Sunday, November 30, 2008

The little devil

I read somewhere in an interview with Jonathan Gold, L.A. Weekly's Pulitzer Prize winning food writer, that one of his favorite places to go for food in L.A. was the Alameda Swap Meet.

So with a free day on our hands, I asked [The Man I Love] if we could go explore it. He agreed with enthusiasm. He was pretty hungry.

The Swap Meet is located in a dreary warehouse district south of downtown L.A. We saw the bright yellow sign for the swap meet and pulled into the parking lot, located behind a high fence of brightly painted iron.

Right by the entrance, just before a couple of food vendor carts, was a shrine to Our Lady of Guadelupe, protected by a low iron fence and a sign admonishing visitors to respect and help maintain it. Strings of lights, artificial flowers, and a figurine of Mary supplemented the image of the Virgin behind the glass.

Although the fruit and corn vendors at the entrance looked tempting, we decided to explore before having something to eat. We went through the first building, and emerged into an open space between the two main buildings of the Swap Meet. It was bordered on one side by long low buildings that housed the meat and produce vendors.

The front of the main building was covered with an awning, and a long window for the main food vendor, El Diablo Antojitos.

They already had their decorations up for Christmas. There were families sitting at the outdoor tables, enjoying food. Kids were laughing and running around. There were at least two musicians performing live, and there were also several TVs, tuned to different stations, showing Spanish-language programs at full volume. It was a festive and cacophonous soundscape, making it a challenge to order food through the narrow windows, but still bringing a smile to our faces.

You ordered and paid for your food and your drinks, and then served yourself beverages. There were lots of choices of meat for tacos - the usual chicken, carne asada, al pastor, but also more unusual meats such as cesos, cabeza, and lengua.

We each had a carnitas taco and a chorizo taco. They came unadorned - there was a huge well-stocked salsa bar with all kinds of garnishes so you could have them your way.

The fillings on our tacos was abundant. The carnitas tasty and tender. The chorizo was not loose cooked sausage, as I've had in other taquerias, but chunks and slices of link sausage. The dark red salsa was intensely flavored, pure chile. We enjoyed being able to sample the pickled vegetables and the slaw-like curtido set out for accompanying pupusas.

We each had a agua fresca to drink. [The Man I Love] had a limeade, and I had a tamarindo. They were both refreshing and good to cool the chile heat from the dark red salsa.

Off to one side was another vendor stall selling seafood - there was a pan piled high with cockles in the shell. I'd never seen that before. Diners were enjoying oysters on the half-shell. It all looked wonderful.

There were vendors selling corn - roasted corn, steamed corn, and corn cut from the cob and served in dishes. The cut corn was served with your choice of seasoning - lime, butter, mayonnaise, cheese, chile.

We tried some with mayo and cheese, but the rich toppings were overpowering. We felt that next time we'd rather have it plain, with a little lime or chile.

This little devil looks like he enjoyed his dinner, doesn't he?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Funny little pot

Can any of you great, experienced antiquers and thrift-store shoppers help me out? What is this funny little pot I have?

I bought it years ago in a thrift store in Seattle, in a box with a bunch of other stuff. It's shaped like a pumpkin or calabash, and has a frog and a newt molded on the surface. If it's a vase, its top is odd - there is a very wide, sturdy flange, and a very narrow opening.

It's about six inches in diameter, and about three inches tall. There are no identifying markings on it. The bottom doesn't have a distinct base, just a slightly flattened place so it can stand up sturdily.

What is this funny little pot? Where is is from? How old is it? Has anyone ever seen another like it?

Pink Saturday - Geraniums

Beverly at the blog How Sweet the Sound has a great idea! It's Pink Saturday. Post about something pink, on Saturday. Here are the rules if you want to Get Pink!

In Southern California, the flowers we call geraniums - which are, botanically, really called pelargoniums - are hardy. In northern parts of the US, they are sold and cultivated as annuals, because they die in the chill of winter.

Not here. In Southern California, the temperature rarely goes low enough to kill them off. There are geranium plants in my own very neglected garden that are, literally, over 12 years old. Even in the worst year since I've lived here - 2007, when my beautiful Brugmansia was frost-blasted into oblivion - the geraniums survived.

The other day I took a lunchtime walk, and passed one of my favorite places, the little restaurant Cha Cha Chicken on Ocean Avenue at Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. The outdoor patio at Cha Cha Chicken is ringed with oil drum planters, painted in bright colors. I liked this pink painted planter, with its bright and cheerful geranium in blossom.

It'll be here all winter, I can guarantee it. Quite a survivor.

