Tuesday starters

FregolaHow did they know?

I stopped by Mozza 2 Go–the latest addition to the LA eatery/pizzeria/pizza school co-owned by Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich–to pick up a mushroom pizza to go. While waiting for my pie, I couldn’t help picking up a few other goodies, including Silverton’s heavenly butterscotch budino and a sack of fregola (the toasted, pebble-shaped Sardinian pasta that’s making its way onto American menus). A couple days later, Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Batali’s Babbo in New York, posted a tempting recipe for Saffron Fregola with Potatoes and Peas on Serious Eats. I tried it this weekend, and, yum. It does the pricey pasta justice.

Lean cuisine

Picture 4Fresh may be best, but for cheap eats, shopping the day-old shelf can save a lot of cash.–Recessionwire

Eating better for better health

Picture 6Good-for-you foods are expected to burgeon over the next decade, according to an NPD Group survey. That includes organic fare, low-cal foods, and shifting habits like enjoying petite appetizers as entrees. NPD experts chalk this up to an aging population that wants to take better care of itself. Expected to drop: quick-assembly lunch and dinner foods.

I suspect our ailing health-care system may be contributing to this trend, as aging boomers realize a healthy diet may prevent–or at least minimize–costly ailments in their golden years. And there’s mounting evidence that lifestyle measures, such as diet and exercise, do indeed work. A 20-year study of nurses found those who maintained a healthy body weight, exercised at least 30 minutes a day, and ate a DASH-like diet were less likely to have hypertension than nurses who didn’t.

Shameless self-promotion

Picture 5Looking for ideas to use up the last of summer’s strawberries? Check out my story on LifeScript.com.

Oy vey ich schmear

Picture 7Can a doll’s lunch stir up controversy? It can if it’s the bagel toted by Rebecca Rubin, American Girl’s new doll whose story is rooted in the early-19th-century  Jewish tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. The orange substance on the bagel in Rebecca’s school lunch looks suspiciously like…Kraft American Cheese Singles. The Food Section‘s Josh Friedlander is following the case. Too bad my own grandma, who would have been Rebecca’s contemporary, isn’t around to clear up the question, what would be appropriate on a circa-1914 bagel? Come to think of it, she probably spent her school lunch breaks making deliveries of the family’s bathtub hooch during Prohibition.

Wine for cancer patients


A nice bottle of red wine may be an appropriate gift for a friend diagnosed with cancer.

A nice bottle of red wine may be an appropriate gift for a friend diagnosed with cancer.

When someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, your first instinct might be to commiserate and offer to drive them to radiation and chemotherapy. You might also want to buy her a case of really nice red wine to help her recuperate.

Wine Spectator reports on an Italian study that found women undergoing  radiation therapy for breast cancer fared better if they drank moderate amounts of red wine than women who didn’t drink wine. And moderate consumption was the key: Researchers found that women who drank just one glass of red wine per day had less skin toxicity damage from radiation than women who drank no wine, less wine, or even more wine.

Truck stop


Moveable feast: Business is so good that Kogi has added a third truck to their fleet.

Moveable feast: Business is so good that Kogi has added a third truck to their fleet.

In Los Angeles, summer 2009 will likely go down as the Year of the Upscale Taco Truck.

Of course, catering trucks–a k a taco trucks, a k a roach coaches–have plied the streets of Los Angeles forever, feeding hungry construction workers, office worker bees, and college students for generations. Late last year, the cheerful team at Kogi Korean BBQ, led by Executive Chef Ron Choi, put their own spin on the concept by combining the salty, zippy, pickly flavors of Korean barbecue with the Mexican fare Angelenos love so dearly. The result is delectable specialties like spicy Korean Short Rib Tacos and Kimchi Quesadillas. Kogi’s crews started tweeting their whereabouts, and a trend was born. Fans can catch up with them at different stops all over the city, or stop by their brick-and-mortar location at the Alibi Room in Culver City.

We first caught up with Kogi a few months ago, on a Saturday afternoon, when one of their trucks was parked in the lot at The Brig on Abbot Kinney in Venice. Kogi had gotten a lot of local press, and the line wound through the parking lot. 

“This is nuts,” said my mate. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“It’s supposed to be really good,” I replied. So we waited. An hour. And made it just under the wire to put in our order before the truck fired up to head to its next stop. We took our cache over to a bench and dove into the short rib and spicy pork tacos, with a side of kimchi quesadilla. It was salty, spicy, sweet, crunchy, and rich. It was good. And at 2 bucks a taco, it was a fantastic cheap-eat treat. 

