Monday, September 22, 2008

Best Ever Banana Bread

Everyone has that one favorite family or heirloom recipe that they cook again and again. Well, one of mine is this recipe for banana bread.

When I lived in Washington, D.C. after college, my friend, Nadia, used to make this for our office often. I was most impressed when she baked each of us a whole loaf, covered it and put it on a wooden board and presented it with a lovely linen napkin as a Christmas gift. She even made two loaves for me when I left D.C. and embarked on a cross-country road trip back to Southern California. I will never forget the generosity of that gift or the friendship that the banana bread started.

Over the years, I have made more loaves than I can count and have bestowed them upon neighbors and cherished friends alike. The recipe never disappoints and I am happy to share it with you all here.

I personally think that the moistness of the bread is due to the buttermilk in the recipe. I have tried other recipes and they just do not have that same moistness. The 1/2 cup of vegetable oil probably also contributes; do not be frightened by the oil as it does not make the bread seem greasy or oily.

Another hint is to use extremely ripe bananas. That ripeness yields an extremely flavorful bread. Walnuts are optional, in my opinion, however, more of my friends and relatives insist upon them more than I do.

If any of you have any good family heirloom recipes to share, please send them along. My recipe "notebook" can always accommodate more -- especially those that are tried and true.

Today is the first day of Fall. I cannot think of a better aroma to decorate your house than a loaf of freshly baked "Best Ever Banana Bread." From my home to yours . . . Happy Baking!

Best Ever Banana Bread
2 ripe bananas, mashed
2 eggs
1-3/4 c. unsifted all purpose flour
1-1/2 c. sugar
1 c. chopped walnuts, optional
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. plus 1T buttermilk
1t. baking soda
1t. vanilla
1/2t. salt

1. Preheat oven to 325F.
2. Grease and flour 9x5 loaf pan.
3. Combine all ingredients in large bowl and mix well, but do not beat.
4. Transfer to prepared pan and bake until top is golden brown and splits slightly, about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

NOTE: DO NOT DOUBLE RECIPE. This recipe does, however, split easily into (3) smaller loaves.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Burger Heaven

I think if I had to choose a last meal, one of them would be a burger. It would have to have quality meat, a good bun and interesting condiments. It can be very basic (cheese, lettuce, tomato) or it can have chili or brie cheese. However it is paired, I know I would enjoy it.

During a recent foray to LA for a cultural weekend (including a tour of the Getty Museum and two performances at the Hollywood Bowl), my friend, Greg and I made it our mission to search out the best burger in Los Angeles. We tried six locations and each tried different versions of burgers. Below are our best samplings.

I used to visit Father's Office back in the 80's and 90's for the beer and comraderie. Located on trendy Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, Father's Office is still there, and still located next to the venerable barber shop, however, now it's a bit more "metrosexual." You can still get great beers on tap (approximately 31 varieties of microbrews and others, including Chimay au draught). And now, you can get great wines by the glass and upscale food too. One of the food highlights is the burger. It only comes ONE way (with NO deviations accepted). The Office Burger consists of Caramelized Onions, Bacon, Maytag Blue, Gruyere and Arugula ($12). It was amazing -- meat was bold in flavor and very juicy; the roll (not standard issue bun) was crispy and fresh. The blue cheese did not overpower the burger or vice versa; it was a nice compliment. Other highlights included: Roasted Mission Figs, Cabrales Blue, Fresh Chevre, Toated Walnuts, Jamon Serrano, Radicchio Salad ($9), Organic Heirloom Tomato Salad, Sheep Milk Ricotta, Red Onion, Basil Cucumber Vinaigrette ($11). These dishes seem out of place at a "burger" joint, but they are very good, fresh, inventive and wonderfully presented. The only negative about the restaurant is that it doesn't take reservations or even guarantee you a table when you go in and order food. But it does have a GREAT burger and it is certainly worth the wait.
1018 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica
3229 Helms Avenue, Los Angeles

After I finished the LA Marathon in 2002, Greg brought me here to knock out those nasty toxins. Located in West LA across from the Westside Pavilion Shopping Center sits the Apple Pan. It's a quaint "shack" and a slice of burger heaven, has been in this same location since 1947 and is as American as apple pie. Some of the waiters appear to have been there since opening -- they're gruff, efficient and exactly the type of waiter you expect and grow to enjoy. Sitting at the u-shaped counter, you see that the waiters have perfected their trade and personality by working there. The burger menu is limited and consists of the Steakhouse Burger or the Hickory Burger. We preferred the Hickory burger, but whichever way you choose, you can't go wrong. The meat is tender and juicy with just the right amount of hickory sauce to make it yummy. If you order fries, they come as an "appetizer" on a paper plate, hot and crispy, and the waiter automatically pours you a hefty amount on a similar-size paper plate. Another line may await you, but again, it's well worth it!
10801 W. Pico Boulelvard, Los Angeles

