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LA is a Helluva Place

Way back when, hotelier Leona Helmsley was charged with tax evasion and she became Public Enemy #1. A clever ad campaign lured guests back with the line…

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“Say what you want, she runs a helluva place!”

That’s the way I feel about Los Angeles.
I don’t know why, but I used to harbor suspicions about the place, that it was all just a big phony façade.

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But a peek underneath that glittery surface, like Jessica and Nick’s marriage, and you’ll find there’s more going on beneath that slick exterior than you might imagine.

Aside from the gorgeous fruits and vegetables available in markets, there’s terrific restaurants, easy parking, the World’s Best Movie Theatre (which also has freshly-made caramel corn), abundant sunshine, and some of the best examples of facelifts gone wrong to gawk at (Skip the Polo Lounge…the Whole Foods across the street from The Grove is by far the best place to get a closer look.) But the real LA, to me, is found in the juxtaposition of incredible wealth and over-the-top excess, just next to small Mexican food joints, and chest implants (on both men and women) so big they’re in another zip code.

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And smack dab in the center of LA is the old Farmer’s Market. You’ll find old-fashioned ice cream parlors, candymakers pouring and slicing giant slabs of hot toffee, powerful mixers grinding deep-fried salty peanuts into peanut butter, and jovial butchers with a rather fine sense of humor.

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But the best attraction at the market is the Loteria Grill. Tiny Mexican women, barely able to reach the griddle, spend hours chatting and patting out fresh corn tortillas, tossing them on the hot grill, then piling on savory fillings such as cochinita pibil, or pulled pork with pickeled red onions.

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My dining companions had the most beautiful plate of stuffed chilis I’d ever seen…

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Unfortunately, I hate chiles (when cooked, they taste like acrid, wet cardboard to me), but I was convinced to have a bite of the filling, which was a mix of pork and almonds. It was very, very good, but I was getting full since I almost I single-handedly polished off a jumbo platter of chips and guacamole.

And like the crowded freeways, there’s lots of directions to go for something sweet…

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Nibbling some crisp, buttery almond toffee, my friend Anne and I, took her big ‘ol Cadillac out for a spin in search of more.

Our first stop was boule.
Since I needed permission from the manager to take photos (permission denied!), I had to take our stash outside to give you a look.

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But our first impression, before going in, was the place seemed to have a patina of something foggy on it. The ultra-modern interior perhaps needed a good Windex-ing.
Few of the sleek chocolates looked interesting; most were painted with edible colorings and the contemporary fruit tartlets failed to excite. The dude serving us was very nice and offered samples of the ice creams, such as Cocoa Nib (good, but the custard needed more oomph0, Caramel-Cardamom (nice), and bitter Chocolate Sorbet (a bit grainy.)

My fascination, of course, was with les macarons

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I liked the dense, creamy chocolate macaron the best, and had high hopes for the Pecan Pie, but the taste was no improvement over the real thing…so why bother? I ordered an espresso, which seemed to confuse everyone behind the counter. One little cup was made, then was passed around amongst the staff, while they discussed at length whether it was right or not.
It didn’t give me much confidence. (Pet peeve #85: Espresso not served immediately after it’s made.)

We then took a ride over to a Mateo’s ice cream shop, where we were literally dazzled by the selection of ice creams and fresh fruit ices our south-of-the-border neighbors come up with. In spite of all the weird crap that people are calling food these days, I’ll bet you’ve never seen…

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Although the flavor was faint (perhaps thankfully?) I think it would be intriguing paired with sweet, juicy-ripe strawberries. I tried the Cajeta ice cream made from caramelized goat milk and a scoop of cafe con leche. There was also Queso (cheese) and Guanabana (or, cherimoya…which I had an regrettable experience with on a trip to Mexico some time back and was not to eager to, um, re-taste it, since I tasted it for several days after the trip…if you know what I mean.)

The last stop was in Beverly Hills to sample some treats from Sherry Yard, the pastry chef at Spago.

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Sherry’s one of the brightest lights in the pastry world and never fails to impress me when the dessert is presented. On my last visit, she sent out tiny chocolates filled with a gelée of Concord Grapes. There was also a Huckleberry Custard that showcased the intensity of the tiny, powerfully rich berries that was memorable. When I stepped in the kitchen, Sherry was crushing peppermint sticks and wearing a pink chef’s coat in support of Cook For the Cure. When I asked where she got it, she described how she filled her hot tub with pink dye… tossed her chef’s coats in, then turned the jets on!

I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind doing that.

Except someone from LA.

Loteria Grill
6333 West 3rd Street

Mateo’s
4222 West Pico Boulevard

boule
420 North La Cienega Boulevard

Santa Monica Farmer’s Market

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Tiny little heads of cauliflower, no bigger than a dolls-head. These were the most colorful I’d ever seen in magnificent shades of vivid purple and deep orange.

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Although America is known as the land of HUGE food, these tiny baby carrots are tender and very sweet. My first week as a cook at Chez Panisse, I spent a few hours peeling a case of them…only to discover later they were going to be blended up and made into soup!

