Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's blooming now - Iris

In Greek mythology, Iris is the daughter of a minor sea-god and the air-nymph Electra. She is said to have golden wings, and to travel on the rainbow while carrying messages from the gods. She waters the clouds, perhaps to bring rain and rainbows, and her symbol is the rainbow.

I remembered this after we visited Arco-Iris sandwich shop in Tampa - because in Spanish "arco iris" means "rainbow.

And right now, a rainbow is blooming in my garden. Our front yard, shaded by ancient coast live oaks, is planted with low shrubs and perennials suitable for the dry shade the oaks thrive in. Among these are clumps of Iris douglasiana, and its many offspring, Pacific Coast Hybrid iris.

Douglas's iris has a small, clear blue flower with narrow petals. Its throat has a blaze of white touched with yellow, and shows intricate blue veins. It's native to Oregon and Northern California, but it's happy here in my coastal Southern California garden.

Douglas's iris readily hybridizes with other western American species, and has given rise to many beautiful variations in a rainbow of colors, ranging from pure white to yellow, to purple and many shades in between. I've seen some wonderful mauvey-cocoa shades, or tan, or bi-color.

Here in a Santa Monica drought-tolerant planting, a deep red-violet iris is planted near the glossy red succulent aeonium, and feathery bronze fennel.

They are easy to grow from seed, too - in my Seattle garden a dozen or so seedlings bloomed the following spring after being set out.

Some specialty nurseries sell named varieties, and these will be plants selected for their excellent features - color, shape or habit. But you can find unnamed beauties in regular garden centers, or you can grow them from seed.

In my garden, they're an excellent companion for California natives and other drought-tolerant plants. Here a clump of blue iris grows along the stone path, next to a western Columbine, setting off the bright yellow of its flower. Beyond, a specimen of acanthus has sent up its bloom-spike. Clusters of a selected variety of heuchera, with marbled and patterned leaves, are planted among the iris, adding a nice contrast of foliage. Later they'll put up their delicate flowers.

Here, in another garden, Heuchera's frothy pikes surround a white PCH iris, in an area planted with ferns. Sorry about the bleached-out quality of the iris in this photo, but you can see the pretty heuchera and its leaves.

Deeper in the shade, clary sage, with its large textured leaves and deep violet blossoms will come into bloom in the next weeks.

This sage spreads by runners in the rich understory compost of leaves beneath the oaks. The stems and flower calyces of clary sage are a deep maroon.

And now here's the pathway to the door. Won't you stop in?

Thematic Photographic - Colorful

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

It's spring, and my thoughts are turning toward the garden. I'm thinking about refreshing some large planters in my garden, so this weekend I browsed through the plants at a local nursery. I'm excited by all the plants with colorful foliage. Here is a flat of coleus - an annual plant known for its bright patterned leaves. Purple and red, chartreuse and gold, pink and peachy - what an array of choices!

I'll post more later about springtime planters!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sandwiches on Boliche Boulevard

They say that Columbus Avenue in Tampa, Florida, is nicknamed "Boliche Boulevard," named for the concentration of Cuban restaurants, snack shops, and groceries that line it through the downtown area.

The boulevard's namesake dish is a beef eye round roast stuffed with chorizo, then braised with garlic, tomatoes, onions and peppers. It's a standard on the menu of the places along Columbus, along with arroz con pollo, lechon asado (roast pork) or ropa vieja.

On our very last day in Tampa, we went to find a place named Arco Iris that is famous for Cuban sandwiches. Arco Iris means "rainbow". It wasn't much to look at, just a low concrete block building in a strip mall. We got there around 10:40 a.m., hoping to grab a couple sandwiches before heading to the airport. The sign on the door said it opened at 11:00 a.m.

Disappointed, we walked back to the car, but then someone called from the door and beckoned us back. "C'mon in," he said, "we're open."

"Just wanted a couple of sandwiches to go," we said.

As we waited, the staff prepared for the 11:00 am opening, setting the tables and writing the day's specials on a white board hung on the wall. A young man sat at a table, tucking into a plate of something with rice and beans and onions - it smelled great. The menu offered full meals in a addition to the famous sandwiches, and also offered "Chinese style" fried rice dishes.

