Sunday, May 30, 2010

Finger food

On an earlier post, we talked about how the traditions of immigrant communities change and diverge from those that remain in the home country - we were talking about cuisine, particularly.

Here in Southern California - and in other parts of the U.S. - there's an interesting culinary phenomenon that mingles the styles of two very different ethnic communities - Vietnamese and Cajun.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese refugees came to the United States. Many of them settled in Southern California - the city of Westminster in Orange County is one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in the United States. But many immigrants found a home and a livelihood on the Gulf Coast, in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Fishermen in Vietnam, they found it an easy transition to work in the seafood industry in America's Gulf Coast. Generations of Vietnamese immigrants absorbed the Cajun culture of the Louisiana and Texas coast.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Both communities love seafood, pork, rice and hot spices.

In September of 2005, Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast. Thousands of people fled, and some of them came to Southern California's Vietnamese-American communities. Interesting new restaurants opened up and became popular.

The Boiling Crab is the pioneer of the Vietnamese-Cajun seafood phenomenon in Southern California. Now with branches all over California and Texas, this mom-and-pop chain is a modern Vietnamese take on traditional Gulf Coast crab shacks. The seafood is shipped in from the Gulf Coast.

We went to the branch in Alhambra, California, on Valley Boulevard - Valley Boulevard is also home to some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Los Angeles County. From the outisde, the store looks like a fast-food restaurant. Out back by the parking lot, there are benches under a shady awning - because people line up here and wait for the food.

Our wait was only a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon. A pony-tailed woman in a t-shirt and shorts brought us cold beer and took our order. Then she tied plastic bibs around our necks. At first we wanted to turn down the offer, but then we looked around and saw that everyone else had one.

I don't know how traditional Cajun crab-boil joints cook their food, but something tells me that The Boiling Crab's technique is a modern innovation. You order your choice of seafood by the pound - you can get shrimp, crawfish, crabs (blue crabs, Dungeness or king crab legs).You pick the seasoning flavor of your choice - Cajun-style, with garlic, butter and cayenne - or Viet-style, with lemon pepper - or a mixture of the two, which they call "The Whole Shebang." They put the seafood and the seasoning (with some butter) in a food-quality plastic bag and dunk it in a boiling cauldron.

The tables are set with a sheet of butcher paper and a roll of paper towels. There are no utensils. When your food is done, the server brings a galvanized bucket out and dumps a plastic bag full of succulent shrimp, crawfish, or other seafood right onto the table. You just reach in with your hands and go for it.

The shrimp are big, plump, and served with their heads on. Gulf Coast shrimp are pale pink and sweet-fleshed.

This time of year, the crawfish are in season, so we got a pound of them. They're about 5 inches long, with their tails curled under them, fire-cracker-red with their little claws thrust out. For all their formidable appearance, there's not much meat in a crawfish. You break off the body at the joint of the tail, and prize out the small nugget of tender pink meat from the curled shell. . If the claws are big enough, you can crack them, too, and extract sweet slivers of meat. Brave diners suck the fatty juices from the crawfish body and head - "suck da head and pinch da tail" is the saying. I took a good look at the head and decided to take a pass on it.

Everybody uses their hands here. The nearby tables are filled with college kids, laborers, families with kids. Everyone's hands are dripping with garlic and butter and seasoning. All, from the smallest toddler to the oldest grandma are busy cracking crab claws in their fingers, twisting the heads off crawfish, and sucking the succulent meat from the shells. The butcher-paper table covers are littered with shrimp heads, crab shells, and the bright red carcasses of crawfish. If you ask, the servers will dump a pile of quartered lemons onto the table.

You can also get sides of corn on the cob, french fried potatoes or sweet potatoes, rice, and chunks of spicy sausage.

More beer, please!

When it's all over, the table is strewn with the carnage of a seafood orgy. The servers simply bundle the mess up in the butcher-paper and take it away. You're left with sauce up to your elbows and lemon wedges and towels to clean it up.

We were full and happy, but there was a poignancy about our experience, too. The seafood served at The Boiling Crab is shipped in from the Gulf Coast - and the BP oil spill is destroying the Gulf fisheries, perhaps for generations to come. Areas of the Gulf are closed to fishing, and soon the industry may shut down entirely. While enjoying all this abundance of seafood, I couldn't help thinking that maybe it would be for the last time in a long, long time.

