Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Holiday Gifts for Foodies and Cooks -- 10 Stocking Stuffers Under $15

It's the holidays, people are looking for gifts for their favorite foodies. (Including, ahem, my darling husband). I'll do posts later on larger gifts I'm giving to the foodies in my life or hoping to receive, but this post is dedicated to the often worrisome stocking stuffer. In my world, stocking stuffers have to be both small (to fit in the stocking) and reasonably priced (a Tiffany ring is nice, but deserves its own wrapping, no?).

Oxo Good Grips Swivel Peeler, $7.99

I love this thing. Everyone should have one in their kitchen. Everyone! Maybe two. I can't tell you how many sweet potatoes and parsnips I peeled on Thanksgiving without substantial hand fatigue. I love it!

photo courtesy of Ashley Rodriguez,
Tahitian Vanilla Beans, 2 oz. for $5.75
Disclaimer: I haven't ordered from this particular link, but they offer whole beans at a great price and I've heard very positive comments on the quality. Vanilla beans are one of those luxury ingredients that can really make a dish pop. They can be used for so many things and they're a perfect stocking stuffer size.

Vietnamese Cinnamon, $5.29 for 4 oz.
If you haven't tried Vietnamese Cinnamon, you're in for a treat -- it has an intense, true cinnamon flavor and a sweet taste that's a FAR cry from the cinnamon you buy in the supermarket. If you have tried it, you know that you can't get enough, and ANYONE should be thrilled to find a jar or bag of this in their stocking.

Silicone Pastry Brush, $6.99

I used to have an old fashioned pastry brush, and it shed hairs like crazy. Silicone eliminates this problem and is easy to wash. I have a couple of these and I use them all the time. (I don't actually work for Oxo, I just think they make a lot of well-made products at reasonable prices).

Maldon Sea Salt , $7.10

Salt is essential to cooking, and Maldon is my absolute favorite. It has a delicate, flaky texture that adds a salty crunch to the finish of any dish and a clean, pure flavor.

Salt Pig, $14.10

If you're using sea salt instead of table salt, your typical shaker won't cut it. A salt pig sits on the counter and holds salt. Its design keeps dust from getting into the salt, but allows easy pinching.

Jar Lifter, $5.99

This may not be for everyone, but if you're going to try your hand at jam or chutney making, I would say this is one of the few indispensable tools. I love my regular kitchen tongs but I don't want to be spilling hot jam and glass all over the place. My jar lifter holds the jars securely.

Set of 3 Floursack Towels, $8.95

In my opinion, you can never have enough dish towels, and the flour sack type are my favorite -- large enough to act as an impromptu apron, and soft enough to polish silver. White's a classic, but these also come in other colors.

Rolling Pin Rings, $7.80

I'm not particularly good at estimating the thickness of a rolled pastry, and my pie crusts are often uneven. These Rolling Pin Rings attach to your rolling pin and help measure the thickness of your dough. I'd love to find a set of these in my stocking!

Custom BookPlates by SweetWaterCrafts, $9.50.

Does your favorite foodie like to loan out cookbooks only to have a hard time getting them to return home? Get a set of these kitchen themed personalized bookplates to identify their cookbook library! If you want something that's more renewable and are willing to put in some assembly work you might also consider this Rubber Stamp from Modern Designs, $10.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dine LA Reviews - One Pico, Craft, Shangri La

LA had its restaurant week a few weeks ago and I broke my usual streak of never eating out (seriously, have you tried eating out with a 2 year old? Even with the best behaved toddler on the planet, it's not exactly a relaxing experience) and ate at no fewer than THREE restaurants in one week. Mini reviews below.

A note about reviewing Dine LA -- some people feel that you should never judge a restaurant based on a special event -- dining on a holiday, or during a promotion. Since the purported purpose of the DineLA event is to get people into the restaurants that otherwise would not be there, I personally think that a restaurant should actively be putting its best foot forward during this type of thing, instead of participating grudgingly. For the record, the pricing scheme of Dine LA has three tiers for different level of restaurants, and prices range from $16 for a 3 course lunch at a "deluxe" restaurant to $44 for a 3 course dinner at a "Fine Restaurant".

