Saturday, October 31, 2009

This year's pan de muerto

Here's this year's pan de muerto - I ordered it earlier this week from Panaderia Antequeria, and we picked it up fresh this morning.

The bakery was quite busy this morning, and we waited a while to get to the front of the line. While we waited, a young boy from the family that ran the bakery circulated among the patrons, offering trick-or-treat candy from a plastic pumpkin bucket.

When we got our loaf, the icing was still fresh and gooey, and came off on my fingers all the way home.

We cut a couple slices and ate it fresh with our coffee.

Delicious. A sweet yeast-raised egg bread - like brioche - flavored with anise, cinnamon, and orange rind. Tomorrow's breakfast.

Pink Saturday - Pink for Dias de Los Muertos

Pink Saturday - Beverly, at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you!

This weekend is the Mexican and Latino holiday Dias de Los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead.

It is celebrated on November 1, which is the Catholic holiday All Saints' Day, and on November 2, which is All Souls' Day. Family and friends gather and remember friends and relatives who've passed away. People build altars in their homes and businesses, decorating them with traditional symbols, food and flowers, and with personal items that help remember their departed loved ones.

People go to the cemetery to clean gravesites and leave offerings on their loved-ones' graves. These offerings might be favorite foods and beverages; treats the lost one enjoyed, or photos and tokens. You might bring a toy to the grave of a child, or a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of tequila to the grave of someone who enjoyed those pleasures.

Floral decorations always include bright orange marigolds, called "cempasĂșchitl" originally named cempoalxochitl, Nahuatl for "twenty (i.e., many) flowers," and bright magenta Celosia cristata, or cockscombs.

I was driving through Koreatown today, on Olympic Boulevard near Vermont, and a whole lot of fire engines raced up behind me, lights flashing and sirens blaring. There happened to be an empty parking space, so I pulled in and let them pass. A few blocks beyond, down the hill, they all converged and traffic was choked.

So I put some quarters in the meter and got out to walk around. Like much of L.A., this neighborhood is multicultural. One ethnic group may dominate, but not monolithically. The strip mall tenants are Thai, Chinese, Salvadoran, Mexican, Oaxacan, Korean and corporate American.

This leads to some interesting juxtapositions, like this one above. Where would you rather get a taco - Taco Bell, or La Adelita taco truck with the beautifully painted landscape on the side?

After I had my taco al pastor, I noticed the traffic was moving again, so I walked back toward my car. And I walked right past a van parked along the sidewalk, with flowers displayed in buckets.

They were bouquets of the traditional Dias de Los Muertos flowers, marigolds and cockscombs. How much? I asked the seller. Four dollars for a bunch of marigolds, five dollars for the celosia.

How can you beat that? So I brought them home, and this afternoon I set up our Dias de Los Muertos altar on my kitchen counter. It was good to bring the little figures out of the cupboard where they'd been since last year.

Here's my altar. Look at those gorgeous flowers!

One of the most popular symbols of the holiday is the skull, or skeleton. These images are not intended to be gruesome or scarey, but rather to remind us that death comes to all of us someday. There are figures and cartoons of elegant ladies and gentlemen, or people in the occupations they held in life - but as skeletons, to underscore the fate that awaits us. Skulls are molded from sugar, ceramic, or chocolate, and emblazoned with the names of the dead we hope to remember.

There is a special bread, sweetened and flavored with orange peel and anise, and enriched with eggs, that people eat with hot chocolate or champurrado, a warm drink made with masa flour and flavored with cinnamon. This bread is called pan de muerto - bread of the dead - and it's decorated with bits of shaped dough or icing to look like bones, another reminder of the circle of life and death.

I get my pan de muerto at a little Oaxacan bakery on Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica - I'll be picking mine up on Saturday morning. Here's a picture of the loaf I got last year:

This one is made in the Oaxacan style; with piped icing in intricate designs, sprinkled with nonpareils. There's a tiny halo'ed saint doll baked inside.

