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.

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.

A Perfect Pink Pig Raises My Curve

IMG_8376 The Cute Gardener and I tend to spend our entertainment budget money on food. While other people are spending dollars on clothes and toys and second homes and playthings, we tend to live low on the consumerist radar in lieu of once a week forays into the culinary landscape. Whether it be low brow Sonoran hot dogs on a trip to Arizona or the latest farm to table $200 gastropub to crop up in downtown L.A. our indulgences lie weekly in the adventures of tasting.

This both inspires and drives the way we cook at home. Sometimes we keep it simple, like when the Cute Gardener whips up something from his never boring oeuvre of Italian pasta or Asian stir fry dishes based on whatever vegetables are currently sprouting in the garden. And once a week, I make a meal that is like me: messy, complicated and typically soaked in French undertones. Because we eat out so much we have a high bar to gauge our cooking. The CG who’s been cooking for himself the past 25 years typically meets that bar or surpasses it, making me a spoiled girl. When it comes to me, who’s only seriously endeavored into the world of home chef-dom for the past five or six years, though, it’s hit or miss. Sometimes a dish turns out remarkably well as with a recent olive tapenade-stuffed game hen and other times it flops miserably like the time I halved the beef called for in a beef wellington recipe but didn’t adjust the cooking temp and time accordingly producing an overly dry bastardization of a high caliber filet.

So I bring humor and hope into my ambitious weekly cooking evenings and a dash of the low expectations that come when you know you are an amateur dabbling in the big leagues. When we first met the CG told me that, as much as he appreciated the loving intention that went along with a woman wanting to cook for him, I should be warned that he has eaten out way too much for anything to impress him on the home front so I shouldn’t take anything personally. In our three-year relationship, I have heard him take a bite of two distinct dinners of mine and immediately say “This is good.” I thought that was a remarkable accomplishment. Last week I finally heard the holy grail of compliments escape his lips while biting into a slab of pork loin roast I made. He said, “See, meals like this make me wonder why we go out to eat.” Of course, he wasn’t serious about us not going out to eat –in the ensuing days after that comment we enjoyed Scratch Bar’s lovely cured pig’s heads and pink and purple pickled foods followed by a dash into Barney’s Beanery for a dessert of chili cheese fries. But I have been waiting to hear those words come out of his lips for three years.

So back to my learning curve-raising roast. Dorie Greenspan has been my silent mentor as I chip my way through her “Around My French Table.” So far, she has not served me wrong as I use her book as my personal classroom. Despite the fact that I have a tough judge and coach at home, I continue to try difficult things because over time, like with anything that requires practice, I perfect subtleties that benefit my cuisine overall. I learn when my oven times should be tweaked because I know the elevation of my home is different than the recipe originator’s. I know when I can leave an ingredient out and when I can’t. I know when I can substitute a vegetable for another and when I shouldn’t because of things like water content or fiber. I learn personal golden rules like always massage olive oil into kale before using it for a salad or never cook fresh peas for more than a minute in a hot pan lest they shrivel. And I raise my own cooking curve to challenging new heights. This is why I was pleased as punch to see my chard stuffed pork loin emerge from the oven last week with sublime “just pink” flesh and a dense and juicy tenderness.

Here’s Dorie’s original recipe with my own notes added at the end.

Chard Stuffed Pork Loin Roast

1 bunch Swiss chard, about 6 stalks
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, fine dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup golden raisins
red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 1/2 pounds pork loin roast, at room temperature

Wash the chard well.  Trim the ends of the stalks, about 1/2 inch or so.  Then, cut or tear the leaves away from the center ribs.  Finely chop the ribs and tear or roughly chop the chard leaves.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven, over medium heat.  Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and starts to color, about 5 minutes. Season with salt. Add the chard ribs and cook for another 3 minutes.  Add the chard leaves in two batches, adding the second when the first wilts enough to make room for it.  Cook until the chard is tender, about 5 minutes longer.  Stir in the raisins and transfer the mixture to a medium bowl.  Add a pinch or so of the chili flakes, plus salt and pepper, to taste.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Wipe clean the pan used for the chard mixture and place the pan in the hot oven.

