Monday, December 29, 2014

A gastronomical review of 2014

Breakfast at Milo & Olive
As this year draws to a close, it's time for another foodie recap!  Since upgrading to the iPhone 5s I've been enjoying its improved camera and using Instagram and VSCO Cam. I tried Squarespace briefly and liked it, but for now I think I'll stick with my Blogger-powered site. So here we are!

Favorite restaurants in...
LA: Milo & Olive (now my go-to breakfast spot - photo above - but wonderful for lunch and dinner too), Joan's on Third (also a great breakfast spot), fundamental LA (casual for lunch and elegant but unassuming for dinner), 800 Degrees (tasty and inexpensive pizza), ROC Kitchen (soup dumplings), Sunny Blue (onigiri), Flame Persian (it's hard not to love fesenjun, i.e. Persian pomegranate-and-walnut stew)
San Francisco: Delfina
Davis and Sacramento: Jade Garden (my family's go-to, and this year they have a new and improved menu), Zen Toro (tasty sushi)
Favorite baked goods and desserts in...
LA: Milo & Olive (anything they bake), Joan's on Third (cakes and cupcakes), Sweet Rose Creamery (salted caramel, coffee, and anything seasonal), Milk Bakery (brownie sundae), Farmshop (strawberry almond croissant) 
San Francisco: Bi-Rite Creamery
Davis and Sacramento: Konditorei (the cakes are the star but the cookies and truffles are also scrumptious)
Favorite coffee and tea in LA: American Tea Room (their Earl Grey Shanghai is my morning go-to and their customer service is always excellent), Caffe LuxxeMilo & OliveBricks and SconesUrth Caffe (tea lattes), Demitasse
Favorite bars or wine bars in LA: Venice Beach WinesNapa Valley Grille
Favorite other businesses: Queen Bee Salon & Spa (LA), Wat Po Thai Spa (LA; no-frills and super effective Thai massage with frequent Groupons that make massages here an affordable treat), Everlane (online; my referral link here)
Favorite food-related books: A Homemade Life (Molly Wizenberg), The Man Who Ate Everything (Jeffrey Steingarten)
Favorite savory dishes cooked: Salmon with red pepper hazelnut salsa (recipe from Ottolenghi), roasted Cornish game hen with sweet potatoes, probably others that I just can't remember right now
Favorite desserts baked: Bienenstichflourless chocolate cake (from Molly Wizenberg)
Culinary goals for 20151) Resume more regular cooking. Last school year I established a pretty regular routine of cooking a big batch of something on Sunday, which I could eat throughout the week. It was both healthful and economical, and I'd like to reestablish that routine.  2) Learn to make pies.  I've baked pies with friends before, and I've made tarts and crumbles on my own, but I've never made a classic pie by myself. 2015 will be the year!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

San Francisco: Delfina

Andrew and I have explored quite a variety of San Francisco restaurants and other foodie delights over the past few years: Craftsman & Wolves, Humphry Slocombe, Bi-Rite Creamery, Toyose, Tartine, Wayfare Tavern, and Pizzeria Delfina come to mind.  But ever since freshman or sophomore year of college, when I read food blogger Joy's (a.k.a. the "Restaurant Whore") heartfelt review, Delfina has been on my bucket list.  After passing it a couple times and seeing its warm glow cast onto 18th Street, I think in my head it came to represent the Nice But Not Stuffy San Francisco Restaurant (and I don't think I'm the only one who feels that way).

I'm happy to report that after finally making it there on September 30, Delfina lived up to all of my expectations.  With the recent realization that Andrew's time living in the Bay Area may be running out, at least at this stage of life, we've been feeling the pressure as far as the bucket list goes.  And so we made an 8:00pm reservation for the Tuesday that I was in town, put on slightly nicer outfits* than usual, and managed to find a parking spot just one block away after fruitlessly circling for a few minutes.

When we arrived just before 8pm a third of the tables were empty, and we were able to ask for the best table in the house, the corner banquette.  That said, when we left at 9:30pm, the entire restaurant was unexpectedly bustling.  To start, two glasses of wine: a rich and fruity Montepulciano and another, lighter Italian red that I think started with "G" but whose full name I simply can't remember. (Sadly, a scroll through the online wine list doesn't jog my memory, either.)  Regardless, it was unlike any wine I'd had before in that it almost smelled salty and had a refreshing mineral flavor that smoothed and rounded in the mouth.  Maybe that doesn't sound appetizing, but I thought it was great: very easy to drink, and it paired well with the meal.  
Bread of the crusty, rustic wheat variety, with one edge dipped lightly in some sort of spice mixture (paprika?), was served with an adorable square container of butter with coarse sea salt.

