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So…is it too late to make a New Year’s Resolution on February 21st to be a better blogger?  Don’t answer that.

Despite being distracted with various projects, responsibilities and, let’s be honest, vacation time, I did manage to document my adventures in baklava this Christmas. It was my grandma who “passed the torch” and despite having to overcome obstacles such as an Easy-Bake-sized oven, rowdy grandkids, and a granddaughter who hovered over her shoulder the entire time, snapping photos and taking notes, she maintained her cool quite well. Of course, it might’ve also been that Whiskey Ginger that she seemed to effortlessly throw back…but that’s another story for another time.

For those of you who don’t know, baklava is a traditional Greek dessert made of phyllo dough, nuts, spices, and sweetened with honey. It might also be one of my very favorite indulgences (it’s right up there with watching Regis & Kelly), and it’s one of the many dishes that my Yia-yia makes best. There’s something about biting into that diamond-shaped pastry  that will always remind me of my childhood; of holidays spent lingering over a meal with family, stuffed to the brim but always managing to make room for a second piece.

Being the food blogger that I am (it’s been a busy couple of months; please don’t revoke my title just yet), I thought it only right that I “carry the torch” for the rest of my cousins and learn to make this family favorite. As my grandma and I set out to make my first batch of baklava in a warm, lively cottage in Tiburon, I found myself thinking about how many times she’d been through this very culinary routine. I could almost see her as a young girl with pigtails, standing on her tip-toes, peering over the kitchen counter and listening carefully while my great-grandmother solemnly explained each step in the baking process – much like how she was about to explain it to me; “Remember to move quickly and diligently with the phyllo dough, Doll” and “Make sure you tuck in the sides with butter real good”. I even envisioned the first time my Yia-yia made my Papou her baklava; how he must have fallen in love with her all over again after biting into that flaky, nutty pastry, laden with the weight of honey and butter. While it’s not a secret recipe by any means, it’s one that I’m sure can be associated with many a’ family gathering, dating from further back than even my Yia-yia might remember.

So without further ado, I give you: Yia-Yia’s Baklava. I hope your family and friends enjoy it as much as ours have.

Yia-Yia’s Baklava

Ingredients:

3 cups water
3 1/2 cups sugar
5-6 cloves
5, 2-inch strips of lemon peel
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
12 oz honey
3 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
5 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
2 sticks of butter
Package of phyllo dough (buy from an Armenian or Greek store for best quality)

For the syrup:

1) Combine water, 3 cups of sugar, 5-6 cloves, lemon peels, and cinnamon stick together in a sauce pan and heat on medium heat until it bubbles.
2) Pour in honey and stir until well-mixed.
3) Take off of stove and let cool to room temperature.

For the filling/phyllo:

1.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2.) Mix together chopped walnuts, the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl until well-combined (mixture should be fairly dark; if still on the light side, add a dash more cinnamon).


3.) Melt two sticks of butter on stovetop or in microwave.
4.) Brush a 2 in. deep, 17 x 11 1/2  pan with butter.
5.) Working quickly, but diligently, line the bottom of the pan with about 10 sheets of phyllo, letting the sheets hang over the edge of the pan; make sure to cover up the entire base of the pan so there are no holes.


6.) Coat phyllo with another layer of melted butter;
7.) Layer another sheet of phyllo into the pan and brush with butter; repeat phyllo/butter alternation ten times.
8.) After ten sheets of phyllo/butter, pour a thin layer of the nut mixture onto the phyllo.


9.) Layer another sheet of phyllo over nut mixture and brush with melted butter; repeat nut/phyllo/butter alternation until the nut mixture is gone.
10.) Tuck the “overhang” of phyllo into the sides of the pan while coating with butter to ensure sides don’t stick.


11.) Layer another piece of phyllo on top and coat with another layer of butter.
12.) Alternate layer of phyllo and layer of butter with about 10-12 sheets of phyllo, tucking in each edge of the dough with butter every time.

13.) With a small, sharp knife, cut into the layers to make horizontal rows (about 7 depending on how thick you want the pieces to be); then cut into dough diagonally to form diamonds.

14.) Poke a clove into each diamond for garnish.
15.) Bake for about 30 to 45 minutes; or until the dough has a nice golden brown crust.

16.) Take out of the oven and pour the cooled syrup over the entire pan of baklava, making sure to coat every piece.

