Sunday, June 29, 2008

Kind of Blue - A Jazzy Cheese List

In my many blog entries on cheese, I have neglected the moldy giant that is blue cheese. I would travel Miles for the stuff, so I'm not sure why it has gotten short shrift. Maybe it's because too often, blue cheeses are less distinct than I would like or maybe it's because I feel like their presence on a cheese plate tends to overwhelm everything else or maybe I worry that the Blue in Green mold will be a put-off to the uninitiated (or the occasional Freeloader).

In any case, it's time for a cheese entry that's All Blues. While I love a smooth mountain Gorgonzola or a salty Roquefort, if I listed those, you might be left to ask, So What, I know about those cheeses. As such, I am leaving out those most obvious choices and listing a few of my favorites that range from slightly less common to downright obscure.

Cabrales, Spain, (goat, sheep, cow). Hugely pungent and powerful, this Spanish three-milk blue will dance on your tongue like so many Flamenco Sketches. It also works well in salads and other dishes that need a real kick. Eat it straight in small portions. It's usually too overwhelming for cheese plates unless you are serving advanced cheesers.

Cashel Blue, Ireland (cow). A tangy, sharp blue, good for cheese plates and pretty much anything. Distinct without being overwhelming.

Onetic Blue, France (sheep). This blue from the Basque region of France has beautiful blue tones. Creamy and subtle, it's the perfect addition to your cheese plate.

Point Reyes Blue, California (cow). Point Reyes Blue is widely available but can be inconsistent. The best batches are superb, creamy and tangy with wine-like flavors, but others can be indistinct. Get it at a good cheese store and ask for a taste.

Roaring Forties, Australia (cow). One of my favorites for cheese plates, Roaring Forties is a great introduction to blue for those who are not yet acclimated. It has a bit more mild blue flavor and is creamy and accessible. With this beautiful blue, Australian cheese trumpets its arrival.

Stilton, England (cow). The legendary King of Cheeses. Stilton has a rich, creamy texture, a distinctly English white wine flavor and a lovely blue tinge. Look for Colston-Bassett brand, distributed by Neals Yard Dairy. Serve with beer or hard cider.

Now you should be in the mood (or the mode) for the blues. Of course, this is only a sampling of the many good blues out there, but it should get you started. Now, if I only knew what to listen to while eating these?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Show Me the Chocolate Part 2 - Askinosie Chocolate

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Patric Chocolate from the Show-Me state of Missouri. I lived briefly in Missouri and it's a fine place full of fine people. Especially considering the horrible flooding they are enduring along the Mississippi, we wish them well. However, I don't generally think of the Show-Me state as a culinary mecca, so I was pleased and surprised to find that there is a second artisinal chocolate maker in the state. (And if there are any more of you, please let me know!)

Askinosie Chocolate is based in Springfield, Missouri (Doh!). Before even tasting the chocolate, my interest was peaked by founder Shawn Askinosie's story. A successful criminal defense lawyer, Askinosie gave up his profession to pursue the making of fine chocolate with an eye toward economic justice and environmentalism.

As a public interest lawyer, I know some criminal defense lawyers, and let me tell you, they do God's work. They defend people who society has cast aside and often prejudged and they often risk the wrath of the public (Askinosie tells of countless death threats). But they are the ones who keep government power in check and tirelessly fight to make our justice system work the way it is supposed to. That being said, it is grueling, tiring work and you can't blame someone for thinking they might rather make chocolate.

Askinosie didn't abandon his ethical commitments when he left the practice of law. Instead, he formed a company that was committed to economic and environmental justice. Askinosie pays higher than Fair Trade Market price for their cacao beans and the farmers who grow their beans receive 10% of net profits, a practice that is quite extraordinary. In addition, he has implemented countless environmentally conscious policies regarding everything from recycling to reducing carbon emissions. People like Askinosie give me hope that global capitalism and economic justice are not mutually exclusive.

