Friday, February 27, 2015

MARKETS: L.A. Farmers Market

Farmer's Markets right now are, one could say, trending. And though we're using a very 21st century term for a much older concept, we can be thankful that there's been a kind of movement in this country to get back to the basics that once made this an agrarian nation. California is of course responsible for a large segment of America's produce. But when we think of Los Angeles, southern California's metropolis, we generally think of urban sprawl and smog, and Hollywood, Santa Monica and Malibu. But not...farms. And yet, the Los Angeles Farmers Market -- coined "The Original" -- is a venerable institution that has been around since 1934, when L.A. was decidedly less urban. At the corner of Third and Fairfax, its central location makes it a Los Angeles landmark. It's a market housed in a building structure that allows it to have an open courtyard feeling inside, while the merchants and restaurants within are based in covered permanent structures.

It's a destination where you can source great produce, poultry, meat, and seafood, and stay for lunch at one of the great stalls or restaurants housed in the market. Both Farm Boy Produce and Farm Fresh Produce offer great fresh fruits and veggies, including items you'd find not just in California, but also south of the border, and in Asia. Puritan Poultry offers fresh chicken, turkey, and exotic fowl, and Farmers Market Poultry specializes in delicious turkey and quality eggs. Marconda's Meats offers top-notch butchered cuts of beef, lamb, and pork, as well as homemade Italian sausages and cold cuts. Tusquellas Seafoods is the place for staples like shrimp, tuna, salmon, cod, and snapper, as well as fresh daily catches -- and some cooking tips for anyone who asks. Little Spain is a gourmet market with a tiny restaurant tucked into its back interior patio, and offers all the wondrous foods and specialty ingredients found in Spanish cooking. In fact, there are several specialty-item stores. Dragunara Spice Bazaar has a mind-boggling array of spices and spice mixes, as well as specialty salts (a personal favorite). T (The Tea Shoppe) has an exotic array of teas, particularly from Asia -- heavenly for all of those tea purists out there.
And Zia Valentina is a spot specializing in the fabulous frozen Sicilian treat called granita (the original frozen treat before Italians made the leap to gelato), as well as specialty Italian baked goods and healthy shakes and nibbles to jump-start your morning. There are several delicious bakeries, including Normandie Bakery (classic French style), T&Y Bakery, Short Cake, and Du-Par's Pie Shop (a real American throwback). And for old-fashioned American frozen goodness, there is Bennett's Ice Cream and Gill's Old Fashioned Ice Cream

And then there are the restaurants. With a generous seating area and so many delicious spots from which to choose, I could happily eat here 3 times a week if I lived in the area (luckily for my waistline, I do not). The restaurants in the Farmers Market are a reflection of the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles itself. Of course, you have Mexican food, sushi, pizza, Chinese, deli, and vegetarian food. But you also have Korean, Brazilian, Middle Eastern, Cajun, Greek, Texas BBQ, Spanish, and French cuisine featured here. I decided to try the Southeast Asian restaurant called Singapore's Banana Leaf, on a recent visit. They offer a mix of Singapore-style Malaysian, Indonesian, and Indian cuisine -- because that's how they eat in Singapore. This delicious mash-up proved satisfying, filling, and delicious. For under $10 a plate, any one dish would serve as a great lunch. But I suffered from eyes-bigger-than-my-stomach syndrome, and was curious to taste a couple of dishes. I started with the Rojak salad, a tasty tossing-together of cucumber, pineapple, bean sprouts, apple, tofu, and spinach. The spicy peanut-tamarind dressing brought it all together in the hot-sour way that makes food from this part of the world so interesting...and more-ish.
I followed that up with Mee Indo Style -- that is, pan-sauteed noodles with two satay sticks and a fried egg on top - -with spicy peanut sauce on the side for dipping, of course. If I'd been hung over it would have been beyond perfect, but as it stands, this lunch was pretty fabulous. A limeade to help wash it down was the best accompaniment I could have asked for.

There are other, non-food-related stores at the Farmers Market, including Zara, a sunglass store, and a new Havaianas store, to satisfy all of your Brazilian flip-flop fantasies. The Grove L.A. is literally steps away from the Farmers Market, too. It's a popular gathering spot if you need to make a run to the Apple Store, Nike, or Nordstrom, or to see a movie or grab a bite to eat in one of the pretty eateries in the main square. I prefer just enjoying the Farmers Market for what it offers. When L.A. can feel like a nameless, faceless sprawling metropolis, it's merchants and farmers that gather in one place, like this, that remind us that we're a community, first and foremost. That's enough for me. That, and maybe a scoop of ice cream.  