17.) For best results, let sit 3-4 hours and then serve.

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Cooking for One

My dinner from two night’s ago hardly constitutes a “recipe”. It’s a meal I made frequently as a senior in college – when I’d get out of class at 10pm and barely be able to lift a finger, let alone cook up something fancy. And it’s great when you’re only cooking for yourself.

Margherita Omelettes (as I’ve just now decided to name them), also remind me of living in Italy – minus the ridiculously fresh and juicy tomatoes and the tiny, quaint kitchen I used to cook in. My hostmother, Franca, always prepared herself lighter meals for dinner (think: soup and fresh bread or a small bowl of ravioli with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano). I, in turn, followed suit. Most of the time, it was only because I was still full from the entire pizza I’d consumed at lunchtime. Paired with a glass of red wine and a simple salad of mixed greens dressed in good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, this is the kind of meal that looks and tastes gourmet, but only takes about 7 minutes to prepare.

Perhaps it’s stating the obvious, but keep in mind that for best results, you want to try to use extra-ripe cherry tomatoes. Mine were even starting to get a bit shriveled – don’t worry, that’s how they should be.

Margherita Omelette

3 eggs

1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped

1/4 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

2 Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt & pepper to taste

1) Heat a medium-sized pan on medium-low heat.

2) Beat eggs; pour into heated pan in an even layer.

3) Sprinkle Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, basil, salt & pepper onto egg layer.

4) Once eggs have set (2-4 minutes), fold over to create omelette. Cook on both sides for a couple more minutes, or until eggs are cooked to your liking.

5) Serve with simple salad and enjoy with a glass of red wine.

While dining with friends and family has its perks, there’s nothing quite as relaxing as fixing yourself a fresh meal and dining solo. Everything else takes a backseat and for a brief and perhaps fleeting moment, life can be about you and that omelette.

Buon Appetito.

I’ve always been a sap. For as long as I can remember, my emotions have tended to get the best of me. I cry during most movies – even funny ones. I cry listening to a particularly moving tune or remembering a wonderful and distant memory. Heck, I even cry when the weather changes (case in point: I got a little teary-eyed at the color of changing leaves on a recent visit to the east coast). And yes, I’m the type of person that has read many of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Hey, at least I didn’t just say that I’ve read almost all of the Nicholas Sparks books (although I have read The Notebook – but come on, who hasn’t?). And yes, I cried during that, too.

Call it what you will, but the Chicken Soup for the Soul books are friggin’ heart-warming. It really is like feeding your soul chicken soup – comforting, delicious, and wholesome. And the best part is, they have a book for almost every stage of life – there’s Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, Chicken Soup for the Sister’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Dieter’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Parent’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul – even Chicken Soup for the Menopausal Soul. Kinda weird, right? But I’m sure that it’s carrying at least one menopausal woman out there through those hot flashes – and hopefully, not warming her heart too much.

In any case, chicken soup – the real stuff – is also great to eat. And since this is a food blog, and not a book blog, I want to tell you a little bit about this easy and delicious recipe passed down from a family friend.

In my opinion, this stuff is far better than any of the books in the Chicken Soup series, precisely because it soothes both the soul and the taste buds – a double whammy! It’s also great for a cold, wintery night like tonight – “wintery” by California standards, of course. This recipe is open to interpretation and taste – in other words, my mom doesn’t use measurements because she’s a pro and much of the recipe below stems from my inner control-freak unveiling itself and trying to assign numbers and quantities to everything. So do with it what you will, but just know that it’s hard to screw this up – if you want more veggies, feel free to add more; if you want more wine (ya boozer), pour the whole bottle in, for all I care.

So here it is – I hope you enjoy. Take THAT Oprah’s Book Club!

Megan Phelps’s Chicken Soup for the Food-Lover’s Soul

Ingredients

1 cup onion, chopped

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 1/2 cups carrots, chopped

1 1/2 cups celery, chopped

About 3 1/2 cups white wine (or enough to cover the veggies)

64 fl. oz. chicken broth

1 rotisserie chicken, shredded

1 cup wild rice

3 cups water, salted

Salt & pepper to taste

1) In a large pot, sauté onions in olive oil on a medium-high flame; add chopped carrots, celery, salt and pepper and stir until onions become translucent.

2) Pour in white wine until vegetables are just covered. Lower heat, cover pot and let simmer for about 20 minutes, or until wine has been reduced.

