Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Pie a Week - Lemon chess pie

Chess pie is a sweet pie common in the South. It's a single crust pie with a soft, sugary filling similar to a custard pie, but with a difference.

Chess pie was originally English, and migrated to the South from New England and Virginia. The ingredients are simple - eggs, sugar, cream or milk, butter and flavorings, plus a couple of spoonfuls of corn meal. This gives the custard a fine, granular texture.

The origins of the name "chess pie" is unclear. Some think that it's a corruption of "cheese pie," the filling being similar to a cheesecake-like confection. Some think that it was because, before refrigeration, people kept baked goods in a pie-chest, so this would be "chest pie." Others say that, in Southern dialect, when asked what kind of pie it was, housewives would answer, "Jes' pie."

It makes sense that it's "jes' pie," because it's an awful easy pie to make on an ordinary day. Blind-bake the shell, then mix the custard:

1.5 cup of sugar
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon salt
3-4 eggs
1/2 cup cream, half & half or whole milk
1/4 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 lemon, zested
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Mix the sugar, cornmeal and salt. Beat the eggs with the cream, then add the butter. Pour the liquid into the sugar mixture. Add the lemon zest, juice and vanilla, and combine until smooth.

Pour it into the pie shell, then bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.

I made this one with the lemons from our garden. Jes' pie.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thematic Photographic - Flowers

"Thematic Photographic" - Carmi at the blog Written, Inc. presents a weekly themed photographic challenge. This week's theme is FLOWERS. Check in and see who else contributes photos based on this idea.

The passion flower is a flowering vine native to South America. It was given its botanical and common name in 1620 when Spanish colonial priests saw it growing in Peru. To them, the flower resembled the Crown of Thorns placed on Christ's head at the Crucifixion. Once they got going on this idea, the blossom's unusual features and structure led to a whole catalog of symbols associated with the Passion of Christ, based on the number of sepals and petals, the shape of the anthers and stigma, the color of some of the species.

The passion flower is also taken, in more secular circles, at its popular common name - passion flowers' sweet scent and the juice of its fruits are considered romantic and sexually seductive.

You can take your pick.

There are over 400 species to choose from, including one native to the United States, commonly called the Maypop.

This passion flower is the species Passiflora alata. Its common name is the fragrant granadilla, and "granadilla" is the name sometimes given to its fruit. This one is growing on a steel security fence enclosing the dining patio at Papa Christo's Greek restaurant, on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. The flowers are huge - you can see as I'm holding a blossom in the picture.

It's said to be quite fragrant, although I didn't detect a scent when I took the photo - perhaps because we were eating delicious garlicky roast lamb and feta cheese at the time.

This passionflower is a fast grower, vigorous, and with large thick evergreen leaves. Here at Papa Christo's it competes with bougainvillea and ficus vines, and holds its own.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Pie a Week - French nectarine tart

Similar to last week's apple tart, here's one with nectarines. Sliced nectarines are tossed with sugar, arranged in the pie shell, then a sweet custard is poured on top and the pie is baked. Easy!

Thematic Photographic - Flowers

"Thematic Photographic" - Carmi at the blog Written, Inc. presents a weekly themed photographic challenge. This week's theme is FLOWERS. Check in and see who else contributes photos based on this idea.

It's Naked Lady season again!

The South African native bulb Amaryllis belladonna is quite a surprise each September, when the naked stalks rise up from the bare dirt and open a cluster of huge, lily-like blossoms that are the pale, tender pink of a ballerina's tutu.

Huge glossy green leaves appear in late spring, and then fade away. Months later, in the dog days of summer, the flowers suddenly burst on the scene.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Beach days drawing to a close

Click all photos to "embiggen"

I came down to the beach in May, for a temporary job assignment. And even though it's a beautiful place, you can still get bogged down in work things - writing reports, analyzing data, formatting documents, chasing down answers to questions.

I realize that far too often, I spend my days sitting in an office, crunching numbers or following up on trivial details, gossiping or griping - when only steps from my office door, a whole world of natural beauty awaits.

Sometimes I have to force myself to push away from the desk, to walk outside, to head for the sand and the water, the gulls and the scent of salt.

But when I do, I never regret it. It recharges my batteries, and makes it possible for me to go back and re-open my email In-box. It's always worth it.

In mid-September my assignment ends and I go back to my regular office. I'll miss this place, and I think I'll always wonder if I appreciated what a wonderful gift this assignment was, even with its challenges.

I'll be glad to be back with my familiar co-workers. I've come to appreciate my long-term boss and her knowledge, her fairness, and her honesty. And here's the thing - my regular office is in a pretty nice neighborhood too. Maybe I should make a practice of getting out and exploring things there. Right?