Everyone spoke Spanish - the waitresses, the cashier, the cooks and the young man with his lunch. Not fluent in Spanish myself, I have enough of a vocabulary so I can usually get the gist of the conversation, but that didn't work here. If you are used to hearing Spanish spoken by people of Mexican and Central American heritage, as in Los Angeles, you will be surprised at the sound of Cuban Spanish.

It is a very different sound. Both nasal and stacatto, the words slur into one another, and the percusive sound of consonants is smoothed and blunted so you can't tell where one word ends and the next begins. The animated conversations I overhear always make me want to go learn the language.

But then our Cuban sandwiches arrived, and I forgot about everything but food.

I'm not sure why something as simple as a meat and cheese sandwich becomes a thing of wonder in the hands of Cuban cooks. Some say it's the bread - crusty Cuban bread, baked fresh in long loaves with a palm frond laid on as it goes in the oven, to help make the crease open up in the top. Some say it's the moderate filling - not too much, but a combination of ham, roast pork and swiss cheese. Pickle slices, a bit of shredded lettuce, and mayonnaise and yellow mustard. Some say it's the technique of pressing the sandwich under heat to toast the bread, soften the cheese and meld the flavors.

The result is a perfect sandwich - wrapped in white paper and sliced characteristically on a sharp diagonal - warm, crusty, compacted so it's easy to take that first bite, which mingles delicious meat and cheese and tangy mustard and pickle.

Stories differ about the origin of the Cuban sandwich. Was it originally from Cuba, or Key West? Or did it spring up right here in Tampa, to feed the workers in the cigar factories of Ybor City? By 1910, it was commonly served in working-class cafes and coffee shops in Florida and Cuba.

In Tampa, unlike Miami, Cuban sandwiches also include Genoa salami. This is thought to be an indication of the turn-of-the-century closeness of the Italian and Cuban immigrant communities in Ybor City.

It's always amazing to me how something as simple as a sandwich can be interpreted in so many diverse ways by so many ethnic communities. A Cuban sandwich is perfection - yet so is a great Vietnamese banh mi. A different take on a meat sandwich, with tangy pork and head-cheese, pickled carrot and daikon, and it's own great bread - the special crunch here is due to the presence of rice flour in Vietnamese baquettes. And there's a tiny Persian lunch counter in Los Angeles that serves its own delicious version of a cold-cuts on a baguette - unmistakeably imbued with its own cultural stamp.

Sandwiches. Culture in portable form. What special sandwich from your own heritage do you crave?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A chance encounter

Click all photos to "embiggen"

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him --- did you not,
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun,--
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

- Emily Dickinson

This morning I made the acquaintance of this fellow, Crotalus oreganus helleri, the Southern Pacific rattlesnake, also called the black diamondback rattlesnake. We were walking on the main trail at Red Rock Canyon Park, heading back toward the ranger station, when I looked down at the path and saw him sunning himself on the pinky-mauve dirt, in just enough time to alter my pace and avoid stepping on him.

I leapt a couple yards away from him, and yelped out loud, startling [The Man I Love] and the dog.

The snake lifted his head, twisted like a wire cable, and turned back on himself, back through the weeds to the shelter of the brush, and the last thing I saw of him was the rattle at the end of his tail.

This is the second rattlesnake I've seen in 13 years of living here. The first one was a little one, and I heard his rattle before I saw him. This fellow never made a sound.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thematic Photographic - Colorful

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

I always love the color and vitality of Los Angeles's downtown main street, Broadway. Noisy, bustling, gaudy and a little bit dirty, there's always something to see amid the visual cacophony of signs, people and merchandise.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Spring morning

Just up the street, there's a place where some hillside work was recently done this fall, to correct a drainage problem. After it was completed, they sowed the hillside with annual wildflower seeds to hold the soil.

Baby blue eyes, or Nemophila menziesii

This spring, it's in full bloom, and what a pretty sight it is.

