Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pantry Perennials: Pepperoni

Yes, it's the ubiquitous pizza meat, which I find funny since 1) I don't make pizzas at home and 2) I hardly order pepperoni on my pizzas (meatwise, I'd much rather have my pies topped with sausages, bacon and ground beef, and the occasional ham/Canadian bacon if I'm feeling "Hawaiian".)

But I keep sliced pepperoni around because it's such a versatile, multi-tasking ingredient, since it contributes:
  • Oil: Instead of vegetable oil or butter, I sometimes begin my stir-frys and sautés by throwing a few snipped slices of pepperoni on the skillet and wait for that brilliantly orange-red, spice-infused oil to leach out within a minute. I then take the pepperoni out and have vibrantly-flavorful cooking oil to start with.
  • Seasoning: for similar reasons to the oil, I will regularly add pepperoni at the end of cooking a dish to do double duty of adding saltiness & spiciness at once. And just like extracting the oil, it doesn't take long for the dish to be boosted with the meat's flavors.
  • Texture: pepperoni slices crisps up quickly and wonderfully, and it makes for a delightful change of pace from other crunchy toppings (breadcrumbs, frizzled onions, and heaven forbid-- Bac-O Bits, which I just found out don't even contain any animal products.)
While I can go on and on about my uses for pepperoni -- currently, my favorite is to crisp up pepperoni slices on the skillet & crumble it and using the spicy oil for a vinaigrette, making for a fantastic dressing & topper for a salad. Or, when I want a near-instant snack, crisp up the pepperoni and use the oil to grill a slice of bread and eat both with some olives or pickles.

Although I do rotate between a few brands, Fresh & Easy's is one of my regular go-tos. The flavor is great (just salty, spicy & complex enough), and I appreciate its lack of nitrates & unnecessary chemical gnarlyness. I also like its larger-than-norm slices (which I can snip down if I need to), and at 60 calories per 1 oz serving & priced at $3.49 - it's not a bad deal for the wallet or waistline either.

Monday, September 23, 2013

8 until 8 Happy Hour at Scarpetta

With powerhouse restaurants such as CUT, Urasawa, Mastro's and Crustacean, Beverly Hills isn't exactly a neighborhood where one can expect to dine without shelling out some serious dough. Until recently, my personal options on a budget in that area were M Café & Greenleaf Chopshop, both of which close pretty early and—while I'm thankful to have healthy choices—not exactly the foods I'd seek out when I'm feeling indulgent, in the "more carbs & fat, calorie-counting be damned!" sense, not necessarily in spending more.
Happy Hour Menu
So I was rather excited to find out that Scarpetta has a happy hour with plenty of delicious and filling choices. Furthermore, it's freaking easy to remember: 8 bar plates & 8 cocktails are $8 each before 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday [they're closed Sunday]. For those who prefer beer & wine, those are available for $4 to $6, respectively, during their HH. And when I went about a week ago, they actually had 10 small plates to choose from.

And don't let the term "small plates" fool you; one can easily get full from 2-3 of these sizable orders. In fact, on my most recent trip, three was perhaps a bit much even for me and I had to enlist Mattatouille & Caroline on Crack to help me polish off some of the foods, which included:
Porchetta Piadini
Porchetta sliders on brioche buns - mini sandwiches that are great on their own but made even better with the assorted housemade pickles, whose crunchy tang were a nice foil to the slightly sweet bread & savory pork.
Mushroom - Mascarpone Ravioli
Mushroom-mascarpone ravioli - their ravioli filling & sauce changes up seasonally, but I loved this variation with plump & tender pasta pillows filled with light, earthy mushroom-cheese, finished off a luscious mushroom cream sauce and a bright spinach puree.
Peach & Ricotta Salad
Grilled peach & ricotta salata salad w baby lettuce & toasted almond vinaigrette - a nice dish for those who want lighter fare, or just wants to fill out their fruits & vegetables quota, this salad was a delightful melange of flavors and textures: smoky-sweetness of the grilled peaches, briny-creaminess of the cheese and the soft crunch of the almond & lettuce.
My happy hour tipple of choice is the Noce - basically a Rye Old-Fashioned paired with some candied pecans to snack on.

But what made this already filling meal into a real belly buster were the assorted complimentary snacks that were also sent out with the order, including . . .
Chips & Nuts
. . . a big bowl of spiced nuts and platter of housemade, herb-infused potato chips . . .
Bread Service
. . . and their famous bread basket, which got LA Weekly's praise of best in the city with good reason. Asides from the assortment of accompaniments (whipped butter, olive oil & caponata), one of the breads in the basket is the stromboli, which is stuffed with gooey mozzarella, bright tomatoes and spicy salami (there's also a meatfree version for vegetarians.)

So needless to say, with all of this going on I can probably order 2 (perhaps even 1) "small plate" and not need another bite for a while.

