May 20, 2013
Outdoor produce area.
I like how foreign grannies shop. They poke, they prod, they know exactly what they are looking for and woe to the vendor who doesn’t get it right. Granny-watching — a completely innocent pastime, I assure you — is one of the reasons I love going to Super King Market in Glassell Park. There, foreign grannies (and their families) from around the world converge to shop for interesting and affordable produce, cheeses and meats, packing the store’s aisles with carts crammed to the brim.
Super King’s produce section is not to be missed. I always make a beeline for the mountain of Persian cucumbers and extensive (and cheap!) selection of fresh herbs before exploring the seasonal specials like verdolaga (purslane), fuzzy fresh almonds and bright green fresh garbanzos. Next to the produce section is the largest array of spices I’ve ever seen in a supermarket, with huge bags of any dried herb or spice you might need for Middle Eastern, Latin or Indian cooking, fresh and inexpensive enough for even the most discerning granny.
The yogurt section is also exciting, if you’re the type of person who gets excited about yogurt. I am, so I’m always happy to see the many brands of all-natural, whole milk yogurt, just tart enough to be eaten plain or with a drizzle of honey for breakfast. I haven’t even branched out into the world of yogurt cheese and yogurt drinks yet, but when I do, Super King will be waiting for me.
I always take a deep breath as I leave the yogurt section and plunge headfirst into the cheese and cured meats corridor that runs along the back of the store, which is always ALWAYS an insane jumble of people and overstuffed shopping carts. On weekends it feels like rush hour on the 405-101 interchange; on weekdays it is only slightly less grim. If you are braver or more patient than I, you will take a number and wait to place your order. I usually just head over to the refrigerated cheese aisle and grab a tin of feta in brine.
I’m trying to be better about knowing where and how my meat was raised, so I usually avoid the butcher’s counter, which is nearly as crowded as the cheese counter. On my first visit to Super King, I overheard one of the butchers, an Armenian man in his 60s, say, “Next…next… Is anyone waiting?” No response. “Oh my god,” he said softly, acknowledging the miracle that is an empty butcher’s counter at Super King Market.
Instead of meat, I buy breads. Various types of dark Russian bread line the shelves below the meat cases and across from the bakery counter are stacks of lavash, pita bread and those enormous rounds of flat, yeasty Armenian bread. Yum. The bakery itself sells an impressive number of different baklava as well as dainty French-style sweets. A separate bin holds big sugared Mexican pastries.
After browsing the deli counter for tabbouleh by the pound, hot-from-the-oven lahmajune (Armenian pizza) and whole rotisserie chickens, it’s time to brave the checkout lines, which are always less daunting than they first appear and also give me the opportunity to do some cart-peeking — another completely innocent pastime — at the people around me. Once I saw a man buying only bananas, an entire cart filled to the top, and on my last trip saw someone with two plastic bags impossibly fat with fresh garbanzo beans, like cartoon money sacks minus the giant dollar bill sign.
The best thing about cart-peeking at Super King is that everyone is buying whole foods — chard and olive oil and loose mate tea and pomegranate molasses and crema and pickled grape leaves — so you can only imagine the meals that will come from what they’re buying. Have you ever had the depressing experience of standing behind some lonely soul in a supermarket line on a Friday evening, watching him buy three packets of Top Ramen, a jar of Skippy, a frozen Lean Cuisine enchilada and a six-pack of Bud? Suddenly his whole weekend cracks open in front of you, quivering and too vulnerable, an egg you never meant to break. Standing in the Super King line is the opposite experience for me, full of wonder and curiosity at the meals in the making all around me.
Unlimited granny-watching and cart-peeking: now do you understand why I love this place?
April 1, 2013
Today is my birthday. But I promise this post is not just a thinly-veiled attempt to get nice birthday wishes in the comments (HINT, HINT). It’s also about vegetables.
You see, one of the gifts I received was a CSA box from the South Central Farmers’ Cooperative, one of my favorite farmers market stands. I am always happy to support the group of people who fifteen years ago took a hopeless plot of land in South LA and transformed it into a huge community garden — only to lose it all in 2006 to a developer now planning on using the land for a Forever 21 warehouse. (See the 2008 Academy-Award-nominated documentary The Garden for the full story.) But I never knew they had a CSA program.
All I had to do was show up at the Atwater Village Farmers Market on Sunday and tell the friendly SCFC volunteer my name, and I was handed a big box filled with organic vegetable goodness. It really did feel like a gift, opening up the box and pulling out my bounty:
Head of purple lettuce
Bunch of huge carrots
Bunch of spring onions, white and purple
One summer squash
One round zucchini
One scalloped squash
One bitter melon
About a pound of beans, green and purple
Bunch of beets
Bunch of purple amaranth
About a pound of new red potatoes
Handful of papalo (Bolivian coriander — I am totally unfamiliar with this)
Handful of unidentified herb
They offer a few different pricing options on their website, the most flexible being the $15 weekly box — only $15 for all of that! — as well as 16 pick-up locations all over the city. At the market I bought a mixed bag of summer fruit to supplement the vegetables and now I am set for the week.
I will definitely be buying South Central Farmers’ CSA boxes for myself in the future. It’s an appealing option for those weeks when I don’t have the time or energy to wander through the market on a Sunday morning or when I want to shake things up a bit with some ingredients I wouldn’t necessarily choose on my own. Or just when I want to open up a box of surprise vegetables and pretend it’s my birthday all over again.
March 7, 2013
Buying beans and grains in bulk. It sounds about as appealing as a patchouli-drenched hippie sitting on your couch and clipping his toenails, but I can’t help it — I love buying beans and grains in bulk. Lucky for me, Naturewell opened a few months ago in Silver Lake, not far from my apartment, so I have access to all the lentils, barley and quinoa I could possibly want. This may not excite you. But if you find yourself oddly pleased or even mildly intrigued by this news, then please read on.
