York City. Alas, I have not been so fortunate as the life of an artist and writer does not afford me the luxury to accompany him on those trips. Last night, we stopped into Petrossian after a Moroccan dinner at Tagine looking for a special dessert of vodka and caviar. Instead we found a new special menu of six types of foie gras (and later learned there was a special seared “off menu” item as well). We were one of three couples left in the small, pristine white dining room after nine and as we sliced off bits of foie studded with truffles and enjoyed the pursuant cold, creaminess in our mouths, I couldn’t help but wonder how many restaurants across Los Angeles were currently serving more dishes of foie today than they had ever imagined before the ban. And if that kind of backfiring momentum isn’t the true misfortunate side effect of good intentions that aim to tip our natural balances from one side to another.

P.S. After posting this, one reader sent me this wonderful NPR piece with a look at an alternate foie approach which presents good food for thought.

Foodies in Love

IMG_8273This elegant little block of tofu doused with a perfect amount of soy and striped with tender piles of meticulously placed chives represents the Cute Gardener. He is neat, ordered, minimal and aesthetically clean.

IMG_8274This chaotic bowl of ramen with awkwardly large noodles trying to elbow for room amongst the greens and wobbly eggs punctuated by strands of fatty pork represents me. I am messy, cluttered, rich and juicy.

Together these dishes make one of our favorite at home meals – food being the common denominator in our sea of differences that have always fueled our relationship with curiosity, wonder and mutual adventure. As we celebrate our third anniversary I thought I would pay homage to some of the best things I’ve learned or come to understand about our foodie life together.

  1. The CG will never share my love of white foods, i.e. bananas, coconut, etc.
  2. I will never share his love of sucking the goo from a crab head.
  3. When it comes to a bird, he likes stripping the carcass whereas I like digging the marrow from the bones.
  4. The CG received the gene that makes a person hate cilantro. I did not.
  5. If you want a cake or cookie in this household, you better ask the CG otherwise you may get something resembling rabbit food and granola without proper fat and termed raw.
  6. I make better homemade pizzas but his look prettier.
  7. Cooking the entire Dorie Greenspan Around My French Table is taking me a lot longer than I had envisioned when I gifted the book to him for our first Christmas together.
  8. Whereas the flavor of peppermint is like garlic and the sign of the cross to the CG, my kryptonite remains any form of poultry skin not fried to a non-flabby crisp.
  9. I am in charge of the baked salmon and other things in the oven; he is the king of the stove top.
  10. Rye bread doesn’t last in our household, especially if it’s from Diamond Bakery on Fairfax. He prefers it lighter without seeds and I crave dark loaves with seeds. Sometimes we get marbled.
  11. I am most assuredly spoiled because I get dinner cooked for me at least five days a week but I don’t take it for granted.
  12. Backyard produce has made grocery store produce unbearable to me.
  13. Bourbon is to be respected.
  14. For red wines, he likes his complex and balanced while I prefer funky, dark and big.
  15. We have found that there are very few restaurants that make us want to return more than once and so many good ones to choose from that it seems normally silly to do so. But there are exceptions that include Asenabo for simple yet sophisticated Japanese, Hatfield’s for buttery agnolotti, Scarpetta for scrumptious spaghetti, Papilles for Chef Tim Carey’s new-nightly dinner menu,  Il Fico for belly comforting pastas, Osteria and Pizza Mozza, Brent’s for the best pastrami in Los Angeles, El Faro for dollar fifty pastor tacos, TLT for pork belly nachos and Kokekokko because we will never tire of skewered chicken parts and cursing, beer slinging cooks.
  16. We will always enjoy non-American food for the Fourth of July.
  17. We will never eat out on Valentine’s Day preferring to whip up a feast at home.
  18. He was right when he told me I should ban dessert at restaurants because I would forever be disappointed.
  19. I was right when I told him he should do the same with BBQ anywhere on the West Coast.
  20. It is mutually understood at this point that we will never meet a pork belly we don’t like.
  21. You don’t have to like the same foods to be compatible but you have to be a foodie to be in love with a foodie.
  22. We are very lucky.

I say that last one, “We are lucky,” while knocking on wood because when you find your food soul mate you never want to lose him.