Archive for May, 2009
Kali the Gardener

Mmmmm, that sun feels great on my back. And the belly-laughter from the kids next door…is there a greater sound on earth? My hands turn slimy brown as they root around in the cool earth. Koko snoozes in the sun as I encourage little lettucey life forms that will be tasty later in the summer, and until consumed, will help our planet breathe easier.

It’s extremely satisfying to push the shovel (oh I get it, shove-l) down into the heavy, damp clay, levering the long handle to pull up ten weed bulbs in one scoop. I squat, break up the clumps, pull out the bulbs that have multiplied like rabbits on Chlomid over the winter.

Such are my observations during the first five minutes in the garden. Then my feet fall asleep.

img_1228I stand up and wait for the dizziness to pass, working the shovel for a second scoop. This time, the bulbs lie just below my shovel tip and the shiny green stems snap off crisply, leaving the offenders buried deep in the clay. I squat again, breaking apart the hard clumps searching for lost bulbs that range in size from onions to pearls. My back starts to hurt and the dog moves into the shade.

Again I stand, supported heavily by the shovel as the blood rushes back to my feet and a blackout moment passes. Childish laughter has turned to squabbling as I unearth another batch of noxious weed bulbs (one shovel’s worth at left) and encounter a hard root that refuses to budge. I tug and see the razor sharp blackberry bramble across the yard rattle. I hack away and manage to break the root in half. Next year it will undoubtedly return at twice the size and strength. A bleeding finger and bafflement as to where the bramble originated temporarily take the focus off my throbbing back and tingling feet.

Giving up on the digging, I move to the less perilous task of pulling knee-high grass out of what used to be a planting bed. The roots rip satisfyingly easily out of the damp ground, though I’m feeling distinctly resentful at how well the grass thrives here in comparison to our bald, brown patch of “lawn”…much like the toxic blue flowers that have squeezed out my brother’s carefully planted daisies, dahlias and columbine. I ponder the perversion of weeds. So like humans to elevate anything labor intensive to that which is desirable. Tomatoes are divas (if pampered correctly, they’ll repay you with transcendence), dandelions the Everyman. And when the rosemary goes ballistic and takes over the herb bed and needs to be hacked back with a saw resulting in an unsightly mess? Brittany Spears. Or LiLo…take your pick.

I go back to digging to give my knees a break. I’m pretty sure I can hear my lower back creak as I stand. Done with the bugs, the mounting hysteria from next door and my audible groans, Koko the traitor moves inside. I picture the grass clippings and mud clumps she’s tracking through the house and onto the couch. I wonder if she’s mastered the remote and found the America’s Next Top Model marathon on cable.

Another shovelful of tops only, no bulbs. The earthworm carnage is getting critical (and no, cutting a worm in half doesn’t create two worms). My karma quotient is falling. The ranting in my head is getting shrill….or is it the child’s tantrum coming from over the fence? My back is officially in pain, I have a headache, it’s hot, I’m bleeding. I’ve now been gardening for 15 minutes and I’m completely over it. The space beyond the back door is once again officially dead to me. In a couple of years perhaps, lulled by the pretty pictures in Sunset Magazine and the delighted successes of friends, I may venture back out. But for now, I see it clearly.

If the kitchen is God’s workshop, the yard is the devil’s playground.

img_1234The fragrant Sellwood brilliance that effortlessly surrounds us is a torturous hallucination…move along now, this is not for you. You will always be the new homeowner who dilligently weeded out the Columbine, leaving just one plant to laugh in your face come May when it flowered. Make peace with the blue-flower bulb weed, because it’s the only flower you’re ever likely to cultivate.

Gardening is a dangerous past-time. Look at the cuts and bruises you’ve amassed in a quarter of an hour. You actually stepped on the rake and bonked your head like a Laurel and Hardy cliche, for chrissakes. Look how gardening managed to kill your dear, cherished 90-year-old neighbor last year. She worked in her fabulous garden every day, and where did that get her? (Or was it the sight of your ever-disintegrating yard that did her in? I’ll always wonder.) You tried and failed, nature has beaten you down once again. Character flaw, cosmic conspiracy, karma, call it what you like, but your 15-minute brush with a self image of nurturer, sower of beauty, giver of life is over.

Even the vitriol-fueled mental post composed in staccato bursts of loathing as I hacked, crumbled, picked, yanked and panted my way through a 2’x2’ patch of overgrown land is lost. In the cool of the house, with Tylenol in my system and a sweating glass of scotch rocks in my hand, the fire and brilliance wrought of extreme suffering has faded. I’m just a beaten woman with swollen wrists and new motivation to get a job. Gardeners cost money, you know.

Hapa Haoli* Chronicles: Condiments Redux

April is hereby designated Asian Experimentation month.

