Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cacao Mexicatessen

I ran off for lunch by myself today. I needed a little pick-me-up.

The coffee at Swork in Eagle Rock helped.

The wine I purchased at the Colorado Wine Company should be of assistance this evening.

But lunch, just a little further down the street at Cacao Mexicatessen really made all the difference.

I'd read and heard many good things about, "L.A.'s First Gourmet Mexican Deli." Jonathan Gold raves about the duck tacos. Now, I know why.

The menu is much more extensive than I would have imagined. It took me some time to get my bearings, and I'll need a few more perusals of the take-out menu and a couple more visits, before I truly have a handle on all that Cacao Mexicatessen has to offer.

I went a little overboard because there were so many dishes that I wanted to try. I selected four tacos -- two meat and two vegetarian -- carnitas (roasted pork), the famous carnitas de pato (duck confit), flor de calabaza (squash blossom), and huitlacoche.

All of the tortillas are made by hand at the Mexicatessen. A great start to an excellent taco!

The chips are supposedly made in house as well, but they did not impress the way the tortillas did.

I'll say this. Vegetarians, come running!

What an outstanding offering of meatless dishes. You can chose to fill your tacos, sopes and burritos with anything from calabacitas (zucchini and corn) to flor de jamaica (hibiscus flowers) to portobellos. There may be mushrooms or corn tucked into your chile rellenos along with the melted cheese. You'll also find potato tacos and nopalitos (cactus paddle salad) on offer.

I finally got to taste huitlacoche, which is a delicious fungus that grows on corn.

Yes, it's the black smut in the picture above.

Corn truffle is their friendly euphemism. The huitlacoche taco comes with roasted corn, hominy, cotija cheese, onions, cilantro and a tasty red salsa. The huitlacoche itself has an earthy and slightly smoky flavor. I loved it.

The flor de calabaza taco possessed a mild vegetal flavor, thanks to the blossoms and the poblano strips. Delicious, but I think I prefer my squash blossoms deep-fried -- and stuffed with cheese.

My carnitas taco was very simple -- roasted pork, onions, cilantro, and red salsa. Really, exactly as it should be. And if it is possible for greasy roasted pork to taste clean and pure, they have managed this at Cacao Mexicatessen. Maybe not the best carnitas of my life, but very very solid.

I know to take Jonathan Gold seriously. So when he titles his entire review of Cacao Mexicatessen, "Duck Duck Taco," it is clearly with good reason.

The duck taco is undoubtedly the superstar for me today. It is gorgeous. The acidic crunch of the pickled onions is striking against the moist, perfectly oily duck confit and creamy avocado. I would happily eat more than one.

I am delighted to have this Mexicatessen just ten short minutes away. It will be very easy to share with A. and Fe.

Cacao Mexicatessen
1576 Colorado Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90041

Chicken and Endives

Apparently there is a bit of debate at my parents house regarding this dish. My mother has been cooking the chicken untrussed and at a starting temperature of 350 degrees, forever. My father has just informed her -- after almost fifty years together -- that the chicken is superior when it is trussed and cooked at a starting temperature of 325 degrees.

So glad I missed that conversation.

This is my grandmaman's (my father's mother) recipe. I have been enjoying her chicken and endives just about all my life, as my mother has prepared it.

Not knowing differently, I have always followed my mother's version of this recipe.

I had hoped to try my grandmaman's original method, so that I could present the absolute best formula, but I ran out of time and energy. I just couldn't reacquaint myself with trussing or add an additional forty or so minutes to the cooking time.

I'll get back to you on that.

Plus, it would be unfair of me to keep this terrific family recipe to myself any longer. Trussed or un-trussed this chicken is a home-run.

The whole chicken cooks on a rack in a dutch oven surrounded by endives and daubed in butter. Salt, and pepper are the only other ingredients needed.

Happily, the outcome is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Preparation takes about ten minutes and then you'll need about an hour and a half to cook the bird.

In the last twenty minutes, I highly recommend cooking up a little pot of rice. You'll want something to soak up the delicious pan juices.

This is one of the simplest recipes that I know, but you would never guess it, if you walked into my house midway through the cooking process. The house smells like you are in the midst of baking the most heavenly dessert.

Even A. with his intense aversion to poultry has been fooled by the aroma of this dish.

It must be the endives braising in the butter and chicken drippings. Their lusciousness imparts just a hint of bitterness along with their sweetness, keeping the dish nicely balanced.