For our first course we chose the Monterey Bay calamari with white bean salad.  One bite made it obvious why this dish is supposedly one of their classics.  The calamari were grilled to the point of some smoky flavor and had a gentle chew but remained tender, contrasting nicely with the silky bean salad.  A few briny olives (pit still in) punctuated the plate.

Pastas are freshly made in-house and the spaghetti, with a tomato basil sauce and a flurry of parmesan, simply could not have been better.   Home-cooked pasta just can't equal the al dente consistency and the just-right balance of sauciness that Delfina achieves, and we saw plates of pasta on most if not all of the tables.


After sitting in the glass for a little while, my unnamed wine definitely rounded out in flavor, and just in time for the Meyer Ranch hanger steak.  Our steak was cooked medium rare as the server suggested, and was delicious, but was almost overshadowed by the creaminess of the blistered and buttery potato.  Anchovy-marrow butter and grilled radicchio completed the decadent plate.  This dish was definitely best shared between two.

Speaking of sharing, the pasta and steak were both plated for two, without our asking.  Each dish also arrived at a very leisurely pace, which suited us well enough and ensured that the meal felt relaxed.  (To play devil's advocate, if we had been in more of a hurry or wanted to attend a concert afterward, the service might have felt a little bit slow.)  

We didn't need dessert, but I'd heard enough about the panna cotta that we ordered it, and were immediately glad we did.  Whereas most panna cottas are almost an afterthought, a relatively one-dimensional mass of vanilla cream, this one was infused with fig leaves and served with pluots and fig puree.  Andrew ordered espresso and thought it was some of the best he's ever had, and even though I usually find espresso too strong, I couldn't resist a couple sips.

(Instagrammed, of course.)

All in all, we had a lovely evening at Delfina, and are so glad we finally went.  Considering the quality of the food, I think the pricing was appropriate.  A future visit could involve a bar seat, a plate of pasta, dessert and espresso, and would be more economical as well as enormously pleasurable.


*Speaking of outfits, can I put in a plug for Everlane, which might be my favorite clothing manufacturer?  I love their cotton tees, Ryan tees, and tote bags, all with transparent manufacturing and reasonable prices.  Once I'm at a different financial stage of life I may try their new loafers, which look beautiful, but for now the tees are closet staples.  If you're interested in well-cut basics, then please do help me to help you via my referral link.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Los Angeles: Highly Qualified Study Spots

Not a bad view while reading papers.

September was an interesting month.  The written qualifying exam period is now over (hooray!), but it necessitated that a large part of my time this past month be spent reading and synthesizing the assigned papers.  I'm grateful that my PI totally understood my compulsiveness and let me take a temporary step back from experiments and data.  For a little while I alternated between my lab desk and home desk for my reading/highlighting/note-taking, but this became mind-numbing after a week or so.  I'm not usually a work-in-cafes type of person because most of my work is content production instead of consumption, and I don't like carrying my computer around if I can avoid it.  But quals, with the emphasis on reading, afforded a rare opportunity in this regard, and I've heard that fresh air and tasty food are advisable during periods of potential stress.

And so within the space of a week, I became far more of an Angeleno than I ever imagined, because for two weekends in a row my Saturday or Sunday morning schedule consisted of waking up early, driving to Main Street in Santa Monica, getting a green tea latte and a scone at Urth Caffe, studying there for an hour or two, then strolling two blocks to the beach and walking there for a while before finding a bench and reading some more.  Terribly arduous, I know.  Urth Caffe doesn't seem to be a popular study spot, probably because they don't offer WiFi, and the outside chairs aren't particularly comfortable.  But before 9:00am I didn't have any trouble finding a table, and I thought the din of the espresso maker and breakfast conversations to be a nice background noise.  Also, Urth Caffe serves a variety of tea lattes that are not excessively sweet, which is hard to find in cafes.  I tried both the Japanese green tea latte and the Moroccan mint tea latte and really like both.  Their scones (I had the citrus ginger) are also excellent, and all of their baked goods are made in-house.

Bricks and Scones (looking down from the second floor)

I mixed it up with a trip to Bricks and Scones on North Larchmont, which is relatively far from Westwood by driving-in-LA standards, but on a Sunday morning at 8:00am I got there in 20 minutes.  In fact that day and hour is my favorite time to be out and about in LA, since the traffic is actually quiet and street parking is plentiful (and free!).  Bricks and Scones might be the best study spot I've encountered, whether in LA or elsewhere.  It is a large cafe inside what used to be a house, with a shaded patio in front and two levels on the inside, with dark wood paneling and a large chandelier.  The seating area on the first floor has some individual desks and some communal tables, but the second floor is dedicated to individual desks with reading lamps and is the unofficial quiet work area.  Soon after the cafe opened at 8:00, a couple people arrived and quickly staked out their preferred spots, and by 10:00am the entire second floor was full.  The WiFi is free and seemed reasonably fast considering the number of people using it.

