Friday, October 21, 2011

Toffee Love

Candy lovers are people I can really relate to, ahem, because I'm one myself. One thing about candy lovers—besides their need for dental work—is as much as they get excited by all kinds of candy, there’s usually one sweet in particular that rocks their world. For instance, my sister is drawn to caramels. Another friend of mine loves sour candies. Others love licorice. Candy lovers usually have at least one must-have item in a candy store, and for me that has always been toffee.

No, not taffy or that kind of thing; I’m talking about traditional English-style toffee, with its sunburnt golden hues, slicks of chocolate on one or both sides, and some kind of nut sparingly integrated throughout. Toffee should be lightly crunchy and even a little gritty when chewed, not sticky or gluey as can be the case with peanut brittle. A good toffee is dental-work safe! It will crunch and then soon dissolve once bitten. Overcooked toffee is a sad thing, stuck in a candy purgatory between what toffee should be and peanut brittle, and that's no good.

The simple matter is that brittle is called brittle because… it is brittle. It gets that way because it’s cooked slightly longer and/or to a higher temperature than is needed to achieve toffee—although some recipes use the same cooking temperature for both toffee and brittle, and this fact probably confuses both of us. All I know is the butter/sugar combo of brittle has simply caramelized more than the kind of toffee I like. Great toffee lives in a place between caramel's softness and brittle’s brittleness. I can't eat brittle anymore. It’s not worth the risk and my dental hygienist would not be happy. Toffee, however, is still fair game.

My first toffee memory is from the college years during the "chocolate overdose period," recounted in the "Overdose" post. After the initial order from Nestle's International arrived, other chocolate companies sent catalogs to my address, and eventually I sent a check to Nancy’s Candies—a local candy shop in Georgia—to try what they were apparently best known for: chocolate pecan crunch.

If a perfect toffee exists in this world, one that sets the bar and palate at a high level of expectation forever, it's Nancy’s. Why? One reason is it only has five ingredients (butter, sugar, chocolate, pecans, salt), it's DELICIOUS, it’s perishable-fresh and it’s cooked perfectly every time.

How gratifying to know that 20 years later, even after Nancy merged her kitchen with Linda and then both were bought out by Katy, the candy shipped out today from the small city of LaGrange, Georgia (pop: 25,000) tastes exactly as amazing, exactly as toffee-perfect as it did the first time.

I’ve tried to recreate Nancy's chocolate pecan crunch many times at home and many times succeeded. It doesn't always work. In Santa Fe I thought my friend would love it, yet the elevation was apparently too high to produce a toffee batch that didn’t curdle (this realization occurred to us after the 3rd attempt).

Los Angeles isn’t a great place to make toffee either, or maybe just not in my kitchen. The sugar and butter never quite merge in the pot, and I wonder if this has anything to do with the dry LA air or the opposite: my apartment sits directly over the laundry room. Who knows. All this means is I stopped trying to make toffee at home—better for my waistline, better for my teeth!

If you like toffee, here is a short list of personal faves:
  • Nancy's Candies (per above) - Their website is pretty sparse, but you can call to order or just ask them to send a catalog. Either way, they’ll ship out a silver tin of chocolate pecan crunch (or pralines, etc.) and you will not be sorry.
  • See's Candies – Classic California old-fashioned candy maker that offers several toffee options: the Victoria toffee, milk or dark California brittle, and white chocolate cashew brittle are all thick, crunchy toffee goodness. If you buy online, buying a 1 lb. “nuts and chews” box will net you some of the brittles (they chew closer to toffee than brittle to me), or you can buy the Victoria toffee on its own or create a custom box.
  • Littlejohn's Candies – Right before moving to LA, a Burbank friend shipped me a box from this homey sweets shop located at the Los Angeles Farmer's Market. Littlejohn’s makes fantastic toffee, and their fudge is really good too.
  • The Toffee Box – Just tried this California-made toffee at a chocolate show and fell in love. Their delicious “classic dark chocolate” toffee is very close to Nancy's, just with walnuts instead of pecans. Their white chocolate macadamia nut version gives the classic kind a run for its money.
  • Valerie's Confections – While the toothsome toffees of this charming LA candy/bake shop are a bit more costly than others (except you Roger's of Victoria), it's for good reason. Each piece is a purposeful and exceptional square of the perfect height, flavor and crunch; all come with a flavor flourish of some sort and the chocolate dip couldn't be finer. They offered me a few free samples to review for this blog, so I tried their signature almond fleur de sel and it was fab. However it was their seasonal pumpkin seed toffee that truly blew my toffee mind. Gotta go back & get me a 6-pack of those ASAP.
There are other well-known chocolate companies that make tasty toffee, I just happen to prefer the places above for that. And if you don't feel like buying toffee, you can always try to make some yourself! My old college roommate Nanci (I know what you're thinking, but she is not related to Nancy of Nancy's Candies) once sent me an easy toffee recipe torn from the pages of Southern Living magazine (this version looks close), and here's a recipe from Sunset magazine that looks good too.

