Posted on December 10, 2014 by & filed under design, holidays, inspire.

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Remember good ol’ Sandra Lee? Much as I despise her packaged, cookie cutter approach to cooking, that lush was on to something. And I’m not just talking about her affinity for cocktails, though we do have that in common. What I dug about that batty old blonde was her emphasis on tablescaping.

Though she might have gone a bit too over-the-top for many of her themed episodes  – her offensive mess of a Kwanzaa cake makes me laugh to this day — there is plenty of merit to having a statement centerpiece with elements that visually guide you to it, especially during the holiday season.

For my tablescaping, I’m all about mixing colors, textures, and heights of organic materials to make to achieve a unique homespun look. I did two centerpieces for the winter holiday season: one for my steamer trunk coffee table (above) and another for my dining room table. Both of them use pomegranates, which I gave a special sheen by spraying with Krylon’s new Glitter Blast spray paint in Cherry. It leaves a sheer glittery sheen that reminds me of Dorothy’s slippers.

I also chromed out some pinecones in silver using Krylon’s Premium Metalic spray paints, and did a hammered bronze look for a handful of other pinecones. So you have glitter, chrome, and hammered all with a pretty evergreen trimmings that not only look great and add an organic pop, but also smell fantastic. I arranged them in a wire nesting bowl that my mom gave me for my birthday a few years back; no need to buy an entire new collection for the holidays. Use what you have and save that money for holiday shopping. (Have you seen my gift guide, BTW? If not, you can check it out here.)

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For my dining room arrangement, I used a mirrored serving tray from Cost Plus that I’d been eyeing for the past few months as the base, then arranged varying colors of candles on top of mismatched cocktail glasses flipped upside down.

This cocktail glass candleholder trick is a great way to utilize mismatched glassware, because let’s be honest, there are times when things break, especially when there’s booze involved. The great thing is it creates varying heights, which is super important in creating a centerpiece and creating visual interest.

I interspersed those candles with more evergreen (noble fir, in case you’re curious, is my favorite type of tree), blinged out pomegranates, and chrome and hammered copper pinecones.

Since my dining room table table is teensy — as is my dining room — instead of placing the arrangement on a runner, I used a large Oaxacan wool placemat as the base. But you can use whatever you like: placemats, a festive charger, seconds from a fabric store, or even some used fabrics from Goodwill.

Again, use what you’ve got and if you’re lucky, you’ll have some cash leftover to get yourself something this holiday too. Because let’s be real, you’ve been a good kid this year.

 

Posted on December 9, 2014 by & filed under design, food, holidays.

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Still haven’t gotten your holiday shopping done? It’s okay, I haven’t either. But you needn’t fret. There’s plenty of time before Hanukkah and Christmas roll around.

From Will’s amazing leather weekenders to Emily McDowell’s quirky lettered creations and super sleekly designed modern water pitchers that use coconut husks to filter your H20, I’ve rounded up my favorite holiday gifts for your nearest and dearest. You can find my full list over at LAist, right this way.

Posted on December 8, 2014 by & filed under holidays, recipes.

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I’m a total nerd when it comes to the holidays. The baking, the decorating, the gift giving, and general merry making are totally my thing.

And while I do love the bountiful produce that the local farmers markets offer in the spring and summer months, the winter has some goodies too. Pomegranates and persimmons, I think, are some of the greatest fruits this time of year. They’re greatly misunderstood, but once you get the courage to play with them, you’ll see how great their flavors can be.

Besides, anything with the name Simmons in it has to be good, right?

Let’s start with those Japanese persimmons. (I’ll show you some cool DIY projects I’ve been working on with the pomegranates later this week.)

This sweet orange fruit is actually native to China, which I just visited earlier this year, and is now grown widely in Japan, where it’s their national fruit. Persimmons are traditionally consumed on the Japanese New Year as a sign of prosperity and good luck in the year to come. (Hopefully eating these will give me the good fortune of traveling to Japan in 2015!)

