Small plates from California chefs

Some selections from the highly-anticipated Planned Parenthood Food Fare in Los Angeles.

Serving cheese puffs filled with goat cheese and pistou. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Serving cheese puffs filled with goat cheese and pistou.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
The annual Planned Parenthood Food Fare has been called one of Los Angeles’s most highly anticipated gastronomic events. For us, it was an opportunity to learn new ideas to incorporate into our home cooking.
Dishes inspired by Mediterranean cuisines were prominent. An Italian-inspired starter, prepared by Suzanne Goin, chef of Lucques, was ricotta crostini (appetizer toasts) topped with a fava bean and pea shoot salad and a mint-Meyer lemon salsa. Her light, refreshing chilled red pepper soup with basil, which gained a Middle Eastern accent from sumac, was a delicious complement to the rich crostini. (See recipe.)
Those who are fond of traditional Italian specialties could find pumpkin ravioli with butter and sage sauce made by the chef of Via Veneto, as well as potato gnocchi with beef ragu, at the table of Locanda del Lago.
Although the Tripel Restaurant described its cuisine as fine American dining, its tomato-vegetable-barley soup reminded us of minestrone. The chef added escarole (a hearty green) shortly before serving so it just wilted, finished the soup with garlic, and garnished it with fresh mozzarella cheese.
An innovative dish of duck shwarma with figs was presented at the table of Momed, which stands for modern Mediterranean. Nesrin Balcioglu, who served it, said that the duck finished roasting with fresh figs and cherry tomatoes. At the restaurant, she noted, this specialty is wrapped in thin, housebaked flatbread known as lavash, spread with garlic sauce; Momed also served mini-pitot with tasty pale-green avocado hummus. (See recipe.)
Chef Alain Giraud prepared savory French pastries that resembled mini-gougeres (cheese-flavored cream puffs). Instead of using classic cheese sauce, he filled them with goat cheese and pistou, or Provençal pesto. With this filling, they can be served at room temperature and thus are ideal for summertime.
A puree of cannellini beans was the base of a pair of appetizers served by Upstairs 2, which defines itself as a “tapas restaurant offering Mediterranean-influenced small plates.” In one starter, the white-bean puree came topped with shredded beef short ribs in old-fashioned espagnole sauce. For the second one, the puree served as a bed for roasted eggplant slices garnished with chives – an appetizer that’s easy to make at home. Olive oil, garlic, tarragon and thyme gave the bean puree a wonderful flavor. (See recipe.)
It’s not surprising that there were plenty of Mexican dishes. After all, California not only borders Mexico; it used to be part of Mexico until a century and a half ago.
MexiKosher’s chef Katsuji Tanabe made a Mexican-inspired “fried macaroni salad.” It turned out to be a sort of macaroni croquette with all sorts of chili peppers – habanero, chipotle, serrano and shishito (an East Asian pepper).
Another Mexican specialty was aguachile, which means chili pepper water and is actually a kind of ceviche (raw fish appetizer). Chef Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill made her bright green aguachile by combining the seafood with a cucumber and chili broth, along with avocado, mango and jicama, a delicately sweet Mexican root vegetable.
Among the East Asian offerings, there were Chinese garlic noodles and Thai papaya salad. Phorage, a restaurant that calls its cuisine “fresh locally sourced modern Vietnamese,” served five-spice duck prosciutto salad. The duck slices were set on fresh greens, garnished with thin slivers of papaya and dressed with honey lemongrass vinaigrette.
The most popular dessert was perhaps panna cotta, a creamy Italian pudding that has become an international favorite. We sampled three – one with berries, one with Nutella, and a highly original one from Joe’s Restaurant – its walnut and blackberry-topped panna cotta was made from pea tendrils. 
This sweet pepper soup, from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, is delicious as is. For extra embellishment, Suzanne Goin, the author, drizzles it with herb-flavored olive oil or serves yogurt sauce on the side.
Makes 6 servings
■ ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
■ 1 small sprig rosemary
■ 1 small dried hot pepper, crumbled
■ 2 cups diced onion
■ 1 Tbsp. thyme leaves
■ Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
■ 7 large sweet red peppers (about 570 gr. or 1¼ pounds)
■ 2 tsp. ground sumac
■ ¼tsp. sugar
■ 2 Tbsp. sliced basil
■ Yogurt sauce (see note)
Heat a large pot or Dutch oven over high heat for 2 minutes. Add olive oil, rosemary and hot pepper. Let them sizzle a minute or so, then add the onion, thyme, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste – be generous with it. Cook over medium-high heat about 10 minutes, stirring often, until onion is soft, translucent and starting to color.
