Sunday, July 30, 2006

Pearlie Mae and Love Face

More than anything, Pearlie Mae loved to dance, bake, and entertain. Whenever you walked in her door, she had a homebaked meal and dessert ready for eating and a carepackage ready to take home. She was the grandmother of my dear friend Samantha, and she passed away Monday night.

While we were in college, Sam lost her mom Maxine (Pearl's daughter) to cancer. It was devastating time for Sam. But it brought her closer to her grandma, who, Sam says, became a 'super-grandma'. She treated Sam with love and listened to her with an open mind. Believing she was 'never too old to learn', she took advantage of the opportunity to learn from her young granddaughter, whom she called Love Face.

Sam sent an email to her friends last week telling us the story of Grandma Pearl. Due to some unexpected scheduling issues and some flagrant dismissiveness on the part of the family, Grandma Pearl is to be put to rest without any ceremony at all. Sam was not okay with this.

So, Sam took it upon herself to make sure her dear Pearlie Mae did not go unrecognized. She invited her closest friends and family over today to celebrate her grandma's life in cozy grandma form: Sam prepared a handful of Grandma Pearl's recipes, and asked us to stop by and say hello. Family were conspicuously absent, but a steady flow of friends passing through kept Sam's home filled with love.

Sam, protected by one of her grandma's aprons, had really cooked up a storm. We were greeted by a table filled with all sorts of goodies: sweet and sour chicken, cocktail meatballs, mandelbrot, Max's cookies (named for Sam's mom -- they were her favorite), buttermilk kugel, and brickle cake. We noshed, caught up, watched old home movies of Sam's family back when everyone was together and well, and flipped through the pages of the scrapbook Sam had made of her mom's photos, noting the uncanny resemblance between mother and daughter.

A fitting commemoration for someone with such a giving nature -- clearly her warmth and generosity has been passed on to our Sami, and I felt lucky that she chose me to share in this bittersweet celebration with her.

Max's Cookies

2 sticks butter/margarine
8 Tbs powdered sugar, plus more for sprinkling.
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 C chopped walnuts
2 C flour

Preheat oven to 350F. Mix all ingredients together. Pinch off cookies, each slightly larger than a walnut. Bake for 20 minutes, or until lightly brown. Sprinkle with additional powdered sugar.

Brickle Cake

1 package yellow cake mix with pudding
4 eggs
3/4 C oil
1 C sour cream
1 C chopped walnuts
1/2 C mini chocolate chips
1 package bits of brickle (ie, 1 Skor or Heath bar, crushed)

Preheat oven to 350F. Combine cake mix, eggs, oil, and sour cream. Beat with a mixer for 10 minutes. Grease bundt pan. Pour half of batter into bundt pan; sprinkle half of brickle mixture over it. Repeat layers with remaining ingredients.
Bake 55-60 minutes. Allow cake to cool for at least 1 hour before removing from pan.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

things i've learned today

  • Regarding cow tongue flower, better known as borage by normal people, today I learned from Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer, that the fresh flowers are often used in Pimms, the classic British summer cocktail. So I guess it's not so old country after all. Who knew? Here's a a great presentation idea.
  • Someone has taken the sharbat-e golab idea up about 8 notches on the fanciness scale. Of course, this someone is a Barcelonan chef, whose cookbook appears to cost ninety dollars. So, go figure. Anyway, I was reading this gorgeous book, Carles Abellan's Las Tapas de Comerc 24 at beloved Cook's Library today, and discovered a recipe for 'Agua de Limón y Rosa'. He adds lemon juice to our rosewater-sugar ade, blends it with ice into a slush, then garnishes it with finely julienned rose petals in deep magenta. wow. And yes, this appears to be served as part of a collection of tapas -- in a tiny glass with a bendy straw.
  • The inspiring story behind CJ's Cafe on Pico. Makes it even more delicious!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

little miss sunshine

just go see it. really.

