Finish line

The problem with cramming for final exams – as many of my students were doing only a few weeks ago – is that you end up trying to process too much information, and just as quickly as you learn new things, the old things you thought you knew start sliding away. That’s the glory and the power of writing. Once it’s on the page, it’s solid. No matter how many holiday dinners you eat (I’m onto my third or fourth at this point), those words will still tell you exactly what you did and (sometimes) how you felt about it.

I feel like I’m cramming for my final. Last week, before the holiday, before the family time, before the outpouring of memories and laughter and swallowed tears of all kinds and barking and yelling and joy, I made three Bittmans in a desperate bid to stay on top of the project.

42. Brussels Sprout Sliders: Trim and halve large brussels sprouts, toss with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees until tender but not mushy. Using the brussels sprout halves as you would hamburger buns, sandwich them around a piece of crispy bacon or ham, maybe a little caramelized onion, and a dab of whole grain mustard. Keep everything in place with toothpicks.”

I always intended to make this one for a Halloween party. It seemed fitting: for some, brussels sprouts are a frightening, disdained vegetable. But this new perspective on them makes them fun and perhaps even appetizing to those disbelievers who see them only as a bitter waterlogged grenade of disappointment. But I never did. So they became an appetizer for two:

6 brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 strips bacon, cut into eight even pieces (you’ll use six for the brussels. Eat the other two, or share with a tall, handsome somebody who shows up in the kitchen when the smell becomes too enticing to ignore)

dab (maybe 1 tsp total?) whole grain mustard

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Line a small baking dish (I used a 9” cake pan) with aluminum foil and drizzle the foil with olive oil. Brush or rub the olive oil into an even layer so every millimeter of foil is covered.

Set the sprouts, cut side down, on the oiled foil, spacing them evenly so none are touching. This will ensure even roasting rather than steaming.

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Roast for 15 minutes, until the cut edges are browned and just crisp. Using tongs, flip over each sprout so they teeter on their curved sides. Roast for another 15 minutes.

While sprouts are roasting, cook the bacon. Mine was already cooked – saved from another porky occasion – so during the last five minutes of sprout roasting I added the bacon pieces to the pan to heat them up a little.

When the sprouts are browned and lightly tender, set them aside until they are cool enough to handle. As soon as you can bear to touch them, add a tiny spread of mustard across one cut edge, seat the bacon atop it, and place another sprout half on top to complete the sandwich. Drive a toothpick through the whole thing and serve as an hors d’oeuvre.

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We gobbled these down like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. They were delightful and I highly recommend them as a party item: crisp bacon, zesty mustard, and the nutty crunchy slight bitterness of roasted brussels sprouts, all collected together in one perfect bite. Perhaps a New Year’s Eve treat to help the hours pass.

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Soup and bread seemed like a good meal to follow our sprouts.

82. Cornmeal Flatbread with Onion and Sage: Mix 1 cup cornmeal with 1 teaspoon salt; slowly whisk in 1½ cups water. Cover and let sit for an hour (or up to 12 hours in the refrigerator). Put ¼ cup olive oil in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet along with a thinly sliced red onion; stir. Heat the skillet in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, then stir and pour in the batter. Bake at 375 degrees until the flatbread is crisp at the edges and releases easily from the pan, about 45 minutes.”

I followed these directions fairly exactly, with the exception that I used only half an onion. The olive oil and onion went into the oven for five minutes at 400F, at which point the onion slices were sizzling and the oil was shimmering beautifully.

Bittman neglects to note where and when to add the sage, so I stirred a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh sage into the batter just before adding it to the skillet.

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This concoction baked for 45 minutes, until it was set, the onions were crisp-tender, and the whole thing loosened easily from the skillet and slid almost gracefully onto a serving tray.

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We cut large wedges and tasted. It was unlike any other bread I’ve come across – more like baked squares of polenta than anything else, which made sense when I stopped and thought about it. Were I renaming this dish, I think I would call it Polenta Pizza. It was well oiled and spongy in texture, squishing pleasingly between our teeth and driving us back for additional tastes. N. wasn’t sure he liked it at first, but then he went back for a second slice and then a third. When I ribbed him about this, he said he was still deciding what he really thought, and needed more samples to truly make up his mind.