It's hot. After a summer of fog and gloom, the heat is here. Yesterday it was 104 degrees at our house - and the power went out. This morning, at six-thirty, the sky was bright and almost vibrating with heat.

Here, the setting moon hangs in a cloudless sky over the baked mountains and a dead pine tree.

What's amazing to me is how different it is at the beach. Here it's still warm, but it's about 70 degrees instead of 97 at my home, just 6 miles inland.
The sun is still relentless. They say it's going to break tomorrow. How's the weather where you are?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two beers and the chute

By now, everyone knows the story of the Jetblue flight attendant who got fed up after 20 years of working with the public, tendered his resignation over the plane's PA system, grabbed 2 beers from the galley and popped the escape chute onto the tarmac at JFK.

Recently, a friend of mine received a job offer from another employer. Her current job was something she enjoyed doing, represented a promising career track, but was marred by some pretty nasty workplace politics and a less-than-effective management. She tried hard to stay above the fray, but because she was the target of some internal backbiting, it was difficult.

She carefully weighed her choices. Her current job paid well, and held potential, but it had little security and no benefits. The new offer paid a little less, and was somewhat of a step backward, career-wise, but had great benefits. What to do?

One day she was called to a meeting. It was presented as a "cross-training" opportunity for all staff, but it soon became obvious that it was a chance for her co-workers to beat up on her, courtesy of an ineffective and misguided supervisor.

She took all she could take, and then she opened her mouth and told them what she thought of them. And then she gave her notice.

People are complex. I had been listening to my friend's side of the story for a while. I had also heard from some of the other workers, too. Miscommunication, scapegoating, failure to give the other person the benefit of the doubt lay on both sides. But, overall, my friend was the one who tried to reach across the chasm, tried to keep it professional, tried to see the other side. The others were less giving and, in some cases denying there was a problem at all.

Well, now it's over. Her company is really going to miss her, because she did a great job. Her detractors are going to be impacted by losing her, though they don't realize it now.

Me - I'm gonna buy her a couple of cans of beer and an inflatable chute. She deserves it! Best of luck, my friend.

Have you ever had a "grab two beers and pop the chute" moment?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blog roll update

It's been a while since I've updated the blog roll, and as life goes on, changes occur. I meet new bloggers; friends start blogs; other folks decide to stop blogging. I need to update my blogroll to keep up.

Goodbye to those who've moved on:

Trannyhead - I loved you, your Green Beans rant was awesome. Congratulations on your new baby and I hope you will blog again.

Woman in a Window - what an incredible writer! You can still find her at The Tiny Leaf.

Stoopid Stuff - Mikey has moved on to Here.

Keeping the porch light on for these guys:

I am a Tornado - Proven Fact - she hasn't posted since December. I want to put her on a list of "comebacks," because she's a damn good read.

at More Mindless Rambling - where are you, girl? You're on vacation, right? I'll keep your link around a little while.

Enchanted Revelry
- Same thing, Tristan, where are you?

Big Orange Landmark - Floyd's fans plead for his return. And even if his blog is inactive, his archives are a priceless resource for L.A. historians.

New friends:

Smalltown Mom - Heidi blogs from one of the most beautiful towns in California!

If the Thunder Don't Get Ya - blogging from Ohio, it's photos, it's politics, it's whimsy, it's worth a click!

One Perfect Bite - visit Mary's blog for some delicious recipes, and some great stories. You always learn something wonderful about food at One Perfect Bite.

Une Femme d'un Certain Age - she writes about living a stylish, adventurous, delicious life after 50.

I Need Mom! - Sue is the mom of two grownup children. She blogs about food, tablescapes and much more from the Midwest

Written, Inc.
- a brief journal of all things Carmi - a journalist who observes the world. Join in his Thematic Photographic challenge, once a week on Thursdays.

Skinny Girls & Mayonnaise - my neighbor's food blog. Check it out. The man can cook.

MAYBELLINE's Garden - MAYBELLINE has an amazing garden in Bakersfield, CA.

Big Bad Bald Bastard - blogging from the Bronx. Or maybe Brooklyn. Or maybe....well, one of those boroughs.

Jenn at Juggling Life - a teacher, a mom, and a wise, wise woman.


The Women's Colony is no more, but Derfwad Manor still stands. Go say Hi to the amazing Mrs. G.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Pie a Week - French apple custard

By now, pie dough is a breeze for me, using the all-butter recipe I found. Now I'm concentrating on thinking up creative fillings for pies.