The menu includes both breakfast and lunch, with a $10 "afternoon tea" set served all day: one pot of tea - with free hot water refill(s) - and two generously sized scones, which the server warmed up and arranged on a little tray with the teapot and a real teacup.  I had a breakfast black tea, one mixed berry scone and one chocolate almond scone, both perfectly crusty on the outside and tender on the inside, though the chocolate seemed slightly dry.  I overheard later that they used to make the scones in house, but now get them from another baker; no complaints from me.  Another bonus of working there on Sunday mornings is that there is a Farmer's Market just a couple blocks south on Larchmont, so after a few hours of work, I was able to pick up some produce and eggs and then head home.

Anyhow, autumn is my favorite season, and now that quals are over I am quite happy to get back to my project, work on grant applications, and also spend some time with family.

Monday, August 18, 2014

My favorite muffin recipe: Blueberry-Oatmeal-[Flaxseed] Muffins

I have a new favorite muffin recipe, oh yes I do, and although there is plenty I could and should be doing in the way of studying for the written qualifying exam, working on data analysis, or going to bed early, I think the realization that a particular recipe is a Favorite Recipe calls for a resurrection of my food blog.

Here is the recipe: Blueberry, Oatmeal, and Flaxseed Muffins, courtesy of Food52 (one of my Favorite Websites).  I put the "Flaxseed" in brackets in the post title because, as I'll explain later, it's quite optional.

Here's why I love this recipe so much that I've made it three times in the past two or three weeks, and will undoubtedly make again:
  1. It's very easy to put together. I use powdered buttermilk, which has become a convenient pantry staple.  My mixing bowls aren't very big so I usually halve the recipe and just make a dozen muffins at a time.  One mixing bowl, one Pyrex measuring cup for all the wet ingredients, one muffin pan, done.
  2. It's butter-free.  Hello, "healthy" baked good!  I've been using olive oil, though I bet coconut oil would also work well.
  3. It's very adaptable to different add-ins.  I've tried it with orange-flavored dried cranberries, or fresh blueberries + chopped pecans, or cranberries + chocolate chips + pecans, all in wildly imprecise amounts.  All were tasty.  I'm already thinking of trying chopped peaches, dried apricots, crystallized ginger, or some combination of those.
  4. It's very forgiving.  So far I have not had ground flaxseed in my kitchen, so I just left it out.  Once I made up the difference with extra flour, twice I didn't, and every time the muffins turned out dandy.  Earlier today I actually bought some ground flaxseed, so maybe I'll actually include it next time.
  5. These muffins are compatible with all hours of the day.  Since the muffins aren't very sweet (even with the specified amount of sugar), and have some hearty grains, they work well for breakfast. I like them warmed briefly in the microwave, spread with some fig jam, and eaten along with a cup of Irish breakfast or English breakfast tea.  I also like them as a midmorning snack, an afternoon snack, or as dessert.  My coworkers have seemed to like them as well.
  6. These muffins freeze well, enabling me to keep a stock of baked goods on hand for an undefined amount of time, just 45 seconds of microwaving away from comforting deliciousness.
  7. These muffins are relatively resistant to being jostled against one another in a Ziploc bag, en route to lab.
More topics about which I could blog in the near-ish future, but will not promise to do so: my continued quest for excellent hash browns in LA, the week in which I made both a flourless chocolate cake and chocolate-glazed chocolate cupcakes, or the fickleness of food allergies.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Bienenstich (Bee sting cake)

Several months ago, I came across this SmittenKitchen recipe for a "Bee Sting Cake," i.e. a Bienenstich: a yeasted cake with vanilla pastry cream filling and honey almond caramel topping.  I immediately thought, "I have to make this!!!" and started thinking about a suitable occasion for the endeavor, since a cake this attractive and attractive-sounding obviously deserves both sufficient time to make it properly and an enthusiastic audience for the consumption (especially as this cake doesn't have a long shelf life).  Baking/science buddy Daniel and I agreed that my birthday would be appropriate, and so the Bienenstich recipe stayed bookmarked until a couple weeks ago.

