Sunday, December 6, 2009

Soup Season

Thanksgiving on a Bun, fresh fruit

Now that Thanksgiving is long over, you don’t have to feel like you’re cheating if you order the Thanksgiving on a Bun ($8.75) from the Village Bakery and Cafe in Atwater Village. Of course, now that Thanksgiving is over, the Thanksgiving on a Bun is probably the last thing you’d want. But the casual eatery—recently opened in the former LA Bread space by one of the founders of Auntie Em’s—has plenty else to offer.

Basket of bread with raspberry butter

Aside from its full breakfast and lunch menu, the restaurant has a bakery case crammed with housemade cakes, cookies, scones, muffins, and other treats. Having more of a savory than a sweet tooth, Mr. Comma and I opted for the lemon-rosemary-almond-olive oil cake ($5) on a recent visit. Not only is the name itself a mouthful, but you really can taste every one of those flavors in each bite. Is that a good thing? We weren’t entirely convinced but look forward to sampling other selections.

Baked goods (left), lemon-rosemary-almond-olive oil cake (right)

Compared with the roast beef sandwich, which was stacked high with tender meat, cheese, grilled onions, and greens on thin-sliced sourdough, the chicken salad sandwich ($8.25), made with organic apples and toasted pecans, seemed a bit skimpy. The soup of the day, however, roasted red pepper and tomato bisque ($5), was so good that I ordered an extra bowl to take home (though I’m inclined to nitpick that traditionally a bisque is made with shellfish).

Roast beef sandwich, side salad

Chicken salad sandwich, roasted red pepper and tomato bisque

It also inspired me to tweak a recipe I thought I’d already perfected over the past 15 years, a tomato soup with dill. I’d always made mine with red bell peppers but never thought to roast them first. Turned out so great I’m happy to share my recipe here. A twist on a classic mirepoix (equal parts chopped carrots, celery, and onion), the roasted peppers and fresh zucchini in the base lend a smoky complexity to this comforting and delicious soup. This recipe makes a good 8 or so bowls, so invite friends over, or keep the leftovers to yourself.

Roasted Red Bell Pepper and Tomato Soup with Dill

2 red bell peppers
1 Tbs butter
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 zucchinis, chopped
1 28-oz can crushed Italian plum tomatoes
1 and 1/2 quarts vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup sour cream
Several sprigs fresh dill, finely chopped

Roast the peppers over a medium-high flame (or in a preheated 425-degree oven), turning occasionally, until they are nicely charred (but not incinerated) on all sides (this could take 5-10 minutes per side). Place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap or enclose in a paper bag 10-15 minutes, until cool enough to handle. Peel skin from peppers and cut open to remove seeds. Coarsely chop into 1/2-inch pieces.

Heat butter and olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Sautée garlic for a few seconds; then add onion, zucchini, and red bell pepper. Stirring often, cook the vegetables for a couple minutes. Add crushed tomatoes and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and let simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes.

Remove from heat and let cool about 45 minutes. In a blender, puree the mixture in batches to a smooth consistency. (At this point, the soup can be refrigerated for later use.)

Prior to serving, gently reheat. Add sour cream and, using a whisk, stir in until it’s fully incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (The canned tomatoes and broth will already have supplied plenty of salt so you shouldn't need to add much, if any.) Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with a big pinch of dill.

1. Prep. 2. Cooking. 3. Post-puree. 4. Finished product.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Booze, Clues, and Food

Could the eighth time be the charm? Agave Tequila House y Cantina is the eighth restaurant in as many years to open, or reinvent itself, at 1745 N. Vermont Avenue that I can think of. In the heart of Los Feliz, the restaurant/bar's locale should be ideal, yet I swear it’s cursed....

Honestly I might’ve been hesitant to check this place out, but was drawn here by Booze Clues, a monthly trivia night I’ve been competing in since its debut a couple of years ago. The pub quiz has had multiple homes, and Agave is the latest. Considering that its stock of more than 200 tequilas is the selling point of the place, I would’ve liked to try a tequila flight. But since I didn’t want to divide my attention between tequila tastings and trivia questions, I decided to save it for another evening. Instead, Mr. Comma and I both had the house margarita ($6), which was drinkable enough if nothing to gush about.

