Monday, October 29, 2007

Cloudy Bay Release Event- Murano Restaurant and Lounge

I was delighted to receive an invitation to a recent event to celebrate the release of Cloudy Bay's most recent sauvignon blanc. J and I would probably list the crisp, green-apple-tinged Cloudy Bay sauvi as one of our favorites, so it was great to get a chance to taste several different varieties of this wine as well as a couple of other wines that the winery was offering.

We arrived at Murano Restaurant and Lounge, located just on the border of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. The space was sleek yet warm, and I loved the red glass chandeliers in contrast to the stark, white walls. Immediately we noticed the table in the middle of the room, overflowing with cheeses, fruit and other nibbly goodies. Surrounding the table were several gorgeous photographs, taken by Cloudy Bay winemaker Mr. Kevin Judd who also happens to be an acclaimed photographer. Proceeds from the sale of those paintings would benefit the Los Angeles Heal The Bay foundation.

We had about one foot into the bar area when the restaurant owner and manager both introduced themselves to us, then proceeded to introduce us to Mr. Judd. They were warm and friendly while we spoke about how much we loved the wine, then they led us to two seats at the bar where we started our tastings. There were several vintages of their famous sauvignon blanc, as well as a chardonnay and a pinot noir which I'd never had the chance to try before. The 1997 sauvignon blanc was our favorite- it had their signature grassy fruit flavor- but I also fell in love with their pinot noir.

The stars of the show

Waiters paraded around the room carrying all sorts of hors d'oveurs, from braised lamb on filo "toasts" to salmon "spoons" and endive cups with candied walnuts and gorgonzola. Everything tasted wonderful and was well-matched to the wines. Actually, it was nice being at a wine event where there was a decent amount of food- too many times I've found myself in situations where I'd start feeling super buzzed with no food in sight. We sat at the bar for quite some time, conversing with the restaurant owner, the very knowledgeable bartender, and the wonderful publicist who had invited me to the event.

I know I sound a bit gushy, but I have to say that this event, overall, was one of the best I'd been to. It was intimate and warm, and a speech by the wine maker and interaction among the guests made it feel very personal. It was truly an event to celebrate the wonderful wines and photography of such a talented person, and I really enjoyed the celebratory nature of the evening in spite of not having known anyone there before that night. It lacked any pretention whatsoever (which, well, living in Los Angeles isn't all that common!) and focused more on the product, not who was there and what they were wearing.

The winemaker makes his speech

Cloudy Bay Wines

Murano Restaurant and Lounge 9010 Melrose Avenue / West Hollywood / CA / 90069 / 310.246.9118 /

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Japanese Cooking for Health and Fitness

One of the first cookbooks I ever received was from my mom's friend, Lei-san. It is called Japanese Cooking for Health and Fitness and, according to the note in the book, I got it on Christmas of '84........23 years ago........YOWZA. I can't believe I'm even old enough to own something that long (!) much less something that I vividly remember using on a regular basis.

Despite the title, the book isn't really a diet book at all. It's simply a well formed collection of recipes that are healthy......but most of the dishes in the book are things that the average Japanese person eats very often so it passes on the message that Japanese cuisine, in general, is healthy. The book is divided into meat, vegetable, tofu/egg and rice/noodle dishes and each recipe is very clear, concise and always successful it its subtle seasoning. I've never had a dish from the book that I didn't like.

So my sister C and I would use this book often on the once-a-week nights that we were in charge of cooking dinner. Our absolutely favorite dish to make was Vegetables Rolled in Beef. It was one of those dishes that looked very impressive but was actually easy to make, and combined with rice and a salad, would make a complete meal.

While I was flipping through the book the other day, it occurred to me that I hadn't made that dish in years.....decades, perhaps (eek). And I knew for certain that I'd never made it for my dear J, who is one of the biggest non-Japanese fans of Japanese food I know. A quick trip to Mistuwa was all I needed to get the few ingredients that I didn't already have- the thinly sliced beef sold for sukiyaki or shabu shabu, fresh gobo (burdock root) and some carrots. I was ready to revisit one of the first dishes I ever mastered!

First you clean the gobo- the skin is easy to remove by scraping if off gently with the back of a spoon- then slice into six inch lengths and keep them in cold water with a touch of vinegar so they won't turn brown. Slice the carrots in the same size, then blanch both in a mixture of water, sugar and soy sauce. Take some green beans and blanch them in hot water, then put in an ice bath to cool. Set it all aside.

After I had my vegetable mise en place, I just carefully pulled out each paper thin slice of beef, dusted it with a bit of potato starch, then rolled two each of the gobo, carrot and green beans up to form a cylinder. After securing the end with a toothpick, I repeated until all of the beef was used. I love the thinness of the beef, and even though it's nicely marbled with fat, there is so little meat that you're barely getting a quarter of a pound of beef in the ENTIRE dish. Amazing, no? Talk about cooking for health and fitness;).