I had some granny smith apples. I also had some eggs from our neighbor's chickens. In a book of recipes I bought when we visited Burgundy, France, I learned that a very common type of French pie is to bake fruit in a sweetened egg custard in an open-faced tart.

So I lined my small tart pan with pastry, and then sliced the peeled apples into crescents. I tossed the apple slices with brown sugar, and then sprinkled a bit of ground ginger into the bowl. I grated the peel of an orange, and added that to the bowl, too.

While I let the fruit take on the sugar, I spread a thin layer of red currant jelly on the bottom of the tart shell. Then I laid the apple slices in a decorative pattern into the shell.

I made a custard with two eggs, some half and half, and about a half-cup of sugar - I didn't want it too sweet. I sprinkled in some grated nutmeg and a little bit more of the grated orange peel. Then I poured it over the fruit in the shell.

I've seen French tarts with a decorative lattice pastry top, and I had enough confidence in my new favorite pie crust to think I could work with it. So I rolled out an oblong bit of dough and used a pinked pastry wheel to cut strips about 1/2" wide. I laid these across the top of the tart in one direction, spaced about 1 inch apart.

Then I wove the rest cross-wise, under and over the others. When finished, I pressed the ends into the sides of the pie, and sprinkled it with granulated sugar before putting it in the oven.

Here it is after 50 minutes of baking. Pretty nice, huh? And pretty tasty, too! We had it for dinner, and it held up nicely enough to go to work with me on Monday for lunch!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bucket List

"The Bucket List" is a 2007 movie staring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. It's about two terminally ill men, who become friends and decide to devote their remaining time to complete their wish-list of things they want to do before dying - or "kicking the bucket."

We shouldn't have to face death to start thinking about a Bucket List. Here - in no particular order - are some things I'd like to do before I kick the bucket:

1) Learn to surf

2) Visit the South of France

3) Learn to make real puff pastry

4) Learn how to paint with watercolors

5) Tour Sissinghurst Garden in England

What are the top five things on your Bucket List?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Palm Springs

We decided not to take a big vacation this summer. My beach assignment doesn't give me much free time, plus we're trying to keep the bank account healthy. But that doesn't mean we can't make a little getaway.

Palm Springs is about a hundred miles east of L.A. in the high desert in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains. The climate is hot and dry, with an average of 354 days of sunshine each year, and just over 5 inches of rain annually. Winters are warm and clear.

This weather made it a perfect winter resort, attracting tourists and retirees ranging from pennypinchers in trailer parks to the wealthy and glamorous folks who commissioned fantastic, homes from architects like Richard Neutra and others. Palm Springs is a treasure trove of Mid-Century Modern architecture, and of antiques and artifacts sold in stores and galleries along Palm Canyon Drive.

As a summer resort - well, you have to wonder about us. It's in the 70s' at the beach, and finally the weather was clear. What did we do? We drove out to a place where the temperature is 108!

The drive out to Palm Springs take you through fields of turning white windmills, generating electricity.

We checked into the Ace Hotel around 6:00 pm. This hipster haven is built on the site of an old Howard Johnson's Motor Inn. A series of stucco-faced buildings with rooms opening onto balconied walkways circle a courtyard planted with drought-tolerant native trees and shrubs, and a swimming pool. Its restaurant, the King's Highway, is a refurbished Denny's, white globe light fixtures hanging like moons above circular booths ranged beneath rustic stone walls.

While we sat at breakfast, I counted the number of diners gazing fixedly at their hand-held devices. Seven (including, for a little while, me).

Our suite had a living room with a sectional sofa, a walk-in shower, and a bedroom with a queen-size futon. On the wall, photos of '70s celebrities were affixed to a wall of slats with binder clips and hooks. Our coffee table was made of salvage steel, with giant casters and protruding hooks, and it was set upon a calf-skin rug.

There were two flat-screen TVs and a real turntable for lps, with a stack of pop albums like Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors." The mini-bar was geared towards guests who like to party - mid-sized bottles of tequila and Jack Daniels were on offer, along with tubs of candy corn, organic energy bars, flavored iced herbal tea, and "Intimacy Kits" - little tin boxes with condoms, lubricant, and flavored gel.

There's a dark cave-like bar, with tattooed bartenders sporting lip-studs. The drinks menu offers artisan cocktails with all-natural organic and herbal ingredients for "muddling" - but, honestly, the reviews on Yelp say the quality is a little spotty and the service is a bit lackadasical.

My cocktail was so weak, I asked the bartender if perhaps I'd been given the wrong menu item. He nonchalantly tipped the gin bottle and glug-glugged another shot into my glass. It was appalling customer service, but he did it with such good nature that I shrugged and cheerfully accepted it.