Monday - Friday: 9 am - 9 pm
Saturday: 9 am to 8 pm
Sunday: 10 am - 7 pm
Telephone: (323) 933.9211
Toll Free: (866) 993.9211

Friday, February 20, 2015

FOOD PORN: A Look Back, 2014: Sweet Endings

Ahhh, dessert. There's no better way to cap off an enjoyable, delicious meal than with a little bit of sweet decadence. For me, if at all possible, it's in the form of chocolate. That's me, that's how I am and have always been. But occasionally, if it's done well, I love a good cheesecake or creme brulee', a carrot cake or an apple pie. Or, as in the case of the above photo -- taken in real time as I served this dessert to clients this summer in the Hamptons, no photoshopping necessary -- a good fruit tart, especially in the summer. 

Herewith, more samples from my photo gallery of sweets. They're mostly plated desserts, some single serving and some are whole pies or cakes or tarts. But they're all homemade, from scratch, and made with love. I'm not a pastry chef, specifically. But I love making delicious desserts (always have), and I think the way to make a client's meal memorable is to end it on a high note.

Some of my clients are kosher, some are vegetarian, some are lactose-intolerant or gluten-free eaters. I enjoy catering to specific tastes and relish the challenge of creating delicious food within guidelines. But my favorite type of food-specific eaters? Dessertarians, of course!

Flourless chocolate cake with fresh strawberry sauce

...and plated, with caramel sauce and raspberry truffle and pistachio ice creams


It's only right that I would start out the tantalizing photo stream with chocolate galore. Flourless chocolate cake is always a favorite, and it's so versatile. The chocolate fondant cake is also a classic, and this version with a molten center and a caramelized outside is particularly decadent. I paired it with homemade banana-caramel ice cream, a caramelized banana slice, blackberry sauce, and a meringue kiss.
The chocolate truffletorte is as rich as they come, with a thickened ganache consistency and shaved white chocolate on top. I paired it with a white and dark chocolate-dipped strawberry and edible flowers, and sprinkled strawberry rock crystal candy around the plate for whimsy. It's a serious chocolate-lover's dessert, with a wink.

Valentine's Day is always a time we think of sweet treats, and clients hosted some fun, romance-themed dinner parties in 2014. A simple, but moist, red velvet cake with classic cream cheese icing strikes a chord with many. My version definitely falls on the side of chocolatey, deep red -- not the electric red version that's simply vanilla cake with a ridiculous amount of red food coloring.
But that's my personal preference, of course. A departure from the classic is the rosewater panna cotta I served together with the red velvet cake. This was a creamy, light, subtle dessert with hints of the exotic. The panna cotta itself is tangy, the strawberry sauce bright and sweet, and the balsamic reduction a counterpoint to all of the above. Rosewater turkish delight and candied violets as garnish elevate the final dessert futher, adding texture and nuance. I loved how this all turned out!

Individual Apple Crumble
Apple-cinnamon tart

I love good old American apple desserts, in pretty much any form. One of my favorite ways to enjoy fruit desserts is by making them into crumbles. I make them all summer long with berries and stone fruits like peaches, nectarines, plums, and pluots. Come autumn, I go for apples and, upon occasion, pears. There's something about the combination of these fall fruits with cinnamon and warm spices that screams perfection in sweater weather. I also love cheesecake. It's a no-chocolate "exception" dessert for me. I love both the classic New York version as well as the Italian/Roman ricotta version. They bridge the continental divide that is my life in cooking. They also make for damned tasty endings to great meals, and they're light enough so they don't weigh on you. I love a classic with strawberries, but I also love throwing some chocolate chips in with the batter and making these mini ricotta cheesecakes. I like to whip some cream and add some crushed pistachios to it, and top it all off with some berries (here, raspberries) and mint. Light and delicious!

