Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jack and Franny

“The playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite.” - Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972

Jack, playing with his newest friend Franny.

Pink Saturday - Adventures of the Pink Umbrella

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

The pink umbrella made its introductions earlier this winter. This Pink Saturday it's going on an adventure.

Back in October we were sent a mysterious invitation. Friends who own a large property in Malibu invited us to test out their newly remodeled guest cabin - on the market for vacation rental, they wanted our opinion.

They sent some photos as a sneak preview.

Photo courtesy Rancho del Cielo

It's a small cabin with a small kitchen, a living room and a separate bedroom. It's high on a hillside, and has a long screened-in porch with a view that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and Point Dume, the Channel Isles and meadows, mountains and oak and olive groves. There are walking trails, gardens, terraces and places to watch the sunset or the moonrise.

Photo courtesy Rancho del Cielo

Circumstances prevented us from scheduling the visit for several weeks, but finally this Pink Saturday, we made a date. The property is dog-friendly, so Jack will be joining us, and looks forward to meeting our hosts' dog Hoover.

We'll spend Pink Saturday in a charming little cabin overlooking the ocean.

Photo courtesy Rancho del Cielo

And wake up with scones for breakfast.

The fine weather shown in the photos won't be in attendance, though - rain is expected for Friday. So the Pink Umbrella is coming along for the trip.

I'll post about our stay when we come back on Sunday. Stop by again to see more.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thematic Photographic - the grass is always greener

Each week Carmi at Written, Inc. has challenged readers with a theme for photographic inspiration. This week the photographic challenge continues with the theme "the grass is always greener."

On the other side of the Canyon.

This is the view across Topanga Canyon, to a grassy meadow. Part of the Backbone Trail goes through that meadow, and last year in April I hiked it. Though the weather was beautiful this afternoon, we're expecting rain again tomorrow, which will make the trail muddy. Eventually, though, it will bring out the wildflowers that are just on the brink.

Face plant

It was classic slapstick. I went up to the street to put the garbage cans out, and after I finished the job, I turned to go back in the house and tripped over my own feet. Down I went on the asphalt, face first. I rolled over on my back and thought, "This isn't good."

Back in the house in front of the mirror, I've got a banged up nose, a fat lip, and a big Hitler-mustache abrasion on my upper lip - quite fetching. I've also got two scraped palms and a banged-up elbow. After mopping the grit out of my abrasions, I've decided to stay home from work.

Facial wounds are unpleasant enough, especially if it's serious. It's particularly embarrassing when, even if not serious, it looks gory. A few years ago in New York City on vacation, I tripped on a sidewalk and, because my hands were full, I landed on the sidewalk on my face. As my scrapes and bruises healed, it looked even worse, and my poor husband received several stern sidelong glances from passersby as we sat together in restaurants.

And can I just ask the gods - What is it with me and garbage cans? Back in my twenties I slid down my very steep Seattle driveway on my elbows after my recycling bin ran away from me. Of course, on that occasion I'd had a couple of glasses of wine.

And last year my mother's life was changed when she rode her garbage bin down her driveway on trash day.

There is an up side, though. At least I didn't break my teeth.

How about you, have you ever done a face plant? How long did it take for your wounds to heal, and how did you cope?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Celestial blue

This is Pulmonaria longifolia - also known as the narrow-leaved lungwort. It's blooming today in my shady front yard, beneath the California coast live oaks. It's somewhat splashed with grit and sand from our last spate of rains, but its cheerful blue pops up at you from the woodsy floor.

"Lungwort" isn't a very pretty name for such a pretty flower, but it's an name that goes back to early times. The lightly fuzzed leaves of the lungwort are spotted with silver, and in medieval times they were thought to resemble diseased and ulcerated lungs. According to the principles of sympathetic magic, herbalists used the lungwort to treat respiratory illnesses.

Pulmonaria are cousins to other blue flowers, like forget-me-not and borage. In some varieties, the buds are pink, and after the flowers open they mature to a bright, clear blue. A cluster of flowers can be mixed, all sky-blue-pink like Uncle Wiggly!