And at $32 (+ tax & tip), this quickly became my favorite go-to happy hour (and early dinner) place in Beverly Hills, and one of few spots in LA where you can grab some classy bites without breaking the bank.

Other write ups about the Scarpetta Happy Hour:
LA Times
e*star LA
Five Pacific

225 N Canon Dr 
Los Angeles, CA 90210
(855) 370-8021

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Recipe: DNA Cocktail

In short, this is my hybrid of a Negroni and a Gin & Tonic (which I recently found out was the drink that enabled England to become an empire). I came up with this on the fly after a sweat-inducing round of tennis. It's got a refreshing fizz, pleasant aromas of florals and spice, mildly bitter bite and a wonderfully crisp finish.

Plus, it's super fast to make, so ideal for instant barside cooldown. Oh, and I guess parties too.

The cocktail's name is admittedly a bit geeky, since its components comprise of gin, Campari, Angostura bitters and tonic water; let's not get into the ingredient swap to turn this into a RNA cocktail...

Monday, September 16, 2013

Dr. Chocolate Appointment: Godiva's "Mooncake" Collection

As far as mooncakes go, I am a through-and-through traditionalist. Ok, I might not like that gritty-as-hell fruitcake-adjacent five-kernel filling, but I definitely appreciate it more than those contemporary "mooncakes" made with gelatinous/mochi skins and filled with ice creams, custards and other faddish shenanigans (I half-expect to see cronut versions injected with cold-pressed juices this year.) I'll take mine with white lotus seed paste & two yolks, to be polished one-quarter at a time, thank you very much.
Godiva Mooncake Box & Contents
So when Godiva invited me to try their Mid-Autumn Festival collection of mooncake-shaped bonbons, I disclosed to them my bias towards the classics before they even sent along the box. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the eclectic flavor offerings in these truffles, which according to their press release is already a hit throughout Asia and making their U.S. debut this year.

When I saw the spec sheet was in the box, I can't help but chuckle at how upbranded these chocolates were. There were mentions of single-origin chocolates and ingredients from seemingly fascinating locales (e.g. Turkish hazelnuts, Australian macadamia praline,) even the box itself is made to be a work of art (and actually, after I finished tasting these with my friends -- one of them took the box home to use as a tray to hold keys and assorted bric-a-bracs.)
Godiva Mooncakes
As for the chocolates themselves? They were actually quite delicious, definitely tastier & more exotic than the Godivas I've tried years ago. While I did find the fillings formulaic (in general, each bonbon's top layer is a tangy fruit ganache & bottom layer some form of nutty crisp,) I was able to parse out some of the nuances in each truffle. The white mini mooncake did have the faintly pleasant fraise des bois fragrance, and the dark mini mooncake did ring true with the tropical tartness of passionfruit and mango.

For photo purposes, I'm also thrilled none of these are caramel-filled, which would've turned into a runny-sticky mess when I cut them open for the interior shot.

My favorite of the set was actually large mooncake, with its dark chocolate shell encasing a rather sublime combination of pear, redcurrants and citrus. I actually give them props for not going overboard with last one, a common pitfall of many citrus-infused chocolate (even today, I'm very wary of bars, truffles and desserts that have chocolate and orange in the same line.) Having said that, it would be great if future Mid-Autumn collections were more Asian-centric in flavor choices, to pay homage to cultures that actually celebrate this holiday.

And like regular mooncakes -- this collection will cost a pretty penny ($50). But if you know Mid-Autumn celebrating folks who shudder at the thought of lotus & jujube pastes and not really into borderline slimy "ice skins", or are just chocoholics (like me!) in general, this collection may be the classy way to go. Just don't forget a get a paper lantern too!

Godiva's Limited Edition Mid-Autumn Festival Collection is available for sale online & at its California stores through Sept. 19.

Other stories about this collection:
L.A. Times
Mochi Mag
That Food Cray

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dr. Chocolate Appointment: Chuao's Firecracker Bar

I make no excuses for my daily Dr. Chocolate ritual (cheaper than actual therapy - I'd say!) or for my eccentric tastes in chocolate. One of my recurring unusual obsessions are chili-infused dark chocolate bars; I absolutely love the way that intense bittersweet chocolate gives way to chili's heat. Depending on the bar, sometimes it's a warming tingle, other times - a flash of fire. Either way, I love it!

And while I do enjoy many kinds of dark chocolate-chili bars—my regular rotation include Vosges' Red Fire, Moonstruck's Chile Variado and Cost Plus World Market's Chili Lime—my current favorite definitely has to be Chuao's Firecracker Bar (though their Spicy Maya is really good too!) Actually, 'current' makes it sound like some flighty fling when it's really been a years-long affair, ever since I discovered them in truffle form at one of their stores.