Pine nut tart with grapefruit-rosemary sorbetto
Pavlova with red fruits and passion fruit sorbet

Sometimes desserts are a challenge to pair within the context of a meal. Sometimes, the meal dictates the invention of a new dessert that just works. Often these are "compound desserts" made up of several elements that work better together as a whole. The desserts above and here all fall into that category. A chewy, caramelized pine nut tart laced with rosemary in its caramel base is accompanied by a bracing grapefruit-rosemary sorbetto. Gluten-free diners on Valentine's Day shouldn't miss out on all the pleasures of decadent desserts: to wit, a meringue pavlova filled with pillowy cream and red fruits pairs perfectly with a tart passion fruit sorbet. It was a multi-course Moroccan meal that spurred me to invent a dessert worthy of the previous courses. The solution was a light-as-air citrus cake on a meyer lemon yogurt cream, marinated figs and dates in spiced syrup, caramelized figs, and an orange-mint salad. Gorgeous, light, and a great complement to the spirit of the Moroccan food. 
And then there's the beauty of the berry, in its various forms. I love the classic strawberry shortcake, like the one above -- closer to a lightly sweet biscuit, stuffed with fresh organic whipped cream, and lashed with ripe, juicy berries. There's the more ascetic but incredibly flavorful dessert I created of a strawberry-balsamic sorbetto, packed with flavor, over minted sliced strawberries and paired with a pistachio tuile and a touch of whipped cream -- a bit of an Italian-modernist version of the strawberry shortcake.

In a class of its own? The simple, dignified elegance of a chocolate-dipped berry, here used to top a shadow cake. This magnificent dessert is a cake my mother used to pick up from a local bakery for family birthdays when I was a child, when she didn't have time to make a homemade cake. It's a layer of chocolate cake and a layer of vanilla, with chocolate buttercream in the middle, regular buttercream on the outside, and a chocolate ganache glaze on top. I doubled down for a client's birthday, here, and made the cake 4 layers, alternating between chocolate and vanilla. The ganache is extra rich, and the chocolate-covered strawberry trim is my over-the-top invention...for which I refuse to apologize. This cake was what the Italians would call "una bomba" -- a bomb. And it is. A delicious, decadent bomba. And that's what dessert, of course, is all about.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

QUICK BITE: The Chocolate of Modica, Sicily

With the approach of San Valentino, or Valentine's Day as it's known in the U.S., my thoughts turn to all that this holiday stands for: love and romance, of course, red hearts and red roses. But for me, this holiday will always be about my first love, the love I've had for one thing, since I can remember first tasting it: chocolate. And so I thought I'd indulge my readers with a quick bite of information about the world-renowned Sicilian chocolate I was lucky enough to experience first-hand this summer.

Modica is a gorgeous baroque town that spreads across two hills, divided by its main thoroughfare at the bottom of these hills, Corso Umberto I. This town, just a few miles inland from the southern Sicilian coast, seems encapsulated in time. And though it had existed for many centuries previous to the terrible earthquake at the end of the 17th century, Modica was left in ruins. The resulting rebuild in the style of that time period gave us a gorgeous baroque jewel (like so many towns in this part of the island, famous for their baroque architecture) that is a beauty to behold. Sicilians, traditionalists that they are, may have rebuilt a new city, but even an earthquake couldn't shake them from their traditions, first and foremost of the culinary variety.
The Spanish had conquered Sicily during the period of Spanish exploration to the New World, and so the Spanish happened to introduce many food items they discovered in the Americas, cacao included. The Aztec method for using cacao was often used to make a bitter drink (not unlike coffee), or to be added to savory dishes, like the Sicilian u lebbru 'nciucculattatu - - wild hare cooked in a chocolate sauce, still made today in local restaurants. Another incarnation of an Aztec cacao recipe was for cold-worked chocolate, which is the style in which Modica's chocolate is still made today. 

The chocolate of Modica -- which has been winning awards internationally for over a century -- sticks to the very simple recipe of hand-ground cocoa beans and sugar. E basta. That's it. This allows for the quality and flavor of the cocoa bean itself to shine through, with natural cocoa butter and no added soy lecithin, or any other emulsifiers or additives. The Mexican stone called a metate is used to grind the cocoa beans, as shown in this photo (taken in a cave-like chocolate processing room off of the main corso in town, part of the Chocolate Museum's tour). This ground cocoa is gently warmed and mixed with sugar. But it's warmed to between 40-50 degrees celsius, so the sugar doesn't melt. This preserves the flavors and the nutrients and antioxidants of the cocoa better than modern processing methods. 
It also leaves the texture as very granular and crumbly, so you get that sugar crunch when you bite into it. There are various popular flavors the Sicilians add to their chocolate, and they're generally locally-grown and reflect their culinary history as an island whose conquerors included the Spanish, French, and Arabs. You'll see Modica chocolate with pistachios and almonds, cinnamon and cardamom, citrus zest, peperoncino (chile pepper), black and white pepper, and sea salt, mint and jasmine. The flavor combinations with the style of the cold-processed chocolate make for a unique taste experience.

