Category Archives: Me in the Kitchen

My accidental vegetarian dinner party

Sunday night I hosted a dinner party for a friend. It was her birthday a few weeks ago and since I bailed on her earlier shindig, I chose to throw a little fête at my pad… 12 hours after running a half marathon. Super smart planning.

I realized, when it was all said and done, that it was completely vegetarian. I hadn’t set out to do this, but it’s a happy coincidence.

Blame it on running delirium or being awake for 20 hours, but I didn’t take any photos of my party food or preparations. What follows is a menu, a collection of photos from friends and the internet.

~Cocktail Hour~

I made a pineapple sangria with Pisco and Sauvignon Blanc. It steeped for more than 13 hours. No photo available, but here’s a nice looking sangria. Just picture cubed pineapples. (PHOTO: random internet)

~Appetizers~

We had a lentil spread with walnuts and mustard, some sliced vegetables and crackers. Also, courtesy of by brother, Garlic Knots from Fresh Brothers pizza (the only item I didn’t make). Again, no photos and my spread looked nothing like this… but, what are you going to do? (PHOTOS: Scavenged from internet)

~Salad~

Roasted Brussels sprouts and beets on a bed of mixed greens and baby arugula, sprinkled with pepitas. This photo IS from my dinner. (PHOTO courtesy: Birthday Girl)

~Entrée~

Spinach and mushroom lasagna made with cottage cheese and goat cheese. (PHOTO: from the internet with nice lighting)

~Dessert~

The “I Can’t Believe You Made That” cake. Not only did I make it, but that is it’s formal name. Lazying around watching my favorite Cooking Channel shows, I saw Chef Lorraine make this on hers, Simply Baking. Instead of chocolate cigarillos, I lined my chocolate cake with alternating dark chocolate and almond wafers. Topped with a heaping mound of raspberries. (PHOTO courtesy: Dinner guest Nikki D-M)

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What resolve!

I made the deadline. My own internal, meaningless deadline.

To make sure I was serious about my New Year’s resolutions, I vowed to write them out by the end of the first week of January. First, it was Dec. 31. But laziness impeded that. Then, it was Jan. 1, then the end of the weekend and finally, the end of the first week.

Writing them out and posting them, holds me accountable. It also helps provide a reference because, unfortunately, my resolutions don’t read like deep life-changing goals. More like a To-Do list or some weekend errands.

REvisiting 2010

I roundly failed at each and every one of my resolutions from last year. Which means? I’m trying them again. To recap: I resolve to read 30 new books, run 500 miles, eat kosher (for more than one day in a row), do a pull-up. It won’t be easy. I’ve already started off on a bad foot/ankle. Haven’t run more than a couple yards to beat the bathroom crowd at HP7Pt1 in mid-November. Even that was ill-advised. But things are looking up. I’ve started PT and hope to be back to the back-of-the-pack by February.

But for everything else, I’m looking good. I have a shiny, new Kindle for the reading. I’m cutting down on cheese, which will undoubtedly, help me in my attempts to have a few back-to-back-to-back kosher meals. I’m focusing more on upper-body strength (thanks to a weak ankle) so I’ll be able to conquer that elusive pull-up, my own personal Windmill.

My Before-30 List

The crux of this blog. I need to get cracking on the list of things I wanted to do. I, sadly, can’t run The LA Marathon this year, but maybe once I’m all healed I’ll be able to run a marathon in Los Angeles. Lame. This is what I absolutely will do this year: watch AFI’s 100 best movies, find my red lipstick, play the accordion, ride a horse, visit two world wonders, continue my Arabic studies, shoot a gun, go rock-climbing, run in Central Park and see a Broadway play on Broadway, win at chess, take a dance class, take a martial arts class, take a cooking lesson, relax at a spa… ahhh!

And there’s still more…

Year of the Great Purge

In terms of resolutions, this one will truly require my constant attention. I am up-chucking everything!! Clothes I haven’t worn in the last year. Jewelry that I haven’t sported since I was a freshman at UCLA, which is really not that long ago ;). Shoes that don’t fit or don’t get rocked! Shit in storage that’s been sitting in storage FOR-EV-ER. I’m also going to tame that impulse I have to buy meaningless knick-knacks and tchotchkies. Get stripped down to the basics.

