Los Feliz Biscuits and Gravy: poblano and white cheddar biscuits with chorizo gravy

Food blog July 2015-1117According to adage, breakfast is “the most important meal of the day,” and while the heavy, sweet or savory, sometimes grease-laden offerings that make up a truly excellent breakfast are some of my favorite meal options out there, if I eat them first thing in the morning I’m going to feel ill. Give me a bowl of bran flakes or a slice or two of toast in the morning, then move to the eggs, the bacon, the biscuits, the sausage, the waffles, as the day eases on. That’s why I get so excited, and wax eloquent so often here, about breakfast-for-dinner.

Food blog July 2015-1100But for a 30-something living in an urban area like Los Angeles, breakfast food of this ilk means something else: brunch. Food that is fatty and greasy in the best possible way washed down with a mimosa or three to compensate for the previous night’s revelry – this is the true calling of a large plate of breakfast meats, scrambles, and toasted, syrup-bearing stacks. And here, at least, walking into a restaurant for brunch entails working your way through a crowd of plaid and maxi skirts, tilted fedoras, gladiator sandals, and the occasional waxed mustache. So, you know, hipsters.

Food blog July 2015-1104A few months ago, N. and I wandered through a little enclave called Los Feliz just south of Griffith Park after a failed attempt to visit Griffith Observatory (on a temperate weekend, with clear skies, there’s zero chance of finding parking there more than half an hour after it opens. What fools, we). On our way to a local bookshop, we ran into one of his coworkers and her wife having brunch, and it suddenly seemed like exactly the right thing to do. We unofficially added “eat brunch at every restaurant in Los Feliz” to our LA-to-do list.

Food blog July 2015-1109Brunch in Los Feliz – like many places east of Hollywood as highway 101 cuts south toward downtown – means hipster paradise with a heavy dose of East LA flavor: huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, chorizo folded into a thick, fluffy omelet. The Mexican and Latin influence on that side of the city makes for a glorious contribution to any brunch (or, as my sister put it, a meal that is perfect for “a Sunday at 11AM or any night at 8PM or later”).

Food blog July 2015-1106Our first entrée (haha) into the Los Feliz brunch scene was late on a Sunday morning, seated outside, as you always should be, so you can watch the show walk past: rompers and sundresses, stilettos surely too high and too spiky for church, bowties and converse all-stars worn un-ironically on the same person. Some passersby are accompanied by their pit bulls and chihuahuas, who often sport their own wardrobes, and pause to jangle their collars against the metal water bowls left outside for them by many of the businesses along the main drag. But once our food came, I don’t think we noticed another single pedestrian. N. had huevos rancheros, and we agreed they were a good representation – the black beans were meaty and savory and well-seasoned, and the fresh salsa was good – but my dish was the real star: poblano and white cheddar biscuits with scrambled eggs and a chorizo gravy. Flaky, cheesy mounds draped in a bright orange, lightly spicy sauce that, even though we’d promised to share, made me reluctant to relinquish my plate. Think classic biscuits and sausage gravy, but with neighborhood flavor.

Food blog July 2015-1107A dish like that only means one thing: restaurant recreation. Even as we asked for the check, I was already considering how I would make this at home. I wanted cheesier biscuits, more roasted poblano, and a stronger chorizo presence in the gravy. This resulted, in my version, in a gravy stronger in flavor but a bit less rich, and biscuits to rejoice over – flaky, crisp and golden on top, aggressively cheese-laden with obvious hits of smoky poblano inside. Plus, once punched out the biscuits freeze perfectly, so it makes sense to bake just what you need and save the rest for another lazy morning. It’s a brunch (or lunch, or dinner) option that will remain permanently on our rotation.

Food blog July 2015-1112Brunch in Los Feliz was, then, a successful voyage in many ways, and clearly our real challenge will not be exploring the area for its brunch options, but convincing ourselves to order something different every time, because once you’ve found an option as fulfilling as this, trying something new is a gamble I’m sometimes unwilling to take.

