Sunday, June 28, 2009

25 Things I Love About LA #5 - TACOS!!!

I'm fairly certain it's an unoriginal comparison, but tacos are to Los Angeles what pizza is to NYC and kebabs are to London. In LA, you'll find a taco stand/truck/shop on every corner. And everybody has their "local". Mine is Cactus Tacos (#1, the original Hollywood outpost) at Vine and Romaine.
It's a small operation, what I would refer to as a taco shack - in the best possible way. But despite the tiny size (and kitchen), they put out a huge menu. They offer all the standards - tacos, burritos, tortas and other things like salads and breakfast dishes. I also noted a curious recent addition of french fries, which I'm fairly certain are for the late night, post-bar crowd.

To create many variations on these dishes, they offer nearly a dozen meats, including: carnitas, pollo, cabeza (cow's head), tinga (a smoky shredded chicken), lengua (tongue, which is awesome), carne asada and my all time favorite pastor. Pastor is BBQ'd pork, as opposed to carnitas, which is fried pork. And in my humble opinion, Cactus' is the best in LA.
You order at the window, wait a few minutes until it's all put together and then grab a seat at one of the nine picnic tables scattered around. Dining al fresco is the perfect way to eat these hand-sized treats. How else are you going to hear all the neighborhood gossip, gawk at the fine ladies and gents and get a tan?

Three tacos plus a soda come to a whopping $5. It's not only one of the tastiest lunches in town, it's one of the cheapest as well.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Southern Comfort

Happy Father's Day!

Mom and Dad (aka Gretchen & Chuck) were down in Louisiana last week for the wedding celebrations of our family friend Sam and his wife Olivia. The festivities took place in New Iberia, which is in the southwestern part of the state. Above is the gorgeous B&B my parents stayed at in New Iberia.
And being my parents, they of course went to the weekly New Iberia farmers market. I love this woman's farmstand! My parents said she was selling homemade pickled foods (eggs, beans, okra, etc...) as well as jams, jellies and preserves. Given my recent jam obsession (see the bowl of cherries currently macerating in my kitchen), this is giving me ideas for future second career opportunities.
This is the cool main street area of New Iberia. I love the old school theater!
And some of the beautiful local architecture.
Here is the entire Cal crew (Sam's family is among the half dozen or so family's that we've been going to Cal football games with since 1984) enjoying a tasty luncheon at the Lafayette Cajun Restaurant.
Some Cajun shrimp. And check out that coffee mug - "Simply Cajun". Sweet!
A seafood etouffee - a great excuse to not worry so much about calorie counting when visiting the area and taking in their fantastic food traditions. Isn't it a travesty that I've never been to Louisiana?! There's talk of a family trip there for Jazz Fest to rectify said appalling truth.

Mom and Dad will try and put up their own post, detailing all the eats and sights of New Orleans, where they spent several days with Aunt Lise and Uncle Kevin after the wedding party. If I can't talk them through it, I'll put it all up myself. Can't wait for those photos.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Making Jam. Or How I Got Over My Fear of Canning...

There is always something that drives fear deep into the heart of any home chef. Maybe it's breadmaking or egg white beating or raw meat handling. Or maybe those things don't seem bad at all, maybe what really wakes you up at 3 AM in a full sweat is the idea of canning stuff. Processing it. Making sure you don't give yourself (or someone you love) botulism. Trying not to blind yourself with exploding glass jars in pans of boiling water. Ack!

Or maybe that's just me. Or should I say, that was me, until this past weekend. That's when I finally stood up to my fears and CANNED SOME FREAKIN' JAM! And not just any jam, friends, the best fruit jam of all - the humble apricot.
I mean, jeez, aren't these some beautiful apricots? They're Robata's, which I find (prepare for blasphemy) superior to Blenheims. They're a little bigger, a little firmer and really taste of apricot to me. Not that I'd turn up my nose at a Blenheim. I am an apricot slut like that.

I haven't always been cuckoo for apricot jam - that I blame on Abby and the family trip to France she took me on a several years ago. For breakfast most mornings we'd have a croissant or baguette hunk slathered in delicious French butter and topped with Bonne Maman apricot preserves. It was, in a word, transcendent.