I’m not sure if it’s the in-between-ness of the seasons (time to put braising to bed, too wet for bbq, haven’t yet hit the farmer’s markets to be inspired by spring veggies…), or the fact that we’re on a budget, but I’ve been cranking out my peasant Italian-French-Korean version of Asian food lately.

Mom’s chicken long rice is my perfect comfort food; if I’d grown up white and in a trailer, this would be my mac and cheese. If I’d grown up in Korea, it’d be called Jap Chae. In Hawaii (where b1 grew up), it’s chicken long rice. With a million variations, ours/mine uses dark, on-the-bone, skin intact chicken (to give it some stickiness), shitake mushrooms (so in love with pre-sliced dried shitakes I could marry them), “long rice” (Korean yam noodles), which aside from being a gloomy gray manage to be delightfully slippery, bouncy and toothsome, and the ‘essential 5’ of Korean cooking: garlic, soy, ginger, onion, sesame. Brown up salted chicken, toss in a sliced onion, add loads of chopped ginger and garlic, add softened noodles and shitakes (and some of the soaking liquid) , throw in a slightly scary amount of soy and sesame oil, slap it on a plate, top with kimchee or peperoncini and turn on the Hee Haw reruns.

From old standard to bastardized newcomer, my version of mapo tofu was a complete shot in the dark, but tasty enough to warrant a rerun.

img_1116I don’t even know what real mapo tofu is, other than a sense that it’s spicy, porky, silky and in bad Chinese restaurants, frequently served with peas. Armed with that scholarly wisdom honed to a fine edge by meticulous imaginings, and thinking k deserved something he liked after putting up with chicken long rice (despite Irish / Polish genes he adores tofu and anything pepper-hot), I set out to pair my new favorite cheater food…ground lap cheong…with tofu. Lap cheong (Chinese sausage) is the secret ingredient behind company-appropriate fried rice (as in, “Hon, set aside the possum, we gots company at the door”), how to get hubby to eat slightly bitter gai lan (Chinese broccoli) in oyster sauce, and, in a bizarre collision with some Frenchie thing b2 used to make, sauteed with thinly sliced and fried potatoes and snow peas. And now these slim packets of fat / sweet / salt come chopped up. Hooray, life just keeps getting better for the lazy and undeserving. Using lap cheong in place of ground pork, a tablespoon of crab paste and a hefty dose of pepper paste and red pepper, and dinner pretty much made itself. Toss in frozen peas or chopped up gai lan stems (a little lap goes a long way, so it got made twice) and voila! Gotta say, it was pretty tasty, though I shudder to think about how unhealthy it must be, even pushing the tofu-to-pork ratio. (A run to the fridge shows no MSG in the crab paste, phew, but “crab fat” is called out separately from the crab meat. Crab fat? Crab FAT? Woot.)

*Hapa Haoli a Hawaiian term used these days to commonly mean a half (hapa) white (haoli)/ half Asian person.

Minnesota Morel Mania

Since my planned post was a giant snooze, thank god c stepped in with some food porno on her Facebook page. This time in the form of the mighty morel mushroom.

cynmorels2They stumbled upon what appears to be a forest of fungus on the way to visit family in Southern Minnesota. (What happened to Oregon morels? c&s usually put a pound on our doorstep… Did I miss the whole season?)

While some are getting partially dried then frozen for future use, some gave their life for dinner: lightly dusted in flour, sauteed in butter, shallots, Italian parsely, with a shot of heavy cream. “Died and went to heaven!” sez c. And today, more went into an omelette with shallots and mozzarella, with a fried tomato on the side.

Damn.

And I had oatmeal.

If anyone needs more recipes, here’s a site dedicated to “The Great Morel“. I’ve never had them battered and fried, but their platter of golden crisp morels looks pretty freaking amazing. And for something a bit more sophisticated, bb dishes up a poster child of spring, Morel & Fava Risotto. Oh the creamy deliciousness….

A few of the drying trays.

A few of the drying trays.

Staggering Towards the Finish Line: An Onslaught of Excess

fire-pitSpring on SE Flavel heralds a plethora of buds, birds, an occasional warm breeze and lots and lots of out-of-town company. Whereas the hardy Minnesotan relatives are happy to visit in winter (and find keggers in the snow a perfectly natural past-time, see left), the Californians are all mysteriously busy until April. But then the spring flood hits, and continues in a steady stream through summer. When SF’s chill, gray blanket of fog uncoils its damp grip, no less fierce for its cottony softness, the deluge slows back to a trickle. Coincidence?

This isn’t a post complaining about houseguests. We love every one of them (mostly) and can’t wait for them to come (usually) and are sad to seem them leave (…). It’s just that when the doorbell rings before we’ve had time to put the previous occupant’s sheets into the dryer, dry out our bloodstreams, and replenish our bank balance, we know the clusters have hit critical mass. The recent onslaught of visitors and birthdays has made us put one-pot chicken dishes aside and head into the land of excess. One non-profit arts administrator’s salary? Recession? 11% unemployment? 20 pounds overweight? Never mind all that, we’re goin’ out!