The store itself is clean and bright, and manages to pack a lot into a fairly small space. Narrow bins hold all manner of bean, grain and pasta, as well as various types of flour and healthy-ish snacks like trail mix and chocolate-covered raisins. One refrigerated case carries specialty dried fruits — something I haven’t seen before in a bulk goods store — and another offers cold drinks, mainly every flavor of kombucha imaginable. Shelves tucked under the counter hold a large selection of herbs and spices, priced higher than those at Super King, but good for those times when you don’t actually need a bag of mustard seeds the size of a chubby chihuahua.
If buying beans and grains in bulk leaves you cold, you still might want to visit Naturewell for their juices and smoothies made to order. I’m usually too hopped up on coffee from Intelligentsia to think about drinking a carrot, so I can’t speak for the juices, but they all look terribly fresh and nutritious and seem reasonably priced. Of course if I were you, I might decide to instead get my juice at the pupusa joint across the street, where a giant freshly-made jugo is a mere $3 and you can get a cheese and loroco (a type of flower) pupusa for just a couple dollars more. Yes, I choose melty cheese over a scoop of immunity booster. So sue me.
Despite all that, I’m happy Naturewell is in the neighborhood. My collection of repurposed pasta jars are filled to the brim with enough beans and grains to see me through the zombie apocalypse in style. Assuming there is running water. And gas, for the stove.
….Huh. Time for Plan B.
3824 West Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90026
February 14, 2013
One Saturday soon you may find yourself craving paella and a little day trip. On that Saturday I suggest you get in your car and, with a good and hungry friend, head down the 110 toward Harbor City, home of La Española Meats. You won’t be entirely sure where Harbor City is and, during an engrossing conversation in the car, will realize you have not been paying attention to the exits at all and did you pass it? You will turn around, head back toward the 405, realize that no, you did not in fact pass it, turn around again, then resume your drive and the engrossing conversation.
But don’t worry about the delay. It will only help build up your appetite for paella.
When you park outside La Española, an unassuming building on a dead-end street, your friend will ask you with some incredulity if you have brought her to a warehouse. Actually, you have: the market supplies many of the upscale food shops and tapas restaurants in Los Angeles. But on Saturdays they make paella. There are tables and chairs outside under a cheerful awning, and bambu veneerware plates of paella for a mere $8.50. Big families who clearly have been coming for paella on Saturdays for years sit chatting and eating. You hear that sometimes someone brings a guitar and there is music and maybe a little dancing, but today there will be none.
But that’s okay because: PAELLA. Your Styrofoam takeout container will be loaded with saffron-tinged rice, the plump grains hiding chunks of tender meat and seafood. On the side, a plate of sliced crusty bread, olives and charcuterie. To drink, an orange-flavored Spanish soda called Kas, because that’s what the man inside recommended. You and your friend will get kind of quiet as you start to eat. The filtered sunlight, the briny olives, another bite of paella: Saturday lunchtime bliss.
After eating, you will head inside to check out the market and also the sandwiches, because someone at the table next to you was eating a long, narrow sandwich that looked really freaking good. You and your friend will debate getting a sandwich, decide against it — it really was a lot of paella — and instead sample the various cheeses and cured meats, striking up a conversation with the man who recommended the orange soda. You’ll find out he is the warehouse manager, that he drives all over LA making deliveries to the shops and restaurants which buy the market’s imported products. “Wait — I’ll give you something!” he’ll say after a couple minutes of conversation. You will wait, hoping he returns with a wedge of sheep’s milk cheese or wizened chunk of salume.
Instead he will hand you two thin aerosol cans. You and your friend will look at them. Deodorant spray. Spanish deodorant spray. “I hope you aren’t saying we need this,” you’ll quip and then you’ll all laugh. It will seem to mark the end of the conversation and the two of you will say your goodbyes. As you are leaving, you hear him say to one of the women he works with, “That was the only thing I could give them.” Cheese and cured meats it is not, but you’ll still appreciate the gesture, even if you do end up slipping the can into the box of things going to Goodwill in hopes that it will help out some smelly soul.
And anyway: PAELLA. It will be impossible to not leave La Española happy. I dare you.
25020 Doble Avenue
Harbor City, CA 90710
January 15, 2013
Inspired by Eating LA’s report on the Alhambra Farmers’ Market, I made my way over to my old stomping grounds last Sunday to check it out. My first boyfriend in college used to live a couple blocks away from the market, but as the kitchen of the house he lived in was a dismal, grease-yellowed room used only by the creepy guy down the hall who seemed to always be hanging around in a dirty bathrobe, we didn’t cook much and never stopped by for produce.
We should have. It’s a small but vibrant farmers’ market with two rows of produce sellers connected by a few tables selling prepared foods. The selection is surprisingly varied, thanks to the large Asian population in the area. I was tempted by a long table covered by stacks and stacks of bundled pea shoots and spent a long time looking at the unfamiliar greens labeled only in Chinese. (At the same table, the woman next to me was shown a box of large, straw-speckled eggs — goose eggs maybe? — which she touched gently and with approval. She bought two.)
The highlight of the market for me was Ana’s Farm, which sells whole free range, sustainably-raised chickens for less than $4/lb. The catch? They still have their heads and feet attached, so unless you are serving the chicken Asian-style, some butchery is required. I bought a 3 1/2-pound chicken and a carton of eggs, a steal at $3/dozen. I ended up roasting the chicken (more on that in a later post) and have been eating the eggs all week, marveling at how golden and flavorful the yolks are.
Prices in general are much lower than at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, my usual Sunday stop, and that includes more than just the produce. Flowers are especially affordable, between $2 to $3 for a big bunch, and there is a table selling beautiful bonsai for as little as $12 each.
When I left, my bag included dandelion greens, turnip greens (with immature turnips attached), a couple oro blanco grapefruits and a bunch of French radishes. Except for a few of the radishes, I’ve eaten everything over the course of the week (even the dozen eggs!). I blanched the dandelion greens, mashed them up with some boiled russet potatoes and olive oil, covered them with panko crumbs and baked the whole thing, following a recipe by Mark Bittman. The turnip greens were added to a pot of oven-baked pinto beans, which I ate over turmeric-spiced rice. The grapefruits I’ve been eating for breakfast every morning and the radishes are good raw alongside lunchtime sandwiches.