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This odd little bread course could easily be dunked in saucers of warmed marinara sauce, or sprinkled with mozzarella or parmesan for a pleasing salty bite. Though the onions and sage were good, you could probably saute almost anything in that skillet before adding the batter: sausage, peppers, mushrooms… anything you’d put on a pizza.

A decadent appetizer and a well-oiled pizza/bread need a sober, sensible kind of soup to balance them out.

19. Saute chopped onions, garlic, celery and carrots in olive oil, then add chopped tomatoes (boxed are fine) with their juice, lentils and stock or water to cover. When everything is soft, add a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of red wine vinegar. Garnish with parsley.”

Since we were leaving town the next day, I didn’t want huge quantities. (This still made enough for four, but I froze the leftovers so nothing was lost)

½ red onion (left from the flatbread, so convenient), diced

4-6 small cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup each celery and carrots, sliced

¾ cup lentils

13.5 oz can petite diced tomatoes

2½ cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth, or water)

1 TB lemon juice

2 TB fresh, finely chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

I heated 2 TB olive oil over medium heat, then tossed in the onions to sweat for a minute or two before adding the garlic and the other vegetables. When the onions were translucent and tender, I added the tomatoes, lentils, and broth and turned the heat up to medium high until the whole pot came to a boil.

Once boiling, I gave it a healthy stir and then turned the heat down so the soup would just simmer, letting the lentils soften gently and the vegetables tenderize.

Simmer for at least 35 minutes, then taste the lentils to see if they are tender enough for your taste. We like them soft but not mushy, with minimal resistance but still able to hold their shape.

Just before serving, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir gently, and dip into serving bowls. Scatter the surface with a grassy sprinkle of parsley.

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We liked this, though it wasn’t the best lentil soup I’ve ever had. The flavors were enticing and the lemon juice made it a bright, rather than heavy, soup. The problem with it was that I like my lentil soup more like a stew or a chili. The brightness of the lemon made the shower of shredded pepperjack cheese I was considering adding seem extraneous and out of place, and I tend to get crotchety when denied cheese. But alongside the flatbread and the richness of the brussels sprouts, it was hearty but didn’t weigh us down.

2012 is fading like the last sheen of daylight across the hills in winter. 2013 charges toward us, all mystery and sharp promise. I thought about cheating and saying I was done; these three dishes are the final three, I made it, all boxes are checked, all questions answered, funtoosh, kaput (extra points if you can name my source!), but I just can’t. I’m too close. This final exam is too important. This resolution needs to be one I keep. I have two dishes left. I have two days, one of which will be spent driving from the Sierra Nevada foothills where N.’s parents live back to Los Angeles and my little house. I hope I’m going to make it. The finish line is in sight. Now I just have to stagger across it.

Fading light. And bourbon.

My home office – the room where grading, blogging, photo editing, and general work happens – has the most wonderful light in our house.  A huge sliding glass door lets sunlight pour in during the morning hours, and in the afternoon I get brightness mediated by the roof of the house.  Even when it’s overcast, there is still so much natural light that it makes for wonderful food shots.

But winter is a problem.  I’m discovering that if I make a dish for dinner, I’m not going to be able to photograph it from my office because it’s too dark by 5pm.  And wedded to this blog and this project as I am, there’s no way we’re having dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon just so I can get the best light in the house.  So I’m trying out new angles, and new placement, and new adjustments.  I’m learning more about artificial light: which arrangements I find glaring and which I find acceptable.  Bear with me, and look forward to the return of Daylight Savings Time!

“17. Sauté chopped onion in butter, then chunks of sweet potato and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the sweet potatoes can be pierced with a knife, then add chopped kale and cook until wilted.”

This was easy, and quick, and tasty.  I made a few additions to Bittman’s recommendations and think the soup really benefited from them.  I used:

4 TB butter Food blog 2011-0133

½ a medium onion (mine was yellow)

1 big sweet potato, peeled and cut into small chunks (the smaller the chunks, the faster they will cook, so make your decision based on how much time you have and what size is most pleasing to you)

 

Salt, pepper, ground nutmeg to taste

4 cups broth – vegetable or chicken, depending on your preference

6 oz. kale

1 tsp red wine vinegar

Heat the butter in a pot over medium heat.  When it has melted, add the onion and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent but not bronzed.