This SmittenKitchen recipe, just as I expect, was extremely reliable.  In the late afternoon of the appointed baking day, I started by making a doubled batch of the vanilla pastry cream, with the goal of achieving a 1:1:1 ratio of cake:filling:cake.  I had ordered vanilla beans on Amazon, and the scraped-out bean was so wonderfully fragrant as the pastry cream cooked.  Once it was chilling in the fridge, Daniel had arrived with the necessary packet of instant yeast, and Dan and Julia had arrived with an enthusiasm for wine and chocolate, we moved on to cake mixing.  The honey caramel topping came together easily on the stovetop during the first cake batter rise.  We didn't notice too much of a volume expansion after the two rising steps, but as you can see from the final product, there was plenty of height increase in the oven, with gorgeous browning.

The next morning we constructed the cake, slicing the single layer horizontally and then dolloping the thick pastry cream in between (after being refrigerated overnight, the custard was quite firm, but softened into a reasonably spreadable consistency after some vigorous stirring).  The cake was enjoyed with approval during lab meeting, and Julia later gave it her German stamp of approval.

This was certainly one of my favorite cakes that I've ever baked, and I'll definitely make this again!  I think the best bites combine a little cake, some pastry cream, and some of the heavenly topping.  That said, I will also admit that the cake part was a little bit dry this time - Daniel suggested that next time it should be baked on the top rack instead of the bottom rack, and probably for a little less time - but fortunately with the rich pastry cream filling, everyone still thought it was delicious.


In other news, which I expect anyone who is reading this to have already heard, Andrew and I got engaged recently.  We're happily looking ahead to a lifetime of shared meals and adventures!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Santa Monica: Spazio Caffe

A couple Sundays ago, Ivana and I met for breakfast at Spazio Caffe in Santa Monica. This Italian cafe is so new it doesn't have its own website yet, and between the newness and the location on charmingly sleepy Montana Ave, there were plenty of seats available on at 10:00am.  The menu advertises, in addition to the standard espresso options, quite a variety of fancy coffee drinks, all served in elegant glasses or pretty mugs with little chocolate cookies perched on top.  There are also over a dozen flavors of hot chocolate available!

I ordered a cappuccino con panna (with whipped cream), and Ivana had the almond (I think?) hot chocolate:

For breakfast, we both chose plates of scrambled eggs with chives, smoked salmon, fruit, and croissant.  When I asked about the fruit options and explained my allergy to cantaloupe and honeydew, the staff had no problem giving me only strawberries and blueberries.  This breakfast was [relatively] balanced, with a pleasing array of individually solid components.  The scrambled eggs lived up to their menu description of "creamy," and the croissant was of the light and flaky persuasion.

Being a fan of that stretch of Montana Avenue for its quietness and array of cute little shops and restaurants, as well as delicious espresso drinks, hot chocolate, and classic pastries, I'm definitely looking forward to returning.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Musings on kitchen equipment

Recently, my labmate Daniel and I have been having regular discussions about kitchen implements, prompted by both our baking adventures and also the travails of his apartment move (his ex-roommate retained custody of the 9x13 baking dish and the stand mixer, but at least he still has his stockpot-that-doubles-as-tamale-steamer.  Major drama, obviously!).  I've read SmittenKitchen's "Build your own smitten kitchen" and also like the various SeriousEats equipment recommendations for their practicality.  I also have a lot of fun browsing the Food52 collections, but obviously most of those pretty items are out of my budget (and, let's face it, would annoyingly clutter my small kitchen even if I did have an unlimited budget.  Does anyone really need a "Maine Salt and Beehive Cellar"?).

With kitchen optimization being an ongoing process, and both budget and space being at a premium in my current studio lifestyle, I thought I'd share my current framework for equipment.

