Something fishy

I must sheepishly admit, I’m a fairly new arrival to the sushi party. I’ve always been intrigued by sushi in theory, and the creations I’ve seen in person have been nothing short of gorgeous. But, like many folks of the Midwestern persuasion, the thought of putting a slab of raw fish in my mouth, chewing and swallowing it kinda grosses me out. I usually prefer my fish cooked through and well done, thank you very much. I’ve had a hard time bringing myself to really give sushi a fair shake.

You’d have thought I’d learn to love sushi after spending nearly two years in Los Angeles. My La-La Land sushi introduction took place at an all-you-can-eat buffet and, sadly, it was not a very happy one. As I might have mentioned a time or two before, I’m not really a buffet gal. I’d much rather order a plate of something I know I’ll enjoy than sample a dozen or so different things and come away wishing I would have just gotten a full serving of the one or two items I liked best. Such was the case here.

My uncle, with whom I shared many great dinners during my LA days, took me to a sushi buffet place he liked. Imagine a Golden Corral serving sushi with a Korean barbecue section thrown in for good measure and you’ve pretty much got the idea. Instead of savoring the meal, we basically rushed through the line with my uncle loading me up with a roll here, a bite there… by the time we sat down, I had no idea what was on my plate. I ate tentatively; none of it struck me as particularly fresh or memorable, and I came away feeling disappointing.

I mean no disrespect to my uncle; I certainly appreciated his generosity in including me for dinner, as he did on a regular basis, and I hope he’s not offended if he reads this.  I guess I was just hoping for more of a leisurely, sit-down experience at a high-quality sushi bar where I could just trust that the chef would serve us whatever he’d cut and rolled fresh on the spot. On this night, though, it was not to be.

I’ve always been open to trying sushi again, but the only fish my husband will consider eating comes battered, fried and served with chips, so I’ve been dangling out here on my own for years, waiting for someone to come to my sushi rescue. It wasn’t until a few months ago that a couple of my sushiphile friends took me under their generous wings and eased me into giving it another shot.

These two lovely ladies and I convened at Sakura here in Indianapolis for dinner and I put myself in their capable hands. I was a little nervous about the idea of diving right into the deep end of the pool; little did I know about the sheer number of sushi options that don’t involve raw fish. I was pleasantly surprised (and a little relieved) to discover shrimp tempura roll, asparagus roll and the item that would deliver a powerful punch of love at first bite – the spicy soft shell crab roll. Rounded out with a bowl of edamame and a plate of light-as-a-feather crispy tempura vegetables for sharing, it was an unexpectedly filling repast. I loved the ritual of pouring the soy sauce and mixing in the wasabi with your chopstick, and the delicate skill required to use chopsticks in first place. There’s something sort of mad-science, techy cool about it.

I did taste the (raw) spicy tuna roll, but it wasn’t my favorite of the choices. The raw concept is still going to take some getting used to for my palate, but I’m off to a good start. Honestly, it’s really just a mental hangup and has nothing to do with taste or texture. I’ll get there. Someday. Until then, I’m happy to play the field.

I’ve been back to Sakura a few times since, mainly for lunch, although I’m perfectly open to trying other sushi restaurants on for size as well. Every now and then, I’ll even think to myself “Mm, sushi sounds really good right now.” Actually, I’ve been nursing a soft-shell crab roll craving for about a week now, but just haven’t had a chance to indulge it. I was thrilled beyond belief when my friend Christina sent me a text late this morning telling me not to eat lunch, that she was bringing over some Sakura take-out. What a thoughtful pal! (Thanks, girlfriend!!!!)

Sakura’s California roll and soft-shell crab roll

Would love to hear recommendations for other entry-level sushi rolls I should try — sound off at will, fair readers!

Oh sushi. I think this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Home sweet home

Have spent the past few days reacclimating to the old homestead, and fighting off a pesky cold/flu bug that’s infiltrated my sinuses. Funny that we’ve been on the go in Europe for three weeks, out and about in cold rainy weather, navigating transatlantic flights, and when do I get sick? Only after I get back to the comfort and safety of my own home. Hmph.