Friday, November 28, 2008

More food porn - a little tart

Well, Trannyhead has gotten us all excited about green beans, but actually, it's not just beans that does it. Almost every ingredient of my Thanksgiving dinner had the potential of hawtness.

Case in point? I made a tart for dessert. With a cornmeal-rosemary crust, it was filled with a creamy mixture of sour cream and mascarpone cheese, sweetened and flavored with lemon rind. And it was topped with slices of fresh ripe figs.

Oh, you know it was hawt. What could be hawter than ripe figs? And cream...

Thanksgiving dinner guests

We had a couple of new friends for dinner.

They didn't stay for dessert.

Hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hawt beans

What kind of green beans are on your plate for Thanksgiving? Some folks like the regular string beans. We're getting kinky. We've got fresh lima beans in the shell.

His fingers parted the opening to reveal the delicate, yet meaty nub that lay hidden within. It was toothsome, nourishing, tender and swelled with life.

He ran his finger along the tight enclosure, and teased the little fleshy jewel out. Put to the heat, steam, warmth, and a gentle excitement, it softened, swelled with its inner juices, sweetening its succulence.

Such luscious treasures. Sauteed with garlic and tomatoes, they were even more delicious.

Trannyhead has issued the Green Bean Challenge. Go on over and see what hawtness other people are posting.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Farmers' Market

There was a morning break in the rain, just at the time the Wednesday Farmers' Market opened, on Arizona Street in downtown Santa Monica, on the day before Thanksgiving.

This is a busy day for the market, as home and professional cooks alike shop for their Thanksgiving produce. The skies threatened, but people came out. Thanksgiving dinner is worth risking a little rain for.

At one stand, willow baskets held English peas and fresh lima beans in their shells, and french haricot beans. A large, curly-haired man held a lengthy conversation in French with the vendor, and as I saw the volume of items he bought, I wondered if perhaps he was a famous chef. I asked about cooking instructions for the lima beans, hoping he would chime in, but alas, he moved on to another stall. The vendor, though, gave me a pretty good recipe. I got some English peas, which I love, and also some fresh limas to try.

"And a bunch of those dark red beets," I said, pointing down the stall, as the seller weighed my purchase. "Ring them up, I'll grab a bunch when she's done," I said, watching another customer hand some to the vendor.

I stood contemplating the pretty colors of the romanesco broccoli, the yellow "cheddar" cauliflower and the red cabbage while I waited. "Can you take off the greens?" the other customer asked.

"Sure. Maybe someone else wants them?"

"I'll take them!" I said, and at exactly the same time, so did the woman next to me. We looked at each other.

"The greens are the best part," said my rival.

"I know, " I said. "They're great!"

"Oh, no problem, she's buying two bunches so you can each have one." said the vendor.

"Cool!" I said, and we both smiled at each other.

I bought a bunch of beets - deep garnet, and small as golf balls - so I had two bunches of greens.

I moved on to a stall that sold varieties of potatoes - fingerlings in yellow, red and purple. The vendor was praising one variety - German butter ball - to another customer as a good mashing potato. He said it was very sweet-tasting. "What about steaming, how is it for that?" I asked.

He recommended the Russian banana fingerling potatoes for steaming. So I got some of each, since I hadn't yet decided how I wanted to cook my Thanksgiving potatoes.

At another stall, I loved the bright orange Kabocha squash. They were small, ranging in size from baseball to softball. Perfect little individual squashes. I asked the vendor about cooking squash this size, and she suggested roasting them whole and then cutting them open to scoop out the seeds.

"How much flesh is in them?" I asked. "How much of it is seeds?"

"Hmm," she said. "Let's see. " She picked one up, brought it to a cutting-board behind the stall, and halved it with a knife. A lot of seed, not too much flesh.

"Well, you could scoop them out and make nice little bowls to serve soup," I said, and she nodded. I chose a couple the size of soft balls, and moved on.

I got a bunch of Italian parsley, and some chives from a stall that sold Persian herbs.

The Wednesday market stretches down Second Street for a half block either side of Arizona. On the north side of Second, I found a vendor who was selling fresh Brown Turkey figs. I thought about a dessert recipe I'd seen recently for figs with mascarpone cheese. I could make that. I asked him for a box.

"Hey, we must have the same taste," said a voice. It was the lady who'd vied with me for beet greens. "We're buying the same things," she said. She bought a box of figs, too.

We wished each other a happy Thanksgiving. "I bet dinner's going to be great at your house!" I said.