On top of all that, Askinosie is extremely open about the production process. For instance, he breaks down the cacao percentage to solids and butter, revealing how much of the cacao count is actually chocolate liquor (what we think of as chocolate), which quite rare. In fact, I can't think of another chocolate maker who openly provides the same breakdown. Secondly, you can actually enter a lot number and see the chronology of any given chocolate bar. Maybe more information then most people want, but impressive nonetheless.

But what about the chocolate? After all, this do-gooderism means little unless the chocolate tastes good.


All Askinosie's chocolates are single origin. They contain only cacao, cocoa butter and sugar. I tried two that they were kind enough to send me.

San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador, 70% (including 2% cocoa butter), $7.50 for a 3 oz. bar.

The hallmark of the Askinosie bars I tried was subtlety. The bars have an understated flavor, less bold than many other chocolates, but no less flavorful.

The San Jose del Tambo is characterized by this subtlety. It has good chocolate flavor, including some fruit tastes (plums, raisins) and a creamy texture. The only flaw I found in it was a slightly bitter finish. Overall, this was a very pleasant bar.

Soconusco, Mexico, Nibble Bar, 75% with cocoa nibs, $8.00 for a 3 oz bar.

Askinosie is particularly proud of his chocolate from the obscure Soconusco region of southern Mexico, near the Guatemalan border. According to Askinosie, they are the first producers in over 100 years to offer chocolate from this region to consumers outside of Mexico.

The Soconusco bar I tried was a nib-covered bar (nibs being the tasty, crunchy crushed hulls of the cacao bean). The bar has a great crunch, with nibs covering the entire bottom of the bar. The flavor was understated, less rich and a bit dull. I think the nibs really make this bar as I was less impressed with the chocolate, which also had a somewhat gritty texture that you can get in high cacao bars.

I liked Askinosie, although I felt it was a bit less refined than neighboring Patric. Still, I appreciate their commitment to quality and ethical production and with a bit of development and experience, I have no doubt that they will continue to improve their very good chocolate. Askinosie chocolates can be purchased on their website.

It's heartening for me to see artisan chocolate being made in Missouri, of all places. The food revolution has truly arrived and, with dedicated producers like Patric and Askinosie, will continue to thrive.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: The Classic Whiskey Cocktail

For the next month, I thought I would do something novel: a series on the classic whiskey cocktail. Whiskey Wednesday will explore the composition of three classic American whiskey cocktails: the Sazerac, the Manhattan and the Mint Julep.

But Sku, you told us that serious whiskey drinkers only drink their spirits neat (or maybe with water). What's happened to you?

It's true that the best way to taste the true flavor of whiskey, and the only way to truly understand it, is to drink it neat or with a few drops of water, but that isn't to say it's the only way to drink it. You should similarly taste good chocolate plain to understand its flavor, but that doesn't mean you can't make a fabulous chocolate souffle with it. Like chocolate, whiskey can be enjoyed on its own, but also as an ingredient in a larger dish.

Now it's true that I went all snarky on Bourbon & Coke on Whiskey Minute, but that's a different story. Bourbon and Coke is a drink that masks the flavor of the whiskey to assist in the drinker's inebriation; if you throw anything short of motor oil in Coke, it will taste pretty much like Coke (and depending on the motor oil, maybe that too). The cocktails we are going to explore seek to highlight and enhance the flavor of the whiskey. The whiskey is as integral to the cocktail as chocolate is to a mousse.

Shouldn't you use the cheapest liquor you can find for your cocktails?

Absolutely not. If you were making a beautiful roasted chicken would you seek out the cheapest, third rate bird you could find? Of course not. The whiskey is the centerpiece of these cocktails. You should never make a cocktail with something you wouldn't drink.

Now, even I would tend to cringe at adding a really amazing whiskey in a cocktail, but why should that be? Going with our chicken analogy, shouldn't you want the best. In that spirit of experimentation, I will try some of these cocktails with a variety of spirits, some of which will make the whiskey geeks cringe.