But it’s the eggs I keep thinking about, the eggs and the chicken. I used to eat a hard-cooked egg every day for breakfast in Japan and was saddened, upon my return, by the colorless, flavorless eggs in the U.S., even the fancy organic ones. But these eggs — these eggs were good. Perfectly hard-cooked and dipped in a little salt and pepper, they transported me back to my little table on the tatami floor in my little living room. Now I just need to find a good source for super-thick Japanese toast.
One Perfect Hard-Cooked Egg
Place egg in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Put a lid on the pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. As soon as water starts boiling, turn off the heat and set a timer for 7 minutes (5 minutes for a medium egg). When the timer goes off, pour out the water and cover the egg with cold water. Let sit until cool enough to handle. Crack, peel and enjoy.
Alhambra Farmers’ Market
Monterey Street between Main & Bay State
Sundays, 8:30am to 1pm
December 5, 2012
This is the week you have to stop denying autumn is over. Wrapped up in a new wool coat, you ride your bike in the frosty morning, snow-dusted mountains on the horizon, burrowing your chin deeper in your scarf. The leaves have fallen. Your scary fume-spewing kerosene heater is out.
But it’s okay. This autumn was a good one. Especially that persimmon tart.
Kaki flood the markets in autumn, especially in this part of Japan, which is famous for its persimmons. (It’s even rumored that perhaps the name of my town, Ogaki, once meant “big persimmon.” Which I think is far cooler than the present meaning: “big gate.” Boooring.) The kaki sold raw is almost exclusively amagaki, the rounder, more flat fruit which are eaten while they are still firm; in the U.S., they are often labeled as “Fuyu persimmons.” The longer, more pointed kaki, shibugaki — which are terribly astringent until they soften completely — are typically dried and sold later in winter, especially around New Year’s. The best part about this kaki glut is that it makes it possible to buy one persimmon for less than 100 yen (about $1), something you can’t say for apples. Thus, when the tart-baking urge struck, it was kaki I reached for.
A simple tart, it is nothing more than thinly-sliced fruit, sugar, butter and a sprinkling of spices in a basic crust. When baked, the persimmon pieces soften and meld together to become, after cooling, something gently chewy, kind of like a Japanese yōkan or a very soft Fruit Roll-Up. With some vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, it will be so good you might, like me, be forced to make another one a few days later. Or, if the amagaki season has already ended, daydream about it through at least a couple cold bicycle commutes.
Kaki no taruto (Persimmon tart)
Makes 6-8 servingsFor dough:
1 stick (115 g) cold unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (155 g) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water
3 persimmons, peeled, seeded and sliced 1/8-inch thick
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/2 stick (55 g) cold butter, sliced thin
Vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream
Make dough: Blend together flour, butter, and salt in a bowl with your fingertips until most of mixture resembles coarse meal, with the biggest lumps about pea-sized. Drizzle 2 tablespoons ice water evenly over and gently stir with a fork until incorporated.
When you squeeze a small handful of the dough, it should hold together without crumbling. If it doesn’t, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring after each addition until incorporated (keep testing). Don’t overwork the mixture or add too much water, or your dough will be tough.
Form dough: Divide the dough into 4 portions. With heel of your hand, smear each portion once across your work surface in a forward motion to help distribute fat. Gather dough together with a pastry scraper and form it into a disk. Chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, at least 1 hour.
When you are ready to assemble the tart, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). On a lightly floured surface roll out dough into a 13-inch round and fit it into a 10-inch tart tin, trimming the excess. Arrange the persimmon slices decoratively on the pastry shell, overlapping them. Mix the nutmeg and ginger with the sugar and sprinkle on top of the fruit. Top with butter slices and bake for 45 minutes or until the crust is golden and the persimmon slices are lightly browned. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream.
November 21, 2012
During this time of economic uncertainty, I believe bacon can make things better. Think about it: just a little bit goes a long way, flavoring a whole pot of beans or plate of braised greens with its smoky meatiness. Leftover bacon grease — an unappealing term, let’s say bacon drippings, much better — can be saved and used instead of oil, adding a savory something-something to an otherwise straightforward mirepoix. “Bacon makes anything better” may well be the mantra of this terrifying (and exciting — Obama!) time, whispered like a prayer over the chocolate-covered bacon slices, bacon-wrapped meats, even bacon ice cream being eaten around the country.
And so I offer my contribution to the nation’s altar of bacon: maple-bacon cinnamon rolls. Soft and yeasty, with the occasional salty-smoke hit of bacon, they were inspired by this bacon doughnut recipe I spotted. I wanted maple-bacon breakfast goodness, but didn’t want to deal with large amounts of oil bubbling on the stove, so the idea for this cinnamon roll was born, using Molly’s Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Glaze as a starting point. As an added plus, the fact that these are baked instead of fried makes you forget the thick layer of butter and sugar rolled up inside. Compared to a doughnut they seem almost…virtuous.
Okay, I know. Nothing with bacon ever seems virtuous. But, you know, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I myself won’t be casting any stones — with a maple-bacon cinnamon roll in each hand, it’s just not possible.
Maple-Bacon Cinnamon Rolls
Makes 18 rolls
1 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 1/4 teaspoons rapid-rise yeast
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup Grade B maple syrup
4 slices cooked bacon, chopped
Combine milk and butter in a small saucepan and heat over a low flame until mixture is just warmed to 120-130 degrees F. (Or put them in a glass measuring cup and microwave for 30 to 45 seconds.) Pour into a large bowl (or stand mixer). Add 1 cup flour, sugar, eggs, yeast and salt. Beat with the mixer or by hand for 3 minutes. Add 2 1/2 cups flour. Beat until flour is absorbed and dough is sticky, scraping down sides of bowl. If dough is very sticky, add more flour by tablespoonfuls until dough begins to form ball and pull away from sides of bowl. Turn dough out onto lightly flour work surface. Knead until smooth and elastic, adding more flour if sticky, about 8 minutes. Form into ball.
Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer dough to bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 2 hours. While it rises, mix brown sugar and cinnamon in medium bowl.
Punch down dough. Transfer to floured work surface. Roll out to 15×11-inch rectangle. Spread butter over dough, leaving 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar evenly over butter. Starting at one long side, roll dough into log, pinching gently to keep it rolled up. With seam side down, cut dough crosswise with thin sharp knife into 18 equal slices (each about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch wide).
Butter two 9-inch square glass baking dishes. Divide rolls between baking dishes, arranging cut side up (there will be almost no space between rolls). Cover baking dishes with plastic wrap and let dough rise until almost doubled in volume, 40 to 45 minutes.
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Bake rolls until tops are golden, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and invert immediately onto rack. Cool 10 minutes. Turn right side up.
Combine powdered sugar, vanilla and maple syrup in a medium bowl. Drizzle glaze over rolls and immediately sprinkle with chopped bacon. Serve warm. Realize you should eat more bacon.
October 3, 2012
Last weekend Rob and I hosted a holiday cookie party, a celebration of sugar and the season, with lots of mulled wine and brandy-spiked cider and people groaning, “I can’t eat any more…” while shoving just one more cookie in their mouths. Success!
I made three cookies: Martha Stewart’s striped Neapolitan Cookies, Dorie Greenspan’s incredible double chocolate World Peace Cookies and my own Gingerbread Bites. The gingerbread dough — dark with molasses, spiked with black pepper — is based on a reliable recipe I found years ago. I used it to make the standard gingerbread men the first year, but a chubby, oddly shaped man made from the cut-out scraps convinced me that thick cookies were the way to go (I was convinced after eating him, I mean, not that he actually sat me down and talked me into it) and I devised a new baking method. Instead of rolling the dough flat and cutting out cookies, I form fat little balls of dough and dip them in sanding sugar. They bake up moist and cakey with a compelling sugary crunch and are small and addictive enough to eat in multiples.
Preferably with other people around. If there’s one thing I learned this weekend, it’s that binge cookie-eating, like drinking, is much more socially acceptable if done in a group. Just don’t try to operate any heavy machinery for a couple hours.
Makes about 4 dozen 1-inch cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup unsulfured molasses
1 large egg
Raw washed sugar or other coarse sugar
Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, salt and pepper through a wire sieve into a bowl and set aside.
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer on high speed to beat the butter and shortening until smooth and well-combined, about 1 minute. Add the brown sugar and beat until fluffy and light-colored, about 2 minutes. Beat in the molasses and egg. With a spoon, gradually mix in the flour mixture to make a stiff dough. Divide the dough in half and wrap each half in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until chilled, about 3 hours. (The dough can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Cover the bottom of a shallow dish with the coarse sugar. Working with one disk at a time, break off a small piece of dough and roll between your palms to form a ball about 3/4″ across. Flatten the ball slightly and dip the top in the sugar. Continue with the remaining dough, placing the cookies about 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges are firm. Cool on the sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Can be stored for up to one week in an airtight container.
September 27, 2012
It’s early April, the sakura are in full bloom, and spring is in the air. Except that it’s raining right now and an icy wind is blowing all the blossoms off the trees. Oh well, at least I have my shin-shōga. Shōga is your average piece of ginger, brown-skinned and sharp, and shin-shōga is its younger, springtime version, pale, thin-skinned and mild. It’s this ginger, sliced and pickled, that is mounded up next to the green plastic leaf in your box of lunchtime sushi.
But pickles are only the beginning for shin-shōga. Because it has the fresh astringency of ginger without the bite, you can use it raw, and it is especially tasty when julienned and added to salads. When cooked, it loses its bright crunch, but the delicate fragrance wafting up from any dish you’ve added it to makes up for it. With soups and rice, you can toss in the shin-shōga right at the end of cooking and let it soften a bit in the residual heat. That’s what I do when making this early-spring rice, a mix of young ginger, fresh crab and thin green onions.
Some notes about ingredients: Young ginger is a popular ingredient in other Asian cuisines, so you should be able to find it at Asian supermarkets from spring through early summer. I buy my cooked crab meat in the sashimi section of my local grocery store, where I sometimes want to cry when I see how beautiful and cheap everything is. Imitation crab meat is not a suitable substitute. Finally, the green onions in Japan are typically much thinner than in the U.S., about half the diameter; look for the thinnest you can find or just use one thick one.
Kani to shin-shōga gohan (Crab and young ginger rice)
Makes 2 servings
1 cup Japanese rice, washed and drained
2-inch (5-cm) piece of young ginger
3.5 oz (100 g) cooked crab meat
2 thin green onions
Cook the rice in a rice cooker or on the stovetop as usual. (See the directions for cooking Japanese rice here.) When the rice is almost cooked, peel the ginger, cut in half crosswise, and julienne. Thinly slice the green onion. When the rice is cooked, add the ginger, crab and green onion to the cooker or pot and stir to mix everything in. For best flavor, serve immediately.
August 1, 2012
Some smells are just magical: coffee brewing in the morning, the soft folds of a baby’s neck, orange blossoms through an open car window on a warm night. Hot sticky rice mixed with coconut milk is one of those for me. It’s not like we even have that long a history, considering my childhood disgust with the coconut-laced desserts my dad used to stock up on whenever we would take a family trip to Bangkok Market in Hollywood. I could not see the appeal of not-very-sweet squares of coconut jelly, soupy tapiocas, gray disks of griddled shredded coconut. Pass the Oreos, please.
But I grew up, ate my first plate of mango and sticky rice at Noodle Planet one summer and realized my dad was on to something. I thought for a long time it was the mango-sticky rice synergy that made the dish so good, but during my last trip to Thailand, after stuffing my face with a mountain of little banana-leaf-wrapped packets of coconut-milk-infused sticky rice, I realized it was the rice and coconut all along. Hot rice, warm coconut milk, that edge of salt — addictive.
