The Junk Food Alternative: Baked Kale Chips

Kale chips -- they're delicious! I swear! Lately, I've been keeping an eye out on healthy meal choices (hence my recipe for a Green Smoothie) partly because of the disapproving looks I get from my boyfriend whenever I bury my face in a bag of Tapatio-flavored Doritos ("You're not better than me!" I cry as I return to my chips, sinking into a spiral of shame), and partly because of the super-yummy but rich and fatty dishes I've been learning to make at culinary school. I had been hearing about these crispy kale chips for awhile now. Heck, just about every food blogger has a recipe. (I'm partial to the one from For The Love Of Food, mostly because of the pictures.) I was excited to try them out, but didn't have particularly high expectations because, to me, nothing can ever replace Doritos... or Flamin' Hot Fries. And wow. Wowowow. Delish. Megish. Indeed.  They're really crunchy, super light, savory, earthy, salty, nutty. These aren't lame diet bagel chips. Or bland, unsalted raw nuts. These are the real deal potato chip alternative. Without further ado, the recipe for baked kale, oven-roasted kale, crispy kale, kale chips -- whatever you want to call them:

Serves: 2 Prep time: 2-5 minutes Cook time: 10-15 minutes

Ingredients: 1 bunch kale (the curly kind, about 4-5 stalks) 1 tablespoon olive oil 1/2 teaspoon salt Cayenne pepper (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Start with dry kale. Otherwise, they'll turn out soggy. Either wash the stalks hours beforehand, or pat to dry and make sure there's no visible moisture. Rip leaves off stalks.

2. Toss in olive oil. The kale shouldn't be fully covered in olive oil, just a very light coat.

3. Place kale on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or silicon baking mat. Bake in oven until the leaves' edges brown slightly, about 10-15 minutes. My oven tends to run a bit on the hotter side, so I bake mine for 10 minutes.

4. Set aside to cool, about 1 minute. Sprinkle with salt and if desired, cayenne pepper.

My Notes: What if I overcook the kale? Hey, it happens. It'll have a bitter, burnt flavor. Be sure to check your kale at the 8-minute mark. When the curly edges look brown, they're done. They should have a light, crispy, papery texture.

Can I use cooking spray instead of olive oil? You sure can! Some might say this would be a fewer-calorie-alternative. I just tend to shy away from foods that come in spray cans. It's a personal bias. Plus, I like the vaguely fruity, clean taste of olive oil.

Can I use other seasonings? Yes! The sky's the limit. When I'm in need of a spicy snack fix, I dust on some cayenne pepper. If you're introducing this recipe to a reluctant friend, try sprinkling on some freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Hearty Little Bites at XIV

What: American; tapas/small plates Where: XIV by Michael Mina in West Hollywood

Must-Order: Steak sliders; Stuffed Avocado; XIV Grilled Cheese

The Verdict: XIV can be best described as an ideal second date place. A first date here would have your date wondering if eat exclusively at posh, trendy restaurants; but a second date here says you're a classy, fun-loving foodie. At least, that's how I'll describe myself if I ever take a date here. And sure, it'll likely end there, but, what a way to go!

A large establishment with a huge "XIV" sign that you can't miss, the Michael Mina restaurant is located on the northwest corner of Sunset Blvd. and Crescent Heights -- smack dab in the middle of West Hollywood. (So if you meet your date here, neither of you can pretend you couldn't find the place.)

The inside is exactly what you think it would be: elegant, classic, cool and cozy. The menu, a wide range of eclectic offerings, makes for fun topics for conversation. What do you like? Is there any food you dislike? What are pickled cherry peppers? How good could sliders possibly be?

And that is exactly what you need to order: The Classic Steak Burger Sliders ($12 for 3 burgers). The brioche is fluffy, the sharp cheddar cheese is melted just right, and the meat, grilled medium-rare, is thick yet delicate and incredibly juicy. A full bite is succulent, hearty and small enough to keep you wanting more.

My second favorite dish: The Stuffed Avocado ($16). The crisp freshness of the stuffed avocado will immediately transport you to a breezy summer day by the beach. It's stuffed with fresh dungeness crab, lightly marinated in a lime vinaigrette, and paired with crispy rice to give the firm yet yielding small plate added texture. It's a dish I'd order every time I dine at XIV -- and I don't even like avocado. I cringe whenever my girl friend mashes it and spreads it on toast. The only other way I can eat the fruit is when it's guacamole; this way, it's doused with lime juice and garlic, and covered with tomatoes and onions.

And don't miss The XIV Grilled Cheese ($14). Bringing the old-school homemade treat to new heights, small slices of grilled pimento cheese are served with caramelized short ribs and crispy shallots. It's salty, gooey and best of all, substantial.

A 9 Course Meal at Providence

What: Seafood, Japanese/French/American fusion Where: Providence in Los Angeles

Must-Order: Wild Striped Bass (pictured below), Santa Barbara Sea Urchin, Japanese Kanpachi, Santa Barbara Spot Prawns

The Verdict: Providence in Los Angeles, near Hollywood, doesn't just offer remarkable dishes; it presents a culinary experience unlike any other. This is one of those "package deal" type places: The dining staff is welcome and eager to impart all the knowledge they have on Chef Michael Cimarusti's food. Best of all, the servers pace each course so that you're not barraged with dish after dish; they time it well and don't rush you. The ambiance is simple and elegant; the decor evokes the sense of being underwater... if a swanky bistro existed under the sea.

But just a warning: Providence ain't cheap. Save up or come here when you get a bonus at work or when you're celebrating a special occasion. The best way to maximize your experience here is to get a tasting menu; five courses is $95 (or $140 with wine pairing) and the chef's menu goes for $175 (or $270 with wine pairing). My friends and I enjoyed the in-between option, the full tasting nine course menu for $125. We opted not to get the wine pairing, which would have been $190.