From the food menu (clockwise from top left), the chicken wings with chipotle barbecue sauce ($9) sounded great, tasted okay; couldn’t really detect the chipotle. Jalapenos rellenos ($5) were spicy and flavorful. They weren’t battered and fried like typical chiles rellenos, but it worked as bar food. These two appetizers were actually filling enough to satisfy both Nathan and me as far as our hunger went, so that was a pretty good deal. Other members of our trivia team ordered the Mexican flatbread, essentially nachos in pizza form, and beef skewers with rice and beans. I think they ran between $9 and $11.

Our team tied for 3rd place this month. Our pattern is usually this: a middling showing at halftime (the first two rounds are current events/general knowledge and a changing “specialty” round), followed by a pretty strong surge in the visual and audio rounds, our strengths. In fact, a few quizzes back, my founding teammate Jen (who blogs at Epicurean Quest) and I were thrilled to find a visual round composed of celebrity chefs. Most of them were easy, but even we got stuck on a couple. Would you have beaten us?

Name that celebrity chef (click to enlarge)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hecho en Eagle Rock

Normally it takes at least like a year before I try out a new restaurant. It isn’t because I’m waiting for hype to die down or kinks to be worked out; I’m just slow. So it was unusual for me to be compelled to check out CaCao Mexicatessen so soon after it opened (which was a couple months ago), but following a glowing review from Octopus Grigori, chronicler of all things Eagle Rock, Mr. Comma and I went. Twice! As the name suggests, the family-run establishment, in a cozy storefront on Colorado Blvd., is a Mexican eatery and deli. In addition to homemade salsas and guacamole, Mexican cheeses, and agua fresca, the shop stocks imported chocolate and specialty items like agave nectar and offers a wide selection of coffee and espresso drinks.

CaCao Mexicatessen, Eagle Rock (click to enlarge)

On our two trips I sampled some tacos, all served on CaCao’s handmade corn tortillas: (top right) cochinita pibil (pork roasted with achiote and citrus, $2.75), calabacitas (zucchini, corn, and cotija cheese, $2.55), and (bottom right) chicken ($2.65). I found the first a bit dry, but I’ve been spoiled by the divine cochinita pibil at Yuca’s in Los Feliz. The chicken tasted pretty good, even though it wasn’t grilled, contrary to the menu description, and was a little gristly. Of the three—and it surprises me to report this—I liked my vegetarian taco the best. It was full of bright flavor and was perfectly complemented by the fresh salsa verde. Mr. Comma thoroughly enjoyed his colossal carne asada burrito (bottom left, $7.95), which was so big he couldn’t finish, even with my help.

I also tried an iced latte de miel de agave ($3.45 single/$3.70 double), sort of a poor man's Iced Angeleno with half the espresso and double the agave nectar. Delicious. Friendly service and a casual but homey atmosphere are also big pluses. We’ll be repeat customers.

CaCao Mexicatessen
1576 Colorado Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90041
Note: Closed Mondays

Friday, September 25, 2009

Eggs Over Freezy

This is what happens when your eggs get pushed back to the coldest part of the refrigerator:

It's like an egg slushie.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Fiery Harvest

With the whole city covered in a thick blanket of smoke, the so-called Station Fire has pretty much consumed my thoughts along with all the vegetation in the San Gabriels. But I've been worried about another Southern California wildfire, too, in Oak Glen. The hamlet nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains 60 miles east of Los Angeles is famous for its apple orchards, and right around now is when harvest season begins.

Apple orchard in Oak Glen

Every fall, tourists and local families alike flock to the farms dotting Oak Glen Road to pick their own apples, pumpkins, and berries. Gorgeous mountain scenery, crystal blue skies, and the promise of homemade apple tarte tatin made the day trip to Oak Glen one of our favorites of last year. I had just been thinking about planning another outing when news of the blaze broke.

Riley's at Los Rios Rancho

Luckily, it sounds like firefighters have made good progress on the Oak Glen Fire, and no people, animals, structures, or farms have been harmed.