Food blog July 2015-1113Serving suggestions: because the restaurant’s offering was pretty perfect as it was, I copied their addition of scrambled eggs between the biscuit and the gravy, but the eggs are really just an extra luxury. You could also easily pair this with a pile of crispy hash browns or homefried potatoes, which would be an excellent match for the gravy. Though I don’t have much experience with soy-based sausages, a good soyrizo or chipotle field roast sausage would likely make an excellent vegetarian sub for the chorizo, if you want to go meatless. You might have to add a little extra fat to the pan, though, when you cook them.

Food blog July 2015-1114This dish is best, of course, the first day. The biscuits are never as crunchy and warm after that, and the gravy does tend to do that thing gravy does where it gets thicker but also separates overnight in the fridge. But I think, with four diners round the table and ten biscuits to share between you, the last drippings of gravy won’t be long for this world.

Food blog July 2015-1124

Los Feliz biscuits and gravy
Serves 4
For biscuits:
1 poblano pepper (¼ – ⅓ cup, when chopped)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
6 ounces buttermilk (about ¾ cup)
1 cup extra sharp white cheddar cheese, grated or in small cubes
For chorizo gravy:
9 ounces chorizo
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk, warm or at room temperature
salt and pepper to taste (depends on your chorizo – mine didn’t need any)
To serve:
softly scrambled eggs: 2 per person
2 tablespoons sour cream
1-2 teaspoons milk or cream
1-2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives or green onions, dark green part only

 

  • Roast poblano pepper over a grill or gas flame – about 10 minutes, turning when needed – until the skin is almost entirely blistered and black. Place in a glass bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let it steam for 20 minutes to loosen the skin and soften the flesh. After 20 minutes, remove the pepper from the bowl and use a paper towel, knife blade, or your hands to scrape off the skin (some illustrative photos here, if you need them). Remove stem and seeds as well, then dice finely for ¼ – ⅓ cup of roasted pepper bits. The pepper pieces should be room temperature when added to biscuit dough – plan accordingly.
  • Preheat the oven to 400F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. To make the biscuits, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder in a medium bowl. Blend in the cubes of cold butter using a pastry cutter or your fingertips. Butter bits should be the size of small peas. Add the cooled diced poblano and the cheese and use a fork to integrate, then pour in the buttermilk and, using a fork or your fingers, bring together into a ball of soft dough.
  • Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board and use a floured rolling pin or the palms of your hands to roll or press the dough into a rectangle about ½ an inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll out again. Repeat, again folding the dough into thirds and then rolling it out; this creates more flaky layers. If the dough sticks to your board, use the flat blade of a butter knife or a pastry scraper to help you lift it free.
  • After you’ve rolled and folded, rolled and folded, and rolled once more (so you’ll have done a total of six folds), use a round cutter (or the lip of a glass) to punch out biscuits. Push the cutter straight down through the dough; don’t twist until you are all the way through the dough, or you’ll crush the flaky layers! Repeat, placing the biscuit rounds on your parchment lined baking sheet, until you can’t punch out any more rounds. Re-roll the dough scraps and repeat – with ½ inch thick dough, using a 3-inch cutter, you should be able to make about 10 biscuits.
  • Bake biscuits at 400F for 20 minutes, until their tops are golden and some cheese has oozed out to make lacey crisps around their edges.
  • While the biscuits bake, make the chorizo gravy: in a medium skillet, cook the chorizo over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it is cooked through and nicely browned. This is difficult to see on some chorizos, because they are quite wet and reddish orange in color; look for a textural difference to determine that it is cooked.
  • When the chorizo is cooked through with brown bits and lightly crusty, chewy bits, sprinkle the flour over it and stir through to combine. Cook the flour with the chorizo for 1-2 minutes, then slowly begin adding the milk, whisking constantly as you do so. I like to pour in about ¼ cup at a time, whisk until the mixture is homogenous again, then add the next installment of milk.
  • With all the milk added, continue to whisk slowly until the mixture comes to a simmer. You will notice it thicken as it warms, but it won’t reach its final viscosity until it comes to a boil. At that point, lower the heat to a simmer, taste for seasoning, and add additional salt and pepper if your taste buds require it.
  • To serve, combine 2 tablespoons sour cream and 1-2 teaspoons milk or cream in a small dish or in a squeeze bottle. Place two biscuits on each plate, top with scrambled eggs, ladle on some gravy, and squirt or drizzle the sour cream sauce on top. Sprinkle with chopped chives or green onion, and serve immediately.

Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs

I fervently hope you have at least one recipe in your arsenal that your family is just mad about. In my case, I guess that might be… tacos? Or perhaps, pardon the sub-par photography, pot pie. For my mom, this recipe is a take on Swedish meatballs from an old cookbook with a faded gold cover. Populated by numerous, lightly ethnic recipes from various European and Mediterranean regions, the cookbook is most stained and marked (Mom makes adjustments in the margins with pencil) on the “Myrna’s Meatballs” recipe. On the facing page is a photograph of a woman (Myrna, I guess) with well-teased chestnut hair, large glasses, and a round face, in the process of lighting candles over a nicely stocked dining room table.

Food Blog February 2015-0364The meatballs themselves, with their mixture of beef and pork seasoned with warm spices and draped in rich brown gravy, are definitely a take on the Swedish smorgasbord classic, and my family is nuts for them. Every year when we plan our Christmas menu, the one item that doesn’t change, it seems, is these meatballs. This past year, because the plan was all rolled appetizers, the meatballs didn’t fit the theme. Rather than skip them, however, they became Christmas Eve dinner instead. Christmas was saved. For Christmas 2015, we’ve already decided the theme will be “food on a stick” (because, I mean, what else would we do while eating the current year’s offerings than plot options for next year’s celebration?). My sister has already excitedly declared that we’ll just stab the meatballs with toothpicks, and that’s one dish done.

Food Blog February 2015-0349I must confess: I like these meatballs quite a bit, and I enjoy them when they show up in the Christmas spread, but they aren’t quite on my deathbed menu. They are tender and tasty, and the gravy in particular – depth and extra richness imparted by a mere teaspoon of instant coffee powder – is a savory treat. But something about the meatball itself made me want to fiddle.

Food Blog February 2015-0350In one of those lovely coincidences the universe sometimes hands out, the Cooks Illustrated issue in my, well, my bathroom magazine rack (what?) just happened to contain a Swedish meatball recipe, and though many of the ingredients were the same as Myrna’s immortal list, the procedure was different enough to catch my attention. Since one of the things – I think – I wanted to adjust about the family meatball of choice was the texture, it seemed fortuitous to combine-and-conquer.

Food Blog February 2015-0352The main difference in the CI version of Swedish meatballs is the way the meat is prepared. Mom and Myrna knead together the pork, beef, a handful of parsley, spices (plenty of black pepper, as Mom is always telling me), lightly sauteed onions, and  breadcrumbs soaked in milk (called a panade) in a bowl before forming soft balls. Taking a cue from sausage making, CI recipe tester J. Kenji Alt instead vigorously paddles the pork in a stand mixer with spices, baking powder for lightness, and the traditional sopping panade. A touch of brown sugar goes in too, for a background hint of sweetness. Grated onions and salt join this combination, and the whipped meat paste is only lightly combined with ground beef. This results in a tender, light meatball with a sort of springiness, achieved by stretching the meat proteins in the pork as it is paddled into a paste-y emulsion. It also more evenly distributes the fat through the meat, which seemed worth imitating.

Food Blog February 2015-0353In my version, because I also wanted to minimize the number of dishes I was going to make N. wash (our version of an egalitarian kitchen: whoever cooks, the other one has to wash up. You can guess how this usually works out), I decided to go for the food processor instead of the stand mixer. I was going to use it to make fresh breadcrumbs anyway, and decided relying on it to grate my onions and mix up the meat would keep things easy. In retrospect, this seems counter-intuitive – wouldn’t the blade tear apart the meat proteins, rather than elongating them? Yet it did produce a pleasing texture.

