Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Geeks and Big Chips

I have known my friend Gene since high school but it wasn't until we were both in our twenties and venturing into our careers as writers that we really started to bond over our mutual geeky passion for words. He's one of the only people I know who can sit with me for hours discussing literature and bizarre concepts like madness' proximity to genius. We also like to eat and our tastes tend to range towards the cuisines of the Middle East. My first ever authentic Greek meal was served to me by his teacher mother in their modest home strewn with papers, tomes, notes and writing utensils. We typically get together once a year for some kind of literary trek and this year it was to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA. After a wonderful day of pouring through book store racks and hearing Johnny Temple from Akashic Books enlighten us on the current state of affairs in publishing, we ventured to Westwood to Gene's favorite food pit stop Falafel King.

I am now a complete convert and find myself trying to think of reasons to drive to L.A. just to eat there. This is why. At the fast food style deli-esque counter, for $10, you order the platter that comes with three large falafels, salad or rice, warm pita bread, hearty amounts of hummus and two sides chosen from a bevy of sides like lentils, slaw or eggplant. Not only is the platter huge compared to the price but at Falafel King, you also get a smattering of their signature chips. Chips at a Falafel joint you ask? Yes, big crunchy batter fried hot chips that are not like American chips but are more like tempura battered chips in a bright orange color. You dip them in the tahini sauce and become instantly addicted. I never eat chips aside from these. Thank god there is not a Falafel King in the desert because those chips equal huge hips on someone like me. But knowing that they exist in a place I can visit once in a while is pure heaven.

Unfortunately, I found out two weeks ago, that you can buy a bag of the chips to go. Gene brought a bag back from a day trip and I devoured them whole.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Homestyle Outdoor Pizza Making with the Hubbards!

Last night I attended my brother in law's birthday party, hosted by the dynamic and dashing Hubbard couple who live in the Riviera section of Santa Barbara's most beautiful hillside area where every outdoor deck is located in front of the homes to maximize the view of the city and the sea below. The Hubbards, who own the beloved Italian Pottery Outlet on State Street, have a stand alone outdoor pizza oven on their deck, and invited us all over for a homestyle contemporary Italian feast. Tables were strewn with traditional red and white checkered paper tablecloths and the air above was strewn with festive red and white globes. All of the adults showed up armed with wine and food to accompany the centerpiece pizzas that were made in batches throughout the evening. Menage a Trois red wine from Trader's, Cuban cigars for the men,  and some upscale Patron, and we were good to go.
An amazing spread of prosciutto wrapped ham in a basket lined with salami and centered with various salty olives, a stilton and brie platter adorned with apples and walnuts, a black bean and cream cheese dip (made simply from Trader Joe's fat free black bean dip combined with a slab of cream cheese and microwaved and stirred till blended) and an insane hybrid avocado salad/guacamole dip set the stage for grazing while the pizzas cooked. 
 Rick Hubbard, who has mastered a light, thin crusted flaky dough for his outdoor pizzas, told me the secret to his pies was not only the light doughs, but also the use of quattro fromaggio in just a light smattering across the disks instead of the traditional "gummy" mozarella. He invited everyone to come and create their own pizza and the varieties that ensued were all tremendously delicious. Think pepperoni, cheese and kalamata olives, or a divine pesto, cashews and anchovies version. With four minutes in the super hot oven, the edges were perfect and crunchily blackened while the centers stayed virile enough to host the main ingredients. 
The true hit of the night was a pizza first spread with a rich fig jam as the foundation sauce, then sprinkled with the quattro fromaggio and then laid with thin slices of prosciutto. After cooking a hearty pile of fresh arugula was thrown across the top. This was my favorite, and one I will attempt to make on my own often. I even woke up this morning still craving the tang of the fig jam mixed with the creamy cheese and peppery arugula.
I would also be completely remiss if I didn't go back to the hybrid avocado salad/guacamole that was so good, I could simply eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of my life. Forget the chips, I could eat this with a spoon on its own. So creamy, sweet and delicious and healthy, I will be adding it to my palate's oeuvre often! Basically, you chop one red onion, a quarter of a red, green and yellow  bell pepper, one tomato, and a healthy portion of cilantro and throw it all in a bowl with frozen corn kernels and let sit a few hours. Then you add seven large diced avocados, the juice of four small limes, salt, pepper, and white wine vinegar to taste and mix it all together into a beautifully scented mash with chunks still evident. This is so good that today, not even 24 hours later, my sister is in the kitchen whipping up another batch for our dinner!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Summer Love's Summer of Love Feast

One of my favorite places to visit is the Hadley household in Pacific Beach where my lifelong friend and yoga momma Summer Love resides with her sustainable surfer and land planning husband Neil. I often spend weekends there in their cute beachside bungalow for some R&R and good eats. Summer is a master cook of the healthy variety and has inspired me to make good, wholesome food that tastes great on a regular basis.

The last time I visited, we had the most delectable meal inspired by the fresh bounty of BeWise veggies Summer had purchased that afternoon. Be Wise is a Ranch in the San Diego area that allows people to show up at various locations and purchase boxes of whatever fresh fare is currently available. Summer's box of the moment contained wild purple beets, crisp carrots and some citrus.


Roasted roots and a phenomenal summer salad ensued in the kitchen as I watched her handy craftsmanship over some glasses of chardonnay.

This was followed by my own private cooking class to learn how to make her heavenly stuffed organic chicken breasts.

