Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SoCal Locals: VAVO Ginger Ale

I love love LOVE Farmer's Markets. If I haven't mentioned them a thousand times before, I'm sure I will plenty of times in the future. They inspire the majority of my cooking exploits, and most recipes I try or concoct usually contain at least one ingredient purchased at one. The colors, sounds, people, and variety of novel ideas and items found at Farmer's Markets are something I have truly grown to appreciate here in Southern California.

When I first started toying with the idea of a food blog, I knew I wanted to include not only recipes and fun food related tidbits. I wanted to provide an outlet to feature local artisans and products unique to Southern California. Hopefully this SoCal Locals post will be the first of many to do so. Part of the fun of being involved in community Farmer's Market is seeing the new people, vendors and great products that cycle through. Some are seasonal, some temporary, but I'm certain what I recently discovered at the Alhambra Farmers Market is here to stay.

VAVO Ginger ale is the brainchild of the family owned West LA Chinese restaurant Mandarette Cafe . For the past 10 years, Mandarette Cafe has been serving up this family recipe, to rave reviews. When the Cafe was reviewed by Zagats, their Ginger Ale was specifically noted as a must try. After encouragement from loyal patrons to the Mandarette, the owners launched into the production process a few months ago.

VAVO is available at local Farmer's Markets in Alhambra, Westwood, Torrance and Melrose, with more on the horizon shortly. They have had overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers, myself included. We were so wowed with the free sample we tried, we walked away with a case of VAVO. The flavor is more intensely ginger than commercial ginger ales, and truly the most refreshing soda-type beverage that I have ever tasted. I'm in no way a big soda drinker, but definitely look forward to a cold VAVO after a long day. Its taste is light and refreshing, and lightly effervesced. This may seem like a trivial detail, but you can appreciate the subtleties of the real ginger flavor more extensively without feeling scores of bubbles dance around your palate.

Aside from Farmer's Markets, VAVO is now available at some LA restaurants, including Curry House, Tokyo Wako, Gen Wa Korean BBQ, Sushi Eyaki and more. Three other flavors are in the works for VAVO, including Lemon-Lime Ginger Ale, Cranberry Ginger Ale and Ginger Ale with Energy. Additional information is available on the VAVO website, and you can also become a friend of VAVO Ginger ale on Facebook. Please check them out and support your local products!

If you have a suggestion for a SoCal Local to feature, please drop me an email. All suggestions will be considered, and all are appreciated.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Operation Cookie is a Go

While enjoying a leisurely breakfast at the Corner Bakery Cafe this morning, I read an article that made me smile. I can't believe I've never stopped in here before, but my tasty breakfast is besides the point...

The Women's Club of South Pasadena, along with local students, baked and packaged cookies to deliver to War veterans this Memorial Day. Together they packaged thousands of chocolate chip, oatmeal and chocolate meringue cookies to be distributed at the VA Hospital in Long Beach. This is the fourth year the Women's Club has participated in Operation Cookie.

Here's to good people doing good things. Please take a minute to check out these great gals here and don't forget to pay it forward.

Image courtesy of SGVN/Leo Jarzomb.

Creamy Italian White Bean Soup

Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are quickly making the four corners of the world seem ever closer. Like countless others, I've been caught up in the fun of reuniting with high school and college pals, checking out the family pictures, seeing where everyone wound up and succumbing to the generally voyeuristic tendencies that these sites expose you to. 12 days till your vacation you say? Thumbs up, we like that. Had a few too many last weekend and posted the pictures to prove it? I may just have to see for myself. But tell me you just made a mean batch of carrot nut muffins? I am all over that like the tabloids on Jon and Kate.

My delightful high school friend Penelope of Smartini has been providing me with some much needed blogging guidance and is also responsible for the aforementioned carrot nut muffin recipe. As she shares my love of all things healthy and tasty, I asked if she might be interested in a guest post. She happily obliged with this amazing looking recipe that I surely will be making soon. I am honored to have her witty words and yummy recipe grace the pages of my little ol' blog. Thanks Penelope!

Hello from the East Coast! I’d like to share a recipe that I tried recently from The Daily Green, an eco-living site that has a fabulous recipe source organized by nutrition sources; calcium, beta carotene, etc. I found this recipe for white bean soup under “iron,” and judging by the outcome, I will surely be trying additional recipes on this site. The soup is fairly simple, but flavorful, and was received well by my very non-vegetarian husband. I myself am an omnivore, but fully appreciate vegetarian recipe that is not only delicious, but packed with good nutrition. As we are fast approaching summer, I would recommend this recipe for a rainy evening, and/or a lazy Sunday. I had the idea that it would pair well with steak, and it did!