The rolls get browned on each side in a pan and then doused with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, mirin and sake and left to stew just a bit until the sauce reduces and gets slightly thickened. Cut each roll in half to reveal the pretty veggies inside, and you're done!

I had seen these enormous shimeji mushrooms at the store, so I just pulled each apart to make smaller pieces and put them in a foil packet with a bit of butter, soy sauce, sake and a couple of thin slices of lemon. After about 15 minutes in the oven, they were piping hot and ready to be cut open! Cold tofu topped with a mixture of ground sesame seeds, soy sauce, green onions and grated ginger was another addition, as well as some brown rice mixed with multigrain seeds and some spicy pickled cucumbers.

We poured ourselves some ice cold sake and enjoyed the Japanese supper. It really brought back a lot of memories for me, and J wondered why I hadn't made it for him before. We both really loved the combination of the tasty beef, slightly al dente vegetables and sweet sauce. I'll make sure to put this dish back into our dinner rotation from now on.

I was shocked to see that you can still purchase this book at Amazon, so check it out if you're interested in Japanese cooking. It's a great place to start!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Glazed Apple Lattice Coffee Cake

I just realized that I've just posted about two sweet, baked breakfast goodies in a row. If I had some sort of serious sweet tooth, it wouldn't be surprising, but I much prefer savory food, so for me, this is a surprise! I guess I don't really bake for myself- I bake to learn a technique or to have something nice to bring to coworkers or J's friends. Although my cinnamon rolls from the last entry were less-than-perfect, when I saw the photo of this Glazed Apple Lattice Coffee Cake in last month's Bon Appetite, I instantly moved the recipe to the front of my "to do" list....not so much to consume it but to try and make the beautiful latticed top that made the cake so attractive.

Laying the filling onto the dough

Sunday was the perfect day for this project, as J had planned to spend all day in front of the TV, watching football. Although I'm a fan of the game, I'd rather pop in to see highlights here and there in between puttering around the kitchen (wow, I sound like an old lady!!). Anyway, I made a double batch of the dough, which came together very easily, put the two balls in oiled bowls, covered them with plastic and set them outside in the sun to rise.

Step one

The apple mixture was easy as well, although peeling, coring and slicing isn't exactly my favorite pastime. I melted some brown sugar and butter in a skillet, added the apples and spices and let them cook down until the juices formed a thick glaze. I set the mixture to cool and ran into the living room to catch some of the game.

More folding.....

After about 2 hours, I checked my dough balls which had risen nicely, then started the part I was most looking forward to. I got out my handy tape measure, rolled one into a rectangle and made indentations of where the apple mix would go. First, you lay down 1/3 cup of crushed vanilla wafers onto a 4 inch strip down the middle of the rectangle, then top that with the apple mixture. After this step, I again used my tape measure to cut one inch strips into each side of the rectangle, then folded the strips over the apple mixture. I did this all on my slipmat so that I could easily transfer the finished cake onto a cooking sheet for a second rise. Making the latticed top was quite easy, and created such a dramatic result. I couldn't wait to see the finished cakes!

All folded and ready to rise

Although the recipe didn't call for it, I brushed puffed cakes with an egg wash, then baked them in the oven. The recipe also said to bake for 30-35 minutes, but I found they were done in about 22- good thing I checked since the top and bottom would have gotten way to dark had I left it in for that long. I let them cook slightly before drizzling them with an icing made from powdered sugar and freshly squeezed orange juice.

Baked cakes, cooling slightly...

And the taste? Let's just say that this cake will definitely go into my regular rotation of recipes for the season. The apples were sweet and perfectly spiced, and the dough resulted in a tender cake studded with orange peel, cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon. I'm not a huge fan of too much cardamom, but it gave just the right touch of warmth to the cake and smelled absolutely gorgeous. Combined with the orange peel and apples, it was perfect!

Iced and ready to be eaten.....

Inside reveals the apple filling.....

A slice of this and a big mug of coffee and you'll be on your way to a pretty great day.

Recipe here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Cinnamon Rolls

While I was perusing my usual batch of food blogs, I noticed that quite a few had made cinnamon or sticky buns. After a bit of reading I discovered that there is a food blogging group called The Daring Bakers, and each month they set a challenge for themselves- i.e. mirror cake, caramel tart or, like this month, cinnamon or sticky buns. After seeing photo upon gorgeous photo of the sweet, swirly buns, I decided to try my hand at them as well. And lucky me- most of the bakers had used a recipe from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, a book I own and love.

