Friday, October 16, 2009

Calcium Supplement: Vitafusion Gummy Vitamins

I know, I know. I've been terrible about posting. DineLA has been going on, so forgive me for being busy! BUT, as if I haven't been eating enough at yummy restaurants around the city, I recently discovered something delicious that you should have on hand and eat every single day. Now, as most of us know, we don't get enough calcium in our diets and that can wreak havoc on our bones later in life. If you are anything like me, you buy jars of calcium supplements which you then forget to take. Plus, the pills are so big, they are sometimes uncomfortable to swallow, getting stuck in your throat and at times I swear I've felt as if I was going to choke. I've tried the chocolate calcium chews before too and although they tasted okay, the ones I had were really really sticky and so they took more time to chew than I wanted to alot, plus they'd leave residue on my teeth. Yuck.

Well, the other day I was on placing an order for essentials and ran across these fruit gummy calcium supplements and decided to try them out. Verdict: They are DELISH. Each 1/4" piece of "candy" has as much calcium as a glass of milk, so eat 2-3 chews a day and you are golden. They also have Vitamin D, which helps with calcium absorption. They look like a swirly piece of candy that might appear on the board of CandyLand or adorning a Hansel and Gretel cottage. Though they are in varied colors, I haven't detected much difference in the way of flavor. They generally taste like a really good creamsicle. Now, don't get me wrong - a regular gummy candy is still better, but these are really really tasty, don't stick to your teeth and chew up nice and fast. You have to remind yourself that they are vitamins though and NOT candy, otherwise, you might keep eating them. And bonus - they don't go bad like that carton of milk and the yogurt sitting in your fridge.

Monday, September 28, 2009

San Francisco Vietnamese: Tu Lan

I spent the weekend in San Francisco, reacquainting myself with the city itself and old friends. While some things appear to have changed in the past ten years since I last lived there, other things remain steadfastly the same, namely the Tenderloin. Nestled blocks away from the tourist destinations of Union Square and the tony neighborhoods of Pac Heights and Nob Hill, the Tenderloin is, to put it mildly, "colorful". Unless you are a law student, have business at a nearby courthouse, or happen to be a frugal hotel guest who somehow, unluckily, ended up booked at the Renoir Hotel under promises that it is "Union Square adjacent", then you have no reason to go the Tenderloin. That is, until now.
On Sixth, a half a block south of Market St., resides a hole in the wall bearing the name Tu Lan. While it certainly looks sketchy, with the people loitering outside, the not so pleasant stenches rising from the street, and the random convenience store on the corner, you would be hard pressed to find better, cheaper, faster, or more delicious Vietnamese food. Score. Enter the restaurant and you are greeted with a few tiny dilapidated tables and chairs and people seated at a long, bustling counter where the food is being prepared at lightning speed. Smoke and steam is rising in great clouds and you may wonder if the place has ever passed a health inspection. Who knows? A drawing of Julia Child eating with chop sticks graces the menu (she was a fan of the restaurant back in the day) and her endorsement isn't given with health code contingencies, so don't overthink it. If you don't get a spot downstairs you'll be ushered up some rickity stairs to an overheated attic area with some tables and chairs. To get over the heat and any misgivings you might have at this point, order a cold beer and peruse the menu. Anything you get will be delicious and fast and reasonably priced, so settle on something quickly. It's too hot up there to loiter! Plus, if there's an earthquake (or maybe even a firetruck going by), the floor is surely to collapse, so minimizing your time up there is probably a good idea.