A fine specimen

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Life on the Farm(Ville)

I tried to grow strawberries initially; my first plants withered away before I even realized the berries were ripe. But with some effort, I’ve since successfully cultivated soybeans, squash, eggplant, artichokes, and even a variety of fruit trees. Did I attack the square foot gardening craze with a vengeance? Nope. The entirety of my gardening experience has been within the pretend land of FarmVille.

In this "simulation game," you plow land, plant seeds, wait for stuff to grow, then harvest and sell your produce to earn money to buy more seeds, livestock, and—if you can afford it—a barn. You don’t learn anything about what it takes to actually grow food or run a farm, except that your crops will die if you don’t tend to them regularly, like a Tamagotchi. I wonder what happens to your chickens if you don’t collect their eggs soon enough? Sounds like an interesting experiment! (Also, it’s really strange collecting eggs or milking a cow with a scythe, which seems to be the only method available.)

Since I never played—much less got addicted to—any of those alter-egotistical games like the Sims or Second Life, FarmVille has been my introduction to inhabiting a virtual persona (well, aside from my Wii Mii). But unlike those other games (or so I assume), FarmVille is rather solitary. You’re encouraged to become neighbors with other players, and you can visit their farms, but at the moment, you never actually encounter anyone else. Your interaction with your farmer friends is limited to posting a sign on their land for them to read later, or leaving messages on your own farm. I suppose instead of socializing, you could look at it as a kind of personality test, comparing one farmer’s approach to his or her homestead with another’s.

I’ve been on the farm for maybe 2 or 3 weeks. Here’s my modest little plot:

As you can see, I’m sort of an easygoing farmer. Once I gained enough cash and “experience points” for the privilege, one of my priorities was to acquire a rest tent, shaded by banana and passionfruit trees, with a couple of hay bales for my visitors to sit on and relax while watching my wheat grow. My animals have plenty of room to wander freely. The duck and the bunny have become inseparable, and since there’s no one to talk to on my farm, I’ve adopted a goat as my pet.

This is my friend Adam’s farm:

He’s only been cultivating his land for a couple of weeks longer than I have, but look how serious his operation is. Not only is it huge, but it’s also super orderly, well diversified, and efficiently laid out for maximum output. He’s an agrinerd.

FarmVille’s developer has been accused of ripping off not only the concept but also the graphic design from an earlier established game called Farm Town, and a Google Images search certainly confirms the two look more or less identical. I’ve never checked out Farm Town, but I gather its advantage is that players have the opportunity to mingle with one another at the local saloon.

It would be nice for my avatar to be able to shoot the shit with my farming buddies over a drink someday. But at the moment, I’m finding the whole experience rather Zen. I don’t claim to get the point of playing. It isn’t clear what the endgame is or whether there is one. Just like life.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Korean BBQ = Sex?

Three of the contenders in the first annual Korean BBQ Cook-Off

The size of Los Angeles’s Korean population is second only to Korea itself, so it’s kind of astonishing that there’s never been a Korean barbecue food festival here before this weekend. But considering the popularity of this particular cuisine, it isn’t surprising at all that the event drew nearly twice the expected crowd of 5,000 to the heart of K-Town.

In fact, held in the parking lot of some slick condo complex and featuring fewer than 10 restaurants, the Korean BBQ Cook-Off was far too small to accommodate the demand. My companions and I arrived just after 4 p.m. to find that a few of the food stalls had already run out of meat, even though the event was scheduled to last another few hours.

Long lines

I would’ve loved to taste-test a variety of barbecue; ideally, each person in our group would have gotten in a different line and ordered one meal to share so that we could all sample at least or three or four different recipes. But the long waits (30 minutes to an hour) combined with the will-they-or-won’t-they-run-out dilemma prompted us to just get in the shortest line we could find and fill up there while we had the chance. At least we weren’t disappointed by what we got. Ham Ji Park’s spicy pork spareribs were succulent, smoky, and tender with just a hint of heat. I wasn’t familiar with the restaurant before, but I’ll definitely be eating there in the future.

