Sunday, December 31, 2006


There are a few people we meet along the way who are unique. As Granny used to say "they threw away the mold" and it was true about Larry. There were no strangers in this world, only friends he hadn't yet made. You had a problem, Larry would listen. Your secrets were safe with him. Got car trouble, if he couldn't fix it, he knew someone who could. On moving day, Larry was there with his truck to help you out. If you enjoyed yourself at his house parties a little too much, Larry took the keys and made sure you slept over. If you needed it, he was there with a cold one. He could tell just by looking at you if there was something going on. Always laughing, brewsky in hand, watching the game, sitting at the round table. Talk about living a sweet life. A very dear friend to all who knew him, more like a brother to most of us, Larry passed away recently. Anyeurism, gone in his sleep. He had just moved out of state and was looking forward to his new home. Knowing Larry, he was probably getting ready to start remodeling, landscaping the yard, knocking out walls, putting in a spa, he could do all those things and more. But above all, Larry was my friend at a time when I desperately needed one. He helped me through a disastrous event in my life, so horrific and so terrifying. Larry did what he could to help ease the pain and tried to make it all go away. For that he will always have a special place in my heart. My prayers go out to his family in the hope that they will be comforted knowing how much he was loved by so many of us. Tonight, as I ring in the New Year, I will fondly remember all the New Year's Eve parties and celebrations we all shared.
Here's one for you, Larry. Salud!
Vaya con Dios, amigo.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Tamale Time 2006 Edicion Numero Dos

Thank goodness for good butchers. They are the people behind the counter or the case at the market where you buy fresh meat, poultry and fish. Get to know these people. Ask questions. If you don't see what you want, ask them to order it for you. You are more likely to find a helpful butcher at one of the smaller market chains, like Stater Bros. (God, please send a Staters to me!) There is no excuse why the supermarket butcher cannot be helpful and accommodating. But more often than not, there's nobody around to help. "Everyone is on break." I have a major "beef" with the lack of service at a local unnamed major supermarket. I only shop there for the items SuperA doesn't have room to stock.

So it was no surprise that in addition to the great price on masa, SuperA also had the big ass pork butt on sale. Nothing in the case---Dios mio! No problema, their butchers are always helpful. In no time at all the butcher had a huge pork butt ready for me, cut into three pieces and beautifully trimmed with just enough fat. I also bought a large piece of beef chuck roast, for "mas sabor", like our Nana Della and Tata did when they made tamales. In all it was about 15 pounds of meat.

The meat was prepped the day before our tamale time, drying the beef and pork pieces with paper towels and then salting all surfaces. After searing the meat in olive oil, I added smushed garlic cloves, a couple of whole peeled brown onions, then enough water to cover. Brought to a boil, it was seasoned with salt & pepper, then simmered until the beef was tender and fell apart. That was how my grandmother did it, how she knew the when meat was ready. Nothing worse than biting into a tamale made with tough stringy meat.

The meat was placed in a large bowl, the broth was strained, then poured it into another pot to be used later. Then I had to work quickly. Cleaning and shredding the meat is actually better to do while it is still hot. The pieces of fat, connective tissue and the nasty gristly parts come apart easier. I was amazed at how delicious that meat tasted. The combination of the beef and pork had such a great flavor. I couldn't help myself, so I made a burrito with a hunk of the meat and a splosh of that chile colorado. Man, that's some good eating, besides it's the chef's advantage! The meat was ready, very lean, not much waste. I gotta thank my butcher again.
(To be continued...)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tamale Time 2006 Edicion Numero Uno

What is Christmas without tamales? NADA! We can deck the halls all over the place. We can come a wasailing and bring a figgy pudding. But it wouldn't be Christmas without serving tamales at the table. After many hours of field research and compiling information for a fiscal study, we determined it was not in our best interest to invest in store-bought tamales this year. $15 bucks a dozen is a lot of dinero for keeping our tradition of enjoying a simple tamal during the holidays. I was very disappointed with the filling of thin shreds of meat and mushy gristly fat in the store-bought tamales I tasted recently. The masa was heavy, and it felt like a brick. Try getting up off the sofa after eating one of those tamales. And the lighter version of a "veggie" tamal was nothing to get excited enough to fork over that kind of money. One place actually used canned school cafeteria "Veg-All" in their cheese tamal. Que barbaridad! "It's $15 a dozen for all the tamales, cheese or meat." What?!

