Contrary to popular belief, we have plenty of sunshine here in Portland. But after a recent visit to Los Angeles, I must admit they do sunshine a whole lot better down south.
It’s just a California thing. Or, more specifically, a Coastal California thing, because the sunshine in the Bay Area is similarly spectacular. I’m talking about skies that are deep, royal blue, lit by a quality of sunlight that feels golden rather than stark, with cooling breezes scented by the sea. A sunny day near the coast of California is simply exquisite, and I got six full days of it.
I was in L.A. for a food conference. In most industries, conferences are something to endure. The goal is to get in, get out and get home as soon as possible. But things are different at food conferences, at least at the International Association of Food Professionals. This is a conference of people who quite literally eat for a living: cookbook authors, food editors, bloggers, photographers and stylists, test kitchen professionals, culinary PR reps. If your job pertains to creating content about food, you’re there (or should be).
And that means eating great food is a top priority for everyone there. When we’re not attending a session on, say, how to write a cookbook proposal, we’re trading notes on menus, sharing cabs to restaurants, and Instagramming our latest meals. As we network between sessions, we trade dining tips like stock-brokers trade investment advice. The most commonly asked question is not “Where are you from?” but “Where are you going for dinner?”
There’s an insane amount of amazing food in L.A., and I’m happy to report I ate a lot of it. The city is filled with a wide range of thriving ethnic communities, and each has made an impact on the food scene. This is a place where you can take a deep dive into authentic Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Mexican food, and then head to a hot new restaurant where the flavors from each of these cultures is pulled together into a single dish — and it works. A microcosm of L.A. on a plate.
But one of my favorite excursions was the Hollywood Farmers Market, thankfully just a few blocks from the conference hotel. Visiting it was like putting a face to a name, like finally meeting someone in person whom you follow online. That’s because there’s a Hollywood Farmers Market here in Portland, too, and whenever I’d Google my neighborhood market to get the hours or vendor list, the L.A. version would always come up first (and, usually, confuse the heck out of me).
I never thought I’d ever have a reason to go to the other Hollywood Farmers Market, and yet there I was, oogling piles of bright citrus and green avocados we never get at farmers markets in the Northwest. The selection was stunning, with varieties I had never heard of before. I fell in love with Ellendale tangerines, which had a wonderful floral note, and the Zutano avocados, which have a lighter, cleaner flavor and texture than the Hass we get at the store.
Of course, L.A. is ground zero for avocado toast, that perennial Instagram darling. So of course we had to go to Sqirl, one of the best places to get it. There, the rustic bread was slathered in fresh ricotta, then topped with avocado, sesame seeds and pickled carrot ribbons to cut the richness.
Now that I’m back home, and I’ve unpacked the Zutano avocados and Meyer lemons from my suitcase (the tangerines were too irresistible to make it out of the hotel uneaten), I find myself craving that same combination of richness and piquancy, and craving another sun-soaked day when the only thing on my agenda is to eat my way through L.A. For now, though, this SoCal-inspired lunch will have to do.
Avocado Toast with Raw Asparagus and Meyer Lemon Salsa
Makes 1 to 2 servings
This is a simple yet highly flavorful breakfast, lunch or snack. Meyer lemons are much sweeter and milder than regular lemons, which is why they work so well here to cut the richness of the avocado without being overpoweringly tart. If you’ve never had raw asparagus before, you’re in for a treat. It’s crispy, juicy and more mild in flavor than cooked asparagus. It adds a wonderful crunch, but if you don’t have any on hand you can certainly leave it out, or substitute thinly sliced radishes or carrots.
1 Meyer lemon
1 tablespoon chopped red onion
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 fat asparagus spears, peeled, woody end trimmed, sliced on the bias
2 slices rustic bread, toasted
1 avocado, sliced
With a microplane, remove the zest from the lemon and set aside. With a sharp knife, cut off the ends of the lemon until you expose the flesh. Set one end on a cutting board and use the knife to cut away the peel and pith, exposing the flesh. Cut between the membranes of the lemon to remove the segments and roughly chop. Add chopped lemon to a small bowl along with the red onion, cilantro and about half the zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the sliced asparagus.
Top each each piece of toasted bread with sliced avocado. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon lemon-asparagus salsa on top and garnish with more cilantro and lemon zest.