Cajun-Vietnamese cuisine came into being as one immigrant community assimilated and adapted blending their traditions with the unique traditions they found in their new home. It traveled to Southern California after a natural disaster. Now another disaster affects these communities further - and affects all of us.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pink Saturday - blending colors

Pink Saturday - Beverly at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you! Today's post is in honor of Pink Saturday's anniversary - which debuted in 2008.

Sometimes things just happen by luck, or coincidence. This year, in my garden, was a perfect example. A rose, an old China rose called 'Mutabilis' burst into the year's first bloom at the same time as a selection of Scotch broom (Cytisus x 'Lilac Time') and their branches mingled together.

The broom, pale pink and maroon and purple, yet tinged with amber and cream, mingled with the blooms of the rose.

'Mutabilis', as its name suggests, is a changeable rose - single blossoms open golden, then flush to peachy-orange, then age to copper and cerise and finally fade a rich magenta.

The brilliant changing colors of the rose are enhanced by the deep red of its stems and new growth. Even its thorns - translucent when backlit by the sun - are suffused in a deep rosy glow.

Quite a bright, rich pink for a Pink Saturday.

'Mutabilis' is an ever-blooming rose, like most Chinas. Its changing colors are beautifully suited to the shifting tones and moods of a multi-season garden.

As the spring turns to summer and the blossom of the broom fade, a deep mahogany bearded iris turns the palette that echos the darker side of the rose's stems and aging flowers.

Later, the bright stems of the kniphofia, or 'Red hot poker' rise up from narrow grassy foliage next to the rose. Their tubular flowers, coral and honey-colored, punch up the brightness of the new buds.

A summer-long companion, the perennial gaura "Siskyou Pink" - its stems, buds and new leaves suffused with rose - its airy, lacy stems float like butterflies amid the rose blossoms.

Color - in all its richness. There's so much more to it, when you combine them together. That's one of the garden pleasures I want to share on this special Pink Saturday.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Weekly Jack

When we returned to L.A., I had to pick Jack up at the kennel mid-day on Monday. I didn't have the heart to just drop him off at home and go back to the office, so I brought him to work to show him off.

He found a cozy place to curl up under my desk, and we spent a happy afternoon together.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The beach

Today was my first day in my new work assignment at the beach. Here's what I saw when I stepped out of my car this morning. Click to "embiggen."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sicilian delicacies

We'd planned a day of exploring the Red Hook and Gowanas neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the latest site of the ever-shifting community of poor, resourceful artists colonizing marginal neighborhoods in New York. But the day broke with a heavy spring rain, drenching the streets. We decided to take the risk of going anyway because we'd learned about a place we should go for lunch - suggested by fellow blogger Big Bad Bald Bastard - that sounded too good to pass up.

Ferdinando's Foccacieria is in a funny little part of Brooklyn by the East River. Carved off by the busy Brooklyn Queens Expressway - called The Ditch- during the urban renewal of the 1950's, these little streets are orphaned from their Carroll Gardens neighbors. Two blocks from the river, where shipping container cranes rear against the sky, a small enclave of row houses and green gardens owes its serenity to its remoteness from public transportation.

The nearest subway stop is the G and F train, seven or eight block away at Smith Street and Carroll. We climbed up the steps from the train into a world of driving rain, the wind rushing down the streets and blowing our umbrellas open.

Past the dripping trees and pleasant brownstones, then cross the noisy BQE overpass - Here, on Union Street, across from a pizza and calzone place and a latticina - an Italian dairy store, our destination was a little store-front restaurant.

The guy hanging out at the front door showed us a bucket to dump our dripping umbrellas. We wandered into the room. Ferdinando's has been around since 1903, when it served lunches to the dockworkers and longshoremen working two block away at the Marine Terminal. The floors were tiled in in grey, cream and red mosaic, and a front counter displayed prepared foods and a big espresso machine. Paneled walls were hung with antique prints of Italy, and the ceiling was of original pressed tin. We took a seat at a small stone-topped table in back.

There were only two other tables occupied on this rainy day - a young couple at one, and at another, two women sat, a cup of coffee in front of one and a glass of red wine in front of the other. The waitress was sassy but she gave us time to check out the menu. The daily special was pasta with broccolini and garlic.

Ferdinando's serves sandwiches on foccacia bread, including the specialty sandwich vastedda, or spleen sandwich - tender stewed slices of organ meat served on a fresh-baked roll with riccotta and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. Or you might opt for a meatball or or sausage sandwich instead.