Some named cultivars have been selected for their coloring - deep or light blue, or even white - or for particularly silvered leaves. Mine is named "Benediction," after Seattle gardener Loie Benedict. You can find other named varieties like "Roy Davidson" and "Bertram Anderson," but I have an affection for "Benediction" because it was introduced by the Seattle plantsman Jerry Flintoff, who was my Seattle neighbor. Its flowers, as you can see, are a particularly deep sky blue.

UPDATE: To answer MAYBELLINE in the comments: The folklore idea of "sympathetic magic" is that things influence what they resemble. So people thought tea from a leaf that looks like a sick lung can heal a lung, or because walnuts resemble brains, eating them makes you smart. Or, more sinisterly, if you harm a doll that looks like a certain person, it will harm the actual person.

I think the plant was named "lungwort" or "lungenkraut" or "that plant that heals lungs" first, and then the botanical name was coined after the folk name. Carl Linnaeus starting naming things in binomial nomenclature in the mid 18th century, and probably just latinized what people were already calling it - "The narrow-leaved version of that plant that [everybody thinks] heals lungs."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lessons for a Locavore

Last week I told you about the gift my neighbor gave us of locally found wild mushrooms. This weekend, after reading about them online, I wondered if I could spot some in the spring landscape.

I know what you're thinking - red flags going up! No, I'm not going to eat anything I find myself without being absolutely certain.

But I thought I would look. See, for me, mushrooms are one of those things like birds. You can be looking right at them and not see them - until something about your vision changes. So there I was walking through the oak leaves in my very own back yard, seeing nothing - and suddenly seeing there were dozens of mushrooms beneath my own feet.

It was like suddenly having goggles on - Mushroom goggles - I could magically see lots and lots of mushrooms.

Like this one.

And this one! They were everywhere! Wow!

They sure looked like the chanterelles my neighbor gave me, but I don't trust my own judgment. I gave him a call and asked him to take a look at them.

They're NOT chanterelles.

Remember what I'd read about gills and ridges? Here's an example of gills. They're thin, papery membranes that radiate out from the mushroom's stem, under the cap. Take a look at a mushroom in the store - a portobello or a mature button mushroom. They have gills like these.

My neighbor identified these mushrooms as something called "milky-caps." I looked them up - the Genus name is Lactarius and there are several species that grow in Southern California. My neighbor says they shouldn't be considered edible - some species are, others cause unpleasant but not severe reactions, and other just simply don't taste good. I'm not sure what species of lactarius this one is, but I'm taking no chances.

Still - it's easy to see how someone could mistake this large specimen for a chanterelle - if stupid enough to try. Doesn't it look somewhat like one?

This is NOT a chanterelle. The tell-tale difference is the gills - even aged like this one above, the gills are obvious - thin papery membranes.

Milky-caps also exude sap when cut - white at first, hence the common name, and then changing color as it ages - different colors for different species. You can see the milky white sap on the first picture above.

Wearing my new "mushroom goggles" I found many, many more specimens on my morning walk. But they were all milky-caps, not chanterelles.

Later that day, our neighbor brought us another chanterelle he found.

Can you see the difference? These are not papery membranes, they are thicker, curved ridges. And they run down along the fleshy stem of the mushroom.

The color of the flesh is different, too. The chanterelles have a pretty, tender peachy color.

I put this mushroom on the scale. It was 10.5 ounces. Chanterlles go for around $20 a pound in high-end food markets like Whole Foods and Bristol Farms. Here's a website where you can buy them online for about $25 a pound.

We felt blessed. He left us a half dozen fresh eggs, too from his chickens. Aren't they beautiful together?

My neighbor found some chanterelles growing beneath a tree next to his driveway. Can you imagine such a bounty in your own yard? But it's clear that you have to know what you're doing - don't eat anything you're not sure about, and make sure you consult someone who's an expert.

"Locavore" is a word that describes people who try to eat food that's grown where they live.