My mother usually only adds four endives. Not enough at all! I cram in as many as I can fit in the dutch oven. The chicken is terrific, but the endives are the stars here.

Even with the last fifteen minutes of cooking at a high heat of 450 degrees, the chicken will not get as crispy and brown as a perfect roast chicken.

You probably won't be able to impress guests with the outward beauty of this dish. Rather, save it for dear friends that deserve to be treated to a comforting meal.

Chicken with Endives

1 whole chicken, about 4 pounds
8 or more endives

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Trim just the very ends and any bruised leaves from the endives. Rinse under cold water and dry.

Generously season the chicken all over with salt and pepper. Place the chicken breast-side up on a rack in a dutch oven. Place the endives all around the chicken. Add butter shavings over the top of the chicken and the endives. Don't be shy with the butter! Cover and place in the oven.

Baste the chicken with the pan juices every 20 minutes or so. Cook the chicken until it is nearly done, about an hour, and the drumsticks are beginning to pull away from the body.

Raise the temperature to 450 degrees.

Continue to cook, uncovered, for approximately 15 minutes until the chicken is golden brown.

Carve the chicken and serve with endives, on rice, with pan juices dribbled over.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dinner Diary: 6/28/10 -- Meat-Free Monday

  • Provençal Lentil Salad with Shallots
  • Roasted McGrath Farm Carrots
  • Sautéed Zucchini & Pear Tomatoes from Jacqueline & Fe's Garden
  • Greens and Rocket with Shaved Parmigiano

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Shabu-Shabu House

Back in 2004, when I started this blog for the first time, I began with some ruminations about the point and the method of shabu shabu.

It was thanks to my sweet friend, Mike, that I got turned on to Shabu-Shabu House in Los Angeles in the first place. I was deeply skeptical, but he promised that if I gave it a couple of tries I would soon become an addict.

Well, that was an -- understatement.

But here's the deal. I don't know if I like it anywhere else.

I've tried it in San Francisco, and just across 2nd Street in Little Tokyo. I did not like them Sam I Am!

I speculated previously about whether it was the amazing sauces at Shabu-Shabu House that had me hooked. The secret-recipe sesame sauce (it does have a little peanut in there, too) and the house-made ponzu are fantastic. I've been guilty of asking for thirds of the sesame sauce on more than one occasion.

Certainly, the quality of the beef plays a role here. It is well-marbled (you can ask for lean if you prefer, but why would you?) and it possesses a lot of good beefy flavor. These are not thin slices of generic meat.

You can in fact pre-order aged rib-eyes from Shabu Shabu House for the Fourth of July.

The vegetables, tofu, and udon noodles deserve a mention. I'm especially fond of the Chrysanthemum leaves. They have a satisfyingly bright bite.

Please be careful when cooking the udon! They are almost as hot as molten sugar and for me, rather unwieldy, flying through the air. Once a noodle flung back at my hand and I suffered a huge blister on my index finger.

This is dangerous food!

Someone once told me that the vegetables were more suited to the ponzu sauce and the beef to the sesame. Is this true?

I'll openly confess my lack of concrete knowledge regarding shabu shabu. I assume there is a refined technique out there -- the ultimate way to shabu shabu. I, however, am flying by the seat of my pants.

The dilemmas begin as soon as you sit down. What do you do with that pot of boiling water? Am I a fool for adding soy and chile oil? Do only the awkward novices add the sliced green onions to the water? Do the purists leave the water alone?

I am constantly checking out the action around me, searching for some insight. Ridiculously, I have never just asked the proprietor for his advice. And he is a pretty nice guy in the end.

So this is what I do. Please feel free to chime in and point out the many errors of my ways. I want help!

I add soy sauce, chile oil, shichimi togarashi, garlic, and sliced green onions to the pot. I do realize that those green onions are well suited to the ponzu, but my belly just can't handle raw onions the way it used to when I was a kid.

I throw in only some of the cabbage (I want it to last!), the carrots, the larger pieces of green onion, and some of the Chrysanthemum (another lasting issue). I hold off on the udon and the tofu. In go a few slices of beef.

It's embarrassing the way I dunk the beef in the sesame sauce. I know I'm over-doing it. I know people are looking askance. I can't help it. There is no polite dip with me. I completely submerge the meat, swirl it around, and then drop it on the mound of rice, hoping that enough sauce falls off the meat to drench the rice, but that enough still remains on the meat, for the perfect bite. Shake over a little more shichimi and/or drizzle a little chile oil, and place in mouth.

