I’ve Got Dreams To Remember.

Here’s a dream I have — and by dream I don’t mean the kind where you close your eyes at night and your mind takes you somewhere strange and unfamiliar against your will. When I say dream in this instance what I mean is the kind that you have when you rest your cheek against your palm and give life a solid ponder, like an angel.

I dream of going to LA. I dream that I rent a little apartment in the middle of the city. The apartment is white and tired, but clean, so although the linoleum is peeling and cracked like an old sunburn, it also seems fresh. In this LA dream I don’t tell anyone I’m in the city. Instead I anonymously walk the same streets as my grandparents: Harvard, Vermont, New Hampshire — names I never realized would conjure up entirely different landscapes for my adult self. In my dream I place my feet in the same exact spaces my grandparents’ once occupied on the concrete sidewalks and I follow their footprints to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the fruit stand. I buy apricots by the pound, bags and bags of them. When I get back to my clean white and empty apartment, I sit on the floor and swallow them whole.

I don’t know if my grandfather was a sweet man, since we were never really able to communicate. His English wasn’t a strength, and I was too embarrassed to use the Armenian I had when I was a sour and ornery teenager, but when I was a young child visiting LA he used to take me to buy fruit from a street vendor. The man had apricots, always, and he sold them from rectangular woven baskets on the sidewalk. My grandfather would let me pick as many as I wanted, and when we got back to the orange and brown apartment he shared with my grandmother, he and I would eat the apricots right out of the paper bag, along with baby almonds, which are encased in a fuzzy pistachio green shell and taste bitter. I didn’t know my grandfather well, and we were never able to get to know one another well, but he always fed me well.

When he died, I was in Hawaii with my mother’s family, embarrassed to be chauffeured around Oahu in a white Hummer limousine alongside eighteen relatives chattering away in Visayan. My brother and I eventually rented our own car, a marigold-yellow 4×4, because apparently mainlanders are forbidden from driving anything that isn’t laughable.

I’ve never seen my father cry, not really, but on the phone he keened and I imagined him sitting desolately on his great big brass bed, his sweatshirted arms around himself, the dog on a cushion in front of the TV. That day there were five thousand miles and five time zones between us and even if he had been five steps away I imagine my father would have felt just as alone. He forbade us from flying home. Years later I visited my grandfather at Forest Lawn, where his grave marker lay alongside my grandmother’s and great-uncle’s. There was a drought, unsurprisingly, and the grass was crunchy and brown underneath our feet.

Today I sat in traffic on 93 South, drinking coffee out of a paper cup and talking to my father on the phone. I let the conversation drift before asking him for a good memory of his father. Without even the skimpiest of pauses he said his father encouraged him to excel at a trade. Another great-uncle had been an exalted judge, my father explained; when he and his family arrived in Syria as refugees from the Armenian Genocide, the great-uncle had been unable to find work since he didn’t speak Arabic.

It was a cautionary tale my father took to heart, but he added his own addendum: education. His dream, as a man who never set foot in a high school as a student, was college. When he was unable to fulfill it, he adjusted his aspirations and instead imagined the colleges my brother and I would attend. He didn’t know us yet, of course, but he dreamed to one day be so successful he could send his theoretical children to schools of their choosing.

That, he told me, was the best memory of his father: learning how to plan for us.

* “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” by Otis Redding.

Ben’s Kitchen in LA.

Where do you live?
I live in Los Angeles, California — specifically Studio City.

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How often do you cook or bake?
Since I was laid off a month ago, I’ve been trying my hardest to conserve money and not go out for meals. So as of late: nearly every meal is a home-cooked one. (And when they’re not, I opt for the semi-cheap, entirely-delicious Hugo’s Tacos — Chicken or Al Pastor Bowl with Honey Chipotle.) As for baking? Uh, haven’t crossed that bridge yet.

What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
I’m a gadget nerd. (Latest love: the Kuhn Rikon Lid Lifter.)  But in terms of sheer practicality and overall use, I’ma go with the Pure Komachi stainless steel knife my mom gave me a couple years ago. She was at some cooking expo of some sort and I think it was given to her…  Anyway, it’s a ridiculous shade of purple but it’s incredibly sharp and lightweight. I tend to use chopped peppers and/or onions and/or garlic in about everything I make, so it’s in almost constant use.