I’d bought a 5-lb bag of black sticky rice at LAX-C months ago, mostly because the grains were too beautiful and intriguing to resist. Sticky rice is usually soaked overnight and steamed, but I needed a same-day dessert for the dinner my friend Jessica was having that night. So I decided to make khao neow dam piag, black sticky rice pudding. The rice is boiled instead of steamed and mixed with a little coconut milk, sugar and salt toward the end of cooking. The finished pudding is deep purple, the grains soft yet chewy, with that warm, woozy coconut milk scent wafting up from the bowl. It was dessert that night and breakfast for the next two mornings. And since I still have 4.9 pounds of black sticky rice left, it may be my breakfast for the next year. Sounds good to me.
Black Sticky Rice Pudding with Coconut (Khao neow dam piag)
1 cup black sweet rice (also called black sticky rice or black glutinous rice)*
1 cup coconut milk
1/4-1/2 cup packed brown sugar, to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Sweetened shredded coconut or toasted sesame seeds (for garnish, optional)
Put rice in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Swish rice around to rinse it and pour off any loose husks that float to the top. Drain rice through a sieve and return to pot. Add 6 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes or until rice is soft. Pour off any excess water, so that the water line is just below the grains of rice. Add coconut milk, sugar and salt and simmer, stirring frequently, until pudding is desired consistency. Serve hot or room temperature, topped with coconut or sesame seeds.
July 20, 2012
When I lived in Japan I would often find fliers from pizza places in my mailbox. With their lurid photos of pizzas dotted with cocktail wieners, corn or seaweed, topped with a thick swirl of mayonnaise, they existed on a whole different plane of revolting, far worse than the latest cheese-dipped-and-stuffed, meat-coated Pizza Hut monstrosity. (For example: a giant hot dog on top of bacon on top of cheese stuffed into a pizza crust. Drizzled with mayo, of course.)
But it’s a funny thing about nostalgia: you never know what you’re going to miss.
Okay, so I don’t miss wieners crammed into everything, but I do sometimes crave creative pizza toppings bordering on the repellent, like french fries or poached eggs or mentaiko (spicy pickled fish roe). I miss pizza makers thinking outside the dough circle.
So it was with great joy that I sat down for a meal at Mr. Pizza Factory, the first U.S. branch of the Korean pizza mega-chain. The decor is appropriately garish, like a foreign relative’s interpretation of Italian Old World elegance, involving red velvet, columns and a large trompe l’oeil mural with “Mr. Pizza Factory” fake-carved in fake stone. YES.
The menu is similarly pleasing, offering a number of head-scratching pizzas and pastas, as well as the history and mission statement of Mr. Pizza Factory. Regarding the imminent world takeover by Mr. Pizza Factory:
It has been estimated that approximately 13 hundred million Chinese will love Mr. Pizza and remember it as the best and biggest pizza-maker in China in the years to come.
…Wait, so who exactly figured out these numbers? Esteemed Korean pizzalogists?
The specialty pizzas all sound incredible and have names like “Shrimp Nude” and “Grand Prix.” The latter apparently features a scone crust which, at the end of the meal, you break off and dip into strawberry jam. For dessert. You know, after you’ve eaten the middle of the pizza, which includes such inappropriate toppings as cooked hamburger, cheddar cheese and salsa.
Do you feel like your head’s about to explode? Me too, but in a good way.
We went with the Potato Gold, which features potato wedges, bacon, corn kernels, ground beef, a drizzle of sour cream, a sprinkling of crushed tortilla chips and a crust stuffed with sweet potato puree. We got a pitcher of Stella on the side, a wonderful accompaniment to what is essentially five types of carnival food on one pizza. The strangest thing about this pizza, however, was that it was actually kind of good, the junk food flavors melding with the cheese and tomato sauce into some kind of warped yet wonderful funnel cake.
Also, sweet-potato-puree-stuffed crust? Best idea ever.
I did leave feeling like I had been hit by a bus bearing ten different kinds of starches, but in addition to all those potatoes, I was also full of joy — joy and gratitude toward all the hardworking Korean pizzalogists out there who are coming up with combinations you and I would never dream of. I salute you.
Mr. Pizza Factory
3881 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90005
June 19, 2012
Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand, is the poorest area of the country, beset by droughts, floods and depleted soil, making for a hard-scrabble life as far as eating goes.
Yet somehow the food is seriously great. Isaan cuisine is more sour and spicy than what is found in nearby Central Thailand. Som tam (green papaya salad) — a.k.a. the dish I’d most like to be stranded on a desert island with — is from Isaan, where it is served with sticky rice rather than the usual steamed jasmine rice. Sticky rice is the staple crop I’d learn to grow on my island, in case you didn’t know. If it wasn’t for the whole girls-getting-married-when-they’re-as-young-as-14-for-the-dowry thing, I’d wish I had been born in Isaan, so I could have spent as many years as possible eating the food.
So I was excited for Khun Dom, a Thai restaurant in a barren region of Melrose, an area beset by graffiti, exhaust and generally awful traffic, making for a hard-scrabble life as far as eating goes. The place secretly specializes in Isaan-style salads, a fact apparently unknown to most of the patrons, who load their tables with pad Thai, fried wontons and the other usual Thai menu suspects.
With that in mind, Rob and I ordered three salads: beef nam tok (grilled beef salad), nam kao tod (pork and crispy rice salad) and som tam with dried shrimp, along with the essential sticky rice. After the rice arrived, wrapped neatly in foil, the beef nam tok appeared, accompanied by a plate of Thai basil, Chinese long beans, cabbage and other greens — the perfect thing to munch on between fiery bites of beef. (It wasn’t until my first visit to Thailand that I realized why my dad used to often chow down on, say, a fourth of a head of cabbage alongside his stir-fry and rice. I always just thought he really liked cabbage.) The nam tok ended up being Rob’s favorite dish, the grilled beef dripping with spicy lime dressing and meaty juices.
