Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Spago - Beverly Hills, CA

This weekend I went to a surprise baby shower for my friend J that her husband, her sister-in-law and her friends planned at Spago. Look at these cute cookies the pastry chef baked up. Can you guess what my next class is going to be??? hahaha.
Look at the beautiful centerpieces that J's friend made.
Each chair had these little onesies tied to the back of them. Cute!
The back of the chairs for the guests of honor had a string of alphabet blocks that spelled out "mommy" and "daddy" on them.

Now for the food! When most of the guests arrived, we were served several hors d'oeuvres. I tried a potato and pea samosa with some kind of chutney, a slice of salmon pizza and an individual cup of risotto. I think there were other types of pizza and some kind of skewered meat going around too, but I didn't try those. The hors d'oeuvres that I did try were really good. The samosa was hot from the fryer and it was the perfect bite size. The house smoked salmon pizza had a smear of dill cream cheese, thinly sliced onions, a layer of the smoked salmon and salmon eggs on top. It was simple, yet delicious. I don't know what kind of risotto we had, but I polished my little cup in a hot minute. I actually tried some of my friend's risotto the night before and it tasted really undercooked, but I hadn't had risotto in awhile, so I thought that was normal and I just wasn't used to it. Clearly I was right, because Spago's risotto was perfect and my friend's dish was really undercooked. We should have said something. Now I know!

Once we sat down, the first course arrived. We started with a Sweet White Corn Soup with Maine lobster, chanterelles and cipollini onions. I am a sucker for all things corn, so even without the lobster, mushrooms and onions, I would be a huge fan. It came in a gigantic bowl and it could have been a meal in it of itself. Don't you want to just swim in it? I do ... with my mouth wide open. =)
For the entree, we had a choice between fish or lobster raviolini. I got the Casco Bay Cod "Acqua Pazza" with a ragout of clams, mussels, sweet shrimp, spanish chorizo and sweet garlic puree. I was so full from the hors d'oeuvres, the soup, bread and drinks that I didn't get to truly enjoy this dish. I'm sure I would have loved it more on a more empty stomach.
My friend K got the Maine Lobster Raviolini with melted leeks, fennel and spicy tomato-saffron broth. I had a taste and it was really yummy.
For dessert, Spago prepared a cake for J. It's a signature dessert that Pastry Chef Sherry Yard is famous for. It was a Twelve Layer Chocolate Dobos Torte served with a side of "50 bean" vanilla ice cream. I'm assuming that means 50 vanilla beans were used for the ice cream. The cake itself is composed of twelve layers of ultra-thin chocolate cake flavored with coffee syrup, layered with equally thin layers of chocolate praline cream. The whole cake was covered in white icing and white fondant. (See how the cake decorating class is coming in handy!) The chocolate cake was decadent yet extremely light. The crushed candy like thing you see in the picture is pulverized almond brittle, as if the 50 bean vanilla ice cream wasn't enough. The almond brittle added another textural element to the dish and let's face it, you can't go wrong with chocolate and nuts together. Especially after taking a cake decorating class and trying to frost a 2 layer cake, I can definitely appreciate the artistry and skill that went into preparing this cake. How in the world does she slice the cake that thin? Sherry Yard, you are my hero.
Wolfgang signed a cookbook for J, which was a nice surprise for the couple too. I think J had a great time and it was such a beautiful shower, celebrating the soon-to-be new addition to their family. =)

It was a great treat for us too. I've been to Spago a couple times in the past and I never really got the hype, but after this meal, I realized that they have a wide range of dishes and they do them all very well. Maybe that's the draw and why people love it so much, they are consistently good.

176 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cacao Mexicatessen - Eagle Rock, CA

On their website, it says "Cacao Mexicatessen is a family owned and operated specialty deli. We are dedicated to bringing you indigenous and modern variations of flavors spanning thru most regions of Mexico." I've never been to a Mexican deli, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but it seemed like it was a restaurant, coffee shop and speciality food store rolled into one. As soon as you walk in, there's a counter with some spices, coffees, Mexican candies and chocolates and a refrigerated case with their dessert specials. They also had an extensive coffee menu. We were there for dinner so I didn't really look carefully at their drinks. I have to assume anything with chocolate would be their specialty, given its name. Further back, there are more refrigerated cases of cheese, salsa and other food items for sale. Apparently, they sell handmade tortillas, rice and beans, tortilla chips and salsa as well.