Sunset Park

The Santa Monica neighborhood of Sunset Park is south of Ocean Park Boulevard as it crests, rising up the hill east of Lincoln Boulevard. It's a neighborhood of modest single family homes, built in the '40s and '50s to house wartime workers at Douglas Aircraft, or, later, returning GI's and their families.

There's a Middle School, and a small stretch of commercial development. On Ocean Park at 15th, there's a small plant nursery called Merrihew's Sunset Gardens.

It's a small, family run place with a nice selection of annuals as well as trees and shrubs, and perennials. There's a small sheltered greenhouse with tropical indoor plants as well.

On a day in November, I visited and looked at the fall and winter bedding plants. There were pansies, stocks, snapdragons, and chrysanthemums. The planting of fall annuals in our outdoor beds and containers is just as much a fall ritual for Californians as raking leaves is for folks in cooler climates.

Even though it's warm enough here in California in November, the light has turned and the evenings are cool. Rain is predicted for the Thanksgiving weekend. This year, [The Man I Love] and I are spending the holiday with just the two of us - no dogs, and our son is staying in New York. I thought about getting something cheerful to chase away the gloom.

How about this magnificent bi-color giant chrysanthemum as a centerpiece for a Thanksgiving table?

Wouldn't that look great in one of these talavera ceramic planters? I like the russet and gold one that matches the blossoms, don't you?

What are you planning to do to dress up your Thanksgiving table?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Southern California Storm Watch

If those of you who live in the rest of the country could just spend an evening watching Los Angeles weather reports when rain is predicted, you'd find a deep, rich vein of amusement.

Because the biggest media story of the day is - "TOP STORY - It's RAINING!"

In Los Angeles, when rain is in the forecast, it's a big deal. Reporters in rain slickers stand on PCH, to alert us if some of the southbound vehicles have their windshield wipers going.

[The Man I Love] is thrilled when stormy weather threatens, because he has what I consider an irrational attachment to the KCAL 9 weatherlady, Jackie, who stands in front of the swirling graphics on the map in her tight sweater, telling us about her "Very active dopplers."

Forecasts of storms inspire in Los Angeles residents a heightened fear of the unknown. We are not used to water that falls from the sky. When the forecast is wet, we stock up on batteries, candles, firewood, canned goods, and bottled water. It's not all silly. Residents of fire-affected areas have reason to worry about mudslides. Tonight some residents of Orange County near last month's fires have actually been evacuated for safety.

The local news stations always hype the coming of a storm, and - being lovers of excitement and drama, my family and I look forward to it. When I came home tonight the wind had whipped up, tossing the tree branches and sending acorns pelting down on my car roof and the driveway.

I thought, Oooh, the rains are coming! Get inside to safety and warmth.

But we've learned that, if it's anything like most storms, it will be a big dud. Some sprinkles and nothing more. We batten down the hatches for the night and then awake, disappointed that the road hasn't washed out spectacularly, preventing us from going to work in the morning.

Sometimes we get lucky. There was the year that the Big Rock came down..... now THAT was a good storm.


Today's PROMPTuesday is up at Sandiegomomma's. First, a refresher of the rules:
  • Try to write your entry in 10 minutes. This encourages top-of-mind, primal thinking before the ego and judgmental brain kick in. Just set a timer, make your kid count to 600 slowly, whatever. It’s an honor system. And I trust you.
  • Aim for 250 words or less.
  • Please have fun. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Together, let’s rediscover the simple joy in the writing process.
This week, write on this:

Just look at the word. And write.

"How long will I be held here?" she asked. The uniformed officer didn't answer. He didn't meet her gaze, but stared somewhere over her head.

Sandra shifted uneasily in the hard wooden chair. She had been on the plane 15 hours and her hair felt greasy and limp. Her handbag, without her wallet, lay open on the table. She reached for it to get a comb, and the officer took a step to block her hand.

"Have you called my husband?" she asked, for the hundredth time. "Please, does he know I'm here?" David had planned to meet her after she'd cleared customs, but she'd been taken from the line at the counter and escorted into the back office. Something was wrong with her visa.

But how could that be? She and David had been traveling back to England since he'd taken the university appointment, every holiday until now.

They had questioned her for what seemed an hour, and then placed her here, in this room. They'd kept her wallet, her California drivers' license, her British passport, her cash and credit cards.

The door opened, and a woman came in. "There are no other flights to London tonight, so we can't send you back until tomorrow. You'll be held overnight while we process your case. You'll be transferring downtown to the Women's Detention Unit. You'll get a claim slip for your belongings." The woman took Sandra's purse and walked out.

