Friday, May 2, 2014

Picnic Food and Caviar at 30,000 Feet

Growing up, we used to fly from Los Angeles to New York once and sometimes twice a year so my mom could visit her mom who lived on the Upper West Side (110th and Amsterdam). In those days I looked forward to flying. How amazing, I thought, that this big heavy thing could roar down a runway and push itself into the air.

Sitting next to the window and looking down as we passed over desserts, mountains and cities, I was mesmerized.
Even today I regard flight as something of a miracle although the actual experience of being in an airplane isn't as much fun. Terrorism and economics have degraded the airport and flying experience. Having to pay for amenities we used to take for granted like paying to check luggage and being charged to phone an airline agent are high on my list of why travel is less fun than it used to be. And what about being charged for food on planes? When I was a kid, I looked forward to those meals. I know, I was easily satisfied when my favorite not-cooked-by-mom meal was a fried chicken Swanson TV dinner with mashed potatoes and corn in butter sauce.

Putting the fun back into flying

When we fly these days, I make a meal I think of as a picnic lunch. All the foods my family would eat when we went to the beach are great to have on the plane. Think about it. Nothing is better than a shared lunch of cold rosemary fried chicken, deli bar olives, Comte cheese and Breton crackers, chicken salad with mango chutney and toasted almondsegg salad flavored with bacon, arugula salad with home made croutons, potato salad with corn, chopped Italian parsley salad with cherry tomatoes, olives, Persian dukes, croutons and feta cheese with a reduced balsamic and olive oil dressing, roasted beet saladcarrot salad with lemon-pepper infused golden raisins and Fuji apples from a farmers market.
If I'm watching movies on my iPad and snacking on good food, flying is fun again.

Flights out of Tom Bradley International Terminal, LAX

Last fall I flew to Geneva, Switzerland out of LAX. Unfortunately, at the time, while the renovation of the terminal had been completed, the Level 4 food court vendors hadn't moved in.
Last week I was invited to a press reception at the terminal to try out the food and beverages served at the Petrossian Caviar and Champagne Bar.
Not everyone enjoys caviar. It's expensive and, well,  it is "eggs from a fish". Two strikes against caviar to many people. My dad loved caviar. He was Russian and loved all that kind of food: black bread, radishes, herring with onions in sour cream and chopped liver.
Back to last week

Going to the boarding area of an airport when you aren't actually flying is not easy. Special approvals need to be obtained. Passes are issued. Guards inspect you. PR people and airport personnel escort you every minute you are beyond security check points without a boarding pass.

I mention this for a reason.
Level 4 at Bradley International could be a destination for Angelenos. Going to airports and watching planes take off and land used to be a fun thing to do. No more. But if you are traveling internationally out of LAX, arriving at the airport two hours early won't be an inconvenience because you'll have the opportunity to enjoy the open, airy Great Hall with dozens of restaurants and retail stores as good as any you'll find at The Grove.
Petrossian gave us a tasting of their appetizers (smoked salmon canapés with salmon roe, blinis and hardboiled eggs topped with caviar), champagne and a High Society cocktail. Everything was delicious.
Besides serving caviar as God intended--on a blini--Petrossian has also created caviar powder and white chocolate with caviar. The powder is cool. Used instead of salt on the rim of a cocktail glass in the High Society adds a crunchy-salty-caviar flavor that worked great with the gin, St. Germaine and green Chartruse.
Besides a full menu at the Bar, Petrossian also has insulated packs to take on the plane. The snacks come with a big price tag, but if you are a caviar-eating kind of person, the high cost will be familiar.
I wrote a profile for Luxury Travel Magazine with a lot more details.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shrimp and Citrus Celebrate Summer Together

Last week we were in New York. We lucked out, weather-wise. The week before had been stormy, with rain almost every day. When we were planning the trip, the forecast said it would continue raining the entire week. Long story short, it didn't rain.

A little bit of rain last Monday evening. Otherwise, the skies were blue most of the time and the temperatures during the day were in the high 50's and low 60s. Perfect New York-walking around weather. Now I hear cold and even snow has returned. Spring is always a moveable feast in New York.
So, I'm happy to be back home. I started a new video project, interviewing chefs whose recipes appear in the Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook. Chef David Padilla who works at Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel demonstrated how to make a delicious sautéed shrimp dish.
He calls it Drunken Shrimp, which is a classic Chinese dish, but his is decidedly Latin in his use of citrus and chiles. I wrote the profile for Zester Daily. The full interview and video are there. Please take a look: Drunken Shrimp from Chef David Padilla of Luxe.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Passover Chicken and Soup - Delicious and Fun to Make

Making Passover dinner takes a bit of planning, but it doesn't have to be a chore. If you're cooking for a big group, hand out assignments so you don't do all the work. If your kitchen is large enough, invite people over to help. Cooking the dinner with friends and family can be as much a part of a celebration as the meal itself.