You order the food first, they give you a number and bring the food to you. A guy brought us a bowl of chips and salsa to munch on before the meal. The tortillas were hot and crispy, but the salsa was a bit bland and watery. I'm partial to chunky salsa, so it was a bit of a let down.

My friend wonster heard good things about their Carnitas de Pato (duck confit with avocado, vinegar, onion, radishes and chile oil) and Camarones Enchipotlados (shrimp in chipotle citrus sauce) tacos so she ordered the two tacos and got their daily special, a carne asade tostada.
I didn't try her shrimp tacos, but I tried a bite of her duck taco and it was good. It was tasty but a bit on the greasy side. I got their 2 taco special with a Cochinita Pibil (roasted pork in achote and citrus) and a Flor de Calebaza (squash blossoms, poblano strips and queso fresco) taco. My dish came with a side of rice and beans. The pork tacos were alright, but again kind of greasy.

Look at how cute the mound of rice is with the Mexican flag. The rice and beans were tastier than the tacos.
Here's a close up of the squash blossom taco. I think there were only 1 or 2 squash blossoms in there and it wasn't very flavorful. All I tasted was the poblano strips. I would definitely pass on this next time.

Here's the carne asada tostada that wonster got. I thought it would be shaped like a bowl, but it was on a flat round piece of tortilla with carne asada, lettuce, creama and cheese. The tortilla was hot and crispy and it added a nice crunch to each bite. Wednesdays are fish taco nights and on Thursdays, they have tostadas for $3.50.

I just found out that the owner was in the mortgage business for over 12 years and he converted his old office space into a restaurant and deli. The flower store next door, which I accidentally went into thinking it was the deli, is apparently run by his parents. Isn't that adorable? I think I love this place a little more now after hearing this fun fact.

CaCao Mexicatessen
1576 Colorado Blvd

Los Angeles, CA 90041

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Green Smoothies

My friend Jules has been extolling the virtues of green smoothies for several years now and I finally caved and decided to try it. My first attempt was pretty bad. My blender wasn't powerful enough and had a hard time pureeing the kale and it just looked like a green swamp of a mess. The taste wasn't too bad, but it sure looked like something my garbage disposal spit up. The second time around, I modified the process and it worked much better.

Here are the ingredients: kale, flax seeds, frozen strawberries, ripe banana and water or fruit juice.

Here's what I do.

1. In my blender, I put a tablespoon of flax seeds and grind them. Flax seeds are another great source of omega 3's. But eating whole flax seeds aren't going to do anything, you have to grind them up otherwise it will just pass through your system without absorbing any of its beneficial nutrients. I just read that pregnant woman should avoid ground flax seeds - weird!

2. After you have the ground flax seeds, to that I add in half a cup of fruit juice. I had pomegranate on hand, but apple or something sweet would be good. I would be weary of using too much OJ b/c it's kind of acidic and you do need something sweet to balance out all this kale you are eating/drinking. To this mixture, I add about 3 kale leaves chopped up. Blend this together.

3. Once it's thoroughly blended, you can add half a banana and a handful of strawberries and some more water or juice if it's too thick. Jules says you should leave it in the fridge for awhile and let it sit. I did that once and it seems to kind of meld together and turn a brighter green. I was hungry this morning and couldn't wait so I just drank it. It tasted pretty good.