Ham Ji Park's spicy pork ribs

Our later arrival also meant we missed both the Choco-Pie eating contest, which is fine since I find competitive eating absolutely repulsive, and the demonstration of Korean barbecue marinating, which I can totally do with my eyes closed anyway. I did want to be sure to catch the actual cook-off, judged by a panel of culinary celebrities including Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Food, and LA Times columnist Russ Parsons. But clearly the rock star of the bunch was Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic Jonathan Gold, who remarked, “Like sex, even bad Korean barbecue is pretty damn good.”

Judges' table (Jonathan Gold's face obscured)

Gold has written extensively about LA’s various Asian cuisines, including a compendium of Koreatown’s top 40 restaurants, which is why it was so embarrassing when one of the emcees asked him a totally lame question that began something like, “So I was reading on your bio that you’ve tried a lot of ethnic food.” CRINGE. “This probably isn’t your first time eating Korean barbecue,” she continued, “but how is it different from other ethnic food you’ve eaten?” Gold was perfectly gracious about it, of course, steering away from obvious comparisons and instead pointing out that even though he’s visited something like 160 Korean restaurants, it’s only a fraction of what’s out there, and there’s so much more to Korean cuisine than just barbecue.

The grand prize winner was Moo Dae Po, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t translate to anything but Moo Depot, wherein “moo” represents beef. The win is enough of an endorsement for me to want to try the place, but considering Koreatown’s barbecue abundance, I hope in the future there are more than six entrants.

Adam is interviewed for Korean television

We had a great time at the cook-off but I gotta say it wasn’t especially well organized or executed. In fact we learned that the health inspector didn’t even give the OK to start serving food until an hour and half after the gates opened. But hey, it was the first-ever such event, so hopefully the kinks will be worked out for next year.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Brunch at Little Dom's

Scrambled eggs bruschetta

Little Dom's scrambled eggs bruschetta ($10), served on a grilled baguette with a dollop of pesto, roasted roma tomato, and lightly dressed baby greens, was delicious and a perfect portion. I should've asked for a steak knife, though; it was a bitch to cut through and too messy to simply pick up with my hands.

Housemade granola and yogurt

This was Nathan's. Whenever he orders granola at a restaurant (which is rare, but not unheard of), the server invariably thinks it's for me. Anyway, I didn't try this. It's granola and yogurt ($8). What more can I say?

Grilled Italian sausage

The grilled sausage ($5) is housemade at Little Dom's, so I was looking forward to sampling it. But WOW was it salty. Completely overpowered by salt. Like almost inedibly so, but Nathan managed to finish it.

Fried potatoes

These fried potatoes ($4) looked to be whole slices of potato, maybe boiled first and then gently smashed onto a frying surface, flavored with garlic and a good squeeze of lemon. At least that's how I'm going to try to replicate them at home.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sad Chicken

Last week I ordered delivery from Jitlada, one of my (and Jonathan Gold's) favorite Thai Town restaurants. But something in the green curry apparently turns the chicken blue. Granted, Jitlada specializes in southern-style dry curry, which doesn't use coconut milk, so maybe it's just that typical green curry isn't its forte. Next time I'm there I'll have to remember to ask whether they add food coloring to the dish. And no, I didn't eat it. I'm sure whatever was making the chicken that color was harmless, but I'm afraid blue food is just unappetizing, spinal benefits or not.

Green curry, blue chicken

Monday, July 27, 2009

Naturalmind on My Mind

So what is Naturalmind? Is it, as many in the neighborhood expect, an organic grocery store? Recent attempts at confirming what’s going on at the corner of Griffith Park and Sunset have failed to turn up much, being that the building is still virtually empty.

Dismantling of the facade revealed that prior to the cavernous Video Market, which I always suspected was some kind of front, the building housed a tae kwon do studio. Then the whole structure was painted green, apparently heralding the new business, but oddly, now it’s covered in plywood.

Naturalmind, May 2009; previous tenants include a video store and a tae kwon do studio

Naturalmind, July 2009

When the “For Lease” signs first appeared on the Video Market last fall, I begged my friend Sam from Bi-Rite in San Francisco to open an LA outpost there. (Truthfully I’d been trying to make that happen ever since I moved to Los Angeles in 2001, but finally I had the perfect location for him.) I even encouraged my friend Adam, who’s been in the organic produce business for 10+ years, to start up his own venture. Neither of them bit.