Oases: Sharbat-e Golab (2 of 2)

Sharbat-e golab may have saved my mother's sanity. A simple mix of merely three ingredients, sugar, water, and rosewater, has always had a magical effect on her baby daughter. It was an elixir that would literally change my mood in the face of any hardship, whether it was slamming my finger in the front door, or being kicked out of my big sister's room for the twentieth time in a day. Being the baby of the family, I was prone to some pretty good tantrums, but my mom knew that all she needed to do was whip up a glass of miraculous sharbat-e golab to quell my histrionics and restore her shaken nerves. Even physical pain would magically wash away as soon as the first sweet perfumy sip passed my lips.

It wasn't only for times of trauma, though. It was a delicious treat on any hot day. Sometimes Violet would even concoct some in the water bottle she sent me to school with, so that at lunch I'd have a sweet surprise waiting for me.

Honestly, I haven't tried using sharbat-e golab as an antidepressant in recent years (perhaps I tend more towards dark chocolate these days?). But the deliciousness has persisted. I probably like it a bit less sugary than 5-year-old me did, but I still have a near-visceral love for this cool refreshment.

Friends I've shared it with fit into 2 categories: those that love it, and those that can't get past the thought that they're drinking perfume. The latter camp tend to have violent reactions towards it -- there seems to be no in between. I say try it though. It's the easiest thing in the world to make, and it's SO icy and refreshing on these red-hot days. Golab, rosewater, is easy to come by in any Middle Eastern or Indian market, and a small bottle goes a long way.

Sharbat-e Golab

(of course, you can modify these proportions to taste...)
1 tsp sugar
2 Tbs rosewater
1 C water and ice

In a glass, dissolve the sugar in the rosewater. Make sure it's completely dissolved before adding any ice, and if you're having trouble, add a little water. Once dissolved, fill the glass with water and ice, and stir one last time.

Serves 1

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Tannaz's Bodega

The block of Fairfax around the corner from me has never really been that exciting. There's a medical supply shop, a kosher pizza joint where the Orthodox high school kids hang out on Saturday nights, and not much else. About a year ago though, I was walking down Fairfax, and noticed something interesting. The windows on one of the shops were frosted over, save for a small decal shaped like the silhouette of a bull. I knew this image from when I had visited Spain: when you drive through the country, you'll occasionally see a billboard that is nothing but a giant black bull silhouette. Apparently these used to advertise some sort of liquor, but have outlasted the ad campaign, have been painted over, and have become an unofficial symbol of Spain itself.

This was promising -- some sort of Spanish establishment coming up around the corner? I hoped it was a restaurant perhaps, or a tapas bar. I was holding off on major excitement just yet though. Over the next few months, I continued to peek around for clues whenever I passed by. The place slowly started to take shape -- a big wood door replaced the old plain one, they painted the exterior a charming red. Then a small square business card appeared tacked onto the door: Bodega de Cordova. I'm liking the sound of that -- reminds me of Córdoba, my favorite of all the cities we visited on that same trip. Then one day, we got something in the mail -- a notice that this establishment had applied for a wine license. Spanish and wine! It's getting better!

I became obsessed. Every day I peeked over as I drove to and from work, waiting for any activity. I kept friends up-to-date on every minute step forward, to the point where one christened it "Tannaz's Bodega", and that's correct, it's all mine. When a 'coming soon' sign was replaced one morning with a 'grand opening' one, I knew the day I was waiting for had arrived. But, that night, I already had plans! But I stopped in just to greet my new neighbor and check the place out, and was very pleased. I had a quick chat with the bartender, Raul, and told him my intentions of being a regular. I have most certainly fulfilled that goal.

Bodega de Cordova is the perfect little wine and tapas bar to have around the corner from your apartment. There is nothing ostentatious about it; it was designed and carried out on a shoestring, but it provides a pure and very warm experience not unlike what you'd get in Spain. It's a small cozy space, a dimly lit galley in reds and wood. The beverage selection consists solely of Spanish wines, with most very reasonably priced (around 20 dollars for the average bottle of white). Although I know what I like, I don't know much about wine. But Kenny, the owner, has graciously engaged me in many conversations about intricacies like a wine's syrupy 'legs' as an indication of alcohol content, the benefits of decanting, or the definitive Spanish grape, tempranillo. I've had the pleasure of trying many different wines thanks to his and the bartenders' suggestions.

