Horchata… Dairy-Free, as It Should Be

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I always thought horchata was safe for a lactose-intolerant person like me, since it’s traditionally made with rice milk. But more and more often, when I encounter horchata in L.A. and ask to make sure it’s dairy-free, the answer is no. In many cases, it contains evaporated milk, making it more like a shake than an aqua fresca.

A few days ago I read an article in the Food section of the Los Angeles Times that explains why: Even though real horchata doesn’t have dairy, “it’s easier, cheaper and involves less labor to use cow milk because you get that creamy texture without all the work of soaking, blending, then straining out the rice.”

Having just made my own horchata using a recipe printed in the article, I can say that it’s not that much work. The hardest part is remembering to make it a day ahead so it has time to soak. Straining the horchata isn’t a big deal if you have a good mesh strainer and some cheesecloth handy.

I’m grateful to live in an area where I can find things like Morelos rice and canela (Mexican cinnamon) in the international section of my supermarket. But if you can’t, just use long-grain white rice and regular cinnamon.

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A popular variation in L.A. is the “dirty horchata,” a combination of horchata and espresso. I made my own version using half horchata and half Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, because that’s what I had on hand. It was delicious.

MORELOS RICE HORCHATA RECIPE (DAIRY-FREE)
Adapted from the Los Angeles Times

2 cups uncooked Morelos rice
1 stick canela (Mexican cinnamon)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup dark brown sugar or honey
4 cups filtered water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and purée on high for 30 seconds to break up the rice. Turn off the blender and refrigerate the mixture in the blender overnight, or at least 8 hours.

When ready to serve, re-blend the mixture. Pour it through a fine mesh strainer, then pour it through a layer of cheesecloth to remove any remaining sediment. Taste and add more sugar, if you like. Serve the horchata over ice and sprinkle with ground cinnamon to garnish. Makes 4 servings.

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Homemade dirty horchata
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More Dairy-Free Pizza, Please

I’ve been dairy-free for over five years, and most of the time I don’t really miss “the deadly poison.” There are so many dairy-free alternatives now that there’s no reason to feel deprived. But every so often, I do. And usually it involves pizza.

You can get pizza with vegan cheese at “build your own” pizza restaurants like Blaze, Pieology, and MOD. But while those pizzas aren’t bad, they’re not the same as an old-school New York pizza, the kind with a thin but flavorful crust that leaves a powdery film on your hands after you fold a slice in half and sink your teeth into it.

To be honest, I haven’t had any true New York pizza in L.A. They say it’s something in the New York water that makes the pizza crusts (and bagels) so special, and that’s why you can’t get good pizza and bagels here. The closest you can get is at Mulberry Street Pizza, owned by Cathy Moriarty (the actress from Raging Bull), and Joe’s Pizza, a branch of the New York pizzeria on Bleecker and 6th Avenue that I used to live a block away from.

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In researching this blog post, I discovered that Joe’s Pizza in L.A. now offers Daiya vegan mozzarella on their whole pies. Finally! This is a recent development, and one that I hope more pizzerias follow suit on. (Mulberry Street, I’m talking to you.) It would be great if you could get these by the slice as well.

When I get a hankering for pizza, sometimes I don’t want to go to a “build your own” pizzeria and deal with the assembly line. Sometimes I want to go to an old-fashioned Italian restaurant with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and candles in chianti bottles. And sometimes I want to just pick up the phone and order a pie from the closest Domino’s.

I dream of a day when every pizzeria, from Domino’s to the fanciest Italian restaurant, offers dairy-free cheese as a matter of course. It’s really not that hard.

The Best Dairy-Free Birthday Gift

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Did you know that you can order a gift pack of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be delivered right to the doorstep of your loved ones? I didn’t, until a FedEx guy showed up at our house a few days ago carrying a big cardboard box with this label on it:

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Turned out my awesome friend Jill, whom I mentioned in an earlier blog post, sent me this delightful birthday gift. Inside the box was a styrofoam cooler containing five pints of Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice creams, which were kept frozen solid during transit with bags of dry ice.

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And if that weren’t enough to make my day, the gift pack came with a pint cozy and Euphori-Lock, which, their website explains, are intended “to keep hands comfy while digging in and hands off when you’re not!”

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I doubt I’ll have to lock up my pints, since my husband would rather eat real ice cream than dairy-free (although he has already made a dent in the Non-Dairy Cherry Garcia).

But that pint cozy has my name all over it (actually, it has “B&J” all over it). The little wooden spoon it comes with is also adorable. They make sitting on the couch, eating ice cream straight from the carton — what I refer to as “Ally McBeal-ing it” — feel less pathetic because it’s so darn cute.

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My ice cream is wearing a sweater.

I confess that I just spent the evening Ally McBeal-ing some Non-Dairy Cinnamon Buns while watching Deep Blue Sea on Netflix, the popular “sharks gone wild” action movie from 1999. Big thumbs-up for any action movie starring Samuel L. Jackson.

You’ll have to tune back in next week for my review of Cinnamon Buns!