Now, that being said, certain whiskies are going to make better cocktails than others. In a Sazerac, for instance, you need a strong rye to stand up to the Absinthe and bitters. I doubt I'd use a Sazerac 18 year old because it's too subtle. I might, however, use an Old Potrero because of its super-strong rye flavor. We'll see.

Why aren't you going to make any Scotch cocktails?

It's personal preference really. I like the taste of bourbon, and especially rye, in cocktails more than I do Scotch, but if you've got a winner of a cocktail that calls for Scotch, let me know and I'll try it out. And in the spirit of experimentation, I may well do the unthinkable and slip a Scotch into one of these things. Anything is possible.

How can I learn more about cocktails?

Compared to the small ghetto of whiskey related websites, there are oceans of websites and blogs dedicated to cocktails. Many of these, however, focus on icy, syrupy drinks with titles that include silly sexual innuendos. You could literally spend hours on YouTube watching imbeciles make drinks.

If you are interested in classic cocktails that highlight spirits, I would recommend three web-based sources. The first is Jeffrey Morgenthaler's excellent eponymously named website. Morgenthaler is an Oregon bar manager who posts drink recipes as well as super-amusing lists of things like what not to say to your bartender.

A second excellent source is Drinkboy which has numerous cocktail recipes and demonstrations.

Lastly, a real treasure, which I actually learned about from Morgenthaler's site, is the amazing YouTube series on New Orleans Best Cocktails by barmaster Chris McMillian which are available on this channel. McMillian is a font of knowledge about the history of various cocktails and makes near perfect versions of everything from the martini to the cosmo.

In fact, these sites are so good that I'm just going to refer to them for instructions on how to make these cocktails. I will concentrate on the flavors of these cocktails and the impact of using different whiskies.

Next Wednesday we begin the series with the Sazerac.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Strip Mall Love: Phillip & Harriet

As you know if you've been eating in LA for any length of time, some of our best food is in strip malls. I often think about which strip malls have the best combination of food, the widest variety or the just plain weirdest.

There is a strip mall I love on Third and New Hampshire that has a Oaxacan place, a doughnut shop and a Hawaiian barbecue. I've always been partial to the Santa Monica Boulevard strip mall that has both La Pupusa Loca and a Pizza Loca.

But I can't think of any better strip mall for a single meal than the Inglewood mall which includes Phillip's Barbecue and Harriet's Cheesecake.

Phillip's is a classic South LA BBQ (and yes, I prefer it to competitor Woody's)which reliably doles out amazing ribs and spicy links with traditional sides of baked beans, potato salad and greens. I prefer their beef ribs to the pork and I can't get enough of the spicy beef links, all bathed in the rich Phillip's BBQ sauce.

Harriet's Cheesecake is lesser known but comparably wonderful. Just to the left of Phillip's, Harriet's is not obvious to the passerby. It now has a sign, a big addition, but it still resembles a vacant storefront, lacking even the simplest elements of decor. When you walk in you will see only a small counter and an empty planter. This is clearly a shop which relies on those in the know.

Behind the counter is a dry-erase marker board showing a massive list of pies. On any given day, though, they will only have a few of these, so you need to summon someone from the back and ask what they have that day. Don't worry though, as they are all excellent.

One of my favorites is the pecan praline. The cheesecake itself is sweet and chewy, textured almost like it has some ricotta in the base. The cake is topped with nuts and drizzled with some caramel. The result is irresistible.

The graham cracker crust at Harriet's may be even better than the wonderful cheesecake. The thick crust must be made with a pound or two of butter, enough, anyway, to create an almost cookie-like substance which sticks to the pie pan until you peel it off and eat it plain. I can't say I've had a better pie crust than Harriet's.

At Harriet's, slices are $6 and a small cheesecake goes for around $23.