No glass of wine would be complete without something to nibble alongside. On weeknights, the Bodega's tapas menu is, like everything else, on the basic simple side. The offerings are not entirely consistent from night to night, but may include olives (there used to be these amazing black olives from Seville that were the selling point for bringing new friends in. They tasted different from any other olive I've had, and absolutely delicious. Apparently the supply is not steady though, so they're not currently available), manchego with bread, or slightly sweet fig cakes. They've also recently started selling 70% cacao chocolate bars. Last night, we had thinly sliced, paprika-laded chorizo, and a plate of white asparagus dressed with olive oil and fresh parsley. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, the tapas list is longer. A series of tiny servings of crostini-like mentaditos, bread with various delicious toppings, a more extensive cheese plate with nuts and quince paste, and more hot items beef up the menu.

There are a lot of ways this place could not have been the perfect local spot for me -- could have been overpriced, could have attracted a Hollywood scene, could have been stuffy or snobby. As it turns out, though, it suits me to a tee. I really believe in the bare-bones approach (oh yeah, it's cash-only (although there's an ATM in the back)), the staff are warm and friendly, and knowledgeable without being overbearing. And I never feel gluttonous after an evening there. It's rare to really foster a relationship with your neighbors; what luck to have one as hospitable and inviting as Bodega de Cordova.

My little Bodega is located at 361 S. Fairfax, just south of Blackburn. They are closed Sunday and Monday nights.

PS: Surreal moment of the night:
(Within a conversation about area codes, speed dial, cellphones, etc.)
Friend1: There are some numbers my fingers just have memorized, like 288-4545.
Friend2: Why do you call CAA so much?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Oases: Yogurt and Cucumber (1 of 2)

I think that the climate gods are getting a wee bit overzealous on this Best Summer Ever business. The combination of record-breaking heat outside, and no air conditioning inside (the price you pay for the charm of built-in icebox, pedestal sink, hardwood floors) have brought me some of the hottest days I've experienced in Los Angeles. Steamy sweaty sticky hot. Mental capacity interrupted due to melting brain hot. Yeah, it's summer alright.

While I can't open my refrigerator door and crawl in like I really want to, there are some salves in there that do their part to soothe the scorch. Here I offer the first of two of them, both inspired by the kitchen of my childhood.

First, yogurt and cucumbers. You need to eat, but the prospect of cooking is the most odious thing you could think about. Lighting a fire in the kitchen would be redundant. On such days, my mom would make mast-o-khiar (literally, "yogurt and cucumber" -- clever name, eh?), perhaps putting some cut vegetables, pita, fresh herbs, and maybe some sardines or tuna on the table alongside. For lunch yesterday, I skipped the extras and stuck with the main course. Mine was a bit different than hers, as I took the Greek route. Nonetheless, it was a perfect meal. Fully satisfying without overdoing it, slightly tangy but cool and refreshing, with a juicy crunch from the cucumbers.

(Gushy digression: I've recently become very interested in yogurt, and have decided that Fage nonfat yogurt might very well be the perfect food: imported from Greece where they really know their yogurt, all-natural and consists of only 2 ingredients, and despite the lack of fat, perfectly creamy and luscious. It's also high on protein and active cultures that are good for your insides. Not to mention that it's available at beloved Trader Joe's, in containers small enough that they won't go bad before I have a chance to finish them. Really -- perfect.)

Cucumber and Yogurt Salad

fresh garlic, to taste (I used about 1/2 clove)
1 Persian cucumber, diced
3/4 C yogurt
1 1/2 T dried dill
1/3 C chopped walnuts
tiny squeeze of lemon juice

Mince garlic. Sprinkle with a dash of (preferably coarse) salt, and with the back of your knife, mash into a paste. Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper, stir well.