Although it'd been ten years since I'd been to Tu Lan, nothing has changed about the place at all - not only has it not been painted, but the food is still, happily, the same. I remember the shrimp dishes being very good but since my lunch companion couldn't eat shrimp we settled on the fried pork sausage rolls (No. 2), a bowl of beef pho (No. 7) and a chow mein dish with chicken (No. 19). All of them delish. And huge. There was no way we could finish it all, even with large (and we thought were bottomless) appetites, but with the whole bill ringing in around 20.00, it is worth it to try a few things. The sausage rolls were a huge splurge (in calories, not cost), but so worth it. Seasoned pork sausage covered in a crispy wrapper of goodness and fried to perfection, sliced up, and presented to you on a plastic plate with a bowl of dipping sauce containing vinegar, fish oil and chilis. Oh, artery clogging yumminess, how GOOD can you get? There were two rolls, each about six inches long, and further sliced into three very large pieces. There was no way we could eat all of them, so we rested, before plundering on. Next up in the efficient delivery system was the steaming bowl of pho containing a broth that was really clean and light, and instead of being presented with a plate of fresh basil and bean sprouts and such to season your own soup, it came pre seasoned. Normally this would be a disappointment, but the soup was so well flavored, with just the right amount of peppers and fresh basil, perfectly cooked rice noodles and nice cuts of lean beef tenderloin, the novelty of throwing a bunch of things into your bowl and watching it wilt with the hot broth was soon forgotten. I did decorate my portion with a bit of Siracha sauce, but it hardly needed it. At this point we were about to burst, but up from the bowles of the dragon emerged our server, unceremoniously throwing a huge plate of chow mein on our table along with the bill before she bustled off. And, oh, it was so, so beautiful, what could we do but eat? After garnering some admiring looks from some nearby diners and questions about "what is that?", we dug in.
A gigantic mound of slightly crispy chow mein noodles sauced to perfection with garlic, soy, and other delightful goodness and stir fried with crispy crunchy broccoli, moist and well seasoned chicken and spring onions, it really was to die for. There was a bunch of other veg in her too, but since I was in a food and heat coma at this point I can't remember what they were. Suffice it to say, if you settle on this dish (definitely enough for two on its own), you'll be happy.

Leaving cash to cover the bill (plus tip) on our table, we finally ducked out of there, carefully picking our way down the rickety stairs, past the busy counter and out onto the street where we were reminded once again that we weren't really having an exotic Vietnamese cultural vacay but instead we were in the center of "Traffic". Ah well. So worth it. And, if you venture a few blocks past Powell and you're not in the mood for Vietnamese, Market and Sixth just around the corner from Tu Lan (on Market) you'll find Taqueria Cancun which used to the best burritos ever. I wasn't able to reconfirm their quality this trip around, but they are still in business, so hopefully that's an endorsement to their continued quality.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Recipe: Healthy Eggplant Parmesan. Thanks, HungryGirl!!

This past weekend I was lucky enough to receive an absolutely gorgeous eggplant from my friend's garden. Blasted by the heat of the central valley it was ripe, purple, smooth and just waiting to be made into something delicious. What to do? Grilling it sounded boring. Baking and turning it into a baba ghanoush did not entice me. Eggplant parmesan came as a suggestion and so I headed to HungryGirl (aka Best Blog EVER) to see if she had any recipes to try.

Here it is - tried, tested, and absolutely delicious!!! Extremely flavorful, the eggplant comes out completely crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. This "oven frying" method deserves a big thumbs up. You could make it even better by making your own tomato sauce. Super easy, too!
1 large eggplant,

1/2 cup egg whites (about 4 large egg whites) - I used Egg Beaters

1 cup Fiber One bran cereal (original) - I used Flax Cereal from Trader Joe's, popped it into a blender with a little bit of salt, pepper and Italian seasonings and ground it up to a cornmeal-like consistency.

1 cup canned tomato sauce w/ Italian flavoring (such as Hunt's Tomatoes Sauce with Basil, Garlic & Oregano) - I used a jar of Trader Joe's Bruschetta Sauce that I had in the cupboard
1 cup shredded fat-free mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup reduced-fat grated parmesan-style topping - I just used some regular parmesan I had on hand. Slightly defeating the low-cal goal, but whatever

Directions: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slice ends off of eggplant, and cut it lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips. Use a paper towel to blot eggplant slices on both sides (to remove excess moisture). Spray a large baking pan with nonstick spray (I skipped this step).
Coat eggplant slices on both sides -- first with egg whites, and then with cereal crumbs. Place slices flat on the baking pan, and cook in the oven for 30 minutes. Then, flip slices over and bake until browned on both sides (about 10 minutes longer). Remove pan from oven, but leave oven on. Spread 1/4 cup of sauce over the bottom of an 8" X 8" baking dish sprayed lightly with nonstick spray. Arrange half of the baked eggplant slices evenly over the sauce. Continue to layer ingredients evenly in this order: sauce (1/4 cup), mozzarella and parm topping (half of each), sauce (1/4 cup), eggplant (remaining slices), sauce (1/4 cup), and cheeses (remaining amounts). Cover dish with foil and return to the oven. Bake for 25 minutes, or until heated throughout. Allow to cool slightly, and then cut into quarters. NOTE: I had some regular tomatoes that I needed to use so I sliced these on top of the last layer of eggplant and sprinkled a little more seasoning on top before popping it in the oven.

