About nine months ago, we defected from our CSA subscription. Community supported agriculture is a really awesome way of buying produce if you don’t mind eating kohlrabi all the time. We unfortunately do mind at great deal. Our CSA totally sucked the life out of us. Too many turnip greens and too much guilt. Have you ever noticed that when food people first subscribe to a CSA it’s like “OMG, best thing ever!” You start with all kinds of horn o’ plenty photos of the CSA bounty. Then you get real busy with Chez Panisse Vegetables, Plenty, and Tender: A Cook and his Vegetable Patch. “I’m Yotam motherfucking Ottolenghi!” you roar, and you dress those vegetables with yogurt and sumac. “I’m a bacon-studded vegetarian!” you shout, to no one in particular. You’re gonna use all those beet and turnip greens if it kills you, goddamn it! You subsist on beet and turnip green frittatas and quiches for a few weeks. You roast those beets. You shred them raw, and dress them with mustard. You eat so many beets it hurts. Like, actually hurts. You realize, somewhere about two months in, that you have some kind of digestive aversion to beets. You have literally given yourself irritable bowel syndrome from all the beet-eating, but you keep going. You slog through those long winter months. You like borscht, really! Lots and lots of borscht. You go on a trip at some point, and even though you try to prepare by “gifting” your friends your turnips (“MERRY CHRISTMAS MAN!”), a fridge full of vegetables somehow rots in your absence. Somewhere along the way, you start stockpiling kohlrabi, because you don’t know what to do with it. Inexplicably, it neither rots nor improves with age. Even when you figure out what to do with it, you discover that nobody actually likes kohlrabi. Except Kashmiris, apparently. Working your way through a battery of Kashmiri kohlrabi recipes, you begin to suspect that Kashmiris don’t really like kohlrabi either. Sometime in the spring, you become delirious over a tiny basket of strawberries. “Our strawberries came in!” you announce to your friends, who don’t understand why you had to wait until your CSA deigned for you to eat strawberries. Because you are drowning in guilt, and turnip greens, and ganth gobi, friendo. After a long talk with your spouse and your therapist, you decide to quit your CSA. You send a long, apologetic email to the farm. “It’s no you, it’s us!” you write, even though there was a half-rotten plum in the last basket, and the greens were full of mites. Your ears burn with shame. If anyone asks about your CSA, as just a year earlier you talking of nothing else, you sheepishly say that it was too many vegetables for just the two of you. “If we had kids, maybe…” you say, because people with kids obviously have all the time and energy in the world to figure out how to get their kids to eat a never-ending stream of kohlrabi and turnip greens. Then you go back to the farmer’s market and bam! There are fifteen new varieties of pluot since your last visit. And you don’t ever have to buy kohlrabi again, ever.
I bet you have a really amazing CSA that isn’t at all about turnip greens and guilt. I’m so happy for you.
The farmer’s market of our fair hamlet is rather underwhelming by Southern California standards—and by that I mean, it would still murder a green market most anywhere else. So we’ve returned to shopping at the Irvine Farmer’s Market at University Center on Saturday mornings, which remains, for my money, the best farmer’s market in Orange County for fruit and vegetables. My favorite fruit stand there is Arnett Farms of Fresno, where they have taken the hybrid thing to the extreme. I have a limited attention span for fruit, and I want the Forever 21 of farm stands. At last visit, Arnett had nine different varieties of pluot in every color imaginable, and we’re only at the beginning of stone fruit season. I realize I’m totally Columbusing here, but bear with me. My most exciting discovery this week is the cherrium, a cherry-plum hybrid. About an inch in diameter with a tiny stone, they are like everything I’ve ever wanted in a fruit: tart, sweet, firm, and mouth-poppable. I’ve devoured a giant bag in thirty-six hours, and I’m nervous they will be gone by next week. You should get some before they are gone, unless of course you are beholden to your CSA for your stone fruit selections. Now if your CSA has cherriums, I think you’ve hit the jackpot.
K: Did you see the Eater article I posted about Jessica Koslow’s new dinnertime venture?
Me: Totally. What are they going to call it? Night Squirrel?
Here’s the Eater post:
And a writeup in last month’s Bon Appetit, complete with a recipe for the sorrel pesto rice bowl of destiny:
The Bear-Garden has never been so au courant.
