Set the Table.

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My grandma was cool.

Brilliant, intellectual, stylish and way ahead of her time.

Born in poverty, close to the Arctic circle she emigrated with her family to Australia when she was 12, never to see Norway again.

Pregnant and married to the love of her life at 16, living in a rough timber shack and raising 4 children, she embraced beauty and intellect and eduction. Each day included home schooling of music, culture or literature while she cooked on a primus gas ring, a practice she continued until the end of her life. Although my 14 year old father was supporting the family shooting rabbits when grandpa was injured, she knew that rigor and aesthetic would out and things would improve. A lifetime tradition of discussion (and argument!) over the dinner table was established.

My dad would describe this tough time as “bread and water, sometimes meat and potatoes but dreaming of fruit on the sideboard”. I have always loved this analogy.

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Fierce and difficult, brilliant and one of a kind, I think of her often.

Her youngest son became an academic. He travelled and studied abroad, and indulged her passion for china, dishes and modern ceramics. In the later years of her life she loved her hard won home and incredible garden and especially being surrounded by beautiful things.

Meals were times to gather at the table and enjoy food, the company, and conversation.

As children visiting, we were tasked with choosing which dinner set we would use to set the table for lunch.

The choice: Yellow and Black, mostly Villeroy and Boch, but amended and added to with dishes and jugs, salad bowls and bakeware from everywhere, as long as they were modern, yellow or black. Very dramatic!

My choice usually.

The other side of the kitchen held the cheery english red and black and white checked set. OK, but not my favorites.

In the sideboard there were White Arzberg dinner plates and beautiful platters, coffee pots, casseroles, little soup bowls and demi tasse coffee cups. These were used at night and for “occasions” when the modern teak table was extended and accented with peacock blue clothes and teal napkins. Some brass candlesticks too.

We took this task seriously.

To set a table is to be in control of a vision.

We would carefully count out knives and forks and spoons and put them in the right place. Spacing out plates and bowls just so, and making sure there were condiments and salt and pepper shakers.

The lesson: care and responsibility.

The end result: beauty and happiness.

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She didn’t live to see disposable dinnerware, nor travel to the United States to see real food served in foam boxes even at cafes. Or extremely successful wealthy people on reality TV programs eating from plastic take away boxes. She couldn’t imagine a world where people CHOOSE to drink from paper cups rather than a coffee cup. We had bright colored melamine picnic sets when we headed to remote beaches or went miles up bush tracks for billy tea and sandwiches. I don’t remember ever using  paper or plastic until I was catering.

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Decades after setting my grandma’s table, I love my shelves of china.

I have owned the yellow and black extravaganza collection since I was 30, and the white Arzberg for 25 years after my mum, downsizing, decided she didn’t entertain often enough to keep them. 50 plus  years of “occasions”, they are the heart of my dishery and I probably use some of them every day.

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Nothing is “for show”, and much has been broken or chipped, and thrown away. My newly, crawling son pulled a pile of Italian platters from the cupboard onto the tile floor, so the family joke is that a couple of pay checks are owed. . ..maybe those beautiful Heath dishes aren’t so out of reach after all!

And I dream of creating my own dinnerware…..

I wonder why you wouldn’t you set the table or eat from a cool bowl? Grab a tray and some napkins for the take away TV dinner? My husband’s idea of cooking dinner is buying sushi and setting the table!

The simplest meal is a quiet celebration: good fortune? A momentary respite? Companionship or family?

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Michael Pollan says that each meal is an opportunity for choice.

To show how we feel about agriculture vs. agribusiness, labor practices, health and nutrition, animal cruelty and our own self worth and traditions.

I think the set table is also another choice, and like many of the small and simpler things of life, wrongly perceived as trivial.

It’s not fussy or pretentious or god forbid,  “tablescapey”, but recognition that work has been done to create this meal (even to buy it) and now it’s time to stop and sit.

Take a moment. Feel happy and blessed.

And dig in!

Amen. grandma

Valdris Woldseth: 1906-1985

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Stephanie Powell’s Baltic Kitchen

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In a string of old commercial shopfronts on Alma St, San Pedro there is an artisan bakery producing specialty breads that flies under the radar of the foodie press, opens to the public just a few hours each Friday and ships to customers across the Western states.

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The Baltic Bakery, operating since 1975,  produces 4 types of bread.

The ingredient list is small: White rye flour, wheat flour, water, whole rye, whole wheat, salt, cornmeal and yeast. Made from scratch using traditional techniques, hand rolled and hearth baked, the loaves are simple and healthy with a comforting texture and flavor…..moist and satisfying and a little chewy . They contain no sugar or fats.

In a bread phobic time they are as close to perfect as it gets!