I came up on some wonderful fuyu and hichaya persimmons after including them in a cute Thanksgiving centerpiece that I made, which you can see here

Fuyus are the persimmons you’ll find with a flat bottom, and are sweet when they are just slightly ripe. Hichayas, on the other hand, are incredibly tart and tannic until they are absolutely jelly-like ripe. I used 2 of each variety for this recipe, pureeing them together because the fuyus have a more solid texture.

Just like avocados, you can ripen both types of persimmons by putting them in a paper bag. Once they’re super tender to the touch, they’re ready for baking into this fantastic holiday bread, which tastes super toasted with a slathering of salted butter.

The reason I love this bread is twofold: first and foremost the recipe is adapted from the great James Beard, the godfather of American cooking; secondly, it uses my favorite spirit, bourbon. It also makes a wonderful holiday or host gift since the recipe makes 2 loves.

Here’s how it’s done.

Spiced Bourbon Persimmon Bread

Adapted from David Lebovitz and Beard on Bread

Makes two 9-inch loaves

Ingredients:

3½ cups sifted flour
1½ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 to 2½ cups sugar
1 cup melted unsalted butter and cooled to room temperature
4 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
2/3 cup Bulleit bourbon
2 cups persimmon puree (this comes from about 4 persimmons)
1 cup nuts (I used a mix of walnuts and pecans)
1 cup dried cranberries

Method:

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Butter 2 loaf pans, then dust with flour and tap out any excess.

Remove persimmon flesh from the skin and put into a food processor to puree. Set aside.

Sift the flour, salt, baking soda, nutmeg, and sugar in a large mixing bowl.

Make a well in the center, then stir in the butter, eggs, liquor, persimmon puree. After that’s mixed, add in the dried fruit and nuts. (I used much less in this recipe because I’m not nuts for nuts. The original recipe calls for double nuts and dried fruit that  I used here.)

Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

The bread will keep for about a week, if well-wrapped, at room temperature. It can also be frozen.

Posted on November 19, 2014 by & filed under recipes, travel.

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When it comes to cooking, sometimes the simplest things are the easiest to mess up. Dumplings are one example: they can be delicate and delicious perfection or a sticky mess.

Several chefs specializing in the craft opened up their kitchens to my brother Danny and I while we were on assignment exploring regional Chinese cuisine for Quest magazine. So to document it all and share the knowledge, we made a video of one of our favorite, more basic preparations from the chefs at the absolutely stunning, brand-new Waldorf Astoria in Beijing.

In the video you’ll see how to make the dumpling wrapper dough, how to mix the succulent pork stuffing, and finally how to crimp the edges before boiling these little clouds of glory. Here’s how it’s done:

Posted on November 12, 2014 by & filed under holidays, inspiration, recipes.

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Looking for a simple but somewhat exotic drink to serve at your holiday gatherings this year? This lovely internationally-inspired cocktail does just the trick. It can easily be scaled to serve in a punch bowl, or done in individual portions for a more intimate affair.

At first, I wrote this recipe to include tequila blanco, which you can totally use, but recently I’ve been making it with mezcal.

For the uninitiated, mezcal is basically tequila’s cousin. It’s made with a type of agave from Oaxaca, Mexico called maguey. It has a wonderful smokiness to it, and just a hint of spice, which I think goes wonderfully with this fall twist on a classic margarita.

My friend Bricia Lopez  – one of the owners of L.A.’s great Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza — once taught me the popular colloquialism, “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también,” which translates to, “for all the bad, mezcal, and for all the good, too.” I have to agree. You can easily sip on this drink during holiday time, or if you’ve had a long day at work. (Believe me, I’ve had a few of those lately. And this cocktail makes it alllll better.)

Another little Oaxacan element I added to my festive cocktail was mole bitters. Guelaguetza makes some of the best mole in town, and the dish holds a very special place in my heart. Even though I don’t have Oaxacan heritage, my mom used to make it all the time and to this day it’s one of my favorite dishes of hers to this day. I love the layers of rich spiciness. It’s truly a unique flavor, which you get just a hint of with the mole bitters.