Add the sweet potatoes and seasoning, stir to combine for a minute or two, then add the broth.  The quantity of liquid you need will depend entirely upon the size of your sweet potato.  You may need more or less than the 4 cups listed here.

Let the soup simmer until the sweet potatoes are tender but not falling apart.  Mine took about 15 minutes.

Add the kale and stir to combine.  You will be bewildered by how quickly it collapses on itself, wilting from smoky green to a brighter, more vibrant hue as it is immersed in the liquid.  Cook just until it reaches the texture you like against your tongue – I let it simmer for about 5 minutes, because I like my kale to still put up some resistance and retain its bright color.

I tasted and thought this needed something.  Extra salt to heighten the flavor of the kale, certainly, but there was a kind of dullness about the whole concoction.  Remembering my soup lessons from Alton Brown, I sprinkled in just a hint of red wine vinegar, and the difference was amazing.  The whole thing was brighter, somehow, even though you couldn’t taste anything harsh or stringent.

We consumed this happily with freshly toasted, garlic-rubbed slices of pugliese.  It was good, but could have been stuffed with even more flavor: I’d consider adding garlic, ginger, maybe even rice or ramen noodles.

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“4. Onion jam with bacon and bourbon: Thinly slice red onions and cook in olive oil with chopped bacon until soft. Add a little bourbon and brown sugar to taste and cook until the jam thickens.”

Bourbon is new for me.  N. has been enjoying the occasional scotch for a few years now, but we recently acquired a bottle of Knob Creek and I’ve been appreciating the floral notes of it – so much less musty and boggy than its British cousin.

4 slices thick-cut bacon, halved lengthwise into long strips, then sliced into small rectangles

½ large red onion, thinly sliced

¼ cup bourbon

2 TB brown sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small sprig rosemary

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I used about a tablespoon of olive oil to start the pan, but I don’t think you really need it.  Just toss in the bacon slices over medium heat and let them work for about 5 minutes.  You will get a shimmer of fat across the bottom of the pan that is more than enough to start the onions sizzling in.

Add the onions and cook over medium or medium-low for at least ten minutes, until the onions soften and the bacon is mostly cooked.  Stir with some frequency to ensure even cooking.

Off the heat (especially if you are using a gas stove) add the bourbon and the brown sugar.  Stir to combine, then return to medium heat and simmer slowly for about 20 minutes, to let the flavors mingle and the bourbon soak into the onions and bacon.

After a few minutes of cooking, I added pepper and rosemary for additional flavor components, and I think they were a good choice.  The rosemary’s woodsy flavor was a nice contrast to the fatty bacon and sweet onions.  Everything cooked down into a sticky, caramelized jam that I draped across some baked rounds of polenta.

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This was delicious, but misplaced.  The meaty, smoky bacon was intensified by the bourbon, and the brown sugar and onions had a nice note of molasses.  It didn’t belong on polenta.  It belonged, I think, on a freshly toasted piece of crostini, possibly smeared with a thick slice of brie.  The funkiness of the cheese could stand up nicely to the sweet smoky strength of this jam.

We paired our misguided polenta with green beans, lightly blanched and then seared in a hot pan and deglazed with a bit of red wine.  These, too, were delicious, but not the ideal pairing for the sweet saltiness of my jam.  Apples, maybe, or red grapes would make better pairings.  Regardless, we ate with joy and returned to the pan once or twice for a final sweet chunk of sticky, gooey jammy bacon to sweeten our palates, even though dessert was still to come.

 

“91. Pears in Red Wine: Simmer 2 cups red wine with ½ cup sugar, 2 cloves, a cinnamon stick and a few slices of ginger in a pot for a few minutes, then gently poach peeled and cored pears (use a spoon to hollow them from bottom), until soft. Cool or chill, and serve with a bit of the poaching liquid.”

This is supposed to be one of the most sophisticated desserts you can offer: not overly sweet, laden with mulled flavor, perfect for a gourmet adult party in celebration of autumn.  Pears, with their temperamental habits and signature grainy texture, are perhaps the same kind of acquired taste as wine or coffee or any of those other “adult” tastes.  As dessert for our onion-jam-crusted dinner, I decided to attempt these.