3) Add chicken broth & shredded chicken to pot; cover and let simmer on medium heat for about 30-45 minutes.

4) While soup is stewing, pour rice and water in a separate pot and cook according to package instructions (until all water is absorbed by rice).

5) When rice is done, add to soup, stir, and serve.

It was recently brought to my attention that many of my daily activities are conducted in a state of “auto-pilot”.  Wake up, workout (while still half asleep), take a shower, make some coffee, drive to work, etc., etc. Even while doing yoga, I find myself fixated on how close I am to the end, dreading all those Sun Salutations, unable to take my mind off when I’ll finally be able to plop into that final pose, Savasana (not ironically a term translated to mean ‘corpse pose’). Perhaps the same can be said of most people, but I’ve suddenly realized that my robotic way of moving through life at times, seriously hinders my ability to learn new things. Maybe this is getting too philosophical and I should just tell you about these cookies.

But no, I’d like you to hear me out: despite what you might think, this actually does have to do with cookies – and cooking in general. I’ve always been ashamed of the fact that I’ve never been able to experiment in the kitchen. It’s just that I am so deathly afraid of (gasp) messing up, that I think I’d literally have a panic attack if someone tried to pry a recipe out of my clutches and told me to “trust my instincts and have fun”. Absurd, no? One might say that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Who knew? (None of my family may comment on this post.)

In any case, as I was gearing up to make some delicious-sounding Persimmon Spice Cookies I recently read about on one of my favorite food blogs, “Eat, Live, Run”, I thought I’d put in an extra two minutes to study the recipe before beginning. Not only that, but I actually whipped out my newly purchased cookbook from Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food to get her take on cookie-making. Consulting more than one source and taking a bit more time to ensure I had an adequate understanding? This is so unlike me, people. I expect instant and positive results with minimal effort. Oops…I think I just ratted myself out.

I wish I could tell you that I’m new to baking cookies and that’s the reason why what I’m about to tell you came as a surprise to me – but I’m not. Like most people, I’ve been baking cookies since I was just a youngin’. Chocolate chip cookies, “Koulourakia” cookies; traditional Greek butter cookies that usually come around at Easter time, even peanut butter cookies. And yet, due to my “git ‘er done” mentality and because really paying attention would require 10 extra seconds and therefore a bit more effort, I haven’t really learned the art of baking cookies. So you can imagine my surprise to have learned that most cookie recipes are made using the same basic formula: cream together butter and sugar, stir in an egg for moisture, and add the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder, and whatever other spices you like) at the end. Friggin’ groundbreaking, I tell you. It was almost as if Alice Waters herself was explaining this concept to me, calmly, slowly and deliberately; “So you mean to tell me that I can make ANY kind of cookie I want using this method?!” I heard myself say aloud. And suddenly, I was freed from my recipe bondage…at least when it comes to baking cookies.

Speaking of cookies, these ones are great. They’ll fill your house with the scent of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves – a combination of spices that never fail to make me giddy with excitement that the holidays are ’round the bend. They also have a moist, cake-like texture and so for that reason, are best consumed the same or next day after baking. My advice would be to bake them just before a holiday party or get-together, when you know they’ll be gobbled up quickly.

Also, keep in mind when purchasing your persimmons that there are two varieties: Hachiya and Fuyu. Although they may sound like two characters out of the movie Kung Fu Panda, it’s important that you choose the Hachiya variety for this recipe. They are much softer and less squat than the Fuyu – so soft, in fact, that you might worry that they’re about to go bad. Don’t. They’re supposed to be eaten just like that. Here’s a picture of both varietals so that you can see the difference. Hachiya is on the left and Fuyu is on the right.

So the lesson for today is to take a little extra time to stop and smell the roses once in a while; you might even surprise yourself by learning something new.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Persimmon Spice Cookies

Adapated from Eat, Live, Run

(Makes about two dozen cookies)

1 cup persimmon pulp (about two Hachiya persimmons)

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

2 cups all purpose flour

1 egg

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup chopped walnuts

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2) Wash persimmons and remove stems; scoop out pulp and puree in a

food processor until smooth and creamy. Set aside.

3) In a large bowl, mix together dry ingredients; flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves and salt.

4) Cream together butter and sugar. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until well-combined. Add the persimmon pulp and mix.

5) Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, being careful not to over-stir. Add the walnuts and mix until just combined.

