L.A. Diet

FoodCrafters Host Aida Mollenkamp Is Obsessed with Sumac, Not a Day Drinker

Aida Mollenkamp
Aida Mollenkamp Photo: Bonnie Tsang

Native Angeleno Aida Mollenkamp lives for food: She writes, styles, shoots, cooks, and tweets about it as her bread and butter. For the past two years, The Food Network host been dedicated to busting out her first cookbook, Keys to the Kitchen, an over 400-page tome set to come out in September. Though the Cooking Channel host likes to consider herself an overall citizen of California, she’s happy to be living in Hancock Park after working in San Francisco for several years. “There are a lot of gems in the Bay Area, but the one thing I really didn’t get up there was really good Korean food or varied Mexican cuisine,” she says. “I never realized how much I missed it until I came back to L.A.” Mollenkamp took a step away from the test kitchen to tell us about her love of Middle Eastern cooking, the grills of Mercado Olympic, and Breaking Bad for this week’s L.A. Diet.

Wednesday June 20
When it came time for breakfast, I realized that my buttermilk and strawberries were on their last legs, so I whipped up a batch of my strawberry-pistachio lassi. I’m really not a liquid meal person - no cleanses or juicing for me, thanks- but lassi are an exception. They seem exotic but they’re a nice change of pace from my usual go-to breakfasts of yogurt and muesli.

After editing all morning, I got around to recipe testing. I’ve been working on some cherry recipes, so it was a cherry-on-cherry lunch with cocoa-chile grilled pork with cherry salsa and some cherry sangria. Day drinking isn’t really my thing but when it’s in the name of recipe development, I don’t hesitate.

I finished up the next round of tests around 3:30 P.M. and tasted a charred corn and roasted poblano salad concoction I’ve been working on, along with a few bites of a really simple mascarpone-cardamom puff pastry tart. Later that afternoon, a shipment of Madre Chocolate’s latest bars arrived on my doorstep and, of course, I had to taste test it to make sure they survived the trip from Hawaii. These guys are artisanal chocolate makers who are making bean-to-bar chocolate with local Hawaiian cacao. They send me their odd and ends leftover bars from their experiments.

Planning this cookbook launch is a huge undertaking and, after a hours of meetings, I got back home. With the last light of the day, I styled a shot of grilled paprika-rubbed salmon that’s served over a late-spring salad of fennel, asparagus, and peas. This time of year, I like shooting late because the last light of the day makes for some slightly moody, interesting photography.

Thursday June 21
I brewed a huge Chemex pot of Victrola coffee first thing in the morning and drank so much I got the jitters. Then I grabbed a banana for the road and jumped on my bike to head to yoga. After almost a month of recovery from a knee and back injury, I’m long overdue for a yoga session. It’s so L.A., I know, but yoga really helps work out all the kinks I get from standing in the kitchen for hours.

There always comes that day when you’re clearing out the fridge and the results become your meal– and it’s always slightly less glamorous than it looks on Iron Chef. Because I’d given the majority of my leftovers from cookbook testing to my younger brother and his friends, I scraped together a few eggs and made a classic Frenchy-style chive omelet and tossed in some about-to-kick-the-bucket fennel with lemon, olive oil, and toasted pepitas for a side salad-ish thing.

Around 5:00 P.M., my writer’s block lead me to nosh on my last batch of slow-roasted, brined walnuts. I’ve obsessed with brining nuts these days because it allows you to get the nut filled with flavor without having a greasy coating of salt and seasoning like you would with typical roasted nuts.

That night, I met friends at LACMA to check out their “Through The Mic” series. While waiting for the show to start, I had the guys at Stark Bar whip me up a rye-based cocktail and, to be honest, I lost track of what I drank. If I think really hard I recall it was something similar to a Blood and Sand cocktail, but I can’t be totally sure.

After the show I was a bit flummoxed as to where to eat in the LACMA area around 10:00 P.M. (aside from Red Medicine where I’ve spent more time than is healthy). Our crew ended up at the new-ish Faux Pas Bistro. It was classic French bistro fare –mussels, Croque Madame, and trout almondine – along with some flatbreads to share. The company was great, the wait staff awesome, but the food was just average.

Friday, June 22
I used up the last of the Victrola coffee for my morning cup and got on the computer. With a slew of phone calls, a ton of writing, and editing, I didn’t get up from my desk until well after noon. After some speedy food shopping, I threw together a shortcut chicken shawarma with a tomato, cucumber, onion, and sumac salad. I get a hang up with certain ingredients and use them nonstop - currently sumac is it.