Time was running out, so I quickly made an executive decision to skip the tiendas, panaderias and tortillerias. I called my cousin Nicky to make a deal: come over and help make tamales and we'll split them up between us. It was an offer she couldn't refuse. Her favorite tamale place had also raised their prices. And her husband's primary tamale maker was too ill this year. Tamale making requires tremendous physical strength. Seriously. So Tamale Time 2006 was on!

Like with any good food, the key to making a good tamal is using quality ingredients. And with the holidays, it is hardly the time to skimp, but we had a goal of keeping our food cost low. Should we use a packaged sack of dry masa harina from off the supermarket shelf? Maybe another time, but not for Christmas. I opted for the fresh masa from SuperA market, and at only 89 cents a pound, it fit our budget. Regardless of what type used, a good masa requires beating, broth, and some additional fat. Some cooks use shortening (YUCK!) and others use a ton of lard (DOUBLE YUCK!) but for 15 pounds of masa, I only used one pound of lard. The additional broth is for flavor. The traditional test of masa readiness is to drop a teaspoonful into a glass of water. If it floats, the masa is ready. David Letterman should try that one on a "Will It Float?" segment! While mixing the masa, we discovered that it didn't have to be heavily laden with fat to be tasty. As long as it came together and didn't cling to the hoja, it would work. The result was a masa closer to a lighter firm polenta. Not that heavy brick. Who knew?

Canned red chile sauce? No, I have a trusted connection in Monterey Park that makes their chile colorado sauce from scratch. I could make it myself, but we were under the gun. That extra three to four hours to make homemade chile colorado sauce would have put me well into the wee small hours, staying up long after Conan and Carson Daly.

With the masa ready and the chile colorado well-chilled it was time to cook the meat for the tamale filling.
(To be continued...)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

La Vida Dulce Holiday Movie Guide 2006

FELIZ NAVIDAD! We love watching these movies over and over again during the holiday season. No disrespect to "It's A Wonderful Life" and its place in movie history, but it has gone into the vault for safekeeping. Of course it would not be the holidays without the modern classic "A Christmas Story" with Ralphie and his BB gun. Several movie versions of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" are out there, my two favorites are with George C. Scott and Reginald Owen as Scrooge.

But we have a whole other slew of Christmas flavored movies that convey the feeling of the season. La Vida Dulce believes that these offbeat, often irreverent movies deserve a special place in moviedom's holiday classics. Our list is filled with stories of merry gentlemen and lovely ladies in various states of dismay, folks who may have taken a wrong turn and are somehow brought back from the brink. Some have only strayed off the path. Some are downright evil and nasty. But the meaning of the holiday season is about hope, comfort and joy. The promise of Christmas is that we all are worthy of love and respect, no matter how or when we have gone astray. These films convey the message of good tidings in their own special way. So heat up a cup of cocoa with or without spirited embellishment, grab yourself a plate of cookies before Santa gets his mitts on them, relax and watch these films with us. Peace on earth, goodwill to all men and women.

(in no particular order of preference)

THREE GODFATHERS - Cowboy outlaws and a baby

BETTER OFF DEAD - Do they have Christmas in France?

THE REF - Denis Leary wearing a St. Lucia wreath. Enough said.

BAD SANTA - He's so bad he's good!

O'HENRY'S FULL HOUSE - John Steinbeck is the host

PENNY SERENADE - This one makes me cry like a baby

RADIO DAYS - Yeah, it's not about Christmas, but it's about families

AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER - And this one makes cry like an idiot

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER - Bette Davis is great in this one

GREMLINS - Don't let them get wet!