Enjoy your holiday this weekend, whether you celebrate Halloween or Dias de Los Muertos! If you'd like to see the celebration we enjoyed last year, click here.

Seriously - how could anyone go to Taco Bell?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Walking the dog

Now that Jack has been here for three weeks, we're getting into some good routines. I walk him every day. First thing in the morning, I take him out for a quick pee. We go up to the street and he finds a few things to mark. Then we go back in the house and he and I have our breakfast.

After breakfast, it's time for a good long walk.

Our rural street is almost exactly one mile long. It twists and turns and doubles back on itself as it loops up the riparian terrain on our side of the canyon. I once drove its length in a car with an altimeter device - the change of altitude from its low point to its high point was about 300 feet. So for an everyday walk, it's a pretty good workout.

It's usually dark - especially now, right before we turn our clock back for Standard Time. I usually throw on something warm, and slip my feet into comfy shoes, and head out. This can lead to some interesting fashion statements.

The other morning I wore a long wooly cardigan, van sneakers with pink hearts and skulls on my feet, and a pair of flannel pajama pants printed with pictures of dogs.

I have absolutely no shame.

Typically what I do is walk from our house to the lower end of the street, then turn around and walk back. At about 2/3s of the way, there's a long hill down, then the street sort of roller coasts to the end. On the way back, we always stop at an overlook point and gaze out at the canyon.

Topanga is a community of artists, gardeners, and eccentrics. So the streetscape is always interesting, with flowers, native plants, and interesting outdoor artwork, like this incredible wrought iron handrailing at one home's entryway.

Along the way, we get to see our neighbors and their dogs. Jack gets to leave his scent mark on trees and rocks. And I get some well-needed aerobic exercise that I've been missing out on for a couple of years. I always arrive back home feeling great, and ready to start the day.

Thank you, Jack - for bringing this into my life. Next week, we'll try going through the park.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Today my supervisor forwarded me an email someone had sent her, with the message, "Can you reply and let them know if we can accommodate them?"

It was at the head of string of correspondence between our Corporate Parent and a nearby institution, who were collaborating on an initiative. A press conference was being held to announce some new development. A senior administrative person connected to the head of our Corporation asked - could my department parking lot accommodate the press vehicles?

To get the gist of this question, I had to scroll down through several messages. It took me a while, as there was a lot of discussion. After weeding out the information I didn't need, like how many microphones they needed at the press conference site, and the names of the VIPS, and the talking points for the conference, I discovered the name of the institution, the location of the press conference, and that the press conference was scheduled for 11:00 a.m.

I kept scrolling. There were driving directions. There was a discussion about the actual site of the conference. There was a debate over the starting time. There were discussions about name tags - whether to print them or not.

What was missing was what DATE the thing was scheduled for.

I love email as a medium of communication. When I first started working in offices where email became an important tool, I worked for a boss who was a stickler for....erm...important details. She trained us to be sure that we wrote our messages so that the recipient understood what we were talking about. She drilled it into us, in fact. We learned it was important to explain the context of our message.

Like - "On Monday, October XX, Institution Name is holding a press conference at Site Name. Will your department be able to accommodate their 4 press vehicles in your parking lot?"

See how simple and easy that is? Why can't the senior administrative assistant to the Big Guy figure that out?

Why do I have to spend 10 minutes scrolling through a string of 20 messages to decipher exactly what favor someone wants me to grace them with? And then come up blank, because no one has bothered to include the most critical detail?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thematic Photographic - Junk

Each week Carmi at Written, Inc. has challenged readers with a theme for photographic inspiration. This week the photographic challenge continues with the theme JUNK.

An overgrown meadow. Dried grass under eucalyptus trees. A rusty old toy truck, abandoned. Just another piece of junk.


Perhaps this is special junk, though. It's junk that was once a well-loved toy. Did the child tire of it, abandon it? Or did the child grow up, and forget it was there? Did someone leave it there, in the meadow, under the eucalyptus trees, so the sight of it could help us remember childhood, and playing with toy trucks in the grass?