For my fall cocktail I also used pomegranate juice, as pomegranates are typically used in another popular Mexican holiday dish, chiles en nogadas. You’ll see this dish — made of poblano chiles stuffed with dried fruits and nuts, covered in creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley — as the pomegranates start to come into season in the fall. It really is a celebration of the season’s bountiful harvest.

I hope that sometime soon I can get to Oaxaca to try this awesome spirit in it’s homeland, but for now, I’m happy to share this great little libation with good friends and family during the holidays. Cheers to that!

Ingredients:

2 oz POM Wonderful pomegranate juice

1 oz mezcal

1 oz fresh lime juice

1 oz Cointreau

2 shakes Bittermans mole bitters (you can also use regular Angostura or Fee’s Orange bitters if you can’t find the mole version and they’re great!)

Method:

Combine all ingredients in a Boston shaker over ice, and shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass and serve. This cocktail can also be pre-batched using the same ratios and served in a punchbowl for holiday parties.

Posted on November 7, 2014 by & filed under eat, recipes.

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I’m gonna come out and be honest here, folks: I don’t watch college football. I know, I know. I could go and blame it on the fact that the good ol’ Banana Slugs didn’t have a football team, but I’m not the biggest fan of spectator sports in general. Save for basketball, of course, but watching the Lakers right now is downright depressing. Truth be told, I’d much rather play sports than watch them.

But one thing I DO love is cooking for fans on game day. Seeing people fight over the last piece of cornbread is my kind of dogpile.

Which is where this bison chili comes in.

I’ve been totally digging on bison lately. This game meat really is the ultimate protein: it’s lean, it’s delicious, and it’s a heckuva lot cheaper than good cuts of grass fed beef at Whole Foods. If you treat it right, it can be just as delicious as a proper steak.

Seer the flanks, and you’ve got the ultimate kale salad-topper or accompaniment to Vietnamese bun. You can use the chuck for savory braises or a hearty wintertime stew. Buy it ground and swap it in for burger meat, in pasta sauces, or in chili like this one. The possibilities are endless, so long as you follow the golden rule: DO NOT overcook bison, because it is quite lean and can get tough if it’s overdone.

When cooked right, it makes a great chili, which is totally easy to make, and incredibly flavorful when you add in a pint of porter into the mix. (Just make sure you buy an extra pint for the chef.) And just like most stews and chili, it gets better over time so you can make it a day ahead.

I call this chili California-style because it’s unfussy and it’s served using a few of my favorite local brands: Sriracha from LA-based Huy Fong Foods and a smooth porter from Lagunitas in Petaluma. In my humble opinion, chili isn’t chili without some slices of California avocado and a dallop of plain yogurt in place of sour cream. Call me a crunchy Californian, but I dig the healthy zing. Oh, and unlike the Texans, I like beans in my chili. They are a magical fruit and I love them. Maybe you Texans can convert me when I’m in Austin in a few weeks, but for now that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

No matter where your chili comes from, it always goes best with cornbread. Admittedly my favorite recipe is from Paula Deen, but instead of using cornmeal, I use Bob’s Red Mill — the same stuff I use to make polenta and grits. It’s a courser grind, but I’m sort of obsessed with that Southern style of hearty, rustic cornbread. (Did I mention how excited I am to get to Texas so I can eat my weight in BBQ and cornbread?!?) If coarse cornbread isn’t your thing, keep it as is.

Either way, cornbread always better with a heaping dose of honey butter, which is basically just one parts honey two two parts softened butter whipped up in a Cuisinart. The key is, of course, to use great ingredients. I just discovered Anchor dairy from New Zealand and am obsessed with the flavor and the quality of baked goods it’s turning out, plus they are nice to their cows. And happy cows put me in a good mood.

And so does this chili. In fact, you might even say I’m excited for game day. And no, that’s not just the beer talking.