But we were interested in some traditional Sicilian specialties - namely the arancini, or fried risotto balls, and the panelle, fritters made from chick-pea flour that are common street-food in Sicily.

We'd read about other good offerings we wanted to try, including spaghetti with sardines, fennel, raisins and pine nuts.

We asked the waitress if we could have a few antipasti and then decide if we had room for more food. We ordered the special arancini, served with tomato sauce and cheese, an order of panelle, and an order of the Pomodori Seccihi Ripieni - stuffed sun-dried tomatoes.

While we waited, we listen to the ladies next to us talk - they sat there with their coffee and wine and talked non-stop about food.

"I like the linguine with vongole," said one, "I love those clams, I go crazy for them, I can eat them all night."

"And the shrimp," said the other. "Linguine with shrimp."

"I get 'em at Costco, you know? The prices..."

We were dying of hunger by the time the waitress placed first one and then another plate in front of us.

First were the sun-dried stuffed tomatoes - served with some pickled vegetables and a generous helping of caponatina, or eggplant cooked in a light vinaigrette with celery, olives and capers.

Then the impressive rice ball - the arancini. It was served in a pool of tomato sauce and topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese, sprinkled with a little Parmesan. Ferdinando's arancini wrap rice around a stuffing of ground meat and peas moistened with tomato sauce, shape it into a ball that is coated in bread crumbs and fried. Arancia is Sicilian for orange - and the round golden ball was just the size of a large Sunkist navel orange.

Next the panelle were served. Small rectangles of dough made with chick-pea flour, they're fried until they're crispy-puffy, and served with yet another blob of that creamy ricotta and sauce. If they sit just a bit, they go limp and oily, but they're so good when they're hot. Panelle means "panel" and these fritters were like crispy, oily, airy little panels of flavor.

The sun-dried tomatoes were amazing - the tomatoey flavor intense and sweet, the filling garlicy, herbed breadcrumbs. We sliced the rice ball into quarters and sopped it in the sauce - the outer crunch contrasted with the creamy richness of the cheese. The inner filling was good and meaty.

A couple of men came in, obvious regulars, and took a seat opposite the counter. They soon tucked in to meatball sandwiches. The couple to our left were served pasta with broccolini. The ladies started talking about calimari.

We mopped up the sauce and the ricotta with every morsel of the panelle, with every grain of rice.

The waitress came back - "You ready for something else?" I thought longingly of the spaghetti with sardines and wild fennel. There were also potato croquettes, tripe, and eggplant Parmesan on the menu. But I knew I was full. We begged off.

It was only Monday. We were here for a week. We'd come back, we promised ourselves.

Little did we know - our plans for a Saturday visit were foiled by extenuating circumstances and we missed our chance for another visit .... if any of you travel to New York, please go visit Ferdinando's for me and try the spleen sandwich.

Thank you, Big Bad Bald Bastard, for the suggestion.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Greenpoint streets

Greenpoint, Brooklyn is something of a backwater. North of McCarren Park in Williamsburg, this quiet neighborhood is still a working-class enclave. It is not well-served by New York's subway system - only the isolated and often unreliable "G" Train goes through it.

This isolation has kept Greenpoint from the rampant inflation of hipster-cool and real estate speculation that has driven its neighbor Williamsburg - at least, it has delayed the boom.

Originally a neighborhood of second generation Italian and Eastern European immigrants, Greenpoint experienced a new influx of immigration in the 1980s after political upheaval in Poland. Polish language signs are on all the stores, and people passing on the street speak Polish. This is a young immigrant population - on Saturday night we passed a clutch of twenty-somethings, hanging out near a parked car, drinking beer and arguing in Polish, one young woman reeling out a long slurred diatribe against someone named Christina.

Other than that, the streets are quiet. On a Saturday, older residents sit on the stoops in front of the row houses, chatting with passing neighbors. Some wash their cars at the curbside. The houses here show no sheen of inflated real estate values - the old brownstone row houses are sooty, with old black-painted wrought iron fences surrounding concrete pads lined with battered metal trash cans. Some houses are covered with aluminum siding, awkward vestibules, and curved awnings.

Manhattan Avenue is the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, and it is a bustling street with Polish restaurants, pharmacies, bakeries and bar-rooms. Unlike Williamsburg, where even the roughests saloons reveals painstakingly restored pressed-tin ceilings, paintings displayed on the wall beneath track lights, and lithe, elegant bar-tenders covered with tattoos, these bar-rooms are unabashed neighborhood dives, serving pedestrian Budweiser instead of trendy Stella and PBR.