Creamy Italian White Bean Soup
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium celery stalk, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cans (15 1/2 to 19 ounces each) white kidney beans (cannellini), rinsed and drained*
1 3/4 cups vegetable broth
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups water
1 bunch (10 to 12 ounces) spinach
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

*I used white Northern beans, they worked fine.

1. In 3-quart saucepan, heat oil over medium heat until hot. Add onion and celery* and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Add garlic, cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Add beans, broth, pepper, thyme, and water; heat to boiling over high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer, uncovered, 15 minutes.

*I didn’t have celery at the time, so substituted a little celery seed to capture that flavor. The chopped onion will address texture.

2. Meanwhile, trim tough stems from spinach and discard; thinly slice leaves.*

*Kitchen shears can save you time on this front, and make the slicing smoother.

3. With slotted spoon, remove 2 cups bean and vegetable mixture from soup; set aside. Spoon half of remaining mixture into blender; cover, with center part of cover removed to let steam escape, and puree until smooth.* Pour into large bowl. Repeat with remaining mixture.

*Okay, I’m going to be honest here and admit that I have used this hot-soup-in-the-blender method in the past, and it has not ended well. It’s messy, and you may, if you are at all klutzy like me, burn your skin off. My new trick is to plug in the hand mixer with milkshake attachment and blend away, right in the pot. Since you are only supposed to be blending half, in order to achieve creamy texture while keeping the rest of the beans intact, just blend a little bit. Eyeball it, and stop when you’ve got a creamy broth with a fair amount of whole beans left.

4. Return soup to saucepan; stir in reserved beans and vegetables. Heat to boiling over high heat, stirring occasionally. Stir in spinach and cook until wilted, about 1 minute. Stir in lemon juice and remove from heat. Serve with Parmesan, if you like.*

*Yes, with the Parmesan. Also, this recipe reheats very well the next day—if there is any left. Enjoy!

Yummy soup image courtesy of
The Daily Green

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Strawberry Balsamic Sorbet

The weather is finally starting to feel springlike here in California, as opposed to the oppressive stretch of mid 90's a few weeks back that all but melted the greater LA area. When I lived in Virginia, this turn in the weather could mean only one thing... the return of the ice cream man. Our neighborhood ice cream truck was unlike ones I remembered from my youth. This was a rusty van with all the proper ice cream truck accoutrements; doors emblazoned with enticing pictures of heat relieving goodies, a kindly man in a funny hat happily serving ice cream to the masses, and a loudspeaker blaring music. This truck however, played creepy, slightly off pitch tunes that I'm hard pressed to associate with ice cream trucks, namely the theme from St. Elmo's Fire. In a twangy minor key, it sounded like it belonged more on a scary Halloween music CD than on a child attracting ice cream truck. I have yet to run across an ice cream truck here in my neighborhood here in CA, but I'm finding myself craving a bowl, cone or scoop of something creamy and cool in the evenings. Ice cream doesn't always fit into my plan to be more healthful. Good thing there are plenty of delicious options to concoct when it comes to frozen treats.

Sorbet, gelato, frozen yogurt, granita... the non ice cream alternatives abound. Sorbet is the purest of the frozen delicacies, combining mainly fruit and sugar, with the occasional pinch of salt or squirt of lemon juice. This was going to be the way to satisfy my sweet tooth without serving up a helping of unhealthy, albeit tasty, fat based frozen treat.

A few disclaimers before you read any further. 1. I do not own an ice cream maker. As many recipes call for "following the directions provided by your ice cream maker manufacturer", it left me out in the cold. No pun intended. If you do have an ice cream maker, by all means use it. 2. Surprise suprise, I've never made sorbet before. Two to three ingredients, no fancy combination or mixing techniques, how hard can it be?

Strawberries and chocolate are hands down my favorite berry and sweet combination. This however, runs a close second.

Strawberry Balsamic Sorbet

1 lb hulled and quartered strawberries, fresh or frozen
2/3 cup sugar
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Wash, hull and quarter strawberries into a bowl. Add sugar and balsamic. Mix until sugar begins to dissolve into strawberries. Let stand, covered, for 30 minutes. Puree mixture in food processor. Strain strawberry mixture through a fine mesh strainer, if desired. Pour into bowl, cover and freeze. Stir mixture every 30 minutes or so for the first two hours. Freeze 4-6 hours total, serve and enjoy.