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Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
My favorite part of my kitchen? I guess the piece of real estate to the right of my sink. There’s plenty of space to spread out supplies and room to chop & concoct and the window’s right there, so when the weather’s just right you can catch a nice cool breeze.

What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
This is a two part answer.

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A. When it comes to cooking regular meals, I’m not super adventurous. I go for maximum flavor from as few pots/dishes as humanly possible. For example, a few weeks ago  I made a really tasty soba dish from — cough — Martha Stewart. I highly recommend it.

Sautéed Chicken with Herbed Soba, from Martha Stewart

4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
1 cup fresh parsley
1 garlic clove, chopped (But as far as I’m concerned, one clove is never enough. I used two.)
1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger (Again, I think I erred on the side of a wee bit more ginger.)
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 ounces chicken cutlets
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (Oh and I didn’t have pure cayenne in the cupboard, so I used a cayenne-based spice rub that gave the chicken a really nice kick that was counterbalanced by the cool cilantro.)
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 package (8.8 ounces) soba

  1. In a food processor, finely chop scallions, cilantro, parsley, garlic, and ginger with vinegar and 1 tablespoon oil. Transfer to a bowl.
  2. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high. Season chicken with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Working in batches, cook, turning once, until opaque throughout, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board; let cool 5 minutes, and thinly slice.
  3. Cook soba according to package instructions. Drain; toss with herb mixture. Serve chicken with soba; garnish with cilantro.

B. Here’s the real story about accomplishment that I wanted to tell. Roughly once a month, I have a bunch of friends come over for a ragtag, bourgie afternoon-into-evening of cooking, drinking, and eating. December’s dinner was based around the holidays (obvs) and nothing says the holidays like, uh, Moroccan Lamb Stew.  (To be fair we did have about 15 other courses that included more traditionally seasonal items like latkes and  Pimm’s Cup.)

Anyway, the purpose of this story: it wasn’t that the lamb stew was some impossibly difficult recipe — although none of us had ever made lamb stew — because it wasn’t. Instead, over the course of a couple of hours (and way too much alcohol) various factions and pairings would hover over the pot and finesse it, nudging it into the best stew I’ve ever had. That whole “too many cooks” maxim…? Yeah, that wasn’t in effect on that December night. So that’s our (Jill, Tim, Devereaux, and Tyler) accomplishment.

Moroccan Lamb Stew, from Bon Appétit
Makes four portions

¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
3 ½ pounds o-bone (round-bone) lamb shoulder chops, well trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces, or 2 pounds lamb stew meat
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
1 1/3 cups water
2 large blood oranges
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon honey

Mix salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice in medium bowl. Add lamb and toss to coat with spice mixture. Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add lamb to pot and sauté until brown on all sides, about 4 minutes per batch. Return all lamb to pot. Add onion, garlic and ginger to pot and sauté 5 minutes. Add 1 1/3 cups water and bring to boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer until lamb is almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour 30 minutes.

Exactly how we veered away from this recipe is, alas, a little hazy. I do know that we chopped two big handfuls of really fresh mint and added it kind of late in the game. I also know that we amped the amount of blood orange used (plus zest) and added vegetable stock to the mix… But honestly, that’s all I remember at this late date.

CSA 2008, Week Twenty-One.

My friend Ben lives in LA; if the time difference wasn’t trouble enough, our schedules are so vastly different that we have monthly phone dates scheduled in order to keep in touch.  We talk about not only what’s going on in our lives, but also what we’ve been reading, what we’ve been watching and what and where we’ve been eating.  It doesn’t matter that it will most likely be years before I’ll be able to go to Akasha or Pizzeria Mozza, and we both know that Ben won’t be dropping into Hungry Mother or Picco any time soon — we both simply enjoy discussing food.  In fact, I was on the phone with Ben when I walked into my kitchen to see this week’s box from The Food Project sitting on the counter…  including two long green branches.

“Oh my god,” I said, interrupting Ben mid-sentence.  “There are these things next to the stove.  They’re supposed to be Brussels sprouts but —”

“—They’re boughs,” Ben said.