I’m delighted to be back in my own kitchen and working again with my own knives, utensils and pots/pans; stocking groceries in my own roomy stainless steel fridge; and sitting down to eat at my own massive dining table. Needing a culinary break from continental fare, the first few meals I made this week were as decidedly anti-French/Italian/German as I could think up — chicken curry with sweet potatoes and chickpeas, Asian crusted tilapia with Thai peanut noodles (thanks for the recipe, Gillian!), and fluffy chocolate chip buttermilk pancakes. We did break down and order a quattro formaggio from Bazbeaux one night when I didn’t feel up to cooking, but American pizza is really nothing like true Italian pizza anyway.

Yesterday was the granddaddy of all American meals, the most comfortable of all comfort foods — Thanksgiving dinner. My family was sort of scattered to the winds this year and since my closest unit members and I are still recovering from our trip (did I mention I’ve been up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. every day this week?), we decided to play it very low key. Fortunately, our lovely friends/neighbors down the street invited us over. I was all prepared to cook a turkey breast with some scaled-down fixings at home, but feeling as under the weather as I do, was secretly thrilled not to for once.

Thanksgiving is always a bittersweet holiday for me, resurrecting memories of all the years I spent alongside my mom in the kitchen as she prepared a huge spread of her tried-and-true classics. Always the same stuffing recipe, always the scalloped corn casserole, always the cranberry ice that made my teeth ache. I was living in Los Angeles the last Thanksgiving my mom was alive, and it was the first year I didn’t make it home for the holiday. After a very nice dinner at my Uncle Dave’s house in Camarillo just northwest of L.A., I remember stealing a few moments to myself in a darkened bedroom to cry, somehow knowing that the unquestionable family tradition I’d enjoyed for 31 years was changing and would never be the same again.

And it hasn’t. The year my mom died, we went out to eat for Thanksgiving for the first time ever. It felt like a sacrilege, but the thought of even attempting to recreate her traditions in her kitchen without her there was more than I could bear. I don’t remember much about our dinner that year, other than the food seemed bland and tasteless and there was a gaping hole at the table where my mom should have been.

That was eight years ago. Time does heal wounds, but never eliminates them entirely. I’ll always think of my mom on Thanksgiving day, bustling around the kitchen like a fearless conductor of her own culinary symphony. I have cooked my own Thanksgiving dinners since then. One year, the “fresh” turkey I’d purchased the night before turned out to be completely frozen solid in the middle when I went to put it in the oven. Certain side dishes have met with varying degrees of success. I’ve learned some valuable trial-and-error lessons along the way. I know some people get totally flustered about the idea of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, but at this point, preparing the big meal doesn’t freak me out. I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to turkey day, so I usually try to serve a combination of old favorites and maybe one or two new recipes thrown in to keep things fresh.

This year, though, Ron and Janet saved me the trouble, bless them. Their spread was a fabulous collection of all the best stuff — perfectly roasted turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with yummy melty marshmallows on top, green bean casserole (which I always vow needs to be made much more often than just once a year), and a savory wild rice with mushrooms. As Janet so accurately summed up, Thanksgiving is all about the starches. True dat! I contributed a stuffing I made with apples, onions, celery, sage and rosemary (hubby already said he wasn’t going to eat any, so I made it to please myself!); and a bowl of vanilla orange cranberry sauce. All in all, it was a delicious and satisfying dinner shared with good friends. What more could a person ask for? I was truly thankful.

By the way, best use of Thanksgiving leftovers in my book? White meat turkey sandwich on white bread with Miracle Whip, a layer of stuffing and some cranberry sauce. Followed up by a piece of pumpkin pie doused with Cool Whip. Yeah, baby. Now you’re talking.

My thoughts are already turning ahead to the holidays. So many recipes, so little time. I’m already mentally running through lists of cookies I want to make, roasts I can put in the crockpot on the cold nights ahead, my mom’s brandy slush recipe, and a slew of seasonal side dishes. Every year, I have big plans to invite friends over for dinners, a cookie swap, maybe a brunch, and before I know it, Christmas has come and gone. I vow this year not to get so wrapped up in the shopping and stresses of the holiday season that I forget to just relax and spend some time with the people I care about. Spontaneous stolen moments are way better than no moments at all.

Today, we hope to venture out to get our Christmas tree while my adorable stepson is here to help decorate. Perhaps we’ll even follow up our tree-decorating efforts with some cookies and homemade hot chocolate… ah. I know many people loathe the long, cold winter, but I look at it as an opportunity to cuddle up with the ones you love and enjoy a bunch of heart- and tummy-warming dishes that don’t taste nearly as good any other time of year.