Crack the peppercorns and coriander using a mortar and pestle or place between two sheets of waxed paper and pound with a mallet or skillet.  Set aside.

If your butcher has not already done so, use a long, sharp knife to make a lengthwise slit in the pork roast, taking care not to cut the meat in two, about 1/2 inch from the outer edge.  Open the roast and spoon the stuffing onto the meat.  Close the meat around the stuffing and tie with kitchen twine, at intervals, replacing any stuffing that escapes as you go.

Rub the pork with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, season with salt and rub the crushed peppercorns and coriander into the meat.  Carefully remove the hot roasting pan from the oven.  Place the pork loin, fat side up, in the hot pan.  Roast uncovered and undisturbed until the thickest part of the loin, not the stuffing, reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  Check at 25 minutes but expect that it will take about 40 minutes.

Once the roast is done, remove from the oven and tent lightly with foil on a plate or cutting board.  The pork should rest for 15 minutes.

NOTES:

I did not have kitchen twine so I used two skewers through either end of the open side of the meat and they worked just fine.

My chard leaves in the garden were massive so I only used three.

I used dark raisins instead of golden and they substituted well.

I served this with a kale, dried cranberry, and crushed almond salad lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and a Parmesan polenta with parsley.

 

Corny Girl Cornbread

IMG_7648Growing up with a mother who was born and raised in the Midwest, I learned very early that corn was our family’s number one food group. At our dinner table corn was the vegetable of choice, normally heated up from a can and poured on top of a big pile of freshly whipped mashed potatoes with salt and pepper (potatoes being our family’s second major food group.) Summer time thrived with grilled corn on the cob greased in our family’s signature way of putting your hand through a plastic sandwich baggie like a glove, grabbing a wad of butter in its slippery folds and then rolling the hot cob through the palm until it was fully coated. Christmas Day was typically spent waiting for dinner at which I would dig a large spoon into my mother’s famous scalloped corn made with the creamed version and topped with Saltine crackers that had been obliterated into crumbs by the barrel of a fat, wooden rolling pin. I would live on this savory casserole for days after because left over and topped with lots of cracked pepper, it was even better.  Because I overdosed on corn throughout my childhood, it was typically the last thing on my plate once I left home and embarked out on my own.

In my twenties, I did fall head over heels for cornbread though. It was something I could eat that reminded me of home yet was also new to my palate. It became the dish I could order instead of a blasé entrée when forced to endure long business lunch hours at places I didn’t normally frequent like Marie Callender’s where the corn bread came top hat high, smoking hot and dolloped with sweet cream whipped butter or those odd soup and salad restaurants where I could get a square of it and pour the honey on heavily. As I got older, I discovered the joys of studding my own home-cooked batches with real fresh kernels, curry powder or diced jalapenos.

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Recently I embarked on a new cornbread undertaking with a heavy bottomed cast iron skillet version that incorporated creamy chunks of avocado into its hearty, crusty and granular belly. From Food52, this version went perfectly sliced like a pie, hand held and dipped into a bowl of homemade corned beef vegetable soup – both the bread and the soup containing a tiny little bite of heat from the beef and some cayenne pepper. I may be a corny girl but when it comes to my mouth, it’s all about the spice. And I am very proud that my end result looked exactly like the photo on the page I took the recipe from — a true foodie score!

Avocado Cornbread
Serves one 9-inch round cornbread

1 cup stone ground cornmeal
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons cumin
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 ear corn cut from the cob (about 1 1/2 cup)
1 large ripe avocado in 1/2″ cubes (about 1 1/2 cup)
Juice from 1/2 lime (about 2 teaspoons)

Heat the oven to 400. Put 2 tablespoons butter and 1 teaspoon cumin in a 9-inch iron skillet or a cake pan and stick it in the oven.

Whisk the remaining dry ingredients together. Melt the remaining butter and honey together (honey measuring tip – give your measuring spoon a spritz of no-stick before pouring in the honey – it will slide right out). Mix the corn and avocado – squeeze the lime over and toss gently to coat. In a large bowl – whisk together the egg and buttermilk. Yes, you have now dirtied up 4 bowls. But you can wash them while the cornbread bakes.

