The Great American Melting Pot

July 29, 2009 § 1 Comment

The Great American Melting Pot

The Great American Melting Pot

I’m not much of a kitchen gadget person—one task wonders make me feel that the American marketing machine is winning—but every once in awhile I buy myself something for the kitchen that makes me so happy, and makes so much sense, I wonder how I ever lived without it. Most recently, I bought an All-Clad Butter Warmer. It’s a gorgeous, stainless-steel miniature saucepan–the scale and design is as simple and perfect as that of a paper clip—another personal favorite. It’s just right for heating a cup of coffee, warming chocolate sauce, and, of course, melting butter.

I’ve had my butter melter for about ten days and have used it almost as many times—usually for melting butter, but the truth is I practically make up reasons to break it out. Today the excuse was garlic confit. The garlic here is cooked so low and slow that the radiator heater in my New York apartment—or the sidewalk on some recent afternoons in Hollywood—would provide the perfect amount of heat, until it is soft, sweet, and spreadable. You can use the garlic in any way you’d use roasted garlic: toss it with grilled broccolini, spread it on crostini, puree it and mix it into pasta sauces. The added benefit is the roasted garlic oil, which will be delicious drizzled on anything except your breakfast cereal. And most importantly, you have an excuse, in the age of the microwave oven, to essentially save such as thing as an All-Clad Butter Melter from extinction.

Garlic Confit

Put a handful or two of peeled whole garlic cloves in a small saucepan. Ideally this would be a butter melter. Add a pinch of chile flakes and enough olive oil to cover the garlic by 1/2 inch. (In an All-Clad Butter Melting Pot, this is 1/2 cup.) Place the pot over medium-low heat. When the first tiny bubble rises to the surface—and here I’m not talking about a boiling bubble, but more like the kind of bubble that rises from a flut of champagne—reduce the heat to low. Continue to cook at this rate, with that tiny bubble rising from time to time at about the rate of week-old champagne (do not let it come to a boil, do not let the garlic brown) for about an hour, or until the garlic will easily spread on a piece of toast, otherwise known as a crostino.

Secret Sauce

July 14, 2009 § 2 Comments

I was at the Original Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax last week when Jim the butcher–the one that makes Nancy Silverton’s famous burger blend–asked me how to make the mayo that Nancy puts on her burgers. For an upcoming party, he wanted to create The Perfect Slider, and he felt this might help him get there. The mayo he was talking about is the not-so-secret mayonnaise, the recipe for which is in the book I wrote with Nancy called Twist of the Wrist, about using packaged foods to help you along the road to really great food. Chipotle Mayo one of three mayos in the book—the others are garlic; and olive-anchovy—all of which are essential elements of Nancy’s burger spread and, for those such as own family and friends who care, part of mine, too. But the chipotle is by far the most popular. It is so good, you really should have it on hand at all times, and if Best Foods were smart, they would copy it, give us no credit, and start selling the stuff very soon. Speaking of Best Foods, although you might be tempted to start with some expensive, fancy mayo you find at Whole Foods, I’m telling you now: unless you have big problems with eating egg yolks and/or corn syrup, use Best Foods (aka Hellman’s). We tried them all, and Best Foods is the yummiest. And I don’t use that word lightly.

Chipotle Mayonnaise

1 cup Best Foods mayonnaise
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
4 large garlic cloves, grated or minced (about 1 tbsp) or more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons pureed chipotle peppers in adobo, or more to taste (to puree chipotle peppers, dump the entire can, liquid and all, into blender)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste.

Stir the mayonnaise, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, chipotle peppers and kosher salt together in a small bowl.  Season with more lemon juice, chipotle peppers, garlic, or salt to taste. Put this on your burgers, use it to make a chicken salad, spread it on a sandwich. Go nuts.

Summer Gold

June 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Standing in Line for Corn

Standing in Line for Corn

Anyone who says there are no seasons in Southern California has never been to Chino Ranch in the summertime. I stopped by the farm today–after a morning hike on the secret horse trails of Rancho Santa Fe that, along with a lifetime of free firewood and a covenant that insures your neighbor can never build a McMansion on his land, is one of the perks of living in this precious place, and found the parking lot spilling over and a long line outside the stand. Everything the Chinos grow is divine–including, at this time of year, melons of all kinds, green beans that Alice Waters famously declared tasted just like green beans when she discovered them (the beans and the Chino family) in 1972, and the most glorious tomatoes of every shape and color imaginable. But the line is for the Chino’s famous corn. They grow yellow and white (I don’t know the names, though I should) and sell it by the half dozen or dozen, and fans of the corn line up before the stand opens in the summertime to get their hands on some before the farm sells out, which they invariably will. Some people complain about the price (a dollar an ear, I think, as opposed to the can’t-give-the-stuff-away-prices at places like … basically everywhere else that sells corn), but these are often the same people who pull up in leased Range Rovers and shirts that cost the same as some people’s rent, so never mind them. Besides, talking about the price of corn is boring. If you ever have the privilege of getting your hands on some of these golden ears, you might want to make this soup, a puree of pretty much nothing but corn that I learned to make during a week I had the privilege of doing an internship at Chez Panisse.