The nam kao tod was the highlight of the meal for me — I loved the gingery bite and the slick, crispy bits of rice — but what made it even better was following up each mouthful with a chomp of fresh greens and a chunk of perfectly cooked sticky rice. Isaan synergy! The rice was a restaurant sticky rice revelation, delicately chewy, without the unfortunate soggy spots often found at the bottom of bowl.
The only disappointment was the som tam, which was overly sweet and not spicy at all. Next time I’ll try the blue crab som tam instead of the dried shrimp.
There’s no alcohol on the menu, but I bought a beer at the shady liquor store next door, which the waitress kindly opened for me and poured into a frosty glass. Sitting in Khun Dom sipping a cold beer and munching on nam kao tod and greens could almost make me forget I didn’t go to Thailand with my sisters this summer. I’ll just pretend it’s my own Isaan desert island.
4681 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90029
May 20, 2012
The two best things about summer are:
1) That it is acceptable to eat ice cream at least once a day, every day.
2) That riding my scooter becomes the perfect pastime.
Don’t get me wrong, I almost always like riding my scooter. But chilly midwinter scootering can’t compare to a sunny August afternoon ride, sunglasses on, arms recklessly bare, my little Buddy 125 humming happily beneath me. There’s nothing better than that. Except maybe ice cream.
Which is why fellow scooter rider Javier (a.k.a. Teenage Glutster) and I decided to combine the two and have an ice cream scooter crawl, starting with scoops at Scoops, ending with beer floats at The Golden State and trying to avoid any sugar-fueled collisions in between.
We met at Scoops in the early afternoon, so early that the ice cream was mostly untouched, still mounded in creamy swirls and somehow looking even more irresistible. Javier, his lady friend and I split two double scoops: one cup of vegan salty chocolate and coffee-cardamom, which Javier wisely sprinkled with chopped peanuts, and one cup of black currant-sour cream and vanilla-whiskey. I view the combining of two flavors of ice cream in one cup something of an art form and I think we really nailed it this time, especially the salty chocolate and coffee-cardamom with the peanuts. The peanuts were crucial. The other cup worked just because the black currant-sour cream was one of the best Scoops flavors I’ve ever eaten, rich and tangy with a deep berry taste.
As we were finishing, Jessica — my passenger/lady friend — arrived and we worked out a game plan while she polished off a scoop of ice cream.
The next stop was Helados Pops, just a couple blocks away. A tiny shop specializing in sorbets flavored with Central and South American fruits, it was the place I was most excited to bring Javier to, mainly because I was so curious about all the flavors. Javier immediately started chatting with the woman behind the counter, who dished out brightly colored samples of nance (a yellow crabapple-like fruit with a slightly funky taste), arrayán (a kind of guava), marañón (cashew apple, a yellow fruit with a sweet taste reminiscent of pineapple) and lúcuma (egg fruit, a dry-fleshed fruit from Peru with a unique caramel flavor). We ended up getting scoops of the last three in a pint container, along with a half-scoop of the nance because we asked nicely. Lúcuma, the only non-sorbet of the bunch, was the flavor that most interested Javier due to its rarity outside of South America. My favorite was the arrayán: green, slightly sour and utterly refreshing. They also make arrayán paletas!
Next we made a brief savory stop at Mush Bakery for fresh lahmajun, to halt the onset of acute sugar shock. At 90 cents each, they were an amazingly affordable curative.
Bhan Kanom is my favorite place in Thai Town for sweets, so I assumed they would also serve a good Thai slush, but although the ingredients were intriguing — palm toddy? — the ice was chunky rather than slushy and drowned in a syrup that tasted like children’s cough medicine. Never again.
Thankfully, our last stop was a sure thing: award-winning beer floats at The Golden State. The ride from Thai Town to Fairfax was the longest of the day, so by the time we arrived we were more than ready to get out of the sun and relax with our floats. Jason, one of The Golden State’s co-owners, welcomed us with his usual laid-back friendliness and set about making us a couple floats when we told him our ice cream mission. First up was Old Rasputin with Scoop’s signature Brown Bread gelato, a now-classic combination of rich, dark stout and creamy, brown sugar-tinged ice cream. Our second float was a lucky off-menu score, a summery combo of The Bruery’s Hottenroth Berliner Weisse and strawberry-basil gelato. Jason pointed out that the sour ale makes the float taste almost like it’s made with champagne. It was light and refreshing, undoubtedly my favorite of the two, at least on that warm summer day.
After draining our glasses, we sat back and sighed, contented and full of ice cream, looking forward to a leisurely ride home. We’re already discussing our next scooter crawl: a San Gabriel Valley winter hotpot marathon. Who’s in?
712 N Heliotrope Dr
Los Angeles, CA 90029
1010 N Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90029
5224 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
5271 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
The Golden State
426 N Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
April 10, 2012
People, there’s no reason to ever eat crappy food on an airplane again. Front Page Jamaican Grille is less than 3 miles from LAX, so an extra 30 minutes and a short trip down Manchester is all that stands between you and a container full of curry goat or oxtails or jerk chicken with a side of rice and beans. Doesn’t that sound better than a soggy $8 turkey sandwich wrapped in plastic? I thought so.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a lunch at Front Page Grille last weekend by an intrepid eater named Josie, whom I met the last time I visited Breed Street in Boyle Heights. She, Javier, Jessica and I met at the restaurant, just a counter and a few tables in a small space painted a dazzling green, tucked into a nondescript strip mall in Inglewood. It is, as Javier put it, like sitting inside a giant Jamaican flag.
We started with a couple appetizers. Vegetable patties, which were like savory handpies stuffed with spinach, are not made on the premises but produced in some other magical Jamaican patty location where the crusts are always flaky and the fillings never soggy. Festival bread was like an unsweetened, slightly dense donut hole, proof that fried dough is the right way to start any meal.