For dinner, I did a first test for a maltagliati pasta with leeks, zuchhini, toasted corn, and ricotta salata. When I’m testing recipes, I am always listening to music. Right now I’m really in to stuff like Miike Snow, but when I’m writing it’s usually something more mellow like jazz or classical.

That night, I cut loose and headed to Venice for a party at an ad agency my designer friend works at and danced my socks off. I tried a few of the watermelon margaritas they were mixing and it reminded me about a spiked watermelon lemonade that I’ve been meaning to work on. On my way back to Hollywood, I stopped by Pour Vous to catch up with friends. I dipped into the champagne punch our friends ordered and heard the song “We Are Young” for the umpteenth time - I resigned myself to the fact it’s the unofficial anthem of 2012.

Saturday June 23
I’d have to say the most glamorous thing an independent food business owner is buying janitorial supplies. Sarcasm aside, it took all morning to restock my supplies before I got back to the kitchen for the last of the week’s recipe testing. I finished up testing around 2:00 P.M and took a break to nosh on some lamb sliders with pickled onions, feta, and arugula. I spent the rest of the afternoon conceptualizing menus for some upcoming magazine stories as well as a few charity and cooking events I’m going to be a part of this summer.

Saturday night I biked over to Hollywood Forever Cemetery to catch up with friends and watch the screening of Chinatown. It was a motley potluck, as we all just brought whatever we had on hand. There were heirloom tomato caprese skewers, pulled jerk chicken, leftover lamb sliders, pasta salad with seabean pesto, Moroccan carrot slaw, herbed wax bean and asparagus salad, and some watermelon-blackberry lemonade that I spiked with Plymouth Sloe Gin. It was a pretty awesome night until my friend’s cooler fell on me and I was soaked to the bone. No big deal except that I looked like I needed Depends for the rest of the night.

Sunday June 24
I knew I had a big day ahead, so I started off with nothing more than a few cups of Handsome Roasters coffee. That held me over until later in the morning when I headed downtown to the Warehouse District to meet up with friends and check out the Mercado Olympic.

It’s food finds like the Mercado that get me psyched on the diversity and quality of L.A.’s food scene. I had heard of the D.F.-style spiked orange juice and decided to start off with that. The vendor explained that it’s fresh-squeezed orange juice spiked with a raw quail egg and a shot of sherry and it’s pretty standard down in Mexico City. It was sweet, sour, earthy, nutty, rich, and pretty interesting, though I’m not jonesing for another.

My friend, Susan, and I began chatting up a sweet couple from Toluca who where selling fresh-made chicharrónes, salsa, and chorizo. I bought a platter-sized chicarrón, his wife’s homemade salsa de arbol, and a few pounds of the fresh chorizo. Our group reconvened after we scoured the market for some eats.

We had heard there were fried chickpeas, fermented pineapple juice, and tacos de canasta, but couldn’t find any of those vendors. Instead we ended up with a grilled spatchcock chicken, some barbecued goat tacos, a quesadilla of squash blossoms and mushrooms, some pickles, and a variety of aguas frescas. We were pretty much dying from the heat of the day and decided to seek out some shade and some shaved ice. After trying the vendor’s flavors - including coconut, tamarind, and nances we settled on mango and took shelter in the shade of a nearby toy store.

Though it seemed humanly impossible, I was hungry in the mid-afternoon and snacked on some toasted garlic and edamame hummus and the remainder of the lemonade from Saturday night’s picnic – unspiked, of course. Like I said, I’m really not a day drinker.

Though it’s been open almost a year, I had yet to try Mezze, which is surprising considering my love of Middle Eastern cuisine. I grew up near San Pedro where many of my friends were Middle Eastern, so behind Italian food, Middle Eastern is my second comfort food.

I noticed a sumac sparkling cocktail on the menu and jumped on it. Almost as soon as we ordered, our first dishes came out, including Moroccan chicken wings, house-cured smoked salmon, and a Merguez flatbread. Moments later, saffron prawns arrived followed by the heirloom bean foul, hashweh risotto, and “Syrian rebel fries.” I slipped into a food coma and headed home to catch up on Breaking Bad.

Monday June 25
I fumbled through the kitchen in an attempt to make some coffee before my 6:00 A.M. call. Thank goodness there was success.

On days where I’m not headed out and not cooking, I dip into the reserves of my pantry–it’s times like these that it pays to be a big DIYer. For lunch, I threw together a salad of homemade marinated white anchovies, preserved lemons, fennel, watercress, and a few slices of grilled bread drizzled with olive oil.

Later that day, FedEx delivered the first copy run of my cookbook straight from the printer. I wasted at least 30 minutes staring in awe - this has been over two years in the making and it was nuts to see it in real life.

FoodCrafters Host Aida Mollenkamp Is Obsessed with Sumac, Not a Day