Los Angeles Club Scene

November 1, 2005

I'm a sucker for group activities. In the past I've shuttled between book clubs and writing groups, aerobics classes and improved comedy workshops. Had I been old enough in the 1970's, I would surely have been on the Tupperware party circuit. So it's not surprising that, as a passionate cook, I have joined the latest trend: I belong to not one, but two cooking clubs.

Alternatively dubbed dinner clubs or supper clubs, among other names, these groups bring together friends to cook, eat and - most of all - learn. The two cooking clubs I belong to in Los Angeles are very different. One, called the Saucy Spoons, was founded two year ago by Ellen Rose, owner of the Cook's Library, a popular cookbook store here. The 16 members are mostly food pros, including cookbook author Neelam Batra; Stacie Hunt, a partner in the wine store Du vin; and Joan McNamara of Joan's on Third, a restaurant and take-out an intriguing cookbook - The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers, for example, or The Arrows Cookbook by Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier. We each pick a recipe and prepare as much of it at home as possible, finishing it when we arrive at the host's house. Then we dish about what we liked and didn't like. One time, for example, we all loved a crumb cake recipe so much, Joan started serving a version of it at her store.

My other cooking club is a lot less formal - we've never even given it a name - but it's equally rewarding. It too started about two years ago, with a group of about 10 girlfriends, all thirtysomething Angelenos working in industries from television casting to landscape design, who were already regularly calling each other with cooking questions and swapping recipes. Sometimes the more experienced cooks prepare and teach a menu to the rest of the group. Other gatherings are potluck and themed (Hors d'Oeuvres Night, for example, or Thanksgiving Prep). We've also taken a wine-and-cheese pairing class together and gone on field trips to sample a new restaurant.

To take out collective cooking expertise up a notch, our group recently invited 35-year-old chef Govind Armstrong of L.A's hot Table 8 to give us a lesson in my outdoor kitchen. Raised in Los Angeles and on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Armstrong started his career as a 13-year-old intern at Spago and trained with internationally acclaimed chefs like Juan Mari Arzak of Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain, and Joachim Splichal of Patina in Los Angeles, before becoming co-chef (with Ben Ford, son of actor Harrison) at Los Angeles's Chadwick in 2000. Since then, he's designed the bar menu at RokBar in Hollywood, which he co-owns with Tommy Lee of Motley Crue and other backers; and he's opening a second Table 8 this winter at the new Regent South Beach Hotel in Miami.

When Armstrong arrives, he greets everyone with a hug, then tosses his long dreadlocks over his shoulder and gets to work making a round of pomegranate margaritas. As we gather around the outdoor bar, Armstrong kicks off the first demonstration: a quick way to cure duck to make prosciutto for a watercress salad. First he scores as breast and brushes it with maple syrup, then he applies a rub of salt, sugar and herbs. "Put a good amount on both sides," he tells us. "The salt is penetrating a doing its thing, and after 48 hours, it will give the meat a darker, richer color and more flavor."

Next Armstrong gives a lesson on how to cut a winter squash. Whether preparing a kabocha, red kuri or hubbard, he explains, the starting point is turning the gourd on its side and chopping off the stem. Still holding the squash on its side, he stabs it with the tip of the knife, pushes the knife partway in and pulls it down. He turns the squash around the repeats this action on the opposite side, which splits the squash open. Then he bakes the halves with butter and brown sugar, cuts them into wedges and sprinkles them with thyme-roasted chestnuts and pomegranate molasses.

Everyone moved in closer for the slicing of a gorgeous rack of Berkshire pork, which Armstrong has brined and then roasted. As he cuts in into chops, Armstrong hands out samples of the deliciously moist meat, which he will later serve with stewed onion puree and crispy sage leaves. He explains why cooking a whole rack is easier than roasting individual chops: "If you're making nine different chops, you have to check the temperature of each one," he says. "Besides, there's something a little more dramatic about having a big ol' honkin' rack of pork on the table and carving it up there."