Food Blog February 2015-0355Mom (and Myrna) brown their meatballs in a few tablespoons of butter, then finish them by simmering them in the gravy for half an hour. The CI version, on the other hand, does more of a shallow fry in vegetable oil, cooking the meatballs completely and then just running them through a quick turn in the sauce. I decided, again, on a slight compromise. I used less oil than the CI recipe, and browned the meatballs on all sides, opting to use my electric skillet so I could control the oil temperature. Once the meatballs were golden and felt almost crisp, I drained them, whisked up the sauce in the same skillet, and returned them to the gravy for the requisite half hour simmer. Any opportunity to add flavor seemed like the right thing to do.

Food Blog February 2015-0356When we couldn’t take the aroma anymore (the dog kept appearing in the doorway of the kitchen, wagging and smiling. Their eternal hope is so encouraging and so sad), I boiled up some egg noodles, tossed them with butter and parsley, and ladled on the main event.

Food Blog February 2015-0360I don’t think I’m allowed to say that my meatballs were better than Mom’s. But they were very, very good. I think the textural change – a subtle tenseness to the exterior that burst when you bit through it, and a tightness to the meatball that was somehow not at all dense – was an improvement. I also added a reserved squeeze of dijon mustard to both the panade mixture and the sauce, and that, along with the bare hint of sweetness from the brown sugar, was a good choice.

Food Blog February 2015-0366But in addition to the texture and the minimal flavor upgrades, I think the nest of buttery noodles made the dish. When we eat these meatballs at Christmas time, they are usually part of a large spread – one little corner of a plate full of wildly varied appetizer items. Here, resting atop an eggy bed, glazed with thick gravy, we really had a chance to appreciate their deep, warm flavors.

Food Blog February 2015-0364

Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs
Makes 25-30 1-inch meatballs
For meatballs:
1½ cups bread crumbs (from 1-2 slices of bread)
1 cup whole milk or half and half
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
⅓ cup grated onion (about ½ of a large onion)
1 tablespoon butter
½ pound ground pork
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley + 1 tablespoon for serving
⅛ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ pound ground beef
1 cup vegetable oil
For gravy:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1¼ – 1½ cups beef broth
salt and pepper to taste (taste first; sodium content in beef broth may vary)
  • Using the disc shredder of a food processor or a box grater, grate the onion and cook it in 1 tablespoon butter over medium low heat until tender and translucent but not browned. Set aside to cool.
  • While onion cooks and cools, use the regular blade of a food processor to create 1½ cups bread crumbs from 1-2 slices of bread (stale is fine). Combine the bread crumbs, the milk or half and half, and 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard in a small bowl and let soak for 5 minutes.
  • Add the ground pork, cooled onions, ¼ cup parsley, salt, baking powder, brown sugar, and spices to the food processor. Squeeze out the soaked bread and add that as well.  Process for 1-2 minutes into a smooth, homogenous mixture. Pause to scrape down the sides as needed.
  • Dump the pork and bread paste into a large bowl and add the ground beef. Using your hands or a spatula (but hands work better), gently fold the beef into the pork mixture until just incorporated. With moistened hands, form generous tablespoon-sized balls (about 1 inch) from the meat mixture.
  • Heat oil in a straight-sided skillet to 350F, or until the first meatball sizzles when cautiously dipped in. I used my electric skillet to help monitor the temperature. Fry the meatballs, turning as needed, until brown on all sides – about 5 minutes. Remove and let drain on a paper towel-lined plate or tray while you make the gravy.
  • For gravy, carefully pour out the remaining oil in the pan, but leave any browned bits behind for extra flavor. These are called fond. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then sprinkle in the flour and whisk together. Let flour and butter cook for 1-2 minutes into a loose, lightly golden smear. Stir in the instant espresso powder, the brown sugar, and the dijon mustard. Add the beef broth, whisking constantly to deter lumps. Continue to whisk slowly until mixture reaches a simmer and thickens to a gravy consistency. Taste for seasoning, keeping in mind flavors will intensify as it continues to simmer.
  • Add the meatballs to the gravy in the pan, cover, and cook over low to medium low heat for 30 minutes, basting the meatballs occasionally.
  • Serve hot or warm over buttered egg noodles, mashed or boiled potatoes, or with toothpicks for an appetizer or smorgasbord spread. Sprinkle the final tablespoon of parsley over the starch or the meatballs themselves for a little brightness.