Friday, February 26, 2010

What's Your Diet I.D.?

My diet is having an identity crisis. It needs a label to describe it. You know, so at dinner parties I don’t have to say, “I’m primarily a vegetarian, but once in a while I'll eat a sentient being—mostly chicken or fish, but sunlight-restricted calves are definitely out, as are bunnies and lambs because they’re so darn cute, but when I'm at a luau and there's a pig roasting on a spit, well, I never say never, so I guess that makes me a flexitarian which is really just a vegetarian who cheats, and since I try to eat local ingredients I might be a locavore, which in the end would mean I'm a vegetarian who cheats close by." Phew! Is it tomorrow yet?

In fact, I’ve been thinking that everyone should carry with them diet identification—a bar code tattooed on your stomach that can be scanned at restaurants, dinner parties, hospitals, etc. that says whether you’re an omnivore, carnivore, locavore, flexitarian, pescatarian, pollotarian, raw foodist, vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, lactating-ovulating vegetarian, lactose-intolerant vegetarian, vegan, bi-curious vegan (fantasizes about eggs and milk), gluten-free, glutton-free, or decline to state. I could go on, but I wore myself out.

On the other hand, it’s taken me all these years to remember my social security number. Now I’m supposed to memorize a behemoth, multi-syllabic moniker with more shades of ambiguity than Ryan Seacrest’s hair? Until I’ve decided on one, I’m going with gluttonous maximous.

What’s your diet I.D.?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ode to a Bitter Melon

I empathize, my odious one

You put such terror on the tongue

If I were as acrid as you

I would be bitter too

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Roasted Cauliflower and Red Lentil Soup

You might call this surprising combination The Accidental Lentil.
I admit it. This unpredictable pairing was not some grand design by my overachieving uberpalate. It was pure serendipity, thanks to a fridge full of leftover cauliflower eager to escape four cold walls and hop a freighter to Mumbai. Sure, a big shout-out goes to Ms. Cauli Flower, but I'm taking full credit here for this hearty, Indian-inspired comfort concoction.

I’ve made my own version of red lentil soup many times, but in this instance, I had on hand some cauliflower florets and garbanzo beans I had roasted in olive oil and curry powder with cumin and coriander seeds. I figured since the spice stars of this soup are cumin and turmeric (ok, there's also Ginger Spice, and maybe Posh), the pre-seasoned cauliflower would blend nicely. Plus, I'd have a vacancy in my fridge I could sublet.

What I gleaned from this leftover derring-do is that red lentils don’t mind sharing the spotlight. I would venture to say you could put any vegetable in this soup, like squash, eggplant, mushrooms or peppers (in Turkey they use rice or bulgar), and it would be yum with a capital Y. You can omit the cauliflower altogether—and to be honest, I would probably delete the garbanzos—but if you have something on hand you want to use up and you think it would co-exist harmoniously, have at it. The red lentils won’t mind. They’re really magnanimous that way.


1½ cups red lentils

6-8 cups water (start with less and add more if needed)

1 small-medium onion, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, minced

½ inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced

1 large carrot, diced

2 cups cooked cauliflower (optional) in small florets

2 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp coriander seeds (optional), crushed with mortar and pestle

1½ tsp cumin powder

2 tsp turmeric powder

1-2 TBSP olive oil

Salt to taste (start with ½ tsp)

Black pepper to taste

In a Dutch oven, sauté the onions in olive oil until golden. Add the ginger, garlic, cumin and coriander seeds and sauté for two more minutes. Add the carrots, then the lentils and coat with the oil. Add the water and spices and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for about 40 minutes. Add cooked cauliflower or other vegetables about 10 minutes before it's done. Cook soup longer if you think it needs it, and correct seasonings as you go. Either purée in a food processor or serve as is (pictured here was not puréed).

Makes 4-5 servings

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Prefer the Company of Cheese

I’ve learned to not be disappointed when an eligible man disappoints. It’s a good skill for a single woman living in Los Angeles to have. Recently I went to a party with a friend in the Hollywood Hills, and I put it to good use. There were oddball artists and weirdos who were so out there, we felt like extras in a Fellini movie. For the first time in my life, I was pushing normal.

There was Harold and Maude—a fortyish guy getting all handsy with his 75-year-old date. Another well-seasoned woman was sitting stony-faced on a sofa with one hand trembling from Parkinson’s while her equally seasoned date’s fingers were doing the catwalk across her runway in slo-mo. Did I need to see this? Apparently so. A while later, I looked up and the old man had been replaced by a younger man, and his hand was doing the hokey-pokey across her shoulders. "Who are these people," I asked my last remaining brain cell.

