Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sunday mornings & Backdoor fun

Now that I have your attention, allow me to elaborate.

For the last 3 weeks, I have been investigating what I once thought to be a San Clemente urban legend. It started innocently enough. Hungry & perhaps a little hungover, we walk 2 blocks to Antoine's Cafe, a cozy little bistro serving breakfast & lunch. As can be expected on weekends, the line was out the door & onto the sidewalk. I vaguely remember hearing that you can order Antoine's food from the neighboring bar, The Red Fox Lounge.

The Red Fox Lounge is a salty little dive bar accepting cash only. I have always considered it the "late night spot" as it is open until the early morning hours, a rarity in San Clemente. We refer to the shenanigans that occur there as Fox Tales. Although most folks leave around 2am, the joint reopens bright & early, 7am.

My guy & I go in through the back door, ready to explore the possibilities of finding a quicker route to breakfast. On that first fateful Sunday morning, it seemed like the bar itself had a hangover. Smelling like last night's beer & tequila shots, the interior was scattered with colorful characters who seemed like they never left. I became more optimistic when I spotted small tabletop menus with breakfast & lunch offerings from Antoine's. The bartender, a no-nonsense straight-shooter, quickly explained how to go about ordering.

Through the door marked "OFFICE" is a small closet with a sliding window that looks straight into the kitchen of the cafe. After peering voyeuristically into the kitchen waiting for one of the cooks to notice us, I spot a light switch on the wall. Once flipped, a red light clicks on in the kitchen. A cook stops, and comes to take our order. The menu is simple, 9 breakfast items & 9 lunch items, all designated by numbers. Ryan gets to order breakfast (his fav, 2 eggs over easy, 3 pancakes & sausage: the #2 breakfast) & I decide on lunch (my fav, BLT with avocado & fries: the #2 lunch). Cash is passed through the tiny window. We are told that we will see the red light inside the bar illuminate when our food is ready. Such a quirky little system...I am instantly charmed by the whole thing.

Back at the bar, we order bloody mary's (spicy, half tomato/half clamato juice, salt on the rim). Music fills the bar, crooner classics. The bartender seems to take great joy in quizzing the patrons with name that tune, reliving the classics from his glory days. Ryan, the trivia genius that he is, rules at this game. The atmosphere is entertaining. A 60-something couple starts to slow dance at 10am. When another couple starts to make-out at the jukebox, the bartender announces "Get a room, this is a family bar!"

Soon, the red bulb above the "OFFICE" lights up. Our food is ready! We re-enter that closet & collect our breakfast. It was the quick-fix brunch we were looking for...way faster than waiting for a table next door, not to mention the entertainment! I feel privy to a San Clemente secret.

For the following 2 weeks, we make this pilgrimage, albeit, 2 blocks. The scene is slightly different from week-to-week, sometimes quieter than others. Regardless, we enjoy simple yummy food, a morning beverage. Breakfast & a show!

Admittedly, not everyone's Sunday brunch of choice, but I love borrowing this entertaining atmosphere for an hour. When we awake on a Sunday morning and I ask "Wanna have some backdoor fun?", my husband can't seem to help but say "YES!"

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Salad Days

I've heard people use this term. Mostly older folks in reference to the time in their lives when they were young, carefree, and blissfully in love. I must admit, I never really understood it. Salad is boring in comparison to say, eclairs, but its pleasing in so many ways. I AM young, carefree & blissfully in love. So, I try to take care of myself, and my new husband too!

My new favorite salad dressing was a complete accident: guava vinaigrette. Side note: I've been trying to consume less processed foods...short ingredients list. If I cant pronounce it, don't eat it (Beware, my beloved Hagan Daas dark chocolate ice cream has only 5 ingredients, but don't be deceived, its evil). Ever looked at the ingredient list for salad dressing? I bet, 15+! Good news, any homemade vinaigrette is easy once you know the basic formula.
Basic Vinaigrette formula: 1 part acid to 3 parts oil
The start for every vinaigrette, yet sometimes I use slightly less oil than this ratio. It goes something like this:
* Create a base of flavor: For the guava viniagrette I used guava jelly (which we just happened to have in the fridge), minced shallot, salt & pepper.
* Add an acid: I used lime juice for this one (but vinegar or other citrus fruit can work)
* Whisk in oil: high quality olive oil will really shine here! Drizzle it in slowly while whisking until desired viscosity (thickness) is achieved.
* Season to taste.
Once you get the basic formula, you can substitute other ingredients as needed. Sometimes, its nice to include an emulsifier (an ingredient that stabilizes an emulsion: the union of un-blendable ingredients). For example, Dijon mustard is perfect for a lemon vinaigrette. For the guava dressing, the jam will thicken the dressing to the desired point.
Tip: Make the salad dressing at the bottom of the serving bowl, then layer the salad on top
With the liquid on the bottom, you can layer all other ingredients on top. Salad greens, layers of toppings, then toss just before service.
Try Sweet Stuff too!
Adding a sweet element is an easy way to balance the acid in vinaigrettes. Ripe mango & blueberries, watermelon, strawberries, dried fruit, candied nuts...use whats available and fresh! Culinary school focuses on method rather than recipes. Simple cooking ratios are way more empowering, giving you the chance to be creative!
Ingredients matter! Use the good stuff!
Raw ingredients really shine in simple preparations. Ripe summer heirloom tomatoes, aged balsamic vinegar, high quality olive oil (I used a meyer lemon olive oil on this one)...use the good stuff here!

