What's Cooking at City Hall? : For Some Members of the L.A. City Council, The Real Heat in the Kitchen

In late 1993, the City Council was hotly debating a parking meter revenue issue: What could be done with the $6 million collected by downtown parking meters that year?

As I struggled to decipher what was being mumbled and frantically scribbled notes, a figure appeared before my desk. It was Hal Bernson, for 16 years councilman of the north San Fernando Valley. Maybe he was going to give me a little insight on the issue. Perhaps share his thoughts on what to do with the 24 million quarters parking meters had gobbled up. Possibly he would let me in on some "off-the-record" tidbits.

He leaned forward and asked with the utmost gravity,"Have you been to Peppone? The food is very good and they have one of the best wine lists around."

His comments took me by surprise. While I tried to follow the council debate, my real interest was in what Bernson was talking about. I listened with one ear to the formal proceedings and with the other--much more interested--ear learned about the veal dishes and the impressive wine list at Peppone restaurant in Brentwood.

It was the first of many times that council members and their assistants updated me with their latest food and wine experiences.

HAL BERNSON

Bernson turned out to be right about Peppone's wine list. It is grand. And no council member is more interested in food and wine than Bernson.

Born in 1930, during the Depression, he grew up in Boyle Heights, then an ethnically mixed neighborhood of Mexicans, Armenians, Jews, Russians and Japanese. Bernson' father was a Romanian Jew, his mom a Polish Jew. He was raised on traditional sturdy Eastern European dishes: stuffed cabbage, borscht and mamaliga , a Romanian dish of corn meal, sour cream and feta cheese.

When his father died of a heart attack and his mother had to get a job, Bernson began to cook for himself and his younger sister, Ceci. One of the dishes he prepared was his favorite from his mother's repertoire: hamburger and potatoes, a peasant dish given a boost of flavor by the addition of what he calls "Jewish lard," chicken fat.

"I loved that dish, but we didn't get it very often back then," Bernson says. "It was still during the Depression, and even though it was ground beef, it was considered a luxury. We were lucky we even had food." Today the dish is still a luxury, but now for health reasons.

"This dish is definitely not politically correct food, especially with the chicken fat, but I still make it and like it."

After serving in the Navy and running a clothing store in Bakersfield, Bernson moved back to Los Angeles in 1956 and quickly developed his love of dining out. Some of his favorite places then were the Four Trees in Hollywood, Steer's Steak House on La Cienaga, the Marquis on Sunset Strip, the Moscow Cliff in Studio City and the Wild Goose in Studio City.

These days, Bernson's favorite restaurant in his district is Brent's Deli in Northridge, where he loves the corned beef. But Italian food is his first choice. Basides Peppone, he enjoys Vitello's in Studio City, where budding opera stars perform on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

When it comes to wine, Bernson favors big California Cabernet Sauvignons, especially Chateau Montelena and Shafer's "Hillside Select." For Chardonnay he favors Mount Eden and Talbot "Reserve."

MY MOTHER'S HAMBURGER AND POTATOES

Bernson says to serve this with a big Cabernet Sauvignon. He also claims it is impossible to add to much garlic to this--or to any other dish.

3 large boiling potatoes

Salt

1/4 cup chicken fat

2 pounds extra-lean ground round steak

1/2 large onion, minced

1 egg

2 slices challah, or egg bread, torn into small pieces

2 cloves garlic, chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

Water

Oil

Boil potatoes in salted water, drain, peel and mash. Mix chicken fat with potatoes and add salt to taste. Form into patties and set aside.

Mix ground round, onion, egg, challah, garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Form 8 to 10 patties, adding just enough water to make patties loose, almost falling apart, about 2 tablespoons.

Fry patties in oil over medium heat in skillet. Since patties are loose, some crumbs of meat should remain in pan when patties are removed.

Add potato patties to skillet and fry over medium heat until brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve with hamburger patties.

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Each of 4 servings contains about:

442 calories; 252 mg sodium; 159 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 44 grams protein; 0.50 gram fiber.

RITA WALTERS

Rita Walters's cooking career got off to a bad start. While teaching her to make biscuits, Walters' mother received a visit from a neighbor. Impatiently, 8-year-old Rita interrupted the porch conversation and asked her chatting mother if she should "put the biscuits on the top or bottom." Her mother, thinking she meant the top or bottom rack of the oven, said the bottom. Walters put them in the very bottom of the stove, the broiler. Suffice it to say nobody ate those biscuits.

The disasters didn't end there.

"Not long after that, mom set up a workshop in the kitchen with her in the middle, me on the right, my sister on the left," Walters says. "She taught--or tried to teach us--how to make bread. My sister's came out golden brown, crusty and delicious. Mine came out a hard gray mass."