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Ode to Jonathan Gold, 1960-2018

On Saturday, July 21st, the beloved Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold passed away, and the whole city is mourning. Anyone who writes a food blog owes Jonathan Gold a debt of gratitude. He paved the way for an entirely new way of writing about food. He democratized it, proving that you didn’t have to be some sort of erudite elitist with a culinary degree to have valid opinions about food and express them.

Somehow, Gold managed to write about food in poetic language without sounding pretentious. He had a way of transporting the reader to the restaurant (or food truck) and making them feel like they were right there sharing a meal with him. I would often read his reviews in the L.A. Times while eating breakfast, and pretty soon my eggs and prunes would seem like the saddest meal ever, compared to his sensuous, evocative descriptions.

I didn’t always agree with Jonathan Gold’s opinions. For example, I have no idea why he liked Bob’s Coffee & Doughnuts at the Original Farmer’s Market on Third and Fairfax. Their doughnuts are nothing special. In my opinion, the best doughnuts in L.A. are from the Doughnut Hut in Burbank.

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Chocolate old-fashioned, fresh out of the fryer at Doughnut Hut.

He also sang the praises of the LudoBites truck, run by celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre, and I thought their signature fried chicken was unmemorable at best.

And in his “Five Rules for Dining in Los Angeles,” he listed as one of the rules: “There is no shame in avocado toast.” I contend that there is shame in avocado toast if you’re paying upwards of eight dollars for it.

But Gold loved Asian food and he loved spicy food, and that’s where our tastes intersected. Upon his recommendation, my husband and I drove out to Van Nuys years ago to try the pad Thai at a strip mall restaurant (the kind Gold loved so much) called Krua Thai. Not the regular pad Thai, mind you — the “Pad Thai Krua Thai.” The dish was so good that every time we were anywhere near Van Nuys, we felt compelled to stop at Krua Thai. We even went there after I broke my toe at a nearby Costco. I needed to get that pad Thai even if I had to limp there!

Jonathan Gold also championed Szechuan cooking, and it was through his reviews that I found Mian, a noodle restaurant in San Gabriel (again, in a strip mall). San Gabriel is crawling with noodle joints, and even for an Asian person it can be overwhelming to navigate the choices. Mian lived up to Gold’s praise and has become one of my favorite spots to eat in the SGV. The spices will make your tongue go numb and your nose run, but that’s part of the fun.

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You can see how excited I am to tuck into these spicy noodles.

Whether or not you shared Jonathan Gold’s taste in food, you were probably influenced by him in some way. Do you read reviews on Yelp to decide where to eat? Most of the people who write those reviews — myself included — are doing it because Jonathan Gold made it okay for us to do it. He gave us all a voice.

He will be missed.

When Cheating on Your Diet Is Worth It

I stopped eating dairy four and a half years ago, and it was the most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for my digestive health. Having been lactose-intolerant for most of my life, I still managed to eat dairy often — sometimes up to three meals a day — by taking lactase enzyme supplements, otherwise known as Lactaid.

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Generic version of Lactaid.

Yet even with the help of these pills, I frequently felt bloated and gassy, and suffered from stomachaches, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea. Fun, right? One day, when I was doubled over in pain after sucking down a root beer float, I finally said, “Enough.” Now that I no longer eat dairy, my digestive system is so much happier.

That said, every so often I come across a dairy-laden food product that is worth cheating on my diet for, something extraordinary and rare…

Like the peanut butter pie at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Las Vegas.

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A year ago my husband and I went to this fancy restaurant in Vegas, and I ordered a piece of the peanut butter pie, partly because, of all the desserts on the menu, this one sounded the least dairy-heavy.

The peanut butter filling was so smooth and velvety, it was like eating silk, almost like a cheesecake but not as dense. I’m no pastry chef, but it seemed to me that there was simply no way to create such a texture without a lot of dairy. I quickly popped a couple of Lactaid pills (which I still keep on me at all times, just in case).

Thankfully, the pills did the trick and I didn’t have any problems with the peanut butter pie. It became my favorite dessert, and one that I fortunately can’t get too often! But when we went back to Vegas last week, the first thing on my to-do list was to head to Joe’s and get that pie again.

It lived up to the memory.

Besides being unbelievably smooth, the filling is also not too sweet. It’s actually pretty salty, as peanut butter should be. The crust is like a graham cracker crust, but made of chocolate cookies instead, like super-fresh Oreos. The hot fudge topping is delicious as well, but almost unnecessary.

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The aftermath.

There’s a Chinese saying about eighty percent being perfection. Meaning, if you eat healthfully eighty percent of the time, you’ll be fine. It’s human nature to need a treat every now and then, and by “treat” I don’t mean the salted rice cakes. We have to be bad sometimes or we’ll crack like an egg.

So this summer, treat yourself. For God’s sake, don’t eat dairy if you have an allergy to it; we don’t want anyone ending up in the hospital. But if you’re just lactose-intolerant, pop a Lactaid pill and eat that dessert you adore and can only find once a year. Then get back on the wagon and feel good about your commitment to a healthy lifestyle.

You can have your cake — or in this case, peanut butter pie — and eat it, too.