Then I spotted an age-appropriate keyboard player whose fingers were doing the walking across an electric piano. "This guy is good," I told my friend, so she subtly made herself scarce. She knows I’m a sucker for a guy with smokin' chops, and for once, I’m not talking food. I seemed to go for the broke, brooding ones, and this gem showed real promise. So there we were, having a nuanced discussion about Bill Evans, when in mid-sentence, poof, he was gone. Did I know why he left or where he went? Nope. But that was all behind me. I was already onto the next one, making goo-goo eyes at a hunk across the room. Well-built with a creamy complexion, that cheese platter and I were destined for each other. Truth be told, I have come to prefer the company of cheese. And what a handsome wedge he was. Gentle and rich, Brie would never leave me. Just ask my thighs.

After each tastebud reveled in its infatuated, dopamine-fueled stupor, I moved back to where I was sitting by the vacated keyboard and awaited my girlfriend's return. That's when a white-haired John Edwards-looking guy with a lazy eye took a liking to me. I have nothing against lazy eyes. Mine aren’t exactly uber-achievers themselves. In fact, they’ve gotten so bad, he was looking pretty good.

“You look lonely over here,” he said.

“You’re not bad looking,” I thought. “But not compared to the hunk I just had.”

"Where you from?"

"Texas," I said, not proud.

"Really? I would've guessed back East."


"Do you have siblings?"

"A brother and sister."

"Are they as beautiful as you?"

That was the moment my uncontrollable laughter and utter disgust joined forces to form an inexplicable synergy. This guy was the reigning doofus of bad come-ons, yet out of sheer politeness, I continued to endure the horror. Then, out of the blue, poof, he was gone. Moments later, I saw him across the room getting all touchy-feely with the tatoo on a woman who had not won any recent beauty pageants. "Who are these people," I repeated to brain cell.

Half an hour later, as Lazy Eye was sucking face with another big-top bit player, he looked up and glanced over at me, longingly, as if I were still the one. Was I upset that my love life had devolved into a freak-filled Fellini-fest? Nope. 'Cause I knew a hot guy named Jack was waiting for me at home. Pepper Jack.

* I took this photo of heart-shaped cheese at Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Travel Bite: Market Day, Chiapas, Mexico

I took these photos on market day in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, the southernmost state that borders Guatemala. San Cristóbal was an original Zapatista rebel stronghold, but today it's much safer than it once was. This fascinating place rooted in Mayan culture is the main market town for the Mayan Indians who live in all the surrounding villages—a colorful region known for its textiles, crafts and coffee.

The Mayans carry their chickens like the French carry their baguettes.

Since I was the only gringa at the mercado, it was tricky taking pictures without standing out. The Indians weren't really jonesing for a Kodak moment, you know?

Note to self: next time bring along a chicken so you'll blend.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Apple-Raisin Slaw

I'm no guru, but I did just start my own slaw food movement.
Sure, the slow food movement is something to aspire to, but my slaw food movement is a lot faster. I still used local ingredients from the farmer’s market and made this in the most gastronomically virtuous way. I just didn’t spend all day fermenting in the kitchen.

Apples are the star of this semisweet slaw with the purple cabbage canvas, orange carrot highlights and dots of golden raisins. The sweetness from the apples, raisins and carrots create the perfect counterpoint to the zestiness of the shallots and Dijon vinaigrette. It’s light, crisp and fresh, and its incredible color combination makes a pretty slaw-some presentation.


4 cups shredded red cabbage

1 large carrot, grated

1/3 cup golden raisins

2 unpeeled, sweet apples like Gala or other red variety

1 tsp minced shallot

¼ cup olive oil

3 tsp apple cider or red wine vinegar (a combination of both works well)

1 tsp Dijon mustard

Pinch of salt

Place shredded cabbage, carrots, raisins and apples in a large bowl. Whisk olive oil, vinegar, Dijon and salt together. Add the minced shallot to mixture. Toss the slaw with the dressing and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Makes 4 servings

Sunday, February 7, 2010

“Shhhh. I’ll take it for later.”

As I mentioned before, my mother was the Brinks truck of second-hand food. Not only did she carry baggies in her purse to restaurants, she could have taught a master class in Leftover Transport or started a government program called No Bite Left Behind.