To that end… my nose is running again. I think it’s time for a cup of tea and my favorite afghan. Don’t forget to count your blessings.

California cuisine

Just got back this afternoon from a lovely long weekend in Southern California, one of my favorite places. I lived in Los Angeles from 2000 to 2002, and also in Sonoma from 2005 to 2006, so I’ve gotten decent tastes of both southern and northern Cali. Literally. Anytime I get an opportunity to go back to the Golden State, my mouth immediately starts watering at the thought of In ‘N Out Burger.

Hubby worked at the Long Beach Grand Prix over the weekend, so baby and I tagged along. Although we stayed with hubby at his hotel in Long Beach, I did make it up to L.A. for a couple of occasions, including an overnight stay at my gracious cousin’s apartment in Hollywood last night.

On prior visits, hubby pointed out that I often refer to my favorite L.A. restaurants as having the best fill-in-the-blank-here ever. Well, with the abundance of fantabulously fresh California produce, seafood and such, it’s hard for it to be anything but! Plus, the ability to dine al fresco year-round always makes everything taste better in my book.

In no particular order, here are several of the culinary reasons I love L.A.:

In ‘N Out Burger. Those who know are nodding their heads right now. The yummiest burgers, fries and shakes in the Southwest – bar none. Everything is made fresh on site; no freezers and no microwaves anywhere on the premises. For added hipness factor, there’s a secret menu you can order from. Well, it’s available on their web site, so I’m not sure just how secret it is, but it’s not posted at the restaurants themselves. If you really want to sound like a true aficionado, saddle up and order your cheeseburger “animal style” to get it loaded with grilled onions and special sauce. The employees are the nicest fast-food servers I’ve ever encountered anywhere, and why shouldn’t they be? You know when you’re working for the best. And, it’s CHEAP-ass. Less than $5 gets you a high-quality burger, fries and drink. Seriously, what more could you want?

Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Chicken? And waffles? Together??? WTF! Trust me on this. Roscoe’s is awesome southern soul food in the heart of Hollywood (and several other locations). Order the Carol C. special to get the quintessential sampling — one juicy  succulent chicken breast and one toasty-good buttermilk waffle. If you feel really bold, toss in a side of gravy, cornbread or some greens. Imagine a steaming hot waffle, a little trickle of the syrup oozing its way over onto the crisp crust of fried chicken just like your grandma made, only better. It sounds weird, but it WORKS.

Toi Rocking Thai Food. A great place to take out-of-town guests, the walls are filled with music memorabilia, it’s dark and kitschy and the food, indeed, rocks. You may even see a star or two. I ate there last night and I swear the guy who sat behind me was one of the Lakers. I couldn’t tell you which one, but anyone that tall has to be a basketball player of some sort. The menu offers Americanized Thai food the likes of which I curse not being able to find in Indianapolis. I always get the yellow curry with chicken, a rich and fragrant coconut broth with chunks of chicken, potato and onion swimming within like buried treasures. They also make some darn good brown rice and a terrific peanut sauce I could eat with a spoon.

Griddle Cafe. Pancakes bigger than your head with crazy good toppings and fillings including but not limited to fruit, chocolate, nuts, caramel, cinnamon, butterscotch chips, coconut, Oreos, Kahlua… and the list goes on. Come early, the place is small and tables fill up quick, plus the Sunset Blvd. location makes for good star-sighting potential.

Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. True Angelenos turn up their noses at Starbucks and go here instead. With good reason. The coffee’s damn good, and there’s a more diverse selection of better muffins, pastries and such.

Pinkberry. A relatively new addition on the L.A. food scene, Pinkberry burst onto the market a couple years ago and has been going great guns every since. It’s a frozen yogurt chain, but what makes it special is that their yogurt includes some sort of healthy enzymes or bacteria or something that actually makes the stuff good for you. There are only two flavors to choose from and a handful of  fresh fruit and cereal toppings to mix in, but this is a great example of creating your own niche  by sticking with a small menu and doing it well.

Koo Koo Roo. Awesome rotisserie chicken and sides that put Boston Market and the like to shame.

Alas, jet lag is catching up and overtaking me. More additions to come as they occur to me…