Corn Corn Soup

Take a couple of sweet yellow onions, trim them and throw all the trimmings into a soup pot filled with water placed over high heat. If you happen to have some cheesecloth lying around, make a bouquet with some peppercorns, parsley, and whatever other fresh herbs you have that you think go well with corn and throw that into the water, too. Meanwhile, shuck some corn. Let’s say half a dozen ears, though the soup is so good you might as well make it with a dozen ears because it will all get eaten. Guaranteed. Shuck the ears, remove the silks, cut the kernels from the cob, set the kernels aside, and throw the cobs into the pot with the onion trimmings. (What you’re doing in case you haven’t figured it out yet is making corn broth.) Now dice the onions and saute them in a separate soup pot with butter and a sprinkling of kosher salt over medium heat–or lower. You want to get the onions soft and sweet, but you don’t want a speck of color on them. If the onions start to color, turn down the heat, and if that doesn’t do the trick, add a splash of water. When the onion is really soft and smushy, after about 20 minutes, add the corn kernels and some more kosher salt. Saute the corn and onion together for 5 or 10 minutes. Then add some of the corn stock and puree the soup with an immersion blender, adding more corn stock and pureeing away until what you are looking at is corn soup. That’s it. No cream. Nothing fancy. Just corn. Serve it warm, with a few turns of pepper if you like. At CP, they used Marash pepper, which I have never used (or even seen) since but am going to pick up in honor of corn season. I’m not sure I have the palate to tell the difference in a particular type of pepper, but I can tell you that appreciating the flavor of this corn takes no skill whatsoever.

R.I.P. Hotel Caesars

May 19, 2009 § 2 Comments

I love that there's a Carl's Jr. on the ground floor.

Casa, Sweet Casa: I love that there's a Carl's Jr. on the ground floor.

In honor of the Caesar Hotel, where the Caesar salad was invented, which died today


With its ornate facade (what is this style called?), and a sort of museum to trajes de luces,—which translates “suits of lights,” the shimmering, adorned outfits that bullfighters wear—in the lobby, the Hotel Caesars somehow managed to be, to the end, a remnant of Old Tijuana. I remember going there with my dad, who had a restaurant across the street, and who, when he first moved to Tijuana from Acapulco in the 1950s, used to work as a waiter at the Caesar Hotel and toss the salads table side himself. I love that Tijuana. I love that salad. And even when the restaurant renamed itself the Caesar Sports Bar & Grill and hung a row of track lights and televisions, they still turned out one of the best Caesar Salads I have ever eaten. I wish I knew the secret. Is it the fake Parmesan cheese that comes out of a can? The hot dog mustard? Why did the drug lords have to go and ruin everything? Pinche greed.

This is an old post introducing an older letter. But the story of the Caesar is older still, so it is all still current. Sort of.

* * *

This is a letter I wrote a few years ago (March, 2004, to be exact) to the editor of The Los Angeles Times in response to a small round-up their intrepid reporter, Leslee Komaiko, had done on Caesar salads. I think it may be the single most important thing I have ever written. Why is it so important? Because it is so good—not the writing, silly, the salad! And because sometimes leaving well enough alone is the best idea by far—and I think that in the current climate of foams and Food, Inc. we need to remember that simple fact.

The Whole Caesar Story

I wanted to comment on Leslee Komaiko’s Caesar salad bit in Restaurant Journal (“Render Unto Caesar That Which is Leafy,” Feb 25).

I have strong opinions about the Caesar Salad and know a little about it as a result of my being from Tijuana, my dad having owned a Caesar-serving steakhouse there in the 1960’s, and my having done research in Tijuana, as a freelance food writer, for various food stories. I too have noticed a lot of whole-leaf Caesars (WLCs) out there [that’s what Komaiko’s story was about], and as far as I’m concerned, this is good news. These simple, whole-leaf Caesars are a welcome respite from all those whacked-out reinvented Caesars. Copious amounts of garlic and the ubiquitous sliced breast of chicken aside, I’ve seen offenses from jalapeño polenta croutons to a salad of dandelion greens, arugula and mâche with caviar “Caesar” dressing and watermelon “croutons.”

