On a Friday during brunch – if you can identify the time straddling breakfast and lunch by that descriptor on a weekday – Terri Wahl takes a break to refuel on a savory and sweet spread of the hearty, seasonal comfort foods for which her-super casual Eagle Rock restaurant is known. Most of the tables are still occupied, despite it not being a conventional peak mealtime.
After being around for more than 11 years on Eagle Rock Boulevard near Colorado, Auntie Em's Kitchen has become a local fixture, where many, if not most, customers' faces are familiar to Wahl, and to each other.
Wahl, a former punk rock musician-cum-chef, has merged her professional paths in a book, which hits shelves on June 14. The Auntie Em's Cookbook: A Musician's Guide to Breakfast & Brunch (Prospect Park Books) shares how she likes to cook and enjoy the first meal of the day. Some might call it breakfast, although as Wahl and musicians the world over can attest, strong coffee, eggs and pancakes need not be enjoyed exclusively in the morning. ]
Instead of wine pairings, Wahl recommends a song to go with each dish, with compiled playlists included at the end of the book. So think of the 80-plus seasonally organized, accessible recipes in The Auntie Em's Cookbook as a way to keep your farmers market shopping lists and kitchen pantry items busy, along with your iTunes and Spotify accounts. Or, if you really want to honor Auntie Em's analog postpunk retro roots, it's a great opportunity to add to your vinyl collection.
The cookbook represents many years of work behind the stoves in various kitchens and settings. Busy neighborhood hubs don't usually get that way overnight, however, and Auntie Em's is no exception. “I remembered when we first opened up, sitting in that window, [thinking], how do I get people to come here?” Wahl says. “There were like, tumbleweeds blowing down the street.” Wahl shakes her head and rolls her eyes at the memory. “I went over to the college to hand out fliers to the kids there, and knew if they just tried it, they'd like it.”
Even if crowds didn't pour in on opening day and it took a few more years to add the marketplace component, Wahl knew the area could use its own DIY version of Clementine or Joan's on Third, where she could be the ever-welcoming hostess and also make use of the local produce she loved using in her catering work, as well as goods from her own homestead. (She sells eggs collected from her backyard hens, for example.)
This determination wasn't misguided. Given the changes that have gone down in Eagle Rock – just talk to anyone who went to Occidental College as recently as the 1990s or the early aughts about what nearby off-campus options were available then – as well as in other pockets of Northeast L.A., Auntie Em's has practically become the old-timer among neighborhood food businesses.
But Wahl's instincts as a restaurant owner and chef are tied to her other, radically different past profession. For seven years, she was the guitarist and vocalist for all-female L.A. punk band The Red Aunts. “At a certain point, I want to be home with my dog, my boyfriend, and I want to cook in my own kitchen,” Wahl explains. So in 1997 she quit the band and shifted her career by catering all types of events, from video shoots to weddings (she still does). In this sense, Wahl harnessed another anomalous characteristic of The Red Aunts: their intense passion for food.
“We would cook for bands all the time when we were on tour. Because that was the other thing we had in common. We all loved to cook and loved food, so in our van we're reading Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart,” Wahl recalls. The foursome would seek out restaurants with local character and crowd-drawing dishes along the road.
She eventually moved her operation out of her home kitchen to an affordable storefront on Eagle Rock Boulevard, just slightly off the main drag that would be the subject of newspaper and magazine articles touting Eagle Rock as the next hot place. In all sincerity, however, Wahl points to being tied to the community's evolution and customers' routines as one of the most satisfying parts of being a business owner. “There are so many customers who come in here who came in pregnant,” so getting to see these families grow over time “really touches me.”
In the Red Records is releasing The Red Aunts' greatest-hits compilation on vinyl this month, too, and Wahl is gearing up to bring back family-style dinners at Auntie Em's in July and August, with the next round of evening meals inspired by Italy and France, where she's been traveling for most of the last month.
Wahl will be at Skylight Books on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz on June 12 at 7:30 p.m., but in advance of this appearance and the book's publication date, here's her recipe for an heirloom bean and tomato salad, perfect for the season we're about to dive into. As per Wahl's recommendation, crank up “Here Comes the Summer” by The Undertones to complement the sun-blasted heat and this refreshing side. A bottle of Provencal-style rosé can't hurt, either.
Heirloom Bean & Tomato Salad
From: Terri Wahl
Serves: 6 as a side salad
1 cup dried heirloom beans, such as cannellini, flageolet, or cranberry, soaked in water for at least 4 hours and drained (ideally dried heirloom beans, such as from Rancho Gordo)*
4 sprigs of thyme
4 small sprigs of rosemary
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 small yellow onion, quartered
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt, plus more to taste
1 large shallot, finely chopped
3 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained and finely chopped
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste
1 pound multicolored heirloom cherry tomatoes, cut in half, or large heirloom tomatoes
2 sprigs oregano, leaves only, roughly chopped
1. Place beans in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot and cover with 6 to 8 cups cold water, enough to cover the beans by 2 inches.
2. Add thyme, rosemary, garlic, onion, celery and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer.
3. Cover and cook until beans are tender, about 1 hour, occasionally skimming any foam that rises to the surface. Cooking time varies depending on the freshness of your beans. Remove from heat and allow beans to cool completely in broth.
4. In a large bowl, combine shallots, anchovies, vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, and pepper. Slowly whisk in olive oil until vinaigrette is emulsified. Drain cooled beans and add them to the bowl. Add tomatoes and lightly toss vegetables with the dressing. Let stand at room temperature for 2 hours.
5. Fold in basil and oregano and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.
*Tips for cooking beans?
Pre-soak beans for at least four hours.
Add such aromatics as garlic, onions or bay leaves to the water while cooking.
Let beans cool in the cooking water with the aromatics so they soak up the flavorful liquid.