Meanwhile, cut the peppers in half lengthwise. With a paring knife remove stems, seeds and membranes; cut peppers into rough 2.5-cm (1-inch) pieces.
Raise heat to high and add the peppers, 1 teaspoon sumac, the sugar, 1 tablespoon salt and more freshly ground black pepper. Sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until peppers start to caramelize slightly.
Add 8 cups water and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat about 30 minutes, until peppers are cooked through and tender but not mushy; to test, scoop a piece of pepper onto a cutting board and press it with your finger or a spoon – the flesh should give way easily.
Strain soup over a large bowl, reserving both liquid and solids; let cool slightly before blending. Put half of the peppers into a blender with ½ cup of the liquid. (You will need to puree the soup in batches.) Blend at lowest speed until the peppers are pureed. Begin pouring in cooking liquid, little by little, until soup has the consistency of heavy cream. Blend on high speed at least 1 minute, until soup is completely smooth. Transfer to a container and repeat with second half of the peppers and liquid. (You may not need all the liquid.) Taste for balance and seasoning, then chill.
When soup is cold, serve in chilled bowls. If desired, garnish with a large dollop of lemon yogurt; sprinkle with sumac and basil. Or you can serve the soup family- style in a chilled tureen, garnish it with the sumac and basil, and serve lemon yogurt on the side.
Note – Lemon yogurt: While soup is chilling, stir 1 cup whole-milk yogurt (Greek-style if possible), 1 tablespoon lemon juice and ¼ teaspoon salt together in a small bowl.
This recipe is adapted from Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking by Paola Gavin. Gavin recommends serving the avocado hummus with pita bread or with a selection of raw vegetables such as carrots, celery, green onions, cucumbers or sweet peppers, cut in sticks about 10 cm. (4 inches) long.
The chef at Momed in Los Angeles flavors the avocado hummus with toasted cumin. At the restaurant, the light-green hummus is served as an appetizer; it is also used in a lunchtime grilled chicken sandwich with roasted tomatoes and romaine lettuce on ciabatta bread.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
■ 1 large ripe avocado
■ 225 gr. (½ pound) cooked or canned chickpeas, drained (liquid reserved if using home-cooked chickpeas)
■ 4 to 6 Tbsp. lemon juice, or to taste
■ 4 Tbsp. pure tehina
■ 1 or 2 garlic cloves, crushed
■ ½ tsp. toasted ground cumin (optional)
■ Salt to taste
■ Paprika (for sprinkling)
■ 8 to 12 black olives
Halve the avocado, remove the pit, scoop out the flesh and put in a food processor or blender. Add the chickpeas, 4 tablespoons lemon juice, the tehina, garlic, cumin and 2 or 3 tablespoons chickpea cooking liquid or water. Process until smooth and creamy, adding more lemon juice to taste and a little more chickpea liquid or water if needed. Season to taste with salt. Serve on a platter, sprinkled with paprika and garnished with black olives.
As the beans cook, the flavors of the tarragon and thyme infuse into the broth. As a side dish, the bean puree makes a pleasing change from mashed potatoes and is easier to prepare. You can also serve it as a bed for roasted or grilled eggplant slices, or for braised meat.
Makes 6 servings
■ 450 gr. (1 pound) dried white beans (about 2¹⁄3 cups), sorted and rinsed
■ 1 onion, peeled and studded with 2 whole cloves (optional)
■ 1 carrot, peeled (optional)
■ 1 bay leaf
■ 6 garlic cloves – 2 whole, 4 minced
■ 2 large fresh thyme sprigs
■ 2 large fresh tarragon sprigs
■ 2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
■ Salt and white pepper to taste
Put beans in a large saucepan. Add enough water to cover them by at least 5 cm. (2 inches). Add the clove-studded onion and carrot and push them into beans. Tie the bay leaf, whole garlic cloves, thyme and tarragon in a piece of cheesecloth and add to pan. Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat.
Simmer over low heat for about 1½ hours, adding hot water if necessary so beans remain covered. Add salt during last 10 or 15 minutes, when beans are nearly tender. Keep beans in their cooking liquid.
Discard cheesecloth bag, whole onion and whole carrot. Remove beans from their liquid with a slotted spoon and puree beans in batches in a food processor or blender, adding a few tablespoons of their liquid to give the puree a creamy texture.
Heat olive oil in a saucepan, add minced garlic and cook over medium-low heat, stirring, just until the garlic is aromatic. Add bean puree to pan and heat through. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Serve hot.
Faye Levy is the author of
Feast from the Mideast and Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.