I got to work and quickly decided to make a double batch so I just doubled all of the ingredients in my head. Everything came together quickly, but as I was kneading the dough, I just felt it wasn't right. I've kneaded a decent amount of dough in my time and you can literally feel it coming together in your hands, turning from a tacky, sticky mass into a smooth and shiny ball. Somehow, that wasn't happening, and the dough was so tough. I checked the recipe again and realized my big mistake- I'd doubled everything but the milk- so there was double the dry ingredients and only one part of the wet. Great. I tossed the dough balls out and started all over again.

The second mass was easy to knead and came together just as I described in the previous paragraph. After about ten minutes, I had two, smooth balls of dough which I nestled in some oiled bowls, covered with plastic wrap and a towel and set outside on the patio since the weather was nice and warm. After about 90 minutes, both were puffed and doubled in size, so I got to work on mixing up the cinnamon sugar and rolling out the dough.

Here's where I made another sort-of mistake. Normally, I'd punch the dough down before rolling it out, but the recipe didn't say to do so and I simply rolled out the puffy balls into rectangles. After liberally coating each with the cinnamon mixture, I rolled them up......and a lot of the sugar kept pouring out of the ends. It made quite the mess but I soldered on.......and finally cut the rolls into, well, small rolls, let them rest again for about an hour.

After they had puffed up nicely, I baked them in the oven and the entire house smelled like sweet spice. The rolls swelled even more in the oven and they looked really good. I let them cool for a bit and then drizzled the fondant icing over each one.

The verdict? Well, I was wondering how I could have fit all of the cinnamon sugar onto each dough rectangle- it seemed that there was way too much sugar to dough, which is why a lot of the sugar fell out while I was rolling. I emailed Fanny, whose cinnamon rolls looked absolutely perfect in her post and she pointed out that I should let the air out of the dough before rolling it out, making a bit more room and also giving the dough more elasticity for the sugar to cling to. Next time I will definitely have to do that. I was also thinking that I might try and make a cinnamon paste of some sort so I can spread it onto dough.

I also found the rolls to be a tiny bit on the tough side, even though I kept the rolling to a minimum. I think my choice to use all butter instead of shortening (the recipe calls for either or) may be the culprit. Next time I'll try using butter flavored Crisco since shortening contributes a certain tenderness to dough that butter just doesn't.

Overall they tasted and looked good- I guess I just want something that is so time consuming to be perfect!! I'm looking forward to making them again and am glad I made the attempt.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Stuffed Zucchini And A Realization..........

Cookbooks and cooking magazines are practically an addiction of mine. They completely fill up a huge bookshelf that my dad built for me that sits in my kitchen, and they peek out from various desks, blankets and other odd places throughout our house. Most have post-its popping out of the tops, marking the recipes that, when I first saw them, I couldn't WAIT to try out.

Well now, of course, I see the squares of colored paper looking at me, waving like "Hey..weren't you going to make the Pappardelle with Boar Ragu at the next dinner party???" or "I thought you were dying to make this Tarte Tatin??" Don't get me wrong- there are still fewer things I enjoy more than sitting on the sofa with a good cookbook, slowly digesting the information, marveling at the beautiful photographs and daydreaming about how and when I'll make a particular dish, but lately.....well, I've been cooking a lot based on inspiration. It's strange really- I used to be the type that either cooked something super simple (open jar of pasta sauce, boil pasta) or followed an intricate recipe exactly, but now I find myself cooking with instinct. Cooking based on what I feel like eating, which flavors I want to taste, which techniques I like to use......which, wow......must mean that all those years of cooking-by-the-book and watching my parents in action must be paying off!! I mean, I don't mean to brag, and I don't feel it's's just more of a realization. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been making a lot of simple, uncomplicated yet really delicious and hit-the-spot dishes, using my instincts only. The smell of Autumn inspired me to go out and get a nice, organic butternut squash which I cubed, tossed with olive oil, salt, minced garlic, lots of cracked pepper and thyme, then roasted in the same pan as a bone-in, skin on chicken breast rubbed with a similar mix of seasonings. The skin rendered down a bit while baking and coated the squash which caramelized into a deep, golden brown. The sweet, creamy squash and crisp, savory chicken were seriously a match made in heaven. Paired off with a simple stuffing I created using a stale, cubed wheat batard, reconstituted porcini mushrooms, criminis, stock, porcini water, white wine, garlic, leeks and celery, it felt like Thanksgiving on a regular ol' night at home in front of the TV. This all coming from the girl who once thought that recipes with fewer than 15 ingredients were too simple and not worth the time. How lame was I???

Which brings me to last night. Awhile back, when I was reading one of my favorite food blogs, Chocolate & Zucchini, I saw a post on some adorable stuffed zucchini- featuring little round ones exactly like those I had just bought at the farmer's market. I didn't remember the exact recipe while I was shopping, but I did know it involved a grain of some sort, and having bought a bag of farro the week before, I knew I wanted to test that combination out. When I did check her recipe online, it turned out that she had used quinoa. So, using her recipe more for inspiration and not exact instruction, I made my twist on the dish.