Serving Size: 1 generous portion (1/4th of recipe) Calories: 170Fat: 2.5g Sodium: 872mg Carbs: 29g Fiber: 13g Sugars: 5g Protein: 15g

Monday, September 21, 2009

Fresh Teas - Comforting, Delish and Low-Cal

There is a time and a place for bagged tea -- and those times should be limited to camping, traveling, and, maybe, sometimes, sheer and utter laziness. Your bagged tea collection was undoubtedly plucked off of the shelf at the grocery store in some bygone era, waiting on your kitchen counter to be submerged into hot water at anytime over the following five years (maybe longer). Even if the bags are individually foil wrapped (Stash brand, for example), the freshness suffers-- though you probably don't realize it unless you've had fresh tea leaves before. Because fresh tea is so incredibly delightful, I command you to scurry on down to your local Lupicia store or order some online. You will thank me later.

If you've never had fresh tea before, then you are in for a treat. The flavors are more pungent and pronounced than anything in pre-packaged tea bags at the grocery store. Immediately upon contact with the hot water you can see color steeping out of the leaves - no waiting ten minutes til your tea is cold to see a little color in the cup. Not to mention the amazing smells wafting up to your nose, which are released from the dry leaves themselves but become even more amazing once they've made contact with water. And the variety of flavors - oh heaven. I spent a good half hour at the Lupicia store in Century City over the weekend picking up tin after tin and giving a good sniff - eventually dulling my olfactory senses, but enjoying every second of it. There are teas with berries, teas with bits of kiwi and grapefruit, teas brimming with gorgeous flower petals, delicate green teas, smokey dark teas, minty teas with hints of lemongrass, and for the sweet tooth there are teas with essences of honey and chocolate (all varieties) and coconut and cookies. And every plain variety you can imagine from your basic chammomile (with beautiful flowers as opposed to chammoile "dust" present in the store bought version) to a nice black tea perfect with a bit of milk. There are even orzo teas which are a decent substitute for coffee - less strong and decaf, but with a dark roasted coffee flavor. Another good source for fresh teas online is Tea Laden.

Of the flavors available at Lupicia, my hands down fave is the Rooibos Mediteranne, a wonderful dark, decaf rooibos tea with bergamot - a high end version of your normal Earl Grey. You can, apparently, only pick this up online now as they have discontinued it in the stores. From Tea Laden I enjoy the Black Currant.

Once you've chosen a tea be sure to order a tea infuser - these infusers from Finum work well but whatever infuser you get make sure it has a very fine mesh so that the tea leaves don't float through. So many infusers out there are not fine enough and can really put a damper on your tea experience - who wants to be plucking tea leaves from between the teeth?

Once you've gathered the supplies, boil some water (I only like water boiled in electric tea pots or on the stove - water boiled in the microwave leaves a weird white film which is distasteful), add a teaspoon of tea leaves to the infuser, cover with hot water and steep for 3-5 minutes. Happiness in a mug.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sprinkles Begone: Kiss My Bundt Is Kicking Butt

Almost everyone loves cupcakes. That perfect portion of cake, complete with frosting and sometimes a little decoration is so self-contained, so perfect, and so manageable. Who cares that some can down THREE of them in a sitting - they can still claim that, oh, it was "just" a cupcake. In Los Angeles the cupcake fad has been upon us for awhile and little cupcake boutique bakeries selling "designer cupcakes" have been sprouting up all over L.A. for some time selling overpriced, very pretty, and sometimes also delicious little morsels. The most well known of these is Sprinkles, which has been featured on multiple TV shows and maintains a continuous line of celebs, tourists and locals, patiently standing on the sidewalk in front of the upper crust Beverly Hills address, waiting for the chance to turn over an exorbitant amount of cash for a red velvet - or maybe a chai tea cupcake.

