SoCal discoveries

Warning: This post contains a glut of pictures of yours truly in the act of eating. Apparently I’ve been in a narcissistic phase as of late.

Today marks the one-month anniversary of my Southern California residency. Despite the stresses of finding a place to live, starting my career, trolling Craigslist and Target for basic necessities, and hauling heavy furniture across town, life has been pretty good.

The weather has been colder and gloomier than the locals say they have seen “in decades.” I haven’t joined a gym, found a place to worship (other than at the ocean shore), or made a ton of new friends. I have also not been cooking much, unless you count assembling salads and spreading peanut butter into ribs of celery. But I’m grateful for what I have, and for the daily reminder to be patient and persistent in making the life I want to live.

That’s one thing I love about food. In the sometimes mundane rhythm of hours, food is that shot of newness into the day. It’s something to look forward to, to plan for. Whether its a perfect avocado from a new friend’s tree (I guess we do have a few new friends!), or discovering this state’s mammoth raisins, relocating has its charms. Though I definitely do not have my kitchen groove back yet (and I haven’t been since living in Syracuse!), I am truly excited about everything my new home has to offer.

The situation looked a little dire at first. We couldn’t find a little ethnic market like we had in Syracuse, and the farmer’s market seemed so much more hoity-toity than the Central New York Regional Saturday mash-up. But we’re getting there, thanks of course to Trader Joe’s (which I’ve now been fully indoctrinated by), and a small market across the street from us called Just Peachy with excellent produce prices. Then, the other weekend (thanks to Chowhound) we found North Park Produce, and its shelves of fun ingredients provided an afternoon’s worth of entertainment.

Pussy willow water, anyone?

I know I’d heard of labne, or kefir cheese before, but this is the first time I’ve bought it. It’s lower in fat than cream cheese, and much more tangy. It’s excellent spread on sandwiches, or on a cracker with some raspberry jam.

At this same market (where we procured fresh tamarind, dirt-cheap olives, two kinds of feta, and so much more) we also sampled some most delicious tamales. I might have tried a tamale or two before, but I remember them being soggy and unimpressive. These ones were wrapped perfectly in corn husks and packed with cheese and jalepenos, not to mention the perfect texture and steaming-hot fresh.

Just as I was staging this “authentic food experience” for Mark to capture  on his iPhone, two women unloading their groceries next to us started giggling at me. Feeling a little sheepish, I started explaining that I was from the East and how you simply didn’t get good Mexican there. They offered us some of their sticky-soft Medjool dates, and all was well.

Then last weekend, in L.A. for the first time, I was treated to two new food experiences. After our coffees from Intelligentsia (esteemed in the coffee community), we walked around until our stomach started growling. Though the famous Kogi taco truck was too far away to follow, we did have the opportunity to dine on fusion truck food — something the city is known for. Our truck of the moment? Calbi, which you can follow too at twitter.com/calbibbq.

We shared a kimchi quesadilla (why haven’t I thought of that?!), a shrimp and a pork taco, seasoned with Korean spices. It was all delicious, and taken in on the street of Abbot Kinney, surrounded by hipsters in their full-sleeve tattoos and fluorescent cruisers, it felt very L.A.-esque.

I guess I have been doing a wee bit of cooking. At the same North Park market where we scored tamales and olives, I also bought a can of fava beans with cumin, and whipped up thislittle stew for us last night. You saute a few cloves of garlic and onion, add 3 small eggplants, cubed, stir in cumin and oregano, and cook until tender. At the end I added the can of fava beans, fresh mint, and a few drizzles of balsamic vinegar (you could use red wine too). Try it with pita bread, yogurt, and/or feta cheese.

Stay tuned for a post with some actual recipes in it (I know, it’s been ages!), starring the fresh tamarind I found at North Park, and more musings on this state’s excellent Mexican cuisine.

beer the Stone way

I took Mark out for his birthday four days early this year. No, I wasn’t rushing his advancement in age and wisdom. I simply wanted to treat him to one of his favorite things: excellent beer.

We managed to survive two weeks here without treating ourselves to one of this country’s finest breweries, and couldn’t hold out any longer.

So on an otherwise nondescript Monday evening, we tromped out to Stone Brewery, where gargoyles, chirping frogs, and every variety of ales and lagers waited. I felt immediately transported into some kind of Trappist monastery-meets-Midsummer-Night’s-Dream haze: in their extensive gardens, water trickled into ponds and fire bounced off slabs of stone. Revelry and tranquility cohabited the grounds as the evening rolled out one taste experience after another.

First order of business was dinner in what is properly called Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens. Mark ordered Stone’s own Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale, and I chose the O’Briens IPA from California’s Alpine Beer Company.

Next came dinner. Once our server informed us that we realized were weren’t in fact limited to the “Meatless Monday” menu that was placed before us, Mark proceeded to order the Artisan Sausage Platter: Two locally-made sausages braised in Stone’s Smoked Porter, and served with herb roasted potatoes, braised cabbage and a side of stone ground mustard. I tasted his meal (twice!), and it was delicious. Something about it reminded me of the way the Forks Market in Winnipeg smells. Strange, but we can’t always control our taste associations, can we?

Despite the offerings of meat, I went with one of the Meatless Monday options: Tofu Yakisoba. It wasn’t life-changing, but it had a nice crunch of cashews mixed with chewy tofu, bright vegetables, and perfectly-chewy noodles.

And then there was dessert—one that made up for anything my (perfectly suitable) meal had lacked. I’d decided to take half my dinner home with me, and so had plenty of room for one of the BEST after-dinner indulgences I’ve ever had: Blueberry Blue Cheese Jalepeño Cheesecake. Yes, you heard that right.

I’ve loved cheesecake ever since I was little kid, and I was grateful to Mark for sacrificing his love of chocolate for this experiment (and on his birthday, too!) And it was a successful experiment, indeed: The small round of incredibly rich, soft, disappear-on-your-tongue cheesecake was accented with tiny flecks of green jalepeños and tasted ever so subtly of blue cheese. On top was a compote of blueberries and jalepeños preserved in syrup. The dessert had all of the flavor of the peppers formerly known as hot, and none of the heat. Each mouthful reminded me never to be afraid of unusual pairings.

After dinner we joined the brewery’s “DR.” Bill Sysak upstairs for one of his “Beer U” events. This one was subtitled “Sensory Evaluation,” and with his guidance we learned to properly taste about eight different beers. While the experience was far from being foreign to us, it was great fun to try such a varied line-up (including one that tasted like railway ties … in a good way!) We learned a bunch of interesting facts spanning everything from history to hops, and left pleasantly enlightened. I had no idea that San Diego was so well-known for its style of IPAs … one of our favorite styles!

The brewery offers an impressive list of weekly events including movie nights and beer pairings. Next time you’re in the area (if we don’t succeed in taking you there first!) be sure to check it out. If you love beer, don’t worry: There are no Millers or Budweisers in sight.

Stone Brewing Company/ World Bistro & Gardens
1999 Citracado Parkway
Escondido, CA 92029
760.294.7866