Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Two Easy Things to Cook

I decided that it was time to be helpful instead of vitriolic. I love to cook. I've been cooking for myself pretty regularly since I was 19 or so. I was pretty shitty at it for a while. But here's the thing: you get better. The more you're around food, read about food, and cook stuff, the better you get at it. It's not a switch you turn on or off, it's a skill set that gradually evolves.

Some basic rules:
1. Cookbooks are your friend. But they're your friend in the context of giving instruction on cooking and the basic framework of recipes, they aren't procedural dogma for working toward the Platonic ideal of "spotted dick," no more than reading the Joy of Sex will make you f like a pro.

2. Be cautious with recipes. It will behoove you much more to learn how to cook, say, a chicken, or a pork loin, or a tomato sauce in the general sense and experiment with accompanying flavors than to just grab a recipe card and make "Grandma's Crazy One-Pot Chili" or "Tex-Mex Party Drumettes" or "Creepy Uncle Joe's Boob-Shaped Meat Loaf." A notable exception to this is baking, where ratios and measurements are much more integral to the chemical process of cooking.

3. Pay attention. The price of good food, just as it is for democracy, is vigilance. Under-set kitchen timers by at least 20% and keep tabs on what's cooking. Don't just toss it in the oven and go watch "The Hills."

4. When in doubt, use more fat and use less heat for longer. This'll prevent burning, sticking, and drying out. You'll be less likely to overcook and you'll retain a lot more flavor. By no means a universal rule, but a good reference.

And now.... two easy things to cook.

Roast Pork Tenderloin
Perhaps the tastiest (and most suggestive) cut of meat you can find at a reasonable price. Roast pork tenderloin will turn heads and get you laid. The best part? Even if you're just cooking for one, cold leftover tenderloin thinly sliced on a sandwich is also freaking delicious.

The basics:
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Trim excess fat or any weird hang-y bits from the tenderloin (shouldn't be too much). Rub tenderloin with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Place in a roasting pan and put the pan in the oven. That's it. A basic one-pound tenderloin will take about 40 minutes to cook. Take it out of the oven when there's just a sliver of pink left in the center, or if you're using a thermometer, when it reaches about 160 degrees in the center.

The variations:
Pork tenderloin is pretty damn flavorful on its own, but it also takes well to bastes and marinades. A freakin' awesome one is to just put the tenderloin in a ziploc with a brine of water, salt, and fresh rosemary and/or lavender for several hours (do it in the morning or even the night before). Rub the tenderloin with olive oil and more fresh rosemary/lavender before roasting. Another good option is to make a rub out of mustard, olive oil, pepper, and French herbs (herbes de Provence or fines herbes). Mix everything together (use enough olive oil to dilute the mustard and go heavy on the herbs) and slather.

You'll see a lot of recipes online for tenderloin that involves orange juice, Coca-Cola, or other sweet marinades. Give it a go if you want but those sound pretty gimmicky to me. Pork tenderloin doesn't need to be all whored up like that. It's classy.

The ultimate variation:
Mix cherry or plum preserves with salt, pepper, vegetable oil (the one instance where I suggest a neutral oil like canola instead of olive), and enough vinegar to temper the sweetness of the preserves without being harsh. Just add a little bit at a time and taste as you go.

With a sharp knife, cut the pork tenderloin lengthwise, about 2/3 of the way through. Spoon the fruit mixture into this cavity and truss the tenderloin back up either with twine or toothpicks. Brush the outside with oil, salt, and pepper and roast as above. It might take a little bit less time.

Added bonus? Simmer the leftover fruit mixture for a few minutes and spoon hot over slices of tenderloin when you plate it.

The accompaniments:
Keep it simple. Cook some wild rice or rice pilaf (see below) and steam some broccoli (drizzle with olive oil or melt a little butter on the broccoli prior to serving). Easy, plug and play, healthy, and sexy.


Pilafs in various forms exist in the cuisines of dozens of cultures. There's a reason for that. It's a simple way to make rice (or quinoa or couscous or teff or whatever) extra tasty.

The basics:
Chop up some onion (about one whole small onion or 1/2 a large one) and a clove or two of garlic.

Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to a thick-bottomed saucepan. When the oil's hot, add onion, garlic, and a bit of crushed red pepper. Saute until translucent and aromatic. Add a cup of rice (or any grain) to the oil and saute until lightly browned, maybe about three minutes or so. There's no harm in cooking more than you need, as pilaf is great the next day either cold or reheated.

Add a splash of white wine and deglaze the pan (this means scraping the bottom of the pan with your spatula [make sure to use plastic/wood if it's a nonstick pan]) to get all the tasty bits off the bottom. Give the alcohol a minute to cook off and then add chicken or vegetable stock. Different grains use different amounts, so check the instructions. For white rice you'd add two cups liquid to every cup of rice. For couscous, add equal volume liquid to grain.

Cook according to the grain's instruction. For rice, bring the liquid to a boil and then let simmer, covered, until the liquid is absorbed (~20 minutes). For couscous, bring the liquid to a boil and then turn off the heat, leaving the pilaf covered for 10 minutes or so.

Fluff with a fork and serve.

The variations:
Pilaf takes to pretty much anything you want to add to it. In most cases I'd recommend cooking any vegetables separately and stirring them in at the end. Most will cook much quicker than the pilaf mixture requires.

For extra-fancy pilaf, chop some fresh parsley. Stir in about 2/3 of the parsley when you fluff the pilaf and top with the remaining parsley when serving.

For extra-delicious pilaf, stir in a couple tablespoons of butter right before serving.

The ultimate variation:
Instead of using olive oil, chop up some bacon, prosciutto, sausage, or other fatty pork product and cook in the saucepan until the fat is rendered. Remove the meat and set aside on some paper towels to drain. Cook everything else as instructed, but using the pork fat instead of the oil. Also, instead of using stock, use water and add salt and pepper to taste. When done cooking, stir back in the meat along with some fresh rosemary and sage.

The accompaniments:
Pilaf makes an excellent side dish for any protein. I also like to use it as a base on which to serve soups or stews. For something semi-homemade that actually is semi-homemade, serve a good canned soup, stew, or Tasty Bite Indian meal, on a bed of homemade pilaf.

Pilaf can also be a meal on its own. Just stir in more vegetables (broccoli, carrots, and squash are all good options) and top with a sliced chicken breast, salmon filet, or, hell, stir in some of that leftover pork tenderloin all diced up.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Food Disneylands; or Why LA Live will be a Disaster

That massive grey behemoth adjacent to the Staples Center has finally opened its doors, kinda.

For those of you unfamiliar, it's LA Live, a massive dining and entertainment complex developed by AEG, the operator of the Staples Center.

LA Times architecture critic Christpher Hawthorne savaged the design and concept in a recent review. His disdain is justifiable: while paying lip service to downtown revitalization the complex is in fact just another destination shopping center, blocked off from the surrounding community. You drive there, you park your car, you stay inside the complex, and you leave. You don't integrate yourself with the surrounding community. You don't patronize businesses in the neighborhood. Drive. Park. Shop. Leave. That's it.

The financial backing for LA Live is enormous. It will become ESPN's de facto HQ as every SportsCenter will be broadcast from its new studios there, though it will keep its official offices in Bristol. The Ritz-Carlton is putting a hotel in and there will be apartments and extensive convention space.

LA Live could indeed be a success as a destination, akin to the Anaheim Convention Center/Disneyland megasprawl in Orange County. But that's just it, it'll be a place that people go to for whatever business/pleasure purpose they might have and then leave. It won't "revitalize downtown" anymore than Disneyland "revitalized" Anaheim. Disneyland created jobs and provided tax revenue, but it didn't turn Anaheim into a new San Francisco, or even a new Long Beach.

Revitalization is a process that is largely organic. All that cities can do is provide good soil and enough water and sunshine, everything else will grow out on its own. When commercial monoliths get into the revitalization business you get terrariums, not gardens.

Downtown Culver City became a revitalized restaurant mecca in a largely organic way. The city renovated the buildings, made sure to build lots of parking, and provided incentives to businesses to relocate, but it didn't allow for any large scale redevelopment by any one particular group. It also mostly maintained the basic integrity of its street layouts, keeping the area open and vibrant with a sense that you're still in a city.