TRADING PLACES - Is that Bo Diddley behind the pawn shop counter?

SOMEONE LIKE YOU - Hugh Jackman all dressed up for the holidays

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Don't Kiss Santa

When Monica was a very young girl she got together with her cousin Gabrielle and the two of them tried to remember the words to "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" but instead they came up with their own version:

Don't kiss Santa, Santa, Santa
Don't kiss Santa
You will get his germs
If you kiss him, kiss him, kiss him
If you kiss him
You'll get sick and die

Little girls are not always too excited to have their picture taken with a fat old stranger, and to some it becomes a traumatic experience. Dirty gloves, scraggly beard, smelly red suit, noisy crowds of people, not exactly a Norman Rockwell or Kodak moment with two little girls crying and the baby making a fuss. Broken candy canes and See's candy lollypops stuck to clothing and full of lint didn't help. Looking back on that day, I can laugh now, but at the time, it was a total mess!

That little song of theirs, probably a reaction to that horrible day at the mall, became the anthem for our family at the holiday season. And it still cracks me up to this day, some 25+ years later. Merry Christmas and remember, don't kiss Santa!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Holiday Baking 2006

We will be baking all this week. Revisting a few old favorites, and testing out some new additions, La Vida Dulce is up to her sobacos (armpits!) with flour-sugar-butter-eggs-chocolate, all the things that make this life so sweet. Last year we used the red Hefty "plates are lids, lids are plates" large platters and they suited us nicely as baked goodie gift trays. Wrapped up in pretty snowflake cellophane and shiny ribbons and bows, they are so very Festivus for the rest of us.

For starters, family favorites like the little Christmas Wreath donut cookies we made last year are sure to be chomped up quickly. Monica's Mexican Wedding Balls will be on the platters along with our English Toffee Cookies. Biscotti flavor for this year will be chocolate almond, made even richer with the new Nestle Chocolatier products.

This season I discovered some really interesting new goodies to try out and possibly add to our gift trays. No Chocolate Bark this year, opting instead for a White Chocolate Cranberry & Pumpkin Seed Fudge, adapted from those nice folks at Kraft. A new sublimely decadent Chocolatier recipe from Nestle is called the "Rated R" brownie. We shall see if it lives up to its naughty but nice name. Since I am the only one who enjoys drinking a good nog, I'm baking Egg Nog Coffee Cake, instead of the traditional L.A. City School Coffee Cake. Can't let a good nog go to waist!

Another new treat is my take on mini fruitcakes, which earned a plateful of homegrown tomatoes from my neighbors. They are my best customers! Not your standard doorstop fruitcakes, these are filled with diced fresh fruits and tasty dried fruits, none of that nasty candied stuff. Ugh! Instead we use fresh gala apples, mangoes, Fuyu persimmons, bananas, and a variety of dried fruits like apricots, cranberries, pineapple and coconut. And toasted pecans. Definitely not your granny's fruitcakes.

If I am so inclined and not too worn out, I may even add a crusty holey loaf, the world famous New York Times No Knead Bread to my 2006 gift platter. This is the bread we had to try out a few times to get it just right. It needed another pinch or so of salt. Bittman had to write a second column and made some adjustments to the original formula. My baking buddy George divided the dough into smaller loaves, and that may be the answer for gift giving. He also used sourdough starter in a test batch with excellent results. Think I'll stick to the revision Bittman wrote. Although time consuming, it is worth all the effort to enjoy a slice of this bread. The aroma in the house while it bakes, the crumb, the flavor, and the crust are all so intoxicating, it's like a controlled substance. What would be its street value? Laws governing proper fermentation and rise would be enacted, you'd read about pudgy politicians taking bribes of warm loaves and butter, and bakers in possession of banettons for this bread would have to be licensed.
Yes, it is that good. Happy Baking!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hanging Up Another Stocking!