This is a toy truck in the grassy meadow of the Eames House, the house built by Charles and Ray Eames. They designed furniture, fabric and toys, made movies, collected crafts from all over the world, and took photographs of things that delighted them. A large part of their work was Play.

"Take your pleasures seriously." - Charles Eames.

Junk? Not at all. It's there for a reason.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Angel's Trumpet

"Hey," said [The Man I Love] this weekend from the windows at the back of the house. "Have you seen your garden outside? Something out there is going crazy!"

Truth be told, it's been a busy week, what with work and dog-walking and veterinary visits. I haven't been in my garden all week, nor have I even looked outside. I went to the bedroom window.

Wow. Look at that!

Years ago, I transplanted a small plant of Brugmansia suaveolens, the Angel's Trumpet, from a clay pot on my deck directly into my garden. There are large, magnificent specimens all over Los Angeles, with their huge bright green leaves and cascades of drooping trumpet-shaped flowers.

The flowers are huge, some six to eight inches long and maybe four inches across at the open throat. They are usually cream-colored, pale banana-yellow, creamsicle-orange, or warm pink. They are related to the Datura family, and like them, can be poisonous if ingested. They are wonderfully scented, and the scent is stronger in the evening.

My plant was small, but when we transplanted it directly into the garden, it began to grow and burgeon, and after two years it was approaching the size of some of those I'd seen.

And then we had a bad winter. It was rainy, and then in January it actually froze - a rare thing in Los Angeles. To make things worse, [The Man I Love] and I were traveling during the Great Freeze. If I'd been here, I might have thought to throw an overnight cover on my tenderest plants. But no. We returned to L.A. to find a devastated garden. The brugmansia, for one, was blackened and limp, even its stem was pulpy and soft and dead.

I think it was sloth more than anything that prevented me from digging up the roots and replacing them with another plant. But in this case, it paid off. Last summer, suddenly green shoots and leaves appeared from the base. It was back.

And this October morning, there it was - tall but spindly, branching out nicely from its crown. Five dangling blooms, in the first vigorous flush of bloom before fading. My brugmansia's flowers are the delicate color of peach ice cream.

These flowers are short-lived. That evening, we sat on the deck and breathed the heady, almost narcotic scent. It was like a last breath of summer.

They won't last long. The cold autumn wind is blowing up later this week.

I would have missed them if [The Man I Love] hadn't brought them to my attention. And he hardly ever thinks about flowers - he just knew I liked them. Isn't he great?

Monday, October 26, 2009


Over at The Women's Colony, Jodi challenges us to present photos that showcase the color BLUE.

This photo is the side of one of my favorite taco trucks, La Isla Bonita. The truck is painted like an ocean current, teeming with little fish.

And here's another taco truck - carrying on the theme.

A blue glass bottle tree in North Carolina

Or the exquisite skies in the murals of Le Train Bleu restaurant in Paris' Gare de Lyon.

L.A.'s Pacific Design Center, lit up at night.

The true-blue flowers of Clerodendrum ugandense.

And an extra special touch in a hotel ladies' room. BLUE!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thematic Photographic - Junk

Each week Carmi at Written, Inc. has challenged readers with a theme for photographic inspiration. This week the photographic challenge continues with the theme JUNK.

For this take on the theme, I'd like to present Architectural Junk.

West Los Angeles is an expensive part of town. Even middle-class neighborhoods have become inflated in value, and people with money have remodeled modest cottages into grandiose palaces.

This example shows the trend. Small bungalows and plain '40s cape-cods have swelled their tiny lots. They've grown upper stories or frenchified grille-work, fake stone quoins, oversized windows and pointless, ill-proportioned porticos. It's hideous.

But the house next door is even worse:

Click to embiggen - you really must, to get the full effect!

