Monday, June 29, 2009

Pizza Party

My friend Tyler has been telling me for months about the pizza oven he designed in his backyard. Being that he lives in Culver City and I live in South Pasadena and my least favorite thing in the entire world is traffic, I never went to see it. Recently, after he viewed all of the pizzas I made during the NBA Finals, he challenged me to bring over some Fresh & Easy pizza dough and compete against fresh dough he made and cooked in his pizza oven.

Now, I love the pizzas I make, but I am under no illusions: store-bought dough cooked in my kitchen oven will never, ever be able to compete against fresh dough cooked in the high heat of a wood-burning pizza oven. This would be like Dwight Howard challenging me to a game of one-on-one. Yeah, I can probably shoot free throws better than he can, but the final score of a one-on-one game would be about whatever-number-we-played-to to zero. So I declined the challenge, but said I would certainly be willing to come over and eat some pizza. Sunday night Tyler had a bunch of friends over and cooked up some pizzas.

Long story short, it was a fantastic evening, one of the most fun I have had in a long time. I couldn't stay late, but I stayed long enough to enjoy quite a few pizzas.

Only a tiny sampling of the ingredients that were available.

The first pie to be made was a simple one to get things started: a zesty, homemade red sauce, spicy Italian sausage, and mozzarella. The oven was slightly hotter than it needed to be and the crust got a little bit charred, but this was an excellent pie and it set the bar quite high. Tyler's brother, my good friend Zach, did an excellent job rotating the pie (and the subsequent pies) in the oven to ensure it was the highest quality possible.

A girl standing by me, whose name I did not catch, requested a pizza with prosciutto, pineapple, peppers and mushrooms. This was met with a bit of a laugh (although not by me.) Elizabeth and I shared a slice of this. It was good but not one of our favorites - there was too much going on.While I had my head turned, Tyler threw together a pizza of goat cheese, sauteed leeks and roasted garlic. I have never enjoyed leeks but I have to admit, this pizza was very good. I would not complain if I ate this pizza again. I think using the goat cheese was pure genius; it would not have been good with mozzarella.Tyler made a pizza of spinach, mozzarella, and pancetta. I am not sure if I have ever had pancetta on a pizza before, but I guarantee I will again. This pizza was spectacular. It was Elizabeth's favorite pizza of the evening and my second favorite. My new friend Amy made a pizza of goat cheese, spinach, roasted garlic and squash blossoms. I was not sure if I was going to enjoy this, although I have to admit it was the prettiest-looking pizza I have ever seen in my life. It turns out, I really like squash blossoms. Who'd a thunk it?At one point I asked Tyler which pizza was coming next. "You call it," he said. So I requested my standard roasted garlic and basil. He pulled several cloves of garlic from a pan of about a dozen roasted bulbs, sprinkled them liberally on the pie, and added the basil. Zach took extra special care of this one in the oven, pulling it out at the perfect point. This was the best pizza I have had in a long, long time. It would remain so for approximately 12 minutes.
I suggested some goat cheese and spinach at another point, Tyler cocked his head in my direction, as if he was pondering that. "And some sausage," I said. He smiled, as if he was tremendously proud of my idea, although in retrospect it's possible he was just drunk. He threw that pizza together and it cooked quickly. It was excellent and went perfectly with the sweating bottle of Pacifico in my hand.
Someone got the idea for a meat pizza and Zach and his friend began constructing it with what I can only describe as mastery. It was like watching Jimi Hendrix perform a perfect solo, and I wouldn't have been upset if Zach had just let the thing burn in the oven while he prayed to it. Ok, I would have been slightly upset, as this was one of the best pizzas I have ever had. In addition to basil and mozzarella, it contained pancetta, pepperoni, and sausage. Tyler was angry with himself afterwards that he hadn't put prosciutto on it as well, but I think it was just fine without.
The last pizza of the evening that I tried (who knows what creations they came up with after I left) was the barbecue chicken. This was good, especially with roasted garlic added to the chicken. I have a feeling that if I had eaten this pizza on any other occasion I would be raving about it. But coming after that epic three-meat pizza it fell a little short, which I know is unfair. The Gene Bartow of pizzas.
And, of course, as any good pizza party needs, there was... Korean barbecue. I'm not sure why it was there (are there people who don't eat pizza but eat Korean barbecue?) but I can't complain, because it was absolutely fantastic. It was marinated in the perfect ratio of spices and there was hardly any fat on it. If I had just eaten this and nothing else I would have loved the dinner. As it was, combined with Tyler and Zach's efforts with the pizza, it was the best meal I have had in months.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Zankou Chicken