  • I have a $12 chef's knife from Target that doesn't really hold its edge well - I've had it since 2011 - but I still use it because it's stainless and, for most vegetable-chopping tasks, does well enough.  My bread knife is similarly mediocre, but I rarely use it these days because I get my bread sliced in the store and then freeze it.  For slicing cake layers, I have a thin cake knife from Crate & Barrel.
  • My favorite knife is a Kinmen steel (made of steel from old artillery shells) chef's knife that I bought at the Maestro Wu shop on Kinmen island during a family trip.  It's gloriously sharp, extremely well-balanced, and I should probably be using it all the time, except the extra step of drying it and oiling it after each use somehow deters me. But if I am chopping lots of vegetables, especially slippery things like tomatoes, this knife definitely my go-to, and I would recommend this brand if you're traveling in Taiwan and want a unique knife that is actually quite reasonably priced.  
  • I also recently bought a Victorinox paring knife for less than $10 on Amazon, and now have a great fruit-cutting implement.
  • My current "big" pot and "little" pot (basically a small stockpot and a saucepan) were previously owned by Mae, my wonderful landlady and friend who passed away several years ago. They're nothing fancy but work really well.  I also have a heavy saucepan/sauté pan that has a really thick nonstick layer, so it's great for cooking bigger batches of vegetables, meats, etc; I got it for less than $20 at Ross.  For breakfast eggs I use a little no-name frying pan from Target, but otherwise I avoid it because I don't trust the nonstick coating very much.
  • In December I got my 10 inch cast-iron pan (the Lodge pre-seasoned option) thanks to Andrew, and it makes me quite happy to be able to make awesome cornbread; I'm looking forward to branching out with it.
  • Baking pans fall into two categories in my current setup: those I don't care as much about and those I care a lot about.  In the former category are my half-sheet pans, one of which I bought secondhand and two others of which were very inexpensive purchases I don't really remember.  All three are pretty beat-up at this point, and maybe cookies would be more optimal on a more "legitimate" cookie sheet, but this distinction doesn't bother me.  In the category of pans I care about are my cake and tart pans: 9x13, 9-inch round, 9-inch tart pan, and cupcake pan.  They're mostly aluminum, reasonably priced on Amazon, and I try to take good care of them.
Other kitchen equipment I fancy:
  • I have two Pyrex mixing bowls that my mom gave me when I first moved into an apartment.  They're awesome.  Those, plus a smaller but deeper metal mixing bowl and some stainless-steel prep bowls, have been my kitchen prep workhorses for the past 3+ years.
  • Does glassware count as equipment?  Maybe not, but I'm still going to mention my wineglasses, which I bought from Crate & Barrel in 2011 using a gift card that my former lab gave me before my move to LA.  I like this material reminder of my Stanford science family.
  • Mason jars (8 oz or 12 oz).  So convenient for storing small amounts of leftover ingredients, cereals, etc, or to be able to transport a single serving of milk or juice in a watertight container.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Saturday supper: Tuxedo chili and lemon polenta cookies

My cook-fest this past Saturday centered around chili - the first chili I've ever made, in fact - accompanied by cornbread (with caramelized onions in the bottom of the pan).  The chili is the "Tuxedo Chili" from Food52, which I chose because it seemed relatively simple.  Instead of ground chicken I used lean ground turkey, and as usual, given that my biggest pot is quite small for a soup pot or stockpot, I haphazardly adjusted the ratios.  Finally, since I don't have a blender, one can of the Great Northern beans was mashed into water with a combination of hand and spoon.

This chili must be quite forgiving, though, since the result was still very tasty.  A friend came over for dinner and gave it her approval.  Even with my smallish pot, I still got 6-7 servings out of the recipe!

For dessert, lemon polenta cookies.  I went ahead and added salt to the dry ingredients before remembering that I had used salted butter.  Even with the extra salt, though, the cookies were pretty great, probably thanks to lemon juice's acidity and the extra lemon zest I threw in.  These cookies are are a little bit crumbly, fragrant and rich from the butter and lemon, and pleasantly gritty with the cornmeal.

A bonus: they become even more flavorful, with improved texture, after a day or two.  I'll definitely be making these again; next time, I might even double the recipe and freeze half the dough.  Huzzah!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Marshall, CA: Hog Island Oyster Company

This past Sunday, Andrew and I picked up two friends and drove north from Palo Alto toward Point Reyes.  We stopped briefly in Point Reyes Station to buy cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, where the Mt. Tam cheese is irresistible; the Red Hawk is their other top seller but is more pungent than I like.  I can get Cowgirl Creamery cheeses at Whole Foods in LA, but it's so much more expensive here!

Cheese procured, we continued on Highway 1 along Tomales Bay until reaching Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall, CA.  I had reserved a picnic table, which comes with a grill and some condiments (lemons, hot sauce, etc), and both bulk and pre-shucked or barbecued oysters are available for sale.  Our group bought one bag of 50 Hog Island Sweetwaters and a dozen Kumamotos, and received a quick lesson in how to shuck oysters; gloves and shucking knives are provided.

In case you're wondering how one should properly shuck an oyster, here is what I learned:
1) Hold the oyster in your gloved, non-dominant hand, with the flatter shell facing up.
2) Place the point of the shucking knife at the spot where the top and bottom shells join.  Push and twist back and forth a little bit, which may cause a little piece of shell to chip off.
3) Continue to push and twist, forcing the knife point into the joint area.  Once the tip of the knife has slipped between the two shells, move the knife back and forth laterally to gradually pry the two shells open.  Keep the oyster level if possible so you don't lose the oyster liquor (the salty liquid inside).
4) Once the shells are nearly separate, use the knife edge to free the flesh from both shells.