I had been 30 minutes late (navigating tip: Manchester Avenue is not the same as Manchester Boulevard, although the two do eventually meet), so by the time I arrived the others had already put in an order for the roasted perch, which takes 30-40 minutes to prepare. It is well worth the wait, even if you do spend most of the time driving up and down an abandoned block of Manchester Avenue wondering if the restaurant is behind a car wash maybe. Our foil-wrapped fish was brought to the table by John, the chef and co-owner, who has a smile as bright as his green-painted walls. The steaming fish was buried under a pile of chopped cabbage and peppers, totally unphotogenic but so good, the whole mess fragrant with jerk spices and tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. John says the roasted fish is a favorite among the ladies, but he doesn’t know why. Gentlemen, get on board. You’re missing out.
We loaded up our “plates” (actually opened-up takeout containers — it’s kind of awesome) with fish, rice and beans, sticky green okra pods and sweet slices of plantain. The jerk goat was coal-black with a wonderful chew and the oxtails fell apart with the tap of a plastic tine. Nothing was particularly spicy until topped with a little of the homemade hot sauce, a slurry of Scotch bonnet peppers that made my lips tingle. The plainness of the vegetables, boiled and only lightly seasoned, offered an occasional break from the complex spicing of the meats.
The drinks at Front Page Grille are as intriguing and authentic as the food. Pine ginger beer’s spicy bite was tempered by its subtle pineapple sweetness. Cran moss is a bizarre mix of cranberry juice and Irish moss, a.k.a. carrageen moss, a sort of seaweed that lends a slightly gelatinous texture that was certainly unique, but not exactly thirst-quenching. For that, I turned to my favorite of the day, the sorrel drink. Brewed from hibiscus flowers, it is basically like jamaica, but imagine the most perfect jamaica ever, one that is not tooth-achingly sweet but instead slightly tart, like a well-made lemonade. I could drink buckets of this.
We finished the meal with a couple slices of carrot cake — really more of a carrot pudding, dense with shredded carrots and barely sweet. When we told Pam, the other owner, that we liked it, she seemed baffled but pleased to hear someone enjoyed her husband’s latest creation. “He never tells me what he’s going to make,” she said. “He just tells me what it is when he’s done.”
The vibe is mellow, the music is good, the service is friendly and the whole place reminds you why LA is a great place to live — because if you don’t have time to pick up some cheap and authentic Jamaican food on the way out of town, you can always get it when you return. Just make sure your ride doesn’t mind taking a little detour on the way home from the airport.
March 4, 2012
Southern barbecue is sort of the antithesis of parking in LA. Think about it: barbecue is slow and generous — piles of meat infused with the sweet scent of smoke, tended for hours and often served at large gatherings — while LA parking is quick and ruthless, a hair-pulling experience liable to leave you hating your fellow man. So it was in the spirit of slow and generous living that I proposed a Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 meal* for my friends on May 30th, with food from Territory BBQ & Records, a brand-new Southern-style barbecue joint just at the end of my street. No car required.
Territory is the brainchild of Tony Presedo, a former indie record label co-executive, and Curtis Brown, ex-frontman of the band Bad Wizards. A North Carolina native, Brown is also behind the Brooklyn taco truck Endless Summer, so he’s used to bringing regional foods to the hipster masses. The restaurant itself is sparse; all the seating is at outdoor tables covered with checked tablecloths, alongside a refrigerator that diners can open up to grab sodas in glass bottles. It’s charming, but no match for my own apartment, where my friends and I can stay as long as we want and go back for seconds or even thirds — slow and generous, remember? I got our meal to go.
Back at my apartment, my friends gathered around the kitchen table as I opened to-go containers brimming with pulled pork, beef brisket, fried chicken, fried catfish, collard greens, mac and cheese, baked beans and gigantic biscuits. Two small boxes were filled with apple butter, caramel-brown and flecked with spices, to be slathered on the biscuits. One container held only sauces: pepper vinegar and sweet red barbecue sauce, to appease fans of various barbecue styles. To drink there were sodas from Territory — Bubble Up, Jolt cola, orange and grape Crush and cherry-flavored Cheerwine — or the fresh mint limeade I had made that morning. Without ceremony, just a communal “Let’s eat!,” we started loading up our plates and filling our glasses.
The chicken with its thin, crunchy skin and juicy, flavorful meat was quickly voted a crowd favorite, as were the baked beans, which had a big ham bone planted like a flag in the middle. The cornmeal-dredged catfish was crisp yet succulent, but tasted a little bland until I dabbed on some of Territory’s tartar sauce, a light, wonderfully smoky version of a condiment I normally dislike. Of the two barbecued meats, the brisket seemed more deeply flavored than the pork, more redolent of smoke, and was a great match with the fresh-tasting barbecue sauce and plain white bread.
Speaking of bread, let’s talk about the biscuits. When I picked up the food, there had been a short wait because the biscuits were still in the oven. Freshly baked biscuits? No complaints from me. I carried them home in a roasting pan, their toasty, buttery smell drifting into my face, tempting me to just bite into one there on the street. I refrained, just long enough to get inside and grab a plate. Then I split one open, spread on a thick layer of apple butter and bit into warm biscuit heaven — one stop past cinnamon roll paradise, just before croissant nirvana — a place of moist, buttery layers and browned, deliciously crusty edges. If you love bread, you will love these biscuits.
Some of us went back for seconds. A few of us even went back for thirds. Miraculously, though I had ordered enough food for 15 people, the nine of us managed to finish almost all of it. This was not due to paltry servings on Territory’s part, I feel, but to the general spirit of the gathering. We ate a little, we talked a little, we ate a little, we listened to some records, and then we ate some more. Slowness and generosity and eating till you bust — isn’t that what Southern barbecue is all about?
February 19, 2012
On a recent Saturday my friend Meg and I headed to the Fashion District in Downtown LA for lunch and fabric shopping. We were both hungry (Meg because she had swum probably two hundred laps that morning at the pool and me because I had slept in until 11 AM and hadn’t eaten breakfast — sad, that contrast), so we went to Clifton’s first to load up on hearty starches and gravies.