With plenty of space and even a parking lot, the site is a natural (no pun intended) for a neighborhood grocer. There’s already a popular farmers market held just outside its front door, but of course both its hours (Saturday mornings) and its variety are limited; you need to shop elsewhere if meat, cheese, and a bottle of wine are also on your list.

But then why would a grocery store call itself Naturalmind instead of, say, Natural Foods? What I'm afraid of is that rather than something that a wide swath of the neighborhood could really benefit from, we’re going to get a crappy vitamin shop, useless hemp-clothing emporium, or lame yoga studio. What would you like to see there?

*UPDATE 8/3: It is so much worse than I feared: Naturalmind is going to be a BEAUTY SALON. Ugh. This actually makes me angry.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Happy Hour: The Desert Rose

It’s got a huge patio. And a full bar. And it’s close to home. Sounds inviting, right? Basically, it’s the hideous giant stained glass rose, the centerpiece of the restaurant’s decor, that always turned me off—and, apparently, many others around the neighborhood—from trying this place since it opened on Hillhurst a year ago. But I’d heard from a friend that there were decent happy hour specials, so on a recent Friday afternoon, Nathan and I and a couple friends decided to avert our eyes and focus on the other stuff.

Our companions opted for mojitos ($5). Fans of vanilla-flavored liquor might be intrigued by the vanilla mango mojito. I’m not one of those fans, though, and personally thought it tasted like Captain Morgan’s sweat with a splash of patchouli oil.

I ordered a John Daly ($4), which our server explained was an Arnold Palmer with whiskey. It sounded refreshing on a hot day, but either the iced tea or the lemonade tasted like it came from a box. Also, when I looked it up on the interweb later, the recipes all called for vodka, not whiskey, so either the server flubbed or the bar makes a weird version. I guess it didn’t matter since I really couldn’t detect any alcohol in it anyway, so I switched to my usual, Maker’s Mark neat. At $9 a pop, it basically subsidized the discounted beer: $3 for pints of Fat Tire, Stella Artois, or Peroni—now that’s a good deal.

For food, we went with (clockwise from top left) fish and chips ($5), garlic Parmesan fries ($3), a couple falafel sliders ($1.50 each), and the pita pinwheels with hummus and tomatoes ($3). These were good enough if unspectacular, with the exception of the falafel, which was flavorless and dry, like it’d been sitting around for a few days. Also, what’s with calling any old miniature-sized burger a “slider” (in this case, not even a burger)? GIve it a rest already.

In short, I guess it’d be worth going back for the cheap pints and sunshine. Happy hour is between 4 and 6 Monday through Friday.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Foamy Friday

It's mid-July and for some lucky folks, that means a weeklong vacation to Hawaii. But if the islands are a little out of reach, consider a faster and cheaper jaunt to Island Brewing Company instead. The family-run microbrewery is just steps from the state beach in the charming coastal town of Carpinteria, a mere hour and a half from LA by car. Perfect for a day trip—with a designated driver, of course. Or you could even take Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner.

Island Brewing Company, Carpinteria, CA. Clockwise from top left: a private tour of the brewing works; some labels, each of which is applied to a bottle by hand; beer flight; a selection of cold brews to take back home.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fair Fare

This past weekend was the kickoff of the OC Super Fair in Costa Mesa. The main draw for me was Duran Duran, and while most people's reaction might be shock, bemusement, or even pity that the former Fab Five were playing a county fair, keep in mind that the concerts are held in the 8,500-seat Pacific Amphitheater, which easily sold out.

But since this is a food blog, let me turn my attention to an added highlight of the fair: the zucchini weenie. It's essentially a corn dog, but the dog is inside of a hollowed-out zucchini. As my friend Hannah put it, the zucchini is like a condom for the wiener! With mustard and hot sauce, it was actually quite tasty.

The zucchini weenie

Later on, Nathan spotted a Pink's stand and to our pleasant surprise, the pared-down menu included its special named after Huell Howser, one of my all-time heroes. It's two hot dogs in one bun with chili, cheese, mustard, and onions. All I can say is, "Wow... That's amazing!"