In addition to the oysters, we had a picnic of the aforementioned cheese, pita, sausages, oranges from Stanford history corner trees, salad (endive, cabbage, and cucumber), chocolate orange cardamom cake, and drinks.  A delicious feast!  Of course we started by shucking and eating the oysters fresh, but we also put some of them on the grill, where they cooked in their own liquor.  The weather was clear and warm, and with the picnic area being right next to a little inlet, we had idyllic surroundings to pair with our unbelievably fresh seafood.  Personally, I didn't taste too much of a difference between the Sweetwaters and the Kumamotos, apart from the latter being a little more delicate in flavor.

Oyster picnicking and shucking was a very unique and fun gastronomical experience!  If I were to return, though, I might try one of the non-reserved tables, still bring my own picnic, and order some of the barbecued oysters with chipotle bourbon butter; I actually did lose some interest (gasp!) in raw oysters after six or eight.  Anyhow, after our lavish lunch, we went for a 3.6 mile hike at Point Reyes (the Muddy Hollow trail from off Limatour Road to pretty Limatour Beach).  Tomales Bay is about as far as we would want to go for a day trip from Palo Alto, but on this Sunday it worked out wonderfully.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Marine's flight home

(This post was written on Friday January 16.)
I am writing from Southwest flight 577, from LAX to SJC on Friday at 3:03 pm. This flight is one of the most unique in my experience, having just taxied through a "water cannon salute" in honor of the deceased Marine who is being flown in this plane to his final resting place. His family is accompanying him, seated in the first two rows after watching the loading process on the tarmac.
I've never witnessed such an event before, but it lends a particular note of respect and contemplation to what would otherwise be a rather mundane SoCal-NorCal transit. I heard very little talking as we gained altitude, and assume that I am not alone in feeling struck by this surprising event. Maybe it's telling that it was, in fact, a surprise to me. It's all too easy to forget, from the safety and comfort of my living and working environments, that there are so many Americans who put their lives at risk in unfamiliar, inhospitable environments every day, and have done so for many generations, that in this country I may walk the 12 minutes through Westwood Village and into lab with the peace of mind that freedom (and, frankly, privilege) afford.
So I take this as a reminder to be grateful for this Marine's sacrifice, and for the sacrifices of his fellow servicemen/women and their families. Thank you.
(Upon arriving at SJC, we taxied through another water cannon salute, creating a rainbow, and the Marine was met with a receiving ceremony on the tarmac. The plane and half the terminal were silent as everyone quietly disembarked and then stood, watching, next to the windows.)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sunday supper + Monday at Milo & Olive

On Sunday afternoon, I decided to break in my new cast iron skillet (a Christmas present), and started by extra-seasoning it.  I say extra-seasoning because it is the Lodge model that comes pre-seasoned, but I decided that two more rounds of oil + heat couldn't hurt.  A couple hours later, I cooked some bacon - my first time cooking bacon - and then immediately used the grease to bake cornbread (Trader Joe's cornbread mix, not homemade, but it turns out that the mix is quite good).  At the same time, I was simmering a pot of vegetable stew, which I had started by caramelizing a chopped onion and then adding three chopped bell peppers, two minced cloves of garlic, one chopped shallot, one can of diced tomatoes, about a cup of leftover chicken broth, chopped potatoes, some frozen corn, and finally the crumbled bacon.  Hello, stew for the week!

My third project on Sunday was to bake a lemon cake (following Ina Garten's recipe) with Meyer lemons, adding the lemon syrup but omitting the final sugar glaze.  The cake was one way to start using up all the extra salted butter I have in my freezer, the result of overambitious plans to make about 2 dozen jars of salted butter caramel sauce as Christmas presents back in December (so it goes.  I was only able to make 10 jars before winter break.)  Anyhow, four hours later, ta da!  I brought the cake to lab on Monday and it was happily consumed, thanks to one lab meeting, one journal club, and one hungry and enthusiastic undergrad who rows crew.

Cornbread, cake, stew

For quite some time I've been hearing great reviews of the pizza and bread at Milo and Olive, and given that both [great] pizza and bread are worth celebrating, Ivana and I decided to do so yesterday evening.  The restaurant is on the tiny side, with just 8 or 10 bar seats and two communal 8-tops, and there are no reservations, but fortunately on a Monday night we were immediately seated.  (That said, I've heard that wait times for weekend brunch get pretty insane.)  The interior reminds me somewhat of Girl And The Goat in Chicago, with a high ceiling, wood beams, and plenty of dark gray.  There is also a wall covered in framed drawings that are rather cute:

Being "moderately hungry" but wanting to save room for dessert, we ordered the sauteed kale, gnocchi with pesto and peas, and the pork belly sausage pizza.  The generously-portioned kale offset the smaller portion of gnocchi, but both were prepared very well. The kale was flavored with lemon and what I thought was pepper, but was actually "pickled Fresno chili" (from the menu).  The gnocchi was sweeter, with lots of Parmesan, a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs, and a bed of basil.  Our pizza came out last and was definitely one of my favorite pizzas in Los Angeles, if not very favorite.  Both Ivana and I thought it was somehow "better" - or perhaps just more pizza-like and less flatbread-like - than the pizza at Pizzeria Mozza.