Meal One: One Pico
One Pico is the restaurant at Shutters on the Beach, which is an upscale faux-casual hotel that is actually right on the beach. I ate lunch here with my parents on my birthday, and have eaten there before.

Ambiance: One of the best views in LA, as you're looking out right over Santa Monica beach to the ocean. Room feels very light and beach cottagey decor, but with fireplaces for cooler weather.

Service: Nice without being obsequious.

Food: I started with a roasted beet salad with burrata, which was nicely done. The vegetables were well cooked and paired nicely with the cheese. It wasn't the height of creativity, but it was tasty. My main course was a lobster pasta -- instead of a creamy sauce that you might expect, the pasta was served with a roasted tomato sauce that was lovely in the cool weather, and large chunks of lobster. Again, not spectacularly unique, but well-executed. Dessert was a tarte tatin,with brown butter ice cream. I could eat a lot of brown butter ice cream. Portions were on the small side, but that was perfect for lunch.

Return: Probably (did I mention it's my parents' favorite place in Santa Monica?) The food is perfectly competent, and the view is spectacular. I probably wouldn't drive out of my way for the food alone, but it's certainly tasty enough.

Meal Two: Craft in Century City
This meal was dinner, courtesy of the fantastic Joy the Baker, thanks to my quick Twitter trigger finger. We were joined by Sonja of The Active Foodie (Poor Joy didn't realize she was getting into dinner with two lawyers, but we were very good and limited our shop talk).

The Ambiance: The room is really lovely -- one of the prettiest I've seen in LA, and they have a nice outdoor patio that looks out onto office building greenery. It is in Century City, however, which can't help but have a bit of a sterile feel.

Service: Pretty pitch perfect.

The Food: Really good. Everything we ate was really fantastic, from the Endive Salad and Salmon Rillettes (1st course, served family style) to the buttery autumn vegetable puree (side dish, also served family style). We practically licked the butter out of the potato dish. Joy and I both ordered short ribs as a main, which were excellent renditions of a classic dish, and Sonja had steak. Dessert was a particular tour de force -- desserts were presented family style, but included three butterscotch panna cottas with dates, three different ice creams (I think we all liked the salted hazelnut best, but the lime sorbet was a close second), a plate of cookies, and then caramel popcorn as mignardises. Craft is great ingredients, perfectly executed. You're not going to see deconstructions or foams, but everything tastes really good. (Aided, no doubt, by the kitchen's VERY liberal use of butter).

Return: Absolutely, for a special occasion (if I can get over my distaste for Century City.) I'm already pressuring the husband to check out the more casual Craftbar.

Meal Three: Restaurant at the Hotel Shangri La.

I met a group of L.A. Food Bloggers for lunch at the Hotel Shangri La in Santa Monica. In the interests of full disclosure, I will say that due to some connections of Erika Kerekes who was one of the organizers of the lunch, our meal was graciously hosted by the hotel and their PR firm. Also at the meal were Patti of Worth the Whisk, Cathy of Show Food Chef, Gaby of What's Gaby Cooking, Wendy of Pink Stripes, Cheryl of Black Girl Chef's Whites, Brooke of Food Woolf and Gisele of Pain Perdu. The conversation was definitely a highlight.

The ambiance: We ate outside near the pool. The access was a little strange (there was a VERY tall gate into the pool area, and I'm not THAT short), and the patio itself is nothing special in terms of view, but they've decorated it very nicely, with modern furniture and lots of shade. The dining room also seemed nice, in a modern and clubby sort of way.

Service: Service was very friendly, but quite slow. Lunch took nearly 3 hours. We fortunately had a lot to talk about, but I think the restaurant (which is quite new) was unprepared for a rush of diners during restaurant week. I'll give it some time to iron out its kinks.