The most famous arbiters of this taste experience are the owners of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, a tiny jewel box of a chocolatier tucked into a side alley off of the main drag in Modica. It was established in 1880, and is the oldest chocolate shop in Sicily. But you can find great Modica chocolate in almost any shop in town, as well as in many specialty shops all over the island.
Sicilians are proud of their chocolate-making tradition, and rightly so. I realized just how proud they were when I toured the Museo del Cioccolato di Modica, or the Chocolate Museum, which shares pride of place in the center of town, housed in a former convent of St. Francis alla Cava. They've got a sculpture in chocolate of the entire Italian peninsula and islands, as well as some beautiful chocolate sculptures made by artists and students, creating everything from a series of chocolate pastry chefs to the Incredible Hulk, handmade and all in Modica chocolate. Impressive, and fun.

But the chocolate in Modica isn't only eaten in sweet form in bar or bonbon, nor is it only for show in creative sculpture. We can't forget to mention cannoli, the delicious flaky fried cinnamon-scented dough funnel, stuffed (fresh, on request, please!) with a sweetened ricotta filling and rolled in ground pistachios and chocolate bits, in its best iteration. The chocolate is also folded into mpanatigghi, small pastries stuffed with minced meat and chocolate, in a very Arab-influenced preparation. 
And there are also liccumie, another pastry-like preparation stuffed with eggplant and chocolate (which was basically my motivation to come to this part of Sicily: they pair my two favorite food things! In one dish!). I enjoyed a dessert inspired by this combination in an elegant restaurant in town: an eggplant custard-like filling covered in dark chocolate from Modica. Heaven.  

So, when you're considering which chocolates you should surprise your sweetheart with this Valentine's Day, or you're deciding which chocolate to treat yourself to this year, consider the unique flavors of chocolate from Modica. Better yet, go for the ultimate indulgence and head to the source! There's nothing more romantic than a getaway to an Italian island for some chocolate amore...

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto
Corso Umberto I, 159
+39 0932 94122

Museo del Cioccolato Modica
Piazzo 8 Marzo
+39 347 461.2771   

Friday, February 6, 2015

RECIPE: Ribollita (Tuscan minestrone bread soup)

There are few things better on a bitter cold day, or evening, than a bowl of ribollita, the cool weather Tuscan bread soup. It's made with a Tuscan minestrone base, to which stale bread is added -- preferably the tasteless, salt-free crusty bread that became a staple in Tuscany when an overwhelming majority of citizens refused to pay a steep salt tax. It's even been used to clean precious frescoes in Tuscan churches, as its texture is similar to a sponge (its stand-alone taste is fairly similar, too). 

How is a Tuscan minestrone different from your average minestrone, you may ask? It shares all of the basic vegetables, like celery, carrots, and onions, of course. But Tuscans, like their mangiafagioli (bean-eaters) moniker suggests, often add cannellini beans to dishes, for added heft, starch, and protein.
Their minestrone is no exception, so they use beans to replace the tiny pasta tubes that the rest of the Italian peninsula uses. They also add Tuscan kale (or lacinato), what in Italian is called cavolo nero (black kale) or cavolo laciniato (fringed kale). This is sliced or hand-torn into strips that get thrown into the minestrone, adding color and great nutrients and fiber to the soup. 
The thing that turns Tuscan minestrone into ribollita (which literally means "re-boiled") is the addition of bread. The Tuscans are a thrifty bunch, not ones to let bread go to waste simply because it's stale. So they have a series of bread-thickened soups in their culinary repertoire to make the most of it. Ribollita is the wintry version, and it's one of my all-time favorites. It freezes well, so you can make a huge pot of it during, say, a February snowstorm. You can eat it until (and if) you get sick of it, and freeze the rest for another blustery night.