Now this post isn't suggesting I only eat toffee or my sister only eats caramels (she plans to try "ghost pepper bacon toffee" at a NJ shop soon). My candy adrenaline simply shoots up higher when this favorite is in sight, in the same way my blood pressure shoots up momentarily after a dental X-ray is taken to see if there's any damage. It's a yin and yang relationship and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Danish Red Pesto & Fried Bacon (or Pork?)

While studying in Aarhus, Denmark for three weeks this summer I pondered the possible titles for this upcoming blog post:

"Starving in Denmark" (so expensive to eat there, which is why the photo above is of a cheap meal I made at home), "The Land of Leggings" (de rigueur fashion element for women of all ages), "World Wide Web" (so many spiders and their webs!), or "Allergies my Allergies" (they owned me and my puffy face).

But, since this is a food blog it made more sense for the title to refer to the two regional food items I loved most on the trip:

1. Red Pesto
This condiment is popular in Denmark! I found it at our school cafeteria next to the mayo and mustard. Thinking it was spicy harissa I took a bit for a burger and it sure was something else. A chef walking by seemed surprised for my red pesto lust, then kindly gave me the recipe: "It's just dried tomatoes, olive oil, salt & pepper." This thick red puree is like a Danish foodie ketchup that I never knew existed and now can't live without! Though to locals it's just "(yawn) red pesto," to me it's a new toy.

American recipes for red pesto start as a recipe for green pesto (basil/nuts/olive oil) just with sun-dried tomato pieces added in. The Danish kind is not that at all. I attempted to make it at home using paper-towel-drained canned San Marzano plum tomatoes even though the few online Danish recipes I saw contained sun-dried tomatoes, because I imagined sun-dried would kill my food processor and when the chef said dried tomatoes he could have meant fresh tomatoes that were dried. Well I got that wrong. My resulting "red pesto" was like a thick fresh tomato sauce that kept weeping tomato water. Still good but not like what I had. I'll try sun-dried next time.

9/17 addendum: After a month I finally figured out the red pesto recipe (see photo). Anyone interested just lemme know.

2. The mysteries of stegt flæsk vs. flæskesteg
Before coming to Denmark I thought of an old food magazine article—"Danish Christmas"—in which a beautiful pork roast with a crackling top was served to a family in a modern country home. This article left an impression, so I really wanted to try this dish during my stay. Lovely Danish classmate Julie (pronounced yule-yah) said the dish I was looking for was called "stegt flæsk med persillesovs," literally translated via my laptop to "fried bacon with parsley sauce." Hmm it made sense, since the top of the pork looked fried like bacon.

Menus across the city did not often list this dish and if they did it cost $40 which was too much (the town didn't take kindly to U.S. credit cards). One day a man giving us a media house tour said the best traditional Danish restaurant in town was the only place the Danish royal prince dines at when he visits Aarhus. Score! A plan was made, though when I mentioned this to my professor he said it was only a Monday-Friday lunch place, when we were in class. Sigh. That's when local classmate Jarle suggested Raadhuus Kaféen instead. So housemate Kami and I ended up there on my third-to-last night in town, and they served the dish I was seeking for $25.

Everyone in Aarhus, Denmark knows English, but in spite of that our waitress had trouble translating the dish for me. I asked if it was fatty. She said yes but I can cut it off. No problem. Then just as I thought we understood each other she said, "We also have it as a roast. Would you prefer that?" (She was apparently not a big fan of stegt flæsk med persillesovs!) This confused me even more because I thought I was getting a roast in the first place. In any case, I had to get what Julie recommended, which for weeks had been living on a slip of paper in my wallet so there would be no misunderstanding.

The dish set before me truly amazed me because it was in fact fried bacon, a big fat dish of it! I felt terribly rebellious for eating so much thick fried crunchy bacon, topped with cream sauce no less! It was glorious and made me very happy. My vegetarian dining companion was supportive even though she thought I was a little crazy. The next day I told Julie about my good fortune at Raadhuus Kaféen, plus the part that I thought I had ordered a roast. She explained, "Ah, there are two versions of the dish. One is a roast, and one is like you had it (because I showed her a picture)." Ah. All right then.

Once home I looked for that old article about the pork roast and crackling. Couldn't find the original but this one shows what I imagined quite well if you scroll down through the photos to the recipe. The name of this dish is flæskesteg (sorta the same as stegt flæsk just reversed + "e" - "t"). Translated it means roast pork. So I translated stegt flæsk again in LA, the dish I ate, and this time it also translated to "roast pork" instead of "fried bacon." Can I get a consistent desktop translator please?? In the end I guess you have to be Danish to thoroughly understand how to order the version you want. Even though I didn't get the literal roast pork, lucking out with the fried bacon was okay by me! For more info on the fried bacon version click here.

3. Additional food and beverage highlights of Aarhus

These crunchy rye crackers were made at local bakery Det Gyldne Brød (not too hard to translate that one ;). Not only did this wonderful place take Amex and sell cheap coffee, they also made these satisfying regional Danish crackers blanketed with dense layers of sesame or poppy seeds (in either black or tan). These sturdy, toothsome crackers beat the pants off of dry and dull WASA bread.