Two feet long and covered with sprout pompoms, they were most definitely boughs.  And I had no idea what to do with them, so I turned to the rest of the box for ideas:

  • Beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Butternut squash
  • Carrots
  • Celeriac
  • Chard
  • Garlic
  • Kale
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Rutabaga
  • Scallions

brussels-carrots-1Apparently, when I was younger I used to love Brussels sprouts; regardless of that, I wasn’t being struck with recipe intervention, so I turned to my magazine collection for help.

I’ve always had a thing for cooked carrots, since something happens when they meet heat  — their  flavor intensifies in such a way that I literally have to hold myself back from eating them all.  Carrots and sprouts make a lovely combination, since the richly sweet carrots compliment the bitter green sprouts perfectly.  The shallots, of course, add a mild oniony flavor, the butter a welcome luxury and the cider a pleasant tang.  It’s a dish whose simplicity is its high point.

Carrots and Brussels Sprouts, from Gourmet
Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons chopped shallot (from 1 medium)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 pound carrots, cut diagonally into ½-inch-thick pieces
1 pound Brussels sprouts, halved lengthwise
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

  1. Cook shallot in 2 tablespoons butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add carrots, Brussels sprouts, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to brown, three to four minutes.
  2. Add water and cover skillet, then cook over medium-high heat until vegetables are tender, five to eight minutes. Stir in vinegar, remaining tablespoon butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

Dinner at Bistrotek.

Getting last-minute dinner reservations can oftentimes be a drag; such was the case for Keith, my cousin Samantha and me on Friday night. There were so many restaurants to try — in Culver City alone, we wanted to check out Akasha, Father’s Office and Ford’s Filling Station. Since we were looking for a spot to get some dinner after going to the movies, as well as a place where Sam’s underage status wouldn’t be an issue, a lot of places crossed themselves off of the list… which is how we ended up at Bistrotek at the new Custom Hotel. Not only was Bistrotek serving dinner until two in the morning and required no ID, but it was also a short drive from where we were all staying in Manhattan Beach.

The Bristrotek space is pretty cool, obviously influenced by loft living with its distressed concrete floors, exposed ducting and beat-up brick walls. It’s all extremely stylized, but completely expected from a restaurant in a highly designed hotel.

The menu is small, focusing on American comfort food. I was torn between the bistro burger and the ravioli, but since Keith called dibs on the pasta first, I was left with the pancetta- and Gouda-topped burger ($12.00). Our extremely energetic server enthusiastically explained that the restaurant’s “amazing five-star chef” prepared each items “in the Mediterranean style,” and warned us that everything was à la carte, meaning that the dishes came with nothing other than what was listed. Because of this, I also ordered fries ($4.00), but then again, I love fries.

The burger was succulent, and cooked to an absolutely precise medium rare. It was also unbelievably huge. There was no way that I would be able to even come remotely close to finishing it, tasty as it was. The fries were truly superfluous, which made me sad not only because of my great affection for them, but also because they were mediocre at best.

Keith didn’t fare so well with the ravioli (three cheese and bacon, in a cheese sauce, $12.00). He thought it overwhelmingly cheesy, and a gelatinous mess. I’ve got to say I disagree with some of that. While the cheese flavor was undeniably strong, I happen to love cheese; it would take an almost obscene amount for me to find it overpowering. The texture was unfortunate, though; the melty cheese was so similar in feel to the ravioli that it was almost impossible to determine where one ended and the other began.

Sam did well with the grilled shrimp, tomato and cous cous ($15.00) — which was lemony, fresh and light — but if you were to ask her directly, she would tell you her favorite part of the meal was something else altogether. The pre-dinner rolls were picture-perfect, with soft and fluffy insides hiding within firm crusts. What truly made them great, however, was the herbed butter they were served with. I think it was chive and tarragon, but don’t quote me on that. All I know is that Sam ate at least three.

Bistrotek is still trying to find its footing, that much is certain. Of course, I’ve no way of telling which way the restaurant will go, for the better or for the worse, but I can say this: they better keep that burger on the menu.

Bistrotek
8639 Lincoln Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90045
310.645.0400
customhotel.com

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