As Clotilde did in her version, I cut the tops off and hollowed out each zucchini, saving the "meat" for the filling. After a light brushing of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, they went into a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes while I prepared the rest of the dish. I salted the zucchini "meat" and squeezed it in a paper towel to release all of the liquid, then sautéed it with some chopped red onion, olive oil and salt. After adding a splash of vermouth and letting it evaporate, I mixed it in a bowl of cooked farro (which I had boiled in chicken broth), then added a small scoop of ricotta, a heaping cup of homemade tomato sauce, a nice grating of sharp parmesan and a handful of fresh, chopped basil. After filling each baked zucchini to the rim with this farro filling, I put the zucchini back into the oven for another 12 minutes to warm through.

Although the tomato sauce and zucchini flavors reminded me of summer, the warmth and heartiness of a baked grain dish made it the perfect supper for a cool Autumn night. This makes a perfect vegetarian main dish or would also be an attractive (and delicious!) side dish to grilled fish or roasted meat.

SO what's the point of this very long post? I suppose it's just a happy recounting of how I learned to really cook after years of thinking I was really cooking. Make sense? I mean, don't get me wrong- the next time I have a dinner party it doesn't mean I won't reach for my Bouchon cookbook and try out a new recipe, but I realize now that sometimes instinct can be the best guide.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Restaurant Review: Square One, Hollywood

I'd only been to Square One once, a looong time ago when they had first opened. I remembered having the Tuna Sandwich and, although it was a bit hard to handle, it was delicious. So, when J and I wanted to go out for brunch a few weeks ago, we decided to pay the place another visit.

We arrived at around 11:30 AM, and waited in line for about 15 minutes. My tummy was rumbling and I was anxious to take a peek at the menu. Square One's menu is exactly what I look for in a brunch place- creative dishes using familiar ingredients, like baked egg dishes (familiar) paired with short ribs and caramelized onions (creative!). Since it was close to lunchtime (and I had fond memories of my previous sandwich experience) I decided to order the Veggie Club (a veggie sandwich with avocado, tomato, red onion, sprout mix, radish and frisee on five grain bread with cheddar, mustard and aioli). J wanted breakfast and got the housemade granola with soy milk, plus the fruit bowl of the day. We sipped on our coffees and waited.

Fresh bowl o fruit!

I already started getting rubbed the wrong way a bit due to the large number of flies inside the restaurant. Since patrons kept coming in and out of the restaurant and often times not closing the door all the way, it couldn't be helped, but I felt like I was sitting outside. We kept shooing them away even though our food had yet to arrive. When it did, the Fly Problem got even worse.

Non-crunchy granola

Speaking of the food- J's fruit bowl was a beautiful mound of fresh, seasonal fruit- nectarines, plums, grapes, and white peaches. It's so nice to get a fruit bowl that reflects what's good NOW- not just random fruit. It's rare to find such an abundantly fresh and well thought-out fruit bowl. His granola, however, lacked any sort of crunch and had the soggy texture of mush the minute his soy milk hit it. It tasted alright, but it was more like cold oatmeal, not granola. I wonder if they made the granola soft in order to balance out the crunch that did come in the form of about 50 marcona almonds- not kidding. These expensive, skinned almonds were overly abundant, so J picked about half of them out and took them home. I mean, we all like marconas but to avoid eating a 2000 calorie breakfast, he just couldn't consume all of those nuts! My sandwich looked nice, but the minute I saw it I pretty much knew it was non functional. What do I mean? Well, I have a pet peeve, and it's when a sandwich or burger is built in a way that you KNOW it will fall all over you the minute you take a bite. If I wanted to eat a pile of vegetables and a couple of slices of bread, I would order a salad and a side of toast! Same with burgers (not Side One's, which I haven't tried- just in general). If I wanted to WEAR a couple of beef patties, mustard, pickles and onions I would make a friggin shirt out of a Whopper (tm) and slip it over my head. Sorry to be so adamant, but I firmly believe that a sandwich should FUNCTION as a sandwich. If you take one bite and all of the ingredients come sliding out the back, it isn't working. And that's what I was desperately trying to avoid as I tried to squeeze the emorous pile of veggies stacked on bread into my mouth. I wasn't successful and ended up with half of it on my plate.

Too big, even for my big mouth!

Sometimes you can have too much good stuff....

Using one hand to constantly swat flies away and the other trying to keep my sandwich together didn't make for a great dining experience. Although I do admire the way the owners put the menu together with fresh, seasonal ingredients, I think I need a little break before trying Square One again. And please- here's a public plea to all sandwich makers out there- PLEASE make a sandwich that functions. To me, it's as important as how it tastes.

P.S.- a crunchy granola might be nice too!

Square One Dining
Address: 4854 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029
Phone: (323) 661-1109