The Huell Howser from Pink's

Friday, June 26, 2009

Kick Out the Jam

Had a bowl of strawberries in the fridge that were probably a day away from getting dumped in the garbage. But as my dad always says, “to waste is a sin.” So I decided to make jam, with a kick.

Strawberry-Chipotle Jam
about a quart of strawberries, hulled, quartered, and mashed with a potato masher
1/2 cup sugar
juice of 1 lemon
zest from 1 orange
a pinch or two ground chipotle, to taste

Combine first four ingredients in a heavy skillet and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in chipotle and let cool. Store in a glass jar.

But wait, that’s not all. This tart, sweet, and spicy spread also inspired a late-night snack—a grilled turkey wrap with strawberry-chipotle jam and blue cheese. Nathan likened it to a savory Pop Tart, which sounds like a great idea to me!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hoppy Hour

Ever wonder why it's called India Pale Ale? Say what you will about the evils of colonialism, but it’s thanks to the British empire that we have IPA, created out of demand on the part of colonial troops stationed in the subcontinent during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s thought that the flavor and aroma of the extra hops, along with its elevated alcohol content, gave IPA the fortification it needed to withstand the long voyage between London and Bombay without spoiling.

Since I’m not much of a beer drinker myself, Food Comma enlisted resident ale expert NLS to taste-test a few IPAs for this week’s drinks feature.

Lagunitas Brewing Company
Petaluma, CA
$8.99 per six-pack at Big Mac’s, Silver Lake

This is my go-to beer, hands down, the workhorse IPA that I so crave. Back in ’93–’99 when I was in Michigan, I would by default buy Labatt’s. Something I knew I would like, no experimentation necessary. In 2009 this has become my Labatt’s: nuthin’ fancy, dependable, steadfast, and true. Tonight, the night belongs to Lagunitas IPA. Ahhhhhh... –NLS

Stone Brewing Company
Escondido, CA
$13.99 per six-pack at Cap ’n’ Cork, Los Feliz

According to the liner notes on the back (do beers have liner notes?), Stone Ruination IPA not only has 100+ IBUs, which stands for International Bitterness Units, but also will render any food or drink thereafter bland, in effect “ruining” your ability to settle for lesser drinks. A few sips into my first one, I wasn’t sure if this was so much of a good thing. The hops content seemed a little too extreme, way too bitter—and typically I like bitter. Must come back to and try again. Hey, I thought Lagunitas was extreme the first time I tried it. –NLS

Shipyard Brewing Company
Portland, ME
$8.99 per six-pack at Cap ’n’ Cork, Los Feliz

Interested in trying an IPA from the East Coast, I was happy to find this IPA at the Cap. Now I’m not sure to blame the Cap or their distributor or if I have been the victim of psych-mology. Just prior to popping the bottle I notice one of those “freshness date” things. Well, the thing said “Best enjoyed by December 07.” Uh-oh. My first impression: soap and tea. Not ideal. Next time will remind myself to check for dust on the bottle. –NLS

Friday, June 12, 2009

TV Dinner

Though Top Chef Masters might sound like a head-to-head battle between the former finalists of all the previous Top Chef seasons, this spinoff instead pits some of the country’s most renowned chefs against each other in the familiar “quickfire” and elimination challenges for the benefit of the charity of the winning chef's choice. The first episode aired this week, and according to Twitter, it was the highest rated debut of any series that has ever premiered at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday on the Bravo network. Way to go.

The level of experience and professionalism of the chefs might preclude the trash talking and petty dramas that help make the regular series so fun to watch, but it was definitely refreshing to see these contestants behaving maturely, dealing in a respectful manner with the critiques of Girl Scouts and the difficulties of cooking in dorm room toaster ovens, instead of whining like little bitches. But the whole rating system with the stars—from 1 to 5, including 1/2 stars, like in a restaurant review, for a possible 20 stars after averaging the scores from the quickfire challenge and then adding the ratings of the three judges after the elimination challenge—is cumbersome, clearly. Who wants to do math while they’re watching TV?