I know there have been some crickets chirping around here lately, but I have a most excellent excuse this time: I finished my dissertation, filed it, and am now a doctor everywhere except on flight manifests (because who wants that kind of a mess?). The whole graduation rigmarole was very nice, with my and B’s parents flying in for the weekend along with my friend MT. We ate ourselves stupid at Pizzeria Mozza (No pictures blogger! They will cut you!) and Gen Korean barbecue. If the weekend felt somewhat anticlimactic, it was probably because when I filed my dissertation at the university archives the week prior, I had felt the most obscene level of happiness humanly possible. I mean, it literally felt like a giant ray of light shot down from the sky and bathed my entire being in a sense of wellbeing and accomplishment—it was that good. I’d tell you to write a dissertation just for the sake of that feeling if you haven’t already, dear reader, but it’s surely a boneheaded way of going about it. Having a kid probably yields the same results and the gestation period is only nine months—not, gulp, nine years like in the case of my little monster spawn.
The letdown has been epic—I basically wanted to nothing but sleep. I also somehow managed to contract a gross cold in the past few days, so I’ve been laying low and catching up on Orange is the New Black like everyone else in America. Fortunately, I’ve got a week off before my summer class starts, though it may be cancelled thanks to low enrollment. If that happens, you should expect lots of recipes this summer for rice and beans. All this other stuff aside, I mainly want to tell you about the BLTs we’ve been making around here lately.
The BLT is not only my favorite sandwich, but it’s the foodstuff I most intimately associate with independence and fresh starts. If the two great hurdles of living alone are eating in a restaurant alone and going to the movies alone, the BLT was my gateway drug. As an eighteen year old proto-emo kid living alone for the first time in New York City, I discovered that a BLT and a cup of coffee at virtually any diner rung up for less than five bucks, and that people tended not to give a loner that pitying look at art house cinemas. I spent many, many afternoons tucking into a perfect BLT at the Silver Spurs diner on Houston before shuffling over the Film Forum for a flick or two. Like most ventures into doing things alone, this routine was terrifying at first, until it became the best thing ever.
My perfect NYC diner BLT is two toasted slices of sourdough bread slathered with Hellman’s mayonnaise, topped with a few slices of thin crispy bacon, half a rosy hothouse tomato, and romaine lettuce. Bonus points if they sprinkle salt and pepper on the mayo before assembly. When I moved to California, I searched and searched in vain for Hellman’s. How could the best shelf-stable mayonnaise in the world not be readily available west of the Rocky Mountains? It took nearly a decade for me to Google the problem and discover that Best Foods mayonnaise (which Californians revere with the same intensity as New Yorkers do Hellman’s) is the same goddamn product. As if the little blue bow and the tagline “bring out the best” weren’t enough of a tip-off for this Ph.D. If just now your brain exploded from this insight into the branding intricacies of late capitalism, I’ll just go ahead and say it: “You’re welcome.”
The BLTs, or BALTs as the case may be, that I’ve been making at home lately are a slightly different animal. Toasted French bread is anointed with Best Foods on both sides, sprinkled with salt and pepper, then piled high with thick slices of applewood smoked bacon and farmer’s market avocados, heirloom tomatoes, and baby greens. The BLT is no longer the sandwich of triumphant solitude. I make one for B, and the movies we go to afterward are usually sneaky double features at the multiplex. But they still feel pregnant with the possibility of a new sort of life, one a little better than the one prior. Happy summer, dear reader. It’s good to be back.
I’ll fess up straight away—I’ve always been a Canter’s gal. Not particularly because I think that Canter’s pastrami is oh-so-special—though I do think it is quite good, and sometimes it can be amazing. No, I’m a Canter’s devotee because I quite literally don’t understand how anyone can eat an enormous pastrami Ruben in the middle of the day and still be a productive member of society. Pastrami is usually reserved for late nights in my book, preferably eaten after a few drinks and maybe a double feature at the New Beverly. I like Canter’s because I can get a Ruben and a chocolate egg cream at one a.m., and take some rugelach to-go for following morning.
After years of hearing about the transcendent pleasure of Langer’s pastrami, however, I decided it was time to venture out of my comfort zone. As Langer’s is only open until four p.m., we decided to make a lunch of it a few weeks ago. It was an ambitious plan—heaps of pastrami to be followed by the Alexander Calder show at LACMA and an evening screening at Cinefamily. I had hot pastrami on rye with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, while K had the same sandwich with corned beef. B, who acted as though he was on a drunken dare as opposed to a casual lunch, ordered chili cheese fries topped with a heap of pastrami. It was all of course delicious, but we were entirely bested by the beef. The rest of the afternoon was spent in a haze, and I can’t for the life of me see how anyone makes a regular lunch out of Langer’s specialties. Also, am I missing something, or is there not a proper Ruben on the Langer’s menu? To me, a Ruben is toasted rye, warm pastrami or corned beef, Russian dressing, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese. I’m not really feeling the coleslaw or spicy American cheese thing, though I’m sure I could be edumucated to change my mind. Next time I’ll try going to Langer’s when I have absolutely no other plans and can fully devote myself to a meat-coma afternoon. It’s really too bad about those fries, however. I can’t imagine a more delightful midnight snack.
