Truffles, Salumi and...a Volcano???

Bryan and I got back from Italy late last night. Jetlag aside after 24 hours of travel, it it was a truly incredible trip – we hunted truffles with hounds, took a cooking class with an Italian family, toured a salumi farm and pretty much ate (and drank!) our way through the entire country. Oh, and got stranded in Rome for an extra several days due to the Icelandic volcanic eruption. Can't forget that part. But what better place to be "stuck," so to say, than Italy?

I've barely slept and my brain can't fathom writing a longer post, but in the meantime here are a few teaser photos. I already miss the morning cappuccinos...

Our morning ritual...the perfect cappuccino.

Pizza with sliced zucchini in Rome.

Salumi plate from a pig farm near Assisi.

Our truffles! We "hunted" these with hounds in Citerna.

Crostini with salsa tartufata & salumi in Norcia.

"Dinner" with a view in Positano.

And of course, gelato!


Take a Bao's Crispy Chicken Bowl

One of my favorite lunches comes from Take A Bao. Surprisingly, it's in a local shopping mall but it's just so darn good. I like to say that's in a high-end Westfield shopping mall with a completely renovated food court; it just makes me feel better. :P

Take A Bao's menu focuses on steamed bun (aka Bao) sandwiches, salads and rice bowls. But hands-down, my favorite thing on the menu is "Take A Bowl," which I get with half brown rice/half shredded lettuce and crunchy citrus chicken. Listen, I know fried chicken isn't good for you; I justify it by the fact that I only eat it at Take A Bao. The citrus sauce is fantastic and the entire bowl is a party of colorful vegetables, brown rice and sliced chicken. Not to mention, it's very pretty:

Along with the brown rice and shredded lettuce (you're supposed to pick one or the other; I like to mix it up and get both), you get marinated mushrooms, steamed broccoli, picked radishes, shredded carrots and crunchy cucumbers. I like to get a little bit of Sriracha sauce on the side, dip my chopsticks in it and mix it throughout the bowl. Sure, by the time I finish the bowl I can barely feel my mouth but it's a good burn. At the end of the day, lunch (or dinner) is less than $10 and you're definitely full. And if you just can't accept the fried chicken option, go for the grilled chicken. Just make sure you add the citrus sauce. I might go get some right now...


Willoughby Road Food Truck: Southern Comfort

Another lunch truck experience, this time at the Willoughby Road food truck. I've got to tell you; this lunch truck was awesome, easily better than some LA so-called BBQ restaurants. The menu had a traditional barbecue focus with a few innovative touches (Atlantic cod po' boy or curried grits with shrimp, anyone?), but more importantly, the food was straight-up solid.

Willoughby Road Food Truck

Willoughby Road's Menu

Keeping it short and sweet, Bryan got the Harissa brisket soft tacos while I got the pulled pork sandwich. The brisket tacos were served on corn tortillas and topped with cabbage slaw and spicy salsa. I was surprised that the brisket was chopped rather than shredded, but the taste was great. As we stood holding the tacos, a guy walked by and demanded to know what we had. Ten minutes later we saw him as we drove away, tacos in hand, shoving one by one into his mouth. Guess he liked them as much as we did!

Willoughby Road Harissa Brisket Tacos

The pulled pork was great. A toasted bun piled high with tender shredded pork (bonus point for no gristle whatsoever), full barbecue flavor but not overpowered by the sauce. The crunchy cabbage slaw was a smart topping, adding contrast and refreshing flavor to the shredded meat. I forgot to ask if Willoughby Road makes their own barbecue sauce or a store bought version, but either way, I loved it. We were happy to pay $7 for the sandwich and $6 for the tacos, eating in the shadow of a bubbling fountain on a beautiful Southern California day. All in all, thirteen bucks and two full tummys later, we were happy lunch truckers.

Willoughby Road Pulled Pork Sandwich


Hitting the "Downtown Dog" Lunch Truck

Sometimes there's nothing better than a quick lunch at a food truck. It's cheap, it's fast and if you're lucky, it can be just as good as restaurant food. This time we stopped by Downtown Dog, parked right in front of Bryan's old work at the Miracle Mile's E! Network building.