For Violet's version: Omit garlic (Saeed will not eat raw garlic) and lemon juice (never yogurt and lemon juice together -- why? because they used to say that if you eat whiteness and sourness together, you'll get freckles. wha?). Up the yogurt by about 1/4 cup. Replace dill with fresh mint, and add 1/3 C raisins.

Generously serves 1.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Albaricoque is the Spanish word for apricot. When a Spanish word starts with 'al', you can guess it comes from Arabic (like alcázar, albóndiga, alfombra). Which, if you're me, means it requires further research.

This is a fun one. The word comes from the Arabic word for plum, al-barquq. It means "early-ripening fruit", and can be traced back to the Latin word praecox. From here, we step forward to our own English word precocious, said of a child who has ripened, or matured, early. I'm really excited: apricot to precocious? Wowee!

Some other things about apricot words:

- Weird that these days the Arabic is totally different. The word for apricot in Arabic, as well as in Hebrew, is mishmish. How can you not adore a fruit called mishmish!? Oh little precocious mishmish, can I pinch your little rosy cheeks before I eat you?
- Weird that the Persian is also totally different. In Persian, it's zardaloo. Zard is yellow, aloo is plum.
- Weird that in Hindi, aloo is not plum, but potato.

guys it's hot. really hot. i think i'm melting.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Kiddie Scoop of Culture

When I go to museums and concerts and stuff, I'm always really impressed with parents who bring their kids along. They are usually such cool parents, and so mellow about the whole thing, and will probably have kids who are the same way: interested in cool stuff, mellow and easygoing. My kind of people.

This weekend those cool and easygoing parents were my sister and brother-in-law. He got tickets for a 6-seater box at the Hollywood Bowl, and they kindly rounded up the whole posse (slightly more than 6 of us with our parents in tow, but who's counting?) for the perfect Los Angeles summer night activity. Granted 2 kids plus 1 infant plus 2 hours of classical music never actually equals perfect, but by the end of the night, there was something for everyone -- even a nice nap under the stars for my dad.

The prep for the event started long before the night itself. My sister and I have been discussing the menu at length for a week. Baa or moo? Or perhaps bak bak? Cake or cupcakes (we were celebrating my sister's birthday)? Don't forget goldfish and juice boxes! We sort of became kids ourselves putting it all together. Of course, the adult side kicked in too -- detailed task lists were emailed, status reports were given every step of the way.

The first part of the night, once we squeezed ourselves in, was easy. For the grownups, we started off with cheese and grapes and lots of wine. Slightly less stinky cheese for the kids -- turns out they're not that impressed by the fact that morbier consists of cheese made from the morning milking separated by a layer of ash from cheese made from the evening milking. Snobs. For dinner, we had salad with tomatoes and cucumber and feta, 2 choices of dressing. Baa and bak bak -- Torreh cooked up garlicky chicken and lamb to serve atop the salad. Everything was yummy. Kids were doing great.

Cool-as-a-cucumber sister had brought these fascinating drawing sheets for them on which, as you drew over them with a special marker, images from their beloved Thomas the Tank Engine magically appeared. They were set. Then the show began. The amphitheater went dark. No more Thomas. So, they weren't that impressed when John Mauceri, the conductor, made an eloquent speech about the historical significance of the Mediterranean, the theme of the evening's program, poignantly recalling the current situation in those parts (by the way, who knew he was so charming and endearing?). Nor did they care that much when they brought out the original piano from Rick's Bar to play "As Time Goes By" in an arrangement of the music from Casablanca (although I thought it was pretty cool).

But they made it through to intermission. Intermission was birthday time. A box filled with cupcakes in every variation on the chocolate theme from Joan's (the chocolate marshmallow is *amazing*), as well as a few of her much-touted chocolate bouchons. All while our whole section sang to the birthday girl. Good respite for the monkeys. They loved the cupcakes almost as much as they loved not being shushed (staying quiet is quite a challenge for 3-year-old Ethan).