6) Scoop large spoonfuls onto a lined baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.


Recipe for Time

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about making time for the things I love. It’s a strange predicament if you really think about it; first of all, time cannot be “made”. You can make bread, money, or even love, but you cannot make time. Time simply is.

The second reason why this phrase really irks me is that I hold a lot of resentment towards not having enough time to do the things I really want to be doing. Perhaps this is my own fault, but I’ve got an inkling I’m not alone in my frustration. Why should I have to “make” time to do the things that bring me joy? It should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? I should be scrambling to find time to do the things that I don’t really want to do. Or better yet, I shouldn’t feel obligated to do them at all. Alright fine, I’ll stop “should-ing” on myself.

The reason I bring all of this up is because I’ve been telling myself lately that I need to “make time” to blog about what I love; food. I’ve had this nagging feeling for the last few weeks that I couldn’t blog unless I had something “worthwhile” to blog about (e.g. a cool recipe, an outrageously good meal, etc., etc.). Everyday I’d note how long it had been since my last posting and with a twinge of guilt, I’d grumble something about my growing list of To-Do’s and how I didn’t have the time nor patience to play around in the kitchen – not when there were so many other things I needed to do that I didn’t want to be doing! Huh?

Inspired by the words of Molly Wizenberg of the renowned food blog, Orangette, I realized that perhaps I should try and blog more regularly as a way to simply write about whatever food-related thought comes to mind that week; without the pressure of having to come up with a groundbreaking recipe or to dine at some new, obscure eatery that everyone else in L.A. is probably already blogging about. So that’s what I’m going to do.

And so in the spirit of low-pressure blogging, I wanted to share a simple meal I recently enjoyed in the company of two dear friends. I say it is “simple” perhaps because my only duty was to bring (and drink) the wine. With seemingly no effort at all, my friend whipped up a delicious spread of sweet potato gnocchi sauteed with beet greens, pine nuts, and red onions, and sprinkled with some parmesan cheese. The salad was comprised of mixed greens, beets, and fennel and was tossed in a lovely homemade vinaigrette.

In the interest of time, that’s all I’ve got for today. I’m sorting out the ways in which I might be able to spend the majority of my time pursuing the thing I love most and I encourage you to do the same. But, if you do happen to stumble upon a way to “make” time, do pass it on to me.

No, I yam not a failure.

Blame it on the cool, drizzly weather that Los Angeles has been experiencing as of late, or the baskets of yams I encountered at my local farmer’s market last week, but my usual craving for root vegetables has gone up by a notch or two. A staple during my “starving college student” days, I’d often bake a yam, smother it in butter and cinnamon, and call it a day (or a meal). But now that I’m living with the ‘rents, I not only have the luxury of throwing other ingredients into the mix, I also have a plethora of kitchen appliances to choose from! Yipee!

Quick breads make me feel like I am really somebody. It’s kind of weird; I feel much more accomplished after baking a loaf of bread, than I do baking most other things, for some strange reason. Maybe it’s the size of the baked good that I rest my inner baker’s sense of self-worth upon. Whatever it is, I decided that a yam quick bread would do the blog (and my tummy) some good. Restaurant reviews have quickly taken precedence over the ol’ food blog, and if I have any hope of taking Meal Muse to the next level of culinary know-how, I need to take my pots and pans out for a test drive once in a while. So…a yam quick bread was in order.

Now, part of owning a blog, in my opinion, is the ability to unabashedly admit when you’ve messed up. I don’t know many food bloggers whose dishes ever come out crappy (or so it seems). I, for one, would like you to know that this bread was an utter baking blunder. The recipe I consulted was from an old, dilapidated cookbook my mom owns, appropriately titled, “Quick Breads”. I followed the recipe to a tee for the most part, save for the fact that I used mashed, roasted yams rather than a 16 oz. can of sweet potatoes, omitted the nuts, and added a bit of water since the dough seemed very thick and dry. So maybe I didn’t follow the recipe to a tee. The result? A very goopy bread. A bread pudding, if you will. But not in the good way.

Before things went awry…

After literally baking this bread for two hours (covering it with foil for the last 20 minutes so as to avoid the top getting too brown), I threw in the towel. The metal skewer I was using to test the “done-ness” of the bread, simply refused to come out clean. Even as I type this, the loaf sits on the stove, mocking me, daring me to cut into it and expose the mushiness inside. Whatever, yam loaf. Screw you.