No uncharted culinary territory here, rather a return to the basics.
Nourishing & satisfying, colorful & pretty too...I'm loving the salad days. Happy Summer :)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Adventures of a Kitchen Slave pt 9, the Emancipation

The Emancipation of a Kitchen Slave

Twelve months ago, I set foot into a professional kitchen as a paid employee for the very first time. My pristine chef's coat (among other things!) gave away my inexperience. I can't help but giggle when I look at it now, stained & showing my every battle with avocados, tuna, and worse. My arms look different now, scarred with multiple burns, which I've grown to think look pretty bad ass. My feet? I try not to look, just let my pedicure lady do that for me, show the wear of ungodly amount of hours spent standing. I wanted to find out if this crazy life that I read about in Kitchen Confidential was for me. Turns out, I'm just psychotic enough...this fast paced demanding job and ridiculous schedule, coupled with balls-out celebration after a job well done, is something that I can do, and do well.

Comparing my first day to my last is comical. I spent hours organizing the walk-in or making pico de gallo, something I can hammer out in 30 min now. I wasn't even confident in operating an industrial opener. My last day, I held down a busy station on a Summer Saturday...with a smile on my face. Yep, surprised me too.

I am in love with my completely crazy co-workers. I have encountered nothing but kindness, a willingness to help, a capacity for teaching. I am forever grateful of the amazing people I've met a Hotel Laguna...those who complimented me on improvement, those who helped me when I was "in the shits" (it was called "in the weeds" when I was a server in college, but I truly think this is a better descriptor), and those who nothing made happier than hearing me say naughty words (you know who you are). It was a far cry from Gymboree, but an amazing ride!

I accomplished more in the last year than I ever thought possible, on a sheer number of hours basis, and a growth through learning one too! I must admit, though, my honeymoon in Hawaii did something to me...made me realize there is a world out there that I've been absent from. I'm taking this summer, between semesters of culinary school, as a bit of a sabbatical...a chance to be a newlywed, to travel, to eat, to cook MY food. My enthusiasm is growing, not waning. I'm honing my skills on my break. I will continue to cook, to eat, and write (blowing a kiss in my mind to Tony Bourdain).

Sometimes, love manifests in strange ways. Deserving of the "whip cream special", my last night was nothing less than memorable. I'm aware of this restaurant tradition, and even brought a change of clothes. But, nothing prepared me for hearing "blue team, go", just before getting attacked from both sides.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

LB can really grind, yeah?

Aloha Oahu!
Channeling Anthony Bourdain, my new husband and I walk straight by the lady selling leis to tourists at the airport. The aroma of blossoms in the air has been replaced by the smell of exhaust, planes taking off and landing overhead. I count on my Hapa boy to take me straight to the good stuff. He does not disappoint.

Ono's Hawaiian Food was the first stop. Unassuming exterior, line out the door...good sign. The sign on the door read "Wait here to be seated. No get mad." Maybe the tourists in front of us couldn't read pidgin, as they were instantly antsy. "Let's just go to Taco Bell" (across the street), a line which will forever be cemented in my mind as "dumb ass tourists." As soon as they left, the line disappeared, and we all found homes at worn-down booths, walls covered with pics and newspaper clippings from their former famous guests. The sign on the bathroom door read "out of order", but when I asked the waiter he said "go 'head, it works."