What could be more local than mushrooms plucked from your yard, and eggs from your own chickens?

What about an omelette?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fortune cookie

[The Man I Love] and I went out to a Chinese restaurant on a recent afternoon, to one of Los Angeles' old venerable establishments, where they are famous for their "slippery shrimp" - shrimps fried crispy and then napped in a sweet-and-sour sauce that's pungent and sharp with chiles. Very old school Chinese restaurant style, but quite delicious. And they do it right.

After our meal, we were presented with the usual tray with the bill and two fortune cookies.

Here's what the cookie I chose said to me. I am always entertaining and delightful!

[The Man I Love] broke his cookie open, read it, and told me that I had taken his cookie. Because, obviously, the cookie he got was meant for me. Here's what the cookie he got said:

What do you think?

Saturday, February 20, 2010


The Santa Monica Mountains separate the basin of Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. And here in Topanga, west of Los Angeles basin, it separates the Pacific Ocean from the San Fernando Valley. Topanga Canyon is like a gouge through the mountains that connects the high valley to the sea.

I am not a climatologist or a geographer, so I don't know how all this stuff works, but what I do know from living here is that being a conduit between a high, hot, dry desert and a low, cool, damp coast makes for some interesting weather patterns.

The imbalance between the heat of the Valley and the cool of the coast creates a kind of suction or pull that draws the coastline fog up through our canyon. It's like this land is a living creature. It breathes - one day the Valley's lungs draw up the ocean moisture; then the next day it blows its sere breath down toward the sea. Or are there two creatures? Perhaps it's the ocean that wafts its damp breath toward the desert, and then sucks back the heat for warmth.

But whatever the cause - it's not uncommon for us to see a bank of fog rolling up the canyon, moving as if driven, moving with a purpose. And then it changes - rolls backward on itself, or dissolves into nothing.

This spring, on a recent morning I looked out to see the western mountains of Saddle Peak lit by the morning sun. Up at our house it was clear and bright, but down in the boulevard, it was socked in with thick fog that lay low and solid and thick, like a blanket of snow or cotton batting.

I went out to walk the dog, and within a half hour, the fog had dissipated - here it floats as thin and ethereal as a chiffon silk scarf, trailing through the eucalyptus trees across the canyon in the Fernwood neighborhood.

On another morning, the fog billowed and puffed, like the steam of a locomotive chugging up the canyon. As the train of vapor runs up-canyon, just below our neighborhood the creek forks, and the fog collides against the mesa that lies between the two creek branches, piling up, billowing and rising - sometimes to dissolve in the sun, or sometimes to engulf those of us in higher altitudes in its mist.

Three doves sit on a wire, as the fog rises around them.

It's where we live. All fleeting - wait half an hour and it will change. What a great place to live.

Pink Saturday - Sweet dreams

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

I was visiting an antique show at a local exhibit hall. And I encountered this inviting and elegant chaise longue. Upholstered in pink velour, its frame is wood carved with floral elements, and painted in pretty colors.

Doesn't it look inviting? Wouldn't you like to recline on it, with a good book?

Chaise longue is French. It translates to "long chair." In America, it's been mistakenly changed to "chaise lounge" - a chair for lounging in?

This chaise longue was part of a bedroom suite on display at the show. There was a queen-sized bed, two end tables, and a dresser with a bombe front, and a mirror.

All beautifully painted with flowers, roses, and ornate hardware. The seller told me that the suite was Italian, dating from around the 1930s.

The price? $15,000.00 for the set.

A little much for a chair to lounge in.

But, oh, how pretty!

What kind of dreams would you have sleeping in that bed?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thematic Photographic - at rest

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

It's the Santa Monica Pier on a beautiful day.

Those fish will catch themselves.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Jack at play

Jack is a young dog, and he loves to play with other dogs. He has a couple of neighborhood friends, but when he goes out for a walk, we keep him on the leash, so his playing is pretty controlled and constrained.

