Beyond Pork Chops and Apple Sauce

IMG_9525When it comes to feeding ourselves in the home, most of us are less adventurous than we think. Even though our palates may broaden at the restaurant table, widen into the exotic while on vacation to foreign places, or take stabs at something new while browsing bustling gourmet food courts or marketplaces, we tend to pull from the same, standard repertoire of dishes when cooking in our kitchens. Most of us, single, coupled, or married with children, typically maintain a cadre of tried and true recipes we learned from our parents, simple things we learned to make for ourselves when suddenly on our own in the world, and special dishes that are more complex and pride-worthy to make on special occasions. Most of us rely on these and rarely step out of the box.

My kitchen used to operate that way when I lived alone. Goodies from mom’s childhood that I inherited into mine included Swedish pot roast and salmon patties with creamed peas. These shared calendar time with a bevy of chicken dishes I had taught myself in my twenties: piccata breasts, spicy Thai thighs, lemon-pounded tenders. Bamboo steamed sticky rice with soy baked tofu and various pots of Americanized spaghetti rounded out that list. The rest of my food came ready made from the gourmet to-go counters at Whole Foods, Lemonade or Gjelina. In my late thirties, my ordinary menu had become quite boring.

When the film Julia & Julia came out showcasing a woman combing through a cookbook and making every single recipe, I was completely inspired by the idea of perpetually making something new. So when I moved in with the CG I made a vow never to make the same thing twice. This plan has held up well with one tiny aberration being my repeating pot of arduous saffron risotto (precious dishes like this one are hard to refuse). This credo has produced a wild journey at our dining table full of delicious and surprising favorites like last week’s unctuous brick chicken and pepper roasted cauliflower as well as some comically, dreadful flops like my overly dried Wellington equivalent to $50 of beef down the toilet. But even when a meal is bad, I am still happier for having tried something new. And it makes the next great meal even better in comparison.

On the flip side, the Cute Gardener has been a huge inspiration for me in teaching me to look at an ordinary dish and to unfold its elements in order to see if something new can be created from it. This has become a fun game in our household. Last night, when presented with the ingredients for traditional pork chops and sautéed vegetables, the CG turned the result around into an astonishing and homey Asian noodle soup. The pork was braised into fatty, tender, fall apart nuggets, poured along with the meat’s cooking juice onto a pile of boiled udon noodles with slightly flash boiled petals of bok choy. It only takes a little imagination to see the flip side of a meal yet many of us are intimidated by striking out into the unknown.

I like the idea that, at 41, I could very well have double that amount of years left to sample myriad culinary pleasures. In a world full of uncertainties on many other fronts, it gives me comfort knowing that simple joys are available to me in my kitchen and that my nightly meals will never be something I take for granted.

The Awesome Alchemical Avocado

IMG_9146Our avocado tree is flush with fruit this November!

The Cute Gardener and I have been talking recently about the word “awesome”—something that has become completely overused and diffused in contemporary society. We, as well as the rest of the human population, seem prone to give everything from the latest episode of Gotham to the morning drops of dew on a leaf to a brand new pair of shoes that moniker. David Sedaris has joked that if anyone in his presence says the word awesome, they immediately owe him a dollar towards the proverbial tip jar. There was a great TED Talk by comedian Jill Shargaa on this topic recently called “Let’s put the awe back in awesome.” In it, she says, “When you use the word awesome to describe the most mundane of things, you’re taking away the very power of the word. So in other words, if you have everything, you value nothing. There’s no dynamic, there’s no highs or lows, if everything is awesome.”

One aspect of my life where I have completely overused this word is with food. The butterscotch pot de crème at Gjelina is awesome. The lamb neck at Bestia is too. But every pork belly that I have met in the past year is not, even though I have most likely gushed that word out after each forkful being the pork whore that I am.

The very definition of awesome is “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe.”

The one food that instantly comes to mind for me that fits this definition is the avocado. I have an overwhelming feeling of reverence for it because there is nothing quite like it—it stands alone in the fruit world as its own breed. Rough leathery skin surrounding smooth, oily and edible flesh and a large stone is not exactly what we think of when we hear the word fruit. Yet there it sits classified in a sea of sweet or juicy things on its own in the lone wolf color of green that for its genus sisters and brothers typically denotes “unripe.”

The “admiration” part of the avocado comes when it is mashed and used for its texture, which again, defies traditional classification because it is not quite cream, not quite butter, not quite pulp and not quite puree, but a silky unmistakable combination of all four. Without this unique and discernable texture, the world may never have known the fantastical deliciousness of guacamole.

IMG_9144But the truly “inducing awe” aspect of the avocado comes when it is used in a way that seems to completely go against its grain, as an additive in smoothies. There is something magical that occurs when an avocado is whipped with cold ingredients that completely mystifies. It turns everything into an ambrosial form of ice cream that is lusciously whipped yet densely creamy which lacks the customary avocado taste yet maintains its undertones of sumptuous richness. Since discovering this, I have gone completely smoothie crazy. My latest favorite recipe below is just the tip of the iceberg in this avocado awesomeness.

