Thursday, July 26, 2007

Dressing up at La Scala

When I was a little girl, my dad didn’t have the means for fancy restaurants, but his boss sure did. Every once in awhile, he would take my parents out for a special dinner in Beverly Hills. My mom would have her hair sprayed into an immovable up-do, and slather herself with Avon products. Dressed to the nines, my parents would leave behind the squalor and police sirens of Wilmington and disappear into a world of luxury. A world I could only imagine by the glamorous chocolate-dipped candy reception stick I would find on my pillow in the morning.

The first time I walked into La Scala, I recognized it as exactly the kind of place I used to imagine my parents floating off to – red leather booths, spotless white tablecloths, and ugly but expensive-looking English paintings. Although La Scala has changed locations during its long reign in Beverly Hills, it feels like it has always existed within these brick walls, lovingly watched over by the multitude of celebrity charicatures.

I ate lunch at La Scala again last week, during the lull between the lunch and dinner rushes. The employees were relaxed and smiling as they joshed around with each other. In spite of the fastidiousness, this is not an uptight atmosphere. A jacketed man stood near the bar, slowly inspecting the room with his hands on his hips. When he was satisfied that every glass sparkled and every napkin was correctly folded, I saw him take a deep breath of pride. He caught me watching him, and as our eyes met I spontaneously winked at him.

I consider the bread basket a harbinger of things to come, and their French bread is crispy, hearty and addictive. For antipasti, their crab cakes are delicately fried, and definitely more crab than cake. The lemony sour cream sauce is a little odd, but it works.

Although La Scala is known for their chopped salad, their minestrone, and their Spaghetti alla Bolognese, there is no dish I can recommend more highly than the Spaghetti al Cognac. The spaghetti is topped with a generous portion of tender shrimp which are flambéed with cognac and tossed in a perfectly balanced pink sauce.

The Cannelloni alla Gigi is pure heaven – homemade crepes with an unbelievably light beef and veal filling. They are swimming in the richest bechamel I have ever encountered, beribboned with just a few streaks of red sauce. I actually had to stop eating this dish before I was finished, and I have an unusually high tolerance for cream and butter. I would definitely recommend splitting it along with a lighter entree. The Chicken Parmigiana is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The coating did not become soggy even after sitting in a take-out container. With pasta on the side, The Parmigiana is a huge portion that easily serves two. For dessert, a chocolate cake layered with a cocoa mousse and intense ganache will satisfy even the worst chocolate craving (And if not, there is always the Edelweiss Chocolates Factory next door).

A surprisingly affordable splurge, a half-salad runs around eight dollars, pasta dishes average sixteen, and an all-out entrée will set you back twenty bucks. At lunchtime La Scala runs a brisk take-out business from the bar, with a convenient 10-minute parking zone just outside. But in the middle of a stressful day, there is no greater treat than to lean back in a comfortable banquette seat, order a glass of champagne and allow the solicitous staff to make you believe for just that moment that you are the most important person in the world. I can almost smell my mother’s Emeraude perfume.

La Scala 434 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210 (310) 275-0579

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Cheese is the new Wine

I love food. I love talking about food. I can spend hours discussing the merits of different mustards, or trying to figure out the mystery flavor in a pasta sauce. But I think food should be accessible. It should not be intimidating. I avoid saying things like ”flavor profile”. I am more likely to say things like, “This gravy is so good I want to fill a jacuzzi with it and jump in naked.”

My dislike of culinary pedantry can probably be traced back to the family dinner table. My brothers are all wine snobs, oh, sorry, I mean connoisseurs. It always annoys me when they get out their wine gadgets and start arguing. They throw around terms like peppery finish, a nice mouth feel, and notes of raspberry. It sounds so pretentious.

I was excited when cheese shops started opening up all over town; it could only mean new flavors, and new things to talk about. Up until now, making a cheese plate had always been pretty standard – one soft, one medium, one hard and one bleu. Easy peasy. Brie, Jarlsberg, a good Pecorino. But since I am not a big fan of bleu cheese, I usually substitute something like a smoked gouda. Throw a bunch of grapes on the plate, and voila.

With the recent profusion of cheese shops, things have gotten a little more complicated. No problem. The cheese shops in Silverlake have always approached it, like, “Isn’t this fun? Let’s explore the fabulous world of cheese together!” They have the natural enthusiasm of a true hobbyist showing off their collection. So I have learned more about sheep’s milk vs. goat’s milk, and the richness of triple crèmes. I have fallen in love with their precious little artesanals. Who can resist a cute round of goat cheese wrapped in grape leaves and tied up with string?

But things are starting to get out of control.