I have a hard time eating kale on a regular basis and this is a great and simple way to get more fibrous greens in your system. It's quick and easy and it tastes better than it looks.
My cousin asked for suggestions on incorporating more flax seeds into your diet. The easiest thing is to grind them up and put them in your smoothies or oatmeal in the morning. My friend will also grind them up with a mortar and pestle and sprinkle them over her salad. I also try to think of them as sesame seeds. I usually sprinkle some sesame seeds to my side dishes and so I try to use flax seeds in lieu of or in addition to the sesame seeds. I recommend buying whole flax seeds and just grinding them up yourself. It's really easy with a blender or a coffee grinder (with no coffee beans, of course) and apparently once it's ground, it oxidizes and loses its nutritional value pretty fast. I hope this helped D.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Border Grill - Santa Monica, CA

Border Grill is owned by chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, known on the Food Network as the "Two Hot Tamales." They also have a restaurant in downtown LA called Ciudad, which has more of a South American influence. I think they are credited for bringing Mexican and South American street food into the mainstream. I've been to Cuidad a couple times in the past, but never been to Border Grill before. There's too many good, cheap and authentic Mexican food places in LA, so I've never would have thought to try it out, but since Border Grill is really close to our cake decorating place and they had a happy hour special, I figured why not?

My friend J and I arrived first and there were a few groups at the bar side of the restaurant, where the happy hour was taking place. I didn't see too many diners in the main restaurant. The annoying thing is that you had to sit in the bar area if you wanted to take advantage of the special, even though the place was clearly empty. I thought they could have been more accommodating considering J is preggers. J was a trooper though and sat up on the stool the whole time. We didn't drink of course, so I can't comment on the drink specials. He tried to tempt us with margaritas and mojitos, but we'll save those for after congratulatory drinks for when J's baby makes her grand entrance into this world.

The waiter came by and gave us some chips with three types of salsa. Tomatillo, poblano and regular salsa. I was expecting varying levels of heat, but they all were pretty mild. We asked to see if they had anything spicier and the waiter said he's bring out their hottest hot sauce. I think he said it had habaneros in it, because it definitely had the kick we were looking for.

I have to confess that I was too busy eating and chatting that I completely forgot to take pictures of all the food until we were almost done with everything. Not to mention, it was really dark in there, so the pics didn't come out very well. So please pardon the lack of visuals this time around. =)

We started with a sampling of their border tacos, which are made from handmade corn tortillas hot off the griddle. We ordered 2 taco platters of 3 tacos each, for $8. Here's a pic of the the fish taco.
J and K each tried a fish taco. J said she never had a fish taco so she didn't have anything to compare it too but she liked it. We might have to take her to senor fish in Eagle Rock one of these days. =) We don't know what kind of fish it was, but it was grilled fish with cucumber grapefruit citrus slaw and lime crema. I had a carne asada taco with cilantro cumin marinated top sirloin with salsa fresca. It was pretty good but then again, it's pretty hard to mess up a carne asada taco, don't you think? I think my favorite that night was the Potato Rajas taco. I was going to get a Barbacoa taco until the waiter told me it was goat, not pork. I have too many memories of feeding goats at petting zoos that I can't eat them (unless you don't tell me in advance what it is). But this time, the cat was out of the bag, so I asked for another recommendation and he told me about the Potato Rajas.
It was made of creamy roasted potato and chiles with mexican cheeses and pickled onion sprinkled on top. I was a bit weary of a potato replacing the meat in a taco, but I was willing to try it. I am usually not a big fan of mashed potatoes, but these were creamy and delicious. I could eat this by the spoonful. The pickled onions provided a nice textural contrast and acidity to the creamy mound of goodness as well.

We also ordered a chile popper. It was kind of a let down. There were four types of poppers with varying degrees of heat. We got the jalapeno popper and it was literally a jalapeno cut in half, with some breaded filling inside with some sour cream on top. I was expecting something more substantial. How expensive can a stuffed jalapeno be? Apparently the going rate at Border Grill is $3. Definitely not worth it.