At Ryan's suggestion, the Combo Plate was my welcome to the islands. LauLau (slow cooked pork wrapped in taro leaf), "How do I eat this?"...Dive right in! Lomi lomi salmon ("Lomi" means to "massage", salmon is massaged into the other salted ingredients, tomato & onion), kalua pork, poi, sticky rice, pipikaula (in short, Hawaiian beef jerky), Haupia (a coconut pudding dessert)...I am in LOVE! Ryan seems ok with my new affection. He pays in cash, the only thing they accept. $25 later (including tip), we are on our way.

Reveling in the fact that I no longer have a tiny wedding dress to fit into, I am immediately game for dessert. Oh Leonard's, this is my love song.

Malasadas are the Portuguese take on fried dough, something just about every culture does in one way or another. A doughnut without the hole, a beignet but bigger. The Leonard's Bakery cooks them to order, serving warm delectable clouds with a dusting of cinnamon sugar. I must admit to you that we visited Leonard's Bakery six times during our 10 day visit. We couldn't help but comment on the consistency of their was perfect, every time. I now have a new food baby which I lovingly refer to as "Mali".

Poke is an obsession in the islands. It's truly everywhere! My favorite was the poke bar inside the Tamura Market in Waianae. There were so many different kinds that it prompted me to do a little research. Turns out, "poke" is the Hawaiian word for to cut, or slice. Fresh cubes of raw ahi served with sesame oil & shoyu (Ryan was proud of me that I didn't say soy sauce). We switched up the variety from day to day: green onions, macadamia nuts, limu (seaweed), cabbage. We tried tako poke (octopus) two times. One time was kinda chewy. We ate poke every single day. I think had it before breakfast a couple of days?! My poke centerfold shot (would have felt so naked without my chopsticks) didn't make the screening process :) Oh, how I miss that poke bar.

Some of the best food of the week came from the Willow's Restaurant, the venue for Pakele Live concerts. It looks like Avatar inside, ancient trees and trickling waterfalls, and it has since 1944. I ordered the braised short ribs and had some concerns about only having chopsticks to eat them with. They were so incredibly tender, no fork necessary! The kimchee salad is an idea that I've already stolen...twice. The spicy fermented cabbage is tossed with lettuce and fresh cabbage, an amazing compliment to the savory short ribs. We also had the most amazing fried rice I've ever tasted, with bacon & Portuguese sausage, I couldn't keep my hands off of it long enough to take a picture.

Eating local food seemed easy here. The fertile volcanic soil works wonders. We feasted on ripe pineapple, papayas, local coffee. A little stand selling fried green tomatoes took this southern girl home in one bite!

Snow cones are dead to me. It's all about the shave ice! The machine rapidly shaves the tiniest of pieces of ice, think the texture of a snowflake! We visited Aoki's Shave Ice, because Ryan suggests that Matsumoto's is where the locals send all the tourists. I like mine with ice cream on the bottom (some folks do Azuki beans too), so about halfway down you end up with a creamsicle :) This one was served with a spoon & a straw (the straw was new to me), but was key in my enjoyment of this messy pile of deliciousness.

A place we would have missed without the help of our new Oahu ohana, Irifune on Kapahulu Ave. Server extraordinaire, Jahnys, takes care of every table in the house during the 2 hour window they serve lunch! The place is a local favorite. There is a television that has been converted into an aquarium in the lobby. While the restaurant doesn't serve alcohol, BYOB is welcome here. I trust the guidance of Jahnys and her ku'uipo Stan...lead us to yumboree. Irifune is known for their garlic Ahi..something I would have never ordered without guidance. It has been my experience that tuna cooked beyond medium-rare begins to resemble cat food very quickly. This changed my world views. The Ahi was cooked through, with a crisp sear on the outside, and moist tender middle. Still, I don't know how he did it. Marinade? Cooking temperature? This fully cooked garlic Ahi salad was magic! Another winner, the summer rolls were show-stopping...smoked salmon, rare tuna....wrapped in rice paper. After multiple courses, I'm still happy to see the lychee sorbet (palate cleanser) and the dessert arrive: bananas rolled lightly in crepes, topped with haupia pudding.

A perk of our lovely condo, I loved playing with Hawaiian food. Breakfast, made in my bikini daily, usually consisting of portuguese sausage, eggs & rice. I made spam musubi for the first time, which can't exactly be called fine dining, but did make my new husband very happy! Dinner meant playing with local flavors: macadamia nut crusted mahi over curry & coconut stir fry vegetables. Blame it on the Honeymoon, food seemed very sensual on this trip. As in, pleasing to many of the senses...taste, smell, feel, sound. We revel in all the good things in life. After 10 days of near-gluttony, I'm still not ready to come back. I did say my appetite was insatiable, yeah?