The recipes below encompass the entire meal. Served with fine wine, beach air, and good friends with their eye on the tides patterns, made the meal everso more dear.

Serves 4

Roasted Beets
Take two fresh purple skinned beets and chop into one inch cubes. Place on a metal sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Roast in a toaster over at 400 degrees for 30 minutes until caramelized.

Heavenly Stuffed Chicken Breasts
Take four chicken breasts and slit three fourths of the way into the breasts sideways. Combine two diced shallots, one small chopped white onion, half a cup of diced gouda cheese, two tablespoons of Trader Joe's roasted red pepper tampenade, a dollop of crushed garlic, and two tablespoons of parmesan cheese into a mixture and stuff each breast's middle with equal amounts. Place a toothpick in the chicken breasts to hold the mixture in and back at 425 degrees for 25 minutes.

Summer Salad
Combine desired amounts of raddichio lettuce, chopped red pepper, sunflower seeds, feta cheese crumbles, chopped avocado, sprouts and beet greens. Serve tossed with desired amounts of Summer of Love dressing.

Summer of Love Dressing
Crush one small onion, one big shallot, and a clove of garlic together. Mix with half cup of balsamic vinegar, a tablespoon of maple syrup, two tablespoons of tahini, a heavy dash of coriander, a dash of thyme and salt and pepper to taste.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cafe Luck with The Hamilton Co.

On a recent visit to Santa Barbara to meet with my clients, real estate professionals Josiah and Justine of The Hamilton Co. we decided to take our brainstorming to dinner at Cafe Luck downtown. Upon stepping into the authentic French bistro owned by LUCKY Jeans entrepreneur and local Gene Montesano (whose Lucky's Steakhouse has been satisfyingly feeding Montecito residents for years), I immediately knew the food was going to be good by the clinking of glasses and smiles of the patrons all sitting amid the dual wood paneled rooms. A short wait for my friends at the small, elegant bar inspired me to order my favorite cocktail-the negroni, which was served perfectly chilled in a glass tumbler with an orange twist by a genial bartender. I enjoyed myself reviewing the wall covered in cocktail napkins creatively drawn upon by guests that were neatly framed and turned sideways like diamonds.

The menu was equally impressive: a wide variety of unadorned and simple dishes featuring fruits of the sea, appetizer offerings that included octopus and ricotta dumplings and an entree menu fit to please any carnivore from braised lamb to filet au poivre to duck confit.

We started with two dozen creamy kumamoto oysters and I followed that with a beet and goat cheese salad. Typically I wish there was more goat cheese when I order this but at Cafe Luck my salad arrived with generous dottings of goat cheese shaped like tiny pears in the same fashion the beets were, like little presents lining the dish.

My entree of bouillabaisse was the simplest presentation of the dish I have ever seen. A medium sized boat shaped bowl arrived with a minimal amount of tangy tomato sauce topped with a hearty seared white fish, buttery fat prawns, and sweet green mussels accentuated by the anise flavor of al dente fennel strips across the top.

The Hamiltons, who despite the fact that they eat out constantly still both maintain the most fabulous physiques, ordered similar dishes of sliced steak in rich burgundy sauce served with the surprising and delightful addition of a round bone filled with sizzling marrow and a small spoon for which to enjoy with the dish! That creative twist put a perfect exclamation point on a great evening for me as I sat and listened to tales of the area while watching everyone else in the restaurant looking equally content. Summertime gloom wear garb of jeans and sweaters accompanied the fashionably chic. Comfortable and warm and simple, I will definitely go there again to try that bone marrow.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

El Kasbah Cafe Rocking the Desert Dining Doldrums

The cuisine of Morocco has always been in my top ten but I have been hard pressed to find the food in the desert until now. Recently, my friend Bonnie treated me to dinner at the new Kasbah CafĂ© in the Smoketree Plaza (next to Native Foods), a place that touts itself as serving French Moroccan fare. I was so excited to discover this simple, bistro style place where you can indoors or outdoors and laze away a few hours over the freshest fare. 
 Family run, the hostess greeted us with a generous portion of hummus and pita in a basket and a small bowl of pickled slaw. After reviewing the menu, we decided to enjoy some shared appetizers tapas style. Another plate of fresh hummus and pita arrived along with our choices. My favorite was the Zaalouk, a delicious cooked salad made with eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and spices that arrived on a plate like a dip, ready to be spread upon pita or eaten straight from the spoon. Another dish made with al dente julienned carrots and zucchini, was served room temperature and alive with a pungent spike of turmeric sauce.  We spent an hour lolling away our time with little bites, savoring the many mixed flavors.
Traditional entrees are offered like spicy lamb dishes, chicken adorned with hot yellow rubs, and others that are equally good, and I will definitely be spending many long hours here enjoying the family style sharing of authentic dishes.
I highly recommend that everyone try the Medieval Orange dessert. Not something I would ordinarily choose because my passions tend to run towards the dark chocolate for my sweets, I was thoroughly mystified by the concoction and my dinner mate (who’s taken advantage of the restaurant’s relative newness many times already) insisted that I try it. Glad I did. The “orange” was a round pile of what looked like a deepened rust-colored gelato. Upon asking, the proprietress told me that a whole blood orange is boiled in a pot with bay leaf and other Moroccan spices and then completely ground up, rind and all, into this lovely textural pulp that is formed into a ball and served cold. With a tangy caramel sauce on top and served next to a dollop of fresh vanilla bean ice cream, this was a sensory delight that I will order time and again throughout the long hot summer.