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I used 2 pears, but followed the rest of Bittman’s quantities exactly.

Food blog 2011-0142Well, one exception to note: I thought about getting fancy and adding things like citrus peel or rosemary (apparently I’m hooked on the stuff these days).  But in the end, I just splashed in a bit of bourbon to link the flavor profile back to our dinner: red wine from the beans, bourbon from the jam, and this dessert would fit right in.

After the first simmer, in which I stirred gently to let the sugar dissolve and the spices mull gently into the wine, I prepared the pears.

The issue with pears is that inside their tender skins they are slippery little beasts.  You can’t grasp them too firmly or they sigh into bruises.  You can’t hold them too delicately or they slide out of your hands and threaten to slip from the edge of the kitchen counter.

I dove into my attempt to core the pears only after peeling them.  This, and the attempt to do so with a spoon, may have been a mistake.  The spoon tore through the tender flesh of the pear but was too wide to remove only the core.  Further, I wasn’t sure how much core I was supposed to be removing, so I ended up with two pale, naked, slightly mutilated pears, which I slid into their (hopefully) healing bath of alcohol.

I let them simmer, turning them occasionally to dye all sides a lovely burgundy, for about 15 minutes.  Then I turned off the heat and let them sit a further 20 minutes until we were ready for dessert.

Surrounded by a moat of spiced wine, these were achingly tender and nicely flavored.  I would choose pears that were less ripe if I attempted this dessert again, because a bit of additional texture might have done them good.  As it was, though, much of the graininess disappeared in the poaching, and the soft floral flavor was really nice against the wine and assertive spices.  A scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side would have made this a richer endeavor, but I think the creaminess would have matched well with the fruit and the wine.   Or maybe I just need the extra comfort as we roll into December…

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Three for One

Sometimes you are faced with not enough: not enough time, not enough money, not enough to do…

And sometimes you are faced with too much: too much bounty, too much responsibility, too much joy.  These are both their own kind of problem.  And if I have to choose, faced with these Januses, I will always go for too much.  Even if I fall short.

Last week I only managed one Bittman.  This week, in a startling display of ambition and motivation, I did three.

One of the biggest challenges of this project (aside from cooking, photographing, and writing about the food… you know… actually doing it…) has been deciding what to serve these dishes with.  I’m not up for roasting a chicken or a turkey every week to emulate the Thanksgiving spirit of the project, so I try to piece them together with other entrees.  As you’ve seen, if you’ve been following the project for any length of time, sometimes I choose well, and sometimes I decidedly don’t.

This week, riffling through the slowly diminishing options, it occurred to me for the first time that I could serve them as complements to each other.  They were all, after all, conceived for the same imagined table.  They should work together quite nicely.

“7. Cranberry-Orange Sauce: Cook a bag of fresh cranberries with orange and lemon zest, cut up (peeled) orange segments, ¼ cup sugar (or to taste) and a bit of minced jalapeño or chipotle.”

This sounded good and, with the slightly cooler temperatures we’ve been privileged to receive lately, a nice symbol of our entry into Fall.  Cranberries and oranges are a frequent couple – almost too expected – but there’s a reason they appear together so frequently.  And with the addition of lemon juice and some spice, this seemed far enough from traditional to avoid being boring.

1 bag cranberries (probably 1 pound?)

Zest of 1 lemon

Zest of 1 large or two small oranges (mine were little Valencias from our Farmers’ Market)

Segments of 1 large or two small oranges

¼ – ½ cup sugar, depending on your taste and the tartness of your berries

Dash of spice, depending on your taste

I bounced the cranberries into a pot, zested the lemon and oranges over them, and then cut the peel from the orange and sliced out supremes.  For good measure, I squeezed as much juice from the wasted scraps of orange as I could, then topped the mix with sugar and a dusting of cayenne (I had neither jalapeno or chipotle available) and pushed it onto the back burner.