Danish Butter Cookies
The best I experienced here were made with brown butter, nuts and vanilla and were only offered after paying a hefty admission to Den Gamle By or The Old Town. The bake shop was filled with lots of delicious cookies and just as many angry bees (they must have had good taste). The butter cookies are in the photo in front along with traditional crispy sugar pretzels in back. These cookies were soooo good I had to keep going back for more.

Nils' cookies
My German housemate Nils surprised us all one night when we discovered a tabletop full of his homemade chocolate chip cookies. Not sure what to expect from this young Ph.D. student, I was actually awed at the tasty and uniquely textured cookies he produced. With so much praise (and 2nds, 3rds and 4ths) Nils kindly gave me the recipe, which he got from a friend. I figured the simple secret must be that he made them with high-butterfat Danish butter, something I can easily buy at Whole Foods.

8/21 addendum: Now I know why my expectations were so topsy turvy with these chocolate chip cookies... it's because they are actually an oaty shortbread cookie with chocolate chips. I figured this out while gathering the ingredients and seeing there was no egg or cup of sugar in the recipe like regular chocolate chips. The butter binds it, the oats add texture and bulk, and the chips flavor it. Wunderbar!

Sigfred's Kaffebar
This is the Intelligentsia (Los Angeles) or Stumptown (Portland) of Aarhus, Denmark. Artisinal coffee beverages made with light roasted beans for SO MUCH MORE MONEY THAN STARBUCKS OMG (small latte for $7 anyone?). I couldn't afford this luxury more than twice, and they didn't take U.S. credit cards like Det Gyldne Brød, though I have to say it was one of the smoothest cups I've ever had.

• Turc Kebab
There must be a lot of Turkish immigrants in Aarhus, because Turkish street food ran rampant in this town. On a lazy Saturday I took a chance at this place to buy a rolle kylling (chicken roll) for 35 kroner (I told you, $6.76 is a high price for street food). Had to get this chicken thing two times because it was delicious! Unlike other stands that have cold chopped chicken in a bin, this guy caramelized his chicken in a sauté pan all day until the wrap was constructed. Beyond regular toppings like lettuce, tomato and onion, you could also add fried onions, hot sauce or the magnificent green garlic sauce. Who cares if I only got one napkin and probably stained my jeans with the dripping juices...this was one great lunch!

Summerbird Chocolates
A Danish chocolatier that is light on added sugar and heavy on creativity and marzipan. When a nice salesman at a department counter heard I'd never tasted Summerbird he offered a free tasting along with coffee to cleanse the palate! That was definitely a trip highlight. Summerbird highlights include their flavored coated almonds (which come in pretty colors like silver, purple and yellow), chocolate filled eggs, and especially their original chocolate tapas and chocolate sushi box collections.

Det Gronne Hjorne (The Green Corner)
After my first week of starving I discovered this Turkish all-you-can-eat place for only $19 per person + free water!! (a Denmark rarity). Housemate Kami and I went twice because we liked it so much. Then on my second-to-last night I attended a pre-paid school event where students go out for dinner and drinks. They announced the destination-to-be on the day of and I read it was Det Gronne Hjorne. Ugh... Good for two meals, but not the place for every restaurant meal in a city! Some school friends and I found this quite amusing.

Danish Pastry
Sorry Aarhus, your Danish pastries were nice and so much better than the kind at home, but alas they were no match for the pastries of Copenhagen experienced in 2005. When I asked why this was, someone explained the royal family likes to live among the citizens, so they drop in at various Copenhagen eating establishments unannounced. This is why every restaurant and royal pastry shop in the country's capital must always be at their best. That's good for Copenhagen, but left my need to experience a second euphoric Danish pastry experience, per my Danish Danish post, a little unfulfilled. The forms were similar, but the taste was not as special. Note: the marzipan hazelnut square in the photo from Fremtidensbager was distinct and delightful.

Die Kleine Bierstube
My only trip regret is that I went to this fantastic German beer hall and restaurant on my very last night in town and not sooner. The atmosphere was perfectly Scandinavian in blonde wood (like the original Aquavit in NYC) and homey biergarten decor. And so many kinds of fresh German beer—wheat, lager, dunkel—flowed at the right price. On my last night I went there for hefeweizen-on-tap and good conversation with housemate István. Die Kleine Bierstube was so gratifying I would be there every night if one existed at home (sorry Red Lion). If I had a personal trainer and chauffeur that is ;).

Until we eat again,

Thursday, June 9, 2011

It's Time To Eat the Doughnuts!

A "30 Rock" episode from a few years back really illustrated the show's pulse of the times when Alec Baldwin's character brought Jennifer Aniston's character up-to-date on the latest in New York. He said, "Welcome to New York. Let's see, we're using credit cards in cabs now, all the galleries have moved to Chelsea, and we're off cupcakes and we're back to doughnuts. Would you excuse me for a moment?" (He probably ran off to get some doughnuts.)