 

 

For the final lesson, Armstrong reveals a tray of Krispy Kremes that he'll use in a dessert he calls Coffee & Doughnuts, a bread pudding he serves at RokBar with a dollop of coffee-flavored whipped cream. "I thought it would go over well in a bar," he says, submerging the sugar-glazed doughnuts in rich custard before baking.





Demonstration over, our cooking club adjourns to the upstairs terrace to sample the finished dishes. We settle in quickly around the table, and Armstrong steps out of the fray of passing and serving. "You guys seem to know what you're doing now," he says.
 




    LESSON PLAN

  • Watercress salad with prosciutto, tangerines and hazelnuts - 2003 Pieropan Calvarino Soave Classico
     
  • Pork rib roast with sweet onion puree and crisp sage tempura - 2002 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Merlot
     
  • Smashed mixed root vegetables
     
  • Roasted squash with chestnuts and pomegranates
     
  • Bitter greens with quince vinaigrette and blue cheese
     
  • Krispy kreme bread pudding with espresso whipped cream
     
  • Pomegranate Margaritas





    A CLUB OF YOUR OWN - A cooking club can take almost any form. Here are five formats to try:

  • Cookbook Critique - Choose a cookbook and assign each club member a different recipe
     
  • All Desserts - Everyone prepares something chocolate, say, or a different kind of cookie. Or try a pie tasting that compares butter-, lard- and shortening-based crusts
     
  • World Cuisines - Explore the planet: Italy, Spain, Thailand, Chile
     
  • Iron Chef - Pick a seasonal ingredient - one common and another more esoteric - for members to use in each recipe
     
  • Wine Pairings - The host chooses the wines in advance and members each bring a dish that will pair well with one of the bottles


If you want help getting started, go to www.foodandwine.com - cooking clubs for menus, tips on organizing a group and more...






Watercress Salad with Prosciutto, Tangerines and Hazelnuts

Total: 45 min. - 8 servings

This salad is an intriguing mix of strong flavors - sweet, peppery, earthy. The hazelnuts add richness, chef Govind Armstrong says, plus they "do their job as the texture police." He uses duck prosciutto here; it's easy to find in specialty-food stores, or you can substitute regular prosciutto.
 

1/2 cups hazelnuts
4 tangerines or 2 naval oranges
2 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
11/2 teaspoons honey
1 small shallot, minced
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 large bunches of watercress, thick stems removed
13/4 cups loosely packed flat-leaf parsley leaves (from 1/2 bunch)
3/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, preferably duck prosciutto


  • 1. Preheat the oven to 350. Spread the hazelnuts in a pie plate and toast for about 10 minutes, or until fragrant. Let the nuts cool slightly, then coarsely chop.
     
  • 2. Meanwhile, peel the tangerines, removing all the bitter white pith; if using oranges, peel with a sharp knife. Working over a large bowl, cut in between the membranes to release the citrus sections.
     
  • 3. In a bowl, whisk the sherry vinegar with the balsamic vinegar, honey, shallot and thyme. Whisk in the olive oil, hazelnut oil and truffle oil in a slow stream. Season the dressing with salt and pepper.
     
  • 4. Add the watercress and parsley to the tangerine sections and toss. Add 1/3 cup of the dressing and toss well. Arrange the salad on a large platter, arrange the prosciutto decoratively around the salad. Sprinkle with the toasted hazelnuts and serve with the remaining dressing.

Make ahead. The recipe can be prepared a day ahead through Step 3. Keep the hazelnuts at room temperature; refrigerate the oranges and dressing separately.

Wine. Italy's Soave DOC, once mostly known for dull, mass-produced wines, has had a renaissance in recent years. Today it's making fresh, expressive wines that have both the richness to match the nuts and prosciutto and the tanginess to pair well with the tangerines. Pieropan's 2003 Calvarino is bright, with a nutty finish; Gini's 2003 La Frosca has melony notes.