Downtown Dog Food Truck

We were there for less than twenty minutes, grabbing a California Dog: An all-beef snap dog topped with avocado spread, arugula, tomatoes, fried onions and served with a basil aioli.

Downtown Dogs' California Dog

It was like the hot dog version of California Pizza Kitchen, kicking up the traditional snap hot dog with great flavors and cool, crunchy textures. While the toppings were fun and interesting, at the end of the day it's still a hot dog. Overall, we give it a B. Next time, however, we might go for the breakfast dog (all beef snap dog wrapped in applewood smoked bacon topped with a fried egg) and buffalo tots with blue cheese crumbles. Sounds like a winning combo!

Downtown Dogs' Menu


Best Thing I Ever Ate: Chocolate

I was literally rendered speechless by this chocolate cake. It's not five, not ten, not twenty, but TWENTY FOUR layers of unparalleled chocolate decadence. I mean, how do you even make a cake with twenty four layers, especially layers so thin, so whispy and so filled with rich, oozing ganache? It's like magic. Just look at this thing!

The chocolate cake I'm talking about is from Strip House Steak House in New York, a restaurant I'd never heard of, much less planned an entire trip around. It was Michael Psilakis' meal of choice during Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate: Guilty Pleasure episode and once I saw it, the entire rest of the episode was a wash. But now, I'm totally committed to finding – read: devouring – this majestic tower of cake.

Where's your LA location, Strip House???

Michael Psilakis showing off his prized possession
Now, towering chocolate cakes are nothing new; they're all over the place. Cheesecake Factory has one, many deli's have them, etc. But I've never walked by those cakes and lost my breath. Or imagined (literally) cutting and running out the door with them. The oversized cakes I've seen always appear dry, far too cakey (ironic, I know) and big for "big" sake. When you imagine cutting through it with your fork, it doesn't bring to mind thoughts...well, like this:

Can you even imagine? I was so inspired I made Bryan rewind the episode so I could take photos of it. That's right, I took photos of my TV screen. I realize that's somewhat insane, but I figured if I could share the love with at least one other person, it would be worth it. Not like viewership of BTIEA isn't high enough. :)

If you live in New York, New Jersey, Vegas, Key West, Naples or Houston, please please please go eat this and let me know how it is. All I know is the next time I'm in Vegas, I'm all over this cake. I might as well make my reservation now. Until then, talk about sweet dreams...


Homemade Pizza in 30 Minutes!

Believe it or not, homemade pizza is one of Bryan's and my favorite last-minute dinners. The minute we find ourselves stuck in the "what do you want to eat?" conundrum, we grab a bag of Trader Joe's pizza dough from the fridge and a great dinner is only 30 minutes away. We use anything that's in our refrigerator, freezer or pantry; basil, mushrooms, Parmesan, frozen meatballs, bacon, etc. Don't have pizza sauce? Use canned pasta sauce. Heck, you can even use canned tomatoes if you want. Just toss in a little oregano, basil and good ole' S&P.

Making your own pizza is ridiculously easy

The other night we made a truly down-and-dirty pizza. In our house, that simply means the refrigerator was nearly bare so we had to scavenge our freezer and pantry for ingredients. It's a fun challenge; making pizza out of whatever you can find. Here's what we came up with: TJ's whole wheat pizza dough, pizza sauce, frozen turkey meatballs, basil, mushroom, onion and half a block of grated Parmesan cheese. Sounded like the makings of a great pizza to us!

Trader Joe's whole wheat pizza dough

Our last-minute pizza dinner, before baking

I microwaved the frozen meatballs and cut them into quarters, chopped the fresh ingredients and opened the jar of pizza sauce (also from Trader Joe's). I put our Mario Batali pizza pan in the oven, set the oven to 450 degrees, rolled out the pizza dough on a floured surface and waited for the oven the come to temperature. Once I heard the quintessential oven "beep!," it was go time. Or more like (almost) dinner time. I took out the pizza pan (careful, it's HOT!), delicately laid the dough over it and worked fast to arrange the rest of the ingredients. Then back in the oven it went for 12-15 minutes. We like our dough extra crispy, so 15 minutes seems to do the trick.