While I do like Sprinkles' red velvet cupcake (although I think it is too crumbly now that I've been shown the way), and I've also sampled Yummy cupcakes (tasty, too) and Crumbs (too many ridiculously sugary toppings, in my opinion), all of them might as well shut their doors now that Kiss My Bundt has come on the scene. As the name suggests, Kiss My Bundt is launching a one store attack on the cupcake fad, attempting to replace it with, you guessed it, BUNDT CAKES. And wow. They single handedly may just win the battle.

Chrysta Wilson is the founder and owner of the shop and can be found there most any day of the week baking up her own perfected recipes for mouthwatering, moist, tender, light and delicious cakes which you can get in three sizes. Of course the normal sized large bundt cake is available (or can be special ordered). There's the baby bundt (the size of probably 1.5-2 cupcakes) and mini preemie bundts, which are just a mouthful. Topped with any number of rich and creamy homemade frostings or perfect glazes, and these things are really worth writing home about.

Chrysta has about a zillion flavors that she can make, though she generally only has about 10 to 15 flavors available on any given day (you can special order a large sized bundt cake or a minimum of 3 baby bundts of any flavor at any time - just give them four hours notice). Flavors include red velvet, German chocolate, milk chocolate, luscious lemon drop, carrot, 7-Up pound cake, and strawberry lemonade, to name a few. There's also a myriad of hand whipped and stirred frostings, glazes and syrups adorning the tops including lemon glaze, cream cheese frosting, chocolate ganache, etc. The full menu is on their website. Drool trays recommended. Or at least a napkin. Every single flavor that I've tried has been consistently amazing - perfectly moist, perfectly flavored, perfectly divine, but my personal faves are the red velvet or the luscious lemon with my own requested additions of cream cheese frosting and coconut (yes, I know it comes with glaze, but just entertain my absolute gluttony and add cream cheese frosting and coconut shavings too - PLEASE, thank you). Bonus neato: Chrysta offers baking classes too -check the Kiss My Bundt blog here or call for deets.

Though they are definitely lacking in the corporate and institutional smoothness of Sprinkles (the labels look like they were printed out on a home printer), and they don't yet have that "I'm better than you because I have-or-am-at SPRINKLES" attitude, they do have the charm of a local "mom and pop" (or maybe just "mom") business and they have cake that will send you to the moon with one bite. Or at least send you to the corner of 3rd and Crescent Heights over and over and over again (free valet parking in back).

ALO Workout Pants: The Perfect Pants For Exercise

Somehow working out is so much better with cute exercise clothes. But, unfortunately, finding the right fit for both you and your workouts can be challenging. I prefer to workout in exercise pants as opposed to shorts, but finding the proper combination of fit and function has been difficult. In fact, I have a number of pairs of pants that remain discarded in the corner of the drawer, eventually donated to goodwill and/or returned to the retailer because the rise is too short, the fabric too heavy or too light, or, most embarrassing, they don’t stay up, especially when running.
These ALO beauties (cleverly standing for Air Land Ocean) hailed to me from the super clearance rack at the Sport Chalet and I decided to give them a try, since they'd been marked down to only 15.00. For a quick impulsive decision made on a brief stop to pick up an emergency gift for a friend (I'd been too preoccupied to order something online in time), the pants turned out to be a fabu find. In fact, I love them so much that I've gotten rid of all of my other workout pants and replaced them with ALO brand pants that I've picked up from various online retailers for a steal. The weight is perfect - medium, not too light, not too heavy. And, since I don't like that slick polyester feel of a lot of workout clothes, these are perfect - they are more like a brushed cotton which holds its shape, while being comfortably form fitting and wicking. The tags say that they are 90% nylon and 10% spandex knit jersey - the jersey must make a huge difference and I credit it for getting rid of that icky shiny look that a lot of exercise clothes have.
They have proper wicking technology and proper stretch technology and the website even boasts that there's antimicrobial technology too, so you are covered on all sides. Complete with a wide hidden waistband that is properly medium rise (not too low to give you plumber's crack and not so high that you feel as if you are wearing some 80's high waisted sweats), they also come in several lengths and are flattering enough to run to the store in (Stacy and Clinton might not agree that they could be a "sweat suit alternative", but who cares). Most importantly, they stay up during a jog.
Many of them come with cute color blocking on the waistband too (Navy with Sea Green color block or Black with Lavender color block), making them more fun than the regular black workout pants AND some of them even have a little zippered key pocket, perfect for if you are doing a boot camp and just need to have your car key on hand. And a note to tall girls - the long versions are the perfect length for us, properly going to our shoes without exposing our ankles. The cropped ones are great too!
You can pick them up from the ALO website (wedge color block long pant for 60 and capri pant for 50) but I found better prices on this site - 34.00/each