Everyone wants to save money these days. But keeping an eye on food costs shouldn't mean cutting corners on quality and flavor. Avoid buying packaged or frozen meals and you'll be way ahead of the game. Besides saving money, you'll be eating healthier food.

On Passover, I practice what I preach by using one chicken to make three dishes. My Jewish mother would be very proud.

For me it's not Passover without matzo ball soup. But soup is only as good as the stock. Canned and packaged chicken broth are very high in salt content and, in my opinion, have an unpleasant flavor. It's much better to make your own.

The broth can be made days ahead, kept in the refrigerator or even frozen. Also, when you buy the chicken, buy a whole one, preferably a free range or organic chicken, and cut it up yourself. Whole chickens cost under $2.00/pound, while chicken parts range from $3.50-$8.00/pound.

Cutting up a Chicken

If you haven't done it before, cutting apart a whole chicken is easier than you think. Having a sharp boning or chef's knife is essential.

To remove the wings, thighs, and legs, slice through the meat and separate at the joints. Cut the wings apart, reserving the tips for the stock. To debone the breasts, glide the knife along the side of the breast bone. As you cut, pull back the breast meat, continuing to slide the knife against the ribs.

For health reasons, I remove the skin and fat from the breasts, legs and thighs. Add the skin and fat to the stock. If you're going to debone the legs and thighs, add those bones to the stock as well.

Drizzle olive oil on the breasts, legs, thighs, and wings. Put them into an air tight container and refrigerate. If you want to freeze them, put the pieces into a Ziploc style plastic bag, squeeze out the air, seal, and freeze.

Here's another tip about freezing the chicken. When you put the pieces into the plastic bag, make sure they don't touch one another. That way, if you need only one piece, say a breast, you can leave the other pieces frozen until you need them.

Chicken Stock

When my mother and grandmother made chicken stock, they added onions, celery, and carrots to the water. I don't because I want the stock to taste of chicken. If I want other flavors, I add them later.

Yield: 2 quarts

Time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

Skin, wing tips, carcass, and bones from one 4 1/2 pound chicken
4 quarts water

Method

Put the wing tips, skin, carcass, and bones into a large pot with the water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 60 minutes. Skim off and discard the foam. The volume will reduce by half.

Strain the stock. Pick off any meat from the carcass and reserve for later use in a salad or a chicken-vegetable soup. Discard the bones and skin.

Refrigerate overnight to easily remove the fat solids. If you're rushed for time and need the stock right away, float a slice of bread on top of the stock to absorb the fat.

The stock can be kept in the refrigerator in an air tight container for a day or two or in the freezer for months.

Matzo Ball Soup

Yield: 6-8 servings

Time: 30 minutes

For the matzo balls, we use a mix, but if you want to make them from scratch, Mark Bittman has a very good recipe.

Ingredients

1 box matzo ball mix (no soup), Manischewitz, Rokeach, or Streit's
Other ingredients per the directions on the packaged mix
2 quarts chicken stock

Method

Prepare the matzo balls per the directions on the box. Make them large or small as you like. Remember that the size of the matzo ball will double as it cooks in the salted water. 1 box of mix will make 24 small matzo balls or 12 large ones.

Put the chicken stock into a large pot. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the matzo balls from the salted water to the stock. Heat over a medium flame. Because the matzo balls are delicate, don't let the stock boil.

Garlic-Parsley Chicken Breasts

On any other day but Passover, serve the sliced chicken on top of buttered pasta.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 chicken breast halves, boned, skinned, washed, and dried
1/2 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch of pepper
1 tablespoon sweet butter

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in the saute pan. Dredge the chicken breasts in olive oil seasoned with sea salt and black pepper

Put the breasts in the heated pan, top with parsley and garlic, drizzle with olive oil, and bake for 30 minutes.

Slice the breasts and plate. Use a rubber spatula to remove the drippings, garlic, and parsley and spoon onto the slices before serving.

Mushroom-Vegetable Chicken Ragout

Yield: 4-6 servings

Time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

2 chicken legs, skin removed, deboned, roughly chopped
2 chicken thighs, skin removed, deboned, roughly chopped
2 chicken wings, tips removed, cut apart at the joint
4 garlic cloves, skins removed, finely chopped
4 shallots or 1 medium yellow onion, peeled, roughly chopped
2 carrots, washed, peeled, cut into thick rounds
1 bunch parsley, washed, stems removed, finely chopped
1 large Yukon Gold potato, washed, cut into chunks
4 shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, thinly sliced

Method

Heat the olive oil in a large sauce pan, season with sea salt and pepper, saute the chicken until lightly browned. Remove from the pan, drain on paper towels, set aside.