Once upon a time, I lived “comfortably” with two other roommates in a cell dorm known as Rieber Hall. I only had some storage under my bed and a small-ass armoire to put my shit in, on and around. “Comfortable” may be too strong. The point is, I managed. How’s it possible that my larger bedroom with a closet, a nine-drawer dresser, a four-drawer dresser, a bookshelf and a jewelry stand is not enough?! My place always looks like a disaster zone and attempts to organize it are full-day affairs! That’s ridiculous! RI-DIC-U-LOUS!!

Pepe & Pita’s Kahlua Brownies

Now that enough time has passed and I’m no longer maniacally bitter at having lost the Dessert Contest at the holiday party, I can sit back, exhale… ahhhhh… and relish in the good news. Everyone in my office agreed and said that it was a shame and a complete miscarriage of justice that I did not flat-out win the contest. Lucky the judges were anonymous or else I’d shake my fist menacingly at them and mumble under my breath.

As a show of good faith and that I have, indeed, gotten over this, I’m going to share my recipe. Gasp! I know I swore I’d never divulge but, it’s Christmastime and winter holiday time. I’m feeling generous. HO HO HO.

Here’s the story of Pepe and Pita. Two young people who got drunk off Kahlúa and had loads of pepitas. Salty, sweet, chocolatey, rich. These things may be a little off-putting if the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done to brownies was switch out walnuts for pecans. But, TRUST. These are worth a little faith.

Let’s start with what you’ll need:

1 stick unsalted butter

8 oz. semisweet chocolate chips (I’m a huge fan of Ghiradelli’s 60% cacao bittersweet chipsahhhh!)

1 cup flour

¼ cup cocoa powder

½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

1½ cups granulated sugar

3 large eggs

4 tbsp. Kahlúa

loads of roasted, salted pepitas

Since we are making these suckas from scratch, get yourself prepared. Throw on your favorite apron. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. And grab yourself three… 1 2 3… bowls. This is going to be messy and epic.

I learned this trick a while ago and now always employ it for my brownies. It makes clean-up a breeze and removal far simpler. Grease the bottom and sides of your baking pan with butter (not the stick you’re planning to use… grab some from somewhere else.) Cover with foil and butter the sides and bottom of the foil as well. This makes it easy for you to pull the brownies out of the pan and pull the foil off the brownies when done.

In small bowl or bowl No. 1,

set atop a pan of simmering water. We’re going to use the double-boiler method to melt the chocolate and combine it with the butter. Stir until silky smooth and irresistibly awesome. But, resist. You’ll need all that chocolate. Set aside and let it cool for a minute.

In medium bowl or bowl No. 2,

whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. Set this aside too. I’ve had an anxious pup or housemate snoop around the kitchen and inadvertantly drop my dry goods… so be sure to keep it far from accidental reach.

In large bowl or bowl No. 3,

beat the sugar, eggs and Kahlúa (be generous with this… what’s the worse that can  happen?) with electric mixer on low speed. Once combined, add the slightly cooled chocolate and mix again. Don’t overdo it. Just until the items are combined.

Once that’s combined, you can start incorporating the dry goods from bowl No. 2. Use a spoon and fold it all together. Make sure it’s properly mixed. Sometimes little bits of the dry goods like to hide in the chocolate.

Dump the contents of bowl No. 3 into your baking dish. Smooth it out. And here’s where you go crazy with sprinkling your pepitas on top. I didn’t put an actual amount in the ingredients list because you should be free to do however much you want. I like loads. My pepitas-topper theory is the same as my Kahlúa theory. More is always better. Also, you can go with regular roasted or salted and roasted. I like the latter.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until sides pull from foil.

Let it cool another half hour.

Cut.

Eat.

Drool.