 




Pork Rib Roast with Sweet Onion Puree and Crisp Sage Tempura

Active: 50 minutes - Total: 3 hours - Plus 24 hr marinating - 8 Servings

Armstrong adores the variety of heady spices in his aromatic brine, which includes cloves, juniper and mustard seeds. He often uses them to flavor a whole rack of pork, which he finds easier to cook than individual chops. He also likes to finish the rack on a grill to add smoky flavor.
 

1/4 cup juniper berries
1/4 cup fennel seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1/4 cup coarsely chopped dried red chiles, such as arbol chiles
1/4 cup black mustard seeds
6 bay leaves
1/2 cup dried thyme
5 quarts cold water
1 cup sugar
Kosher salt
One 51/2 pound pork rib roast
Freshly ground black pepper
Sweet onion puree (recipe follows)
Crisp sage tempura


  • 1. In a large saucepan, combine the juniper berries, fennel seeds, coriander seeds and cloves and cook over moderately high heat, shaking the pot frequently, until the spices are toasted and fragrant, 3 minutes. Add the chiles, mustard seeds and bay leaves and toast for 30 seconds longer. Stir in the thyme, add 1 quart of water to the sauce-pan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar and 3/4 cup of salt until dissolved. Transfer the mixture to a stockpot and let cool to room temperature. Stir in the remaining 4 quarts of cold water, then add the pork roast. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
     
  • 2. Preheat the over to 375. Remove the pork from the brine; discard the brine. Rinse the roast and pat dry with paper towels. Season well with salt and pepper.
     
  • 3. Heat a very large ovenproof skillet over moderately high heat. Add the pork, fat side down, and brown all over, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the roast is well browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 145. Transfer the roast to a cutting board and let rest for 15 minutes. Carve the pork roast into 8 chops. Serve with Sweet Onion Puree and Crisp Sage Tempura.


Wine. Gorgeous fall weather made 2002 a stellar year for red wines in Washington State � and its sumptuous Merlots are ideal with this tender pork. Try the juicy 2002 Three Rivers or the smoky, plummy 2002 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells.

 




Sweet Onion Puree

Active; 20 minutes - Total: 3 hours - 8 Servings

Creamy long-cooked onions, a simplified version of classic French onion soubise, are an ideal accompaniment to the savory rack of pork, but they're also great with duck or any other poultry.

2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
11/2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
Pinch of crushed red pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 medium onions, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small baking potato, peeled and cut into large dice
2 tablespoons dry white wine
11/2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


  • 1. Wrap the thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns and crushed pepper in a piece of cheesecloth and secure with kitchen string. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic, potato, wine and the herb bundle and bring to a simmer over moderately high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the onions are very soft, about 2,5 hours.
     
  • 2. Drain the vegetables, reserving the cooking liquid; discard the herb bundle. Transfer the vegetables to a food processor and puree with 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid and the vinegar. Pass the puree through a sieve, then transfer to a bowl, season with salt and ground black pepper and serve warm.

Make ahead. The puree can be refrigerated for 2 days. Rewarm over low heat.

 




Crisp Sage Tempura

Active: 30 minutes - Total: 50 minutes - 8 Servings

Poppy-studded batter makes a light and pleasantly crunchy coating for pungent, addictive sage leaves.

1/2 cup rice flour
11/2 teaspoons poppy seeds
Salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup cold club soda
1 tablespoon cold water
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 bunch of sage (about 24 leaves), stems trimmed to 1/4 inch


  • 1. In a medium bowl, mix the rice flour with the poppy seeds, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Whisk in the club soda and cold water. Let the batter rest for 20 minutes.
     
  • 2. Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a small skillet just until shimmering. Holding each sage leaf by the stem, dip it into the batter to coat both sides. Add to the oil and fry over moderately high heat until lightly golden, about 30 seconds. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle lightly with salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note. Rice flour is available at Asian markets and health food stores.

Make ahead. The fried sage leaves can be stored in an airtight container overnight.
 

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