Saute the garlic, shallots, mushrooms, carrots, parsley, and potatoes until lightly browned. Return the chicken to the pan. Add 3 cups of water. Simmer for 45 minutes until the meat is tender. There should be 1 cup of broth.

Taste and adjust the seasoning. Continue simmering another 10 minutes.

Serve with steamed spinach or broccoli.

Variations

Instead of using potatoes, serve over rice

Add spinach leaves

Add cut up celery

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Using Credit Cards to Send You Around the World

You might ask, why is a food blogger writing about credit cards? The answer is pretty simple. I love to eat. I love to travel. I love to eat when I travel and I especially love getting to travel and eat for free. When I was a kid, my mom frequented stores that gave her S&H Green Stamps with each purchase. She dutifully pasted the stamps in a book. When the books were filled, she could redeem them for products. A toaster. Hair products. All sorts of things. With the wide adoption of credit cards, this simple idea grew exponentially into a billion dollar business. I couldn't be happier.

All but one of the photographs in the article are from a month long trip to Switzerland to the Lake Geneva Region, Interlaken in the middle of the country and Lugano in the Italian speaking south.

With the summer travel season approaching, now is a good time to look through the credit cards in your wallet. Every week unsolicited credit card offers arrive in the mail.  I don't need any more credit cards, but it's good to check out the offers. Are the terms as good as the credit card offers you're receiving in the mail?  Maybe it's time to switch.
NOT ALL CREDIT CARDS ARE CREATED EQUAL
Not all credit cards have benefits. Many are just "credit" cards.  In the simplest terms, with these cards, the bank advances you money. You are expected to repay what you borrowed at the end of the month. If you don't repay all the money you borrowed, you pay interest on the balance. That's pretty straight forward.

But since there are credit cards out there that not only loan you money but also give you a goodie bag of benefits, why not use those cards?  Banks want your business. That means you can have credit and goodies too.  And that is a very good thing.

Over the last month, I received offers from Barclay, Citi, American Express, Bank of America and Chase asking me to apply for one of their credit cards. The banks will pay me to use their money.

They'll pay me in the sense that they are offering cash back
or miles to be used to buy airline tickets, hotel stays and other purchases. The devil's bargain is simple. All I have to do is use my credit card as often as possible. Merchants pay the bank when I use my credit card. The bank hopes I will spend a lot of money, carry an outstanding balance and occasionally miss a due date so I have to pay late fees. My plan is to pay my monthly balances on time so I get the miles without having to pay interest or fees.

GETTING A CREDIT CARD IS LIKE GETTING MARRIED
As in any marriage, it is important to get to know your prospective mate before you tie the knot. The bank's agreement is a prenup. You should read those terms very carefully.

1. BENEFITS: Carefully read the terms of the agreement. Since there are many different types of benefit programs, compare and evaluate which credit cards give you what you need. Some cards give money back bonuses. Others focus on miles that can be converted into free airline travel while some are designed for travelers who want free hotel nights.  For sites that compare different credit card offers, see the list at the end of the article.
I use credit cards to accumulate miles toward airline travel, so I want a credit card that accrues miles on a 1:1 basis, or better.  Which means when I spend $1.00, I get 1 mile or point credited to my account.  One of our Master Card accounts did not charge us an annual fee. The miles were accumulated on the basis of 2:1. $2.00 spent for 1 mile credited. When our use of the card was low, that made sense, but in time we used the card more and more, so the advantage of no annual fee was not worth the miles we lost.

With some cards you accrue miles on a basis of 1:2 ($1.00 spent for 2 miles credited). That is the case with some Bank of America plans when the card is used to purchase groceries and gasoline products. With some American Airlines plans, purchasing American's products will add more bonus points to your account. Some plans give cash back instead of miles. Other plans sweeten the pot by crediting back a percentage of the miles you used to purchase airline tickets, as does American Airlines with its more expensive cards. Spend 25,000 miles to purchase a round trip ticket and the card credits 5,000 miles to your account.
Notice how many times I have to say "some plans." It's worth your while to read the fine print and pick the best card for you.

2. ANNUAL FEE: Typically, when you sign up for a credit card, the first year's fee is waived. This isn't always true, but it might be the case, so check. Annual fees typically range between $50.00  and $100.00. High end cards charge high annual fees, as much as $450.00 or more, but in return the benefits are highly prized by travelers--entry into airport lounges, free baggage allowance, discounted prices on airline products, bonus points, special offers, no foreign transaction fees, concierge services and much more.
3. AIRLINE VS BANK CARDS: Many credit cards are affiliated with specific airlines. Use a VISA card issued by American Airlines and the miles accrue for flights on American Airlines. There are many cards which accumulate points and miles that can be used on any airline. Those cards proudly tout their non-affiliation as an advantage because you can pick and choose airlines for the best deals. Personally, I have not used this type of card. I have cards which are tied to airlines: American, Southwest and United. These are airlines that fly where I tend to travel. As with any card, carefully read the fine print to see if your purchasing and travel needs are best served by a particular card's agreement.