But the main reason I get that heart-swelling sensation every time I see a well-executed whole-leaf Caesar is because, contrary to the idea stated in the article—that it’s “an affront to muck with the classic”—the WLC is not only the better Caesar, it is the classic Caesar.

At the Caesar Hotel in Tijuana [which last I saw had sadly changed its name to the Caesar Sports Bar & Grill], where it was invented, the salad is served whole leaf, as it always was. At my dad’s restaurant, El Bodegon de Guillermo, which was across the street from the Caesar Hotel, he served it whole leaf. And the recipe that [Mexican culinary authority] Diana Kennedy gave me for the salad, which she got from its inventor, Caesar Cardini, when she met him in Mexico City some 40 years or more ago, calls for the hearts of romaine leaves to be whole. As for the fact that you have to use a knife and fork, well, the salad is intended to be eaten—or at least you have the option to eat it—with your fingers.

Simple and straightforward as the Caesar is, there are tricks to making a good one. Start with sweet romaine lettuce and be wiling to throw out more than your good conscience allows: Chuck all the outer dark leaves and cut off all floppy dark green ends of even the inner romaine leaves. What you’re left with will be only the crispy, light green hearts of the romaine, which stand up to the heavy dressing. Use key lime (a.k.a Mexican lime) juice in place of the lemon juice, of course use fresh eggs (not mayo) and good Parmesan. Mash and whisk the dressing in a big, wooden salad bowl to which you’ll then add those light, crispy romaine leaves and croutons and, yes, toss. The only other piece of advice for making a good Caesar is: Do not lay those dead canned fish on the salad. Traditionally the dead fish go onto the croutons. Nowadays, even at the hotel in Tijuana, the anchovies are mashed into the dressing (rather than on the crouton). But no self-respecting Caesar making chef would ever lay the things on the lettuce. May the table side tossing of the classic whole-leaf hearts of romaine Caesar begin. Again.

This is what a real Caesar salad looks like. Look mom, no fork!

This is what a real Caesar salad looks like. Look mom, no fork!

Original Caesar Salad

From the Caesar Hotel on Avenída Revolución, Tijuana

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

16 three-eight inch slices baguette

4 teaspoons anchovy paste

1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh juice of limes (preferably Mexican or Key limes)

1 one-minute coddled egg

Dash of Worcestershire Sauce

1/3 cup garlic-infused olive oil [skeptical about this only because there are so few good ones]

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese [If I were writing this recipe, I would write, “6 tablespoons grated Parm, plus a wedge for grating cheese over the finished salad]

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 heads romaine lettuce leaves, trimmed mercilessly, washed, drained, and chilled

1. To make the croutons, heat the olive oil and garlic in a skillet. Spread anchovy paste on one side of each baguette slice. Place the slices paste side down in hot oil and cook for 30 to 40 seconds, then turn and toast the other side. Place them on paper towels to drain and continue until you’ve fried up all the croutons. [Here I would tell you to buy one of Nancy Silverton’s books that have her recipe for torn croutons.]

2. Stir together the vinegar, lime juice, coddled egg and Worcestershire sauce in a big wooden salad bowl. [I seem to remember DK and my dad and the waiter at the Caesar hotel adding mustard and Tobasco at this point. I’ll have to find the old Diana Kennedy recipe.] Then add the garlic-infused olive oil in a thin stead stream, whisking constantly to form an emulsion. Stir in 6 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Add the romaine leaves and croutons and toss until the lettuce is coated with the dressing.

To serve, divide the salad among 4 chilled plates and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. [Alternatively, grate a nice thin layer dusting of Parm over the salads, like freshly fallen snow…]

It’s Guac-War Out There

April 25, 2009 § 10 Comments

Guacamole and Chips

Guacamole and Chips

Until today, I was perfectly content with my level of achievement in the guacamole department, especially since my friend, the original celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman, cited me in the headnote to his guacamole recipe in his book, A Great American Cook. I didn’t particularly like the part where he referred to me as “one of his Mexican buddies” because I thought it made me sound like one of the guys he shot tequila and played dominoes with in some smoky Deer Hunter-esque lodge, but I was probably projecting, and anyway that is, as they say, another story.

Plus, I forgave him because I felt so proud that this great American cook, and a native Californian to boot, would source me, a psuedo-semi-Mexican guera for what is arguably my native country’s biggest contribution to the American culinary landscape. (Salsa has been so misappropriated I don’t even want to go there.)