Kogi Korean Short Rib and Spicy Pork Tacos

Kogi Korean Short Rib and Spicy Pork Tacos

I’ve had a jones for Kogi ‘cue ever since, so on Saturday we went back to The Brig’s parking lot. The line was a bit shorter (thanks, in part, to a the madness dying down a little and another Kogi truck-in-training also parked at the site). I ordered up a mess o’ short rib and spicy pork tacos. They were just as soul-satisfyingly delicious as last time. Yep, I’m hooked.

But much as I adore Kogi’s food, and their sweet tweets, there are signs the mobile-food-truck trend has peaked. Chi-chi catering trucks now roam the streets of cities all over the country (to follow them, check out Serious Eats’ handy directory of mobile eateries that Twitter). In LA, Kogi has been joined a plehtora of trucks, carts, vans, and bikes, each serving its own funky twist on the concept. There’s the Don Chow Taco truck (Sino-Mex fare), and the Coolhaus ice cream van (architecturally inspired ice cream sandwiches), Let’s be Frank (grass-fed meat hot dogs) and Sprinkles‘ cupcake truck. It’s so trendy that Dwell magazine had a whole panel discussion devoted to mobile street food at its recent design fest in LA. Dwell even organized a Mobile Restaurant Row–a sort of confab of cutting-edge catering trucks.

I very nearly hopped in the car to check it out…until I was struck by the stupidity of driving across town to eat from a truck. Um, isn’t the idea that the truck comes to you, or at least your general vicinity? It’s the delightful serendipity of stumbling out of work (or a bar late at night) and the truck has appeared, as if by magic, to serve up the comforting, unfussy fare you crave. Now, that’s a trend that’s a classic.

Crepe maker


Homemade Nutella-Banana Crepes bring a touch of Parisian street life to our humble American abode.

Homemade Nutella-Banana Crepes bring a touch of Parisian street life to our humble American abode.

Neither my schedule nor my budget has room for a trip to France this summer. So if I want to enjoy my favorite Parisian street food–Nutella crepes–I’ll have to join the (very) long line for Acadie Crepes at the Sunday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market or make them myself. I generally avoid lines, so I was pleased when we covered crepe-making in culinary school last week. 

I’d never made crepes at home, and it’s easy–dumb easy–and fun. If I can do it, you can, too. I turned out a bunch of them for breakfast on Sunday, filled those puppies with Nutella (OK, Ralph’s cheapo house brand of hazelnut-chocolate spread) and sliced banana, and we enjoyed a touch of Gay Pareeeee in Marina del Rey. Hmmm, it went so well that maybe I could buy a catering truck and join LA’s current mobile food truck mania. So, in honor of Bastille Day, here are some crepes:

Nutella-Banana Crepes

You don’t need a dedicated crepe pan for this; any nonstick skillet will do. And use a rubber spatula to turn the crepe. The number of crepes you get depends on the size of the skillet. I used a 10-inch skillet and ended up with 9 (8-inch-ish) crepes. To freeze leftovers: stack cooled crepes between layers of parchment or waxed paper and place in a zip-top plastic bag.

4 ounces all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

1 cup 1% low-fat milk (or any milk is fine)

3/4 ounce butter

Canola oil

Nutella (chocolate-hazelnut spread)–use a lot, don’t be shy.

Sliced banana

1. Combine the flour, salt, and eggs in a food processor; process until well-combined. With the motor running, add milk through food chute; process until the mixture is the consistency of heavy cream. Strain the batter through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl.

2. Heat the butter in a nonstick skillet; cook until butter until is browned. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn. Whisk the browned butter into the batter. Cover, and let stand 30 minutes.

3. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Soak a paper towel in canola oil; rub surface of pan with oil-soaked paper towel. Use a small ladle to add 2 to 4 tablespoons batter to pan (just enough to coat the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of batter), swirling the pan to coat. Cook about 2 minutes, or until the edges are brown and the bottom is golden (use a rubber spatula to lift the crepe and peek at the bottom). Flip the crepe; cook another minute or so until the other side is golden. Transfer crepe to a wire rack to cool. Repeat with oil and remaining batter. If crepes cool too much, you can warm them in a low oven.

4. To assemble, spread Nutella (how much depends on how generous you’re feeling) on half of a crepe; top with sliced bananas and fold in half. Garnish with additional Nutella and bananas. Bon appetit!

(Adapted from Professional Cooking, 6th Edition, by Wayne Gisslen.)

Smart scale


Sexy scale: Oxo's kitchen scales has many features to appreciate.