Today I walked into a cheese shop in Beverly Hills. I asked the man behind the counter, “Are you familiar with Purple Haze?” He said, “Yes. WE don’t carry THAT one.” He said it as if I had asked for Velveeta (And I’m not knocking Velveeta. Velveeta has its place). Was he really scoffing at me? I felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman . Was I going to have to call in Richard Gere just to buy some fucking cheese? The cheese man stared at me impatiently. I said, “OK then, I’d like something soft, maybe a triple crème, and something medium, kind of nutty. I don’t mind if it’s feet-y, but I don’t like it cave-y.” He stared at me as if I were speaking Martian. I became flustered. I tried to clarify, “You know, cave-y, cave-aged. I don’t like it when the cheese is black.” He nodded at me suspiciously, but returned with three different cheeses, from which I selected two.

While my cheese man wrapped up my order, the other counterman and the guy next to me were talking about sports cars; their smoothness, their power, their sleekness. I wasn’t really listening to them, but it was hard to ignore their fervor. They got louder and louder, more and more intense. They were in a full-on pissing contest when I heard the cheese man challenge the customer, “Come on, step up to the plate.” The customer was shocked, “Step up to the plate? Did you just tell me to step up to the plate?” They locked eyes and their nostrils flared. My cheese man tried to intercede by offering the customer a sample of one of my selections. But the customer kept his eyes firmly locked on his cheese man's eyes. He didn't even blink. He was in a stand-off. Slowly I realized what was going on. All this testosterone, all this one-up-manship. They had not been talking about sports cars at all. They were talking about CHEESE.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Throw a vegan-friendly BBQ!

Like most people, I have gone through my vegetarian phases, my vegan phases and the worst of all - my low-carb phase. So my cooking is pretty versatile. I have a lot of vegan friends who love barbecues, and it only takes a few minor changes to make them more comfortable. Even if you are super-carnivorous, you can still host a barbecue that will make your vegan friends happy. First of all, you want to clean the hell out of your grill. It's a good idea to do this at the beginning of barbecue season anyways. Then get plenty of aluminum foil. Sure, you won't get the cool grill-marks, but it is vegan etiquette for everyone to cook their big, beefy burgers and tofu dogs on separate pieces of aluminum foil. Luckily, with the profusion of veggie hot dog, burger and even bratwurst substitutes, main courses aren't much of a challenge. Just double-check to make sure the buns are vegan. There are a number of websites listing vegan products, including There are often hidden animal products in food that are not that obvious, so if someone is really strict, it's best to check.

After the grill is taken care of, the second most important component of a barbecue is the ice chest. Luckily, most beer is vegan, with the notable exception of honey beers and Guinness. With liquors, you want to watch out for red food coloring #4, cochineal, also known as carmine or carminic acid (trust me, you really don't want to know). It is most notably found in Campari.

These are some of my favorite summer recipes that just happen to be vegan:


1 (16-oz) package frozen corn (preferably shoepeg), thawed
2 small zucchinis, diced
1/4 large red pepper, diced
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 (4-oz) can diced green chiles, drained
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 Tablespoon cider vinegar
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

Toss together corn, zucchini, red pepper, onion, and chiles in a large bowl.
Measure remaining ingredients into a jar or bottle with a lid. Shake well.
Pour liquid over salad and stir gently. Refrigerate overnight.


1 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. each: Garlic powder, Dried basil, parsley, oregano, herbes de provence
Salt and pepper to taste
4 - 5 pounds mixed vegetables (Zucchini, Red and yellow bell peppers, eggplant, onion, etc)
1/4 cup red wine or red wine vinegar

Mix olive oil and spices together, preferably the day before.

Halve smaller vegetables lengthwise. Quarter onions and bell peppers. Cut larger squashes crosswise.

When coals are ready, dip vegetables into olive oil mixture. BBQ until just soft. Arrange on a platter.

Mix remaining marinade with wine or wine vinegar, and pour over vegetables.


1 (12 or 16-ounce) package mini-penne or bow-tie pasta

1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cups fresh basil, firmly packed
1/3 cup fresh parsley
14 garlic cloves (yes, really. Fourteen)
1/4 cup white wine
1 slice roasted or fresh red bell pepper
Pinch sea salt
1/2 - 1 cup olive oil

2 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms
3/4 cup frozen edamame
8 sun-dried tomatoes in oil.

In a large pot of boiling water, cook pasta according to package directions. If the pasta is done before you finish making the pesto, toss with a little olive oil and set aside.

Meanwhile, Toast pine nuts in a toaster oven or in a pan over the stove for 3-4 minutes, watching not to burn them.

In a blender or food processor, combine pine nuts, basil, parsley, garlic, wine, bell pepper and salt with 1/2 cup olive oil. Blend. Keep blending and adding olive oil until pesto has reached its desired consistency.

In a medium pan, saute the mushrooms in a Tablespoon of olive oil until they begin to change color to a light tan, about 4 minutes.

Put the edamame in a bowl with a few tablespoons of water and microwave for 2 minutes, then drain (If you have your timing down you could just add them to the pasta a few minutes before it is done).

Slice the sun-dried tomatoes carefully into thin strips (they are slippery).

Toss everything together in a big bowl and refrigerate.