Our flat was 13 blocks north of Manhattan Avenue. The further north you walked on Nassau Street, the busy commerce of restaurants and bars gave way to more domestic services - laundromats and convenience stores. We walked past a small park, where even at eight o'clock on a spring night, children's voices rang in the air. Familes walked along or sat on benches by the laundromat. Not families in yoga-garb pushing jogging strollers, but working-class families - housewifely moms and dads in basketball jerseys. Older couples carrying shopping bags from the local stores shuffled slowly, going home.

We were tired; we were hungry. We had just changed flats and weren't sure where to go. We walked into a Polish deli where a long glass case displayed dozens of meats and cheeses and pans of salads. Bright tags stuck on the glass were written in Polish. We had no idea what anything was, but it all looked good. Behind the counter, two blond women worked - one filling orders, the other breaking down and cleaning one of the two slicing machines.

"Hi," I said. "We just got into our apartment, and we don't know the neighborhood. Can you make us some sandwiches?"

At first she hesitated, looking at her co-worker. It was closing time - you could tell she just wanted to go home. "You can buy by the pound," she suggested, in accented English.

"Oh, please, we just got in and we're so tired, can't you just make two sandwiches, whatever's easiest, please? We don't have anything in the apartment."

She looked, then she nodded. She motioned to the bins of bread near the doorway. "Choose your bread," she said. "You like ham? Salami?" We agreed enthusiastically. "Cheese - American or Polish?" "Polish, please," we said. "You like pickle? Cole slaw?"

By the time she gave us the bag with two nicely wrapped sandwiches, some sodas, napkins and plastic cups, we were all smiling at one another. The sandwiches cost three dollars each. We left a couple singles in the tip jar.

Back home in the apartment, here's our sandwich. Whole-grain bread with sunflower seeds, Polish salami and cheese with mayo, slices of pickle, and some cole slaw. It was the best sandwich I've ever eaten - nourishment combined with generosity and friendship.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Color at the beach

Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in California, our beach's life-guard shacks are a familiar sight.

These shed-roofed wooden shacks, with their ramps or steps appear in films, TV and commercials shot on the beaches of L.A. They are such an iconic symbol of our lifestyle that I once saw them used - in scale-model form - as part of a floral centerpiece for a fundraising dinner.

They are painted pale and faded aqua - a pleasing color against the sand and the sea.

But this May, driving past the beach on my regular commute, I've been startled to see bright colors at the shacks. The handrailings and ramps of each shack are now brilliantly colored - orange or yellow, green or bright blue, and purple. What's going on?

It's part of a five-month public art project called "Summer of Color," sponsored by Project of Hope, a private non-profit. Thousands of local volunteers painted the railings, and also decorated panels to be installed on each tower. Many of the young artists are participating in arts and creative therapy programs for ill, disabled, or troubled kids, programs sponsored by the non-profit.

Photo of completed tower from L.A. County website

The colorful lifeguard towers will be on display all summer long, and when the project is over, the plywood panels will be donated to Haiti to be used in building transitional shelters.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Green Dome

Green Dome Garden is a tiny wedge of space by McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Stone paths wind through raised beds of flowering perennials and shrubs, and along the way benches allow visitors to sit and contemplate.

It was begun in 1997, and to this day is maintained by volunteers.

Here a violet clematis flowers in a sprawling mound. Behind, a shrub rose with single flowers and the architectural shape of an ornamental grass. In the foreground, a variegated juniper adds some color and sparkle.

Next to the garden is a space where volunteers make compost, bringing food waste from nearby apartment and restaurant kitchens to turn into the brown gold of garden compost.

Here shade-loving saxifraga stolonifera, or the strawberry begonia plant, clambers up the cobblestones.

On the sunny, south side of the garden, bold purple irises bloom in the foreground. Behind, yellow irises, coral bells, and a silver, spiky cardoon plant.

The teardrops of Dicentra spectabilis, the showy bleeding heart, gently sway behind the wrought iron fence.

Having a garden like this in an urban setting is a sign of a great neighborhood.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

So proud

Here's why we came to New York this week.

Bachelor of Arts with honors.

We are so proud of him.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Notable moments in traveling

[The Man I Love]
enjoys traveling, and in the last ten years or so he's been exploring apartment sublets instead of hotels. You pay someone to stay in their apartment in the city of your destination, at a cost cheaper than most hotels, and you get more space and the convenience of a kitchen. It's a pretty good deal.