In the spirit of interactivity, I want to open this post up for discussion. Why, oh why, was this loaf such a failure? I’m not giving up faith in my baking abilities, but as I sit at the kitchen table trying with all my might to suck it up, my ego is undoubtedly bruised. Here’s the recipe. Have at it. And please know that I yam terribly sorry.

Sweet Yam Quick Bread (don’t try this at home….seriously)

Ingredients:

2 cups Pamela’s baking & pancake flour (gluten-free flour)
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 cup orange juice
1 egg, well-beaten
1/3 cup oil
16 oz. yam purée (about 2 large yams)

For the yam purée: preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap yams in foil, place on cookie sheet and bake for at least 45 minutes, or until you can easily pierce with a fork. Let cool for at least 10 minutes, peel skins off, and mash in a bowl. I like to add a bit of butter to get that creamy consistency. And because butta makes everything betta.

For the loaf: Combine flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Mix orange juice, egg, oil and sweet potatoes together well. Add this mixture to dry ingredients. Add in about 1/2 water. Stir until just blended. Pour batter into a greased and floured loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes (or in my case, two, long and tortuous hours). Cool in pan for about 10 minutes.

Despite my shame, I decided to cut into the loaf to show you all what exactly I mean by “goopy bread”.

Oh, the horror! Where did I go wrong, dear reader?!

P.S. – Just so you don’t think I’m a total loser, I need you to know that my Tahitian Squash loaf came out perfectly! But you’ll have to wait until my next “Farmer’s Corner” article comes out to read about that one!

Pockets o’ Joy

This past Saturday, I fell in love. With Din Tai Fung. No, that’s not the name of my new Chinese boyfriend, it’s the name of the best house o’ dumplings this side of the world!  I mean that quite literally; it’s the only branch located in North America (in Arcadia, of all places). The others are located in Asian countries (think: Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Taiwan).

After a day of standing in the sun and tasting wines from all over the world at the Pasadena Wine Festival (not to sound too bougie), my friends and I wanted something more substantial than mere cheese and chocolate nibbles. Not sure about you, but I never really crave dumplings. I like them just fine, but I’d never go out of my way for them and I certainly wasn’t thinking about dumplings after a few glasses of wine. What I was thinking about fell more along the lines of a juicy cheeseburger and garlic fries. But I took my friend’s older sister’s advice, and consented to going to a dumpling house. After all, older sisters do know best.

I’m a bit of a changed woman after one visit to Din Tai. I foresee a great many trips to Arcadia in my near future – and not to visit Hot Dog on a Stick at the Westfield Shopping Center. Here are a few shots of the night these little pockets o’ joy rocked my world:

While this might resemble a sweat shop, it’s really where all the magic happens. I’m gonna call it a Dumpling Factory – the next best thing to Willy Wonka’s digs. Aside from the food, my favorite thing about this place was the service. While you wait for a table (and you will wait for a table), they have you fill out your order on a slip of paper, selecting how many of each item you’d like and then handing it over to the hostess. By the time you’re actually seated, the food starts coming right away. Brilliant!

Nope – it’s not soy sauce. The proper way to eat a dumpling is to bite the tip off, suck out all the juice, and drizzle in a bit of vinegar and freshly ground ginger (pictured above). The tartness of the vinegar is balanced out by the sweetness of the dough and the saltiness of the meat inside the dumpling. In other words, it’s a party for your taste buds. Here’s my friend Rachel’s bro-in-law demonstrating the correct way to eat your dumpling.

And here are some of the other dishes we feasted on…

Stir-fried baby bak choy with garlic.

Shanghai Rice Cake w/chicken. These dense, little rice medallions stir-fried with spinach and chicken in a garlic, sesame, soy sauce (that’s my guess) were outrageously good. And so unique! Starchy cakes, who woulda thunk?

My plate (which was refilled several times after this shot). All the fixings and a Juicy Pork Dumpling, Din Tai’s signature.

Several orders of dumplings later, this little guy was the last man standing.

If you’re nowhere near Arcadia, CA, then that sucks for you and I’m deeply sorry because you’re missing out. If you happen to live in Seattle, however, then that’s great news because they’re opening one there soon, according to their website (which I now have bookmarked).

In other news, I’m thinking about being a dumpling for Halloween this year. Thoughts?