Since his recent great breakthrough in learning to ride in the car, we've been able to take him not only to our local hiking trails, but also to a Dog Park. The one we like is in Calabasas, California, called the Bark Park.

There's a grassy fenced area, and another area covered with bark mulch. There's also a nice little fenced space with piped water to a doggie-height bowl. The first time we went, you could go into either area, but in recent weeks they've closed the grassy space for lawn rehab, and we're only allowed to use the bark mulch area.

Each time we've gone, Jack has had a blast. There's always a cohort of dogs - ranging from giant Newfoundlands to tiny Chihuahuas. The dog owners are fun to talk with. There is a core group of "regulars" - some of them retired folks who visit at the same time each day. I have never seen a badly behaved dog at the park.

The dogs wander alone, and then gravitate towards one another. They ignore one another, and then they roll on the ground together. They may cluster in front of one park bench with a human being, or they might range together to investigate the perimeter fence. An entire pack might start chasing around and around and around the park, going through the legs of standing humans, or slithering beneath the park benches.

When they exhaust themselves, they lie down together, like Jack and this sweet brindle Akita-cross girlie we met the other day. She licked his face!

It's hilarious. [The Man I Love] has likened it to watching an aquarium full of fish interacting with one another. Watching them play and ramble makes you smile and is one of the most relaxing things a human being can do.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Adventures in Eating

A little while back I posted about a small handful of wild mushrooms that a friend had brought us from the Pacific Northwest.*

We intended to saute them in butter and cream, but as it turned out, our cream was turned and I only found out about it after I poured it into the pan of sauted mushrooms and it curdled. Yuk! I had to throw them away.

Well, today I got a second chance for some spring chanterelles. My next door neighbor pulled up in his driveway while I was on the street chatting with a couple of dog-walking neighbors. "Hey!" he said. "You want some mushrooms?"

He held out a huge orange chanterelle, flecked with dark loam. It was the size of my hand. And he had a whole bag full.

"Where'd you get them?" we asked.

"In the park," meaning here in our Topanga State Park. He gave two of us the mushrooms - the third woman demurred. He told us how to clean them and cook them.

I brought them inside and showed them to [The Man I Love] who tonight is smoking a whole chicken on the Weber. The menu also includes mashed potatoes and asparagus - and chanterelles would be a great accompaniment.

When I told him our neighbor had gathered them in the park, he was a little leery, so I looked up chanterelles online, and compared the photos and descriptions to the specimens I had.

Cantharellus cibarieus - or the Golden Chanterelle - grow throughout the world, and are quite commonly found in northern Europe and the Pacific Northwest. They are considered the best wild mushroom in the world, with a delicate, almost fruity/peppery flavor. A subspecies called Cantharellus californicus grows in Southern California oak forests - and appears to be the mushroom my neighbor brought to us.

There is a toxic mushroom that looks superficially like the chanterelle, but when I compared its photo and characteristics with my mushrooms, I could easily identify mine as chanterelles.

One of the key characteristics are the mushroom's gills - the chanterelle's gills are not actually true gills (which are separate structures), but just features of the mushroom's surface. The way you can tell the difference is that they fork as they run up the funnel-shaped stem.

See how the gills fork as they reach the mushroom's cap? The toxic mushroom doesn't do that.

Anyway - my neighbor is an accomplished chef, and I trust him. So - here goes.

I've read that you're not supposed to use water to clean chanterelles, because their delicate flesh will soak up the water and get soggy. Unfortunately, these had so much loamy soil on them and inside the delicate gills that water was a must. My neighbor suggested I blast them hard and fast with the faucet once, and then try to rub the soil off. I did that - and also peeled away some of the dirtier surfaces. I tried to blot off as much of the water that clung to them as I could. I cut them up in chunks and strips. The thick stems were meaty and yielded quite a lot of firm golden flesh.

Then, following my neighbor's directions and a recipe I found online, I tossed the pieces with olive oil, some dried thyme, and salt in a foil-lined baking pan, and roasted them in a 400 degree oven and set the timer for 15 minutes.