I let the pot come to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to melt the sugar evenly and prevent it from burning until the cranberries released some juice to protect the mixture.  Once it boiled, I lowered the heat and let the whole thing simmer for about 20 minutes.  At one point I tasted, decided there wasn’t enough sugar or cayenne, and added more of both.  The addition of sugar was a good thing.  The addition of more cayenne was less so.  I’d caution you to start with less than you think you will want.  The mixture does not taste at all spicy while it’s hot.  When it cools, though, it becomes fiery.  It was still tasty, though.  We ate it sticky and thick and room temperature, dabbing up popped clusters of ruby and letting it linger on our tongues – but not too long – enough to wake our taste buds from the spice.  As an autumnal side, this works very well and is a pleasant update to the traditional cranberry sauce.  It would also make a glorious topping for a baked brie, perhaps with some rosemary or red wine glugged in for good measure.

While the cranberry sauce was heating, I turned my attention to its companion.

“59. Blanch thinly sliced potato and leeks until tender but not mushy; drain well. Layer the vegetables in an oiled or buttered baking dish, then top with a mixture of bread crumbs and lightly sautéed chopped bacon (some cheese mixed in is pretty good, too). Broil until golden brown.”

Potatoes and leeks are a combination that, a mere year or so ago, I didn’t realize existed.  Now it’s such a natural pairing I can’t believe I never knew about it before.  Sliced blanched potatoes and sautéed leeks now fill every frittata I make.  I collected:

2 russet potatoes, peeled

1 massive leek, tough tops and root ends removed, halved vertically (rinse it out well at this point) and sliced into slim, slim, oh-so-slim half moons

1 lb. bacon

½ – 1 cup bread crumbs (I used Italian seasoned)

Knowing how good leeks can be when they are sweated and barely brown, and conscious that the beauty of bacon grease shouldn’t go to waste, I made a few changes to Bittman’s directions.

First I cooked the bacon.  You likely don’t need a whole pound of it, but this guaranteed an appetizer: one still sizzling slice each for N. and for me.  If you aren’t cooking for or with someone else, go wild and have two all by your lonesome.

While the bacon cooked and the cranberries simmered and popped, I put a pot of water on to boil.  When its aggressive bubbling demanded attention, I carefully lowered in the potato slices and gave them free reign for five or ten minutes.

When it was edging toward crisp, I set the bacon aside to cool and drain a bit on a paper towel lined plate.  I dumped the potatoes into a colander when they were barely cooked through.

Time for the leeks.  I scraped my board free of the slender, just green shards, capturing a satisfying fizz as the vegetation hit the pan.  You want to stir with some frequency here, and not raise the heat above medium; we’re looking for a light sauté, not a heavy brown.

The shards collapsed into resistant-less ribbons, and I pushed them to one side to add the drained, cooling potatoes.  With adept wooden spoon manipulation, I managed to achieve something like layering: half the potatoes flat on the bottom of the pan, the leeks draped across them, and the rest of the potato slices on top.

I turned on my broiler, and while it heated I crumbled the bacon, tossed it with bread crumbs, and dusted the potatoes with the mixture.  But dust wasn’t enough.  They required a landslide.  I drizzled the top with olive oil, knowing the bread crumbs would need it to brown, and slid the whole pan into the broiler (note: if you use a skillet or pan for this, rather than a casserole dish, be sure you wrap any plastic or rubber with aluminum foil before you put it into the broiler.  We don’t want your nice pan handles to melt…).

Five minutes later, the parts of the crumble I had oiled were beautiful brown (the other parts remained sandy and unaltered, much to my chagrin) and the dog was close by, nose moist with curiosity and the urge to assist.

We loaded our plates, completing the meal with a completely unnecessary slice of toasted jalapeno cheese bread, and ate.

As has proved often the case with Bittman’s layered vegetable dishes, I expected this one to be a gratin, and it just wasn’t.  Some cream, some cheddar cheese, some binding between the vegetables, would have been ideal.  But not crucial.  They weren’t supposed to be scalloped potatoes, after all.  The bacon and bread crumbs made them exciting, and the leeks were almost creamy nestled between the thick slices.  Honestly, forgetting to salt the water I boiled the potatoes in was the only real unfortunate mistake.  Two down, with only one mistake (two, I suppose, if you count the overly spicy cranberries, which I suppose I do), is pretty promising.

 

To make this a trifecta, on another night I chose another autumnal option.

“64. Mushroom Bread Pudding: Put 6 cups of good bread (day-old is best) cut into 1-inch chunks into a buttered baking dish. Beat 4 eggs with 2 cups of milk and ½ cup grated Parmesan and pour over the bread. Sauté 4 cups of sliced mushrooms until tender with a teaspoon or two fresh thyme leaves and mix into the bread. Bake until just set, about 40 minutes.”

