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.
If the slide into bourgeois bohemian middle age is signaled by weekly farmer’s market visits and excessive zeal for new kitchen gadgets, I am the avalanche. Unable to consume one more raw cherry and compelled to make a cobbler to address our bounty, I found myself without a cherry pitter. A quick trip to Sur La Table later, I was redecorating my kitchen in fuchsia splotches. I chose the OXO version, which while handsome, I can only partially recommend on account of the splattering and the fact that my husband nearly broke a tooth on the many pits I failed to remove.
On a side note, is totally disturbing to me that the employees at our neighborhood Sur La Table know me by name, thanks in part to our wedding registry last year. Consumer capitalism gets you good when you get hitched—I’m still receiving an unsolicited, unwelcome copy of Brides magazine each month. Little do the power that be know, I was the most disappointing participant in the wedding industrial complex of all time. This county courthouse bride didn’t even manage register for a cherry pitter!
You probably already have a go-to cobbler recipe, but I thought I’d tap out mine. At some point my recipe was essentially a Joy of Cooking/Betty Crocker hybrid, one I cobbled together, wink wink. But it’s enough my own now that the specifics may be worthwhile if you find yourself with an excess of cherries, sweet or sour.
4 cups of pitted fresh cherries (I used sweet, but you could use sour and up the sugar)
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4.5 tablespoons room temperature unsalted butter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons sugar
2-½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup milk
Heat oven to 375º.
Pit those damn cherries. Bemoan the fact that your kitchen now looks like a shocking pink Pollack painting. Realize that you don’t have a lime. Steal a lime from your neighbor’s lime tree down the street. Mix cherries with 1/2 cup sugar, cornstarch, lime zest, and vanilla extract. Pour into ungreased baking dish that will fit the whole damn things with a few inches to spare for biscuit.
Cut room temperature butter into flour, 3 teaspoons sugar, baking powder and salt in medium bowl using a knife, until mixture look like fine crumbs. Stir in milk. By the spoonful, drop dough by onto filling mixture.
Bake 35-40 minutes or until topping is golden brown and fruit juice is oozing up and appears to have thickened. Eat with vanilla ice cream. And cobbler for breakfast is the bee’s knees, duh.
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 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.
When I was still living in the Midwest, I asked my friend M if there was anything he missed about living in Los Angeles. He suddenly got a far-away look in his eyes and quietly murmured, “The boat noodles at Sapp Coffee House. Oh god, those noodles.” I’d never made it to Sapp during my previous time in California, and I more or less forgot about M’s haunted reference until I happened to be looking for a place to eat in Thai Town around Christmastime. We decided to give it a shot and were pleased to find Sapp to be a bright, friendly spot with some of the tastiest Thai coffee around (it is a coffee shop, after all). B and I decided to share some boat noodles with beef and the also much-hyped jade noodles. The boat noodles were as amazing as M had promised: slightly chewy and swimming in a dark, silky broth. Yeah, I know, boat noodle broth is made from blood, but you probably know by now that blood doesn’t bother me in the least. This is the kind of thing you want to eat on a cold rainy day.
But for me it was the jade noodles that were a total revelation. Roasted duck slices and barbecue pork chunks, a downy pile of crabmeat, scallions, cilantro, peanuts, chiles, and sugar top a mound of green noodles. Talk about trayf! There is something about the sparkly sweetness against the subtle heat against the herbaceous noodles that just really kicked it into gear for me. I could eat those noodles every damn day. And at about six bucks a bowl with some of the sweetest employees around, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
So the cat’s out of the bag: most of you know that I’ve spent the last eleven months or so in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University and a relatively high sleeve-to-man ratio compared to the rest of the Hoosier state. We were here so that B could get his ducks in a row, and while I rather dreaded the move from Paris to cornfields, the year been much better than I imagined it could be. Evidence, in fact, for my feel-good theory that I can be happy just about anywhere if some nice folks, yummy food, and a decent library surround me. Serious cinemas also help, as do convivial bars. While I abandoned our Booze or Lose feature relatively quickly in my Paris coverage—frankly, I ran out of different pithy ways to say “There’s wine! And beer!”—I thought I’d resuscitate Clarence’s alcoholic alter ego and tell you where you should be drinking in Bloomington should you find yourself here.
If you’re like me, or at least enough like me to want to read this here blargh, you probably want to skip the bars that have a decidedly rapey-frat boy vibe. This unfortunately includes most of the beloved IU watering holes, including Kilroy’s (or as I call it, “Kill Me Now”) and Nick’s. Hoosiers will probably argue with me on the latter count, and I’ll admit that I’ve spent some enjoyable evenings at Nick’s in good company. But let’s get real: tradition aside, the place smells weirdly like antiseptic and old chewing gum, and the draft beer selection isn’t the best. B, the old man on the mountain here in B-Town, councils that while the upstairs can get kind of rough on the weekends, the downstairs area is always a great place for a drink if you want to have a real cream and crimson kind of experience. If it was good enough for Dylan Thomas, it’s good enough for him. B also advises that Hoosier-history lovers should make a stop at The Bluebird, where local legend John Cougar Mellencamp got his start.
If you like a bit better craft beer selection and a hipster grad student crowd (it is a university town, after all, and in Bloomington the Wayfarer-wearer is king), there are effectively five bars remaining in town. I’ll rank them in order from hate to love.