Last year, Mom & Stace put up some of their own apricot jam, with the apricots off of their home trees. And me, the ever competitive one, was like, "Uh, screw that, I can can too." And then I waited until last weekend to take the plunge. I'm competitive and procrastinator-ish, from time to time.

And here's what I discovered - canning shit is EASY. Making jam is EASY. Why the hell hadn't I been doing this all along?! And when you can stuff, people think you're awesome. There wasn't even the matter of exploding jars to worry about, because as I learned here and here you can sterilize the damn things in the oven. I love the internet. And I hate the fact that I now have to drive all the way back to Surfas in Culver City to return the (too large anyway) canning pot-cha-macallit.

All the canning on Sunday made me feel so... fulfilled. So I decided to do it again the next day (which carried into today, because I was lazy and because it doesn't hurt to macerate your fruit for a few extra hours). This time it was with some Bing cherries from the HFM.
The above picture really doesn't do the hot foaming pan of cherry goodness justice. Trying to get a picture when cherries are steaming up a storm = kinda hard. I riffed on a not-recipe from David Lebovitz and he's right. You really don't need a recipe. Just some concepts to kinda, sorta follow as you see fit. For instance, I didn't chop up any cherries beforehand, just mashed them a bit during cooking with the potato masher. I did this with the apricots, too. And I gotta say, it's a great way to get a nice, meaty (fruity?) texture to your jams.

Also, I just guessed when it came to sugar, rather than cooking down the fruit first, then measuring it out and then putting in an equal amount of sugar. I had about 4 cups of cherries. I figured they'd cook down to 2 (it was actually 2 1/2). I don't like crazy sugary jam - I put in way less than most recipes called for. So I went with 1 1/4 c. of sugar. I probably could have done just a cup.
Here are some of the finished products. What were the total yields? Well 4 lbs of apricots made 7 half pint jars of preserves. 2 lbs of cherries made 2 1/2 jars of preserves. Aren't they lovely?
Of course, I couldn't wait to use them. So for lunch today I went old school (or maybe pre-school) and made an open-faced PB&J with still warm cherry jam. Best meal all week. Confiture d'Abricot aux Amandes aka Apricot & Almond (well, technically, Apricot Kernel) Jam
from Clotilde at Chocolate & Zucchini

- 1.2 kg ripe apricots (**I used 4 lbs)
- 1 kg sugar (**I used only 750 grams or so)

Yields : 5 to 6 jars (the Bonne Maman kind, which holds 370g of jam), recipe can be doubled or halved. (**Mine yielded 7 pint jars of the Ball variety).

Rinse, scrub if necessary, and dry the apricots. Slice them in two, remove the stone, and cut the flesh in smallish pieces. Reserve the stones.

Weigh the amount of apricot flesh you get. Transfer the apricots to a large pan, and combine with the same weight of sugar as of fruit. If you used 1.2 kg of apricots, you should have about 1 kg of apricot flesh, but it's best to weigh it to make sure and adjust the amount of sugar.

Crack about 18 of the apricot stones open with a nutcracker (see important note), to get the almonds inside. Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan, remove from heat, and put in the almonds. Let rest for about thirty seconds (this process is called "blanching"), then transfer to a colander and rinse under cold water. The papery skin of the almonds will then slip off easily. Reserve the peeled almonds and discard the rest.

Wash the glass jars and their lids carefully, then soak them in boiling water for 10 minutes, and set them out to dry upside down on a clean kitchen towel.

Put a saucer in the freezer. Put the pan over medium heat, until the apricots have started to melt and produce juice, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat up, and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for about 20 to 25 minutes, keeping it at a gentle boil and stirring occasionally.

Keep a close eye on it : at first the mixture will almost double in volume, producing a light orange, thick foam (hence the necessity of a large pan). After a while it will reduce back down, and bubble quietly while taking on an amber, dark orange color. About 15 minutes into the cooking, add in the peeled almonds.