Despite the black biscuits and battleship bread, Walters soon got the hang of things with the help of her mom and her aunt and uncle, who lived on a farm in the tiny town of Bogue, Kan. (population 50). The farm was in the middle of a popular hunting area, and she enjoyed more than her share of wild game. "I didn't know pheasant and quail were delicacies until I was an adult," Walters says. "I just took them for granted."

She also fondly recalls the spoon bread, pies, cakes and baked farm chicken her mom and aunt often made. Soon, Walters was mastering the recipes. Later on, her big influences came from watching televised cooking shows--Julia Child, Graham Kerr, the Great Chefs series and, most recently, the Frugal Gourmet. While her eldest son Phil was growing up, he would watch these shows with her, and he is now considered the best cook in the Walters family.

Like many of her colleagues, Walters no longer has the time to do a lot of serious cooking, so Phil (who still praises his mother's cooking, especially her prime rib roast) will often make extra portions of his recipes to take to his mom and younger brother. Sounding a bit disappointed, though, he adds, "She's on a health kick, so I have developed many recipes with low fat."

Although rich in barbecue, the Kansas City of Walters' youth was short on ethnic restaurants; there wasn't a single Mexican restaurant in town. When she moved to Los Angeles in 1955, she fell in love the food at El Cholo.

Today, Japanese food is a passion, and she raves about Matsuhisa. Her two top picks in her district are Jacob's Cafe, the soul food restaurant at 47th Street and Broadway, popular for fried chicken, short ribs and hog maws, and Cafe Pinot at the Downtown library. For very special occasions, she celebrates at Rex il Ristorante.

For her recipes, Walters went back a generation for her grandmother's sweet potato pie.

RITA WALTERS' GRANDMA'S SWEET POTATO PIE

2 pounds large sweet potatoes

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

Pinch salt

3/4 cup evaporated milk

1 egg, well beaten

1 teaspoons ground nutmeg

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Prepared 9-inch pie crust

Place sweet potatoes on baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees 45 minutes to 1 hour. When cool enough to handle, remove skins from sweet potatoes. Mash sweet potatoes in large bowl.

Add sugar, salt, evaporated milk, egg, nutmeg, vanilla extract and butter and mix until smooth.

Pour mixture into prepared pie crust. Bake at 350 degrees until knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 45 minutes.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

473 calories; 188 mg sodium; 41 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 71 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.97 gram fiber.

MIKE HERNANDEZ

Dropping a large bundle of seasoned, foil-wrapped meat into a fiery hole in his friend's back yard: That's what Mike Hernandez considers one of life's more enjoyable simple pleasures.

"They have a deep hole, half filled with wood and charcoal," he explains. "After the flames die down a bit, we toss in several different bundles of meat. The hole smolders all night and the meat slowly cooks. The next day the meat is falling off the bone."

Hernandez says this works best on such tough cuts of meat as shoulder, or cabeza , calf's head, which he gets from Beto's Butcher Block in Sunland.

As it did to many of his colleagues, adversity forced Hernandez to the kitchen at a young age. His mother worked at up to three jobs at a time, and he often cooked meals for his younger siblings. "They never complained," boasts Hernandez, who describes his cooking style as "meat and potatoes."

His cooking career shifted into high gear when his mother opened Bea's Bean Bandit, which Hernandez describes as being "perhaps the only place in the world where you could get a burrito and a bail bondsman in one stop." His ambitious mother was still working a couple of jobs.

Not only that, you could do all of this without ever getting out of your car; the place had a drive-through window. (Possible sample order: "I'll have a carnitas burrito, a carne asada taco, and here's my pink slip to get my cousin Jeff outta County Jail.") It was at Third Street and Ford Avenue, and Mike would go there after school and cook the popular burritos and tacos. Another taco stand is now on the site, and you have to make a second stop if your cousin's in trouble.

Today, Hernandez is proud of his chile verde and claims it can match up with that of any restaurant in town. He frequently checks out the competition and says that he thinks the best--after his, of course--is served at El Arco Iris on York Boulevard in Highland Park.

A true local (Hernandez lives near Cypress Park, just five houses away from the grammar school he attended), he has several favorite restaurants in his district, which includes parts of Downtown, Chinatown, Elysian Park, Highland Park and Pico-Union.

Among his top picks, he cites El Pescador for lightly fried oysters, Phillipe's for breakfast, Little Joe's for old-style Italian and Langer's for pastrami sandwiches. Hernandez also admits to occasionally patronizing the Pantry, which is owned, of course, by another City Hall employee, Mayor Richard Riordan.