Dinner on the table

Anyway, being that my brother Daniel hosted the season finale of Top Chef last February, it was my turn to have him over for the Top Chef Masters premiere. And not to be outdone by his fabulous Indian feast, I cooked up a Southeast Asian spread featuring Thai grilled chicken with hot and sweet dipping sauce, a Yunnanese take on mapo tofu flavored with ground pork and chile oil, and a chile-spiced cucumber salad.

All the recipes were from Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (not to be confused with Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet by Top Chef’s own Padma Lakshmi).

A cookbook for the coffee table

Measuring nearly 2 feet across when open and weighing over 5 pounds, it’s really more a coffee table book than a practical everyday cooking guide. But the recipes, each of which includes a tidbit about its specific region or an anecdote about the dish, are superbly written and easy to follow. Just look at the results.

Grilled chicken with hot and sweet dipping sauce

The best part, of course, is the leftovers. Nathan decided to skip the salad for his lunch the next day, so I used the spicy cucumbers in a banh mi–inspired baguette sandwich.

Leftovers two ways

Here are recipes for some of the above dishes, from Hot Sour Salty Sweet:


1 Tbs peanut or vegetable oil
3 scallions, trimmed, smashed flat with the side of a cleaver, cut lengthwise into strips, and then cut crosswise into 1-inch lengths
1/4 cup (about 2 oz) ground pork
4 blocks fresh tofu (about 1 1/2 lbs), cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 to 3 Tbs Hot Chile Oil (recipe follows, or store-bought)
1 tsp salt, plus a pinch
1/8 tsp freshly ground Sichuan pepper, or more to taste*
1 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in 1 Tbs water

Place all the ingredients near your stovetop. Heat a wok over high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat, then toss in the scallions, reduce the heat to medium-high, and stir-fry briefly. Add the pork and stir-fry, breaking up any clumps with your spatula, until it has all changed color, about 1 minute. Pour off any water that has drained out of the tofu cubes and add the tofu, chile oil, salt, and pepper to the wok. Raise the heat, turn the ingredients gently to mix well, and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stir the cornstarch paste, add to the wok, stir to blend, and cook for another 20 to 30 seconds until the sauce thickens.
Turn out on to a plate or into a shallow bowl. Serve hot or at room temperature, to accompany rice or noodles.
Serves 3 to 4 with rice and one or more other dishes

*I don't have Sichuan pepper so I used freshly ground black pepper.


1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil
3 Tbs dried red chile flakes

Heat the oil in a wok or skillet. As soon as it starts to smoke, toss in the chile flakes, taking care not to splash yourself, and remove from the heat. Let stand until completely cool, then transfer to a clean dry glass jar and store in a cool place. If you wish, in several days you can strain out the chiles and store them separately or discard them, leaving you with just a gleaming orange hot oil.
Makes about 1/2 cup oil


2 Tbs Pepper-Coriander Root Flavor Paste (recipe follows)
2 to 3 Tbs Thai fish sauce

3 pounds chicken breasts or breasts and legs, chopped into 10 to 12 pieces

Hot and Sweet Dipping Sauce (recipe follows)

Place the coriander root paste in a large bowl and stir in the fish sauce. Place the chicken pieces in the marinade and turn to coat well. Let stand, covered, at room temperature for about 1 hour or in the refrigerator for as long as 3 hours.
Heat a grill or preheat the broiler. If using a grill, place the chicken pieces 4 to 5 inches from the flame, bone side down, and grill until the bottom side is starting to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Then, turn over and cook until golden brown on the other side and the juices run clear when the meat is pierced.
If using a broiler, put the chicken pieces in a lightly oiled broiling pan, bone side up, place 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the chicken is starting to brown. Turn the pieces over and broil for another 8 minutes, or until the juices run clear.
Transfer the chicken pieces to a platter and serve with the dipping sauce and plenty of sticky rice.
Serves 6 as part of a rice meal


2 tsp black peppercorns
5 to 6 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped (about 2 Tbs)
3 Tbs coarsely chopped coriander roots*
Pinch of salt
1 tsp Thai fish sauce

Place the peppercorns in a mortar with the garlic and pound to a paste. Add the coriander roots and salt and pound to a paste. This will take 5 to 10 minutes; if you have a small blender or other food grinder that can produce a smooth paste, use it instead. Stir in the fish sauce. Store in a well-sealed glass jar; this keeps for 4 days.
Makes 2 to 3 Tbs paste

*I don't know where to find coriander with the roots still attached, so I just used coarsely chopped stems.