Food: We shared some bruschetta, which were very tasty and fresh, with good, but not fussy, ingredients. My first course was a pumpkin lobster soup with vanilla cream which was fantastic. The soup was served inside a mini pumpkin, which could be eaten along with the soup, and the vanilla paired perfectly with the creaminess of the lobster and the pumpkin. Presentation was beautiful, and this was delicious. A real highlight. Main course was slightly less successful, but I probably ordered wrong -- it was a Niman ranch pork chop. It was served in a deepish bowl which made it difficult to cut the pork chop, and I had forgotten that I don't really like pork chops. This did escape the usual complaint of not enough flavor, but in certain bites the pig flavor was a little much. The polenta it was served with was fantastic, however. Third course was a pumpkin cheesecake, which was delicious and different from the usual -- it was flavored with cardamom, which was a nice match to the pumpkin instead of the usual cinnamon, and the crust was praline and ginger. Very tasty, and I ate more of it than I should.

Return: I'd give it a little time to iron out some kinks in the service, or go when you have a lot of time, but if you're in Santa Monica I would say this is definitely a good option. It's probably not a drive in from Pasadena just for dinner place, but it's some place I'd be interested in returning to see how the restaurant develops. And to eat more lobster bisque.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Top 7 Lessons from Blogher Food

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent this past weekend in San Francisco for Blogher Food, a conference on food blogging. I didn't get to spend a ton of extra time in the city (had to get back to my Nuni) and you can get the actual liveblogs from the conference presentations on the Blogher website (I attended Visual Track 1 & 3, and Vocation Track 2, and given that many of the presentations I was most interested in ran simultaneously, you can rest assured that I've already spent a lot of time with those liveblogs), so I thought I'd give you a run down of my takeaway from the conference.

Top Seven Things I Learned About Food Blogging from Blogher Food, 2009

7) Read Your Manual.
Every photography session leader said this more than once. The point is that if you don't know what your camera is capable of, how are you going to exploit it? I think there's a larger blogging (and life) lesson here as well -- know your tools. Know what they can do, what their limitations are, and how to make them do what you want. If you have more options at your disposal, you have greater control over the final product.

6) Know Your Audience.
A blog by its very nature is open to anyone, but it pays to think about who might be reading yours. Look at the search terms that lead people to your site, and what makes them stay. Think about everyone who might be reading, and don't condescend, or obfuscate. Break it down. This was illustrated perfectly at the conference. I really do appreciate the financial support of the sponsors, but there was definitely a disconnect between some of the sponsor products and the audience there. I sensed it when I saw Pillsbury demonstrating their EZ frosting in a can, and it hit me full in the face when lunch was the latest line of frozen pasta meals from Bertolli (unsuccessfully promoted by a very dashing Rocco DiSpirito). These products may be very good for what they are, but an audience of food bloggers means an audience of people who care enough about food to devote a great deal of time to seeking it out, cooking it, photographing it and writing about it, and who are more likely to decorate a wedding cake than use EZ Frosting, make their own pasta from scratch than ever eat the frozen stuff. (I'm not above shortcuts myself, but why on earth would I buy frozen precooked pasta when pasta is so easy to cook?) Like I said, I appreciate the financial support of the sponsors (and I buy Pillsbury flour and Bertolli fresh pasta), but the actual products they chose to promote were not a good fit with the audience.

5) Take Inspiration from What's Around You
I really loved the visual presentation given by Matt Armendariz and Heidi Swanson because it got me thinking, instead of just giving me information. And one of the things that I really liked was the idea of creating a visual look book of photographs that inspire you. Jaden Hair continued this by saying instead of a busines plan she creates a visual goals board to keep her motivated. I think that we try so hard to stand out from the pack and make our mark that it's hard to stop and remember that you can learn so much from what others are doing and find a lot of inspiration in a variety of ways. Listening to some of my favorite food bloggers speak, like Matt, Heidi and Jaden, but also David Lebovitz, Ree Drummond, Helen Dujardin and Elise Bauer made me realize just how much I have to learn but also how lucky I am to have such great models to inspire me.

4) Put Yourself Out There
In the Vocation Session 2 with Helen, Jaden and Amy Sherman, they emphasized over and over again how important it is to put yourself out there. Get out from behind the computer, go to events, meet people. Your blog may be your business card but what you're really selling is yourself, your expertise, your personality and your talent. I tend towards shyness (unless I've had too much coffee or too much wine), but I took this advice to heart and really tried to go out and meet people this weekend. I introduced myself to bloggers I recognized, bloggers I didn't recognize, an editor from a national publication. And response is nearly always positive. I didn't have a SINGLE person look at me, give me a haughty smile, and then turn their back on me (isn't that the fear when you introduce yourself to a stranger?). And the conference was so much more worthwhile as a result.