Slowly whisk the melted butter and honey into the buttermilk and egg. Next stir in the dry ingredients and then gently fold in the avocado and corn. Get the hot pan out of the oven and pour in the batter.

Put the cornbread back in the oven and reduce the heat to 375. Bake 30-40 minutes until it is golden brown and a tester comes out clean (unless you hit avocado!)

Allow to cool some before you serve.

 

 

 

The Elevated Egg Sandwich

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Cohabitation brings many perks but one of my utmost favorites is the joy of cooking together and for one another. But it also means shelving the roster of old standards you became used to as a single person—you know those dishes you pull out of your arse at nine p.m. when looking at the clock after an evening of binge-watching Netflix with half a bottle of red wine and lukewarm kale chips and realize you need to eat something of substance.

One of my old stand-bys has always been the fried egg sandwich. Bonafide egg whores like me will agree that nothing quite fills in when you need something quick, easy, nutritious and slightly seedy than a buttery egg between two luscious slices of bread with whatever adornment you desire. When my daughter was younger, she would liltingly ask for an egg sandwich every morning before school. Her order was persnickety and always the same: sunny side up on one piece of toasted, buttered French bread with a tiny creek of runny yolk and lots of salt. Then another piece of toast to shred and dip into the sunshine yellow until the creek ran dry at which time she would gobble down the rest.

IMG_7658For me, being of a more adventurous palate, I have created and adored many a variety of the classic egg sandwich. So when I found myself alone at home for dinnertime recently, I decided to revisit and elevate my old friend with a naughty multicultural crossbreed that did the trick. I fried the egg in luxurious French butter like an indulgent Marie Antoinette and then plopped it onto a slice of hearty multigrain toast whose better half was already spread with thick Armenian labne (a tangy, cultured kefir cream cheese) and Ajvar (an addictive roasted red pepper vegetable spread). The result was a fluffy, warm and bright rendition that went splendidly well with a healthy side of blanched, olive oil tossed kale from the garden.

Dinner for one can still be quite fun!

Absent Mother Sacral Stew

IMG_7602 Good things take time. This is a concept that is often lost in this Internet age where large doses of information get put out into the ethers daily and people are expressing themselves in ten second tweets and status updates rather than considering poetry or taking time to craft meaty sentences and mind their words.  I have been working on a novel for two years now and have found myself feeling guilty that it is not yet done when I think of the mass amounts of do-it-yourself-ers out there publishing at breakneck speeds. But then when I actually read the amount of stuff that’s being put out there in the guise of literature these days, I am proud to be one of those old fashioned writers who is taking my time to concoct a well written tale. My only problem is that I have been stuck for five months because I am at a point in my tale that is serious and psychologically deep and hits a chord close to home for me so I have been experiencing major resistance in putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). I decided to join National Novel Writing Month this November to pump up my juices and also, to gain the benefits of having a writing buddy.

I am so glad I did. I find that in my otherwise hermit existence, whenever I open myself up to connection with another human being who is interested in the same things I am and who is living their life in a way similar to mine, I actually benefit from mysterious riches that could not have been foretold otherwise. For NaNoWriMo, I put out a call for a writing buddy who would write every day with me and with whom I could share daily emails rich with inspirational quotes, mutual cheerleading and general support as we committed to writing our 1,500 words a day for thirty days. Cyndy answered, a woman I had met at a mutual friend’s art gallery in the desert five years ago, but had only known through her Facebook posts (enough to admire her fantastic abstract artwork) since.

In that mystical and synchronistic way of the universe, these past seven days have not only produced glorious amounts of words for both of our books but in our morning emails to each other we’ve encountered an emerging friendship built on unknown commonalities like our deep respect for herbs and roots and traditional Chinese food and medicine wisdoms, our paths as independent female artists and an unlocking of stories that have been buried deep within that have been dying to be told. Neither of us has gone a day without weeping open various pockets that have been closed shut for years; cleansing old wounds; and uncovering that our own resistance in writing the stories we wanted to write had led us here to this point where we are both ready now to open and share.