We got an order of crispy calamari with chipotle honey, garlic and pickled jalapeno remoulade. The calamari was pretty good. It don't know what they used to coat the calamari (maybe corn meal?), but it was definitely crispy. It was a bit too sweet for my taste, which could have been offset with a spicy dipping sauce, but the remoulade wasn't spicy enough. I just ended up using the hot sauce instead. That was $5. They gave us more calamari than what is shown below. We finished most of it before this pic was taken.
I think our bill came out to about $51, including tip. I was a bit confused because we didn't get any drinks and we got items from the happy hour menu, so I thought it would be cheaper. I didn't really think about it at the time, but when I was looking back at the menu to write this entry, I saw that the quesadilla that we ordered wasn't part of their happy hour special. We said we wanted a quesadilla and the waiter asked, do you want the cheese or the chicken? I just said chicken, thinking it would be the same price, but turns out, it was $10.50 more. Hello waiter! Thanks for the heads up! Granted the portions were definitely bigger than our other happy hour items, but still, he should have told us. Here's a pic of the full priced quesadilla.
It had grilled chicken, serrano chile, caramelized onion, manchego, panela and cotija cheese. It came with a side of mizuna salad with orange segments and a side of guacamole. It was tasty, but I'm sure the happy hour cheese quesadilla would have been perfectly fine.

Overall, the food was decent, but it was a bit pricey for what it was. When we left though, I noticed that there were quite a few people in the bar area, so for whatever reason, the happy hour special seems to be working. I think we'll try something new next time though.

Border Grill
1445 4th St
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Happy Hour: Monday through Friday, 4 to 7 pm; Friday and Saturday, after 10 pm

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Round 2 - Self Portrait in Frosting

Here's a portrait of me in frosting. The white face definitely reflects my paleness, but I only could use pink, yellow or blue frosting, so I gave myself pink hair. Doesn't it look like me?
Today we didn't have to bring a cake so we just practiced with frosting but let me tell you, it was hard work! Here's a recap of what we did in pictures. First we made shells. Here's what my teacher did. Beautiful clean shells.
Here are mine. Slimy slugs.
We made a pretend border on our practice board of the shell design.
We then changed tips and made dots. Small dots:
And then big dots:
Don't they look like white chocolate disks? Then we made hearts.
She then showed us how we could make balloon shapes with them and add string below, but my bag burst at this point, so I didn't do that part. After that, we made faces. The guy on the left is the model, mine is on the right. Clearly they are related. =)
Our teacher was telling us how kids love to see faces and clowns on their cakes, so she showed us how to make clowns. We made the body from frosting and added the plastic head to it. This one is just chilling on his board.
This one has hands and feet.
Here's a close up of another one. Isn't he so cute?
We then switched to a bigger tip and made flowers. This was my favorite part because it required the least amount of squeezing of the frosting so I was in heaven. You just add a dollop of frosting in the center and you have a flower.
If you twist just a little while squeezing, you get a swirl flower design. Genius!
Next class we have to bring in a frosted cake ready to go. That will be quite the task to accomplish at home. It was a lot of work just making the cake and making 2 batches of frosting before, but now we'll have to frost it before we come to class. We'll be attempting to make roses next week. It's amazing how much material we go through in a 2 hour period. I feel like I'm getting the hang of this but I also realize that the consistency of the frosting makes a huge difference. If it's too thick, your hands will kill from squeezing the bag too hard, the bag will break or the designs won't come out clean, but if it's too soft, it won't hold up very well. It is such a delicate balance, one I have yet to master.

I can now make clowns and pale faces so if you are in need of a birthday cake, give me a holler.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Red Carrot Juice

One thing I look forward to on the weekends is being able to juice. I probably get enough fruits and veggies in my diet, but you can never have enough. There are a lot of fresh juices available at the market, but we are so lucky to live in California with such great produce in stock all year round, so why not make them yourself! I love the taste and I just feel like I'm getting all these vitamins and nutrients into my system. It really helps me with my digestive tract too. I don't know what it is doing, but it works! I'll share with you my favorite juice combination. I also just improvise with whatever I have on stock.

Here's my recipe for Red Carrot Juice: 4 carrots + 2 celery + 1 beet + 1 small apple + some red cabbage leaves
The pigment that gives beets their deep purple-crimson color is a powerful cancer-fighting agent. Apparently its benefits are diminished when cooked, so it's better to eat them raw. But it's pretty hard to chew on a raw beet, so I just throw it in a juicer. Problem solved! I basically just throw anything that is colorful into my juicer and it usually tastes pretty good. There is no need to peel the carrots or apples beforehand. Be sure to throw in the seeds and all, because a lot of the nutrients from fruits and veggies are in the peel and seeds, so just wash them well and just let the juicer do the job. Pomegranates are great to add to this too.