I've written about Zankou twice before: in my first post on this blog, and also over the holidays when my brother ate one of their tarna wraps without sauce, one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. I no longer eat at Zankou as much as I used to (it used to be a couple times a week, and there was never a time when I did not have extra garlic sauce in my fridge) but I do not love it any less.
Over the last few days I have been reading a new book, "West of the West" by Mark Arax. With the exception of Jonathan Gold (and perhaps Jim Harrison's poetry), there is no writer alive today whose words I devour with more enjoyment than I do Arax's. This book is a collection of previously-published essays about various people in California, lesser-known people whose stories make up a part of California not generally reported by the mainstream media. One of the stories, in fact the only one I had read before, is an absolutely stunning account of the murder-suicide of the creator of Zankou Chicken. It is simply one of the greatest pieces of journalism I have ever read. (The article can still be found here on the Los Angeles Magazine website.)
Reading the article again, I developed an intense craving for my usual order: a chicken tarna wrap, no tomatoes. At $4.99 this is one of the best deals anywhere. (They also have shawerma wraps, but I've always preferred the chicken tarna.) The wrap is good enough to eat without adding anything, but of course I always add some of the pickled turnips and a very generous amount of garlic sauce. (Once I bought Zankou for lunch for myself and a friend who had never had it before. He saw me liberally adding the garlic sauce to my wrap, and, despite my warning to him not to add very much, he added almost as much as I did. He took one bite and made a face like he'd just bitten into a sour lemon. "How can you eat it like this?" he whined. I admit, I love garlic.)
As usual I bought an 8oz container of garlic sauce and I will be adding it to the burgers and hot dogs I eat for the next few days.
My wrap was every bit as good as it has always been. Back when I was younger I used to routinely eat two of them, but these days one is enough. I know people have reported that the chain and particularly the garlic paste has gone downhill in quality in recent years, but I have yet to experience that, even once. (I admit I almost always go to the Pasadena location; many of the complaints are that the sauce is pre-packaged and different at the other locations. Perhaps that has something to do with it.)
For dinner I cooked some fried chicken breast pieces from Fresh & Easy, and spread some garlic sauce on a hamburger bun, along with some butter lettuce. It was awesome.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fast Food Review: Del Taco Chicken Fajita Burrito

I usually can count on Del Taco to come up with good promotions. But after a string of things I liked - the chicken mole taco, the crispy shrimp taco, the jalapeno rings - they came out with an absolute monstrosity: a breakfast bowl containing hash browns, scrambled eggs, jalapeno bacon, chili, sour cream, cheese and cilantro. To be fair, I didn't try it. I guess it could have been good. (Although I have no idea how; just writing all those ingredients made me a little sick to my stomach.)

When I read that they would be coming out with a chicken burrito, to which they allow you to add two ingredients (from a choice of cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and salsa.) It didn't sound great, but it certainly sounded like something I needed to try. At the tail end of my fast food crawl with Zach and Elizabeth, we hit Del Taco. I ordered the burrito plain, knowing Zach would prefer it that way. If it was just for me I would have requested cheese and sour cream.

We cut the thing is half (it was for me and Zach; Elizabeth was done with fast food after our previous five stops) and we dug in. Zach immediately made an excellent point: "this would have been much better with all white meat chicken." He was absolutely correct, there was a rubbery, greasy texture to the chicken that reminded me of the El Pollo Loco chicken carnitas tacos that I tried and disliked months ago. I doused my half of the burrito liberally with Del Taco's "Inferno" sauce. I always enjoy their hot sauce and the peppers were good, but I just couldn't get past that chicken. A couple of bites were great, but the rest weren't very good. I suppose if you add condiments to your burrito it might mask the taste of the chicken.