Yesterday, after my sixth cry on this journey while listening to Beethoven in my darkened office, and in homage to the love of sacred food Cyndy and I share, and because both of our hearts were particularly hurting, I decided to concoct a sacral chakra stew for the both of us. It became Absent Mother Stew, an earthy, grounding dish for those with hurting hearts who need the energy of mother to comfort them and ease their pain. For those without nurturing mothers, or those who never had a real mother, or those who are just missing their mothers who are not around, this stew is for you!

IMG_7599ABSENT MOTHER SACRAL STEW
Recipe © Kimberly Nichols (aka Unorthodox Foodie)
Serves one

1 dry jujube date (found at Chinese markets)
1/2 c. dried mung beans that have been soaked overnight (by the time they have soaked overnight they will have bulked up to about 1 to 1-1/2 cup)
2 small carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
1 one inch piece of turmeric root, peeled and sliced into coins
1/8 cup chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon of butternut seeds (Sunflower or pumpkin seeds may be substituted.)

Bring the mung beans and jujube date to boil in three cups of water and then simmer uncovered for 1-1/2 hours. Then add the carrots, turmeric, walnuts and simmer another 15-20 minutes. Then put in a bowl and salt to your liking and sprinkle the seeds on top.

The Key To My Heart Is Cake

IMG_7532There are very few people who know this but the key to my heart is cake.

Cakes do evil things to me. They make me conniving. They make me whine with cravings. They make me eat ten times the normal amount of food I would normally eat in one serving. They make me suck spoons, bowls and my fingers sloppily to get every extra ounce of frosting. They make me wake up in the morning wanting a slice for breakfast to dunk messily into tea. They make me drive across cities. They make me order dessert at restaurants after full meals. They are the absolute one thing I can never say no to. And if there is a cake nearby, chances are I will find a way to make it mine. or at least a portion of it.

That being said, I am very picky about cake. I DO tend to try cake whenever there is the opportunity to. I DO manage to eat it all even when it’s sub-par too because it’s one of those food items that even messed up can still be satisfying. But my list of requirements for a cake that will make me swoon is as follows:

It has to be dense and moist.
No dry, fine crumbed cakes for me.
I want it to sink down while my fork goes through it, not hold up like a fortress.
I want the cake part to be rich.
I want the frosting part to be in perfect ratio to the cake part so I get an equal amount of both in each bite.
I want the frosting to be fluffy and light, although completely, sinfully buttery and creamy in flavor.
I want at least two layers, no sheet pan scrawny square for me.
No need to muck it up with fruits, or jellies, or weird liquid fillings unless you are the bakery Portos and the cake is the Milk and Berry cake, then I’ll fold.
I want chocolate cake and I want chocolate frosting as a given.
I will take any other cake besides that if chocolate with chocolate frosting is not available and be perfectly happy, too.
I am particularly fond of white coconut cupcakes but am hard pressed to find really good ones, although I gladly continue the hunt.
I’m also a carrot cake with white sugar cream cheese frosting whore.

My daughter inherited my love of cake. When she was little she used to beg me to buy her the whole chocolate cake at Kentucky Fried Chicken (which wasn’t even that good). The sad part is that I mostly caved in, knowing that I would be sitting in bed with her later as we watched awkward Kirsten Dunst cheerleading movies during both of our “that time of the months” forking cake into our mouths until the entire thing was gone.  The even scarier thing is that we still re-enact this freaky girl gorge fest like the time last summer we sat in a Santa Barbara VONS parking lot in my car using plastic forks to devour a large fudgy slice we had just driven across town for.

The saddest part about this whole cake obsession (or perhaps, according to my thighs the luckiest) is that I don’t actually know how to make a cake. So when my daughter was scheduled to visit this past week and the first thoughts that sprung to my mind were: BIG. CHOCOLATE. CAKE. CUDDLE. COUCH. The first thing I did was find the Cute Gardener, give him a kiss on the lips, followed by a hug, and ask as sweetly as possible: “Will you help me make a cake for my daughter?” (I was hoping the fact that I had driven through freeway traffic recently to buy him a coveted pie during pie season would score me points.)