JOE’S SEAFOOD, PRIME STEAK & STONE CRAB, Located at The Forum Shops at Caesars, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV 89109

Dairy-Free Eloté (Grilled Mexican Corn)

Summer’s here and you know what that means: street fairs. There are few things I love more than food that can be eaten while walking. The late author David Foster Wallace wrote a hilarious essay about the Illinois State Fair, which he describes as a “peripatetic feeding frenzy.” (You can find the essay in his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, the title of which does not refer to the state fair, but rather, a luxury cruise. Just read it and thank me later.)

At Southern California street fairs, you will often find corn on the cob, grilled and seasoned in a Mexican fashion. It’s called eloté, and it usually comes smothered in butter, mayo, chili powder, and cotija cheese.

Just one look at all that dairy and my stomach starts to scream in revolt.

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When I was looking online for a photo of eloté, I found this one from the LA County Fair, which doesn’t really show eloté (except if you look at the sign on the far left), but does show a ridiculous concoction from Chicken Charlie. Chicken Charlie is the county fair vendor known for deep-frying everything, including Oreo cookies, Lucky Charms, watermelon, even butter. But an ice cream chicken sandwich??? Have they gone too far? I think the answer is a resounding yes.

Eloté is definitely one of the healthier options compared to most street foods. But if you’re lactose-intolerant, even this dish can pose a problem.

That’s why I decided to make my own version of eloté without all that cheese. I also cut the kernels off the corn cobs because I just had some dental work done. This makes my version of eloté harder to eat peripatetically, but easier on the choppers.

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I always grill corn cobs in their husks because if you grill them directly over the coals, they tend to get overcooked. An hour before cooking, start soaking the corn cobs in cold water. The pre-soaked husks will steam the corn inside. You’ll end up with juicy kernels that have a nice charred flavor.

The key ingredients in eloté besides corn are butter, chili powder, and lime juice. I like to use real butter (the amount of lactose in it is not enough to bother me), but feel free to use vegan butter. Make sure you use fresh-squeezed lime juice; if it sits for too long, it gets bitter. You can play with the ingredients until you find the balance of spicy and sour that you like.

I guarantee you won’t even miss the cheese!

DAIRY-FREE ELOTE (MEXICAN CORN) RECIPE

2 corn cobs, in their husks
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon ancho chile powder
2 teaspoons butter or vegan butter
1 tablespoon lime juice (about half a lime)
sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Soak the corn cobs in cold water, fully immersed, for one hour before grilling. When the coals are ready, remove the corn cobs from the water and shake off the excess. Grill the corn cobs over direct medium heat, turning every 5 minutes. Total cooking time: 20 minutes.

Remove the corn cobs from the grill. When cool enough to handle, peel off the husks and silk. Holding the corn cobs upright, cut the kernels off with a sharp knife and scoop them into a serving bowl.

Add the garlic, chili powder, butter, lime juice, salt, pepper, and cilantro. Mix well. Garnish with more cilantro, if desired. Makes 2 servings.

Avocado Toast: Why All the Fuss?

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If you’ve been wondering, “What’s the big deal with this avocado toast thing?” you are not alone. Avocado toast is everywhere these days, and this hot trend, like jumpsuits, can be a bit confounding. What is it, other than mashed-up avocado on a piece of toast?

The short answer is: nothing. Avocado toast is exactly that. And there is no reason why you should pay $8 or more for this simple dish. Especially in Southern California, where avocados are plentiful and relatively cheap, the raw ingredients of avocado toast would probably total no more than $1 a serving.

Is it the labor, you may ask? Is avocado toast hard to master, like a soufflé? I couldn’t imagine that it would be. Just to test my theory, I made avocado toast this morning. Here’s how:

(1) I cut a slice of sourdough bread and popped it in the toaster oven.

(2) I sliced an avocado in two, then scraped its contents into a bowl. Then I mashed it up using my (clean) hand. One avocado will usually yield enough for two slices of toast.

(3) I added a little lemon juice, salt and pepper, and a dash of garlic powder (the garlic powder is optional).

(4) I stirred up the avocado mixture (which is now essentially guacamole), spread it on the toast, and topped it with chopped cilantro. You can also use parsley or chives.

Done. Actually, I also fried an egg to put on top of it, but that’s optional, too. Here’s a photo of my avocado toast with egg.

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Really, that’s all there is to it. Don’t get me wrong, avocado toast is tasty, and certainly more nutritious than plain toast or toast with butter and jam. And it’s dairy-free, which is a plus for those of us who are lactose-intolerant. But rest assured, you’re not crazy for thinking this avocado toast trend is much ado about nothing.

Honestly, it probably all started when a restaurant had some leftover guacamole and one of the line cooks put it on a piece of toast and said, “Hm, this is pretty good. I bet we could charge people a lot of money for this.”

The one time I actually ordered avocado toast was at my favorite boba tea shop in downtown L.A., Toastea. I only did it because I was starving and needed some protein along with my tea. At $6.25, it was still overpriced, but it was good.

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Avocado toast from Toastea.

Given how basic avocado toast is, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll never have one that is so amazing it changes your life. That said, if you do, I would love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments below!

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