Sexy scale: Oxo's kitchen scales has many features to appreciate.

Personal scales, as in a scale to measure my weight, are a waste of time. Don’t care to step on one, thanks. Knowing whether my weight is up or down or holding steady has never influenced whether I’ll go in for a second (or third) cookie.

But kitchen scales are another matter. A few years ago a colleague sold me on the benefits of a kitchen scale and I became a vocal convert, blathering on about why everyone should have a kitchen scale to anyone who would listen (and a few who wouldn’t). Even before starting culinary school, I used one to measure ingredients for baking. If you don’t have one, you should. Trust me, it will make your cooking life easier and your food better.

For the most part, the culinary school I’m attending has awesome labs stocked with good equipment. But the scales, frankly, suck. They’re old-school spring models of questionable accuracy, thanks to abuse by students. So by the time we hit the baking class, I started toting my digital Salter scale to school. It’s does a great job. But it’s also made of glass, and I’m clumsy, so it’s only a matter of time until I drop the thing and it shatters into a million pieces.

Good thing I have an acquaintance at Oxo, who was willing to send me one of their top-of-the-line kitchen scales to test drive. This baby has several winning features that make it a keeper:

  • An 11-pound capacity. That’s a lot, but it came in handy when I needed to weight biggo hunks of meat in my meat fabrication class.
  • A removable stainless-steel platform. That makes it easy to clean without potentially damaging the scale’s electronics.
  • A pull-out digital display that lights up (!). That’s perhaps the sweetest of all, since the display on my other scale is often overshadowed by a bowl or plate. Not a problem with this one.

This model is $50, but Oxo also has a scaled-down (ha! pun intended) version with a 5-pound capacity for $30. Its display also pulls out (but doesn’t light up), and the platform can’t be removed. But for most home cooks, it will do the job quite nicely. So take your pick. Either way, it’s the kind of scale you’ll like to use.

A trend that makes the cut


The whole hog

The whole hog

Like many people, I’ve long been in the habit of purchasing parts–skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, pork chops, fish filets, and the like–at the meat counter. Many shoppers are willing to pay a premium for the convenience of prepped meat, poultry, and seafood. Also, we may not know how to break down a whole chicken or clean and filet a fish. Your grandmother probably could do it with her eyes closed, but could you?

Old-school butchery is making a comeback, and butchers are the newest stars on the culinary scene.

I certainly couldn’t–at least, not very well–until I took the Meat Identification and Fabrication class at culinary school. The three-week class was a crash course in understanding different cuts of beef, lamb, veal, and pork, as well as gaining loads of practice cutting up whole chickens and ducks, and filleting all kinds of fish.

Of course, despite that, I’m no expert. Butchery is an art and skill that can’t be mastered in three weeks. But I did enjoy the satisfaction of cooking fish that I’d cleaned and filleted myself, and sauteing the breast of a chicken I’d just broken down.

The class was also particularly well timed, since a do-it-yourself approach to meat, poultry, and fish is making a strong comeback, along with other budget-friendly, old-timey, back-to-basics kitchen skills like canning. Part of it is a desire to save some coin–whole or large cuts are cheaper than parts–but it’s also an extension of the local, know-your-food movement. In other words, pork chops come from an actual pig, not a tightly sealed Styrofoam tray. People are doing this in all kinds of ways, from purchasing meat and poultry from local producers at the neighborhood farmers’ market to raising their own livestock. In one elaborate experiment, an Alabama-based magazine editor raised and slaughtered a pig–and documented it in the fascinating blog Killing Dinner. Top-drawer chefs, like Blue Hill’s Dan Barber, are bringing butchering back to restaurant kitchens in order to take advantage of high-end animal products, like hazenut-fed pigs and grass-fed beef. The newest culinary stars are butchers, according to The New York Times.

Home cooks are jumping on the bandwagon, for quality and cost-savings. If you know how to clean and filet a fish, you can inspect the whole fish before you buy to ensure it’s truly fresh–i.,e, with bright eyes, intact scales, pinky-red gills, and a fresh scent (or no scent). Buying a whole chicken is cheaper than parts, and you can get a lot of mileage out of it. A pound of organic skinless boneless chicken breasts is $9 at my local supermarket; a 4-pound whole organic chicken is less than $8 (and that’s for a premium bird from Whole Foods). I roasted one on Sunday night. Two of us ate the breast halves on Sunday; I cut the meat off the thighs and drumsticks for tacos on Tuesday; and I’ll use the carcass to make stock this weekend.