When cupcakes hit New York there was some dabbling around in it by all. When doughnuts hit, that was better. People can make a great cupcake in their kitchen, but a doughnut? Nope, when doughnuts were back in vogue Krispy Kreme was the one-stop shop. One tiny bundle of glazed "hot now" did the trick and gently wafted in memories of sugary childhood delight.

Krispy Kreme was key in this doughnut history, but the place that truly elevated New York doughnuts was Mark Israel's Doughnut Plant. Each time I visit the city, a stop at the plant is a fixed agenda point. I've tried several flavors including their Valrhona chocolate glazed, mango glazed, lavendar glazed (below left), and on this latest trip I experienced doughnut heaven in a coconut cream-filled with coconut glaze number (below right). Yayayaya.

(Still to try: the blackout, the tres leches, and the stellar crème brûlée doughnut.)

It's hard to give justice to these doughnuts, but I'll try. They're so good because they are light, spongy mostly yeast-raised puffs (they have some cake doughnuts too); everything's organic; and the toppings are seasonal, fresh and creative. The oil used for frying lingers in the dough just enough and takes the texture when you bite in to new heights. The doughnuts (except for the crème brûlée mini) are huge. The price for the quality you're getting is right too ($2.50?). And if you're dieting it's ok, you only live once.

I knew I was gonna miss the Doughnut Plant when I left NY, so imagine my surprise to discover LA has a long-standing famous doughnut culture of its own. A native resident first took me to Bob's Coffee & Doughnuts at the LA Farmer's Market. Omg these are doughnuts. Moist and fluffy, rich in flavor, with special shapes and glazes for kids. The coffee really works here too, with a bunch of varieties for $1 including a Kona blend from Hawaii (and free parking validation). Biting into a Bob's doughnut with a smooth cup of coffee while lounging outdoors in the farmer's market is pure heaven.

When the conversation in Los Angeles turns to doughnuts, which it often does, it's good to listen:

  • A professor introduced Spudnuts doughnuts to me when he brought some to a meeting. These babies are toothsome with just the right texture due to the addition of potato flour.
  • I'm not sure where I heard of Primo Doughnuts, but they came with high praise and the day I trekked to find them their street was being repaved so I had to carry on doughnut-less.
  • On mornings when I'm really lazy I'll just drive over to, that's right, a 7-11 and pick up the local-fave maple bar (long doughnut with maple glaze) or a mere glazed chocolate. Why not, it's a good doughnut! And because doughnuts are big in LA, even a measly 7-11 takes their doughnuts to better places than in other towns.
  • Once after a hike (you have to hike here due to all the doughnuts), an acquaintance said the best in town is The Donut Man in Glendora. Where? This place east past Pasadena, kinda far from home but not too far for a gastronomic road trip! The praise is for The Donut Man's way of stuffing fresh glazed fruit– strawberries or peaches–into doughnut shells. A wonderful thing! A foodie friend in town last April drove all the way out there with me so we could get our doughnut on. Alas The Donut Man is not open on Easter (we happened to drive out there on Easter). So like Primo's, will have to try again. Here's a little video of The Donut Man's doughnuts (from 1:13 note the maple bars) fyi.

Why is there such an affection for doughnuts? Maybe because they're so delicious, the perfect little package of soft and sweet, a quick homestyle dessert that tastes just as good when you buy them than when you make 'em at home. Come to think of it, most people don't make doughnuts at home. Our marker for what a good doughnut is most likely comes from an authentic experience at an old diner or doughnut shop. It's one of the few times I know that the best version doesn't necessarily come out of a home kitchen, which is ideal on a Sunday morning when I'm too sleepy to bake.

Until we eat again,


Monday, April 25, 2011

Foodie Redemption

This past Friday I had the pleasure of dining at Shahnawaz Restaurant with a group from the USC Office of International Services. It was the last meeting of the OIS Diner's Club for the year, and also the last time one of its leaders—@MarciaonTour from Project Quinn class—would have the chance to host such an event at USC.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Buffalo Wings + A Poem

Last Wednesday I had some Buffalo wings after a four-month wing time-off, which reminded me of a poem I once wrote on the subject for my de facto Buffalo wing partner-in-crime Dan. Wings were first introduced into my life at the infamous Chuck's Spring Street Café in NJ during undergrad. Once in NY some friends and I survived a wing road trip to Buffalo, NY. Our goal was to try four different wing places in a day, and we succeeded...our first bouts of heartburn notwithstanding. These days I still believe any food is best the closer you are to its source, yet I also admit that good wings can be found even in LA if you look around long enough (thanks Hot Wings Café, and ok thanks even to you Hooters). Yeah I think about wings a lot; hence the poem.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Dreaded Vegetable?

There's been a lot of fattening blogging going on around here. That's why this week I'm turning to a more healthy alternative (thanks Steph), even though it's a thing most often met with dread when mentioned. I'm referring to...Brussels sprouts!!! [Sound effects: scary howling noises, people screaming!]