There were two swimming pools on the property - you could order cocktails and food to be delivered poolside, including adult Sno-Cones (made with alcohol), or even a whole barbecue dinner prepared for you at one of the outdoor fire-pits. The larger swimming pool was the place everyone went to see and be seen. I wandered out there briefly and it reminded me of one of those scenes in a travelogue where the crocodiles lay still in the shallow water, sipping margaritas and awaiting the gazelles who come down to the shore to drink.

The smaller pool was just outside our room, and although a stand-up comedian was working on a monologue in the pavilion next door, the scene was was quieter. We took an evening dip. The water was as warm as a bath.

We toweled off, refreshed, and our skin dried quickly in the hot dry night air. Then we headed to the bar to catch a set played by the band.

My endurance isn't what it was - I had to pack it in around midnight. But when I woke up the next morning at dawn, I got to catch the light show:

6:00 am

6:30 am

7:30 am

The hipsters - and [The Man I Love] - were all still snug in their beds, while I took a walk around and watched the rising sun paint the mountains with color.

If you have a longer stay, you can rent scooters or ride free bikes around town. There's a spa, a bingo night, and DJs on the weekend. Palm Springs is embarking on another century of resort culture - with a new, younger feel.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Road trip!

We're taking a little road trip! A quick adventure out of town, but we'll be back again tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Thematic Photographic - Blue

"Thematic Photographic" - Carmi at the blog Written, Inc. presents a weekly themed photographic challenge. This week's theme is BLUE. Check in and see who else contributes photos based on this idea.

Click to "embiggen"

Blue surfboard in a blue ocean beneath a blue sky.

Dancing on the sand

Remember what pure joy feels like.

This little girl is dancing with her reflection on the wet sand. Grandparents and little sister are just beyond the frame.

Thematic Photographic - Blue

"Thematic Photographic" - Carmi at the blog Written, Inc. presents a weekly themed photographic challenge. This week's theme is BLUE. Check in and see who else contributes photos based on this idea.

Colorists say that complimentary pairings across the color wheel are vivid and effective. Here, the combination of blue and orange give a little kick for a special event centerpiece.

Monday, August 16, 2010

French comfort food - California style

We're at a French bistro. Bentwood chairs, pressed-tin ceilings, old-fashioned tile. Waiters in white shirts and black ties, with long black aprons.

I'm having a classic French onion soup, topped with a toasted croute and some gruyere cheese, browned and melted. It's hot, intense, and delicious. A glass of St. Veran alongside is perfect.

A memory of last summer in Paris?

No, it's Santa Monica, California. We're cruising the Third Street Promenade, and checking out the new Santa Monica Place.

Anisette Brasserie occupies the ground floor of one of Santa Monica's most prominent landmarks. Designed by architects Albert R. Walker and Perry A. Eisen, it was built in 1929 for the Bay Cities Guaranty Company, and is a fantastic example of Art Deco style. At 12 stories, it towered over the smaller scale buildings in this beach city for many years. Even though taller buildings have since risen, it's still a landmark in town today.

You wouldn't think that there would be a natural connection between a Southern California beach town and a classic Parisian bistro. But despite the incongruity, it works. The Art Deco movement had its origins in Paris. And the style blossomed in Los Angeles.

So a classic French bistro works beneath the palm trees in Santa Monica. Don't you think so?

And the clock still works.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Pie a Week - Savory tarts

Since starting my "Pie a Week" project this summer, I've eaten a lot of pie. I have to confess, though, it's not dessert pies I like best - it's savory tarts.

The recipe is pretty basic - You can make a savory tart with almost any combination of vegetables in your fridge. Bake the vegetable and cheese with a rich egg custard, and you have a delicious and elegant lunch or brunch. You can cook one in the morning, and then have a nice dinner in the evening without heating up the kitchen.

First, you have to make the tart shell.

I've become so comfortable with the all-butter pastry recipe from chef Gordon Hamersley that I can make it in a few minutes.
  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 Teaspoon salt
  • 10 tablespoons (1 stick + 2 tablespoons) butter, cut into 1/4" slices
  • 6 Tablespoons of ice water.
Mix the flour and salt in a bowl, then cut the butter into it with a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingertips, until the butter is broken into pieces the size of a pea.

Pour the mixture onto a floured board and make a well in the center. A couple of Tablespoons at a time, mix in the ice water.

Gather the dough together, then roll into a log shape, about eight inches. With the heel of your hand, smear the dough on the board and gather it back together and repeat - this is called fraisage, and will form sheets of butter in the dough, creating the flake.