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The actresses (and wannabes) trolling around Hollywood aren’t the only things nicely stacked in LA…

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Potatoes

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These are Improved Meyer lemons. The original Meyer lemons were disease-prone so they were re-hybridized, hence the name Improved Meyer lemon. They’re often mistakenly called a cross between an orange and a Eureka lemon since they’re as sweet, juicy, and aromatic as an orange, but with a lemony tang. But they’re not.

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Beautiful winter squash

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Stinging Nettles, which have lots of tiny prickers…ne touchez pas!

For more information on the market, visit the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market web site.

Winter in SoCal

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Sonoma County

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Just a short drive across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Sonoma County is a gorgeous winemaking region about an hour north (unless you’re me and have a horrible sense of direction and get lost…then it will take longer.)
But once you arrive, you’ll find that Sonoma boasts world-class cheesemakers like Ig Vella who makes Sonoma Dry Jack, a hard grating cheese whose exterior is rubbed with cocoa powder for ripening. There’s Craig Ponsford’s Artisan Bakery too, which won the Best Baguette in, gulp, Paris…of all places.
As you can imagine, that was quite an upset!

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The last of the persimmons, barely hanging on the tree.

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It isn’t California without Caesar Salad. But bread and butter alongside? Trés americain!

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This is ‘French’?
I’ve never seen taffy in France…or a goofy mug like that either.

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Just-harvested olives, to be pressed into California extra-virgin olive oil.

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Lucky plants…
Even they get chocolate too!

Seattle, con’t…

In case you’d like to read a first person account of my Holiday Chocolate Baking class in Seattle, Gluten-Free Girl came by to visit and posted about it at her site

And Sam posted about my class (and proposal) at Becks & Posh in San Francisco as well.

Seems like I’m leaving a few broken hearts in my wake!

Seattle

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Rome, Italy

In Rome, I was happy to relax a bit in my friend’s apartment between eating and sightseeing. I had brought some books to read, but I was thrilled to discover on the bookshelf one book I’ve wanted to sit down and read for some time, but never got around to it…

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In between reading, I did manage a few spare moments to find some wonderful places to eat.. steering clear of any huge ships, of course.

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Little balls of risotto, rolled into neat rounds with a morsel of cheese tucked within. Called arancini, they’re meant to (kind of) resemble oranges…until you cut them open, of course. Finding melted cheese in an orange would be a rather unpleasant suprise, wouldn’t it?

One of the best things about eating out in Italy is there’s lots of salads and vegetables, and restaurants like Campana have a huge selection, and you’re welcome to help yourself (don’t worry…Mangia!…eat now, and worry about the bill later…it’s Italy!)

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Help yourself!…Antipasti at Campana.

Many guests come to Europe and are surprised there’s not more vegetables served when they eat out. The reason is mostly because preparing vegetables is very expensive: cleaning and cutting them, cooking them properly, then re-cooking them to order. It’s much more work than tossing a piece of meat on the grill and serving it with some frites.

The casual and rustic antipasti tradition in Italy means many small, family-owned restaurants have piles of vegetables and salads, and you just help yourself, but…be careful…there’s always another course on it’s way, but what a way to begin! Big platters of wilted chicory and spinach, grilled, thick slices of eggplant, sweet carrots spiced with red chili peppers, mushrooms braised in olive oil and herbs..eateat!

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Fettuccini alla Radicchio

A simple pasta of freshly-rolled egg noodles and wilted radicchio. I love cooked greens, especially if they’re slightly bitter and this simple bowl of pasta didn’t disappoint. (Ok, radicchio isn’t really a “green”, so what to call it?)

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Torta di Ricotta

Of course, I had a couple of desserts (it had been at least a few hours before hitting my first gelateria) and I had a nice, moist wedge of Ricotta Cake. Little pieces of candied citrus peel and I suspect a splash of liquor flavored this cake, and it was moist and simple. And utterly scrumptious.

I didn’t share. You wouldn’t have either.

Ristorante la Campana
Vicolo della Campana, 18
Tel: 06-68 75 273

Although pizza is decidedly Neapolitan, if you can find great pizza in Brooklyn and New Haven, Connecticut, you can find it in Rome. Unlike jumbo American pizza that’s meant to serve a hungry mob, Italian pizzas are thin-crust and prepared individually.

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It’s not burnt…it’s perfect! Pizza with wilted broccolini and salcicce (pork sausage).

My absolute favorite place to eat in Rome is Nuovo Mondo. The room has all the charm of a high-school gym: bright lights, Formica, and brusque servers who toss a few plates and forks your way along with a big pile of napkins (consider it a warning: Things Are Gonna Get Messy). Each time I ate here, I was the only non-Italian in the place.

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Thin-crusted pizza, with a handful of cheese, fresh arugola, and slices of bresaola, air-dried beef.

What incredible pizza I had here! Each is hand-rolled (not dramatically tossed…this ain’t the Food Network), topped with whatever’s been ordered, and baked in a blistering-hot oven for about 1 minutes. Afterwards it’s pulled out, slid onto a plate and the waiter rushes them to the table.