(Something I noticed when proofreading restaurant menus was part of my job description is that the word most commonly misspelled on menus today is Brussels sprouts. I can't tell if this is in direct relation to people's dislike of it, or that it's just a weird thing to spell.)

Like many, the first time I tasted Brussels sprouts was horrifically bad. It was in the lunchroom of a publishing company I worked for in Princeton. The company was so wealthy (and generous) that two staff chefs cooked for us minions Monday through Friday. One day lunch consisted of poached chicken breast and boiled Brussels sprouts. Yuck. The vegetable was bitter and bland at the same time. Because I don't like wasting food, I ate every bit of the big heap of sprouts they ladled onto my plate. It was many years until I'd try them again.

But here's a fact. Once people get over their fear of their first misguided taste of this cruciferous-family (related to cabbage) vegetable, Brussels sprouts are long as they are eaten in any way other than boiled.

At some point after the boiled Brussels sprouts incident, I was lucky enough to find a recipe for "Hashed Brussels Sprouts" in the cookbook of New York's famous restaurant Union Square Café. If anyone knows how to bring out the best in vegetables, it's this place. You slice the sprouts, sauté them in olive oil, add lemon and wine and voila: a fantastic version of Brussels sprouts (and here is the recipe).

Even more irresistible—and more findable in restaurants—is this side dish offered on most Tom Colicchio Craft restaurant menus: "Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon." This is the version that created a Brussels sprouts-loving monster out of me, and I haven't doubted the vegetable since. Therefore, I strongly urge any Brussels sprouts haters to try them prepared in this way. To get you started, here's a version of that recipe.

Finally, I read about this uncooked Brussels sprouts salad in a 2005 issue of Gourmet magazine. It comes from the kitchen of the famed Jonathan Waxman, who was recently a contestant on "Top Chef: Masters." Mr. Waxman cooked in the 70's at Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse—where they say California cuisine was born—and today he cooks at the amazing Barbuto in New York City. His "Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad with Fresh Walnuts and Pecorino" is now my favorite incarnation of this "dreaded" vegetable, hands down. It's a marriage of I-can-eat-this-forever and healthy, as long as you're all in for eating the good fats in olive oil and walnuts, and don't over-do the shredded cheese (which is very easy to do).

So think about trying Brussels sprouts next time you see them on a menu, or give one of these recipes a try. If a food is this good for you and can be something you crave, it should be celebrated.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ben & Jerry's Love Affair

I consider myself an active consumer of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. When I had an NYC job and commuted from NJ, on off-nights I'd sometimes turn to my "vice kit," which equated to some bad take-out, an alcoholic beverage, and a pint of Ben & Jerry's. Funny, back then I could easily eat a pint in one sitting.

My long-time love of Ben & Jerry's—the ice cream brand with a quirky-casual attitude featuring kooky, exciting flavors—instilled a dream in me to some day visit their Vermont factory. One time after moving to Brooklyn an ex-boyfriend swept into the city the week after 9/11 to take me on a road trip. We drove to Canada for a week, and on the way back he surprised me by driving to the place I wouldn't stop talking about when we were together. So we got to visit and take a factory tour! (That's us at the factory eating our free samples above.)

Throughout the company's history, when new flavors come out I get real excited, then at other times I get perplexed and sad when a flavor is discontinued, only to be sent to the Ben & Jerry's flavor graveyard. Standouts that are sorely missed include:
  1. Festivus (brown sugar cinnamon ice cream loaded with gingerbread cookies & a ginger caramel swirl) named for a famous Seinfeld episode. The flavor's ardent fans still mourn its demise.
  2. Tuskegee Chunk (a rich peanut butter ice cream with chocolate chunks), named in honor of America's first black military airmen.
  3. Rainforest Crunch (a joy-inducing jungle of vanilla ice cream with untamed chunks of cashew & brazil nut buttercrunch), where the environment popped up in a flavor. And how often do you see Brazil nuts in ice cream?
    But enough of the past. New flavors are upon us! In fact, Ben and Jerry themselves appeared on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" to announce their new flavor, Jimmy Fallon's Late Night Snack, for now only available at scoop shops. So yesterday at the mall I picked up 3 "scoop-shop"-only flavors to taste-test with my ice cream taste-tester friend. We tasted:
  1. Jimmy Fallon's Late Night Snack (vanilla bean ice cream with a salty caramel swirl & fudge-covered potato chip clusters)
  2. The hilariously-named Clusterfluff (peanut butter ice cream with caramel cluster pieces, marshmallow swirls & peanut buttery swirls)
  3. The been-around Coconut Seven Layer Bar (coconut ice cream with coconut & fudge flakes, walnuts & swirls of graham cracker & butterscotch)
The verdict? They were all good (and after racing through a hot car to the freezer kinda looked the same). Coconut Seven Layer Bar was good but too sweet, making me miss their now-defunct Coconut Almond Fudge Chip (coconut ice cream with fudge chips & roasted almonds). Clusterfluff was tasty but the peanut butter flavor seemed to overwhelm the other things going on. Our favorite of the bunch was Late Night Snack. Sure, there's a lot of caramel availability in B&J flavors, but this time the caramel is salted. Plus, biting into crunchy chocolate-covered potato chip bits was so inventive and satisfying. When they start selling this flavor at supermarkets, you know where I'll be.