In Hollywood, there's another historic place called the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel -- the site of the first Academy Awards. The hotel recently saw a facelift from it's management, Thompson Hotels, and energy from its new restaurants and bars. The 24-hour a day restaurant, 25 Degrees, doesn't look or feel like your normal 24-hour place. It's more refined with big brown leather booths and doesn't yet show the "wear and tear" as some of the other burger joints highlighted in this blog. But it does have your counter and it does have another great burger. You can build-your-own burger here. First, choose your meat, then choose your cheese (ranging from american to benedictine, point reyes blue, smoked mozzarella -- a total of 13), choose your extras (ranging from arugula, avocado, chili, fried egg, proscuitto -- a total of 12), choose your sauce (ranging from BBQ, chipotle, dijon, garlic parmesan, 1000 island -- a total of 13) and bada bing, you have yourself a beautiful burger. It's also a great place for a grilled three cheese sandwich with tomato soup. Breakfast is served daily from 6AM to 10:30AM (to 11:30AM on the weekends). Enjoy a Guinness Milkshake or a classic cocktail with your burger and you're sure to start (or end) your evening well.
7000 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood

Another "Build Your Own" burger restaurant worth honorable mention is "The Counter." Now located in (6) states with (7) California locations, the Counter has a great concept and ambiance, and of course, a delectable burger. For the health conscious, at the Counter, you can have a veggie burger or a burger in a bowl. We're purists, however, and prefer the burger on a bun (which you can choose between an english muffin, honey wheat or more standard hamburger bun). Here you choose your meat, then cheese (10 varieties), up to (4) toppings per burger (28 standard and premium choices) and sauce (including the sauce of the month or 18 others). They have some signature burgers with pre-set cheeses and toppings. We had a beef burger with horseradish cheddar, grilled onions, lettuce blend, honeycured bacon, and tomoatoes with 1000 Island dressing. But if you want to experience something different, try the Taco Turkey version with ground turkey, jalapeno jack cheese, lettuce, scallions, dried cranberries and spicy tomato vinaigrette. Whatever you choose, be sure to try the fries, sweet potato fries and/or the crispy fried onion strings. Milkshakes, beer and wine are also available.
2901 Ocean Park Boulevard, Santa Monica

What kind of burger reviewer AND USC Trojan would I be if I didn't include Tommy's here?! Arriving at 1AM, for a moment, I felt as if I were back in college, looking for an infusion of protein and grease to wipe away the effects of a night of post-game drinking. Tonight, I was less intoxicated by the beer (having come from a genteel evening at the Hollywood Bowl) and more intoxicated by the rich aroma of chili and cheese. Start by standing in a long line, breath in the vapors, order your burger, fries and soda and then stradle up to a counter that surrounds the parking lot. (Whatever you do, don't eat in the car. Trust me on this one!) Enjoy a juicy, messy and delicious burger. Even Greg, who doesn't like pickles on his burger, loved this one. Stacked always in this order, the burger consists of (from top to bottom): bun, pickles, hand-sliced beefsteak tomato, fresh chopped onions, Tommy's famous chili, 100% beef patty, double-thick cheese, mustard. You can deviate, but why ruin perfection?!

Tommy's Original
Beverly & Rampart, Los Angeles


Located in Pasadena is another "venerable" spot that harks back to your childhood (or that of your parents and grandparents). Pie 'n' Burger is one those spots. It's homey (another counter), has a great burger, friendly and efficient service and serves a fresh, homemade piece of ollallieberry or coconut meringue pie (among many other varieties) for dessert. Opened in 1963, Pie 'n' Burger is owned by a fellow Trojan and makes the same fine food that it did upon opening (45) years ago. I think even some of the customers are the same since opening. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here, but the burger and pie are truly the main reasons for coming and returning again and again. Burgers are made with beef, turkey or veggie and homemade 1000 Island dressing, pickles and lettuce are standard; cheese is also an option. Again, you may have a line, but stay with it -- you will not be disappointed. And you may make a friend or two along the way and talk about "old" times!