This was not one of my favorite Del Taco promotions. I'm sure it was a lot better than the breakfast bowl, but that's not saying much.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The First Weekend of Summer

I do not remember how old I was the first time I heard the expression "The best things in life are free" but it's a safe bet that I was old enough to be suspicious of the claim. If that were the case, why did my parents work so hard? Why did I have to spend such a large part of my allowance on baseball cards and giant Lemonheads at the local liquor store? My brother seemed to embrace the maxim a little more; when he was about 4 he claimed he didn't care about money at all and I could have all the money he got for the rest of his life. (I don't remember how long that lasted but it didn't last long.)

As I got a little older, though, I realized that while it may not be completely accurate, there is a large amount of truth to it. When I was 18, my friend Zach and I sat on the porch of his parents' place up north of Gaviota on a winter afternoon that may have been 80 degrees and we grilled burgers, drank Coronas, and watched whales swim by a couple hundred yards away in the Pacific. It wasn't techincally a free moment - we may have spent 20 bucks on the food and beer - but the point was made. I have had better afternoons since then, but not many, and none cheaper.

So over the weekend, the longest daylight of the year, it struck me that I didn't really feel like doing much that required spending a lot of money. A Father's Day barbecue would be in order. The U.S. Open would be going on all weekend if the weather cooperated. There was a new episode of Visiting With Huell Howser in which he did features on The Apple Pan and Clifton's Cafeteria. And it was the second and final meeting of the season for the Angels and Dodgers. Originally, the Saturday game was going to be a 1 PM start time, broadcast by Fox as their game of the week, but it was changed to a 6 PM start on local tv.

And that was just fine with me. Any list I make of the most enjoyable inexpensive things in life would have to include, near the top, listening to Vin Scully call an Angels game. Now, with the Saturday game switched from national tv, I would be getting to hear him both Friday and Saturday nights. If ever there was a good weekend to hang out in front of the tv, this would be it.

Vons had lobster tails on sale this past week for $5.99 each, so I got some and grilled them Friday night for dinner, along with a cheap steak and some sweet corn. I ate it with some cole slaw. The steak wasn't very good; I should have marinated it overnight. But drenched in A.1. sauce, it was edible. The lobster was good. Was it as good as the Crab Cooker, or Australian lobster tails from Fish King that I have grilled in the past? No, absolutely not. But these lobster tails were a fraction of the price.

Saturday evening for the game I made a pizza with ingredients that were all in the fridge. I strecthed out a Fresh & Easy pizza dough very thin and covered it with pizza sauce. There was some salami in the fridge that Elizabeth had used to make sandwiches during the week. I don't remember if I've ever had salami on a pizza before but it sounded good, so I threw a few pieces on. I cut up a package of goat cheese and added it. When the pizza came out of the oven I tore off some pieces of basil from our plant. I loved this pizza. It was a little on the dry side, but a few sprinkles of olive oil remedied that.

For lunch Sunday I went over to my parents' house. I cooked ribs for them by roasting them in the oven for a couple hours on a rack resting on a pan full of Guinness. The beer steams the ribs as they roast, then I throw them on the grill for about 15 minutes to get some char on them. My parents both loved the ribs. I was not in the mood for ribs so I grilled myself a burger: fresh ground beef with gouda cheese, lettuce, mayo, and A.1. sauce. My mom made a red cabbage salad that was fantastic and I had a couple bowls of that as well.

We watched Bottle Shock as we ate; my parents hadn't seen it yet. They liked it as much as I do. I suggested that we open a bottle of their '70 Lafite-Rothschild to drink with lunch, as it would be appropriate for the movie, but I was given a quick look indicating that was not an option. I drank iced tea instead.

Sunday, the longest day of the year, we decided an evening barbecue would be a good idea. Nothing fancy at all, in keeping with the laid-back, inexpensive theme of the weekend. Our friends Tracie and Anne came over and we grilled hot dogs. We had potato salad, cole slaw, and pretzels. Anne served some fresh blackberries, and we drank MGD 64. It was the perfect ending to the weekend.