There is something to be said for the purity of using just three ingredients to produce something so refreshingly simple and delicious. I chose not to strain the strawberry seeds out of the sorbet base, however if your preference is the smooth frozen texture of sorbet, invest in a fine mesh strainer. The flavor was intensely strawberry, and not too sweet as I feared with that amount sugar. Surprisingly, the balsamic flavor shone through much more pre-freeze than in the finished product. I loved the contrast of the sweet berry and the luxe richness of the balsamic. I will up the balsamic content in the next attempt. This was so simple and so delicious, I'll certainly be trying other flavorful sorbet combinations soon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sweet Potato Buttermilk Spice Muffins

Lifetime Television recently premiered their new diet and nutrition based TV show, Cook Yourself Thin. Cook Yourself Thin is billed as an "all-new series, offering viewers the skills and the confidence to give their favorite indulgent meals a healthy makeover by cutting the calories and doubling the flavor!" Double the flavor you say? Bold statement indeed. I plan to devote a post in the future about this show to see if their healthy, reduced fat, flavor doubling claims can hold up in the kitchen.

A recent episode featured a busy stay at home mom who loves snacking, cupcakes and calorie laden coffee drinks. The healthful cooks offered up a new recipe for chocolate cupcakes, substituting mashed sweet potato for butter. A befuddled cook says what? You want me to believe that if you put vegetables in the choco-loveliess that is a cupcake that I won't taste a difference? I decided to put this claim to the test. I wanted to test the "butter for sweet potato" swap claim but was in the mood for a different treat.

The buttermilk spice muffins at Mimi's Cafe have recently captured my heart, and pleased my palate. They are large enough to make a great breakfast on their own or with a side of fruit, but the kind folks at Mimi's include them with their breakfast entrees. They are all that a good muffin could dream of being - light, airy, perfectly flavored and topped with a fantastic sugar crumble topping. Fortunately for me and all the other Mimi's muffin lovers, they have posted the recipe here on their site. I wanted to integrate the sweet potato for butter swap within the confines of this recipe, so another cooking adventure was born.

According to Calorie 1/2 cup of salted butter contains 800 calories and 88 grams of fat - yikes! Compare that to my substitution of 1 cup of mashed sweet potatoes at a mere 250 calories and we have a winner. Because of the additional sweetness of the sweet potatoes, I reduced the sugar in the recipe by 1/4 cup, saving 194 calories. Those two changes saves a grand total of nearly 750 calories. The real question remained, would these calorie saving swaps result in an equally tasty muffin fix?

In a word, not so much. The spice of the muffin lacked in its characteristic Cinnamon and nutmeg punch, despite using the advised amounts. The texture left something to be desired, perhaps as a side effect of over mixing when I received a phone call mid-mixing. Rookie mistake. The fragrance wafting from the oven as the muffins cooked was absolutely spot on, but sadly the muffins lacked the texture and flavor composition that I was hoping for. I haven't given up completely on the healthy swap outs and substitutions concept. I think it has a place and will redeem itself in a later recipe. For now, I will stick to my original Mimi's muffin, butter and all, and enjoy every last tasty crumble of it. As for the sweet potatoes, they will still be a welcome guest at my dinner table any time... just not in my muffins.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

SoCal Sustenance takes on the Midwest

A big thanks to Amber of The Omaha Healthy Food Examiner for a very cool nod to SoCal's recent stuffed artichoke post. You can also check out her personal site here at Eat Like Athena.

Check out the article here, which provides some great additional artichoke info. Thanks Amber!

Friday, May 8, 2009


Los Angeles restaurants on Urbanspoon

The geniuses at Urban Spoon deserve a hearty round of applause for bringing those cool iPhone Apps to us iPhone deprived folks. They have graciously shared this nifty tool that locates restaurants according to your preferred neighborhood, cuisine or price range. Next time you find yourself stuck in a culinary quandary, try your luck and give it a spin.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stuffed Artichokes with Red Quinoa and Brillat-Savarin Cheese

My curiosity got the best of me again on my latest trip to the market. Wandering through the produce department consistently piques my interest more than any other part of the store. Placed at the end of one aisle was a display of vibrant California artichokes. Their magnetic pull drew me in like a woman walking by a shoestore... some forces are just too strong to fight. The artichoke's unique texture, boundless preparation options and appealing look makes these members of the thistle family an attractive produce prospect. I've done my fair share of consuming artichokes, but have never had the pleasure of preparing them.