As transplants have likely attested since the beginning of time, the seasons (or, rather lack thereof) in Southern California take some getting used to. I grew up in the foothills in Colorado, where long summers and winters are slightly punctuated with a short, muddy spring full of snowstorms and a week of prime aspen viewing in the autumn. I was thrilled as an adult to discover the pleasures of spring and fall in places with four distinct seasons, including New York City, where I spent my college years. It was a shock, then, to move to California and find myself confronted with an endless procession of sunny, seventy-degree days, month after month, year after year.
Yet one always finds new ways of tracking these things. Despite this terrible drought, a few seasonal markers have still come to pass this year, my favorite being the spring flowering of trees, species quite exotic to this pine tree forest bred lady. The purple blossoms of jacaranda trees now carpet our street, and a nearby block boasts the most beautiful flame of the forest that I’ve ever seen. I take a special detour on my way home every day to marvel at its primeval good looks.
Surely the most unpleasant seasonal symptom here is the arrival of the Santa Ana winds. They howled into town quite unseasonably yesterday, and the resulting mix is ninety-degree heat, clouds of dust, and total desiccation. We’re used to seeing them in the ‘fall’, when memories of our relatively temperate summers are scorched out by these desert winds. Sweaty and parched, I needed a reminder today of how beautiful things were last week and thought you might too, so here’s the photographic evidence. Hope you are staying cool, dear reader, wherever this finds you.
Last August, I realized that I had reached a total shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment (apologies for the unfortunate expression) in writing my dissertation. As in, if I didn’t sit down that very minute and write the darn thing, there was no reason for me to keep pretending that I was going to finish the degree I had started when, well, if not when dinosaurs walked the earth, certainly well before my looks had faded and I turned into my current, mean old crone iteration. Appropriating the title of a rather unremarkable Asian Dub Foundation song that my college boyfriend had liked, August was declared “New Way New Life.” I woke with the sun, packed a PB&J, hauled my ass to the library, and staked out my favorite carrel. I wrote, in the great words of Cheryl Strayed, like a motherfucker. All day, every day that I wasn’t at my consulting gig.
At the end of the month, my dissertation wasn’t exactly done, but I at least had enough written that I felt I would have a fighting chance to enter the fall academic job market (snort, chortle, etc.). To half-heartedly celebrate, we decided to go to the beach in Newport for an afternoon and muck around on the jetty, known in these parts as the groin. As you well know, B positively lives for any imposing rock feature that he can scramble around on. We started out about an hour before sunset, easily making our way out on the initial stretch. Close to the shore, the boulders are tight against one another, making it easy to jump from one to the next. But it’s a really, really long jetty, you guys, and as you get further out, it becomes increasingly tougher going. In a grand tradition of bad footwear decisions, I was wearing sandals and found it difficult to keep my footing on the boulders, many of which were now slick with water from the rising tide and the waves crashing against the Balboa side. Lest you think I’m kidding about the size of these waves, take a quick Google of The Wedge. It was cold, I was miserable, but we just kept going. And going. And going.
As we neared the end, we started to reach groups of fishermen, many of whom make their living by fishing daily off the groin. It was of course mortifying to watch their nimble negotiation of the jetty rocks, as I flailed and slipped and scraped my hands. Nearing the end, I made my way over a particularly gnarly stretch only to find myself suddenly face-to-face with the bloated corpses of two big manta rays, likely abandoned by a bewildered amateur fisherman days or weeks earlier. They stunk to high heaven, and I was so startled that I actually screamed when I saw their putrid, cloudy grey eyes.
I thought, of course, of this:
The whole trip had taken on a totally manic quality by that point, and I was psychically overcome with fear as we neared the furthest reaches of the jetty. Fear that if I didn’t go all the way that B would be angry and disappointed in me, fear that we wouldn’t have enough light to navigate our way all the way back to the beach, fear that the tide would come in even higher and that I would slip and fall to my death. Fear, quite frankly, that I had reached some kind of turning point in my life where all of my good luck had run out and the darkness was descending. As we reached the lighthouse—rank with fish guts and littered with trash and used condoms—B awkwardly attempted to stage a romantic moment, putting his arm around me as the wind whipped through our hair. The stench was overpowering, and I choked back fear-or-fish-smell induced vomit, smiled weakly, and said, “Great, we’re halfway there.”