We have a new baby in the family! Her name is Sophia. Weight 8 lbs. 15 oz. and her mom and dad are doing just fine. Yay!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cookbook Gifts For The Holidays

My family knows me well. They have generously given me many cookbooks as presents. I love it! Last year Monica gave me a copy of the beautiful fundraiser cookbook that she complied and edited. She knows how much hard work goes into putting one of these together. She saw me do the very same thing with our church cookbook when she was a very young girl. (And when I was domestic!) But she has done a much better job and used a publishing house with hers.

Michael Ruhlman, author of "Charcuterie" (now in its 5th printing!) has made his suggestions for holiday cookbook gifts on his blog:

(I am sadly blogger challenged but if you can Google, you will find his wonderfully written food blog.)

I'd like to share a list of my own cookbook gift suggestions:
There's a brand new edition of Joy of Cooking. If yours looks like mine, the spine is bent and the pages are stained.
Anything by Julia Child. My favorite is Baking With Julia, with some excellent recipes for croissants and brioche.
Anything by Lidia Bastianich. That woman is the sweetest and friendliest chef I have ever met.
I missed Ina Garten when she was out here in Southern California recently, but any of her cookbooks would do nicely. They are beautifully photographed, the food looks spectacular.
King Arthur Flour has a new whole grain baking book.
"Baking from My Home to Yours" by Dorie Greenspan is another new book on my list. She is one of my favorite writers, author of the Pierre Herme pastry books.
The Bread Baker's Apprentice, Beard on Bread, The Bread Bible, The Italian Baker, are perfect for your serious bread baking friends.
Diana Kennedy has written some of the best cookbooks on Mexican food and its history.
And I will add a shameless promotion here with a personal recommendation for any of Chef Robert Wemischner's books, you can find them on Amazon.
I could go on forever, but you get the idea. Have fun shopping for the foodies in your life!

Monday, December 04, 2006

In-N-Out Burger Break

We were all so done with turkey, the soup, the tacos, the sandwiches, ay ya basta! Enough already. Although I still have some dark meat in the freezer, nothing sounded so good as In-N-Out cheeseburgers, root beer and fries. Michael had the double-double, Lauren and I went for singles. No onions this time, although I love that you have a choice of either raw or grilled onions. So tell me why was the place so packed with people late at night? Don't these people have homes, why aren't those children in bed? You'd think they were giving away free burgers. I sound like Grandpa again! I saw two suvs, with both drivers yakking on their cellphones, nearly crash into a third suv. The drive-through line moved slowly yet steady, and my patience was rewarded with some cool 80's music on the radio. All the way home I could smell the yummy fries, good thing I put the box on the floor, well out of my reach. They'd be gone before I got home.

A few years back, at his book signing for "Bouchon" Chef Thomas Keller was asked which restaurants in Los Angeles were his favorites. Immediately, without missing a beat he said In-N-Out Burgers was one of them. Hearing that made me laugh, then I let out a "woo-hoo" and others joined in cheering and applauding. Can you believe all these foodies getting excited over Keller's stamp of approval on a burger! He's right, these burgers are amazing stuff, and that's what a hamburger's all about.

Locations throughout Southern California

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Fuyu Persimmon Bundt Cake

My new next door neighbor was kind enough to bring over a big sack of Fuyu persimmons today, the last of the bunch off the tree in his yard. He apologized because his mother-in-law took the rest this week. I apologized for my "mal Espanol" thanks to a strict upbringing that insisted we speak only English and made it necessary to take four years of Spanish in high school and two years in college to understand what the elders in the familia were talking about. He laughed and said I spoke very well for an American. That made me laugh!

These Fuyus are crisp and sweet. Earlier this fall he gave me some of the Hachiyas. I made a big batch of persimmon bars for them, and they had no idea it was made from their own fruit tree. What lucky guys to have both persimmon trees! This time he gave me so many, I had to search around for another recipe and came upon this one. When the familia comes over for Sunday dinner tomorrow, I'll bake this to have with cafe con leche.