It's magnificent.

I continue on in this manner, swirling, swishing, dipping, dunking.

At one point in my life, I thought it was absurd to go to a restaurant to cook your own food. Silly girl, this is way too much fun!

In the end, after I have cooked the tofu, and hopefully avoided scalding myself with wet noodles, finished the meat and nearly all of the rice, I ask for a spoon.

The one time that A. came with me to Shabu-Shabu House he asked me if I knew what I was doing.

Certainly not, but I don't care. I cannot just turn my head as the broth that I have brewed is carted away. For that is what has happened. After all that cooking the boiling water has become a wondrous, garlicky, beef broth. I spoon a little over the remaining grains of rice and happily slurp it up, my face glistening with perspiration.

Shabu-Shabu House
127 Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dinner Diary: 6/21/10 -- Meat-Free Monday Monday

  • Penne with Black Kale, Black Garlic, Cherry Tomatoes, and Pignoli
  • Romaine, Rocket, and Radish Salad with Lemon Garlic Vinaigrette

Monday, June 21, 2010

Dinner Diary: 6/19/10 -- Ara's Birthday

I am so grateful to have friends who love to eat, who enjoy trying all manner of new culinary establishment, and most of all, who love to cook and share the fruits of their labor with friends.

It was our dear friend Ara's birthday and Fe, A., and I were lucky enough to be invited to his and Lilit's home to help celebrate. I suppose you could call it a "barbecue," but that term does not really do this fête justice.

Ara went to town with the help of our friend Joseph, preparing four giant slabs of pork belly and one whole lamb in Joseph's roasting box, called La Caja China. Ara's and Lilit's mothers contributed exquisite Uzbeki lamb pilaf, tabbouleh, hummus and tzatziki.

Add many large bottles of ice-cold vodka and a tussle of friends and family and you have a party that is simply put – off the hook.

The pork belly with Ara's special seasoning -- Ara, what is in there? -- was hands-down my favorite.

And the pork cracklin was life-altering. I've thought of it longingly every day since last weekend.

Best of the good news –– Ara is going to take me meat shopping soon!

Dinner Diary: 6/18/10

You know you are in trouble when this is the bounty that you have picked up from your C.S.A.:

And this is what you have for dinner:

Thank god for Pizza Buona when you're exhausted!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Vietnamese Cucumber Relish

Isn't it salmon season?

I've had a real longing for salmon lately. On the hunt, I went to Fish King in Glendale. Good news –– they had wild King Salmon for sale!

Screech. For $39.99 a pound.

Can you imagine if you overcooked that fish? You would have to jump off a bridge!

There is no way that I could justify that expense.

Fast forward several weeks. I found some wild Coho salmon at Whole Foods at a price that I could accept. I had the idea to try another David Tanis recipe. He has a recipe in A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes for "Wild Salmon with Vietnamese Cucumbers".

I purchased all the ingredients to make this, but I got slightly distracted on the way.

Now I have started to think that I know best when it comes to cooking fish. I follow my mother's lead. High heat (400 to 450 degrees) for a short time (maybe 10 minutes, depending on the cut). This usually works brilliantly. Nine out of ten times the fish is moist and a little bit golden.

With salmon, I insist on medium rare. I really do not like it when it has been cooked all the way through. Medium rare and slightly custardy in the middle is perfect to my mind.

Well, believe me, I sure wish that I had used David Tanis' slower-and-lower method when I realized that I had cooked the salmon about two and a half minutes too long. The salmon was still delicious, but I hate overcooking fish. To many, it was probably cooked à point, but it was definitely not to me.

What I really want to share with you, though, are these lovely Vietnamese cucumbers. This is a great little recipe. Not fancy or complicated, yet quite refreshing and stunning with the fish ––probably with any fish, really.

Vibrant with lime juice and ginger, this cucumber relish would have been a perfect foil for the rich and oily black cod that I cooked two days later. Depending on your affinity for heat, these cucumbers can have quite a kick, especially if you use plenty of serrano chiles. I used two because I didn't want to overdo it for A. Next time I will probably crank up the heat –– I can't help myself.

The recipe calls for palm sugar. Tanis recommends Mexican piloncillo or raw brown sugar. I used standard golden brown sugar to good effect. I might, however, consider cutting back on the sugar ever so slightly.

I served the salmon with boiled new potatoes and sautéed escarole with garlic –– a very healthy and well-balanced meal (so says A!).