Pizza + the last of the kale

After further reflection, I decided that what Milo and Olive got so very right was the texture of the crust: a crunchy exterior, soft and chewy interior, no scorched bubbles, and no greasiness (after all, the cheese and sausage provide quite enough richness).  The middle of the pizza was kind of soggy, which could be a criticism, but I didn't mind.

A closer look at the crust.  Perfectly browned!

To finish, we shared a piece of vanilla pear tart: thick vanilla custard with poached pears in a rustic, flaky crust.  It's fortunate that we got one of the edge pieces (the tart is baked in a large rectangular pan), because much like the pizza crust, the tart crust was exemplary for its category.  So good, in fact, that when I saw a corner piece was still available as we headed out, I decided to purchase it.  That tart piece ended up serving as an evening pick-me-up for a friend who is currently exhausted on her internal medicine rotation, fulfilling my belief that dessert should make people happy.

Looking forward to returning to Milo and Olive for more baked deliciousness!  Speaking of baked deliciousness, or rather, its potential unhealthy effects, since getting back from break I've been trying the "Seven Minute Workout" concept that's gotten some press lately.  The idea is that for seven minutes a day, every day, one exercises at high intensity for 12 30-second intervals with 10 seconds of rest in between.  There are handy apps to prompt you and also remind/guilt you if you haven't exercised yet that day; I use the one with a blue icon just called "Seven."  We'll see how it goes!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Culver City: Grand Casino bakery

Early on Saturday morning I drove to Culver City for a car maintenance appointment.  After being told that it would take "a couple hours," I decided to take advantage of the lovely weather and relative quiet and walk around downtown Culver City.  One place on Main Street was fortuitously open: Grand Casino Bakery.  This establishment has a bakery half and a restaurant half and specializes in Argentine pastries and dishes.  Both sides had cute elderly couples sitting, eating, and quietly chatting this morning.  There was also an old man reading the newspaper, and various other patrons came in and confidently ordered boxes of pastries, all of which I took as encouraging signs.

I didn't recognize everything in the display case, but after hearing some of the descriptions, selected a guava pastry (top row, far left) and a mini croissant with some custard on top (top row, third from left).  I don't think I'd had a guava-filled pastry since my youth symphony's trip to Brazil, back in 2003!  The two pastries, plus a cafe con leche, came to less than $4.00, and were definitely tasty.  A dozen would have been $9.

The croissant wasn't particularly crisp, but had a nice contrast between the innards and the custard ribbons on top.  The guava pastry was even better (with a better crust), though I did wish there was more filling.  The bakery also sells different cookies, including alfajores, as well as fancy decorated layer cakes, but I do consider 8:15am too early for cookies or cake.  

While I ate, I examined this poster of various mate styles.  It was hanging on the wall next to a tall shelf with various varieties of mate, so if I ever crave a highly caffeinated Argentinian brewed beverage, I'll know where to go!  In fact, mate is available on the cafe menu for $1.95.  But that aside, I'll definitely be returning for the pastries.  I also want to try the alfajores, empanadas, and maybe the skirt steak, perhaps with the "panqueques con dulce de leche" for dessert.

After breakfast, I ran some more errands.  Culver Blvd is actually quite lovely!  Case in point: the impressive archway in front of the Culver City Hall.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

2013 was what's next?

To quote Mushu from the cultural touchstone Disney film Mulan, "I liiiiiiiiiiiiiive!"  A year isn't too long of a break from blogging, is it?  I think not.  I've been thinking about starting a new activity or two in 2014 and have considered knitting, West Coast Swing lessons, drawing, and rock climbing.  Then I realized that before adding anything new, I should probably consider renewing my commitment to existing interests that I've gotten more careless about over the past year.  Music is the big one, and blogging is also on the list.  So hello again, Life As A Feast!

For this iteration I've chosen some slightly different colors, and have also decided to throw out my original "rules" for this blog.  If I feel like posting about something not exclusively food-related, so be it, though I hardly think this will turn into a confessional.

Anyhow, I'll ease into this by listing my culinary favorites of 2013.  Hopefully I don't leave out anything egregious.

