The England of my youth had a deserved reputation as a culinary dinosaur. I grew up on a diet of “meat and two veg,” none of it ever cooked especially well. The assumption back then was that if you had to have broccoli, it needed to be cooked within an inch of its life. Little wonder most kids didn’t want to go near it. Dining in London was like the TV in my family room of the ’60s and ’70s: mono-chrome.
I have always been passionate about food. As a young adult, I learned how to treat meat and fish with the respect it deserved, and I never overcooked the vegetables. But I held fast to the rule that dinner wasn’t dinner unless there was a hunk of animal protein on the plate.
When my girlfriend and I decided to move into our house in the Valley, I needed to rethink my culinary philosophy. She is a vegetarian, and it quickly became apparent that I needed to spice up my life. Literally. The flavors of ethnic cuisine present a great way to get creative with a cauliflower. Thankfully, our Sherman Oaks neighborhood is blessed with many wonderful nearby ethnic markets, and they have become my go-to both for pantry staples and fresh produce.
Full disclosure: If you want a sanitized, PG-rated shopping experience, stick to Whole Foods. These gems are not for the faint of heart. Take our local 99 Ranch Market up on Sepulveda in Van Nuys, an essential destination for Chinese cuisine. On my first visit at the checkout, the woman in front of me had a collection of fish so fresh that they literally wriggled their way down the conveyor belt. (You have the option of having the fishmonger smack them on the head with a baton if you prefer—quite an ordeal to witness.) The produce is exotic and affordable, and you have endless choices of condiments; there must be a dozen varieties of soy sauce, for example. I make my own chili-crisp sauce with soy sauce and Szechuan peppers—the star of the show. These fresh little nuggets of spice produce a wonderful numbing sensation on the tongue and work well on many dishes, Asian or otherwise.
With a decent selection of items in your pantry and little planning, it is easy to knock out a delicious dinner fit for a party in minutes. We have jars of homemade Thai curry pastes on hand that are truly the foundation of a great meal. I am a regular at Bangluck Market on Sherman Way in Reseda where you will always find the essentials for your paste: kafir lime leaves, lemon grass, Thai chilies. It’s a tiny market, and every bit of floor space is used to accommodate its bounty. You have to watch your step for fear of tripping over a giant sack of jasmine rice or bottles of nam pla. If I have the time, I can spend an hour or two sweating over a mortar and pestle grinding aromatics together to make a paste, but frankly it works just as well to throw everything into a blender for something instant. A few tablespoons of paste heated in a wok, a tin of coconut milk and vegetables of your choice, and you have a meal in minutes.
Thai Green Curry Paste
David’s twist is a bit milder, and a lot easier, than traditional versions of the recipe.
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 12 Thai green chilies (the very spicy ones)
- pinch of galangal
- pinch of ginger
- 5 peeled garlic cloves
- 1 peeled shallot
- 1–2 lemongrass stalks
- 1 tablespoon of coriander root (if you can get it!)
- 2–3 kaffir lime leaves
Toss everything in a blender along with anything else green—bell peppers, cilantro, jalapeños—for extra oomph, plus a tablespoon of water and some salt. Keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
I was never a huge fan of the Mexican food typically served in local restaurants, but after my first visit to Mexico City, I became a convert. There was both a subtlety and a depth of flavor that I had not experienced previously. I loved watching street vendors pressing tacos whose masa tortillas were made from varieties of corn rarely seen here, then dressing them simply with a glorious salsa with a punch of heat from a chili. Our local Vallarta Market has an entire corner of its store devoted to chilies, each with its own unique flavor profile. I learned that you can dry roast arbol chilies in a skillet before blending them with broiled tomatillos, garlic, salt, cilantro and a squeeze of lime. The result is a salsa that works with just about everything, from a midmorning snack with a handful of tortilla chips or drizzled over roasted sweet potatoes and cauliflower tacos.
India via England
The irony that the national dish of England is chicken tikka masala is not lost on me. When I moved to LA nearly two decades ago, a good curry was one of the things I missed most. Today, I make my own, and with the right ingredients on hand, they are pretty decent. Spice Plus on Burbank Boulevard in Valley Village is my one-stop-shop for everything I need for a perfect sauce, even the more obscure items like fenugreek leaves. A word of caution: Those who suffer from queasiness might want to steer clear of the frozen fish section. Enormous, unrecognizable sea creatures staring up at you from their ice baths could ruin your appetite. The homemade snacks from the deli at the back of the store are more tempting. Grab some and nosh while you shop for dinner. A spoonful of mustard seeds fried in ghee with a chopped onion and a cornucopia of spices (turmeric, chili, cumin, garam masala) will form the basis of an endless array of dishes. Add a tin or two of chickpeas, some fresh chopped tomatoes, cook for 20 minutes or so before wilting some spinach into it, and serve with naan bread—Spice Plus has great frozen naan—and all is well in the world.
And, Yes, Britain
My culinary adventure is ongoing. I know there are many more corners of the Valley that I have yet to visit, and I look forward to continuing my journey of discovery. It’s all a far cry from my British roots, and I confess to some nostalgia for my youth from time to time. When those feelings creep up, I make a beeline to The Friar Tuck Shoppe on Burbank Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, a quaint little store stacked floor to ceiling with items that instantly conjure up memories of my past. Cadbury chocolate, digestive biscuits, Bird’s custard. There are even jars of clotted cream, that wonderfully intense, rich, artery-clogging delicacy you spoon over scones and jam. (My scone recipe: 8 ounces of self-rising flour mixed gently by hand with 3 ounces of butter, 1½ tablespoons of baker’s sugar and a dash of salt, brought together with a whisked egg and 2 tablespoons of buttermilk. Bake in 425° oven for 12 minutes or so). Don’t forget a packet of Jammie Dodgers to go with a nice cup of tea.
Psst: The Robin Hood Pub is right next door. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s great for a pint and a plate of fish and chips. I am a vegetarian after all. Almost.