PEPPERMINT CHOCOLATE AVOCADO SMOOTHIE

1 cup almond milk
½ frozen banana
¼ avocado
2 tablespoons Ovaltine or cocoa powder
1 teaspoon organic maca powder
4 mint leaves
Bee pollen to sprinkle on top

Throw everything in a Nutribullet or other type of blender for 20 seconds and voila!

 

 

 

 

Dessert’s Fickle Diatribe

IMG_0844Gusto’s Heavenly Coconut Gelato Pie

I have been banned from ordering dessert at restaurants for a while.

This is mainly because the same thing always happens.

The Cute Gardener and I will go out and eat a stellar meal. In my sweet tooth of a brain, I will naturally assume that the restaurant’s desserts will live up to the preceding entrees so I will want to try a bite. I will be so full though, that when the item arrives, I end up taking a nip and leaving the rest the responsibility on the Cute Gardener’s gullet. Not being a sweet tooth kind of guy, he will end up spooning it in regardless—both of us leaving full and trying to recall the savory bites of a meal that came prior to the sugar onslaught.

I’ve come to realize that deep down this impetus for something sweet at the end of a meal signifies something in me I have completely outgrown. When I was a kid my cravings for sugar were wild and unfettered-completely immature and unsophisticated. It didn’t matter if they were sated at the bottom of a bowl of M&Ms the morning after my parents’ parties; through a grocery store candy bar or a la-dee-da scoop of Haagen Dazs … I was an emotional eater who used sweets as a way to feel fill a hole inside of me that was hankering for love and warmth.

In my twenties, after realizing this through years of expensive therapy, I went through a complete backlash towards sugar and became the ultimate sugar snob choosing to only eat bitter dark chocolates and Chinese mochi confections, assuaging myself with the knowledge that the red and mung bean paste delicacies were actually holistic forms of ancient Asian medicine. I would let down my guard once a month though while raising my daughter when we would have our mutual “women’s issues” that called for a slice of chocolate cake with fudgy frosting and lots of almond milk to soak it up or a pint of old fashioned Thrifty’s mint chip or cotton candy ice cream. But other than that, Tofutti cuties were about the only dessert-esque thing you’d ever find in my freezer.

When I met the CG my sweet tooth was reignited due to his pure butter-soaked thumb when it comes to baking. After tasting his sinful cocoa cookies, the best chocolate chip ever, and a barrage of cakes from lowbrow to highbrow whipped up in his kitchen, I found myself a willing slave to the dessert cart again. But now here I sit almost three years of dating later and realize I need to evaluate my ideas about sugar yet again. Somehow I feel like this will be a constant relationship of revision throughout my lifetime.

My Sugar Rules As Of This Minute
(perpetually subject to change)

  1. Never eat candy from the supermarket, period…
  2. Dark chocolate is the only chocolate. Unless it’s butterscotch Blondie chocolate. Or caramel Valrhona chocolate. Maybe, Valrhona is the only kind of chocolate. No, that’s not true.
  3. The next time I eat a macaron it will be in France.
  4. Anything white with coconut is fair game.
  5. Leave the cake making to the Cute Gardener.
  6. Only eat pastries if buying from the baker who baked them within the last 24 hours.
  7. Ice cream is over rated after age 12 unless made fresh with more eggs and cream and less artificial flavoring.
  8. Pies are only good when they are filled with roasted root vegetables or fresh, sustainable meat.
  9. Fact: fresh whipped cream and a spoon constitutes dessert, nothing else needed.
  10. Truffles from boxes will always taste like wax.
  11. Dessert IS allowed at restaurants if chosen from the savory, dinner menu like the CG and I once did with broad beans and white truffles when The Royce still lived prior to its takeover by a boring steakhouse.

Of course there are those rare moments that can’t be forsaken-when you find something that defies its “course” categorization and transcends definition because it just tastes that good. This is a rare classification though, at the moment meriting only the butterscotch pot de crème at Gjelina in Venice Beach and the butterscotch budino at Mozza in Los Angeles. Butterscotch lust is something I have not outgrown but I also know from experience that these two dishes can never be copied although a dozen restaurants across the Southern California scene are currently trying, and failing. (We tried to copy and failed too.)

And then there are the surprises—those things you have to try just because you have never heard of them and may never have the opportunity to taste them again. This was truly the case this past year at Gusto when I had a slice of pie that tasted like the moon. A heightened triangle of fluffy white topped with toasted coconut and a curl of chocolate fonduta arrived on a bed of Graham cracker crust to my delight at the end of a nice Italian artisan pasta and meatballs dinner. In today’s contemporary sea of cardboard-crusted chocolate and fruit tarts, tangy ganaches and variations on trendy ice cream flavors like crème fraiche and cinnamon, it came floating to my table like it had been carved from a cloud. Had I been banned at that time, I never would have discovered the unique piece of heaven that is coconut gelato pie.

There are always exceptions to the dessert rule, I think …

… as I sit contemplating another slice of the five-minute brownie pie I begged the CG to whip up last night for a Roberto Rossellini film.