Throw all the ingredients on the pizza dough. It doesn't have to be pretty; you're at home!

If you haven't tried to make your own pizza, I promise when you do it will be incredibly hard to order for delivery again. From start to finish, our pizzas are ready in 30 minutes. Fifteen minutes prep and like I said, another 12-15 baking. Why wait 30 minutes for delivery again when you can have this? Bon appetit!

Mmmmmm homemade pizza!


Perfect Party Dessert: Miniature Fruit Tarts

A few months ago I tried my hand a classic fruit tart. I'm still proud to say it turned out quite amazing, so much so that it's now one of my go-to desserts. However, hand-making the pastry crust can be a pain (especially if you're throwing a last minute dinner party) so recently I modified the recipe to made individual fruit tarts, this time using puff pastry as a base. They turned out great and while they still took some time, the flaky, store bought puff pastry was a great alternative to homemade pastry dough. I lined it with chocolate, rich pastry cream and freshly cut berries. Mmmmm!

Mini fruit tarts

Pastry Dough:
Pastry Cream:
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1/8 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3/4 tablespoon liqueur (Grand Marnier, Brandy, Kirsch) (optional)
Fruit Topping:
  • 1 cup mixed fruit, such as raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, etc.
Make the tart shells: Defrost store bought puff pastry dough for 2-3 hours in refrigerator. On a floured surface, unfold defrosted pastry dough and using a sharp knife or mini tart pans, cut desired tart shape. Mold dough into each tart pan and using a sharp knife (e.g. paring knife), make a small circular indentation into the dough. Make sure not to cut all the way through the dough or else you will end up with a bottomless tart shell. Bake at 375 degrees (or 325 degrees in a convection oven) until thoroughly firm and dry to the touch.

Store bought puff pastry dough from Dufour Pastry Kitchens

Mold puff pastry into each shell & cut a thin circular line into center

Bake at until firm and dry to the touch

Once tart shell is cool, carefully remove the center of each shell (see below). Melt 1/2 cup chocolate (I used semi-sweet chocolate) and using a pastry brush (or the back of a small spoon, in a pinch) spread the chocolate along the inside the shell. Place in the refrigerator and let dry until chocolate is completely hardened.

Remove center of puff pastry shells

Fill the bottom of each tart shell with a thin layer of chocolate glaze

Let chocolate glaze dry completely, about 20-30 mins

Make the pastry cream: In a medium-sized stainless steel bowl, mix the sugar and egg yolks together with a wooden spoon. (Never let the mixture sit too long or you will get pieces of egg forming.) Sift the flour and cornstarch (corn flour) together and then add to the egg mixture, mixing until you get a smooth paste. Set aside.

Sift dry pastry cream ingredients together
Meanwhile, in a saucepan combine the milk and split vanilla bean on medium heat until boiling. The milk will foam up to the top of pan when done, so watch carefully. Remove from heat and add slowly to egg mixture, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. If you get a few pieces of egg (a result of curdling) in the mixture, pour through a strainer.

Place the egg mixture back into a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat until boiling, whisking constantly. When it boils, whisk mixture constantly for another 30 - 60 seconds until it becomes very thick and it is hard to stir.

Mix pastry cream over heat until very thick & hard to stir

Remove from heat and immediately whisk in the liqueur (if using). Pour into a clean bowl and immediately cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a crust from forming. Cool. If not using right away refrigerate until needed, up to 3 days. Beat before using to get rid of any lumps that may have formed.

Assemble the tarts: Spoon or pipe the pastry cream into the tart, filling about 3/4 full. Level with an offset spatula.

Fill each tart with pastry cream

To decorate the tart you will need 2 to 3 cups of mixed fresh fruit (I used strawberry, raspberry and blueberry). Prepare the fruit by gently washing and drying. De-stem and slice the strawberries from stem to tip, arranging the bigger slices around the edge of the tart. Arrange the strawberry slices around the edge in a circle, until you run out of room. Arrange blueberries and raspberries in middle to cover up remaining pastry cream. If not serving immediately, refrigerate. Take out about 30 minutes before serving to give the fruit and cream a chance to warm up. This fruit tart is best eaten the same day as it is assembled. Cover and refrigerate any leftovers. If there are any!