Phacelia parryii, with alyssum in the background

Calendulas, sweet alyssum, california poppies, baby blue eyes, lupines and Parry's phacelia tumble down the hill, the honey-like scent of the alyssum perfuming the morning air as the sun warms it.


Being able to see this each morning makes it easier to get out of bed. Aren't we all ready for spring?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thematic Photographic - Colorful

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

Ever think about getting a new look? What would your life be like as a blonde? A sultry brunette? A fiery red-head.? Or...er....green?

Or perhaps a violet MarieAntoinette bouffant or bright orange Bozo the Clown hair?

This wig store in North Hollywood made me shout out and stop the car. Scores and scores of wigs in the window, in an astounding assortment of styles and colors.

Call it the one-stop shopping location for all your make-over needs. What a way to make your life colorful, huh?

Which one would you choose?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Back home

We're back home. And while we were away....

The wisteria vine burst into full bloom. It smells like heaven!

The fabulous Skipperdome!

Off Nebraska Avenue in North Tampa, Florida, you can pull into an unpaved parking lot, crushed oyster-shells popping under your tires, and park among the pickup trucks, Harleys, muscle cars and abandoned boat trailers under the branches of a broad live oak festooned with Spanish moss. At the street, there's a battered old lifeboat turned upside down, and a lit-up signboard listing coming attractions.

Follow the neon signs to the dining room and take-out counter, or just wander down the passageway and look for the bar. The first thing you learn about this place is it's easygoing.

The stage at Skippers

You walk into a shabby rambling structure with an inner courtyard opening onto a sandy yard with benches facing a covered stage, beneath the spreading limbs of more old oaks. It's really a dilapidated collection of shacks cobbled together, with rambling dining rooms, covered outdoor patios, and palmetto-frond-shaded picnic tables. It's enclosed by an irregular fence of corrugated rusty metal, weathered plywood, and woven bamboo, all covered with a layered, faded pentimento of colorful murals and obscene graffiti.

This is Skipper's Smokehouse, an old Florida seafood joint and blues club. Since 1980, Skippers has been serving up classic redneck food, booze, and music. Blues, reggae, Grateful Dead cover bands, bluegrass, zydeco, folk and classic rock - you can dance barefoot in the sand to it in the outdoor venue affectionately known as the "Skipperdome."

The only time I've actually come here for the music was when [The Man I Love] and I were courting, and we went to see Buddy Guy play. He was so drunk he was fumbling in his bag for harmonicas, playing the wrong key harp for each song, but it was still a great show. Or maybe it was the beer that made me think that.

Usually, we come here in the afternoon, when it's quiet, and the only place hopping is the Oyster Bar, where a few old codgers sit and slurp down oysters on the half-shell with their beer, or tuck into fried gator-tail sandwiches.

A pound of peel-and-eat shrimp are served on an ice-filled tin beer tray. You can get chicken wings, onion rings, crawfish, catfish, grouper sandwiches, and fried okra.

A scoop of smoked mullet spread comes in a pleated paper cup with a handful of saltines and a healthy dash of paprika for color.

Smoked mullet, like boiled peanuts, is a Gulf coast Florida delicacy, sold from roadside stands in the palmetto scrub. Mullet are caught in warm coastal waters of Florida's bays, bayous and inlets. Easy to catch, they're a mainstay in the diet of poor rural folks. The fish fillets are brined and then smoked over a charcoal fire with wood-chips.

Skippers smoked mullet spread on saltines

The spread is made in a similar fashion to tuna salad, the flaked fish mixed with minced onion, celery and parsley in a seasoned mayonnaise.

We opted for the assorted fried platter, which included calamari, shrimp, fish fillet and nuggets of fried gator tail. You also get a couple of hush-puppies and two sides, which could be barbecue beans, cole slaw, black beans and yellow rice, fries or steamed vegetables.

If you haven't had hush-puppies before, be warned that these are a golf-ball-sized gut bomb of cornmeal batter mixed with some chopped green onions, deep-fried. At Skippers they come to the table in a little cardboard cradle, almost too hot to touch. They're perfect with a dash of Crystal hot sauce or Skippers own bottled hot sauce, a searing tincture of vinegar, carrot juice, and Scotch bonnet peppers, called "Captain Tom's Scorch Bonnet Pepper Hot Sauce."