4. SIGNING BONUSES: Many credit cards--well actually most these days in the push to sign up more customers--offer a signing bonus. The annual fee may be waived for the first year as part of the signing bonus. Typically a new user is also credited miles as a bonus. The number of miles can be an insignificant 10,000 miles or a very meaningful 75,000 miles.

Accruing those miles to your mileage account is often linked to your spending a certain amount during a specified period of time, say $3,000.00 spent in the first three months after the card is activated. Once you spend the $3,000.00, the bonus miles will be credited to your account.
Usually the best deals go to consumers who have the best credit history and who also have good paying, long term employment. This may strike some as unfair--why should one person get more than another person--but this issue is important. When you use your credit card, the bank has money you want to use. The bank wants guarantees that they will get their money back. Good credit history and current employment tell them you are more likely to give them back their money when asked, so they'll be nicer to you. Which brings up the next issue.

5. INTEREST RATES: What is APR? APR is an abbreviation for Annual Percentage Rate. That's the rate the bank will charge you for keeping their money longer than one month (or 28 days or 27 days or 30 days, depending on their definitions -- always remember to read the fine print because you may encounter a card that begins charging interest ON THE DAY YOU MAKE THE PURCHASE--I have only seen one card with that feature).

If you pay your credit card balances before the DUE DATE. You have won the jackpot. The bank gave you their money. You spent it. But you paid it back before the due date, so the bank gets no money from you. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Which means you don't care what the APR is because you are the smartest person on the planet.  Even though the bank didn't get any money from you for all those transactions during the month, the businesses who sold you the goods and services did have to the pay the bank. So the credit card companies are making money, just not from you.
If you don't pay all of the credit card balance on time, then you will pay for the money the bank let you use.  In which case, the APR is really really important. And you should look carefully at how much interest you will pay and all the other terms that come with keeping the bank's money past that first month.

As part of the signing bonus for some cards, you are allowed without fee to transfer existing credit card balances from other credit cards. This can be a very handy way of starting over again, especially if you have racked up fees, which is the next topic to discuss.

6. MINIMUM MONTHLY PAYMENT: Minimum monthly payment is a really scary idea. The bank helpfully tells you the smallest amount you need to pay on the monthly bill. The problem is that paying the minimum amount maximizes the bank's profits. It might seem really cool and friendly to only pay $32.18 on a monthly balance of $3517.23, but the bank is hoping you'll take the easy way out, pay the minimum legally required so that they can levy their very exorbitant APR.
7. FEES: Late fees and every other fee you are liable for if you don't pay all of your monthly bill each billing cycle on time and in full are the Devil's wager you make for using credit cards. Miss a due date and you will be hit with a fee in addition to the APR costs. And those fees will themselves accrue APR charges if you don't pay off all of the outstanding balance. When people talk about slipping into a downward spiral of debt because of credit card use, this is how it happens. Many banks make their profits on the frailties of the human condition. Late fees are an important profit center. So that's the bad news.

8. CREDIT CARDS PROTECT YOU FROM FRAUD: The good news is using a credit card protects you from fraud. Buy a faulty product that the seller won't repair or replace, the credit card company will go to bat for you and challenge the seller. Someone hacks your account and uses your credit card to take a trip to Rio and stay in a 5-Star hotel for ten days. Not your problem. If you didn't use the card, you are not liable for the charges. When you use a debit card, things get complicated because the money comes directly out of YOUR account, not the bank's. With a credit card, the thief sticks a straw into the BANK's account, not yours. That is the law and the law, in this regard, favors the consumer and that is YOU.
9. WEB SITES THAT EVALUATE CREDIT CARDS: There are many more benefits and limitations that are found in credit card offers. Since they are specific to different credit cards, I've listed below some very good analyses that compare credit cards. Here are several I like.

Tasha Lockyer looks at the "Top Seven Credit Card Offers." Her analysis focuses on consumers who have the best credit. The better your credit, the better the deal.

The editors at NextAdvisor list the best credit cards, broken down by features: lowest APR, best for travel, best transfer rates from another card, best rewards, best cash back, best student, best business and best card to rebuild your credit.

Value Penguin evaluates financial opportunities--health insurance, auto insurance, mortgage rates and credit cards. They throw a very wide net, comparing thirty-three credit cards across eleven value points including annual fee, APR, signing bonus and valuations of each card based on how many points or miles you receive relative to the cost of the card (which would include the annual fee). I know that sounds like a lot of comparison points, but Value Penguin has a very cool graphic that creates a visual comparison to help guide you through the advantages of each card.