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Taco Truck Review Installment 2: Don Chow Tacos - Mexican Chinese Fusion

One of the things I love about L.A. is the pure variety of things that you can do if you get on a few mailing lists and stay reasonably aware about what is going on. Another thing that fascinates me about L.A. (notice that I didn't use the word "love") is the obsession with fads. Currently the food community is in the Taco Truck Fad, with more launching everyday. Now some appear to be taking this to new levels (like the new Nom Nom truck, which supposedly serves Vietnamese street food), but others are trying to recreate what they know already works, while trying to lend it a few twists. Enter Don Chow Tacos - otherwise known as the attempt to capitalize on the Kogi phenomena by creating Mexican tacos with a Chinese twist. I'd heard about Don Chow before, but, since I refuse to twitter and Don Chow hasn't yet established itself in the way that Kogi has with an actual bar where you can order their food, I hadn't bothered to track it down.
Then one of my list serves organized a tasting with Don Chow and, after corralling some friends and signing up through Pay Pal (12.00), we counted the days 'til we could check it out.

The hot August day finally arrived and, after making sure the beer was secured in a shopping bag in the back seat (along with some unassuming plastic cups), we headed to uncharted territories of downtown L.A. The directions proclaimed that, at one point, we would see a "parking lot of taco trucks", but to proceed past that and park on the street. And it was true. A parking lot of Los Angeles Street Food Heaven. There were the three Kogi trucks (the signs visible above the concrete wall) and countless other unidentifiable taco trucks parked in a city block worth of space. Making a mental note of Roja and Verde, we proceeded down the street where the Don Chow truck was pulled out and setting up shop.

Within half an hour there was a rag tag group of Angelinos of all ages standing on the street waiting for the tasting to begin. Some had brought lawn chairs to park themselves on and others blankets. The true intrepids came only with their empty stomachs. A few people brought cameras so they could photograph the food (including me, although the photos are still sitting on the memory card). As far as we could tell we were the only ones drinking out of gigantic plastic party cups. Ummm - apple cider people, apple cider.

We received a short lecture from the Don Chow guys - super nice USC grads who have day jobs and no formal culinary training, but who decided to launch the taco truck because of their love of food. One of them confessed with a smile that originally they were getting up at 4 a.m. to bake their own bread for the tortas but they soon abandoned that practice in favor of purchasing the bread and getting some more shut-eye. Currently they only operate on weekends.

The truck was your run-of-the-mill taco truck, still adorned with the original menu proclaiming hot dogs and burgers. Just to be clear - there are no burgers or dogs available. We each received a ticket with the tasting menu on it, and lined up for the food. Every time we were handed a new round, the item on the ticket was crossed off. Don Chow is organized!

The items we tried were the following:
A round of tacos containing a Kung Pao Chicken Taco, a Chinese BBQ Pork Taco and a Soy Ginger Shrimp Taco.

The Chinese BBQ Pork taco was a definite hit - perfect flavors of soy, hoisin, ginger and garlic with zing. LOVED it.

The Soy Ginger Shrimp taco was STUFFED with nice sized shrimp that were well cooked and seasoned, though I would have preferred more of a punch of the ginger. Not sure what was Chinese about the avocado topping, but I love avocados so no harm no foul. It was, overall, a nice flavor and the shrimp were delicious. Not sure that the tortilla added anything -- I could just eat a plate of those shrimp.