3) It's all About the People
A message that came up again and again this weekend is that blogging is not just about content, it's about community. Your blog doesn't stand alone, it's part of a larger community of like minded (and not so like minded) people who all care enough to participate. On a practical level this means read other blogs and comment on them, join Twitter and tweet and respond, do blogging events, and participate in the larger community. And after this weekend, I can tell you that the food blogging community (with only a couple of exceptions) is full of nice, smart, interesting, talented and funny people. They're worth engaging.

2) Be Authentic
Another theme that came up again and again was be authentic. Write with your real voice. Tell your story. That's the way to distinguish yourself. Because people are looking for recipes when they come to a food blog, but they're also looking for a person. And if you're not being authentic, you can't keep it up. I think the whole Rocco DiSpirito episode threw this into high relief. Food bloggers can smell the BS. And I assume my readers can too.

And Finally:

1) Do it for love.

This weekend made me remember WHY I started the blog in the first place. Because I love food, and I love cooking and I wanted to share it with other people. Blogging isn't going to make you rich (unless you're dooce), or thin (unless you're summer tomato), or famous (unless you're Julie Powell). But it can make you happy. Just like chocolate.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Blogher Food

I haven't had a chance to update much (either here or on the main page) in part because I'm running around like a chicken with my head cut off in preparation for Blogher Food! That's right! I'm taking a day off work and leaving the Nuni (for the first time! Just as she's entering a big mama phase. sniff.) and meeting 149 other food bloggers up in San Francisco. I don't know what I'm looking forward to more -- being really on my own for two whole days for the first time in ages or all the fantastic foodie folks I get to meet.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering 9/11

Twittering from this morning:

Husband went to work, I went to class. We were in shock. English Legal History. Later he came home, and we walked to Central Park. #on911
37 minutes ago from web

Watched Dan Rather on TV at 59th Street. Very Comforting. Still bitter he got fired. He was a voice of sanity in chaos. #on911
32 minutes ago from web

Worst part was all the "missing" posters. For months. All over NYC. #on911
29 minutes ago from web

The city was never the same for me. There was danger and sorrow in every corner. #on911
28 minutes ago from web

I thought I was over it - that it was long ago and in another life, until I found tears streaming down my face this morning. #on911
25 minutes ago from web

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Disney Dining

Once upon a time I took glamorous, grownup vacations that involved wine tasting and cocktails and stunning scenery and jetsetting. And then I had a child. And after much discussion we decided not to fight the toddler and we took our summer vacation at Disneyland.*

Now, I know it's cool to hate Disneyland because it's so corporate, but the truth is I am a Southern California girl and I grew up going to Disneyland (as did my mother -- she was at the press preopening day in 1955 with my grandfather, who worked for the L.A. Times) and it really is pretty magical. Add in an almost 2 year old who's just old enough to start to get it but not old enough to be scared of Pirates of the Caribbean (she can perform an excellent rendition of "Yo Ho Pie Life ME!") and it really was fun.

But I'm really here to talk about the food.

The thing about Disneyland is that you're not going for the food. You're going there for everything but. And what you get is overpriced. But I'll give you a quick rundown of where we ate and what I'd do again.

Lunches (inside the Park). My favorite place to eat at Disneyland is New Orleans square, and this is no small part because there are restaurants with table service and more importantly, air conditioning. Disney restaurants generally have kids menus, too, which is nice (not because my kid is more likely to eat something from a kids' menu than not, but because it's such a crapshoot to get her to eat anything that it's nice to have a cheap option. Plus she got a Disney cup.)