What designer conceived this outrage? The horrendous mottled paint treatment. The graceless distorted curves. The undersized windows, so awkwardly distributed in the field of the wall. The single garage door, marring the attempted symmetry of the design. The meager cornice, the pointless columns. Unmatching light fixtures, imbalanced in scale - with the chintziest ones chosen to welcome guests' entry to the home. The peculiar placement of the fixture above the garage door. The cluttered stairstep texture of the front wall. And is that a bronze cupid statue, poised beside the trash bins?

Not to mention those.....BOOBS.

It looks like some kind of outsized stucco brassiere.

Pink Saturday - Mee Krob

Pink Saturday - Beverly, at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you!

In my personal opinion, one of the most highly addictive substances known to mankind is the Thai noodle appetizer called Mee Krob.

Rice noodles are plunged into hot oil so they flash-fry, puff slightly and get crispy, and then are dressed in a sweet-salty dressing, tossed with bean sprouts, chopped cabbage, chunks of chicken or shrimp, and cilantro.

When you pick it up with your fork or chopsticks, it's a tangle of stiffly curled noodles, clinging together, and crunching between your teeth with a sweetness and a salty tang. It's like Thai Kettle Corn. It's that addictive.

The place I like to get Thai food is Cholada Beach, right on Pacific Coast Highway across from Topanga Beach. It's a little seaside shack, with seating in a screened-in porch and more seating outside in the back. When you come inside, there's usually a couple of kitchen helpers sitting at a table near the counter, pulling leaves off stems of fresh herbs from the market.

The way they make Mee Krob, it's a dusky temping pink, with big chunks of cooked chicken, and a couple of big succulent shrimp. The dressing is traditionally made with a mixture of something sweet - palm sugar - something salty - Thai fish sauce - and something sour. In some recipes it's vinegar and lime juice. In other recipes, they call for lime juice and tamarind juice. I think Cholada uses tamarind juice. It must be the reason the meat and shrimp are suffused with a deep pink stain from the dressing.

The combination of sweet and salty, and the wonderfully puffy crunch makes you want to keep on shoveling it into your mouth. This is the kind of dish compulsive eaters go for to soothe their wounded souls - after all, wasn't this a favorite dish of Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional heroine of "Sex in the City"?

After all that pink sweetness you need to refresh the palate with something else. I've just discovered a salad dish called Nam Sod Kao Tod.

This is made with with cooked rice, mixed with spices and egg and formed into patties, then fried until it's crispy. You can tell this is one of the great universal recipes for using leftovers.

After the rices is fried crispy and let to drain, ground meat, seasoned with garlic and mashed together with rice is steamed until just cooked. Traditionally, pork is used but here at Cholada Beach they use ground chicken breast.

The crumbly ground meat is tossed with red onions, bean sprouts, cabbage and slivers of ginger or galangal. Then the cakes of crispy fried rice are broken up and tossed with the meat and vegetables. It's all dressed with lime juice and fish sauce, and garnished with flaked red chile and roasted peanuts.

After the Mee Krob, it puckers your mouth refreshingly, and gives a nice chile bite.

Thai food is known for balancing the combination of sweet, sour, hot and salty all in the same dish. It's also known for it's visual appeal - a pretty presentation on the plate.

If you haven't tried Mee Krob, think about it for this Pink Saturday's dinner.

Friday, October 23, 2009

More shrimp, please

Camarones cucarachas

I've made it a mission in my life to sample the entire menu at Mariscos Chente. This modest little mom-and-pop restaurant in Mar Vista, on the west side of Los Angeles, specializes in the seafood dishes of the states of Sinaloa and Nayarit, on the west coast of Mexico.

They are known for the freshness of their seafood, which is brought in from the ports of Mazatlan. We went for the first time last month, and had two wonderful dishes. Since then, we've come back twice, and have decided to work our way through the menu.

Last week we stopped in for lunch, and as soon as we sat down, we were brought a basket of fried tortilla chips and a bowl of fresh green salsa. This salsa is fresh-tasting and bright, mouth tingling and delicious.