1/2 cup rice or cider vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 to 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes

Place the vinegar in a small nonreactive saucepan and heat to a boil. Add the sugar, stirring until it has completely dissolved, then lower the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle or a bowl and the back of a spoon, pound or mash the garlic and salt to a smooth paste. Stir in the pepper flakes and blend well. Remove the vinegar mixture from the heat and stir in the garlic paste. Let cool to room temperature. Store sealed in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Makes about 1/2 cup sauce

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Raw Fish Feast

Choked with traffic and illuminated by bright neon signs and beachfront fireworks, downtown Sokcho isn’t the quaint fishing village that my father remembered from his youth. But at the harbor of this town on the northeast coast of South Korea, local purveyors still hawk ultrafresh seafood from the day’s catch directly to hungry customers, including myself during a recent family trip. Clockwise from top left, here’s how it works:

(click to enlarge)

1. There are maybe a dozen or so fishmongers to choose from, all very aggressively competing for your business. Each stall seems more or less identical to the next, though, so it becomes an eenie-meenie-miney-moe situation.

2. Select your fish, which, by the way, are all alive. We had the fishmonger pick out a variety that included sea urchin, Dad’s favorite.

3. A group of rubber glove–clad, knife-wielding ladies takes your basket of live fish and they very quickly and methodically gut, scale, and cut them up into bite-sized strips. For an extra fee, they'll make pretty sashimi slices, but we went the economy route.

4. Your platter of the freshest seafood ever is ready to eat. Upstairs, scores of families crowd long communal tables, wrapping pieces of fish daubed with spicy red pepper paste in lettuce or sesame leaves and washing it down with chilled soju and Hite beers.

We were also sure to order ojingo soondae, a specialty of the region. Soondae means “sausage,” but instead of using pig intestines as casings, ojingo soondae is made from cleaned squid, stuffed with meat, rice, and vegetables, which is then steamed and sliced. In this case, it looks like the slices of stuffed squid were also briefly fried, giving them extra delicious flavor and texture. It was one of the tastiest dishes we sampled during the entire trip. In fact, I’m on a quest to find a restaurant in Koreatown (or anywhere in the LA area) that serves a good version of it, so let me know if you have a tip.

Ojingo soondae (squid sausage)

Friday, April 24, 2009

L'Heure Heureuse

Mini vodka martini, icy cold

Massachusetts was the first state to do it, and one by one, others have followed suit. Of course, I’m talking about the ban on happy hour. Since 1984, more than 20 states have tagged along on the trend of abolishing two-for-one drink specials, free or reduced-price appetizers with which to enjoy those drinks, and all the good times that go with tipping back a few in the company of friends and coworkers during those magical hours between punching out and tucking into dinner.

Fortunately, California is no lemming, and on a recent Friday after work, some good friends Nathan and I hadn't seen in a little while suggested meeting up at Figaro. Modeled after a Parisian bistro and occupying prime sidewalk real estate on Vermont Ave., the Los Feliz restaurant is a favorite of the see-and-be-seen set of the near-eastside. In fact that's probably why it had been years since we were last there. But In This EconomyTM, who are we to pass up those happy hour specials?

Selections from Figaro's happy hour menu

Pictured above, clockwise from top left, are (in French, of course) pommes frites ($3), croquettes de crabe ($6), and moules gratinee aux fromage ($6), all roughly half of what they cost during dinner service. Cocktail discounts include $4 "mini" martinis, $3 beers, and $5 glasses of wine. So Nathan and I managed to get our drink on and fill our stomachs for about $30. Happy hour at Figaro lasts only from 5 to 7, so when the end is nigh, do the smart thing:

Make that a double

By the way, I hope to start featuring different happy hours on Food Comma on a semiregular basis. Any suggestions?