Roasting them in an open pan is good, says my neighbor, because it allows the liquid to boil out of them.

After roasting for 20 minutes, they were golden in color, and a lot of liquid had accumulated in the pan. Since the chicken had to sit for 10 minutes after it came off the fire, I turned off the heat in the oven and let the mushrooms sit for the same amount of time. That reduced the liquid down and deepened the color of the 'shrooms.

Here they are, spooned onto the chicken breast meat. The chicken was juicy and slightly smoky from being cooked in the Weber, and the mushrooms were perfect with them - a rich flavor and a nice meaty texture.

Here's a picture of dinner - chicken, asparagus, mashed potatoes and mushrooms. All delicious, and - so far - no ill effects.

I'm posting this now, an hour after eating. So if you're reading this post, you won't know if we were wrong to trust our neighbor's expertise.

Unless -

Several other neighbors were given chanterelles, too. So if there's a big newspaper story tomorrow morning about an entire Southern California community being stricken by toxic mushrooms, you will know I made a b-i-i-i-i-g mistake.

What do you think - would you eat wild mushrooms gathered from the woods?

*PS - I think the mushrooms we were given a few weeks ago were what is called hedgehog mushrooms, not chanterelles. Check out their gills.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

L.A. Street food

Sweets and snacks for sale in Winston Alley

This week we've been hearing about a new event called the L.A. Street Food Fest. Two smart young entrepreneurs have gathered some of Los Angeles's most popular street food vendors at a local event space for a tasting festival. The event mingles traditional street food vendors, like Nina's and Carmen's Antojitos, who used to appear at the Breed Street Food Fair, and some of the new, young food vendors that serve the late-night crowds, like the Coolhaus ice-cream truck, the Kabob truck, the Asian taco vendors, the grilled cheese sandwich truck and the fried chicken truck.

The NomNom truck, selling Vietnamese sandwiches and fusion-style tacos, driving in Santa Monica

These new trucks are a true phenomenon - the new wave of food entrepreneurs, young creative chefs trying a non-traditional business plan. They plot routes that bring them near nightclubs and bars at night, and at busy workplaces by day - broadcasting their locations by Twitter so that their fans know where to find them.

We thought a festival of trucks sounded pretty cool, so we headed out for it. It was supposed to start at 11:00 am, and we got there around 11:30. Well, the traffic was crazy, and the sidewalk was packed with people. There was a line for the entry that wrapped around the corner. As we drove past the gate and turned left on 6th, there were scores of people walking up the hill toward the event location from the subway station at 7th and Figueroa.

Clearly the Fest had attracted a huge following. But we had no desire to stand in the lines and battle the crowds. It was time for Plan B.

We headed downtown, and went to Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet, for a French dip sandwich and an expertly mixed cocktail - a weekend indulgence, mind you, but you can't go to Cole's and not have a cocktail.

After we ate, we decided to take a walk around. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, and, besides, we needed to walk off those cocktails.

Cole's is on 6th just west of Los Angeles Street - chaotic, bustling Los Angeles Street, in the middle of the Toy District. This section of downtown where wholesalers of goods such as toys, electronic gadgets, party supplies and novelties mingle with pet stores, beauty supply stores, homeless shelters and lingerie dealers is a crowded, noisy neighborhood bordered by Los Angeles Street on the West and San Pedro Street on the East, between Third Street and Fifth Street.

And today it was in fine form - packed with people, everyone out in the street. Shopkeepers touted their prices and wares through microphones wired into tinny-sounding boomboxes. Music pounded out from passing cars and from other shops. People stood on the sidewalk waving merchandise to attract customers - lots of Valentine-themed things today, like teddy bears and helium balloons and even bird cages with parakeets, the bars twined with sparkling mylar garlands of valentine hearts.

The sidewalk also teemed with scores of street food vendors, ranging from conventional taco trucks to more makeshift efforts.

This vendor fans the coals beneath roasting ears of corn.

There were lots of vendors selling Los Angeles' favorite bacon dogs.