The second half was better than the first for them as well as for me. The cultural significance of deeply tragic fado was probably lost on them, as was the adorable flirting between the singer, Mariza, and the conductor -- it was as if the chore of conducting the orchestra was distracting him from gazing into her eyes over his shoulder as she sang to him (and, secondarily, to us). But Julia certainly appreciated her gracefully lilting across the stage in her ball gown (it even had some pink in it!), and even Ethan seemed to be calmed by her soothing voice. And even though the loudness of the fireworks kind of freaked them out, everyone was impressed with the beautifully lit-up sky, and the kids even starting dancing around in their seats.

I must say, from an adult standpoint (as adult as I get), in spite of the little quirks introduced by the little twerps, it was a pretty dreamy night. Seeing everyone with their bottles of wine, picnicking outside, enjoying the natural setting -- the vibe is great. And while the performances at the Bowl can be hit or miss, this night's was really a hit. Of course I was stoked about the Mediterranean theme, and this Mariza was a strong performer with a beautiful voice and a unique look, and by dancing about and making eyes with the conductor, she really just romanced the audience.

Having said that, I don't think we'll be embarking on this type of experiment again anytime soon. If you don't cut kiddie-culture into bite-sized pieces, you're liable to choke on it.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

a new title

because, let's face it, it's all about food...

Zen and the Art of Ice Cream Making

How can I even begin to talk about Scoops? I really think it's the best find of the summer, nay, of the year. Perhaps of ever. This purveyor of high-concept frozen treats and unbridled goodwill has been around 14 months, but I've only recently learned about it. Therefore, I feel like the last 14 months have been a waste. I first heard about Scoops from my friend Alon, who read about it on his friend Josh's blog. Since I met up with Alon there, I've been wishing I could go back pretty much every day. It's really that good. It's taken my heart.

Scoops is a bright cheery gelateria in a pretty unassuming, borderline shady bit of East Hollywood. It's the one-man operation of a former art student, and he makes fresh new flavors of gelato, sorbet and vegan gelato (made with organic soy milk) every day. The flavors are incredibly creative, and he is extremely generous with samples. On a given visit, you might try chai/zabaglione, vegan lavendar/pear, buttermilk/lemongrass/ginger, coffee/guinness, or ube (purple yam). The brown bread gelato, one of the few flavors available every day, is a warm cozy cinnamony comfort-food dessert, rendered in ice cream form. Highlights this time were cheesecake/dill, where the surprising dill flavor comes through so clearly that it brought back many taste memories from my mom's kitchen, and lemon/peach: not unorthodox, but refreshing and fruity and good. For my 2-bucks 2 scoops, I ended up ordering yerba mate/banana, where the creamy sweetness of banana ice cream offset the slightly bitter earthy mate in an unexpectedly perfect combination; and chocolate habanero gelato. I was a little scared of of the spiciness, but the chocolate flavor was so deep and strong that I had to have it anyway. He thoughtfully placed the mate/banana scoop on the bottom of the container, so that I would have it to salve my burning mouth after I had finished the habanero. It's a strange but not unpleasant sensation, to have your mouth feel warm and cold at the same time.

As important as the flavors are the man who creates them. I have only been here twice but already have quite a few stories of the goodness that emanates from Tai. First of all the samples. Placing your order here is a highly interactive process. It's a conversation between vendor and consumer, generously punctuated with sample after sample of his exotic flavors. He basically pushes them on you, not that you'd protest. Alon was amazed that he appeared so "Zen" -- when he suggested Tai branch out to other shops, or sell his wares to grocery stores, Tai brushed off Alon's push for more and more. He pointed out that this would not allow him to have as much interaction with the customers. He really likes us! He encourages suggestions for new flavors, even offering an "Flavor to Suggest" board to get customer input.

He also encourages customers to sit for a while. There's a couch against one wall of the shop, and one corner has been turned into a movie watching nook -- with videos and dvds and cozy armchairs. As a throwback to his art-school history (in case the the flavors didn't make that clear), the back wall of the shop is devoted to exhibiting the wares of local artists. I also heard that last week he had a barbecue at the shop -- as if the ice cream weren't enough, yet another way to give back to the community.