*CAVEAT: If they don’t come out awesome, the original recipe calls for 2½ tbsp. Kahlúa. Try that instead if you’re chickensh*t.*

My other brownie posts:

PHOTOS: Pepe and Pita got drunk and had loads of baby pepitas. As Tyra would say, ‘they’re vary commercial’ in a magazine photo spread.

Battle Royale: Who likes gross-looking tarts?

Nothing like the holidays to bring out the cut-throat competitive spirit. There was record-breaking turnout for UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies holiday party. With stiff competition, I entered my awesome Kahlua brownies topped with pepitas.

Scrumptuous. Chewy. Salty. Goodness.

There were two categories—(1.) cakes and pies and (2.) cookies, brownies and bars. Plus, there was an overall best international dessert entry.

In my category, third place went to… “Winter Wonderland Cookies.”

Second place went to… I forget. Not important.

First place, and the winner of a $20 gift card to Trader Joe’s, an apron and measuring spoons, went to… not me.

Booooooooo

The judges were bought.

I was already thinking about how to graciously accept my prize. Such a wasted effort! Not even an honorable mention!!

I was honestly going to use my dessert contest win as reparation for the Justin Bieber door fiasco. Just desserts.

Perhaps if I had stressed the Kahlua in my brownies, I might have fared better. They were just listed as “Brownies with pepitas.”

Anyway, some blah-looking chocolate-topped tart ended up taking first place. Unimpressed. Full disclosure: I haven’t tasted it yet. I’m waiting a few hours when I’m no longer busting at the seams with cakes and pies and cookies so I can give a legitimate, unbiased approach to the winner (she says with a curled lip sneer). I’ll give it my fair evaluation and come back with my vote and we shall see whether or not I was hornswoggled.

PHOTO: A plate of my pepitas-topped brownies with some weird-looking (and apparently winning) chocolate tart.

South African Epicuriosity, Part 2

Last month, I launched this miniseries of posts where I tackled some of the great eats I had along the road from Johannesburg to Cape Town, from Nelspruit to Polokwane and back again. My first attempt was an entree that failed miserably to stand up to its inspiration.

Up next, breakfast!

Feta French Toast

LOCATION: The Health Path, 41 Victoria Ave., Hout Bay, Western Cape

DATE: Monday, June 14, 2010 and Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BACKGROUND: Before heading out to Constantia for some wine-tasting, we figured we’d go for a quick breakfast. It was getting late and a coffee shop seemed just the perfect fit. We were walking by this place and decided to go inside. At first it seemed a waste of time. Yes, there were cool organic, green-living things to buy but in terms of sustenance it seemed to just have coffees and teas… ugh, and protein bars or something equally gross. Luckily, hiding in plain sight was a dry erase board with the day’s specials. Among them, French Toast.

WHY SO YUMMY: French Toast is usually divine. How can you go wrong with bread and syrup? This meal used thick slices of raisin loaf, topped it with feta cheese and organic agave syrup! But they went a step further. This was a health shop, remember. Served on the side of my french toast and a little garnish on top — sprouts and sliced tomatoes! It was REALLY good and if you couldn’t tell by now by the dates above, it was worth a second trip. Oh, and the coffe was delish too. If you’re ever in this bay tucked outside Cape Town, check them out. I can’t promise you’ll be greeted with the best French Toast ever, but you may find something equally interesting.

WHAT I DID: Well, if I’m going to attempt organic feta french toast, obviously my first trip is Whole Foods. I found some Sprouted Wheat Cinnamon Raisin bread for the base and agave nectar for the syrup. What I didn’t find was that amazing feta cheese. I improvised with your standard $4.50 goat cheese. A touch of nutmeg here, some egg whites there… and VOILA! My masterpiece:

I must say I was impressed with this. A definite improvement over that disastrous fondue. I still need to work on my plating techniques. Perhaps a nice white plate next time to make the food pop. As any good Iron Chef will tell you, plating is worth 25 percent.

PHOTOS (from top): The original Feta French Toast from The Health Plan (credit: MexiCAN #2); My version is slightly underwhelming but delicious. It could even become a staple of my kitchen repertoire (credit: me).