Normally, I'd pick out a few stand-out dishes to write about but every single dish from Chef Cimarusti was perfection. Flavors were balanced perfectly, portions were small enough to keep you wanting more. So below, read on and take in the food porn of the nine dishes I enjoyed, including two extra small dishes I shared with my friends.

We kicked off the meal with an amuse bouche, which, by Providence tradition, always involves spherification, the process of shaping liquid into spheres. From left to right: Mojito Gilette, Greyhound Sphere, Gruyere cheese bread, ad a shot with a savory port at the bottom. My favorite was the Greyhound Sphere; it was like eating a bubble that popped to release the refreshing flavors of vodka, grapefruit and lime.

Here, the Japanese Kanpachi brings sushi to new heights. The raw, clean, oh-so-fresh fish was paired with crispy rice crackers, Australian finger lime, and perched atop a small pool of creme fraiche.

The presentation of Santa Barbara Sea Urchin is what entranced me first: The plate or base resembled a tree trunk and the wire basket served as a nest for the brown egg that held bits of sea urchin swimming in a bath of champagne beurre blanc and herbs.

I'm a sucker for scallops and it's disappointing when they're overcooked. They become rubbery and tastless -- ick! Of course, here, Nancy's Down East Sea Scallops are cooked just right; the outside has just a little bit char and the inside is soft and yielding. These were perfect with buckwheat, dashi and napa cabbage.

If I had to choose one favorite, it would be the Wild Striped Bass. Served with a brown butter, lemon and nori sauce, it also comes with braised cannellini beans. The bass is slightly smokey and firm, and the beans are surprisingly soft without being mushy and grainy.

Here, the Tasman Sea Trout marries fish with fruit and vegetables. It's served with with cooked beets radish and orange slices. A few springs of fennel add just a hint of licorice flavor.

If you're a veal virgin (as I was, up until last night) you might be uneasy as to what it should taste like. But this is a meat that's best served medium-rare; cooked any more than that and you end up with a gamey clump. The Marcho Farms Veal Tenderloin here is slow cooked at 140 degrees with a curry-daikon sauce. Daikon radish is braised, chanterelle mushrooms are slightly crispy and pearl onions are smooth and delicate. The black truffle fondue is icing on the cake.

These Santa Barbara Spot Prawns weren't part of our nine-course meal. They were just an extra goody we ordered. Salt seasoned with sprigs of rosemary is heated at 350 degrees and the prawns are cooked in them for just a few minutes. Served with just a touch of olive oil, they're salty and simple.

Some fine restaurants boast garnishes of truffle, a type of rare and expensive mushroom, but they shave about a teaspoon atop your food. Thankfully, Providence is generous with their portion of Black Winter Truffles, that's served with risotto, pasta alla chitarra, a little bit of soft scrambled eggs and raviolo all'uovo. This dish is vaguely Italian, vaguely French, and slightly garlicy -- it features hints of layers upon layers of earthy savory flavor.

No fine dining experience is complete without an assortment of cheeses. Various types of goat, sheep and chow milk are used and served with candied walnuts, dried figs, apple and apricot jam, and a pumpernickel baguette. My favorite was the Sotto Chenerre, cow cheese with truffle rind.

To cleanse the palette after that epic meal, we had lemongrass granita with sake jelly and ginger foam. It definitely reset our appetites to prepare for a memorable dessert.

And finally, our very last course: dessert. Banana Bread Pudding served with barley ice cream and drops of orange sauce evokes flavors of autumn and winter. The ice cream is somehow savory and sweet and the whole dish tastes like a holiday on a plate.

Easy, Juicy And Cajun-y: Sauteed Shrimp

Depending on who you are, when faced with a pound of raw shrimp, you either roll up your sleeves, get peeling and whip up your favorite recipe, or you cringe and tentatively poke the cold, gray bag. If you fall in the latter category, fear no more -- though this dish has several ingredients, it's easy to make and it's foolproof. And if you already have your own go-to shrimp prep steps, give this recipe a whirl. It's savory, saucy and has hints of Cajun flavor.

Serves: About 6-8 Prep time: 25 minutes Cook time: 7 minutes

Ingredients: 1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and de-veined 1/2 stick of butter (or 4 tablespoons) 1-2 tablespoons minced or crushed garlic 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon basil 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional) salt and pepper, to taste

1. Melt the butter in a skillet on medium-low heat. Add garlic and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Increase heat to medium and add the peeled and de-veined shrimp. Stir.

2. After about 2 minutes, add the Worcestershire sauce, oregano, basil, cayenne pepper and a dash more salt and pepper. Keep stirring and turning shrimp until they curl and turn slightly pink. (Hint: Cook until you don't see any more gray).

My Notes: Changing the proportions: My favorite thing about this recipe is that while the flavors are sophisticated, cooking is a snap because you don't have to measure out each ingredient. Does the shrimp look a little dry? Add a dash more Worcestershire. Not seeing enough flecks of herbs? Toss in another pinch of oregano and basil. Not enough heat? Of course, sprinkle a bit more cayenne pepper.

How to de-vein shrimp: Some chefs would say de-veining is an absolute necessity; the cooked shrimp looks fuller, curlier and neater. And after all, it is cleaner; eating poop isn't necessarily on everyone's to-do list. Others shrug off the practice and prefer the shrimp in their natural state. In order to properly de-vein, take a small knife and cut a small slit across the back of the shrimp, inserting your blade about 1/3 of the way through. From here, wipe off the intestinal tract, or what looks like black thread.