"But - "

The officer's eyes were fixed on the wall. He didn't move a muscle. Sandra's vision blurred with tears, and a sob burst from her throat as she let go of hope.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The wind is changing

The weather report predicts rain is coming. That's when you know the seasons are turning in southern California.


We went out on the deck to enjoy a weekend evening, and [The Man I Love] said - "Wait a minute. Before you sit down, let me sweep away the spider over your chair."

A large spiderweb had been built from the eaves overhanging my wicker deck chair, and at its center was its builder.

"No, wait," I said, "let me take a picture first."

It took some gymnastics, me standing on the chair but NOT putting my head into the web; him shining a flashlight on the spider while I wobbled and snapped away, but I got a couple of good pictures.

After looking up spiders, I think this one is Araneus cavaticus, also called a barn spider. They are among the group of spiders known as Orbweavers, due to their large, impressive circular webs that are anchored to trees and buildings.

They range throughout the US. They hide during the day and come out at night - hence our spidey's activity as dusk fell. They are not known to bite people.

They're hairy and brown, with striped legs, and on the underside of the abdomen is a square-ish black patch with two white marks on either side.They catch moths and other flying insects. Although they have eight eyes, they have poor vision, and sense their prey by feeling the vibrations of the web.

Most orbweavers you see on webs are female. Charlotte, the spider in E.B. White's classic children's book "Charlotte's Web" was an Araneus cavaticus - in the book she even introduces herself as Charlotte A. Cavaticus.

After I took a few photos, we got a broom and gently scooped up the spider web so it clung to the bristles. Then we lowered it down over the deck railing, and released the spider onto the umbrella on the lower deck's picnic table. The spider quickly crawled away from us, ready to find another place to anchor her web.

Some spider!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Swedish rescue

When we moved Mom into her new place, the management allowed me to spend the first two nights with her, making sure she was settled and didn't have trouble finding her way around the place. But no matter how much you love someone, spending a lot of time together in a small space can be exhausting.

On the second day, my brother came to the rescue. He suggested we let Mom go to the dining room herself and get acquainted with her new neighbors, while we went out to lunch. He brought me to Stockholm's, a little brew pub on State Street in downtown Geneva, Illinois.

The place was dark, old-fashioned, with a great old 1930's style back bar. Swedish and Danish flags were proudly displayed - reminding me of Geneva's Scandinavian heritage. Each summer, Geneva has a big street festival called Swedish Days. When we lived in this area, back when I was in grade school, Geneva was the town we'd come to on Saturdays, to see matinee movies at the small cinema, and where Mom would take me shopping for school clothes, at the Merra-Lee Shop. The cinema is now a restaurant, but Merra-Lee is still there.

Geneva is the county seat of Kane County, and Stockholm's is only a couple blocks from the courthouse. The lunch crowd looked like lawyers and local business people. The TV was on low, and the atmosphere was quiet, dark and restful.

They brew their own beer and ale at Stockholm's. We ordered a couple of pints of light golden ale called Aegir's ale, and some sandwiches.

I looked around. It seemed timeless. At the bar, the stools each had little brass nameplates on the back, for the "regulars."

Local barrooms aren't generally featured in the memories of schoolchildren, so I don't know whether Stockholm's was there when I was little, or if it was a new place crafted to look old. The wall painting of a Viking ship under full sail tugged a little at my memory banks - was it familiar? Had I seen it as a child, perhaps, from the sidewalk, or from a passing car?

No matter. We sipped our pints, and shared my french fries. Stockholm's was a fine place to spend a cold November afternoon, and catch up with one of the nicest people I know - my brother.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pink Saturday - Love note

It's Pink Saturday. Visit Beverly at How Sweet the Sound, and see posts from other bloggers inspired by the color pink!

We were cleaning out the drawers of the two bedside tables in Mom's bedroom. My nephew will be driving a van full of some of her stuff up to Chicago later this month, so my brother and I were preparing things for him.

One of the things about my parents is that they never threw anything away. We moved seven times between my birth and graduation. Yet even now, Mom's house has things I remember from childhood. And I'm not talking just about china, furniture and keepsakes - I'm talking about the same bathroom wastebasket, the same saucepans, the same cheese grater with the broken handle ("It still works.")

I found this pink florist's note in the table on Dad's side. It had a pressed, crumpled pink grosgrain ribbon attached. This note would have been written in September, 1945.

Dad and Mom met at the University of Texas, when, struggling in Chemistry Lab, he asked the best student in class to help him study. They had a whirlwind romance, and were married in April of 1945. They were together until Dad passed away in early 2002.

When I showed it to Mom, she smiled. He was always buying her flowers back then, she said, even when he couldn't afford them.