Phillips Barbecue
1517 Centinela Ave
Inglewood, CA 90302
(310) 412-7135‎

Harriet's Cheesecake
1515 Centinela Ave
Inglewood, CA 90302
(310) 419-2259

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Stinky Hooligan - Hooligan Cheese

We are now at least fifteen years deep into a renaissance of American artisanal cheese. There are phenomenal goat cheeses, sheep cheeses, cheddars, semi-softs, blue cheeses and others being produced all over the US.

One thing US producers have shied away from though is the stinky, washed-rind cheese, the American equivalent of French Epoisse or Italian Taleggio. I'm happy report, though, that America has found its stink, in Connecticut of all places.

Cato Corner Farms is a small, family farm located in Colchester, Connecticut which makes a variety of raw cow milk cheeses. One of their most acclaimed is the washed rind Hooligan.

I picked some Hooligan up at the Cheesestore of Silverlake and was not disappointed. It was soft and creamy with a strong pungency. It smelled earthy and musty in the particular cheese-stench way. The taste was similarly explosive, more akin to a Livarot than an Epoisse. A good cheese, very high on the stink meter.

So get yourself some stinky Hooligan and enjoy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: WhiskyLive is Dead

As you may recall, I gleefully reported in February that WhiskyLive, the Whisky Magazine sponsored tasting conference, was planning to come to Los Angeles in October.

Well, unceremoniously and without explanation, the Los Angeles event has been dropped from the WhiskyLive calendar. I emailed the good people at Whisky Magazine to inquire but received no response. However, they announced on one of the Magazine's forums that they had a problem with the venue and will try again for next year.

It looks like the second biggest city in the US will again lose out on a major whiskey event.

I will shed a solitary tear into my Lagavulin and hope for better things in 2009.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mid-City Moroccan: Chameau

I'm a late convert to Chameau, the Moroccan restaurant with the industrial-chic facade on Fairfax, but a convert I am.

Chameau has a hip, modern decor, full of dim lit colors and camel representations (chameau is French for camel). They specialize in traditional Moroccan cuisine: lamb, tagines, couscous, everything you need to pretend you're in Casablanca.

Appetizers were very good though not outstanding. A nice, if standard merguez sausage was served on a delicious hummous. Pan-fried, herb stuffed sardine was tasty. Duck bastilla with almonds and cinnamon, while good, was a bit too sweet.

The highlight of our meal was the various lamb entrees. Almond crusted lamb with orange sauce was my favorite. The lamb was perfectly cooked, crisp on the outside and nicely seasoned. The creamy orange sauce, while a bit too sweet was a nice counterpoint.

The braised lamb shoulder with prunes and pistachios had a nice, gamey, lamb taste.

Couscous was excellent, much more flavorful and better textured than other versions I've had. It was almost al dente in that you could make out the individual grains which gave it a pleasing texture.

The dessert bastilla was fun, a ring of berries sandwiched in a crisp, cinnamon sprinkled pastry, drizzled with cream and topped with whipped cream. I love their whipped cream, which is somewhat sour, probably made from creme fraiche instead of heavy cream, or maybe with some added sour cream. It made for a fabulous sweet/sour interplay.

Cinnamon flan was also well executed and topped with that same whipped cream.

The warm, flourless chocolate cake, however, was atrocious. This thing has been on every menu in the world for at least ten years now. Don't serve it unless you can get it right.

All in all, a great meal at one of our few local Moroccan spots. Next time, I will have to try a tagine.

339 N. Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 951-0039

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Italian Butter

Parmigiano Reggiano Butter is an Italian butter produced by Delitia. It is made from the cream that is left over in the production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. A cultured butter, it weighs in at 83% butterfat. The only ingredients are cream and cultures.

This is a fabulous butter. The culture comes out in the cheesy smell, but not the taste. The flavor is subtle and creamy, with notes of straw and hay. Usually, I'll add salt to an unsalted butter, but this one stands on its own.