Ben Schlappig writes a blog and subscription email called One Mile at a Time  with a monthly evaluation of the ten best credit card deals. His March evaluation is posted now. Because he updates his lists every month, I find it well worth my while to subscribe to his emails, which detail his personal experiences traveling around the world.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Anchovies and Chicken Livers Make a Home with Pasta

Surf and turf with penne pasta with caramelized chicken livers and anchovies. Credit: David Latt
For Zester Daily, I wrote about two ingredients I love: anchovies and chicken livers.  Not every one likes both (or either, for that matter). As with so many foods in our lives, dishes served when we are young put strong imprints on our adult palates. Most nights when my father came home from work, he would settle into his leather recliner and watch wrestling on TV. While my sister and I set the table, my mother would serve him an appetizer plate and his cocktail of choice, a 7&7 (Seagrams & 7-Up). His favorite appetizers reflected his Russian Jewish background. There would be plates of pickled herring with sour cream, chopped chicken liver, pickled beets and onions, anchovy fillets and pumpernickel bread that he ordered from a mail-order outlet in New York. 
Wanting a father-son moment with my father, who was decidedly old school and not much into father-son moments, I would sit next to him and share the appetizers (and steal a sip of his 7&7 when he wasn't looking). I definitely developed a taste for the anchovies and chicken livers but not for the pickled herring with sour cream! 
One day, with very little in the refrigerator, I wanted a lunch with a lot of flavor that wouldn't take much effort to create. With a box of pasta, a couple of chicken livers, a tin of anchovies, an assortment of aromatics and a few other ingredients, I put two and two together and made a dish that was light and delicious.  I wonder if my dad would have liked it?
In many Italian, Spanish and French dishes, anchovy filets supply a deeply nuanced umami that turns the ordinary into the passionately delicious. Italian puttanesca, Tuscan chicken liver paté and French tapenade are but a few examples that come to mind. Without anchovies they are good. With anchovies they are delicious. Combine skinless anchovy filets with caramelized chicken livers, toss with pasta and dust with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and surf dances with turf in the most beautiful way.
Pasta is wonderful and infinitely variable. Pasta can be complex or simple. For many cooks, the best pasta dish is one that allows the ingredients to shine through with a minimum of sauce. Toss penne with fresh English peas, a bit of oil and garlic, a dusting of cayenne and a fresh grating of Romano and all that is necessary to complete the meal is a crisp Fumè Blanc, a farm-fresh green salad and a dessert of fresh fruit with a nice selection of cheeses.
Chicken livers and anchovies are as different as can be. When cooked properly with a charred exterior and an interior still moist and pink, chicken livers are creamy and earthy with a hint of sweetness.
Anchovies on the other hand have a sharper impact on the palate — salty, raspy and tangy. Combined, they bring out the best in one another.
As with any simple recipe, this dish is only as good as the quality of the ingredients. Whenever possible, buy organic chicken livers to avoid the chemicals and antibiotics that can accumulate in birds that are raised in industrial coops. Skinless anchovies packed in olive oil are not overly salty. Because the fish are caught all over the world, experimenting with different brands will lead you to the one you like the best.
Spanish and Italian anchovies are especially good, whether packed in glass jars or in tins. The price can vary from an affordable $2 a tin to well over $15 for a glass jar of the same weight.

Pasta with Chicken Livers and Anchovies

Before using chicken livers, wash and pat dry. Using a sharp paring knife, cut away any fat, sinews or veins and discard. Separate the two lobes. Cut each lobe in half, making bite-sized pieces to facilitate even cooking of the livers.
Serves 4
Ingredients
1 tablespoon kosher salt
¾ to 1 pound pasta (penne, ziti, spaghetti or angel hair)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small yellow onion, washed, stemmed and skin removed, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, skins removed, finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only, washed
4 to 8 anchovy filets (the number depends on how much you enjoy anchovies)
1 pound chicken livers, washed, lobes separated, each lobe cut in half
¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only, washed
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
⅛ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 tablespoon olives, pitted, finely chopped (optional)
¼ cup cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered (optional)
Directions
1. In a 2-gallon pot, fill with water to within 3 inches of the top. Add kosher salt and bring to a boil. Put in pasta and stir well. Allow to boil 10 minutes, stirring every 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Taste and when al dente, place a small heat-proof cup in the sink next to a colander and drain the pasta, capturing 1 cup of pasta water in the process. Return the pasta to the warm pot and set aside.
3. In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil. Sauté onions, garlic and Italian parsley until lightly browned. Using a fork, add the anchovies, dragging them along the bottom so they break apart. Stir well with the aromatics.
4. Add the chicken livers to the pan, using a large spoon to move them around the pan so they lightly brown all over. Be careful not to overcook and dry out the livers.
5. At this point you have some options. You can season with cayenne for heat, add chopped olives for another layer of flavor, stir in quartered cherry tomatoes to contribute liquid and a bit of acid to the sauce and sweet butter for creaminess.
6. Or keep it simple and do one, some or none of the above. In any case, add ¼ cup of pasta water to the frying pan and stir well.
7. Just before serving, add cooked pasta to the frying pan over a medium flame and toss well until heated. Top with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese and serve.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Pho Ga, Lemon Grass Chicken, Vermicelli with Barbecue Pork and So Much More in Orange County's Little Saigon