And, of course, there’s the emerging trend of bringing locally raised/caught meat, poultry, and seafood directly from producers to consumers. NPR just reported on CSFs (community-supported fisheries) in New England, which will may help small-scale fishermen and whole fishing communities survive while bringing high-quality, local seafood to Boston-area residents. CSFs work just like CSAs. Can dedicated CSRs (community-supported ranching) or CSPs (community-supported poultry) be far off? In fact, many CSAs already include delivery options for local meat, poultry, and dairy products.

Of course, the trick for many of the Boston CSF’s new customers is what to do with the whole fish they get each week. And to help with that, organizers offer classes in the fine–and nearly lost–art of cleaning and filleting a fish.

Beanie baby


A bag of Yellow Indian Woman Beans inspires a midsummer soup.

A bag of Yellow Indian Woman Beans inspires a midsummer soup.

Soup in July? Something cool and civilized, maybe, like gazpacho or cucumber. But when I eyed a bag of heritage Indian Woman Beans the other day, something thick, hearty, and spicy came to mind. And since I’m on the beach on Southern California, where the nippy June gloom has followed us into July, I went with it. 

I’d picked up a 12-ounce bag of the dried beans on sale at World Market, where they carry heritage beans by Great Valley, for less than $3. Rancho Gordo also sells the beans for $4.95 per pound. Yes, that’s a lot for dried beans, but you can expect to pay a premium for anything with the world “heirloom” or “heritage” in the name. I’d never seen Yellow Indian Woman beans before but was intrigued by their petite size and lovely light brown (OK, yellowish) hue. Info on the label noted that the beans, which have a creamy texture when cooked and flavor similar to black beans or pinto beans, were brought to America by Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. Other sources I checked said the same thing, so either we’re all just reading the same Wikipedia entry or it’s true. Origins of the bean’s politically incorrect  name are murkier.

So I found myself with a little time on my hands, a cool day, and a hankering for soup. The result is this recipe, which got two thumbs up from my mate, so it’s a keeper.

Yellow Indian Woman Bean Soup

Using a pressure cooker means the soup comes together in a hurry, and you can use the cooker to “quick soak” the beans, as I did in step 1. Adding a whole jalapeno infuses it with pleasant heat. If you can’t find Yellow Indian Woman beans, substitute black beans. I used unsalted homemade chicken stock, but you could use store-bought low-sodium chicken broth and adjust the amount of added salt to taste.

1 (12-ounce) bag dried Yellow Indian Woman beans

1 (4-ounce) link Mexican chorizo

1 cup finely chopped onion

2 minced garlic cloves

4 cups unsalted chicken stock

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 jalapeno chile pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Additional cilantro, for garnish


Yellow Indian Woman Soup

Yellow Indian Woman Soup

1. Sort through the beans, discarding any split beans. Place beans in a 6-quart pressure cooker; add water to cover by 2 inches. Lock lid in place, and bring to high pressure over high heat. Reduce heat, and cook 2 minutes. Release pressure using automatic pressure release OR carefully transfer cooker to sink and run cool water over rim until pressure drops. Remove lid, tilting lid away from you to allow steam to escape. Drain beans.


2. Return cooker to stove. Remove chorizo from casing; add chorizo to cooker over medium heat. Cook 5 minutes, or until chorizo renders its fat, using a spoon to crumble chorizo. Add onion, and cook 3 minutes. Add garlic, and cook 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add drained beans, chicken stock, cumin, and oregano. Use a sharp knife to cut a slit in the jalapeno; add to cooker. Lock lid in place, and bring to high pressure over high heat. Reduce heat, and cook 20 minutes or until beans are tender. Release pressure using automatic pressure release OR carefully transfer cooker to sink and run cool water over rim until pressure drops. Remove lid, tilting lid away from you to allow steam to escape. Stir in salt and pepper. Discard jalapeno. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup to desired texture (or transfer soup in batches to a food processor or blender). Stir in 2 tablespoons cilantro; cook, uncovered, 5 minutes. Serve garnished with additional cilantro. Yield: 6 servings.

307 calories; 7 g total fat (2 g sat); 19 g protein; 44 g carbohydrates; 9 g fiber; 14 mg cholesterol; 551 mg sodium

Smart way to save

052030_mdFile this one under “why didn’t I think of that?” The folks at Fine Cooking magazine have a new bookazine out: Big Buy. It’s all about making the most of food you buy in bulk, from bulk-bin beans to seasonal farmers’ market bargains to big hunks of meat and mondo chunks of cheese from warehouse stores. With recipes, of course. And it’s $9.99 with free shipping if you bite by July 22. Yep, I’ll bite.