South African Epicuriosity, Part 1

There has yet to be a place I’ve visited where I’m not stunned by the wonderful food available. At times, I’m greeted with a cornucopia of delicacies at every step of the journey from couture restaurants to rickety street vendors. Other times, the jewels of the palate must be actively sought out. Keeping the tradition alive, my two trips to South Africa were epicurean feasts.

Sure these people love their meats. A HUGE steak of I-don’t-know-what game animal served with a side of boerewors sausage? Or would you prefer a shepard’s-pie-like bobotie and some biltong?

But this is also the land of the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten, some pretty amazing seafood, and to wash it all down? Pinotage, what else?

This miniseries of posts will explore my culinary ability to duplicate some of the best dishes I had during this latest trip to South Africa. Some were simple salads. Others were complicated entrees. All were far beyond my skill level. Contributing is MexiCAN #2, whose obsession with taking food photos, provides some of the “before” shots.

Without further ado…

Tomato and Garbanzo Fondue

Location: Bistro Sixteen82 at Steenberg Vineyards, Constantia, Cape Town

Date: Monday, June 14, 2010

BACKGROUND: This was the perfect comfort meal. This dark and dreary day that had seen calamitous rain the entire morning was also the day we decided it would be a good idea to rent a car, I mean “hire a car” and drive to Constantia for some wine-tasting since our previously planned wine-and-bike tour in Stellenbosch was rained out. After a hectic morning of staying in my left-hand lane and sampling some South African wine, we arrived at Steenberg with every intention of eating from their tapas menu. Alas, we arrived too early and had to settle for the regular lunch. A blessing in disguise…

WHY SO YUMMY: It was a tomato and garbanzo fondue over a bed of perfectly cooked couscous. I mean PERFECTLY COOKED. I’ve never tasted couscous like this. It was a complete epiphany… like my whole life I thought couscous tasted one way and then I ate this and realized just how wrong I had been. The whole thing was drizzled with this yogurt sauce and topped with fresh herbs. DELISH!

WHAT I DID: Well, I kinda completely forgot about the yogurt and the green stuff. And I had no clue what a “fondue” was in any context other than molten cheese or chocolate. My approach was simple: Grab a can of garbanzos, rinse and dump them in a pan with some tomato sauce and diced tomatoes. Add some seasoning. And what of my couscous? Well, it was cooked and that was its only similarity to the South African meal.

Of course it looked better on a plate the night I made it, but I only have photos from my lunch the day after. I swear it looked better!

PHOTOS: (top) My Tomato and Garbanzo Fondue at Constantia vineyard (Credit: MexiCAN #2); (from left) My concoction looking rather sad in tupperware (Credit: Me); looking even worse for wear after eating (Credit: Me)

My Dinner was Crackalackin’!

Well, I shot myself in the foot last night trying to keep this blog going at the same time. I didn’t realize how precious minutes were when you had so many different plates going.

To recap: It was 5 p.m. and I needed to have my stuff ready to go by 6 p.m. I had the mushrooms stuffed and the soup heating, but that was it. What I desperately needed to do was get the quinoa going, asparagus blanched, vegetables julienned, fish packets prepared and polenta cut. My cool confidence turned into crazed and deranged.

Enter Sous-chef Nathan Baird and Vegetable Chef/Dishwasher Lys Mendez. That title kinda sux. I’m going to promote her to Executive Chef Assistant.

As Executive Chef, I exercised my power to delegate. Mendez julienned. And the sous chef, when not getting in my way, cut the brownies, got the polenta ready for the oven, arranged items on serving plates and prepared the fish packets. Oh yeah, he also had a hand in making the seating chart, which I signed off on.

Lucky for me, I had extra time to get stuff in order though at the expense of my dinner guests who were stuck in traffic on the way to the deepest trenches of the SFV. If they had been on time, I would have eaten in my Lakers t-shirt and “Happy Pig” apron.

Note: No pigs were injured in the making of this meal.

Here are the rest of the dinner photos.

Polenta Crostinis topped with Parmesan, thyme and drizzled with olive oil.