Having written about Little Saigon over many years, I was looking at my last post from a year ago and realized I should update the entry. One of my favorite restaurants, Hanoi, closed and in the past year I discovered new restaurants and supermarkets I wanted to recommend.

Certain foods cause people to become rhapsodic. Proust had his madeleines. I have pho ga. At Pho Vinh Ky, the large bowl of chicken soup and rice noodles arrives with a plate of fresh herbs and vegetables and a small bowl of dipping sauce.
Traditionally, the herbs and vegetables are added to the broth. Rau ram, ngo gai, bean sprouts, mint, Thai basil, purple perilla, a lime wedge and thick slices of serrano peppers add brightness to the flavors. I love the dipping sauce, nuoc cham gung, a mix of lime juice, dried pepper flakes, finely chopped fresh ginger and fish sauce. Everyone has their own way to eat pho. Mine is to eat the noodles first. Each spoonful flavored by the pungent, hot, salty dipping sauce.
If you haven't eaten Vietnamese food, you have missed out on one of the great Asian cuisines. Known primarily for their noodle soups, plates of barbecued meats piled high on mounds of broken rice or served in a bowl with vermicelli noodles and stir fries spiced with lemon grass, Vietnamese food has spread into the wider culinary community because of the popularity of pho (hot beef and chicken soups with noodles) and banh mi (crusty baguettes with spicy meats and pickled vegetables).With several large Vietnamese communities around the country, we are lucky to live close to Little Saigon in Orange County.

My trip to Little Saigon begins at Pho Vinh Ky with a large bowl of pho ga (chicken soup with noodles), only dark meat, and a Vietnamese iced coffee with milk. Arriving early in the morning, the restaurant is cold and mostly empty. The large window faces a small parking lot bordering busy Westminister Boulevard. A dozen Vietnamese men and women are also eating pho. Their heads bent low over the steaming bowls, chop sticks in one hand, a Chinese soup spoon in the other, they eat the more familiar, beef version of pho. 
Because we live an hour away from Garden Grove and Westminster, the epicenter of Orange County's Vietnamese community, instead of eating several dishes at one restaurant, I'll eat one dish at each of my favorite restaurants, taking home what I don’t finish and moving on to the next one. If you hadn’t guessed, that means I bring freezer packs and a small cooler for take-away because the left overs are delicious for next day-breakfast and lunch.

In between meals, I'll hunt out the best bargains at the local supermarkets. 

Here is the list of places I love going to in Little Saigon. Hope you have an afternoon to explore the area. A few weeks ago, I brought home two live Dungeness crabs from ABC (see below: a supermarket on Bolsa at Magnolia) for $5.99/lb. The shiitake mushrooms were also a bargain at $4.79/lb.

RESTAURANTS:

Many of the restaurants only take cash.  Most of them open for breakfast and stay open until late (which can mean 7:30am - 11:00pm; but often it means 10am - 10pm).

Pho Vinh Ky
8512 Westminster Blvd, Suite F
Westminister 92683
714/894-9309

Next to the Stater Brothers’ Market, west of Magnolia, east of Beach (Beach Blvd Exit on the Garden Grove/22 Fwy), Pho Vinh Ky has the best pho ga (chicken noodle soup) in the area. The light broth is clean tasting, the dark meat is sweet and the noodles are chewy. The interior is nondescript. The waitstaff is friendly even if they don't speak English. Besides the pho ga, the other dishes I would also recommend the spring rolls with shrimp and pork, crispy rice noodles with vegetables and tofu, BBQ pork with vermicelli, BBQ shrimp with vermicelli, the pork chop with broken rice and the BBQ pork with broken rice, topped with a fried egg.