But all that was then. Before The Foodinista invited me to her first ever Guac-Off. On her blog, she’s invited you, the public at large, to weigh in on what makes a great guac and why. My cousin, Dean, who grew up in California and for reasons we, his California family, sit under the eucalyptus trees scratching our heads over, has moved to someplace in Nordic country where you can count on your fingers the number of times the temperature rises above zero annually, poses the question of how to spell “Hass.” (It is spelled “Hass.”) Which brings me to the question of whether or not to use Hass. Which brings me to the realization that as much as I like to tout a spirit of generosity when it comes to recipe sharing, I am really, really competitive. Where one time I might have shared my thoughts on avocados and guacamole—and I evidently once shared the recipe with my buddy, Waxman, that was then. This, my friends, is guac guerra. That’s “war” to you salsa eaters. Hass-ta la vista, babies.

Guacamole and Chips

I may, out of sheer pride, give up my guac recipe if I win the Guac-Off. In the meantime, since it’s published anyway, here is the version published in JW’s book. Headnote and all.

To this day, my first choice for a comfort meal is home-cooked corn tortillas, a freshly made tub of guacamole, and a margarita. My version of guacamole is partly based on that of one of my Mexcian buddies, Carolynn Carreño [That’s me. That’s the part that really irks me!], who learned it from her grandmother.

A fruit that is treated like a vegetable [here he puts on the authoritative hat because he is, after all the great American cook] the avocado is comforting—creamy and satisfying…. [He goes on but I’m starting to get bored, plus I don’t know if the publisher will kill me if I just start copying the whole book, so if you want to read the rest of the headnote do the old fashioned thing and buy the book.]

4 cups corn oil or peanut oil

12 slightly stale corn tortillas

Sea salt

1/2 sweet onion, such as Vidalia

2 jalapeño chiles

1 serrano chile

1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste

4 ripe Hass avocados

1 lemon

1 lime

Heat the oil in a deep heavy skillet to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, cut the tortillas into eighths (wedges) or into 1-inch strips. Cook the chips in 3 batches, until medium golden in color: Do not undercook! [Thanks for that, Jonathan!] Remove the chips from the oil with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain, and immediately sprinkle them with sea salt. [Or buy some good corn chips, some made by Mexicans, not machines, and start HERE:]

Finely mince the onion. Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles. Place the onion, chiles, cilantro, and kosher salt in a molcajete or mortar and pestle [Jonathan has a collection of these at his restaurant, Barbuto. It’s really cool.] or a small food processor and mash or puree until almost liquid. Peel and pit the avocados, place them in a medium bowl, and mash them well with a fork. Fold in the onion mixture. Juice the lemon and lime and stir as much of the juice as you like into the guacamole. Taste for salt and add more if needed. [In my experience, just about everything needs more salt, but most especially guacamole. And mashed potatoes.]

Transfer the guacamole to a serving bowl and serve with the chips.


Have You Had Your Quinoa Today?

April 23, 2009 § 4 Comments

Every once in awhile I do something in the kitchen that even I think is cool, and today was one of those days. It wasn’t difficult. Not even that surprising. Still, I’ve never known anyone else to make a hot breakfast cereal out of quinoa. (In fact, a quick Google search turned up tons of others who have done this before me, including one recipe with a picture that makes you want to take a bite out of your computer screen, on the blog 101 Cookbooks; but I didn’t know about them, so it was still an invention for me!)

Quinoa is an ancient South American grain (actually it is the seed of a plant, but for cooking and eating purposes you can think of it as a grain). Heathfoodies, particularly those that don’t eat animals, love it for its high protein content. And it’s a good thing for the sake of the quinoa, because it’s the kind of food that has to be loved for something other than it’s deliciousness. Although it’s not bad, and it can actually be kind of good, it’s not good enough to inspire a craving. Or at least I have never craved quinoa.

Today’s breakfast, like all brilliant inventions, was the direct result of necessity in a time of desperation. To be more specific: a) I had a sweet tooth and due to boring-to-talk-about but very real health concerns, I try not to eat sugar; b) I was out of oatmeal; c) I have eaten in restaurants every night for exactly one week and I wanted to eat Good, Clean Food today; and d) I just so happened to have a bag of heirloom red, Bolivan quinoa in the cupboard left over from a recipe I tested from Akasha, the real restaurant-health food hybrid in Culver City that against all my better instincts, I happen to love.

The cereal is pretty straightforward. I might simply be able to say: Make oatmeal using quinoa in place of the oats. But since it’s my job to write recipes, here goes.