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The large kitchen is simple. An industrial size Hobart machine mixes the starter, metal racks line the long wall and are filled with rounds rising overnight, a narrow steaming room adjoins the 10 ft oven and one of the owners, Stephanie, cuts, weighs and shapes the rolls on a small table.

Co owner Stephanie Powell, a New Yorker who came to Los Angeles to work in fashion, always had an interest in baking, and she eventually transitioned from designing high fashion to the restaurant industry. It was in her role as Manager of the much loved Red Lion Tavern in Silverlake, one of LA’s most famous German Restaurants and Beer Gardens, that she first encountered the delicious breads from Baltic Bakery.

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Fast forward 4 years and she now partners with Rolf Pfannerer( son of the original master baker, Rudy Pfannerer) and food entrepreneur Aidas Mattis at the helm of a quietly revitalized Baltic.

Spending time watching the bread being made, I’m reminded of those documentaries on noodle makers who use a minuscule pallete of ingredients to produce a beautiful simple food, but spend a life time perfecting their technique. There is a rhythmic calm to the bread production in this bakery. She shared that just 3 weeks ago, a switch in the steam room changed the size of the air bubbles and she and Rolf had to tweak the process, reworking and reinforcing to achieve the same result.

Stephanie is developing a range of pretzels and researching and sourcing a completely organic range of Baltic breads .

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An older customer demographic of Europeans has sustained the bakery until now, but with concerns about gluten and an expanding desire for organic products there is a need to switch it up a bit .

So an expansion is slowly underway but without sacrificing the traditions, techniques and reputation of the 40 year old bakery.

Customers start arriving at 8.30 on Fridays to be sure to get one of the 80 loaves of bread that will sell out by the time they close. They come from all over the Southland, and most have roots in the old world.

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On line and wholesale customers complete the mix with the Baltic shipping to San Francisco, Texas and delivering locally to Santa Monica, San Diego and close by to  Alpine Village…mostly European delis and small independent supermarkets.

My favorite customer story is the guy from Texas who drives to San Pedro twice a year to fill his car with breads!

And favorite plan? A thoughtful and beautiful idea underway where a local Church will use the specially baked, “in the neighborhood”, Baltic Bakery bread instead of commercial wafers for the communion.

Staff of Life indeed.

http://www.trubread.com

Sanam Lamborn’s Persian Kitchen

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What a treat to reconnect with Sanam Lamborn, and especially over traditional persian tea and a coffee table full of sweet nibbley things: small  homemade pastries, fresh berries, tiny perfumed cookies, persian baklava and dates.

Sanam is the woman behind My Persian Kitchen, a blog devoted to exploring, enjoying and cooking Persian foods. She is followed by thousands of readers around the globe, a number which is increasing, especially as interest in Iranian food grows.

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Born in Iran, she moved to Rome with her mother where she lived for 10 years before settling in LA in 1990. And yes, English is her 4th language after Farsi, Italian, and French!

After graduate school, and in the midst of unanticipated unemployment, she started writing a blog (in fact, Nosh Cafe made a little appearance). Her stories about food generated the most comments, questions and interest, so My Persian Kitchen was created to concentrate on the recipes of her heritage.

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Sanam regards Persian cuisine as one of the major “mother” cuisines of the world along side Chinese and French, and with its brilliant history, depth of ingredients, and techniques it’s hard not to be dazzled.

Think the center of the Silk Road, the location and geography of Iran which allows for 4 growing seasons, and a bounty of beautiful core ingredients such as fresh green herbs (cilantro, mint, parsley, dill, tarragon), a myriad of fruits such as plums, pomegranates, quince, prunes, apricots, dates and raisins, and then spices and flavorings like saffron, dried limes, cinnamon, rose petals, cardamon to name a few. Pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and saffron are native to Iran, along with oranges and grapes.

Add caviar, lamb, fish, fresh vegetables, noodles, flatbreads and basmati rice and there’s a lot to work with!

Once the center of a huge Empire, Iran neighbors the former Soviet Union countries and Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab states and Turkey. Conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century, it was also invaded by Arabs, Turks, Mongols and Uzbeks.

Sanam’s stories and recipes help build an awareness and knowledge of persian cuisine, which until recently tended to be overlooked in the food press and confused with other middle eastern cuisines.

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Along with detailed step by step recipes, one of the things I love about My Persian Kitchen is her “persianizing”. A good cook and an adventurous eater loves nothing better than understanding what makes a cuisine sing, getting comfortable and familiar with the elements and flavors. The next step is applying them to their own local ingredients…persianizing.

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Speaking for myself, I’m a little intimidated by the famous persian rice, so I love that Sanam shares her own steep learning curve with that iconic staple!