Ingredients

2 strips bacon

1 pound lean ground bison

1 medium onion, diced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

1 carrot, diced

1 tablespoon Mexican chili powder

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon Sriracha

2 cloves garlic, minced

One large can crushed tomatoes

One can pinto beans, drained and rinsed

One can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

One pint Lagunitas Porter

2 cups chicken stock

Optional: Avocado, yogurt or sour cream, cilantro, cheddar cheese, and lime wedges

Method

Heat bacon in large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until crispy. Remove from heat and reserve. Add the bison and cook in the rendered bacon fat until browned, taking care not to break the meat into very small pieces, about 10 minutes. Transfer the bison to a plate using a slotted spoon and set aside.

Keep the pot over medium-high heat and sweat the onions. Add the bell peppers and carrots and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Then add tomato paste, chili powder, coriander, cumin, salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, and garlic. Cook and stir until the spices are fragrant and toasted, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes with the juices, and bring to a simmer while scraping any browned bits off the bottom of the pan, about 2 minutes.

Return the bison to the pot and add the pinto beans, kidney beans, sriracha, stock and pint of porter beer. Chop up bacon and add that in too. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat, cover and simmer until thickened, about 45 minutes. Season with salt. Serve with the yogurt, cheese, cilantro, onions, lime and avocados, and of course, some cornbread and honey butter.

Posted on November 3, 2014 by & filed under recipes, travel.

Matt Armendariz_indiandonut

Photo by Matt Armendariz

Maybe it’s the colors, maybe it’s the spices, perhaps it’s my obsession with yoga, but I’ve always been fascinated with Indian culture. So it’s only natural that at the tip top of my travel bucket list is an edible journey through the country, exploring the regional cuisine — hopefully with a few stops for some downward dogs along the way.

To be honest, that Big India Trip was part of my pre-30 bucket list. And seeing as how The Big Day is coming up in a few weeks (eep!), I don’t think it’ll happen. Life kinda gets away from you like that. But it will this year. I’ll make it be so, gosh darn it.

Since I can’t make it to India before the ol’ three-oh, I might as well make something so that my tastebuds can take the journey. So to toast this birthday month (yes, I celebrate for a whole month, and so should you!), I’m going to be making these gorgeous Indian donuts called gulab jamun. (It’s prounounced GOO-lahb JAH-moon, for the record.) I wrote about them for LAist in honor of my friend and Food Network Star Aarti Aarti Sequeira, who also used to write for our site. The recipe comes from her new cookbook, Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen With Indian Soul.

She gives her gulab jamun– which she and Nathan Lyon made for her book party – a modern twist by drizzling them with chamomile cardamom syrup. They’re the perfect treat for any special occasion, and are often served at weddings, birthday parties, and holidays.

So rather than running from this landmark birthday that admittedly has me a bit freaked out and questioning EVERYTHING, I’m going to run towards it with these ooey gooey, delicious donuts in hand. (There’ll likely be a cocktail or two, too. Let’s be real.)

Ingredients

For donuts:

1/2 cup nonfat instant dry milk powder
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon melted ghee or unsalted butter, cooled
2 to 3 tablespoons whole milk
Sunflower oil for deep frying

For the chamomile cardamom syrup:

1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 cups water
4 chamomile tea bags
4 green cardamom pods, crushed open but left whole
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
kosher salt

To garnish:

1 teaspoon minced pistachios
grated lemon zest
vanilla ice cream

Method

For doughnuts:

In a large bowl, stir together the milk powder, flour, lemon zest, baking soda and a pinch of salt with a fork until well-combined.

Make a small well in the ingredients, and add the vinegar and ghee. Stir until the mixture takes on the texture of sand, 1 to 2 minutes.

Now add the milk in a thin, slow stream, stirring all the while with your fork. The mixture will first look like wet sand, then come together and come away from the sides of the bowl into a loose dough that somewhat resembles cottage cheese. The dough should be soft, light and pretty delicate, but not too sticky; add a few pinches of flour if it’s sticking to your fingers too much.