FUYU PERSIMMON BUNDT CAKE – adapted from Sunset Magazine and the California Fuyu Growers Association

Grease and flour a Bundt cake pan. Preheat oven to 350.
Blend 2 tsp. baking soda into 3 cups of chopped and peeled firm Fuyus, discard seeds. Set aside. In a large bowl, beat 1/2 cup soft butter with 1 2/3 cups sugar. Add 2 eggs, 2 tsp. lemon juice, and 2 tsp. vanilla and beat until fluffy. Stir in Fuyu mix.
Sift together 2 cups flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. ground cloves, 1 tsp. cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp. nutmeg. Stir flour into Fuyu mixture just until blended. Add 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans. Add in 3/4 cup golden raisins or dried cranberries, dusted with a tablespoon of flour. This prevents them from sinking to the bottom in a big clump. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan. Bake at 350 degrees F for 55 to 60 minutes or until long skewer inserted in the center tests clean. Cool in Bundt pan 15 minutes. Turn onto rack then onto a cake plate when cooled. Dust with powdered sugar. Serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream if desired.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Dark Chocolate Truffles

Long ago, way back during my domestic goddess days, I made up my mind to get serious about cuisine. I read everything I could get my hands on, clipped recipes from magazines and newspapers, watched all the PBS cooking shows, and tried out new foods and recipes on my family. My poor kids, once we made fresh pasta and hung fetuccine to dry all over the house! That was incredible pasta, it was so delicious we ate the whole batch. It was also during that time I decided to try candy making and after a few experiments, I came up with this recipe for truffles. I entered it in a local contest and won second place, not bad for a first time entry. The comments were very nice from a judge who appreciated the taste of rich dark chocolate. The other judges preferred milk chocolate. Oh well, you can't please everyone. I was still very happy with my win and spent the small cash prize on my kids. At the time, the only good chocolate I could find in our area was either Tobler or Lindt. How fortunate we are today to have so many fine chocolates available in supermarkets. Try this surprisingly simple recipe with the best quality chocolate and ingredients you can afford, you will not be disappointed. It is easy to make by hand, so let that electric mixer have the day off and have some fun making candy!

makes about 28-32

8 ounces fine dark chocolate, "Chocolatier" or "Guittard" or "Valhrona"
3 tablespoons quality unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup heavy whipping cream, or "manufacturing" cream sold at Smart & Final
Dark cocoa powder, chocolate candy melting discs, ground nuts, or other decorations
Additional flavorings or seasonings, see *NOTE

Scald cream in a heavy saucepan. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain cream through a very fine sieve or clean cheesecloth. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler or a heat-proof bowl set over simmering, not boiling water, and do not allow bowl to touch the water. When melted, remove from heat. Beat butter into chocolate until smooth. Add in flavoring, if desired, at this time. Vigorously beat cooled scalded cream into chocolate/butter mixture with a sturdy whisk, until it becomes light and fluffy. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm. Be proud of yourself, you have just made ganache! Chill ganache for about 1 to 3 hours. Form into balls using a sturdy melon baller, or pipe with a pastry bag fitted with a star tip into little paper candy cups, found at craft stores like Michael's. Dust with cocoa powder or powdered sugar. Or gently roll in chopped nuts, candy decorations, etc. Or if you dare, melt dark chocolate couvature discs, also found at Michael's, and cover each little chilled ball, carefully dipping into the melted chocolate using two forks, and transferring to a sheet pan covered with waxed paper. Let these chill and place in the paper cups. It kind of reminds of "I Love Lucy" when Lucy and Ethel were chocolate dippers! Enjoy making these little truffles.

*PLEASE NOTE: any additional flavorings can be added to this recipe EXCEPT liquids. You must reduce the amount of cream by the same amount of liquid to be added. For example, if you want to add two tablespoons of Bailey's Irish Creme liqueur, you must adjust the amount of liquid by removing two tablespoons of the whipping cream. If you decide to add a dry ingredient like a teaspoon of instant espresso powder, you do not need to make any liquid adjustments.