If you don't like sweet things, try some veggie juice: 4 carrots + 2 celery + 1 large tomato + 1 small piece of ginger + squeeze of lemon/lime.

Here's my juicer at work. I used to use Jack Lalanne's Power Juicer, but I discovered this hiding behind the cupboards and it's much easier to clean up than the Power Juicer. I think my dad probably bought this through some Korean infomercial years ago, but I found a link to a website that is selling it, if you're interested. Apparently you can make rice cakes and pasta with this machine too.
The juice comes out below and the pulp comes out at the end. BTW, a good use for the leftover pulp is to use it as fertilizer for your plants outside. I'm sure it has tons of nutrients in it, so feed it to your plants. You have no leftover waste at all afterwards. It's great.

Here's a picture of the Red Carrot Juice. Bottoms up!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Eye Candy

I've been apprenticing at a flower shop nearby and we got a lot of orders this week for rosh hashanah, the Jewish New Year. We had a ton of beautiful flowers at the store today. It was a long day of cleaning and prepping the flowers to finally putting together the various arrangements. The day goes by so much faster when there's tons of eye candy to stare at. If only you could have smelled the room too. =)
Aren't the colors of these roses amazing? These were prepped and ready to go. Whose bubbly toes are those?

Look at my crazy work space. Do you see that green fruit at the bottom of the picture? It's an unripened persimmon.
Check out these beautiful zebra roses. That's not the real name but it's striped just like a dark purple and green zebra. =)
A customer wanted three sunflower arrangements in fall tones, so I made three different variations for her to choose from.
I did a fourth one and called it "the alien." Doesn't it look like little antennas coming out of its head?
Here's another fall arrangement with sunflowers, hydrangeas, these brilliantly reddish orange roses, lilies, bear grass, apples, lisianthus, dahlias and some succulents.

It isn't officially fall yet, but we definitely got a preview of it today. Apples, persimmons, berries and lots of dark tones. Yum...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Real Food Daily - Santa Monica, CA

Before cake decorating, my friend K and I had dinner at Real Food Daily. It's an organic, vegan restaurant in Santa Monica. I parked my car by it last week and noticed that there was a lot of foot traffic going in and out of this place so I suggested we go try it out this week.

There's a restaurant and a bakery right next to each other. They serve the same items, but I guess one is used mostly for take out. We went to the restaurant and were seated at the second floor loft area. I really wanted to try their baked goods but I was too full after the meal to venture next door. I will have to check it out next time.

My friend ordered the pizza and I order their monthly special. Her pizza had a herb corn meal crust, which was wheat and gluten free, with sun-dried tomato pesto, tomatoes, spinach, basil, melted cashew and mozzarella cheese. There was a pile of sauteed kale with cannelini beans on top. Now the menu said it had "cashew and mozzarella cheese" but I thought vegans don't eat cheese. So maybe it's cashew cheese that looks like mozzarella? Anyhow, it sure looked like cheese and tasted like cheese, but I guess it wasn't cheese? hahaha.

The pizza was pretty good, tasted like regular pizza to me with a thick cracker-like base. I ordered their month special, which was called "On the Mexican Riviera." It was a pecan-cornmeal crusted tempeh. What is tempeh, you ask? According to wikipedia, "Tempeh or tempe in Javanese, is made by a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form." So basically a dense piece of soybean paste from Java (I learned something new today). I think they even have tempeh bacon, so they make all sorts of things out of tempeh.