I can easily imagine serving these Vietnamese cucumbers with a roast chicken or a barbecued tri-tip. My sister and I gobbled up the rest the next day as a cooling, late-afternoon snack.

Vietnamese Cucumbers

4 large cucumbers
Salt and pepper
Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam) or Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into a fine julienne
Palm sugar
Serranos or jalapenos or fresh Thai chiles
2 or 3 limes
Mint sprigs
Basil sprils
Thinly sliced scallions or sweet onions

Peel the cucumbers, cut them lengthwise in half, and remove the seeds with a spoon if they are large (I used about 8 persian cucumbers and did not remove the seeds). Slice the cucumbers into thickish half-moons and put them in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle lightly with fish sauce, then add the ginger and a couple of tablespoons of palm sugar. Toss well, and let the cucumbers sit for 5 minutes or so.

Add a good spoonful of finely chopped serrano or jalapeno chiles (seeds removed to lessen spiciness, if desired) or finely slivered Thai chiles. Squeeze over the juice of 2 limes and toss again, then cover and refrigerate till serving.

Just before serving add a fistful of roughly chopped mint and basil leaves. Taste and adjust the seasoning with lime juice as well as salt and pepper. Garnish with thinly sliced scallions or paper-thin slices of sweet onion.

Serves 8-10

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fava Bean Purée

If you've been to a few meals at our home, you've more than likely bumped into this fava bean purée. It is a staple in my hors d'oeuvres arsenal. Toast up some crostini and we're well on our way. Add a couple of cheeses and some imported olives, and we are set to entertain.

With spring come fava beans. It's early spring through early summer that is the best time of year for these fellows. As the season begins to turn, the beans change from lovely, small, and bright green to large, starchy, and pale yellow-green. The smaller beans are best for a quick sauté or short turn in the pan with a glug of cream.

The clunkier ones are best for a purée like this one.

Sometimes, like on this last trip to the farmer's market, I find myself getting lazy and only selecting the massive fava bean pods. You can make much quicker work of these big boys.

If you are able to find smaller favas this late in the season, you really ought to take advantage of them. They will lighten up the purée a bit -- making it less sticky and dense -- and coax out a more brilliant green.

Some people shy away from preparing fava beans, because there is a bit of labor involved in getting to the actual beans.

They require two levels of recovery.

First they need to be shucked from the pod and then each bean needs to be peeled. Once the shucking is complete, a thirty second blanching helps speed up the peeling process dramatically.

I hate washing spinach, but fava bean preparation has never bothered me. It's almost soothing.

Aside from the standard fava prep, this recipe is a breeze. It could easily be jazzed up with garlic, mint, or rosemary, but I almost always prepare it straight.

It's thanks to Grilled Cheese Night at Campanile that I became such a huge fan. Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel (back when they were still an item) served their fava bean purée with braised bacon and shaved pecorino. Every time it was on the menu, I had to order it.

To my delight, the recipe for their fava bean purée is one of the first included in their book, The Food of Campanile. After making it once, you probably won't even need to look at the recipe again.

You need the fava beans, some excellent olive oil, a lemon, and salt. With so few ingredients, you need to make sure that they are all top notch.

Even if crostini are not your thing (and really, they should be, since put anything on top and presto -- hors d'oeuvres!), this makes an excellent filling for ravioli, or an unusual layer on a spectacular sandwich.

Then there's one of my personal fava-rites: a very satisfying lunchtime bruschetta with a shaving of parmigiano and a drizzle of olive oil. Enjoy!

Fava Bean Purée

1 pound fresh fava beans, removed from pods (4 pounds in the pods)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Fresh lemon juice

Bring a large pot of water to boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Fill a large bowl with ice water.

Blanch the shelled fava beans in the water for about 30 seconds. Immediately scoop out and plunge the beans into the ice water for about 30 seconds. Drain the beans.

Using your fingers, remove the peel of the fava beans by pinching off one end of the skin and gently squeezing the bean out of the skin. Reserve the shelled and peeled fava beans in a medium saucepan.

Add the olive oil and about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Over high heat, bring to a gentle boil. remove the pan from the heat, and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

Using a rubber spatula, scrape the beans and oil into a food processor. Process only until the beans achieve a creamy consistency. Take care not to over-process. Correct the seasoning to taste with kosher salt and fresh lemon juice. Serve immediately, or allow to sit for up to 4 hours at room temperature.