Beautifully tender, but separate fluffy basmati rice, sometimes plain but often studded with treats, it’s the dish that all cooks are judged on and everyone wants to master. So delicious that its crusty bottom is served separately as a dish in its own right.

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In the 6 years since My Persian Kitchen started, Sanam has been invited to write for several magazines, including Saveur and Los Angeles magazine and she is in the process of producing a series of e-books. There’s also cooking classes, demonstrations and tastings and small special catering events.

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Time spent with Sanam also reinforces the essential graciousness and hospitality of Persian culture and her recipes reflect this integral component.

I suggest checking in to My Persian Kitchen and exploring with Sanam!

http://www.mypersiankitchen.com

Xian Wei

Xian Wei, brainchild of Chef Luther Bob Chen and General Manager Kenny Lui is nothing short of breathtakingly ambitious. When 20 year old Luther says he’s “always had a 12 year plan” you can be assured that the future, when realized, will be big!

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Now a unique pop-up supper club, soon to be artisan street food truck and then a “couple” of fine dining restaurants, Xian Wei explores the complexity, history, and flavors of Chinese cuisine. The supper club, based around seasonal menus, operates from a private home in San Pedro. Limited to 8 guests, the 9 courses are an elegant homage to Chef Luther’s background and passion.

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Diminutive, deconstructed, and visually stunning, they travel the gamut of texture, taste and region and with a couple of amuse bouche provide well over 4 hours of delicious dining and conversation.

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Strangers become friends and fans with Luther joining the table to talk, answer questions, and share stories. Both Luther and Kenny grew up in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles with a lifetime of “xian wei”, meaning fresh flavor or what the Japanese call umami under their belts. After school “cheffing” and the decision to attend CIA in New York placed Luther on his trajectory early, followed by a solo expedition to China and Taiwan, visiting relatives and soaking up food and cultural treasures. Xian Wei the business was born.

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Kenny Lui, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, is responsible for developing the vision and direction of the next phase: the Shao Kao BBQ food truck and leading the team in execution and business operations.

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This menu is based on skewers and categorized into REDS (meats such as lamb, hangar steak, poussin wing), BLUES (seafood options like whole squid, oysters, pike, prawns, and fish balls) and GREENS (eggplant, mushrooms, young bamboo, sweet potato) Permitting for the truck build has just been ticked off the list and the team hope to be serving food first quarter in 2015.

http://www.xianwei.com

http://www.shaokaobbq.com

kid food

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After years of roasting and grilling, sautéing and stir frying to make my favorite dinner staple, abundant big platters of veggies, I’m returning to the food of my childhood, boiled vegetables!

To be honest, with a twist but an interesting u-turn in my culinary journey.

It started in Northern England last year when we scarfed down fish n chips n mushy peas in the village pub.
What a revelation.
Not the khaki, grey-green gruel I remembered from a tin, but bright green smooshed peas, still with some texture, masses of flavor and a hint of mint.
A perfect sauce and condiment for crispy fried fish.

Then one night in Sydney, a few months later, we met up with friends at an old pub in the Rocks, a tiny noisy place nestled underneath the famous bridge.
It was pie night, the special being a Beef and Guinness pie served with mushy peas. $10.
Brilliant.
Once again, a vibrant pea puree, a delicious counterpoint to the buttery pastry and super rich meaty filling. The only accompaniment served.

Back home in California , mushy peas became our veggie of choice when we served baked barramundi, grilled salmon or little fried tenders of chicken.
Fun on the plate and so easy to make.

It really couldn’t be more simple.

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A couple of cups of frozen peas ( a medium bag)
1 onion ..white or brown , but even red will work
a bit of butter and olive oil
salt and pepper
some mint from the garden

Chop the onion and sweat in a pan with a little olive oil. Try not to color the onion, so keep the heat low. When the onions are soft, add a little butter to melt and add flavor.

Boil the peas for 5 minutes and drain.

Put the onions and peas in the food processor , add a tiny bit of water if necessary and pulse a couple of times.
Season with salt and pepper.
Add some chopped mint and pulse again.
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It can be left chunky or become a silky, smooth puree depending on what you like or are serving it with. Rustic or glamorous? Lots of mint or just a hint?
Lusciously extravagant with a little heavy whipping cream and fresh parmesan for a truly decadent and elegant side…

Kid food for grownups.
Perfect.

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Beryl’s Scones

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My mum, Beryl, loves nothing better than a good “Devonshire Tea”…

I can’t measure the miles we’ve driven or the times we’ve travelled to out of the way craft shops and cafes in small towns ‘cos mum heard they “did a good afternoon tea”.
And understand that “good” is more than just good – it’s an all encompassing concept that includes the tea, the presentation, the staff or owner, the cups, saucers and plates, and finally the scones and cream!