Quinoa For Breakfast

2 cups liquid (depending on who you are and what you have on hand, this could be water, rice milk, soy milk, almond milk, hemp milk, or milk-milk)
1 cup quinoa (if you’re like me and it makes you feel better to spend more money on special versions of basic ingredients, then seek out an heirloom variety of quinoa such as the organic red Bolivian quinoa that I used.
1/4 cup dried currants (or raisins or apricots or whatever dried fruit you want to use; or not)
1 tablespoon butter
Splash of vanilla extract
A few shakes of ground cinnamon
A big pinch (about 1/2 teaspoon) salt
1/4 cup chopped pecans, sliced almonds, or sunflower seeds, toasted

If you know how to make hot cereal without my help, please ignore everything I have written below and pay attention only to the amounts. Actually you can ignore those too, except the part about using two parts liquid to one part quinoa.

Pour the liquid into into a medium saucepan over high heat and bring it to a boil. Stir in the butter, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Add the currants and quinoa, stir, and return the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Serve it however you like to eat breakfast cereal. This morning, since I was trying to stay away from my usual why-use-milk-when-you-can-use-heavy-cream-instead way of thinking, and ate mine with a dab of butter in the center and some cold rice milk poured around the edges. (If I’d had nuts, i would have thrown those on top.) It was really good, despite all that nutritional value.

Eating My Confession

March 4, 2009 § 1 Comment

I made lentil soup Monday night, which was and always is more than just dinner. Lentil soup is my edible version of taking confession. Cleaning my slate as it were.

After a night like Sunday night, lentil soup was really the only thing to do. The fact that I ate three meals was the least of my problems. (Okay, they weren’t all meals exactly: I had some Kobe beef sliders and three types of French fries at XIV, the Michael Mina resto  on Sunset Boulevard that is currently on life support, some thinly sliced ham worth its weight in foie gras cotton candy at The Bazaar, and then I had a meal: about 10,000 small plates of perfection at AOC). But the part that truly gave me a hangover had nothing to do with what I ingested. It was more about the air of drama that swirled about the evening. At the first restaurant, my head was officially ripped off by another writer after I asked her a question I’d evidently asked her before. Our experience at The Bazaar was a bizarre trip to Miami that included a guy with a big tan and bigger biceps in ripped jeans (and was his hair blow-dried?), a celebrity chef with a model half his age (and bare legs twice as long), $600 check that included $200 in Red Bulls-and-vodka, and a passel of girls in too small of clothes, including one that was wearing, I swear I couldn’t make this shit up, a top hat. When we left Miami to get some grub in an atmosphere that was more our speed, at AOC, I actually got flipped off. By someone I knew. And he wasn’t even kidding. Not surprisingly, the following day was a day of email exchanges, apologies, and various friendings and yes, even unfriendings on Facebook. It was exhausting. And time for lentil soup.

I make my lentil soup roughly the same way every time, give or take a few slices of bacon, or a leek or two. I put tons of onions in mine, which makes it slightly sweet, and I like anything sweet. Lentils have a lot of good qualities–they’re healthy and cheap–but one of the things I like best about them is that they don’t need to be soaked, which means I cook my soup and eat it too, all in the same day, and then wake up the next morning a better person in the eyes of God.

To make lentils soup, start with a large soup pot over high heat and pour in some olive oil (about 1/4 cup, but don’t measure: just use  whatever it takes to cover the bottom of the pot). Add 2 or 3 onions (I use yellow onions; sweet Spanish ones if I have them) to the pot as you chop them. Throw in an ancho chile and a few sprigs of thyme if you happen to have some growing outside or a neighbor, like mine, who does. Sprinkle the whole deal with kosher salt, and start chopping carrots and celery (1 or 2 stalks). I like a lot of carrots in my lentil soup. It makes me feel like I’m eating vegetables (because I am), but use what you want: two, five, it’ll still be lentil soup. Saute all the vegetables, stirring whenever you think about it, for 5 or 10 minutes, until they’re nice and soft. Add the garlic and cook for about one minute, until your kitchen smells like garlic but not so long that the garlic browns. Add 3 quarts of chicken or vegetable broth, a fresh bay leaf if you have one, and a pound of green lentils. Bring the whole thing to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the soup until the lentils are the texture of something you want to eat. This will take about an hour, but it will be even better after more time, and better still the next day. Once the soup is done, take out the chile and the bay leaf and throw in a handful of chopped fresh Italian parsley. I used to think parsley was just about adding green specks to your food, but all you have to do is chop up some of the stuff fresh and you figure out that it’s about its fresh, grassy flavor. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon (or stir in a tablespoon or two of red wine or sherry vinegar), and season the soup with more salt if it needs it. (It probably does.). Serve the soup with a sprinkling of parsley, a sprinkling of Maldon salt, and a drizzle of finishing-quality extra virgin olive oil. Eat. And may peace be with you.

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