(Serves 4-8)
6 TBS. Olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 onion, chopped into medium dice
1 carrot, chopped into medium dice
2 stalks celery, chopped into medium dice
3 cloves garlic
2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans, drained
4 whole peeled tomatoes or 1 15-oz. can peeled tomatoes
8 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bunches chopped cavolo nero (black kale)
1 small loaf Tuscan (unsalted) or crusty peasant bread, preferably a day old
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese
Salt & pepper to taste

- Warm 6 TBS. of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it's hot, toss in the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Sprinkle with a dash of salt and pepper and cook, stirring so the vegetables don't stick, until they're softened, about 5 minutes.

- Add the tomatoes and beans, stir and cook for 2 minutes. Add the broth and the rosemary and thyme, and cook for 15-20 minutes, so the flavors meld.

- Add the kale (and remove the herbs if you'd like), and stir to blend. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- Tearing the bread with your hands into bite-sized chunks, slowly add the bread to the broth, mixing to absorb the bread every 10 pieces or so. You may not use the whole loaf, but you may. The consistency should be a thick porridge. Let the soup cook another 15 minutes or so, simmering on low, so the bread breaks down and becomes integrated into the soup a bit. Taste to adjust for seasoning.

- To serve, ladle into bowls, drizzle generously with the highest-quality extra-virgin olive oil you can find (Tuscan is most relevant here), and sprinkle with grated parmigiano cheese.

Note: Like most soups, this one is even better the next day, or even the day after that. Since it's ribollita (re-boiled) anyway, it keeps very well for several days in the fridge, or for 2 months in the freezer.

Monday, February 2, 2015

FOOD PORN: A Look Back at 2014 (Private Chef Edition)

Vietnamese marinated grilled pork chops on watercress with watermelon, pickled watermelon rind, + fizzled shallots
Here we have Part 2 of the 2014 Food Porn "A Look Back" -- this time, dedicated to private chef and small-scale catering events for which I created menus and cooked my rear off in the pursuit of deliciousness. I prepared plenty of Italian meals, as always, but I also spanned the globe for myriad influences and exciting tastes and flavor pairings to keep me on my toes, and keep my clients' palates tickled. So now, on to the good stuff.

Sumac-roasted cauliflower salad with celery, parsley, and pomegranate

Winter Valentine's salad of veggies and "heart beets"

Spicy lobster fra diavolo with spinach fettucine
Moroccan-spiced beet and carrot salad with carrot-top pesto

Thai crab salad on Upland cress with pomelo, peanuts, mint, and fried garlic
Dover sole with rosemary roasted baby potatoes and asparagus
In the cold winter weather, I get a lot of requests for beef tenderloin -- it impresses guests but also acts as upscale comfort food. I love pairing it with polenta, either soft or made ahead and seared in a grill pan. I pair it with a bitter green of some kind, and finish with a barely-sweet sauce of red wine or balsamic vinegar. Below, two different preparations:

Beef tenderloin with griddled polenta diamonds, broccoletti, balsamic reduction
Pepper-crusted beef tenderloin, soft polenta and Tuscan kale, Sangiovese-shallot sauce

Summertime sheds a whole new light on primary ingredients (literally: the sun), and with it, the ability to play around with countless fruits and vegetables, and lighter fare, than clients crave in cooler months. Composed salads and seafood reign supreme, and seaside dining offers the perfect backdrop for tasty, and healthy, meals with friends and family.

Composed summer fruit and vegetable salad

Striped bass ceviche with holy basil, pomegranate, mache, and herb oil
Burrata with heirloom tomatoes, white peaches, and torn garden herbs

Snapper over julienned veggies with cockles in a saffron sauce
Nicoise salad with fresh seared tuna
Some delicious savory eats for the Jewish Holidays...

Roast chicken with vegetables and za'atar
Beef tenderloin
...into early and late autumn dishes.

Striped bass, wild rice with ginger sauce, asparagus + carrots, carrot top pesto
Heirloom tomato + radicchio salad with grilled peaches, herb vinaigrette

Angel hair with crab, caviar, chives, and white wine sauce
Seared halibut with velvet potato puree and Israeli veggie ragout

Striped bass, harissa couscous, haricot vert, saffron aioli
Grilled pork chop, silk potatoes, walnut-grape chutney

Autumn greens, mushrooms sungold tomatoes, goat cheese + hazelnuts
Grilled tuna steak over wilted greens, tomato-ginger-garlic confit

Have a delicious day!