If utopia were a real city, Tai would be its ice cream man, and all the little kiddies would go to Scoops. Instead, East Hollywood gets this prize. Which works out quite well for the gasoline industry, because I might just drive there every night.

Scoops is at 712 N. Heliotrope (just north of Melrose, between the 101 and Vermont) . Last I heard, they were open until 10 Monday-Saturday, but you might want to call to confirm: 323 906 2649

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Cow Tongue Flower Chronicles

A note before I begin: This is going to be long and rambling. There are a lot of asides (mostly about my big fat immigrant family), and the payoff isn't that good. Stick with me, though -- in this case the journey is the destination. Now then.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've been getting canker sores. I used to get them frequently then; now, one will spring up once every few years, usually stress-related. They hurt bad. And ever since I was a little kid, my dad has been suggesting the same cure, and for all those years, I've blown him off. Until now.

A few months ago, I was under a lot of stress, mostly from work, but also from a bunch of personal goings-on. It manifested itself physically -- I was waking up with backaches and headaches, and I was getting canker sores. Like, one would go away, and within weeks, another would pop up. It was a downward spiral, because on top of everything else, the pain was keeping me from sleeping at night, causing all the troubles to be even worse. I was so desperate that, after years of ignoring Saeed's (Dad and I are on a first-name basis) advice, I thought I might give it a shot.

Saeed's magical wonder-cure was a tea made from this plant whose name in Persian translates directly to 'cow tongue flower' (gole gav zaboon for those of you from the motherland). The reason I had ignored him was this: when I was a kid, my mom made this weird concoction a few times, and it stank up the house in a way I can recall to this day. My parents tried to convince me that the taste was fine, but the smell was so bad it was traumatizing.

I pushed through that scent memory, though, and asked them for more information. Apparently, my grandma, Saeed's mom, swore by the stuff for all sorts of things -- heightened energy being one of them, and permanent canker sore cure being another. Saeed relayed that it would not get rid of one you currently have, but after taking it for a few days, you will never get canker sores again. Ever. This sounded like a bunch of old country hooey to me, but I was at the end of my rope, so I was game.

At a family gathering, I picked up the conversation with Saeed. He told me, first of all, that I should not buy cow tongue flower (I learned later that the English name is 'borage') teabags, but rather that I have to get the actual loose petals, or else it won't work. My mom contributed to the conversation, telling me her favored way of making it -- she added a few slices of fresh apple to the pot and some sugar, as well as limoo omani to improve the taste.

A note on limoo omani: These are dried limes. You buy them in bags, and each one is a hard-as-stone shriveled brown-black ball, about the size of a walnut. They are used liberally in Iranian cuisine (they often bring the sour to that whole sour/sweet combo), and I find them utterly disgusting. When I was a kid, my mom would sit me down on the kitchen floor, with a big round tray full of the pathetic things. She would break them in half with a meat mallet, and then hand them off to me. My job was to poke through them with my pudgy fingers and take out the seeds. What happens to a lemon when it dries? The membranes turn into this oily thinner-than-paper fragile flaky mess that will crumble and get everywhere if you so much as look at it wrong. So not only did they smell horrible, but I got this blackish flaky business stuck all over my hands. Apparently the seeds are bitter and unpalatable, which is why I had this task. Here's a tip: the WHOLE LEMON is bitter and unpalatable. But I digress.

So, Violet suggested apples and limoo omani. I wince at the thought, and something from my childhood becomes very clear -- the reason the stuff smelled so vile was not the borage, but the nasty limoo omani. To improve taste? Really?

At this point, my aunt and uncle get in on the conversation. I like talking to my family about this kind of stuff, because it makes me feel like I'm actually connected to their culture. But sometimes it turns on me. My uncle is a dentist (the old-school, masochistic, no-novocaine-unless-you're-crying variety), and his wife is a dental hygienist. She hears this bit about canker sores, and rather than being sympathetic, says something to the effect of, "Aren't those herpes?" Note that this was not a private conversation in the corner of the room. We were sitting in the living room, there were distant relatives present who I don't really know, and we were within everyone's earshot. Her eyes bug out in terror, and she keeps repeating it, loudly and somewhat manically: "Yeah, Tannaz, you have herpes." "Tannaz has herpes!" "Herpes! Herpes!"