Out came the Cook’s Illustrated “The Best Recipe” bible and after spending a morning in the kitchen together, I had managed to watch the CG whip up the most lusciously perfect Sour Cream Fudge Layer Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting*. It was perfect and is my new favorite cake to date. The way the sour cream adds a consistency of melting fudge to the cake layers as they fold into the soft buttercream frosting that adorns them is something I won’t be able to erase from my mind for a while. And, of course, my daughter and I spent shortly under 24 hours with two pieces each inside our guts together in bliss, including some binge television watching on the couch, just like old times.

A week later and we still had frosting to spare so this morning the CG whipped up a smaller, yellow cake built up into a neat cube for our football watching day. With a huge dollop of frosting on my fingertip about to licked, I told him that he had found the key to my heart: all he had to do was continually make me cake. See how easy I am.

  • Instead of the buttercream frosting that came with this recipe, we used another basic buttercream one that the CG had used before and liked better with the addition of chocolate. It is as follows:

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1-1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 large egg, beaten

Melt the chocolate until smooth creamy, mix in the vanilla. Set aside. Beat butter in bowl of an electric mixer with paddle attachment on medium speed until fluffy, about one minute. Reduce speed to low and add sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating 15 seconds between each addition. Increase speed to medium and beat until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add chocolate and vanilla mixture and egg: beat on low speed to combine. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl with rubber spatula. Increase speed to medium and beat until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. (Buttercream may be covered and kept at room temperature for several hours or refrigerated in an airtight container for a week. Bring to room temperature before using.)

On a Biscuit Bender

IMG_7206In our household it isn’t uncommon to plan a week’s worth of meals around a big juicy bird or a large cut of meat. This past weekend as the weather started curling from hot to balmy, the comfort food chord struck home in our bellies and had us hankering to welcome in the fall. This meant Sunday evening was spent with a slow roasted turkey and pile of whipped potato and butternut squash; Monday night savoring a homey turkey, carrot, Chinese sausage and onion version of the Asian slow-cooked rice porridge jook; Tuesday night linguine with shredded turkey meat; and last night going on a Southern style bender complete with turkey and gravy, a decadent fried egg, crispy turkey skin cracklins, butternut cubes and the best part, homemade fluffy biscuits.

Although I haven’t had one in years, I’ve always loved biscuits—especially the way their harder exteriors melt into whatever gooey, gravy, sweet, saucy, tangy substances are placed upon them to soak, rendering their soft innards and outer crust into one big buttery sense of ooh. I was that strange kid who would cut a steaming biscuit in half and make a sandwich out of the entire contents of my plate no matter what I was eating: turkey, cranberry, mashed potatoes during the holidays or chicken, corn, peas, and cream sauce during an ordinary family dinner. Biscuits to me were always the perfect vehicle for an entire meal.

Luckily, the Cute Gardener is a dynamite baker so I was notably spoiled by a homemade version of my long lost biscuit friend. Both the CG and I are huge fans of the magazine Cook’s Illustrated because it is all about precision cooking. Nothing gets printed between its pages unless their staff of chefs have not only tried to make it in their own kitchen, but have also done everything possible to tweak and perfect each element of every dish to produce a supreme recipe. So, unlike the times when I trawl the web and fall for ideas of food to make from prettily illustrated food bloggers or the like, I know with Cook’s I am guaranteed a good result. I’ve actually stopped using recipes from anywhere other than a few trusted resources these days like Food & Wine or a few close foodie buddies or my tried and true Around Dorie’s French Table book at home. The biscuit recipe used in this meal came from the CG’s book The Best Recipe written by the editors of Cook’s.

A fluffy, soft and creamy biscuit was born and lasted me through dinner and then onto my ensuing dessert and breakfast plates heated in the toaster oven before smothered in butter, blackberry preserves and honey.