Perhaps my naive enthusiasm got the best of me when I spotted these verdant veggies, because I had no idea how to choose a good artichoke. For the record, you should be able to cleanly snap off a petal when selecting an artichoke; flimsy petals that bend when pressed are old and lack moisture. They should be a bright, unblemished green without scratches, scrapes or punctures. Two lucky victims were chosen, and the wheels of artichoke preparation were put in motion. For those like myself uninitiated to the artichoke world, more useful information can be found here.

Stuffed peppers are a favorite dish of mine, so I thought I would take a stab at stuffed artichokes. Quinoa stuffed roasted peppers with boursin cheese, raisins and almonds are a creation that I have come to love, so I thought a variation on this would be tasty. A special thanks the kind folks at Nicole's Gourmet Foods in South Pasadena for their words of wisdom on a cheese selection for this dish this morning. Those of us in the area are fortunate to have this fantastic resource at our fingertips.

Red Quinoa and Brillat-Savarin Stuffed Artichokes

2 medium artichokes
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
1 lemon, juiced
1 Tbsp fresh tarragon, finely chopped
8 oz red quinoa
16 oz chicken stock
2 scallions, chopped
3 oz Brillat-Savarin Cheese (or similar rich creamy cheese; boursin, brie etc..)
1/2 large red onion, diced
2 Tbsp grated Parmesan Romano cheese

Soak quinoa in warm water for 15 minutes. Rinse artichokes in running water for 1 minute each. Remove base petals that are small or discolored. Slice off stem close to the base. Boil 4 inches of water in a deep saucepan. Reduce heat to a simmer and add artichokes, salt, pepper, lemon juice, tarragon and 2 diced garlic cloves. Cover and let simmer for 25-30 minutes, until petals near the middle can be easily pulled out. Transfer artichokes from pan to a baking rack, turning upside down to drain and cool. Rinse quinoa and pour chicken stock in small saucepan. Simmer on medium high heat and add rinsed quinoa. Cover and let simmer 25-30 minutes on medium heat. Add additional chicken stock if liquid boils off before its cooked. Add diced red onion, scallions, cheese, and 1 Tbsp grated Parmesan to cooked quinoa and thoroughly integrate. Separate layers of artichoke petals and place quinoa between them. Sprinkle artichoke with remaining Parmesan and bake at 375 degrees for 10-15 minutes, until golden brown.

The petals pull out easily and much like chips scooping up a dip, each petal contains a perfect size tasty mouthful of the quinoa mixture.

Turns out I apparently don't have a green thumb when it comes to artichoke selection. Aside from that, these were savory and light, but suprisingly filling. The next batch will definately have the hearts hollowed out to allow for additional filling. Best of luck with your next artichoke adventure and have yourself a scumptious day.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sparkling Blackberry Lime Aguas Frescas

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Did you know that Cinco de Mayo is a day to commemorate the Battle of Puebla in 1862, where the outnumbered Mexican army defeated the French? If you did, your history knowledge far exceeds mine. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with food, drinks, music and dancing. I wanted to forgo the more commonplace Mexican fare for something that I just had the pleasure of experiencing last week - Aguas Frescas.

Literally translated, aguas frescas means fresh water. They are made from fruits (sweet or acidic), seeds and flowers and are commonly served throughout Mexico. I had a pineapple aguas frescas last week and it was fruit infused perfection - sweet, cold and slightly textured. I enjoyed the slightly fibrous consistency of the pineapple in the drink, though I know many beverage purists who would enjoy it strained in pure liquid form.

Aguas frescas are meant to be more of a refreshment than a sweet beverage, so there is no need to kill it with sugar. Any seasonal fruit can be used, and the possibilities are endless when you think of fruit and herb creations... watermelon basil, cantaloupe thyme... the sky's the limit. Here is my twist on aguas frescas.

Sparkling Blackberry Lime Aguas Frescas

1 cup fresh or frozen blackberries
2 key limes, juiced
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup ice cold water
1/2 cup ginger ale
Crushed ice
(Serves one)

Add blackberries, lime juice, honey and sugar to food processor. Pulse for 15-20 seconds until a smooth consistency is achieved. Add 1/2 cup ice water and 1/2 cup crushed ice. Pulse again until ice is well incorporated. Pour into glass with a few cubes of ice. Pour ginger ale on top and lightly stir.

For those who enjoy a pure juice drink without seeds or pulp, depending on the fruit used, first pulse just the blackberries in the food processor. Strain the blackberry juice through a fine sieve and return the juice to food processor. Add lime juice, sugar and honey and continue with the recipe as written.