This woman was making homemade tortillas using a traditional tortilla press. She's also heating cecina, or salted aged beef, on her comal, or griddle as a filling for her quesadillas.

While just a few storefronts away, this woman was also making quesadillas, only with blue corn masa harina. Note her cart - it's fashioned from a folding stroller, with condiments and utensils in the trays and hanging in plastic bags tied to the push handle.

Another vendor was selling fruit smoothies from a cooler in the trunk of her car.

There's a little alley that goes behind Winston Street, and if you walk down it past a party-wares store - pinatas and toys glittering in the sudden bright sun - you end up in a wide courtyard where people have all kinds of things laid out for sale.

The old warehouse buildings with their boarded up windows are painted in bright colors - pink, blue, red - and the vendors who set up their ad-hoc shops in the alley have striped umbrellas to shade them from the hot sun of an uncharacteristically warm February Saturday. Valentines gift baskets wrapped in ribboned cellophane crackled in the breeze that fluttered the pink and pastel baby clothes hung out on display, and the tissue streamers of pinatas from the party store.

Lots of people lined up for the taco trailer that looks like its been here forever. There are CD vendors, socks and underwear vendors. People set up a box in the middle of the pavement and begin selling from it. There was a guy selling toasted nuts and seeds from small trays tied to a fancy wheeled walker.

This vendor is selling fried plantains, dressed with sauce and crema. They smelled amazing!

Here at the intersection of two alleys, there are several vendors selling all kinds of food, clothing, and jewelry.

Paleteros, or ice cream bar salesmen, roll their carts up and down the street, their brass bells jingling. On the corner of Los Angeles Street and Fourth this little boy is fascinated with the many pictures of flavored ice cream bars.

Here a woman is selling horchata and cantelope agua fresca from plastic vitroleros in a shopping cart.

The official L.A. Street Food Fest was too much of a success for us to deal with, but in a happy coincidence, our afternoon was spent at a Los Angeles street food festival that was a bit more authentic.

I applaud the idea of young entrepreneurs taking to the streets in catering trucks, to serve their own gourmet creations to late-night crowds, using social networking to gain followers, parking outside nightclubs to feed the hunger of those who party hearty. It's interesting to see the creativity behind these new trucks and their menus.

But I wonder if the popularity of the new trend will have unintended consequences on L.A.'s traditional street food vendors. If food trucks are being bought by culinary school graduates to sell snacks to nightclubbers, will the prices of such trucks soar, and access to permits and licenses become more difficult? Sure, it will become easier to grab a Korean taco, cupcake, or bento box at 2:00 am in West Hollywood after a night of bar-hopping. But will there still be trucks to serve daytime gardeners and construction workers $1.50 tacos for lunch at their worksites in the hills of Brentwood?

The downtown street food scene is a tier below taco trucks as far as mobility and earning potential is concerned. You can't stock much food in a shopping cart or portable cooler, and the Health Department will never countenance a propane burner mounted on a stroller. These food vendors are designed to be swiftly dismantled and hidden from the authorities if raided.

Perhaps the food cart is a secondary job taken on in addition to another job as a domestic or laborer. Or perhaps these vendors are undocumented, and can only earn money in this mobile and off-the-books manner. Even so, their families' well-being depends on their ability to stand on a sunny sidewalk on a Saturday, over a sizzling hot griddle. How much is a day's take after expenses, I wonder, for $1 quesadillas or ears of roasted corn?

The downtown street cooks are just as creative entrepreneurs as the architecture students who sell green-tea ice cream sandwiches from pink-painted catering trucks. They are inventive cooks, persistent salespeople, and improvise their means of production.

The other day I was wondering what I would chose to do, if I ever had to start a business. What product would I sell? What skill do I have that I could bring to such an effort? How much would I be willing to risk to make it a success - or just break even?

It seems to me that a woman who decides that people might buy fried plantains like her mother used to make, or quesadillas like they made in her home town deserves some applause for trying to make a go of it in a tough world.