After a few months of the austerity program, I gotta admit it’s been fun. And in the spirit of a neverending party I wasn’t exactly my usual critical, note-taking self. But here are a few highlights.

Toro Bravo two Sundays in a row? That says a lot…both about our shameless excess and how solid their food is. We went at 5:30 and 9:15, and got in both times without a wait, though there was enough buzz in the room to not have it feel deadly. The fact that KML (who views tapas / small plates as the enemy of all self-respecting men who have a god-given right to: 1. know exactly how much they’ll get to eat in any given sitting 2. own their personal property, and 3. defend such property by any means necessary) was willing…nay, happy…to go, speaks volumes about how generous and tasty the food is. Will he go with more than four people? No way. Memories of $100 group tapas meals that netted him one potato brava and a half an olive will take time to exorcise. And since he obviously spent a past life in prison or as one of those starving waifs we all heard about growing up (or both), who am I to push, when those freakishly delicious light / chewy / crispy / creamy / salty cod fritters await?

img_1177A few of their other standouts were the green salad with boiled egg (what do we say to eggs on salad, bb? Hell yes!), hazelnuts and roasted asparagus (didn’t even need the asparagus with such perfectly dressed greens), the brussel sprouts, succulent drunken pork, the scallops, and some roast beef with polenta dish that I never would have ordered, so kudos to K for that! Missteps were shrimp that tasted predominantly of asian sweet chile sauce and heavy, gummy squash “fritters” that accompanied the pepper lamb, but out of 14 dishes or so, who’s tracking?

Another dining standout was a party for 18 at Alexis Greek restaurant downtown. So it can get deafening, and sometimes smells of bathroom cleaner. So their moussaka topping is more akin to plastering paste (though their meat spicing is dead-on)…that just makes it like 90% of the tavernas in Greece. If you order their lamb chops (lamb pops as they’re fondly known to img_1163 the fam), lemony roasted potatoes, kalamarakia and tiropita (though I love spanakopita, try their cheese triangles instead; they’re special), it’s an instant party. Even their tzatziki is the best in town imho, though why so skimpy with the cheapest dish on the menu is a mystery. Like properly made Thai food or dim sum, it’s easy to overlook the genius of great food when it’s inexpensive and not served in a fancy-pants setting. Not that $25 pp plus tip and drinks (opa! ouch…) ended up being a bargain, but Jerry and the one knowledgeable waitress (got to get her name one of these days, for now I’ll call her Monica…patron saint of patience) didn’t even consider charging a cake fee when we used their plates and utensils. Now that’s old-school I can get behind.

Then there were the cocktails of the past few hazy weeks. Ouzo, retsina, tasty cab flights at Vino aside, we had some slamming drinks. Andina’s happy hour (sad the prices went img_1672up but it’s still a deal) yielded pisco sours, caipirinhas with acai to tart things up (literally and figuratively), and a ginger-lime-grapefruit thing called a Ron Iki On that I liked but was too gingery for its original owner. Toro Bravo served up a respectable array of sazeracs, a slightly too-sweet cocktail that the server warned me may be too medicinal…it wasn’t…and a Papa Doble (rum, grapefruit, lime). And then there was the Teardrop Lounge. Why oh why didn’t anyone ask us when they were naming the place? “Tincture Bar” suits these mad mixers with their eye droppers, spritzers, sprayers, potions and poisons so much better. “Teardrop” jibes with what I find to be a very mid-90’s decor, though the deep U of the bar is beautifully convivial, as are the boys behind the bar. G-man had his first fling with gin, which proceeded into a long-term relationship of three Last Word cocktails. Nearly as good as the ones Mr. Eat. Drink. Think. mixes up. I also tasted my first genuine Singapore Sling, which was a revelation, sipped a splendid Burro Punsch (reposado, ginger beer, sweet vermouth), KML loved his rye “My Druthers” and regretted straying, though not terribly, and I have no clear recollection of the drink I swore would be my new go-to Teardrop drink except for the fact that it was a perfect balance of acid, sweet, alcohol and bitter. Perhaps a Leite, since I remember Lillet and lime, but “leche de pina”…really?

In an effort to recount, this has turned into a mere laundry list, and really, how interesting is that not? Rather than a stagger, it reads like a march. A merciless march complete with mind-numbing drum-beats leading us towards destruction…destruction of brain cells, good sense and future financial security.

We get one more week to dry out before another visitor hits. By that time I’ll once again have to decide between bites at Evoe and Toro, burgers at Slow Bar or Castagna, or lowkey at Apizza or Nicholas’. Times are rough, but I’m up to the challenge.