Keep stirring until it feels like the mixture is thickening slightly. Although it is subtle, you'll see the change when you lift the wooden spoon and look closely at the drops dripping from it : they'll get thicker and will drip down slightly slower. Remove the saucer from the freezer, put a drop of jam on it and tilt the saucer to see if the jam is set. If not, let it boil a bit more before testing again.

Remove the foam from the surface with a slotted spoon to have a clearer jam (reserve the foam, it's delicious, as a topping on yogurt for instance), but that's optional in my opinion.

Pour the jam in the prepared jars until they are full (watch out, jam will be extremely hot) using gloves and a funnel if you have one. Wipe carefully if there was any spillage and close the lids tightly. Let cool to room temperature upside-down on the counter, then store in a cool and dark place for a few months.

Important note : this apricot jam recipe uses the almonds inside the stones. This gives the jam a particularly good flavor, and makes for a few lovely crunchy bites per jar. However, the almonds inside apricot stones, like bitter almonds, contain hydrocyanic acid. The human body has no problem dealing with it if ingested in small doses, but 30 to 50 almonds eaten in a short amount of time can kill an adult! It's perfectly safe to include a few in a jar of jam, but just keep the warning in mind.

Monday, June 15, 2009


This weekend there were oysters. Lots of oysters. One dozen on Saturday evening, courtesy of the Fish King in Glendale. One dozen Sunday evening courtesy of the Carlsbad Aquafarm stand at the Hollywood Farmers Market.
We ate the Saturday batch (Hama Hamas and Fanny Bays) with the above wine - a killer Viogner we picked up at Rideau when we were wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley three weekends ago (wine tasting then Kings of Leon at the SB Bowl, are you jealous?). Sunday's Luna oysters were washed down with a few glasses of Saison Dupont.
Noah not only did all the shucking both nights, but Saturday he put together the entire gorgeous platter and made the mignonette. I love that man. He also fancies hot sauce on his lil' guys.
As you can see, we really had to force ourselves to get all 24 bivalves down. Mmmm, bivalves.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Summer Time and the Grillin's Easy

Smell that? That amazing blend of beef, char and hops? That, my friend, is summer grillin'. You know, when you pull out the BBQ, rustle up some meaty goodness (because in Grilltown, we're all red meat eating cowboys) and crack open an icy cold beer. And the time for grillin'? She has arrived.

Sure, I live in LA, where you can pretty much grill 325 days a year. (The other 40? Uh, you're out of town. Duh.) But even here, there's something special about summer barbecuing. So when we made these kick ass burgers on Monday, it really and truly felt like summer had arrived.

Even if the weather 'round these here parts isn't exactly co-operating. Um, November? Any interest in trading your 80 degree days for June's high 60s? Thanks.

I think I'll call these Western Burgers, and not just cause I'm feeling so very cowgirly right now. I promise, you take one bite of this juicy, spicy goodness and you'll feel like you're way out West too. Even if you're stuck at your house in Newark. C'mon, get out the grill and live a little. It's summer, and it isn't gonna last forever.

Western Burgers
by Sarah

1 lb beef (I used 92/8 and you can definitely want to go lean beef with these as the bacon adds back fat and juicy goodness)
3 slices bacon, diced
2 chipotle chilis in adobo sauce, diced
1 tbsp worchestershire sauce
salt, to taste (I used uncured bacon, so I went w/ 1-ish tsp)
garnishes (see below for suggestions)

1. Heat grill nice and high.
2. Combine above ingredients. Divide into four patties of roughly the same size.
3. Grill for 3-4 minutes each side for a good medium rare. If you're squeamish about the bacon, you'll definitely want to go medium rare or pre-cook the bacon. We went just this side of rare and are still alive and kickin'.
4. If using a harder cheese, add it on in the last 1-2 minutes of grill time. On the second side.
5. Remove from heat. Add buns (if desired). Garnish to your liking.
6. Pop a beer, turn up the music and enjoy.

Garnishes - grilled buns (sourdough or kaiser), grilled onion, beefsteak tomato, lettuce, muenster cheese (Noah), Cowgirl Creamery's St. Pat's cheese (Sarah), mustard