The Culver City restaurants are primarily independent operations and are set in the midst of a community of retailers, production companies, city offices, Sony Pictures, and Culver Studios with architecture firms and art galleries on its eastern fringe. People often patronizing three or four different businesses in the course of an evening out. Most importantly, this downtown core is surrounded by housing, whether it's the single-family bungalows of Culver City to the south or the working class (but gentrifying) multi-family dwellings of Los Angeles along Venice Blvd. to the north. In short, it's a downtown the way downtowns used to be and Culver City deserves credit for providing a welcoming environment for developers without letting them crap all over the community (c.f. 3rd St. Promenade, The Grove).

This is what makes for revitalization: a reason for people to get out of their house and be in the community. The Culver City resident can walk to Trader Joe's, Albertson's, a dozen great restaurants, dry cleaners, printers, two movie theatres, two houses of the legitimate stage, a post office, City Hall, hospitals, schools, and several parks. The same can't yet be said for the Downtown resident and LA Live isn't going to change that.

A quick look at LA Live's tenants reveals a who's who of major chains and restaurant groups: Fleming's Steakhouse, Wolfgang Puck, ESPNZone, Trader Vic's, Yardhouse, and Katsuya. With LA Live's no doubt skyhigh rents these are the only businesses that can afford to move in. These aren't businesses that are going to attract foodies or culinary tourists. They aren't businesses that will attract LA residents on any regular basis. These are businesses that will be patronized by out of towners who are at LA Live for conferences, concerts, or sporting events. If I live in Beverly Hills and want to eat dinner before a Lakers game, why would I do it at LA Live instead of at one of the scores of better restaurants between my house and downtown? And if I live in Beverly Hills, why would I go to Wolfgang Puck in LA Live when I could go to a Wolfgang Puck down the street?

The revitalization of downtown by LA Live is either a lip service lie or a pipe dream. True revitalization of downtown means more art walks, more grocery stores, and more businesses open after 9PM, not a mini-Vegas destination bubble for Lakers fans from Torrance and out of town conventioneers.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Why I Hate Yelp! Part X (I've lost track)

Instead of going on yet another tirade, let me introduce an actual story from an independent businessperson of my acquaintance:

I am mad at Yelp. First they called me incessantly and after repeatedly telling them I had no money to advertise they insisted on still talking to me because "there were ways I could promote my business with them that didn't cost money." So I did, I sat on the phone with the guy for an hour only to end up with a sales pitch for a $300 a month advertising plan and him basically calling me dumb for not wanting it.

Now mysteriously 3 of my 5 star reviews have been removed. When I looked into it, this is the response they give:

Reviews may come or go for a few different reasons:

1. A user may have removed his or her review.
2. Yelp may have removed the review for violating our Review Guidelines or Terms of Service (in which case we will typically notify the reviewer).
3. Yelp has a system which automatically determines which reviews show for a given business. Just as your Yahoo or Gmail email account doesn't deliver every email (spam, etc.), we don't show every review. This protects both business owners (by suppressing reviews that may have been written by a malicious competitor, for example) and consumers (by suppressing reviews that may have a definitive bias, having been written by owners or their friends). It's important to note that these reviews are not deleted (they are always shown on the user's public profile) and may reappear on the business listing page in the future.

Note: Our support team cannot manually restore reviews that are not currently displayed, should you contact us about missing reviews you will receive the information above.

And now, a mini-tirade:

It's amazing that a site that operates so disingenuously can be as popular as it is (though financially untenable). It's another example of Yelp!'s remarkable business model: gain traffic at all costs, be obstinate to the point of insulting toward businesses, turn around and ask those same businesses for money.

What's with the disjointed logic in the Yelp! form letter above? "Just as your Yahoo or Gmail account doesn't deliver all email." What the hell? Of course it does! There's a folder full of offers for "V1codin" and entreaties to "give her the gift she's always wanted: your dick" that I can read through if I want to. I self-censor my emails, Gmail just makes it easier to do with the spam folder. Yelp! censors its reviews, plain and simple. It decides for you which reviews you should read for a business.

And, based purely on original research, Yelp! is a helluvalot more likely to remove a perceived "pro" bias review than it is to review a "malicious" review. Notice, once again, that there's no mention of removing "factually inaccurate reviews." If the ultimate goal is to have a functional, effective resource for information on businesses, shouldn't this be the first thing you correct?


If you're a decent human being, don't use Yelp!, please.