Good afternoon tea: 2 fresh scones, whipped cream, option of butter and homemade jam. Nice cups and saucers. Good sized teapot, preferably one not individual pots. Tea strainer if needed. Cosies optional.

The irony is, rarely are the scones anywhere near as good as mum’s.
Too often dry and chewy (heresy) or gummy and heavy (sigh with disappointment) we spend almost as much time discussing the dreadful attempt as actually enjoying those that pass the test!
“Most people just can’t make a decent scone these days”
This is followed by remembrance of bad scones past and the worst offenders if known by name.

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Beryl downplays her cooking, and scones in particular, with a ” Well…..I don’t do that much now” which reduces the rest of us to out loud laughter. Open up the kitchen cupboards and there are tupperware boxes with little jam drops, pastry cases for lemon curd, coconut or shortbread cookies and maybe a slice or two (hopefully the caramel one, but there’s an almondy apricot one that runs a close second).
Then in the freezer at least 6-8 scones from the last batch “just in case someone pops in”.

No greater sin than having to offer a store bought biscuit to accompany the cup of tea. Better to go the savory route with cheese and tomato on crackers than plate the Iced Vovos or Kingstons for company.

Beryl’s tips for scones: make them quickly with as little handling as possible (easier said than done!).
And note that the recipe is just a starting point as she doesn’t use commercial measuring cups but rather a particular tea cup and spoons from the drawer.

2 cups of self raising flour
2 dessert spoons of caster sugar
1/2 cup of cream (heavy whipping cream in the US)
1/2 a cup of milk
1 egg

Beat the eggs and sugar till creamy. Beryl uses a hand mixer.
Stir in the cream and milk.
Add the flour, mixing w a knife.

Flour the counter and gently pat out the dough.

Cut out the scones w/ a cutter (or a teacup or empty tin can)

Place on a tray, brush with an egg wash or a little milk, and bake in a 200 degree C oven for 12-15 minutes (fan forced/convection). Serve with freshly whipped cream (absolutely no sweeteners or flavoring) and good jam.

Hierarchy of Jams:
Dark, rich berry jams like blackberry, raspberry, strawberry or blueberry. Maybe a goopy sticky apricot. Or go avant grade w tropicals like mango-ginger or pineapple guava. Lemon or passionfruit curd may be ok (and in our mind a little pretentious) but never a marmalade, which are just for breakfast and toast!

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A visit to the UK and exploration of Devonshire and Cream Tea haunts confirmed what we already knew: the aussie bush version was better. Mum didn’t take to the clotted cream, or heavy triangular scones we had in Scotland but she did love that everywhere we went there was strong black tea in a pot, served with milk and sugar and a pretty plate of cakes.

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Special once in a lifetime pilgrimages to Fortnum and Mason and Claridge’s were amazing, beautiful and ritualistic with silver service, petite sandwiches, specialty Darjeelings and tiered cake stands full of eclairs and petit fours.
Never to be forgotten, but we couldn’t wait to get back home and have scones from Beryls oven, dollops of whipped cream, yummy home made jam and bolstering amounts of Liptons tea.

Afternoon tea heaven.

And from across the other side of the Pacific  I think maybe any afternoon tea with my mum is heaven 🙂

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Sweet Lucie’s

When Mike and Geri Czako first founded Sweet Lucie’s, their organic ice-cream company, they were renting the Nosh kitchen after hours to create and perfect their signature flavors and premium product, seemingly years into a painstaking restoration of their 1959 vintage ice cream truck and juggling full time careers in advertising and business…

and parents of a very sweet little one year old girl called Lucie.

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Fast forward to 2014: hundreds of appearances and events under their belt, products on the shelves at WholeFoods and speciality retailers, collaborations with artisan bakers and a whisky producer, and a new addition to the Czako family, a baby boy, Jack.

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From a craving for ice-cream when she was pregnant with Lucie and a desire to eat well and organically, Geri is justifiably proud of the company she and Mike have created and their USDA certified organic product.

They now produce over 28 flavors and 18 fresh fruit sorbets (plus toppings and sauces)
at their immaculate manufacturing facility in San Pedro. All made from scratch in small batches using locally sourced ingredients. Banana, Black Sesame, Blueberry Pie, Butter Pecan…and that’s just the B’s!

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Their yummy ice cream and iconic truck are much in demand for celebrity and media events, and both the truck and the very cute gelato carts have been featured in magazines (Sunset and C to name a couple), pop videos (Katy Perry!) and catalog shoots (the adorable Pottery Barn Kids).

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The company is now full time for Mike and Geri, with leaps forward almost every week: a brick and mortar store to open soon on the Westside, Sweet Lucie’s now scooped on the USC Campus, and even more flavors and ice cream treats being added to the mix.

http://www.ilovelucies.com