913 E. California Street, Pasadena 626/795-1123

(Father's Office, Tommy's and Pie & Burger photos courtesy of GHuntG Productions.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Pasta for Persnickity Pups

I've written in past posts about my dog, Oliver, and his particular culinary needs. After the "Marvelous Muttloaf" I prepared from my dog cookbook was so well-received by he and his best friend, Jesse, I tried another creation called, "Pasta Bark Slice."

It's a very simple pasta casserole -- simple for its ingredients as well as for its preparation and cooking time. Like the muttloaf, the recipe called for low-fat ingredients as well as wheat-free, gluten-free pasta. So, I trekked over to my favorite Whole Foods again for pasta and other ingredients.

I deviated from the recipe when it came to the meat. It called for either boneless, skinless rabbit or chicken. Since Oliver is a bit allergic to poultry, I went for ground ostrich instead.

The results were overwhelming and his little nose was perked in the air as soon as the dish came out of the oven. I barely had time for it to cool before it was his dinertime and he had two helpings. Jesse, the neighbor dauchsund, and another set of taste buds on this project, also gobbled it up. There's another winner from "Pup Snacks!"

Makes 8-19 portions
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 15-20 minutes

8oz. cooked wheat-free and gluten-free pasta, chopped
7oz. low-fat cottage cheese
70z. low-fat natural yogurt
5 basil leaves, chopped
2oz. green beans, topped, tailed and finely chopped
7oz. cooked boneless, skinless rabbit or chicken (or ground ostrich)
2T olive oil
2T grated low-fat Parmesan Cheese

1. Mix all of the ingredients, except the Parmesan, in a large bowl. Pour into a 11x 8-inch ovenproof dish and sprinkle with Parmesan.

2. Baked in a preheated oven, 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Leave to cool thoroughly.

3. Cut the bake into 3-inch squares with a sharp knife and freeze until required for up to 3 monhts. Defrost thoroughly before use. Feed your dog 2-4 squares as a meal, depending upon size.

NOTES: Parmesan can have a bit of high salt content, so do not be tempted to add more parmesan than is recommended.

Recipe courtesty of "Pup Snacks," by Stephanie Mehanna

Cool Surfas

For all of you serious home chefs and food enthusiasts out there, I've found the place for you -- "Surfas, a Chef's Paradise." Surfas is a family owned store serving the food industry since 1937. Located at National & Washington in Culver City, Surfas is the serious cooking store and not at all like your local Williams-Sonoma or Sur la Table.

Surfas has it all! From chocolate to olive oil to foie gras, from cake pans to restaurant grade pots to table top plates and platters, it is all on display. It's almost sensory overload for those of us who enjoy cooking stores. We witnessed an entire four shelves of various types of chocolate and cocoa powder as well as an entire row of vinegars and olive oils in all shapes, sizes and flavors. (See photos below.)
One full side of the store is a freezer case of pastas, gourmet frozen foods ranging from foie gras to pigeons and quails, ice creams and gelatos and much more. There is also a large refrigerated section of coldcuts, cheeses and various other gourmet foods that you can pick-up easily for that night's preparation.

Whether you're in the mood for baking, Italian food, Korean food, Indian food or the like, Surfas will have the spice, starch and hard-to find ingredient for you. Often times, the portion of items is large (after all, this is a restaurant supply store), however, yours truly managed to find a lot of items for her own kitchen -- cold pressed Italian olive oil, sticky toffee sauce (to satisfy her betrothed's love for ice cream and condiments), lemon-infused and pomegranate-infused simple syrup for those occasional martini's, Tahitian vanilla among other items. We also purchased a whole case of San Marzano imported canned tomatoes -- a necessity for homemade pasta sauce this fall and winter.

A large part of the store is devoted to cooking utensils, i.e., pots, pans, industrial grade hot dog cookers and warmers, cake pans, pastry tools, plates and platters, glasses and various other supplies that would delight any restaurant or hotel kitchen's quick fix. We found the prices of simple tools like a cheese grater, pastry hand tool, oven thermometer, etc. to be on par with or cheaper than Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table.

For those of you that are interested in Surfas, but can't easily make it to Culver City, their website makes it easy for you to browse and purchase. There is also a link on the website for various recipes, likely to be some from local chefs that have taught in the Surfas demonstration kitchen located within the store.

For those of you that do make it to Surfas, there's an interesting cafe on-site which makes it easy to refuel before, during or after your shopping extravaganza. It serves various beverages, renowned cheeses, reinvented salads, rekindled soups and redefined sandwiches.

It's all cool at Surfas! Check it out!