Conch fritters at Skippers

Conch fritters are super-sized hush-puppies, the batter augmented by morsels of conch - rubbery pale chunks of meat from a gastropod mollusk, the queen conch, whose familiar pink-lipped seashell is emblematic of South Florida tourism. Conch is also the name used to describe the crusty native residents of the Florida Keys. Alas, it's no longer legal to fish conch in US waters, so Florida seafood joints serve conch imported from the Bahamas. At Skippers conch fritters come with a fierce yellow curry dipping sauce - perhaps in homage to its Bahamian heritage.

The dining room features marine-based junk and signed photos and posters of all the musicians that have played here for the past 30 years. The dress code at Skippers is casual - tank tops and flip flops abound, for guests of both sexes. Tattoos are in vogue. Ball-caps or straw cowboy hats are allowed. Male hairstyles range from long gray ponytails to shaved pates. Times must be changing, in one way though - I didn't see anyone wearing a mullet.

If you're ever in the Tamp-St. Pete area, you'll want to visit Skippers.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Crabby fingers

When rain comes to Florida's Gulf Coast, it comes fast and hard with thunder and lightning and blinding washes of water on the windshield.

That's why we took a U-turn before hitting the Gandy Bridge, eastbound from St. Pete to Tampa, and went back to check out a low dilapidated little seafood joint with pickup trucks in the flooded parking lot.

We had just eaten breakfast a couple hours ago, and weren't very hungry, but getting in out of the rain was what it was all about. We sat at a two-top by the window in the bar, looking at the traffic whizzing by in the torrential rain, and listening to country music on the radio. A few bar-stools were occupied, and a few other tables, and the waitress plunked down a couple menus in front of us.

Oysters on the half shell were $8.95 for a dozen. In Los Angeles, the going rate for a half-dozen is $14.95. We ordered a dozen and a couple cold beers.

The oysters came right out with the beers, and were served with lemon, a couple Saltine crackers, and a cocktail sauce that sizzled with horseradish.

The waitress suggested we get the blue crab claws sauteed in butter and garlic. Now, I'm a West Coast girl - I'm used to big meaty crabs like Dungeness and king, but [The Man I Love] grew up here and used to fish for blue crabs off these causeways by dangling a chicken neck into the water on a string. "A lot of work, getting meat out of a blue crab," he said.

"That's why I suggested the claws - we do all the work for you and give you the best part," she said. "You won't be disappointed."

When they came, there were over a dozen of the smallish claws on the platter, bathed in a puddle of browned butter with bits of minced garlic. It smelled like heaven - for garlic lovers. Just the first joint of the claws were presented, out of the shell, with the small fixed finger shell remaining as a convenient handle - like a perfectly designed finger-food! Holding the claw, we dipped the meat into the butter and skinned it off the central piece of cartilage with our teeth - the flavorful meat was a little coarse-textured and stringy, and strongly crabby and delicious.

"See, didn't I tell you they were good?" said the waitress. We looked at the rain and licked our buttery fingers. Then it was time to get back on the bridge.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ybor City trolley

Click to "embiggen"

Ybor City. A rainy evening, a small bar a block off the main drag. Only four tables and six barstools. The bartender can mix whatever you like. A negroni? A sazerac? A manhattan? Just ask him. Or - better - let him ask you what you're in the mood for and take what you get. He's an expert mixologist. Whatever you get, you'll like it.

A group comes in, wearing green, St. Patrick's Day beads festooned around their shoulders, they swarm a table. She pulls her phone out to read a text. She orders a Pabst Blue Ribbon. The bartender rolls his eyes.

She goes outside to return the call, holding one ear closed with her hand. "It's me, Day-juh-nay," she says into the phone, identifying herself. "Where are you guys? We're in this bar." She steps back inside. "What's this place called, anyway?"

Click to "embiggen"

Fuma Bella.

Outside the bar, the Ybor City trolley goes past, candy-colored in the night.

"Déjeuner?" Who names their kid after lunch?