What really elevates this one above the other chocolate-chili bars is the inclusion of sea salt and, more notably, mini pop rock candies embedded right in the bar. You can let the bar melt on your tongue for a gentle fizzle, or chew it down for a loud ringing pop (I half-expect to see actual fireworks in my mouth, as if I'm biting into a wintergreen candy). Either way, that release of CO2 is not only fun, but briefly amps up the spice factor of the chipotle chili.

I've since moved onto to try other Chuao bars and flavors, and as tasty as they were (particularly Maple Bacon, Honey Comb and Pop Corn Pop - the last of which also features popping candy) the Firecracker Bar's uniquely delightful & delicious experience definitely has a special place on my tastebuds. Likewise for its more luxurious truffle, which I always make room for when I pick out a bonbon box during my San Diego excursions.

Other reviews of Chuao's Firecracker Bar:

Photo courtesy of Chuao Chocolatier

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Opening Night at The Taste 2013 @ Paramount Studios

The Taste 1
On Labor Day weekend, I was invited to check out The Taste, LA Times' annual multi-day food & wine event taking place at Paramount Studios. I was only able to make it to its Opening Night event, but had a blast hanging out with friends, mingling with industry folks and - obviously - sampling various fare from some of L.A.'s finest restaurants.

Untitled While about signficantly pricier than the other Taste events, I would recommend Opening Night if you're not into waiting long lines (none of the queues that night took more than a few minutes) or if you want to chat up with head chefs (who had a night off and were free to roam, taste, chat and sign - though some couldn't resist getting behind their respective eateries' boothes to prep and serve up food from time to time.)

Also wonderful is that all five of The Taste hosts from the L.A. Times are present too to mix and mingle, so you can get some lowdown on hot nightlife spots from Jessica Gelt & Betty Hallock, cooking advice from Noelle Carter & Russ Parsons, and of course, to dine out tips from Jonathan Gold.

But the star of the show is definitely the food, and I sampled lots that night from hot & new restaurants around town, along with ever-popular "classics," here are some of my favorite bites of that evening:
  • Mexicali's Ghost Pepper Rib Eye Taco - love the flash of spice the quickly gives to juicy beefiness.
  • Drago Centro's Corn Agnolotti with Freshly Shaved Truffle - wonderfully aromatic with a luxurious creamy filling to boot.
  • Osawa's Saga Wagyu Beef Shabu Shabu - I know it's clichéd to say this, but it really does melt in your mouth, and nicely balanced by the slightly acidic ponzu-ish sauce.
  • Coco Laurent's Shrimp with White Bean Puree - a fun, modern take on shrimp & grits
  • Oliverio's Braised Short Rib with Gorgonzola Fondue - admittedly, this dish feels more appropriate for cold weather, but I love the robust, meaty comfort of tender short ribs against the creamy tang of the blue cheese sauce.
  • Pizzeria Mozza's Mini Butterscotch Budino w Salted Caramel Sauce & Rosemary Cookies - I think this one is obvious...
The only bummer was the lack of craft beer representation this time around; all the beer offerings were by Stella Artois. While I don't mind Stella beers (and keeping the goblet after,) I did very much enjoy sampling local brews from last year's Taste from Ladyface, Monkish and The Bruery, just to name a few. Here's hoping they will make a comeback for next year...

Needless to say, I can't wait to check out some of these restaurants to try more from their menu (or revisit some of my longtime favorites.) And equally excited to see what next year's festival will bring.

More recaps for The Taste from:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Lobsterfest-ing @ Quality Seafood

September may signify the end of summer, but for lobster-loving Angelenos, it's also the month of lobsterfests. With three successive festivals taking place on consecutive weekends in Long Beach, San Pedro and Redondo Beach, it can be hard to figure out which festival to go.

My personal choice this year, none of the above. Instead, my friend conbon and I took off to Redondo Beach's Quality Seafood, already well known for their live steamed crabs & other seafood fare, for their monthlong Lobsterfest special.

LobsterFest @ Quality Seafood Instead of paying a $10-15 admission for the other three festivals, and then another $20 or so for the meal, our hearty lunch at Quality Seafood clocked in at a reasonable $18, and it included a 1.25 pound lobster (but it felt heavier than that), whole ear of corn, steamed potato and "butter" for dipping.

And the meal was great, the lobster meat was firm, succulent and faintly sweet, and the corn & potato were nicely cooked as well. They're fine with the butter, but I enjoyed them even more with the tomalley (five year old FDA warning be damned, especially since I only consume this once-twice a year.)

For $2 more, you can get a tall boy of PBR to wash it all down (though the wiser choice would be to hauling your thirst a few stalls down afterward and quench it with some craft brews at Naja's Place, which we did.)

I know, the other lobsterfests offer music, entertainment and rides too -- but if you're going purely for the food, you might as well save yourself some money (from the admission) time (from long lines) and scheduling hassles (from trying to figure which location which weekend) and go to Quality Seafood instead, any day through the 30th.

Quality Seafood
130 International Boardwalk
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
(310) 372-6408