Florida sublet bedroom

We've had pretty good luck, in general - there were some quirky places, like the apartment in Boston, finished in what appeared to be odds and ends and leftovers from a tile distributor. Or the beach house in Florida with fake jungle decor. Some places remind you that the scale of life life is different in big cities - like the five-story Greenwich Village walk-up with a kitchen the size of a closet. Others reflect their owners' personality, like the SoHo artist's studio filled original paintings and books. Or the London flat with the lace curtains and chintz upholstery and the odd bathroom that smelled like sewer gas.

But our Brooklyn place this trip has been an adventure from Day One.

A beautiful apartment, in a lovely building, nicely furnished and comfortable. WiFi, washer/dryer, security building, newer construction. Best of all, it has an incredible view of the Manhattan skyline, and a great rooftop patio for entertaining. It belongs to a young man in the arts and academic field, and he rented it to us while he traveled in New England.

On Day One we discovered that we couldn't access the internet with our laptops, despite the promises and his detailed instructions. There was one gateway password he neglected to tell us - and couldn't remember.

Reached by phone, he kindly allowed us to use his own computer (I'm writing this post on it at this moment), and we have been online all week. Though it's somewhat inconvenient, since we aren't used to his Mac, being PC types.

The next morning, we couldn't turn on the shower. Despite research on plumbing fixtures when remodeling my own bathroom, I could not figure out how to divert the water from the faucet to the showerhead. Finally, we received a message with instructions. Problem solved.

The bedsheets seemed less than fresh, but since we had a washer and dryer, we could fix that.

The refrigerator had an odor that grew stronger day by day. On the third day, we washed out the crisper drawers, throwing away the rotting onions inside. That helped, but something lingered. I'm leaving a box of baking soda as a hostess gift.

Brooklyn rooftop

This evening, though, was the last straw. We had a party. We assembled on the rooftop with pizza and wine. Up and down the stairs our guests went, carrying food, making bathroom trips, running down to buzz people up, and other errands. Then - someone came back up the stairs from the apartment.

"I can't open the door."

One of us went down with the key. The key turned in the lock, it went round and round, the latch was pressed and nothing happened. Try it again.

Send down someone else. Press, push, twist, jiggle. Nothing.

I tried it myself. The lock twiddled and twitched and turned. As I watched, the larger cylinder of the lock rotated in its fitting so the key-fitting now stood at 7 o'clock instead of its normal 6 o'clock position.

That can't be good.

At least four people tried to open the door, including me - touting my mechanical experience; my husband - since he'd been the possessor of the keys most of this week; my son - since he'd been the last person to open the door; my son's girlfriend's father - since, oh, why shouldn't the only other adult male try? Not to mention a young woman journalism student from Serbo-Croatia who claimed experience in lock-picking. (I spent ten minutes watching her try to pick the lock with a Metrocard and hearing about the nuances of the technique. She knows her stuff.)

Nothing worked.

So we called our young landlord, who told us that "it's happened before" and "all you need to do is turn it and tighten it and keep jiggling it." He didn't seem to get that we'd already been doing that for an hour, and we needed some real expertise. What was the phone number of the building superintendent, we asked. And did he know a locksmith?

Meanwhile, several of the party guests were getting nervous. Everyone's purses and coats and wallets were safely locked in the apartment - along with their housekeys and all their money. People had to go to the bathroom.

We called the locksmith our landlord recommended, but he didn't answer. So we called Information for an emergency locksmith in the neighborhood. While we waited, we worked on the rest of the wine, and tried to dissuade some of the more adventurous guests from trying to scale down the facade of the building onto the balcony to break in.

When the locksmith arrived, it took him about 15 minutes to pop the door. While he was working, another party guest arrived with hugs and kisses and squeals of greeting, stepping over his toolbag on the hallway floor. I went up to the roof and announced to the group, "we're IN!" - and all the female guests sprinted downstairs to use the bathroom.

The party came down to the apartment for the cold pizzas that had been locked away in the kitchen. The locksmith sprayed the mechanism with WD-40, flicked the latches back and forth and tested them with the key to make sure it worked, and then produced the bill for his services.


He did not accept the offer of a free pizza. Well. This will be discussed at length with our landlord.

We sure know how to throw a great party, don't we? The merriment continued for another hour.

What kind of housing travel disasters have you experienced?