FLUFFY BISCUITS
from The Best Recipe
Makes 1 dozen (although for us it was ten)

If you are using yogurt instead of buttermilk in this recipe, note that 8 ounces of yogurt equals 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons, not 1 cup as you might expect. Make sure that your over rack is set at the center position. Baked too low, your biscuits will likely end up with burnt bottoms.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup plain cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ¼ inch cubes, plus 2 tablespoons melted for brushing tops
¾ cup cold buttermilk or ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons low-fat or whole milk plain yogurt
2-3 tablespoons additional buttermilk (or milk) if needed

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Mix or pulse flours, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt in a large bowl or the work bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade. With your fingertips, a pastry blender, 2 knives, or steel blade of the food processor, mix, cut, or process butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse meal with a few slightly larger butter lumps.

3. If making by hand, stir in buttermilk with a rubber spatula or fork until mixture forms into soft, slightly sticky ball. If dough feels firm and dry bits are not gathering into a ball, sprinkle dough clumps with additional tablespoon of buttermilk (or milk for the yogurt dough). Be careful not to overmix. If using food processor, pulse until dough gathers into moist clumps. Remove from food processor bowl and form into rough ball.

4. With lightly floured hands, divide dough into 12 equal portions. Lightly pat a portion of dough back and forth a few times between floured hands until it begins to form a ball, then pat lightly with cupped hands to form a rough ball. Repeat with remaining dough, placing formed dough rounds 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Brush dough tops with melted butter (May be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to two hours.) Bake until biscuit tops are light brown, 10-12 minutes. Serve immediately.

Not Your Hipster Food Truck

IMG_0691I have never bought in to the whole food truck craze completely. When I first met the Cute Gardener he cringed at the words food truck and told me flat out that he refused to eat off of them. “If I want to go out to eat, I want to sit down at a table with a fork, knife and spoon,” were his exact words.

Of course I’ve bent my own rule on a few occasions only to be spoon-fed a reminder about my original convictions back into my mouth like bitter medicine because the food was so bad. I tried pork stuffed Korean buns once at a downtown L.A. food fair that were dry and lifeless. I fell into the mozzarella cheese stick stuffed melted sandwich seduction two years in a row at Coachella only to continually come up against cardboard slices of bread and lukewarm globs of cheese. I’ve bought overpriced adult snow cones in Chinatown when dying of thirst only to be let down by lackluster flavors. I tried the famous grilled cheese truck at an opening at Bergamot Station that would’ve tasted better if a child had made it at home. Recently, the CG and I even gave our hope and faith to a Bostonian lobster roll van that promised flaky fish and chips and other seafood delights. Thirty bucks and twenty minutes after ordering we were left feeling disappointed by the small, burnt sandwich and nonchalantly fried fish that we were handed. What I’ve ascertained from all of this is that food truck congregations are our post-millennium version of mall food courts.

But what were we expecting in the first place? What we have learned from all of this is that food trucks don’t mean good food. There’s some mystical spell that falls over people though when they hear they can buy some grub on the street off a moving vehicle; they somehow lose sight of their palates and think they can’t live without this novelty. Even if the food is lesser quality then something they would order at a restaurant, they still ooh and ahh over the fact that they can get it, spur of the moment, while strolling the promenade in front of their house on some random afternoon. I don’t get it. Cramped and swaying kitchen quarters, limited electricity, few modes of equipment, and sporadically monitored refrigeration and climate control does not spell ‘YUM” to me.

There are two exceptions. The ice cream truck and the taco truck have been around since the beginning of motor vehicles and largely what the whole trendy food truck craze was originally inspired by. I have thoroughly enjoyed each in my life from the orange push-ups, AstroPops and big sticks of my youth to the exotic Coolhaus gourmet ice cream sandwiches hawked around the museums of L.A. on sunny days that pair things like whiskey or strawberry shortcake ice cream with monstrous over-sized dark chocolate and spiced molasses cookies.

IMG_0689But my favorite is the taco truck, first encountered in the back alleys of industrial Southern California when the lunch bell rang and out from the doors of printing shops and mechanic garages fell grease fingered blue collared workers looking for cheap eats to fill them up for a long afternoon ahead. There’s nothing that difficult about heating various forms of meat and tortillas and throwing on some quick condiments and veggies. It had been done for generations in Mexico on the sides of the road out of a simple lean-to counter rolled around to various locations so by the time they started appearing in trucks, it was down to an art.