Favorite restaurants in...
Chicago, IL: Table Donkey and Stick (I have no idea what "cuisine of the Alps" tastes like in the Alps, but here it was delicious)
Los Angeles, CA: Bar Bouchon (where I treated myself to endive salad, mussels, french fries, and chocolate tart at the end of second-year), Waterloo and City (I went during DineLA but would have paid full price for those three excellent courses), Native Foods (one of my local go-tos), 800 Degrees (tasty Neapolitan pizza for less than $10), MB Post (decadent brunch), EK Valley Restaurant (an oddly-named but charming, inexpensive and family-run Oaxacan restaurant)
New York, NY: Atlantic Grill (the scallops!), Russ & Daughters (bagels + lox are irresistible)
Palo Alto, CA: Terún (previously Terrone; now my go-to Neapolitan pizza spot in Palo Alto); Patxi's (for the opposite kind of pizza); Cafe220 and University Cafe (which I will never stop loving),
San Francisco, CA: Wayfare Tavern (cocktails and popovers started off a lovely special-occasion dinner), Walzwerk (comforting German food), Pizzeria Delfina (which I now like more than Pizzeria Mozza in LA)
Seattle, WA: How to Cook a Wolf (my second visit, this time with my parents)
Shanghai, China: Nanxiang Steamed Dumpling Restaurant (the 3rd floor is pricier but way better than the street level), Lang Yi Fang (classic Shanghai dishes and a killer view)

Favorite bakeries/desserts in...
Chicago, IL: Bang Bang Pie Shop (they serve pie and biscuits, all excellent, and the latter with an eclectic array of flavored butters and jams)
Davis, CA: Konditorei (their chocolate hazelnut cake and fruit tart are still the best I've ever had)
Los Angeles, CA: Copenhagen Bakery (impeccable Danish), Bouchon Bakery (macarons), Scoops (ice cream)
Palo Alto, CA: Douce France and La Boulange (both have great fruit tarts)
San Francisco, CA: Craftsman and Wolves (I really want to try their afternoon tea)
Seattle, WA: Theo chocolate factory store, Fainting Goat (gelato!!)
Shanghai, China: Lillian Bakery (egg custard tarts), Whisk (for chocolate overload)
Victoria, BC: Afternoon tea at The Dining Room at Butchart Gardens (perfect tea service, savories and sweets, and a perfectly picturesque setting)

Favorite coffee in...
Los Angeles, CA: Espresso Profeta (a little local gem), Groundwork Coffee (tasty lattes and good pastry)
Palo Alto, CA: Philz (though too expensive)
Seattle, WA: Milstead & Co. (mochas are made with unsweetened Theo chocolate)

Favorite bars or wine bars in...
Los Angeles, CA: Bigfoot West (frontier-themed whiskey bar with a disco ball, $5 happy hour, and empanadas), Napa Valley Grille (classy and quiet, but also with a good happy hour)
Palo Alto, CA: Gravity Wine Bar (reasonable flights and tasty dessert)
Shanghai, China: Southern Cross (a living room-like Japanese cocktail bar with a super-skilled bartender)

Favorite cookbook: Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.
Andrew and I have cooked beef kofta, carrot salad, chicken with cardamom rice, chicken with fennel and clementines, and a fish dish from this book, and everything (but especially the beef and chicken dishes) has been absolutely delicious, even when we couldn't find this or that ingredient.  The book has introduced us to spice combinations that we would otherwise have never explored on our own, and we're planning to try more recipes in 2014.

Favorite food-related book: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Even after reading this book, I've never seriously considered being vegetarian, though being a lacto-ovo-pescatarian or just giving up red meat wouldn't be too difficult (I already hardly ever cook it myself).  That said, Pollan's book gave me a much more complete view of where food comes from and what various labels (e.g. at Whole Foods) may or may not mean; as a result I've tried to be more conscientious about the food purchases I make.

Favorite savory dishes I cooked (or helped cook):
Chicken with cardamom rice, eaten with spicy carrot salad (both from Jerusalem)
Mushroom bourguignon (from SmittenKitchen)
Soup with spicy sausage, peppers, corn, pasta, and tomatoes (adapted from SeriousEats)

Favorite sweets I made: 
Banana bread (based on Andrew's grandmother's recipe)
Meyer lemon bars (Amanda Hesser)
Brownies (from Alice Medrich via Food52)
Red wine chocolate layer cake with whipped cream (adapted from SmittenKitchen)
Salted butter caramel sauce with bourbon (adapted from SmittenKitchen)

Between 2013 and 2014 I also switched from being a med student to being a grad student, moved apartments, and acquired some nifty new kitchen implements, including new spatulas, tongs, and a cast-iron skillet.  I'm excited for this new year!