Shape the dough into a disc and wrap in plastic or foil and put in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

I use a Silpat sheet when I roll pastry dough. With a little bit of flour sprinkled on, I can roll this dough directly with my silicone rolling pin, but if your dough is sticking, you can roll it between two sheets of parchment paper or waxed paper. This dough stays together beautifully for me. If the edge gets misshapen, break off a piece and move it to where there's a gap - it should fill in nicely.

Line a tart pan with a removable bottom with the crust. For me, this dough is so easy to work with I can lift up the Silpat sheet and turn it upside down over the pan. Then I gently ease the sheet off the dough, and settle it into the pan. Trim the excess - you can roll it in a flat disc and freeze it for future use.

For a quiche or tart with custard, you have to pre-bake the shell. Line the shell with foil, and fill with dried beans or rice or pie-weights (you can buy these in cooking supply stores). Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, then remove the foil and the weights - use a fork to prick any places where there are air bubbles. Bake another 15 minutes, and cool.

What did I have in the fridge? I had some zucchini squash, some onions, and a half a large beefsteak tomato. I shredded the zucchini and chopped the onion, then sweated them in butter over the stove. I sprinkled in some fresh, chopped oregano for a little extra flavor.

I diced the tomato and let some of the liquid drain. I waited until the onion and zucchini were a little caramelized before adding the tomato. I spread the cooked vegetables in the bottom of the tart shell, and then grated some French Comte cheese I had in the fridge.

Then I whipped up a custard with eggs and half-and-half, poured it over the vegetables and cheese, and baked the tart in the oven at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.

It was pretty when it came out.

And look at how flakey the crust is! Also - buttery and delicious!

The classic quiche Lorraine is a tart with chopped ham or bacon. If you had nothing but an onion in your refrigerator, and some cheese parings, you could make a carmelized onion tart. Fennel would make an interesting tart, maybe with some tomato. You could use mushrooms, or peppers. Mild chiles with cheddar cheese would give a tart a Southwestern twist.

The combination of flavors is endless. And like pizza, it's a great way to use what's left in the fridge to make a great meal without having to go shopping.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mean Girls

Many authors have written about the unique phenomenon of female bullying, and it's been the subject of popular fiction as well. "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Mean Girls" show on screen how nasty women can be to one another. It happens in every phase of life - school, the workplace, the neighborhood, families. It happens in clubs and gyms and on sports teams.

Non-fiction self-help books about girl-on-girl bullying fill the shelves at the local bookstore, and articles fill women's magazines. There's even a jargon term for what women do to one another - "relational aggression". The bullying tactics include:
  • Betrayal - breaking promises or confidentiality
  • Exclusion - convincing others to shun the victim
  • Gossip - spreading personal information
  • Humiliation - shaming the victim in public
  • Lies - spreading lies
When a situation goes toxic, it's hard to combat. One reason is that women seem to be able to discern nuanced emotion, and they tend to give weight to finely calibrated gestures. So a subtle sneer of the lip, a sidelong glance, a cold shoulder turned at a precise moment - these things dig at women, while barely registering with men.

I spent the first 18 or so years of my career working mostly with men, in a blue-collar environment, engaged in physical labor that was often dangerous. My co-workers and even the people we worked for tended to be non-conformists, misfits, risk-takers, substance-abusers and outcasts. Conflicts in the workplace were profane, outrageous, and usually brief, concluding with someone's ass getting kicked and everyone else getting drunk and telling stories about it.

I am not used to conflicts where one person gets upset because another person moves a decorative object. I don't know how to deal with that. In fact, sometimes I don't even notice the things one person does that sets another person off.

I'm currently on assignment where I have no direct power, but I'm looked to as a person with knowledge and leadership. I'm here to support workers who are stressed by overwork, inconsistent policies, uncertainty and neglect. I'm here to support a new manager who needs some help.

Have you experienced a situation of "relational aggression" - whether at work or elsewhere? Have you been bullied? Have you had to mediate such a conflict?

How do you defuse a "Mean Girls" atmosphere?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Weekly Jack

Although he was raised in the city, found on the streets of L.A.'s Highland Park, Jack has adapted to our hippy-dippy ways here in Topanga.

He enjoys relaxing on the front porch and looking out at the world.

This ceramic sculpture featuring a mystic spiral was a gift from our friend, artist Rick Oginz.

Here, Jack's resting his paws on the spiral, as if it were a personal touchstone for him. Is he channeling its energy?
I'm worried he's getting just a little too groovy and New Age.
What do you think, is he getting in touch with his inner chakra?

Or does he have other ideas?