Mushrooms and thyme are so nice together.  They are earthy and deep and musty, like the back of a dark pantry into which no anxious hands have reached for some time.  Since they were more precise than usual, I followed Bittman’s ingredient quantities almost to the letter.

I sautéed the mushrooms and thyme in butter, taking time to let the slices soak up the butter, then expel their own liquid.  Only after that, as the moisture from the mushrooms evaporates from the pan, can the mushrooms take on the same kind of crisp brown sear as a steak pressed into a screamingly hot pan.

While the mushrooms cooled, I tore up the crusts of a month’s worth of sourdough bread (I keep them in the freezer for just these sorts of occasions) and pressed them gently into a buttered square glass baking dish.  I grated cheese – swiss and parmesan – and cracked eggs from the Farmers’ Market into a bowl, marveling at the rich orange yolks you just can’t get in the grocery store.  I stabbed them, flooded them with milk, and whisked in the cheese.

I turned to assembly.  First, mushrooms must be tossed with bread.  Attempt even distribution.  Then, a careful, rich pour of the dairy component, taking care to attend to the corners, until the bread almost floated in a puddle of would-be custard.

 

One of the things I’ve learned in my years of bread pudding production is that pressure and soaking time yield the best results.  I carefully pressed a layer of plastic wrap over the top of my pudding and set it in the fridge for an hour, while N. and I answered the velvet brown eyes begging for “walkies.”

Upon our return, it was as simple as preheating the oven to 375F (pull the pudding out of the fridge and let it approach room temperature as your oven heats), sliding the baking dish onto a rack, and reluctantly grading a paper or two as 45 minutes ticked by (I like my bread pudding a little more than “just” set).

A puff in the center signifies doneness.  Mine levitated just barely in the middle, but the custard was set and the edges of bread not submerged were crisp and darkly golden.

The serving spoon broke sharply through the crisp top but then exhaled through the custard underneath.  Piled on our plates next to an amazing skillet casserole of deeply browned sautéed Brussels sprouts and chopped walnuts drizzled with a balsamic glaze, we accepted its golden softness.  With a higher ratio of eggs to milk than most bread puddings I’ve made, this had almost a soufflé quality, though vastly more substantial.  It was rich and earthy and savory, and I suspect it will be just as good for breakfast as it was for dinner. 

Three more down.  This can be done.  2012 has already been a year of many accomplishments.  Why not go for too many, rather than hesitating at not enough?

Starstruck

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it hasn’t fully sunk in yet that I live in Los Angeles now. Funny little happenstances keep reminding me, and I’m stunned into bemused awareness. This didn’t happen when I lived in Orange County as a teenager. We were far enough from the big city with its food, music and fame scene, and I was distant enough in age to care, or even be aware of, what living near LA could mean.

Now that I’m a bit closer physically and chronologically, what it mostly means to me is food. Yesterday as I sat cloistered in my home office, commenting on what seemed like an endless stream of papers, my phone gave that delightfully insistent buzz that means someone from the outside world has contacted me. It was our friend J., asking if we wanted to go and grab burgers with him and one of his local friends. Dinner out? On a Friday? Meaning I wouldn’t have to tackle the embarrassing state of my kitchen just yet? Not to mention another culinary and – what would be the right word, perhaps libationary? – joyride around our new city? Yes, please.

J. showed up at our house around six and whisked us off to Plan Check Kitchen and Bar, a new-ish little burger and brew style gastropub in the Little Osaka area of West LA, where we would have dinner with him and his friend T. They have a short menu, mostly meat, but with interesting Asian flavor accents – wasabi, yuzu, and dashi creeping up in unexpected places.

I ordered the Bleuprint Burger, a patty of wagyu beef piled with smoked bleu cheese, brown sugar baked bacon they call, perfectly, “pig candy,” fried onions, roasted garlic steak sauce, and peppercress. My dining mates all got the standard: the Plan Check Burger, featuring a curious substance Plan Check calls “ketchup leather,” and a dashi-infused “Americanized” cheese, which I think meant cheddar mixed with garlic and some fish stock to smooth it out and add extra umami flavor. On the side, the table shared sweet potato fries cooked in beef tallow, served with a sweet peach ketchup, and veggie chips – perfectly crispy wafer thin slices of yam and yucca and who knows what else, paired with a slightly spicy, velvet smooth avocado cream.