Yet somehow—and this I knew from years of hiking—the turn-around point is never really halfway. It’s actually much farther along. I found myself suddenly more agile on the rocks, deftly jumping over those dead mantas and nodding happily at the disinterested fishermen. B and I began to chat, and in this direction, we weren’t just talking about the best trajectory or how miserable I was. “You’re taking me to the Crab Cooker tonight,” I declared, “and I’m getting a cold beer and entire Dungeness all to myself.” B, who was likely amazed that I hadn’t chickened out much earlier, eagerly agreed to my terms. We jokingly began to compare climbing Newport jetty to the process of writing a dissertation. “Where are you in the writing now?” he asked. “Here!” I announced, just as we reached the final section where the boulders were suddenly closer together, smooth from the many casual feet that had only ventured this far. The beach was close, and I could practically taste my crab.
The Crab Cooker, for those of you not in the know, is a Balboa Peninsula institution that opened in 1951. I suspected it was a landmark of sorts when I first arrived in Orange County back in the dark ages, as my teenage guilty-pleasure show The OC had featured a thinly veiled “Crab Shack” in many episodes. The Crab Cooker is a small seafood market and a bigger restaurant, and it’s one of those remarkable places that just keeps doing the thing that they do well, year after year, paper plate after paper plate. Nothing is fancy, and the sides are pleasantly retro, but if you want a cup of soul-soothing clam chowder, some deep-fried soft shells, or a skewer of some of the plumpest scallops you’ll ever eat, this is the place. It’s touristy, and there is often a long wait, so we don’t go very often. But, I’ll tell you what, nothing has ever tasted as good as my cold Bud and my Dungeness crab did that night after we climbed the jetty.
If you’ll continue to humor this entry’s odd metaphor for a moment, I’ll confide to you that I was of course not even remotely as close to the finish line as I thought I was that night. Sadly, I was probably only at my first glimpse of the dead manta rays, nauseous with fear and still twenty yards from the lighthouse turn-around point. I still had to spend months searching endlessly for jobs, sick with worry like clockwork every morning at four a.m. I still had months of near-misses on dream gigs, punctuated by stomach-churning rejection letters from schools in places like Pocatello, Idaho (no offense). It was a real fish-gut-and-old-condom kind of experience, if I’m being totally honest. I still had another New Way New Life period in store for three weeks this spring, days where I battened down the hatches, snarled at anyone who came near my carrel, and wrote an introduction and a last-minute chapter. I wrote again, dear reader, like a motherfucker.
I’m happy to tell you that I have finally reached those smooth, evenly-set boulders. I sent my full dissertation to my committee a few weeks ago, and now I am just waiting for their scrawls of approval on my filing form. I have a bit of work to do—some copyediting, a bit of shuffling, a few citations. But I’m almost there. I think I’ll skip the climbing the jetty again and stick with the most delicious part of my reified analogy. I think you know where I’ll be going to dinner the night I officially file this damn thing. I’ll keep you posted.
I recently met up with my friend K in the city of Westminster, where she had been storing her belongings for several years while she was living in Tokyo. Yes, I totally just said that as if that is a completely normal, not absurdly fabulous way to spend a few years. Do we want K to teach us all about Japanese food, dear reader? I think so! If nothing else, I do think that she should be our guide for a Los Angeles ramen Hungerdome, yes? Let’s relentlessly pester her until this happens, Bear-Gardeners.
I can’t recommend Westminster’s self-storage facilities, as poor K’s space was vandalized during her time away. Clarence and I can, however, recommend Westminster for eating. Among the OC’s many attributes is one of the largest (the largest?) Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam. Westminster boasts some staggeringly good Vietnamese food, though I’ve yet to find the bánh mì of my dreams. Don’t worry, I’m looking, but in the meantime, my heart remains true to this place.
We met for lunch at a place called Dat Thanh, which is a completely wonderful, family-run spot. The friendly son runs the front room, and his parents cook in back. We started off with Vietnamese iced coffees (natch), which were so delicious that we were actually warned to take our time or suffer a too-quick caffeine buzz. We started with an order of nem nuong cuon thu duc (pork sausage spring rolls) that were just the right mix of crunchy bits, pressed meat, and fresh herbs. The real standout in my opinion, however, are Dat Thanh’s broken rice dishes. K and I shared a tom nuong & ga nuong (BBQ chicken and shrimp), a positively revelatory combination of charbroiled meat and fish on some of the most addictive rice I’ve ever tasted. Neophytes that we were, the owner instructed us to mix chile paste with a sweetened, reduced fish sauce in small bowls, then pour it over the whole dish. One of the things I like best about K is that she immediately said that she wished we had gotten our own plates and not shared, which is basically how Clarence feels about everything. And at a door-busting seven bucks for the entire plate, I certainly won’t be sharing again.
Nota bene, Dat Thanh is cash only, and the owner emphasized that it really is a family-run business, so don’t be coming in at five minutes until closing and expect to sit down for an hour. The place is such a gem, and I’m literally counting the minutes until I can get back for my own plate of com tam hay bun.