Don’t dilly-dally; this dough dries out quickly! Divide the dough into 8 equal portions. Roll them into small balls, about 1 inch in diameter. They’ll look a little puny to you, but don’t worry—they will swell in both the oil and the syrup. Place them on a plastic wrap-lined plate. Top with a lightly dampened paper towel, then with another piece of plastic wrap.

Pour oil into a small, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven to a depth of 2 inches. Heat the oil over low to medium-low heat until it registers 325ºF on a deep-fry or candy thermometer (if you don’t have one, then drop a small piece of dough into the oil—it should sink to the bottom, then pop to the surface in about 15 seconds).

Meanwhile, line a plate with a double layer of paper towels.

When the fat is at the right temperature, use a slotted spoon to carefully drop four of the dough balls into the pot. As soon as they pop up to the surface, use a spider or slotted spoon to keep them gently moving and rolling in the hot fat so that they brown evenly. Cook in this way for 2 to 3 minutes, until they’re a light mahogany or acorn color. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and lay them on the paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with the remaining balls of dough, making sure that the fat returns to the correct temperature before adding the dough.

For chamomile cardamom syrup:

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, tea bags and cardamom pods and bring to a boil over medium heat, uncovered. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 3 minutes. Push the tea bags to the side, and lay the fried doughnuts in the syrup. Stir to ensure the doughnuts are well doused in the syrup and simmer, partially covered, for 5 minutes, until they swell and soften. Remove from the heat, and pull out the tea bags and cardamom pods. Carefully stir in saffron (if using), crushing it lightly between your hands, then add the lemon juice and a pinch of kosher salt. Let the whole thing cool off for a couple of minutes.

Serve 2 doughnuts per person (hot or warm) with a couple of tablespoons of the syrup. Top with pistachios and lemon zest. And if you’re my mum, top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream!

Chef’s note:

Depending on the climate you’re cooking in, you may need more or less milk. Don’t add the entire 1/3 cup at once. Add a little at a time until the dough comes together. You may not need it all.

Posted on September 28, 2014 by & filed under eat, inspire.

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To mark the relaunch of their site, Eater asked food and beverage industry leaders how they want to change the world through food. As you can imagine, there were some pretty ambitious answers, including my own. 

Personally, I find it really frustrating that fresh food, like the gorgeous Cobb from Tavern pictured above, costs an arm and a leg. I really do hope that there’s a time that everyone has access to fresh, healthful food. And here’s how I think it could happen, as I put it to Eater:

I feel that the future of food is in independence, education, and equity. I would rip out all of the life-sucking lawns and golf courses, then seed bomb the heck out of them, especially the giant patches of useless grass in front of official public buildings. City hall and courthouse facades would be covered with Woolly Pockets. Sidewalks and street medians would be a place for fruit trees and vining veg. All of that food would be grown and maintained by the public – empowered by master gardeners and community educators – providing good, clean, fair produce for everyone. Then I’d covert swimming pools into fully sustainable ecosystems, complete with tilapia ponds and chicken coops. Sayonara, draught. Adios, food deserts. Say hello to the food system of the future!

Sure, some of these ideas might sound a little jovial our outlandish. But then again, if you told me 10 years ago that people would be devouring brussels sprouts with wild abandon or that we’d be growing meat in test tubes, I would have said the same thing.

I also can’t help but feel a tidbit guilty considering how much of an environmental impact all of my galavanting around the world has on the planet. I love exploring ingredients and inspiring people to travel through food, but there’s always a little voice inside of me that wants to scream every time I waslk by a hotel cart full of those baby plastic shampoo bottles, or use disposable cutlery at a street stall that doesn’t recycle. And let’s not even talk about the airplanes. Hooey!

There is, of course, the upside of cultural understanding and exchange, and the fact that tourism can be a good thing for developing countries if it’s done sustainably. But still, it’s something I wrestle with. I guess all I can do is try my best to live as consciously as I can, both when I’m at home and when I’m on the road.