Dinner was fantastic. I haven’t had a really good, moist burger cooked at an actual medium (the temperature I requested) in a long time. I drank a tangerine wheat beer with it (the name of the brewery escapes me, but somewhere in California), and it was a nice accompaniment.

While I was away from the table for a moment, somehow the conversation changed from food to, well, food. But virtual food. In fact, televised food. T., through a previous job, knows one of the guys from the company and food truck project Seoul Sausage, currently being featured on The Great Food Truck Race.

“I think they are opening a storefront,” he said, while my eyes bugged out of my head. “It’s just on Mississippi. We should go see if they’re open.”

Bye-bye, burger.  It’s sausage time.

We ambled the blocks along Sawtelle separating us from Mississippi. T. pointed out which restaurants along the way were worth checking out which, as it turns out, is most of them. I tried to make mental notes but I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of delicious knowledge I was receiving. N. and I will just have to go back. Many times.

We turned the corner onto Mississippi and there, at the end of a short collection of shops, was Seoul Sausage Co. And it was open. Without knowing it, we had stumbled across a secret mini launch they had announced only on their website and on Twitter, and there were all three of the boys behind the counter, and suddenly I was being introduced and ordering one of the flaming fried balls they developed on the show.

I know I should be talking about the food here, but I was so starstruck I couldn’t stop grinning my way around the little space. The guys were, as I had imagined but never even hoped to find out, super friendly and happy to see us – and everyone else who stopped in – and being very properly and apologetically closed-mouthed about the results of the show (the finale is tomorrow – Sunday, at 9pm). N. chatted them up about beer, encouraging them to carry Ninkasi if it ever appeared on their radars. I couldn’t help but mumble something about how I hoped they would/had/did/whatever-it-is-taped-tv-is-so-confusing win before I gave into the beautiful, sizzling-hot fried riceball they handed me.

It was delightful. Delicate rice in the middle mixed with cheese, spices, and who knows what else. Crisp breaded crust around the outside, and a slightly spicy sauce squeezed over the top. It reminded me of the kind of sauce you get on certain spicy sushi rolls, and it paired so nicely with the rice. This is an excellent late night snack, and N. and I assured them we would be back again after their official opening next week. I was halfway through my little after-dinner snack before I remember that, despite my unwise choice to venture out on a Los Angeles food adventure without my camera, I do have a smart phone fully capable of capturing an image.

Flaming fried balls conquered, and me still in some disbelief that we had just been to Seoul Sausage and met the guys in charge (I wanted to know everything but asked nothing: what was Tyler Florence like? Were you getting all those truck stop phone calls at once, or did he call each truck one at a time? What did you think of Nonna’s Kitchenette? Did you win? Did you win? Did you win?) we stepped back out into the night (which we were surprised to learn was still so young – only 8pm yet) and resurfaced at the Formosa Café in West Hollywood to share a round of drinks. I asked for a lemon drop, but the bartender mixed me a vodka daisy instead because he likes the flavor better, and so did I. Vodka daisy with a sugared rim is apparently my new cocktail of choice.

As we belted ourselves into J.’s car again, he asked if we minded swinging by Canter’s delicatessen on Fairfax. He wanted a pastrami sandwich for the road back to Orange County, and of course we obliged. Once inside, I was attracted not to the sandwiches, but to the bakery counter, where my taste buds immediately performed their own version of the honey bee’s waggle dance to communicate a single word: éclair. N. wandered up behind me and asked if I was going to get anything, and as I gazed at the shelves packed with donuts, cookies, babka, danishes, chocolate studded croissants, cheesecakes, a big layer cake with the word “rum” frosted in chocolate across the top, all I could think about was an éclair.

And there they were. On the bottom shelf. Thick, ganache-glossed masterpieces. My eyes were bugging out again, I could feel it. With my new little treasure safely enclosed in a pink bakery box and tucked under my arm, all was right with the world. When I dug in, gentle fork pressure forcing the thick, sweet pastry cream out across my plate, the world was more than right. The dough was tender-crisp, and if I’m honest it may have been moving a bit toward staleness after a day on the shelf, but the flavor of the custard and the ganache more than made up for it. It was a stellar dessert for a starstruck evening.