Until we eat again,

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Danish Danish

You know those little fruit-filled round morning disks called "Danish pastry" that are usually found on insipid continental breakfast buffets in this country? And you know how we eat them because of either: 1) casual passivity, 2) they’re there, 3) you’re half asleep, or 4) otherwise you’d starve? Until about 6 years ago I thought these ubiquitous pastries were one of life’s little tricks because they look and sound good—which elicits hopes of deliciousness—yet each time I bite into one I’m reminded how awful they are. Here’s the thing: what we call Danish are Americanized Danish, in the same way that Panda Express is Chinese food.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Little Chocolate Lie

In my last post, "Overdose," I forgot to mention something about the time when I started secretly eating chocolate behind my Mom's back (because she feared it would make me sick, which it didn't). When I was 15, my friends and I ate candy as an after-school activity and when that wasn't enough, I'd sneak some back into my room. One error in judgement—brought on by sheer teen laziness—almost ruined everything. After eating candy in my room, sometimes I'd forgot to throw away the wrappers. My Mom noticed and confronted me. (Guess I wasn't so stealth after all.) My quick reply birthed from mortification and fear was, "Oh I didn't eat those Mom. They're my friends' candy bars...they ate 'em and gave the wrappers to me because...I'm starting to collect them." If my Mom didn't believe me (who would?) she never let on. But because I felt so awful about lying, I figured the best way to fix it was to make the lie true, and that's how my chocolate wrapper collection began.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


An emergency-room doctor told my parents I had a chocolate allergy when I was five years old, meaning I became one of those kids whose Halloween bounty was stored far from reach. During junior high I joyfully discovered at a slumber party that I was no longer (or ever had been) allergic to chocolate, due to the giant bowl of M&M's that slept by my sleeping bag, and my not having to be rushed to the hospital. From sixteen years and on, my small disposable income from working at McDonald's couldn't be used to feed my secret chocolate habit, only because my Mom was still worried that chocolate could upset my asthma. When college started a few years later, I came into a small inheritance. With no adult supervision and money rotting in the bank, my immediate goal was to get my hands on some chocolate, and lots of it. And not just any deli counter chocolate; the good stuff. In the pre-internet days, it's a miracle that something like the amazing "Nestlé's International Collection" catalog fell into my greedy little hands, so I ordered up about $150 worth.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Food Magazine Recipes for Dinner

Last weekend I did one of my favorite things, which btw is why I keep having to go to the gym... I went to my friend Jen’s house to whip up some dinner magic using recipes from a few food magazines I had in the house! The meal was delicious, especially the tart.

The video below is a "vlog," or video blog, created for my Digital/Social Media Lab class. Got me thinking about how fun it would be to be on TV doing something like this. I know, should have thought of this 10 years ago.

Until we eat again,

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sub-Size Me!

As much as I talk about food, I admit there’s more talking going on than eating. With a fairly small appetite, my goal is to experience and taste food, not eat as much as possible per the American stereotype.

For the past several years, McDonald’s has been trying to erase their “Super-Size Me” reputation by going in the opposite direction. First came the dainty little Snack Wrap, a nice Marly-sized portion of protein and starch. Recently they also created a mini-Chicken McNugget meal, since four McNuggets with fries is just enough food to satisfy someone in need of a quick and nutritionally unsound snack.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Plain Old Wednesday Turns Into Ice Cream Shangri-La

[Reader note: One of my classes this semester is a Social Media Lab. We blog for class, and this is my first class post. It's still about the best topic ever (um, food) so belongs here too! More to come through the spring...]

It was a plain old, regular Wednesday when a very special Tasting Table: LA email arrived about Carmela Ice Cream, a company known for selling organic ice cream only at local farmer’s markets. The news? They opened a store! I’d heard of this elusive ice cream, but I’m the type that goes to IKEA over a garage sale because I don’t want to hunt for the things on my list, I just want to buy them! The company website listed retail locations for a quick pint pick-up, though why do that when you can simply visit their week-old “artisan creamery” in Pasadena?? Life on Wednesday suddenly brightened, so I sent a friend the news and she replied, “Wanna go tonight?” We calculated the timing—it was more Sierra Madre than Pasadena—and as they were only open until 8:00 p.m., any thoughts of dinner would have to wait until after our ice cream appetizer.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Aloha! Hawaii Food Adventure


So here I am, back from my first visit to Hawaii & posting my first blog entry in five months (!). All that writing for school in an enforced "less casual way" hopefully didn't supplant my blog voice, at least not in the long term. We shall see :)

School starts up again in a few days, so let's get crackin'. First up, a quiz question:

Which of the following three things did I NOT eat in Hawaii:
A. Crab
B. Pineapple

Hint: One of these things I didn't eat at all, and the other things I ate twice. What is your guess? The answer will be revealed as you read of my various food finds on the islands of Oahu and Big:

Coffee – Trying Kona coffee was big on my list, and there were two general kinds: 100% Kona and 10% Kona. The cheaper kind is what many restaurants serve. Hey why not, it’s cheaper. The best Kona I experienced then, the 100% kind, was from the local swanky coffee shop Island Vintage Coffee. That Kona sang in a smooth, lusty baritone. The town of Kona is on the Big Island, and the town of Hilo is too. I visited Hilo yet found no Kona for sale. However, a person on my island tour received a gift of Hilo coffee from the Hilo Coffee Mill, and the smell emanating from those coffee bags hinted at the glories of coffee dreams. Sadly there was none for sale at the airport, but thankfully they do mail order.