So, little dreamers, how would you change the world through food?

Posted on September 19, 2014 by & filed under eat, travel.

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Photos by Danny Simmons

A big part of being a food writer in a foreign country is understanding the local culinary culture. Having a grasp on local traditions not only helps you blend in (I already stick out enough as a 6 foot tall Viking woman!), but shows your dining companions that you’ve done your homework.

I did a cool piece in collaboration with Kate Spade New York and Quest Magazine about the local culinary traditions in Shanghai for their Fall campaign.

Head on over to the KSNY blog for my tips on dining in Shanghai – and China in general — and stay tuned for more of my tips from my time abroad.

Posted on August 30, 2014 by & filed under eat, travel.

Grilled Avocado_Matteis Tavern_Gary Moss

It’s pretty much sacrilege to be a born-and-raised California girl like me and not be completely obsessed with avocados. I can’t even tell you how many after school snacks were made by spooning that creamy, buttery fruit out of it’s skin straight into my mouth. If I had a lime and some S&P, great. But even plain, a whole avocado has no chance against good ol’ Krista. They really are a wonder fruit, and are fantastic smashed on toast, frozen and tossed into smoothies instead of ice, or made into a healthy, delicious dip or hummus.

I’d been seeing some recipes for grilled avos on Pinterest, but had yet to try them. So when I went up to Santa Inez for my friend Melissa’s 30th birthday celebration and saw them on the menu at Matttei’s, I had to give it a go. (And by “give it a go” I mean politely decline the suggestion that the table share one and order my own. It’s a borderline obsession.)

The avo came with beautiful grill marks and the rich, smokey oak char of Santa Maria-style BBQ that’s so popular in the area. The center was used as a little gravy boat for the house-made ponzu sauce, whose bright citrus flavors were made even more intense by the fresh wasabi that was grated and served on the side.

Needless to say I’ve been thinking about it all week. Thankfully, the recipe has graciously been given to me by Mattei’s Tavern chef/partner Robbie Wilson. He makes his own ponzu — which is absolutely phenomenal — but if you don’t have time for fermenting it you can easily find a bottle at your local Asian market or at Whole Foods.

These grilled avos really are the ideal item for your grill this Labor Day Weekend. They’re a perfect vegetarian option instead of those ho-hum garden burgers, and taste fantastic when sliced on top of seared steaks, like the bavette I had at Mattei’s.

Here’s how it’s done:

Mattei’s Grilled Avocado With Ponzu and Wasabi 

Ponzu Sauce

Ingredients:

1 cup freshly squeezed citrus juice (mix lemon, lime, grapefruit)

1/3 cup plus 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar

1 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup sugar

2 Tbsp tamari sauce

3 Tbsp  Mirin, alcohol burned off

Small handful of dried bonito flakes

2 inch square konbu

 

Grilled Avocados

Ingredients:

1 avocado, halved

2 tbsp olive oil

salt

pepper

2 tablespoons ponzu

1 teaspoon wasabi

 

Method:

Mix ingredients, set aside, strain after at least 24 hours, then age in cool dark place for 3 months. Use within 1 year.

Preheat your grill or preferably start a charcoal/wood fire, just as you would for cooking steaks. The fire will be ready for cooking when you can only hold your hand a few inches above the fire for a couple of seconds.

Cut the avocado in half lengthwise, exposing the pit. Remove the pit and scoop out the meat with a large spoon by running the spoon under the flesh and along the skin. The back of the spoon should scrape against the skin.

Place the avocado with the crater side up. Brush with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Place the avocado face side DOWN on the grill and cook as you would your favorite steak to mark.

Serve with ponzu sauce by filling up each crater. Garnish with freshly grated Japanese wasabi on the side if you can find it, or a prepared varietal from your local market if the fresh version is not available.

Chef’s Notes: Make sure to procure avocados that are a day or two before ripeness. They should not be too hard or too soft. You are simply grilling the avocados for grill marks, as it only needs to be warmed through, not cooked. 

 

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