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Simply Supplì

While you wait, order a Supplì or two, and you’ll be rewarded with a plate of tender pellets of rice moistened with tomato then deep-fried. I didn’t see one table in the place that didn’t have a plate of these, and since Nuovo Mondo is also a birreria, I can’t imagine anything better with a bottle of icy-cold Italian beer, can you?

Nuovo Mondo
Via Amerigo Vespucci, 9
Tel: 06-5746004

Other fun places I love in Rome:

Porcellana 55
Via dei Coronari, 55
Tel: 06-68806053

A small, but nice selection of housewares.
I bought a fabulous fire-engine red espresso pot there. Features Alessi dinner and cookware.

Sermoneta
Via del Tritone, 168
Tel: 06-6795488

Old-world shop selling hand-sewn linen kitchen towels, fine tablecloths, napkins, and aprons.

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L’Albero del Cacao
Via Capo le Case, 21
Tel: 06-6795771

A tiny, delicious little chocolate emporium, featuring many of Italy’s best chocolates, including Slitti and Domori. And if you’re looking for some edible souvenirs of Rome, why not pick up a few made from white chocolate? (Although I can’t guarantee you’ll make it all the way home with them. I certainly wouldn’t have.)

Innocenti
Via della Luce, 21
Tel: 06-5803926

Amazing selection of biscotti (it’s a biscottificio, after all) with an astounding selection of sweets piled everywhere. The rather brusque saleswoman at the counter wasn’t very helpful (she complained about how fat Americans are… perhaps she couldn’t see very well behind her…her butt was nearly as wide as a Fiat.) Still, the service was worth braving for the terrific, crispy cantucci, biscotti, and amaretti, richly-scented with aromatic bitter almonds.

C.U.C.I.N.A.
Via Mario de’Fiori, 6
Tel: 06-6791275

Upscale housewares, you’ll find espresso makers, measuring cups, pasta-making tools, and examples of contemporary Italian and European kitchen design. Think lots of stainless-steel and glass.

Espresso di Roma: Sant’Eustachio

The famous Italian “30-Second Breakfast” of a espresso and a pastry, consumed quickly at the counter, before sprinting off on your Vespa, is one of the charms of Italy. The coffee is so good no matter where you go, from small corner caffès to trattorias and pizzerias, the end of a good meal is always punctuated with a shot of espresso. Each time I sip a tiny, sweetened ristretto (a very small, or “short” espresso), I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes (yes…really, I’m a romantic).

I stand at the counter while the barista lowers the handle on the powerful espresso machine, watching the thin trickle of aromatic liquid. The bartender loudly clanks the espresso saucer on the counter with a tiny spoon and perhaps a packet of sugar, then moments later presents me with a teensy cup of very hot, toasty and deeply flavorful liquid.

Just a sip or two, then it’s gone; the perfect espresso.

And in Rome, one must make the pilgrimage to the most famous espresso in the world… Sant’Eustachio.

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The espresso at Sant’Eustachio in Rome is so well-regarded that William Grimes of the New York Times advised those in the US seeking the perfect espresso, “…When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant’Eustachio cafe. The espresso will be perfect. A little expensive, but surely worth the trouble.”

The perfect espresso requires a few factors: the pressure of the machine, the quality and grind of the coffee beans, how often the machine is cleaned and serviced, the skill of the machine operator and many feel, most critically, the water used.

(And in spite of what many people think, there is much less caffeine in espresso. Unlike drip or plunger-style coffee, the coffee extraction for espresso is so rapid and powerful, there’s too little time for much caffeine to be extracted from the coffee.)

No one at Sant’Eustachio will reveal their secret for the crema that tops their espresso, which is a thick layer of frothy cream that floats on top of the espresso, which experts claim should float the sugar for exactly 3 seconds before it begins to sink in and dissolve.

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I have to admit, no one at my table was very impressed with the espresso or cappuccino at Sant’Eustachio. The famed crema sat on top of the coffee like a thick, cranky layer of froth that refused to budge, rather than the delicate layer of silky bubbles that beautifully frames the rich brown, steaming liquid pressed into the tiny cup. I tend to agree with those that claim the secret of San’Eustachio’s espresso is a tiny bit of bicarbonate of soda added to their water (since acid neutralizes the taste of bicarbonate of soda, the slightly-bitter espresso would indeed eradicate any trace of that ‘soapy’ flavor). That foam was suspiciously rich and stubborn and I had to press down on the sugar, and stir, to get it into the espresso.

And the coffee was pricey.
Most caffès charge perhaps 80 centimes (about $1) for an espresso at the counter, whereas here it almost three times the price.
But admittedly, no one here seems to stand at the counter…most opt for the tables in the lovely, placid Piazza Sant’Eustachio overlooking the church. An unusually quiet little square in the middle of Rome.

Sant’Eustachio
Piazza Sant’Eustachio 82
Rome
Tel: 06-6880-2048