Just peeking in…

Hello friends.  Is the world still the same place?  I’ve been offline for a full week now, as part of my move from Oregon to California.  I’m now settled somewhere in Los Angeles, my eyes startled by constant sun, my ears tender against the sounds of traffic, my taste buds clamoring to explore.  I am working on a post – I’m tremendously behind, I know – and  I have things to share with you like cobb salad with glazed bacon, and homemade crackers, and a recipe for rosemary and orange zested white bean dip I can’t stop thinking about.  Oh, and the little wedding cake thing I made a few weekends ago…

But all that takes time.  And there are still boxes everywhere I look.  So just as a taster, to keep your appetites primed, here’s a glimpse or two of how my big project turned out:

 

Back with more soon…

Loaded to bear

Considering my avid distaste for filling either roast bird or pork chops with stuffing (with the exception of chicken cordon bleu, which I love), I often forget the merit possible in stuffing other things – namely fruits and vegetables.  The built-in cavities in fruits like peppers and winter squash, and the concave shape of stemmed mushrooms seems to call out to be filled with something delicious, and too often I am deaf to those calls.  Fortunately this week’s Bittman choice reminded me to open my ears a bit.

“38. Trim crimini or portobello mushrooms and chop stems.  Sauté stems in butter or olive oil with chopped prosciutto, onions, chopped fresh herbs (rosemary, sage, parsley, etc.) and coarse fresh bread crumbs.  Stuff spoonfuls of the mixture into mushroom caps; roast until tender.”

This dish was a clear win.  For those of you who don’t like mushrooms, I can see this same parade of ingredients marching well together in a hollowed out zucchini half, but you will be missing the earthy indulgence of mushroom – that rich, meaty, brown flavor that is so intriguing and so deliciously musky.

The collected players:

1 package (4 oz. or so?) proscuitto, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

4 green onions, white and green portions, thinly sliced

5-6 crimini mushrooms, chopped (I used these because I had some lying around.  If you didn’t have them, you could certainly omit them and just use the guts of the portobellos)

4 portobello mushrooms, stems removed, gills and insides excavated (you want only a thin shell so you can fit the maximum amount of stuffing)

scant tsp. each thyme and rosemary

black pepper

2 cups fresh white bread crumbs

olive oil

I turned the oven on to preheat to 350F and then set the prosciutto to cooking in a pan on medium high with just a touch of olive oil to help it along.  While it slowly rendered and crisped and crackled toward doneness, I prepped my vegetables.  When the meat was almost crispy, I added garlic, green onions, chopped mushrooms, herbs, and a bit more olive oil to the pan.  While that cooked down for a few minutes, I tore up half a loaf of leftover French bread and ground it into coarse crumbs in my food processor.

I dumped the crumbs into my skillet of veggie, turned the heat off, and added another tablespoon or two of olive oil to bind the ingredients together.  At this point I considered adding Parmesan cheese, thinking of both its binding power and its stellar flavor, but I tasted the crumbly filling and realized that the prosciutto was making it quite salty enough, and an extra pow of sharp cheese might be overkill.

I loaded the mushrooms to bear with heaping spoonfuls of filling, tamping it down in each cavity to fit as much as possible.  This was almost too much for four medium portobellos to handle.

With one last, loving drizzle of olive oil over the tops of my brimming vessels, I put the mushroom-laden casserole dish in the oven for half an hour.  Quick steamed green beans in the final minutes and we were ready!

Cutting into one of these roasted boats was an explosion.  The filling did not adhere to itself and instead came collapsing down onto the plate and covered the green beans.  This was not a bad thing.  In fact, the bread, now flavored with the porky richness of prosciutto and the fruity softness of olive oil, was a crisp and delectable crunch atop my barely tender beans.  As for the mushroom itself, it softened and took on a thick meatiness that was perfect with the prosciutto.  The crunchy bread crumbs soaked in the earthy juice of their vessel and we scarfed down all four mushrooms between the two of us.  And then I may have scraped the baking dish clean with my fingers.