Cocktail hour begins with the stuffed mushrooms and polenta crostinis. Oh man, I forgot to take a picture of my Pink Ladies. Well, use your imagination, pink bubbly champagne drinks.

The main course taking shape. A fillet of tilapia on parchment paper with zucchini and carrots, topped with fresh thyme sprigs, lemon, a pat of butter and splash of white wine. A risk, I know, but if you can’t experiment with new recipes on your first dinner party, when can you?

Asparagus–one of my favorite vegetables to cook. And yet, this was my first time blanching them. It’s fun having a bowl of ice water, like the great chefs use on TV. Afterwards, they were quickly sauteed in garlic salt. Voila! Good eats.

Of everything on my menu, I’d only made two items before last night. One of those was my quinoa with sundried tomatoes. I expected it to be my least nerve-wracking dish. It was. Then the stove kept turning off as it simmered. Oh well…
Here’s the black bean soup, plated and topped with fresh cilantro. It came out pretty well… kinda tasted like a meatless chili.

Only one brownie was shaped into a heart before I gave up on that plan. It wasn’t that it was too difficult, it just would have limited the number of brownies available. Since those went fast, I think it was one of my many smart choices last night. Go me!
Another smart idea. I used Madagascar Valentines as place cards. A) “Madagascar” and “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” are crackalackin’. B) It added a flair of Africa… which I’ll be visiting again soon. (More to come on that!)

And that’s all she wrote. My first attempt at a dinner party and I think it was a success. My guests had fun. I took a census and the food was “amazing” and “succulent.” The brownies rocked. I even won over those peeps who for some unheard of reason don’t like walnuts in their brownies. I kinda feel that’s unpatriotic.

Muchas gracias to my sous chef for taking orders splendidly; to my executive chef assistant for, well, assisting in every aspect; to my parents for helping me prepare and then staying out of the way; to my consultant in San Francisco who helped fine tune the menu; to my guests for bringing the booze and suffering through my first attempt at culinary stardom! Overreach?

Starting to take shape

Well, it’s about 2 hours left before the grand event takes place. So far, I have my dessert done. My soup already heating and waiting on some last-minute finishing touches. My stuffed mushrooms waiting for their spotlight in the oven.

No grand disasters yet. Things have gone more or less smoothly. I have been spending WAY TOO LONG cutting, dicing, mincing. I definitely underestimated the value of prep work, my mise en place (Thanks Top Chef, for teaching me that word).

This is the beginning of my Maui black bean soup. Some red onion, garlic, celery, carrots, red and green peppers are sauteeing.


Now, here’s the soup taking shape after some broth, diced tomatoes and black beans.
This here is a taste of what’s getting stuffed into my mushrooms. Yes, that’s walnuts in there.
Tada! Stuffed mushrooms topped with paprika and awaiting the oven.

Top-Notch Menu

Oops, I forgot to mention in my last post that this isn’t going to be one of those dinner parties where I throw a box of pasta in boiling water and top with a jar of Prego.

Just to whet your appetites, here’s the menu for tonight:

HORS D’OEUVRES

Stuffed Mushrooms

Polenta Crostini

SOUP

Black Bean Soup

MAIN COURSE

Fish en Papillote

Grilled Asparagus

Quinoa with Sundried Tomatoes

DESSERT

Pepitas-Topped Kahlua Brownies

Five hours to go… I think I’ll start with the soup now.

Countdown Begins… To Cooking Glory!!

In a little more than 6 hours, I’m going to be able to say that I have hosted a dinner party–complete with cocktail hour and made-from-scratch brownies. I’m the kind of person that talks a big prep game, but wastes away the time reading, catching up on TV shows or chatting with her bff about how awesome my dinner is going to be and how I plan to prep as soon as I’m off the phone with her. S

The festivities are set to begin at 18:30 and all I have accomplished so far is the dessert. It still needs to be tweaked, but at least the oven is free for everything else.

I’m going to blog periodically throughout the day, posting photos about this grand event, wasting valuable cooking time to show you how I can handle the heat.

I have my recipes. I have ALL my ingredients. I’m pretty sure I have enough pots and pans.

3… 2… 1…

And I’m off!!!