Finished fruit tarts!


Roosevelt Hotel's Library Bar: A Farmers Market in Your Glass

I recently interviewed Michael Biancaniello and Brian Summers, head bartender and mixologist (respectively) of Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel's Library Bar. While several LA establishments – think Hungry Cat and the Varnish – are going the farmers' market route with locally-sourced ingredients for their cocktails, I was simply astounded at how high the Library Bar had raised the – figurative – bar. How, you ask? In addition to having a huge array of fresh produce on their bar top, hand-making their own mixers, reductions and bitters, they've established relationships with over five local farms that keep them supplied with the freshest, seasonal produce. Beyond that, the artistry with which Biancaniello and Summers make their cocktails is pretty awesome. It's a pleasure to watch as well as drink.

Biancaniello whipped up a fresh passion fruit apertif, served in the fruit itself.

Here's my full article (written for LA Weekly). It's even got Summers original recipe for a blood orange cocktail, the Sicilian Sling.

Roosevelt Hotel's Library Bar: The Cocktail Lounge Meets The Farmers Market
The Slow Food movement is in full force, and the Slow Drink movement is catching up fast, particularly at the Roosevelt Hotel's somewhat-hidden Library Bar, smack in the middle of Hollywood. It's run by head bartender Matthew Biancanello - soon to be featured in Bon Appetit's September Restaurant Issue - and supported by mixologist Brian Summers - previously of comme Ça and The Bazaar by José Andrés.

"When you walk into the Library Bar, you'll see an elaborate spread of produce on the bar top. It's always changing due to market availability," says Summers. On a given night you might find chocolate mint, arugula, jalapeños, kumquats, Persian lemons, Bearss limes, even Buddha's Hand citrons. If the bar thing doesn't work out, they can always start their own farmers market.

Library Bar's spread of fresh produce, juices and more

But organic cocktailing wasn't always the method behind Library Bar's madness. Biancanello, who was hired by Library Bar in 2008 with no previous bartending experience, says, "We didn't have a back bar so I had nothing to mix with my drinks. I replaced everything on the menu with farmers markers ingredients, educating myself and going with what I liked. I spent $5000 out of pocket for ingredients for the bar. When my manager tried one of my drinks she asked, 'What's in this? It's so good.' I told her about the farmers market ingredients and she gave me a monthly budget to move forward with."

Biancanello got to work creating partnerships with local farms that now provide Library Bar's produce. For most things citrus - kumquats, Meyer lemons, Eureka lemons, Bearss limes, satsumas and more - Biancanello goes to Santa Monica's Garcia Farms. Nicholas Family Farms in Studio City supplies blood and Cara Cara oranges, homemade preserves and unpasteurized pomegranate, grapefruit, mandarin and blood orange juices. Fresh herbs including basil, mint, thyme, rosemary and sage come from Maggie's and Coleman Farms, both at Santa Monica's farmers market. And last but not least, Summers swears, "Harry's Berries grows the sweetest strawberries I've ever tasted."

Summers pouring his original cocktail, the Sicilian Sling

As far as liquor and mixers go, Biancanello and Summers are hand-crafting many of those, too. "I want people to know they have better drink options available than vodka redbulls and appletinis," Summers says. While housemade syrups and tinctures (aka alcoholic extracts) are standard - think ginger, grenadine and bitters - they're also working on lavender and rhubarb purées for Spring/Summer drinks. That's in addition to the bar's 100-day Limoncello, 17-step Bloody Mary with flowering basil, shiitake mushroom-infused bourbon (for the Umami Manhattan), fennel- and saffron-infused gins as well as white peppercorn vodka. Oh, and let's not forget the 25-year-old aged Modena Balsamic vinegar muddled with fresh strawberries and topped with housemade St. Germaine foam.

Biancaniello hand-squeezing lemon juice for the night's service

When it comes to actually making the cocktails, prep and precision are key. Prior to opening, cucumbers are cut into exactly four millimeter slices. More than 130 limes and 100 lemons are juiced, along with oranges and grapefruits. All the fruit, vegetables and herbs are cleaned and plated, with everything cut to order except lemons and limes. Biancanello tells us, "No one in city doing this amount of organic prep. Our approach is much more culinary. I like to call it the slow drink movement."