My dish came with coconut yams, sauteed kale, spicy black bean sauce and mango salsa. The coconut yams and kale were pretty good. I am usually not a fan of sweet salsa or fruit in salsa, but I ate the whole thing somehow because I was intrigued by the things I was eating. I took a bite of the tempeh and thought, it tasted really weird but at the same time, it had a very familiar taste to it. So then I took another bite of the tempeh with the black bean sauce to see if that helped and then another bite with the yams and you could see where I was headed. I almost cleared my plate if the waiter hadn't come and asked if we wanted to-go boxes. And then it registered in my brain that I was really full. However, after countless variations of potential flavor combinations with tempeh, I am pretty sure tempeh tastes like chung-gook-jang. You know that super fermented soy bean paste that your grandma makes stew with and it fills the whole house with its pungent odor for days. Yes, that one, except those Javanese people somehow managed to package it in one compact square, to which the people at Real Food Daily coated in pecan and cornmeal and added a Mexican twist. Don't let them fool you folks, it's chung-gook-jang in fancy packaging. =) It was interesting though and I enjoyed the texture and taste, particularly with the sauces and side dishes.
I was definitely full afterwards from the meal but the food wasn't like a ton of bricks in my stomach either. Maybe this is why people eat healthy? It was definitely interesting and I'll be sure to take my health-nut friend J when she comes to town. [It had your name written all over it J. On each table they had a bottle of sesame seeds and I totally thought of you.]

If you're in the mood for vegan or vegetarian food, definitely check this place out. They had a wide selection of salads, soups, sandwiches, pastas and Mexican-inspired dishes and from the looks of it, a pretty extensive baked good section.

Real Food Daily
514 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Round 1 - Cake 1: Soomeenshee 0

Today was the second cake decorating class at Michael's and the first night where we actually practiced with real frosting. We were told to bring a premade cake from home to decorate in class. It was a pretty intense two hours of frosting and decorating. After the powder sugar dust settled, I was left exasperated with bits of green frosting all over my clothes, a sore right hand and a green cake that was mocking me for my defeat. Whoever coined the term "cake walk" clearly has never decorated a cake with Crisco frosting before.

Crisco is an all vegetable shortening that remains solid in even room temperature, which is why I guess we're using it in this class, so the frosting is really thick and dense. It's really disturbing though to see how white it is and how it's perfectly fine to leave it out on the counter. But for purposes of learning, we took one batch of this frosting and frosted the tops of our cakes. You can't see from this picture but the frosting is about half the height of my actual cake. =)
Then you frost the sides of the cake and voila, you have a frosted cake. The class should have just ended right here and I would have succeeded. But no ... we continued.
We then took our second batch of frosting, added some coloring and thinned it out with water since we were going to be using it to make patterns and designs with our pastry bag.
The instructor told us to fill our pastry bags with frosting and to insert a tip and practice making stars. We have these practice boards with a clear plastic covering that you use to practice making the shapes. So for the first one, we put in our tip and made stars and then practiced putting them close together.
Here's a closeup of the stars for your viewing pleasure. She then told us to make a border of stars at the top of our cakes. Next, she told us to put on another tip and practice making little u's, which we would put along the sides of our cake. After that, she told us to practice doing tight zigzags and also some lettering.
The instructor then told us to write something on our cakes. By the end of class, everyone had really cute cakes. Some decorated cakes for their hubbies, others for their cats. All of them turned out really well. Here's a couple pics of the cakes my friends made.
How cute are these?
Even though I know you're made of Crisco, I'd eat you.

Where's your cake Soomeenshee, you ask?

Here it is. I know what you're thinking ... where's the finished product? Where are the zigzags? Where's your lettering, your decoration? A dot even? I know, it looks so sad and bare. I wish I could say I was going for the minimalist look here, but let's face it, that would be akin to me adding a green boa to an otherwise blank canvas and calling it art. It is what it is, I had pastry bag malfunction. =) Turns out my frosting was too thick and I was trying to squeeze it through a tiny opening and the bag would just end up bursting. The instructor suggested I add more water and lo and behold, it worked! By the time I figured this out, it was time to clean up. I looked around the room and saw nicely decorated and finished cakes and I looked at my modest cake and couldn't help but laugh. I clearly lost in this round, but fear not, the only smell of defeat in Soomeenshee's kitchen will be the smell of Betty Crocker Chocolate Fudge cake baking in the oven for next week!