Delitia Parmigiano Reggiano butter seems to be fairly available at gourmet stores. I picked it up at the Cheese Store of Silverlake.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: A Rye That Comes in Handy

Okay, bad pun, but a good whiskey! Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey is an offering from the antiques collection of the Buffalo Trace distillery. Unfiltered and bottled at barrel strength (my bottle is 67.4% abv), Handy is essentially the cask strength version of Baby Saz.

Tasting this rye reaffirms my beliefs that Buffalo Trace is one of the best distilleries out there and that the rye comeback is in full swing.

Handy has huge flavor. It has a beautiful, intense ryeness along with some honey-like sweetness and caramel creating a wonderful whiskey, at once spicy and sweet. And its finish just keeps on giving rye-spice. It's strong yes, and I suppose it could take some water, but I preferred it at full strength. This will be added to my list of all-time favorite ryes, a distinguished list indeed.

I purchased my bottle for around $55 at K&L, though I don't know if they are still in stock as anything from the Buffalo Trace antiques collection flies off the shelves.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Real Gordita: Golfo de Fonseca

Thanks to Taco Bell, millions of Americans think that a gordita is a taco made with something called "Mexican flatbread." Those of us who have been to Mexico, of course, know that a gordita is a thick corn tortilla, hollowed out and stuffed with any number of ingredients. In most versions of the gordita in Los Angeles, the tortilla shell is deep fried.

The gordita is a relative of the Salvadoran pupusa. While they are similar, a gordita is cut open and stuffed after it is fried, whereas for pupusas, the ingredients are stuffed into the raw masa and the whole thing is cooked together.

It is perhaps for that reason that there are a number of Salvadoran restaurants that offer gorditas as well as pupusas. Now, normally, I would not order a Mexican specialty at a Salvadoran restaurant. Rule number 7 of good eating is that when you go to a restaurant that purports to serve two types of cuisine, choose something from the lesser known one, as that is probably where the owners come from. Usually this will be a variation of Central American cuisine and Mexican or a variation of Asian cuisine and Chinese. For instance, if you see a sign that says Mexican and Salvadoran, the family that owns the place is probably from El Salvador, but cooks some Mexican food because they know people like it...same with Thai/Chinese. If you want the house specialty, get the Salvadoran or the Thai.

However, every rule has its exception, so when I heard there were great gorditas at Golfo de Fonseca, a Salvardoran place on 6th Street east of Union, I gave it a shot.

These were indeed good gorditas. The huge heavily fried tortillas are stuffed to the brim with savory fillings. I had mine with al pastor, seasoned, barbequed pork, which was juicy and well-spiced. There aren't that many gorditas to be had in this part of town and these were certainly better than most I've had.

Even better though was a plate of that Salvadoran staple, yuca y chicharron. The yuca was beautifully fried, crisp on the outside, tender within, like a perfect steak fry. The trick to perfect Salvadoran chicharron is making it crisp and juicy without being greasy, and this dish exemplified that concept. The generous serving is topped with curtido (cabbage slaw) and a few sprigs of watercress. This was among the best executed versions of this popular dish I've had, ranking up there with Los Chorros in Inglewood.

So go for the gordita, but don't miss the yuca and chicharron.

Golfo de Fonseca
1618 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA 90017
(213) 483-7245‎

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Comida Chilango at La Cabanita

It's hard to fathom that there is a great, authentic Mexican restaurant nestled in the northern suburbs of Glendale. A few blocks down from the small main drag of Montrose lies La Cabanita, which for years has been one of LA's best locales for Mexico City style food.

Known as Chilangos within Mexico, the denizens of Mexico City have a similar reputation to those of Manhattan: urban survivors who move seamlessly from subway to subway and effortlessly negotiate the rigors of life in a giant metropolis. The 18 million person megaopolis that is Mexico City ain't LA and it certainly ain't Montrose.