Turn the page for a recipe for Summers' Sicilian Sling cocktail.

Sicilian Sling
From: Brian Summers
Makes: one drink

Summer's Sicilian Sling

1 egg white (organic brown egg preferred)
4 basil leaves
2 slices of blood orange
3/4 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
1 oz. gin
1 oz. Aperol

1. Place egg white into your tall shaking can. In a separate glass, muddle basil, blood orange, lemon juice and simple syrup.

2. Pour muddled mixture, gin and Aperol into tall shaking can. Shake hard for one minute without ice to emulsify egg whites. Add ice and shake for another six seconds.

3. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice and top with a splash of club soda. Garnish with a basil leaf. Serve immediately.


A Night With Madame Chocolat

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending industry night at Madame Chocolat in Beverly Hills. It was a chocoholic's dream come true: a wine and chocolate pairing in celebration of National Chocolate Week. That's right, Chocolate Week. Our great country has an entire week dedicated to all things chocolate so naturally, it was a perfect opportunity to taste some of the best.

In my opinion, some of the best chocolate happens to come from legendary chocolatier, Jacque Torres. He works his magic from a larger-than-life chocolate headquarters in Manhattan, making everything from decadent truffles to chocolate-covered Easter peeps to chocolate-covered corn flakes. Considering that it's hard for me to get to New York, I go for the next best thing: Madame Chocolat from chocolatier Hasty Torres. Sound familiar? It should, as the San Gabriel Valley native is Jacque Torres' wife. She's also a USC graduate (go Trojans!) and one of the friendliest foodie folk I've met. To say she's passionate about her craft is a serious understatement because quite simply, Hasty was put on this earth to make chocolate. Her workshop/chocolate shop is the definition of a family affair, as it's run by Hasty with help from her parents; also wonderfully down-to-earth people dedicated to seeing their daughter's dream come true.

Hasty Torres, aka Madame Chocolat, in her shop

Hasty's talent is apparent; after training at Pasadena's Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and working with Jacque Torres, her extensive knowledge of chocolate is nearly foolproof. Her ingredients are sourced from Belgium, a Mecca for some of the world's best chocolate. All tempering, molding and design is done in-house by Hasty herself, as was the overall design of her shop. Mimicking a traditional French chocolatier, Madame Chocolat's warm, welcoming chocolate shop is painted with five light shades of green and shimmering cream. The contrast between the front of house and the workshop is stark (and purposeful), with the workshop filled with precise instruments meant to produce high-quality, first-class chocolates: stainless steel tables, tempering machines and racks and racks of molding trays.

Hasty's front of house, chocolate display, workshop and dark/milk chocolate tempering stations

Turns out you can cover anything in chocolate: rice krispie treats, peeps, cookies and marshmallows (s'mores!)

Back to chocolate night. We tasted five different types of chocolate, each paired with a wine. White chocolate with chardonnay, a raspberry-filled chocolate with pinot noir, caramel-filled chocolate with merlot, dark chocolate squares with dried fruit and roasted almonds with cabernet and finally, decadent dark chocolate truffles also with cabernet. My details about the final few wine pairings are admittedly fuzzy, as the wine and chocolate tasting became more like a wine and chocolate party. Hasty and her family undoubtedly know how to have a good time, gathering their guests around the workshop's stainless steel tables and liberally passing trays of chocolate and bottles of wine. It was a true extravaganza.

White chocolate with Madame Chocolate's signature logo

Raspberry-filled milk chocolates

Caramel-filled milk chocolates

Dark chocolate with almonds, pistachios & dried fruit

Madame Chocolate's classic dark truffles

Oops! This is what happens when you mix too much wine with chocolate. Literally.


Happy Easter!

I hope everyone has a wonderful day and gets lots of sweet surprises from the Easter bunny. My choice? These chocolate-covered peeps from Madame Chocolat herself, Hasty Torres.

Related Posts with Thumbnails