How fantastic is that? It wish you could see how beautiful it really is, but into each cooks life, a little food must fall... cascade, gush, splash and drip. From this point onward, this traumatic episode will be referred to as "the frescas incident". An innocent bobble brought about what looked like a fruit tinged crime scene throughout my kitchen, living room, walls, rug, 2 plants, a case of beer and myself. After an hour of scrubbing and cursing under my breath, I am renewed and determined to recreate this refreshing drink. And there will be pictures... oh yes, there will be pictures.

Update: Round two was a complete success. I have included two pictures of the "fresca incident" carnage for your entertainment. Proceed with caution and enjoy :)

The fresca incident:

The finished product makes it all worthwhile

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Orange Blueberry Scones

Occasionally, I reach a standoff with one of my favorite meals of the day. That standoff is food boredom, as much as it pains me to admit it, with breakfast. I love a well prepared omelet, but time often runs short to properly prepare one in the morning. A toasted bagel with cream cheese and lox is a personal favorite, but typically is a special occasion breakfast item in our household. I adore oatmeal with cinnamon, raisins and walnuts, but a girl can only eat so much oatmeal. This quandary lead me to my current post, and on a quest to jazz up my tired old breakfast choices.

I will be the first to admit, scones aren't really on my radar. I had to really think about the last time I had one, and then a faint memory of a delightful scone from Starbucks came to mind. Scones conjure up images of high tea, ladies in fancy hats with little dogs, finger sandwiches and mustachioed men in top hats like Mr. Monopoly . Perhaps I had a run in with some fancy scone wielding individual in a past life, as I have no reason to scorn the fair scone.

I found this recipe at and decided to have a go at it. I chose this recipe as it specifically noted the use of fresh fruit. Many recipes I found called solely for the use of dried fruit. Nothing against dried fruit, I just had a wealth of beautiful seasonal berries fresh from the farmers market at my disposal. One of the distinct joys of Southern California living is the endless abundance of market fresh fruits and vegetables, and I am making an effort to use many more of these fresh fixings in my day to day cooking. This is the original recipe, with my tweaks denoted below.

Fresh Fruit Scones

2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups fresh fruit, diced (peaches, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries)
1 large egg, beaten
2 tbsp heavy cream
2 tbsp turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt in bowl and whisk to blend. Add the butter , cutting it into the mixture with a pastry cutter to the size of peas. Gradually add the buttermilk, mixing with your hands until the dough just comes together. Gently mix in the fruit with your hands, careful not to over mix. If the fruit is juicy, less buttermilk can be used.

Place the dough onto a lightly floured work surface with well floured hands. Divide dough in half and form two discs, each two inches thick. Use a knife to cut each disc into six even triangles. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place scones two inches apart on the prepared pan and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Whisk the heavy cream and egg together. Using a pastry brush, coat the top of each scone with the egg mixture. Sprinkle each scone with turbinado sugar and bake for 20-25 minutes until light golden brown. Remove from oven and transfer the scones to wire racks.

Et voila! Scones magnifiques!

My recipe tweaks and tips:

  • Added 1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
  • Added the juice of one half large orange
  • Added the zest of one half large orange
  • Turbinado sugar can be found commonly as the brand "Sugar in the Raw"
  • Decreased the buttermilk to 2/3 cup

No buttermilk in the house? No problem! There is a quick, simple and inexpensive fix. Place one tablespoon white vinegar in a small bowl. Add to this one cup minus one tablespoon milk. Let rest for five minutes, and you have instant buttermilk - worked like a charm.

I made this recipe last evening, and may have skimped on the 30 minutes fridge time. By about 20 minutes. You can easily save calories by substituting milk for the heavy cream with a similar result. I lightly dusted the scones with turbinado, and when the final product came out wished I had a heavier hand. A solid sugar layer atop these scones could really add to their visual appeal and add a extra pop of sweetness.

They smelled amazing and true to the recipe, turned a lovely golden brown. The taste test would reveal the true deliciousness of these tempting treats. Unfortunately, they were a bit of a letdown. My fellow taster, Mister SoCal, commented that they tasted like a fancy version of the Bisquick strawberry shortcake biscuits that he had make earlier in the week. I can't say that I disagreed with him, and was left unimpressed with my results. Am I crestfallen and since sworn off scones? Absolutely not. They were moist and flavorful, but sadly the essence of orange did not cut through the sweetness of the dough. This less than optimal outcome only serves to fuel the fire of my pursuit of breakfast alternatives. I wish you luck in your cooking endeavors today and always.