Busy on the job, Hernandez doesn't cook much these days, saying, "This year I was so busy, I didn't get to make my lasagna on Valentine's Day for the ladies in my life--my mom, wife, sister and mother-in-law. But, I plan on doing it next Valentine's Day."

He says there will be no complaints.

MIKE HERNANDEZ'S CHILE VERDE

10 tomatillos, husked and chopped

10 jalapeno peppers, chopped and 1/2 of them seeded

1 small head garlic

Salt, pepper

2 pounds pork loin, cut in 1-inch chunks

Oil

2 tablespoons flour

Place tomatillos, jalapeno peppers and garlic in pot of water and boil until soft. Remove tomatillos, jalapenos and garlic. Peel garlic and puree with tomatillos and jalapenos in blender with 2 teaspoons salt.

(Or toast tomatillos, jalapeno peppers and garlic on a dry iron skillet until blistered, place in paper bag to cool, then peel blackened bits from tomatillos, jalapenos and garlic. Puree in blender as above.)

Season pork with salt and pepper to taste. Heat oil in skillet over medium heat, add pork and brown. Sprinkle flour over pork while frying.

Add tomatillo-pepper mixture to meat and cook until thick, 10 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

667 calories; 169 mg sodium; 122 mg cholesterol; 56 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; 1.15 gram fiber.

MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS

Mark Ridley-Thomas cites his grandmother as his biggest influence. She not only taught him to cook, she raised him after his mother died when he was 9.

She instilled in him a love of cooking and a deep appreciation of taste, aroma and texture. Her love of the kitchen was contagious, and Ridley-Thomas eagerly learned from her such Southern standards as corn bread and red beans and rice.

Today, unlike many other elected officials, who say they rarely have time to cook, Ridley-Thomas whips up meals for his wife and 8-year-old twin sons almost daily. He is highly improvisational. When asked for recipes, he explains:

"It is the nature of the cooking of the South not to have exact measurements. My grandmother never said use 1/2 teaspoon of this or that. Just do it till it is right. A little at a time. We would often not even know what ingredients would end up in a dish, let alone the exact measurements. Just look in the cupboard and refrigerator and see what is there."

Ridley-Thomas is quite proud of his neat cooking style, and a paramount rule in his kitchen is cleanliness. With a touch of braggadocio, he states "When I'm cooking, I clean as a I go. When I crack an egg, the shell is in the trash before the egg hits the pan."

When asked to name his favorite restaurants in his district, the councilman grows pensive. He turns to a wall in his office and stares. "Mel's Kitchen closed this year," he says, shaking his head sadly. "I am still in mourning."

That popular soul food establishment on Martin Luther King Boulevard was high on his list for its down-home cooking. Still, all is not despair, as the councilman smiles and reports, "At least Jack's is still going strong at 39th and Western. It's a classic. Right out of a scene from a movie. Customers joking with the sassy waitresses. I love to go there for breakfast. Eggs and grits."

Now he is on a roll, and for the next 10 minutes he reels off a list of restaurants ranging from Chinese (dim sum at the Empress Pavilion), to Moroccan, (Dar Maghreb), Jamaican (Janet's Jerk Chicken and Coley's), Cuban (Versailles) and Japanese (Thousand Cranes). He also concurs with the popular belief that the two best barbecues in town are Phillip's and Woody's.

And last week, in the middle of a City Council meeting, Ridley-Thomas walked over and said, "There's this Chinese-Cuban joint on Vermont. Man, they can burn." He closed his eyes, shook his head and walked away.

MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS' TWO-MEAT MEATLOAF

1 pound ground turkey

2 teaspoons Spike seasoning

1 pound extra-lean ground beef

1/2 cup Ritz crackers, crumbled

1 egg, beaten

1 green bell pepper, chopped

1 (10 3/4-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Season ground turkey with Spike. Mix together turkey, beef, crackers, egg, bell pepper, soup, onion, garlic and black pepper. Place in 9x5-inch loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees until done in center, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

321 calories; 543 mg sodium; 116 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 25 grams protein; 0.41 gram fiber.

MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS' SUCCOTASH

1 pound okra, sliced

1 pound corn

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can stewed tomatoes or 2 fresh tomatoes

1 tablespoon chopped celery

2 tablespoons chopped red bell pepper

2 tablespoons chopped onion

2 teaspoons chopped parsley

Seasoned salt, pepper and Italian seasonings

Combine okra, corn, tomatoes, frozen vegetables and seasoned salt, pepper and Italian seasonings to taste in pan and cook over medium heat until done, 15 to 20 minutes.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

94 calories; 82 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 1 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.45 gram fiber.

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