We had heard about Don Cucos taco truck in the San Fernando Valley and had been dying to go but were waiting for a night when we would need good food late. After a long Sunday, we finally got our chance and headed out in the car along the boulevard we knew it camped out at nightly until 1 a.m. It was nine thirty at night and we were looking for a green neon rectangular sign that meant we had found the right truck. The most hilarious thing was that we found two trucks before the right one which also had green neon signs that were trying to steal business from the popular Don Cucos. When we finally found it, there were at least thirty people there, including families with children on plastic chairs around pop up tables enjoying their meal. All the tacos are $1 and come on freshly made tortillas that you can watch through the window being molded and cooked from a large pile of yellow masa. Four ladies in baseball caps work the assembly line whipping out simple meat tacos including beef, tongue, pork, chorizo and chicken. All the normal accoutrements from hot radishes to cilantro to various types of salsa are available. Everything was simple, tasted great, and was dirt-cheap. That’s the kind of thing you expect from a good food truck … not mediocre versions of restaurant food, an on board DJ and fancy vinyl logo graphics – just plain and simple fare that’s been around for ages.

Dissecting the Deep Dish Pie

IMG_7078The first time I had real deep dish pizza, it was proper Chicago-style in a wood-paneled old school politician’s lunchtime saloon on Lakeshore Drive where one pie came traditionally topped with just cheese, meat and tomato sauce and the other arrived with a gourmet flair topped with tender octopus. This was at least a decade before the octopus craze of today yet I fearlessly bit into a tentacle eager to get at the rest of the aromatic slice.  I was only able to stomach a half piece of each pie as they stood about four inches high. My tongue was indelibly scarred by the burn of scorching hot cheese too good for cool down time and the perfect ratio of meat to sauce to a sturdy, yet perfectly inwardly wet and gooey cornmeal crust.

I gave up searching for anything better – (why mess with perfection?) – that is until I met the Cute Gardener and decided to join him on the hunt for a real (or as close to it as we could get) deep dish in Los Angeles. We spent a year seeking out viable places and finally came up with a mere two.

The first was Hollywood Pies. It was during one of our early dates when I knew I had hit soul mate eureka with this man who would attempt trekking with me on foot through the downtown freeway maze searching for an elusive in the middle of nowhere place to get a pizza. When we discovered the location, it was unfortunately closed and it took us a year to finally rediscover that a new storefront had opened on the Westside. We went and bore the brunt of a tiny dining space with a walk up ordering counter, nonchalant serving staff, visible wall insects and an hour’s wait time to try the pies. A true neighborhood joint, it was obvious that other patrons were from the 3-mile delivery radius as they came in toting their own wine bottles after smartly calling way ahead for their orders. Other than being overly garlic-ridden, the pizzas were actually good but nothing compared to my first Chicago foray. Our other option, Masa in Echo Park, was also good even though equally strange, housed in a half Asian-half Italian decorated restaurant that could double as grandmother’s living room. The pizzas there had nicely sturdy crusts, lots of tomato and a sausage patty that I loved but the CG thought was weird. Still far from the bliss originally found in Chicago.

Considering those were our only two options and knowing that we were still hankering for a version that would satisfy our nostalgic longings for the classic and elusive Midwestern dish, the CG did what he does best: compiled all the notes from his brain that included the best parts of what we had tried mixed with the best pie of his deep dish fantasies and concocted one of his own for us at home.

IMG_7080The homemade version, weighing at least five pounds in its cast iron vessel, became my favorite yet. It had the three ingredients that are a must for a deep dish: a coarse and crunchy corn meal crust, sauce on the top and a bevy of Italian sausage as the meat. It also had beautiful sprigs of oregano from the garden as well as plenty of fresh plucked and chopped tomatoes. Little slivers of red onions, pliant mushrooms and black olives lent depth to the overall flavor profile. The layering was strategic so that every bite of vegetable was brought in with cheese and topped off with a tomato tang –all carried along on a crust that was good enough to eat alone and crisp enough to want to dip into a glass of red wine once the toppings were gone.

Until an authentic deep-dish place stakes claim to a Los Angeles home, I am content knowing I’ve got quite the pizza chef of my own.