Clifton’s Cafeteria is one of the oldest remaining cafeterias in Los Angeles and undoubtedly the most bizarrely decorated. The first and second floors have a cabin-in-the-woods feeling as seen through a Disney lens, with a giant forest mural, faux caves and a moose head mounted on the wall. After shuttling through a narrow mirrored passageway, you step into the sort of bustling, bright cafeteria serving area loved by geriatrics and small children everywhere. There is Jell-O. There is three-bean salad. There is a man getting a medieval-looking, ginormous turkey leg smothered in gravy, with mashed potatoes on the side. Awesome. You pile your tray with the cold sides, breads and desserts of your choice, and then the nice ladies manning the entrees will plunk whatever hot dishes you want onto a plate. To drink, giant cups of fruit-adorned Olé are set out alongside the usual soda, coffee and tea. I always get the Olé.
The first floor has the forest mural and moose head and the second floor has low ceilings and giant light-box photos of idyllic outdoor scenes. But it’s the third floor that I always go for, with its red flocked wallpaper and crown molding that you know must have been so chic and elegant in 1935. It’s also usually the least crowded. People who frequent cafeterias generally don’t like to walk up stairs.
Too bad the food isn’t very good. On this day, the three-inch layer of ham slices paving my plate was far too salty. The biscuits were, as usual, fluffy and inoffensive. The bean salad tasted only of vinegar and had a funky smell. Meg’s turkey enchilada was decent, though, and we both finished at least half of our desserts. It’s hard to mess up strawberries and whipped cream.
After eating we walked around the third floor, looking at pictures of children’s meals at Clifton’s through the ages and marveling at the now-demolished South-Seas-themed Clifton’s, which had also been in Downtown LA and was notable for the giant waterfall tumbling down around its entrance.
We left the cool dimness of Clifton’s and waded through the bustling heat of Broadway toward our next destination: Paletería La Michoacana. Paletas are Mexican ice pops, way better than, say, Rocket Pops because they come in flavors like cucumber-chile, peanut and soursop. I don’t even know what soursop is, but it’s really fun to say. The freezers in Paletería La Michoacana were stacked neatly with colorful bars, too many to choose from, and when I asked the adorable girl behind the counter what she recommended, she pointed out the mango-chile (“it’s so spicy”) and guava (“it’s so sour”). Meg got the mango-chile and I considered the guava, but wanted to go for something totally different — there’s a pico de gallo flavor on the menu, but I didn’t know if I could handle that. I asked about chamoy. “It’s so spicy.” It was red, studded with yellow chunks of fruit. I got it.
Outside we peeled away the plastic and started in quickly, the bars already starting to drip in the heat. Meg’s was full of mango chunks and chile flecks, sweet and spicy and sour. Mine was spicy and salty, the red chamoy frozen around pieces of pineapple. More than anything, it tasted like someone made a popsicle with Sriracha. Which isn’t surprising, since chamoy is the brine used to pickle fruit, concentrated and seasoned with chile. It’s basically spicy pickle juice. I like pickle juice, but this paleta was too salty for me and I sadly abandoned it halfway through. I might have been better off with the guava. I hear it’s so sour.
I’ll definitely be back to try more paletas the next time I’m in the area; the nut-based flavors sound awesome. But no more pickle juice desserts for me.
648 S Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90014
Paletería La Michoacana
306 W 7th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90014
January 20, 2012
I first moved to Silver Lake when I was 19. Going out for dinner and a drink back then often meant choking down a watery chicken tostada at El Conquistador while sipping a potent margarita and being dazzled by the explosively colorful decor.
Ten years later, my tastes have changed — and so has Silver Lake. How else to explain my thoroughly enjoyable evening at Barbrix, the sleek new wine bar on Hyperion? Seated at the back bar, I got to watch the kitchen action while looking over the menu and reasonably priced list of wines by the glass. I picked the Kogl Mea Culpa Saemling, a white wine from Slovenia our server described as “crispy” — yes, it is difficult for me to resist crispy things — which turned out to be a great match for the meal.
Veal meatballs were juicy and delicate, sitting in a pool of herb-butter sauce that was so good mopped up with chunks of the La Brea Bakery bread, I had to get a second round of bread. The McGrath Farmer’s Plate was like a slice of garden on the plate — dark, earthy beets, sweet sunshine carrots, curling green pea tendrils — exactly right for a cool May evening. We asked a passing server about the saba mentioned in the menu description (the only saba either of us knew was the Japanese mackerel) and he deferred to the chef, Don Dickman, who came over and gave us a quick but thorough explanation of the process of making saba, a sort of unfermented, deeply concentrated grape juice. He squeezed a few droplets of balsamic vinegar onto a plate for us to taste and contrast — an unexpected and welcome lesson from a chef who undoubtedly had better things to do.
The Greek sardine, grilled until the skin was crisp and slightly blackened, was meaty with an oiliness nicely offset by a squeeze of the lemon wedge served alongside. Is there any better way to get your omega-3s? I only wish it had been sardines, plural, so I could have eaten more.
The roasted halibut with sunchokes, chard and mushroom was slightly overcooked, veering from Silky-Supple Town into Dense-Flaky-ville. The flavors were spot-on though, and I loved the contrast between the slightly crunchy sunchoke slices and slippery mushrooms.
We didn’t order dessert, though I was sorely tempted by the ginger shortcakes with berry compote that kept passing by. Jessica, the ideal dining partner in so many ways, seems to unfortunately lack betsu-bara (literally “another stomach” in Japanese), the affliction I was diagnosed with during my first week in Japan when I could eat five courses of food and still have room for dessert. I always have room for dessert.
I’ll undoubtedly be returning to Barbrix, and not just for the shortcake. The service was friendly, the space intimate without feeling cramped, and everyone in the room, whether patron or employee, seemed genuinely happy to be there — including me.
Silver Lake, it’s official. We’ve grown up.
2442 Hyperion Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027