The bar I inexplicably-go-to-sometimes-but-nevertheless-hate-the-most in Bloomington is The Rail, a relative newcomer to the scene. No standing, leather couches, Edison bulbs, small plates of ‘heirloom’ and ‘artisan’ things, and tiny, too-sweet, ten dollar cocktails. You know the drill, dear reader, because places like this have cropped up in every city across the county. Regular readers know how much I generally hate cocktails and cocktail bars. I have a pretty unabashed “learn to drink, loser” attitude towards people who spend their time watering down excellent booze with elderflower soda and key lime foam. The Rail is the kind of place that gets my bile up for precisely that reason: it’s fussy, it’s expensive, and yet it’s lousy. You can’t get out of alive for less than fifty bucks, and yet your wine is the wrong temperature, your cocktail is syrupy, and you’re still hungry after eating six different things. The Rail’s specialty cocktails all involve things like crème de lavande or Saint Germain, as nouveau-cocktail bars often specialize in liqueurs that sound Gallic but that no self-respecting French person would ever be caught drinking. Moreover, for a place that sells itself as a place for seated conversation (they are real sticklers about the no standing at the bar rule), it has quite possibly the worst acoustics in the world. You can barely hear the person sitting next to you, much less have some kind of conversation. All you can do is shout and throw pained glances at your companions when the bill arrives by a waiter in a too-tight leather vest who looked at you blankly when you pointed out that the wine he served was two years younger than advertised. I’d skip the whole affair, if I were you.
The second bar you’ll-hear-about-but-that-I-suggest-you-skip is The Root Cellar in the basement of the overplayed, underwhelming restaurant Farm. Come to think of it, the name might be F.A.R.M., as these type of places are often clever, undisclosed acronyms. The Root Cellar looks like some place where you may have hung out in the mid-90s, a dingy basement with ratty couches and wobbly benches that will snag whatever you happen to be wearing. The booze is fine enough, I guess, but weirdly overpriced for the vibe of the place. Not to again sound like an old lady here with a hearing problem, but the acoustics are as terrible as the ones at The Rail. Don’t expect to hear anything at The Root Cellar besides somebody else’s sorta-boyfriend’s experimental noise trio. If that’s your bag, I wish you well, but I’m a social drinker myself. I either want to chat or dance, and you can’t seem to do much of either in The Root Cellar.
When B moved to Paris, the only game in town for his ilk was The Vid, a giant bar that manages to attract a wide variety of people on any given night. It’s a pretty good bar if you want to hang out with a big group of people and not spend too much money on pitchers of craft beer. You can also play pool and darts, which I particularly enjoy in a kind of talentless way. The Vid is best on weekday nights, when you can colonize a giant table and wile the evening away. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s louder, but still a generally friendly and unpretentious place to hang out. The bartenders are really nice and there’s usually a great local beer from Upland at a special pitcher price. One caveat: don’t sit next to the punching bag game, otherwise you’ll have to listen to the banging of testosterone-bulging boys all night long.
While B was away in Europe, however, the hipster hoards migrated down the street to Atlas (209 South College, Bloomington, Indiana, 47404), a newish place that is just starting to have that lived-in vibe. If you’re in your late twenties or early thirties, read some Foucault and have a masters degree or two, wear horn-rimmed glasses and an inordinate amount of American Apparel, name-drop obscure bourbons, and get excited when New Order comes on the jukebox, Atlas is the place to be. It’s loud, which I obviously don’t like, but it’s a pretty fun place to spend an evening. There’s good DJs on the weekends, and I sloppily danced my birthday away there last winter. The free agents I know report that it is the best place in town to mix and mingle with other single folk. One of the doormen is the crush-object of practically every lady I know. Some of Atlas’ conceits are silly – the oft-broken down photo booth and chalkboard list of songs banned from jukebox come to mind. But it’s a bar that has hit its stride, and I’ve had many good times there.
My favorite part (and this is Clarence talking now) is the fact that The Happy Pig food cart parks outside on the weekends, offering their succulent Notorious P.I.G.G. sandwich: toast, crispy-gooey Gunthorp pig belly, Indiana maple syrup, and a perfectly fried egg. Now that’s an undisclosed acronym I can get behind, as the P.I.G.G. is the ultimate in drunk food, and the best game in town at 2 a.m. on a Friday night.
For those of you that are still awake, with four down, we have finally arrived at the best bar in Bloomington. And the winner is…
The Bishop (123 South Walnut Street, Bloomington, Indiana, 47401). Hands-down. The bar, which is always without a cover charge, has an amazing rotating selection of regional craft beers on tap for totally reasonable prices. Recently, with the acquisition of a liquor license, the bar added a serious selection of the hard stuff, including one of the most varied and interesting bourbon lists I’ve ever seen. Moreover, the bartenders know their stuff, and given some information can clue you in to things you’ll really like. The crowd is a little older, with a mix of university folk and townies. The Bishop also houses a great small music venue, and all the best bands seem to make The Bishop their one stop in Southern Indiana. I caught Nat Baldwin there, along with an excellent Pogues cover band called the Fauxgues. Local favorites The Vallures made my New Years Eve one of my best ones yet, as I danced to their sweet Motown covers until the early hours of the morning. Finally—and here’s the cranky old lady motif again—while the room with the stage is loud, the bar itself is pretty quiet, making the booths a great place to chat with friends (or, in our case, play over-zealous games of Euchre). I’ll miss The Bishop, and hope you make a stop there should you find yourself in Bloomington.
Sing us out, Tom.