Croissants – Ok sure, this is not an item indigenous to Hawaii. But, the croissant I had with my Island Vintage Kona coffee was 20x better than the "you-claim-this-is-a-croissant" croissant I get once a week in Los Angeles at Starbucks (their croissant is the only pastry they sell without sugar painted all over it). Dear Los Angeles, you are closer in distance to France than Hawaii. Maybe you should visit Hawaii to learn a thing or two about making good croissants. Thanks for listening.

As you may know, whenever I visit a new town/city/country I always check out the McDonald’s to see what's unique. In Hawaii there were two such things:
1. The haupia pie is a standard hot pie like our apple and cherry, filled instead with a coconut-style cream. Interestingly, the flavor wasn’t very coconutty. Who cares though, it was pretty addictive, like a faintly tropical white pudding fried pie and I meant to stop eating halfway in but before you know it, all gone.

2. I never made it to the second unique thing. That would be their kind of "big breakfast." They replace the standard starches of English muffin, pancakes and/or hash browns with white rice (the starring starch of a Hawaiian "plate lunch"), then add scrambled eggs and either SPAM, Portuguese sausage or a combo of both. I did have a Portuguese sausage with egg and rice at this Zippy’s chain on the way to the airport. It was fine except I couldn't eat all the sausage: too many fat pieces in it (on purpose). As for SPAM, you’ll soon see I did experience that a few times during the trip...just not at McD’s.

Longans – After my tour group left the top of a live volcano (with real magma flowing in the distance!), our tour guide passed around a bag of “dragon eyes,” or longans. This translucent golf ball-sized fruit contains a lone black seed in the middle about the size of, um, a pupil actually, so the fruit in its entirety does kind of look like an eyeball. You eat them by lightly breaking the thin beige skin with your teeth, peeling off the skin, and popping the fruit into your mouth (just don't eat the pit). The fruit felt like eating a litchi/cherry combo, just without any extreme sweet or tart flavor. Or it was like eating a more exciting green grape.

Coconut Wine – This is something I saw in shops but didn't try and have no regrets! Would you try something so scary sounding for $20? I tried to taste it in my imagination and that's all it took for my superego to say no (thanks for watching my back, SE). Here's my thinking: besides a cost to my palate, the coconut "wine" would really cost $45 to purchase... $20 for the wine and an additional $25 for the bag check to fly it home for sharing. By the way, a recent Tweet on the subject said: “I can't commit to it but I'm relatively sure this Royal Chief Coconut Wine is the worst wine I've ever tasted.” All right!

Pineapple – This is the answer to the quiz question: I did not eat any pineapple in Hawaii. Why? It was never really offered. But wait, didn’t I visit the Dole Plantation? Why yes I did. The tour guide told us they don’t really grow pineapples much these days (thanks South America). If I’d wanted some pineapple—besides buying the cute Hello Kitty pineapple marshmallows which I didn't buy because I really only do marshmallows in S'mores—all I had to do during my 30-minute Dole tour stop was wait in a very long line and get me some Dole Whip, a.k.a. pineapple soft-serve ice cream. Ha to THAT! If I want to stand in a line for my Dole Whip then I’ll just go to Disneyland and stand in line there, as I have done many, many times. It's my favorite way to eat pineapple.

Crab – I ate crab on two occasions, but both were at chain restaurants. So as not to be judged by readers, I will only say that the crab was decent but not on par with crab enjoyed at other places, i.e., at a certain wonderful seafood place on a dock in San Francisco.
So yes, Hawaii does serve crab but from my recent experience best to stick with its local specialties, like…

The Loco Moco – This is an island favorite of a burger patty on rice topped with gravy and an egg. It was touted as a true national dish of Hawaii, sort of like the “plate lunch.” Ok, the plate lunch is some kind of fried meat (your choice) with two scoops of white rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. I like meat and rice, but not macaroni salad so sorry there, I never tried a plate lunch in Hawaii. The loco moco, to me, is better! (No macaroni salad.) If a place is fancy they may top all that decadent loco-moco-ness with fried onion strips too. As much as I would have enjoyed onion strips, my loco moco lunch in the picture was just fine without. This is a once every two years dish…delicious but not at all healthy!