At buffets—her favorite—she was like a pro baseball catcher behind the plate. Ready to take a leftover out, she would coyly slide it into her baggie, strategically poised over the giant purse on her lap, out of eyeshot from the crowd. She was an agile, efficient athlete with practiced moves designed to deflect attention from her game. Any family member or friend who went out to eat with us was on to her, but out of embarrassment, we all just played along as outfielders, looking into the stands, oblivious to what was happening at the plate.

One time, my parents took my brother and I to visit our older sister at college in Austin. The five of us were sitting at one of those long, family-style tables having an all-you-can-eat lunch at her dorm cafeteria. As mom was blissfully imbibing in her prefab, prix fixe dorm meal, all of a sudden, dad turned to her and asked if she needed a baggie. Then he whipped out a brown Hefty garbage bag from his pants—a humongous receptacle designed to hold a month's worth of leaves or a week's worth of refuse. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he proudly held it in the air. Nostrils flared, lips apart in laughter, he could hardly contain himself. You could tell he had been planning this little prank for some time, and he was clearly pleased with himself. Yep, we all busted a gut over that one.
Somewhere along the way, mom had upped her game by carrying one of those Little Oscar coolers in the car so we could stop at the mall after going out to eat without having to worry about the leftovers. She eventually got a second cooler that she wryly called Little Felix, and on certain occasions, she’d bring both Oscar and Felix along. Neil Simon might've even busted a gut over that one.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ode to an Olive Branch

It may be peace you represent

But tapenade is your true bent

That salty flesh upon my tongue

Makes me glad you’re so well-hung

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ricotta Cheesecake

This is the Fred Astaire of cheesecake.*
Make that Federico Astaire. It's so elegant and light on its feet, one bite and you’ll be singing I’m in Heaven in Italiano.

Ricotta makes this Italian cheesecake lighter than the New York type made with cream cheese. But what it lacks in over-the-top richness, it makes up for with deep, almond amaretti cookie-crust intensity, as well as brightly flavored rum and lemon zest in the filling.

The recipe from Baking Illustrated said to let the ricotta drain in a paper towel overnight, but I've deleted the draining directions since I found it totally unnecessary. After going to four stores in my quest for a decent ricotta, I still ended up with a store-bought one full of stabilizers. And after it drained overnight, I had to put out an APB on it looking for the liquid. With all that guar gum, carageenan and silly putty, it’s a wonder there’s room for the cheese. Yet, even with the store-boughta ricotta, the cake was rich, vibrant and delicious. But next time, I'll search the heavens to find a ricotta worth dancing about.

*Recipe does not call for Ginger


Serves 8 to 10

Amaretti Cookie Crust

2 heaping cups (4 oz by weight) amaretti cookies, processed in a food processor to uniformly fine crumbs

5 TBSP unsalted butter, melted, plus 1 TBSP melted butter for greasing the pan

Ricotta Filling

2 pounds ricotta cheese, drained (I found this unnecessary)

4 large eggs, separated

¾ cup (5 ¼ oz) sugar

¼ cup light rum

1 TBSP unbleached all-purpose flour

Grated zest of 1 medium lemon

2 tsps vanilla extract

1/8 tsp salt

  1. For the crust: Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the amaretti crumbs and 5 tablespoons of the melted butter and toss with a fork until evenly moistened. Brush the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with most of the remaining 1 tablespoon melted butter, making sure to leave enough to brush the sides of the pan after the crust cools. Empty the crumbs into the springform pan and press them evenly into the pan bottom. Bake until fragrant and beginning to brown around the edges, about 13 minutes. Cool on a wire rack to room temperature, about 30 minutes. (Do not turn off the oven.) Brush the sides of the springform pan with the remaining butter.
  2. For the filling: While the crust cools, place the (drained) ricotta in a food processor and process until very smooth, about 1 minute. Add the egg yolks, sugar, rum, flour, lemon zest, vanilla, and salt and process until blended, about 1 more minute. Scrape the mixture into a large bowl.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites at high speed until they hold stiff peaks. Fold the whites into the ricotta mixture and pour the mixture evenly into the cooled crust.
  4. Bake the cheesecake until the top is lightly browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center reads about 150 degrees, about 1¼ hours. (The perimeter of the cake should be firm, but the center will jiggle slightly. It will solidify further as the cake cools.) Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Run a paring knife between the cake and the side of the springform pan. Cool until barely warm, 2½ to 3 hours. Wrap the pan tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until the cheesecake is cold and set, at least 5 hours or up to 2 days.
  5. To unmold the cheesecake, remove the sides of the pan. Let the cheesecake stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then cut it into wedges and serve.