Vien Dong
14271 Brookhurst Street
Garden Grove, CA 92843
714/531-8253

When Hanoi closed, I needed to find a replacement quickly because my wife loved the restaurant's catfish with dill and onions that was served on a sizzling hot plate. Chả Cá Thăng Long is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. After a good deal of research, I found the dish served at Vien Dong, a large and elegant restaurant on Brookhurst in a neighborhood dominated by car dealerships. Besides the sizzling catfish (#22), the fried spring rolls with pork (#2) is also delicious. Both dishes come with a plate of freshly prepared vermicelli and enormous plates of fresh green leaf lettuce, cilantro and Vietnamese herbs. The combination of savory, crisp, heat, sweet and citrus has to be experienced to be appreciated. Just saying they are delicious isn't enough.

Grand Chicken Rice Restaurant
9550 Bolsa Aven (Suite 11E-1)
Westminister, CA
714/531-7788

In a mini-mall, Grand Chicken Rice Restaurant, serves very good egg noodles with lemon grass chicken, tofu or vegetables. The small portions make the dishes pricey for the area, but the dishes are well-prepared.

Dim Sum - Giai Phat Food Co.
9550 Bolsa Ave. #123, 124,
Westminster, CA 92683

In the outdoor mall next to Grand Chicken Rice Restaurant, there are a dozen other restaurants including a Chinese take out restaurant serving inexpensive, well-made dim sum.

Dong Khanh
10451 Bolsa Avenue
Westminister, CA 92683
949/839-1014

The first restaurant in Little Saigon we tried a dozen years ago, Dong Khanh is still a favorite. The restaurant opens early in the morning and continues to serve well past midnight. The menu is quite large so there are many different dishes to try. I always get the lemon grass chicken with broken rice, the fried shrimp (head on, in the shell) with pickled cabbage and carrots, crispy noodles with sautéed vegetables and, when we have a large group and we have the extra money, a salt and pepper whole lobster. Dong Khanh also serves very good iced Vietnamese coffee with milk.

Le Croissant Dore
9122 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683 (714) 895-3070
lecroissantdore.com

On the eastern end of a mini-mall with half a dozen small restaurants there is a French-Vietnamese bakery/restaurant called Le Croissant Dore that sells good Vietnamese style French pastries. One of the specialties of the kitchen is a bœuf bourguignon that’s spicy with unexpected heat. Served with a freshly baked baguette, customers eat in a small dining room within sight of the bakery counter or outside at half a dozen tables which are usually occupied by circles of men, talking and reading newspapers. The Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk is delicious but very strong.

Saigon’s Bakery
8940 Westminster Blvd, Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 896-8782
http://saigonsbakery.com

A few doors from My Thuan, an excellent Vietnamese supermarket, Saigon's Bakery sells breads, rolls and Vietnamese pastries, drinks and sweets, which, for most items, when you buy two, the third is free. People stand in line to buy the foot-long banh mi with a dozen different fillings. The baguettes are perfectly crisp on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside.

MARKETS

There are a great many supermarkets in Little Saigon as well as Korean Markets in Garden Grove. Each one is different although they carry many of the same products. The prices are also pretty much the same, but there are notable differences between them.

My Thuan Supermarket
8900 Westminster, Westminster CA 92683
(714) 899-0700

A large supermarket with excellent fresh produce, dried noodles and frozen seafood, My Thuan has better prices than most of the nearby markets. My wife loves charred octopus salad with potatoes. My Thuan sells both fresh baby octopus and large frozen octopus. The fresh seafood, poultry and meat counters have all the cuts familiar to anyone who shops in Asian markets. The quality is above average. The prices are very affordable.

MOM Supermarket
5111 W. Edinger Avenue (the entrance is on Euclid)
Santa Ana 92704
714/839-3939

MOM has a good fish market but while they have live seafood, the prices are better at ABC; they have a fantastic dried and fresh noodle area and great selection of Asian sauces.

ABC Supermarket
8970 Bolsa Avenue at Magnolia
Westminster 92683
714/379-6161

Great for live lobsters (usually $7.99-$8.99/lb) and Dungeness crab ($5.99-7.99/lb), they have a large selection of fish, some in live tanks, fresh and frozen. The produce section is excellent, with shiitake mushrooms, leafy vegetables, citrus, onions, aromatic herbs and garlic as well as fresh poultry (chicken and duck), beef and pork. 

Bolsa BBQ
8938 Bolsa Avenue
Westminster, CA 92683
714/903-2485

Sharing the parking lot with ABC Supermarket are a dozen other businesses, restaurants and bakeries. Bolsa BBQ sells freshly prepared whole pig, chickens, ducks and delicious bao with hardboiled egg & pork.