Fresh Coconut Juice – Picture it…we just left the black sand beach with new coconut tree plantings and had a half hour before leaving for the volcano visit. Found a little area walking back with a café and farm stands. And then, I spotted the coconut lady. “Pick a coconut!” she said, surely high on life from living in Hawaii. I picked the smallest young coconut she had since I wasn’t too thirsty, and for $2 the husks were hacked off and a straw poked through. Good deal. The only down side was the juice was a bit ripe for its own good. They call this phenomenon “the champagne,” where the juice is fizzy and not quite fresh-tasting. Can't complain, the experience itself trumps any taste expectations. When the juice was gone (and I had help from a friend), the coconut lady scooped out the remaining young, almost jelly-like coconut meat for my late afternoon snack, which I didn't realize at the time was an early dinner.

Spam & Egg Musubi – What? Why? Because at the end of the day of black sand beaches and visits to steaming craters and live volcanoes, my tour boarded a plane going from one island to another at 10:00 p.m., and it occurred to me I hadn’t eaten dinner yet! (Young coconut meat and juice notwithstanding.) Hey, I do not like not having dinner! Nothing available at the airport, and back in Waikiki the only place nearby and open was the ABC Store (what would be the offspring of a 7-11 store and a rabbit, as there are so many and they are everywhere). For $1.89 I grabbed this Hawaiian bite for my better-late-than-never dinner. It is a hunk of rice topped with a scrambled egg square and then SPAM, wrapped in some sushi-style nori and sealed in cellophane for storage in a heat box. Apparently SPAM became popular in Hawaii during WWII, as soldiers had it as a part of their meal rations and it somehow stuck. The SPAM on top of my egg musubi tasted, how you say, just as old as that fact. Back at my hotel room with my "dinner," I did not quite delight in the musubi's SPAM element but of course ate it. It did the trick, that's what really matters (and that I didn't get sick). I probably won’t eat it again.

Macadamia Nuts – We know that Hawaii grows macadamia nuts, but who knew they came in flavors other than salted and chocolate covered? I didn't. Lucky for me one of my tour groups visited the source, a place called Tropical Farms that grows and flavors their own macadamia nuts. And they give out free samples!!! (You know I like that.) Flavor options include Kona coffee glazed, honey glazed, cinnamon, and my favorites were the caramel and maui onion & garlic. Many restaurants chop em up to add to things like meat breading or pancake batter, but my fave is when they're chopped up on top of waffles. Macadamia nut waffles with coconut syrup are especially scrumptious (thanks Vit's Hawaiian Steakhouse). Mmmm, so simple yet my best meal on Oahu. Yum!

Spam & Macadamia Nuts – You're probably thinking, if she didn't eat pineapple that means she ate both crab and SPAM twice. But why?? I'll tell ya why. Because sometimes two completely opposite foods—one not edible, the other extremely delicious—can be joined together successfully. Such is the case with the illustrious SPAM-flavored macadamia nuts. It was against my instincts when a lady at the Hilo Hattie souvenir store offered a free sample. I ADMIT IT ... I tried it and I liked it. The thing is, it really didn’t taste like various pig parts and fat when done up as a powder coating on a nut. It only tasted of smokey salt. And what's wrong with that? It was good. Just in the end not $4.95-per-can or ridicule-for-life good.

Dim SumJade Dynasty Seafood Restaurant from Hong Kong opened their first and only U.S. location in Honolulu two days before I got there. This would explain the very low chairs at the bar—I didn't want a big dim sum table for myself—and that's why the bar was level with my neck. The bartender explained that the wrong chairs were ordered and new ones were coming, but in any case this explains why I was the only person sitting there. On to the food: either this restaurant is really good, or dim sum improves exponentially the closer you get to Hong Kong. Either way, my mochi rice, red bean & coconut mochi balls, and shrimp look fun rolls were some of the best I’ve had. So if you ever happen to be in Honolulu and on a rainy day make a stop at the Ala Moana mall, go ahead and skip Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Bubba Gumps to go to this place.

Kalua Pork – Besides the waffles, another new favorite thing I was lucky to try is kalua pork. What is it? It’s pretty much just pulled pork, and what happens when a pig is roasted at a luau and shreds of tender salty meat are pulled out. Not that I would know since my luau was rained out. But it's ok, kalua pork is served everywhere and I tried it first at a restaurant during a day tour (really good), and again on my last night in Hawaii at Duke’s Waikiki (super good). At Duke's, BBQ sauce was added, making it taste like a high-end pulled pork, and it was ingeniously served on a taro bun. That’s right, a soft and purpley taro bun. Delicious. A pilot on layover who was sitting next to me let me try his kalua pork nachos, but eh, all the other stuff on there blocked the pure, rich flavor of the meat. That's why in my opinion it's best to eat this specialty straight up or in a sandwich, and not covered up with other gunk.

In summary, I adored being in Hawaii—SPAM encounters notwithstanding—and hopefully I'll get a chance to visit again soon. In the meantime, there are a bunch of casual Hawaiian places in L.A., including King's Hawaiian Restaurant & Bakery in Torrance. Kalua pork and loco moco, here I come!

Until we eat again,