We ordered a couple of beers and split a shrimp and octopus cocktail, or coctel de camarones y pulpo. It came in a huge goblet, filled to the brim with seafood and sauce, garnished with slices of avocado. If you aren't familiar with octopus, here's a good way to try it - they've prepared it so its texture is firm and chewy but not rubbery. The shrimp are small, but sweet, and the sauce is filled with diced cucumbers, chopped onions, and tomato juice - delicious and refreshing.

The size of the coctel was impressive - and we were splitting it! We didn't finish it, wanted to leave room for our main courses.

Camarones culichis

On that visit, I ordered camarones culichis, or shrimp in the style of Culiacan. Shrimp, this time without the heads, are napped in a thick sauce made of sour cream and cheese, flavored with jalapenos. It was rich and mellow-hot, with a great flavor. [The Man I Love] ordered camarones chipotles, made in a similar fashion with sour cream and cheese flavored with chipotle chiles - the smokiness of the sauce was great with the rich creamy texture.

Camarones chipotles

Some folks don't like combining seafood with cheese. I do, but it makes for some rich eating. After the coctel, we could only eat half of the dozen large shrimp on our platters. In retrospect, we should have chosen only one rich dish, and gone with a second, lighter dish, and split them both. But that's water under the bridge - we took our leftovers and the remaining cocktail home for a delicious late night meal.

The next time we went, we passed on the cocktail. [The Man I Love] ordered a shrimp dish called camarones checcas - shrimp in a special sauce with tomato and sliced garlic, garnished with sliced red onions. The sauce was a bit spicy but not too hot, and had a citrusy tang.

By now you may have noticed the prevalence of cucumbers on these plates. Apparently, cucumbers are a traditional garnish in this regional style. It's a smart idea, actually - the coolness is wonderful to staunch the heat of the chiles.

I ordered something I'd been curious about since reading the reviews. It was called camarones cucarachas - or cockroach shrimp. Shrimp in the shell, complete with their heads were flash fried, and dusted with a salty, garlicy pepper spice mixture.

Hmm. How do you deal with them? Jonathan Gold, in his review of Mariscos Chente, said to crunch them up, shell and all, and suck the meat out of the heads.

Well, I'm not much for shrimp heads, but after pulling off the legs - I can't take bristly little fried shrimp legs going down my throat - I gave it a try.

The shrimp shells were crispy-crunchy, and it was impossible to peel them off the succulent meat. But because they'd been fried so fast and so hot, they were easy to crunch up. The shrimp inside the shells were sweet and had a good deep extra- shrimpy flavor from the shells - just like the flavor you get when you use shrimp shells to strengthen broth. Eating them was a real hands-on job When I was done with the dozen shrimp on my plate, my fingers were tinted orange from the chile seasoning.

The carnage

I was disappointed not to get any rice and rich sauce though - but fortunately for me, [The Man I Love] shared some of his. I'd suggest camarones cucarachas for a good salty-crunchy appetizer to share with a big table and some beers.

There are still at least six shrimp dishes on the menu that we haven't tried, let alone the restaurant's masterpiece, whole snook grilled in the style of Nayarit, pescado zarandeado. For that we need a larger party.

Hmmm.....Anyone interested?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thematic Photographic - Junk

Each week Carmi at Written, Inc. has challenged readers with a theme for photographic inspiration. This week the photographic challenge continues with the theme JUNK.

Junk. Shiny, pretty junk. These wooden trays of antique lamp parts are displayed outside a vendor's stall in the Marche Vernaison, at the Marche aux Puces, St-Ouen de Clignancourt, one of the fabled flea markets of Paris.

Boxes of crystal prisms glittered in the noonday sun. Tempting to sort through and hold them up to make rainbows.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

More Jack

Jack got to have his cone off today, because he had to get a bath. He's all bathed and brushed out, and his fur is shiny and lustrous.

I'm letting him keep the cone off this afternoon while I'm home with him, but for sleeping and for alone time it goes back on until he gets his stitches out.

Jack in motion.

Jack at rest.

Jack sees a squirrel.

Jack in the Jungle.