Dalat Supermarket
13075 Euclid Street  at the intersection of Garden Grove Blvd & the 22
Garden Grove 92843
714/638-9900

The majority of dried noodles sold in Asian markets use lye. One of the few companies to avoid using lye in their noodles is found at Dalat: Twin Rabbit Vegetarian Noodles (Mi Chay Soi Lon) Product of Vietnam - dried wheat noodles: $1.19.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Eggsellent – A One-Egg Omelet That’s All About Flavor

For Zesterdaily last January, I wrote about beginning the new year with an easy-to-make, good tasting dish that is healthy and all about flavor. After making the omelets through out last year, I think it's a great way to begin 2014.


A new year with new resolves for personal improvement is the best of times and the worst of times. At the top of many people’s resolutions is eating sensibly with an asterisk to give up everything that tastes good. To eat well doesn’t mean denying yourself pleasures. In fact, consider the gastronomic advantages of a one-egg omelet.

Three, two, one

A neighborhood restaurant we frequented for many years proudly publicized their three-egg omelet. The omelet was a plump 2-inches thick and settled on the plate like a seal sunning itself on a wave-washed rock.
After eating their three-egg omelet, I always felt like going back to bed.
Having consumed many omelets over many years, the realization hit me that what I like about an omelet isn’t the eggs. What I like is the filling.
At home I experimented. What I was looking for was a ratio of bulk: flavor that pleased my palate and wasn’t overly filling. Three eggs were never considered, and eventually two eggs gave way to one. Another significant milestone was switching from a stainless steel pan to the more forgiving qualities of a nonstick pan.

Thin one-egg omelet is a reminder of delicate crêpes

One egg creates texture not bulk and places the emphasis solidly on the filling. Just about anything sautéed, roasted or grilled can find itself tucked into the confines of an eggy bed.
Whatever the mix of ingredients, the key to a good omelet is creating a warm creaminess of melted cheese.
The combinations are limited only by your palate preferences. The salty-sweetness of sautéed ham, Comte cheese, spinach, shallots and shiitake mushrooms complement the pliancy of the egg. Grilledasparagus and Parmesan cheese, dusted with finely chopped Italian parsley leaves makes an elegant omelet perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Shredded lobster, Manchego cheese, cilantro, raw red onions, a dusting of cayenne and a small amount of finely chopped ripe tomatoes transform an ordinary egg into a culinary adventure.
Adding country-fried potatoes, buttered toast with jam and crisp bacon, a tossed green salad or a bowl of fresh fruit to fill out the plate and the one-egg omelet creates an enviable meal, heavy on flavor and careful about calories.

One-Egg Omelet With Spinach, Comte Cheese, Shallots and Shiitake Mushrooms

Use any cheese of your liking. I prefer a cheese that plays well with others. Strong cheeses, such as blue cheese, will dominate the other flavors in the filling. Mild cheddar, Comte, Manchego and soft goat cheese work well.
The recipe is for one, because making each omelet individually will result in the best looking dish. If you are serving more than one, multiply the number of diners times the ingredient quantities for the filling to create the correct amount needed to make all the omelets.
Use a 9-inch nonstick pan, understanding that nonstick pans are designed to be used on low heat. Because an excessive amount of fat is not required to prevent the egg from sticking to the pan, the butter is used for flavoring. Could the omelet cook on a nonstick pan without the butter? Yes, perhaps as serviceably, but that little bit of butter adds a lot of flavor.
Serves 1
Ingredients
2 teaspoons sweet butter
2 cups spinach leaves and stems, washed, pat dried, chopped
1 shallot, washed, ends and skin removed, finely chopped
½ cup or 2-3 shiitake mushrooms, washed, root ends trimmed, finely sliced longwise
1 farm-fresh egg, large or extra large
1 tablespoon cream, half and half, whole milk or nonfat milk
⅓ cup freshly grated cheese, preferably white cheddar, Comte, Manchego or goat
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Directions
1. In the nonstick pan, melt 1 teaspoon butter and sauté together the spinach, shallot and shiitake mushrooms until wilted and lightly browned. Season to taste with sea salt, freshly ground pepper and cayenne (optional). Use a high-heat or Silpat spatula to remove the sauté from the pan and set aside.
2. Beat together the 1 egg and milk until frothy.
3. On a medium-low flame, heat the nonstick pan, melt the remaining teaspoon butter and pour in the egg-milk mixture using the spatula to get every drop into the pan.
4. Swirl the egg mixture around to coat the bottom of the pan so it looks like a full moon.
5. Gently sprinkle the cheese on one half of the omelet — the half moon with the filling –and spoon on the sauté to cover the cheese.
6. When the cheese has melted and the egg is cooked the way you like, use the Silpat spatula to gently flip the empty side of the half moon on top of the filling.
7. Use the Silpat spatula to help slide the omelet onto the plate and serve hot.

New York City Restaurant Recommendations for an LA Friend Who Is Visiting the City

Ever since I was a babe-in-arms, I have visited New York every year from my home in Los Angeles.    I grew up visiting New York City becau...