We booked one meal at the Blue Bayou, which is inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and is a fairly convincing rendition of eating on the large, lantern-lit patio of a Louisiana mansion next to the bayou. The atmosphere is terrific, which is good, because you're paying a lot for it. The food is expensive (entrees in the $30 range) and only OK (what did you expect?) Still, it's an experience worth having, because the atmosphere really is great (and did I mention the air conditioning?). If you want to eat there, book in advance (Disney has a reservations line) because it fills up fast. As for food, we shared the famed Monte Cristo, which is made the old fashioned way -- i.e., a heart attack on a plate. Ham and cheese sandwich dipped in batter and fried. And I mean DEEP fried. It's like a ham donut -- especially since they serve it with powdered sugar and blackberry jam. The upside? 1) It comes with a salad; 2) it's the cheapest thing on the menu and 3) It's by far big enough to share.

We also at at the Cafe Orleans, which is also in New Orleans Square, and also takes reservations (although we didn't make one). It's less formal than the Blue Bayou and can't touch it with a ten foot pole for atmosphere, but is also less expensive. We shared a very good chicken sandwich and a VERY good salad, which was a nice change from the Monte Cristo (though they have that here, too).

Dinner (Downtown Disney) Thank GOD for Downtown Disney says I. This option wasn't around when I was a kid, and it's great BECAUSE YOU CAN GET ALCOHOL. This is huge. After riding Small World six times, a cocktail is definitely in order.

Rainforest Cafe -- meh. I mean, there were animatronic animals everywhere, but this is after all Disneyland, where animatronic animals are old hat. The Nuni was thoroughly unimpressed (though she liked the aquariums, which are cool.) It's chain food with a vaguely "tropical" theme -- even the salads are heavy, and the food isn't particularly inspiring -- and it's kind of expensive for what you get to boot. Also, the drinks are weak.

Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen. (Hey -- I just realized we took a vacation to fake New Orleans!) This was actually very good. First, they have a great cocktail menu, the cocktails are real cocktails, as in they contain a discernible amount of alcohol and they're reasonably priced to boot (try the Sazerac for $6.50). We were kind of burned out by the time we ate here, but the appetizer plate we shared had some creative options (the blackened chicken spring rolls and the pulled pork sliders were standouts), the salad was interesting and the children's menu was fresh and tasty.

Snacks: Pack your own water (you can bring as much as you want into the Park), and some snacks, but expect your kids to beg for a) popcorn b) churros c) ice cream d) lollipops. The ice cream is fine, the churros are good, the Dole Pineapple Whip in adventure land is overrated. The Blue Ribbon Bakery on Main Street is not as good as it smells (though the La Brea Bakery at Downtown Disney is better).

In another non-food note, we stayed at the Sheraton Anaheim Park which is not castle-themed or swank or even super close to the park, but we did have a balcony with an excellent view of the Disney fireworks, and Disney fireworks should not be missed.

* This is not to say that one must stop all non-theme-park traveling upon childbearing. The Nuni used to be considerably more portable, and when she was 6 months old we spent a weekend in Portland drinking pinot noirs and eating fantastic food, and when she was 9 months old we took her to Paris, where they love babies, and Belgium. But two years old is not the BEST time for traveling. She is high on mobility and low on impulse control.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Picnic Time

Dragged the Nuni and the Husband to Joy the Baker's picnic this weekend. (Actually, husband thinks Joy is quite cute, and the Nuni is DOWN with anything that involves both a picnic AND cupcakes, so there wasn't actually much dragging involved). Nuni spent the entire drive over saying "Picnic! Cupcake!", interspersed with counting to twenty (her new trick, but don't be too impressed. She thinks eight comes after three and seventeen comes after eleven.) We got to the picnic and were treated to excellent fried chicken, cupcakes, kettle corn, and for the uninitiated, cheetos. The Nuni immediately sat herself on the ground with not one but TWO cupcakes and proceeded to inhale chocolate frosting (before wiping it all over my white pants), then spent a good hour running around and grabbing cheetos whenever she could (alas, my child is among the uninitiated). In other words, we had a fine time.

If you haven't checked out Joy's blog, you should: Joy the Baker
And if you have, I can assure you that Joy in person sounds EXACTLY like Joy on the blog. It's almost spooky.

ETA Picture Proof of the Nuni enjoying her cupcake. (not taken by me. My home computer has a virus and I am currently pictureless). This was kindly sent to us by Tom of Bringin the Cheese. Thanks Tom!