The Kung Pao Chicken was passable, though I think it could definitely be improved upon. I can't say that there was anything Kung Pao about it. There was basically chicken (tender and of good quality) sautéed in Chinese spices, garlic, and probably some soy, but it missed the mark as far as the Kung Pao goes. It really could have used some scallions, peanuts, and some more spice.

Overall review of the tacos: stick with the Chinese BBQ Pork and maybe a shrimp one and you'll be happy. I think the Kung Pao could be improved upon, but don't bother ordering it until it gets fixed up.

1/2 of a Kung Pao Chicken Chamale, 1/2 of a Soy-Ginger Tofu Burrito and 1/2 of a BBQ Pork Torta.

The BBQ Pork Torta was the same filling used in the BBQ Pork taco, except that instead of the tortilla it was sandwiched inside a lovely torta. Don Chow's torta supplier rocks and this was much more successful than Kogi's attempt at a "slider" because the torta was light and not too bready. If you love the pig you'll love the BBQ Pork torta. Just different packaging, but delish all the same. Don Chow has this filling down.

Verdict on the Chamale - the dreaded "okay". The corn cake was really good and moist. Plus, unwrapping a tamale is always a little like unwrapping a present and who doesn't like presents? But the fascination ended after a few bites. The filling was the Kung Pao chicken filling, although it didn't seem as course as the taco filling, maybe because it had been steamed into the tamale so it took on more of a "pulled chicken" texture. The spice was definitely there but again, if you eat something that pronounces itself as "Kung Pao", then you probably have a very different expectation. At the very least, you expect some peanuts. The Pao didn't wow, as far as I'm concerned.

The Soy Ginger Tofu Burrito missed the mark entirely. Really just a refried bean burrito with a chunk of soft tofu thrown in there. No texture to speak of and the whole thing was a mushy mess. I love a good bean burrito as much as anyone, but this one was pretty flavorless. Plus, there was no real reason for the tofu to be in there other than to distract your mouth with a mooshy mushy flavorless goo. Even the yummy salsas on hand (habanero and a verde salsa) couldn't save this one. We all agreed that this one could have been improved if the tofu used had been a super firm tofu that was marinated first and then fried or baked so that it crisped up, thereby offering up some more textures (I should note that the Don Chow guys said they marinated it, but that flavor didn't some through). Really, I think this one requires so much work that it really isn't worth it. If you're a taco truck operator with a vegetarian option, either make sure it is a dish that wows the tastebuds or skip it all together. If it's not good it distracts more from your menu than it would if you just didn't have a veggie option at all.

Surprise round of Carne Asada "Chao Fen" (aka "Chow Fun").

This is something that the guys are testing out and, in my opinion, represents where they could really go with this truck. Delicious shahe fen wide rice noodles sautéed in soy sauce, garlic and spices with bits of beef thrown in and served with a fork in a little cardboard box. Greasy, chewy, yummy, flavorful, perfect for a late night post 2AM snack, and definitely something that would end up on the "Must HAVE NOW Craving List." Unfortunately I could only eat two bites because I was so full, but I give this one a big thumbs up.

I think Don Chow is a good concept, but they need to think a little less about copying Kogi and the Mexican twist and think a little more about really getting fun food with Chinese flavors into the hands of Angelinos. For example, they could shed the typical lettuce/cilantro/onion Mexican taco toppings (which were sort of haphazardly thrown onto the tortillas) in favor of things that would go with the Chinese fillings - peanuts, scallions, sesame seeds, more ginger, etc. They could also get rid of the typical tortilla and maybe use Chinese pancakes - like the ones served with moo shu pork, or a scallion pancake.

Along the same line (and obviously pending an analysis of the cost of ingredients and the difficulty of preparation), they could change up some of the other dishes with more of a Chinese flair - i.e., have a burrito, but fill it with Chinese black bean concoction and maybe some fried rice, for example. They could also make some kicking veggie options with veggies stir-fried in Chinese spices and flavorings and used to stuff a burrito or a taco type dish. A duck option would be amazing, but possibly cost-prohibitive.

I hope these guys succeed because they have a great attitude and I think they are getting more creative with their menu, if the Chow Fun is any indication. If you ever get the chance I encourage you to try them out. And if you're not lucky enough to have a tasting arranged for you, then check them out on Twitter. Plastic party cups with "apple cider" highly recommended.