The food of Mexico City is a refined melding of the regional cuisines of the various people who have come to the capitol from around the country. It offers a range of well done Mexican dishes: juicy carnitas, tender rajas and other favorites.

But my favorite things at La Cabanita are the variations on stuffed chilis, the most pleasing being the chilis en nogada, a charred, un-breaded chili, stuffed with a sweet mixture of chicken, raisins, nuts and spices, topped with an absolutely luscious, sweet, creamy walnut sauce. Chili rellenos are also excellent and there are three or four other varieties.

The soups are another strength of La Cabanita. At one time, entrees came with a soup starter, but now you have to order soup separately, which you should. Cream of corn is a velvety-smooth sweet corn soup with crumbled Mexican cheese on top. This is one of my favorite soups anywhere; it captures the pure essence of fresh corn, and is smooth and creamy without feeling weighted down with cream. The carrot soup is also excellent.

I can't think of anything I've had at La Cabanita that has been disappointing. Even the sides...the chips and salsa and the fresh, handmade corn tortillas, are excellent. So order whatever you like and wash it down with some of their fabulous sangria.

La Cabanita
3447 N Verdugo Rd
Glendale, CA 91208

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: LA's Best Whiskey Bar - The Daily Pint

I've complained fairly regularly that Los Angeles is short on places to drink quality whiskey. I can count on one hand the number of bars or restaurants that stock more than ten single malts. The opening of Seven Grand downtown gave us the first new bar in quite a while to have a substantial collection, but even Seven Grand's hyped whiskey list pales in comparison to a dingy bar in Santa Monica with great chops for Scotch...the Daily Pint.

Set on Pico Boulevard near the intersection of 23rd Street, right next to the Lazy Daisy cafe is the Daily Pint. Whereas Seven Grand is all kitchy, hipster simulacrum, the Daily Pint reeks of authenticity. It's medium sized for a bar, with a couple of tables, a few pool tables and a row of seats along the bar. As you sit at the bar, a long wooden shelf over your head is filled with Scotch bottles.

The Daily Pint has what I estimated to be a couple hundred Scotches, including a number of independent bottlings. There was an impressive range with a little something for everyone, though the Islay selection was less prominent than that of other regions (not a single Bruichladdich on the menu). Still, there was plenty to choose from, the atmosphere was relaxed and the bartender was attentive and polite without being overbearing. Prices range from as low as $8 for Sheep Dip (a vatted malt) to as high as $95 or $100 for older offerings.

In addition to malts, the Pint has a vast selection of beers on draught (it is the Daily Pint after all, not the Daily Dram) and a fifteen or so Irish whiskies, which is more than you'll find at most places.

If I had to pick between the Pint and Seven Grand, I'd definitely go with the Pint for both selection and atmosphere. I hope to return soon.

The Daily Pint
2310 Pico Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 450-7631

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Park's Place: Park's Barbeque

With this post I firmly jump into the corner of those who have sung the praises of Park's BBQ. Park's, on Vermont south of 9th Street, is among the best Korean Barbeques around. Nearly everything about this charcoal grill contender was superb.

The Kalbi at Park's (#3 on the menu) is amazing. The big, thick cut short ribs explode with juice. They are thick and rich, fatty but not so much that you feel like you are just chawing on a big hunk of fat, which can happen with kalbi. It really is the perfect kalbi.

The panchan is also delicious and varies some from the standard. There is a creamy potato salad with raisins as well as a sweet potato salad, a dish of marinated, sliced potatoes and a variety of pickles, greens and other more standard panchan all of which are excellent.

The service at Park's also stands out, particularly in comparison to other Korean BBQ places which tend to have a, how should I say, laissez faire attitude about service. In contrast, Park's servers were friendly, attentive and helpful.

Park's definitely sets a new standard for my neighborhood's most popular cuisine.

Park's Barbeque
955 S. Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 380-1717