For once, Uncle Dentist comes to the rescue. "Aphthous ulcer!" he yells. He duly corrected her, giving me reprieve from my short stint as an outed herpetic, but at the same time, here I am sitting at a pretty somber family function, and my oral health has become the keynote topic. Oh joy.

So, now that I had the information, I had to get the goods. The Iranian market closest to me is Elat Market, in the Pico-Robertson area. I drove up on a Sunday, eager to get my borage. I didn't know what I was getting into. What I had forgotten to give significance to was that this particular Sunday was the day before Norouz, the Persian New Year, so Elat Market was barbarism central. I had basically stepped inside of a moshpit, but instead of steel-toed punk-rockers, there were 70-year-old Iranian ladies with their skirts hiked up just below their sagging bras, who would smack you with their purse if you so much as eyed the pomegranate they're about to snatch up. It was dog-eat-dog, and I was frightened.

Nonetheless, I made my way through wall-to-wall shopping carts to the tea aisle, and started searching. While there was plenty of variety, including cow tongue flower teabags, the loose petals were nowhere to be found. Asking someone was not an option -- it was just too insane -- so I just crept out the door, tail between my legs. I kept walking on Pico though, and ended up at another smaller Persian shop which, thankfully, was pretty empty. After a cursory look through the tea aisle, I went to the counter to ask the man there. He got off the phone to address me, then led me to the back of the store, where he pulled a giant bag of small deep purple flowers from the freezer.

He brought it back to the counter, and asked me how much I wanted. A conversation ensued between me, him, and the resident old man, who had been sitting in a plastic patio chair by the counter reading a Persian newspaper. I told him why I was getting it, the old man basically told me it sounded like a bunch of old country hooey.

Undeterred, I brought my stash home and got to working. Of course, I omitted the limoo omani, but per Saeed's instructions, I pinched off about a tablespoon of the borage petals, and placed them, unwashed, in a small pot with some apple slices and some water, brought the whole thing to a boil, then lowered the heat and let it steep for about 10 minutes. It actually smelled pleasant. Similar to tea, but unique. I didn't even add sugar, because it didn't need it. It became this murky purple liquid that would not be out of place in a witch's cauldron. I drank, it tasted fine, I went through the ritual again the next 2 nights.

The result: The only thing I noticed was that on the second day, my morning coffee that usually just wakes me up, gave me the shivers. Interesting. I have not gotten a canker sore since then, but then again, the stress situation has gone away too. So, I'm not totally convinced. I wonder if Windex would work.

blog in japan

I mentioned that my friend Erin was moving to Tokyo here. Well, she's documenting her experiences here. Another little node in the blogosphere. Check it out, she's pretty hilarious.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Donde Siempre Es Bienvenido

A community is growing on the blocks of Pico between Fairfax and Hauser, and CJ's Cafe is going to feed it. On an evening walk through a seemingly nondescript stretch of Pico a year or two back, I discovered a few small shops and restaurants that were unexpectedly interesting. Among a bunch of ramshackle storefronts, upholsterers, car repair shops, and barbershops, there was an adorable fancy Latin-fusion cafe called Posh, next to a cozy coffeehouse. A few stores down, an upscale salon/spa called Bink'n Heads shared a block with La Petite Gallery, and across the street was a small theater, The Black Dahlia. A couple funky clothing stores rounded out the bunch. What had I just happened upon?

The Wilshire Vista neighborhood is a hidden gem in Los Angeles. The effects of the vital residents' association are conspicuous, and you can feel a strong sense of community in all these shops. The flagship (to us anyway) of all this activity is CJ's, a bustling corner diner where normal people come together for substantial breakfast served by smiling faces. There is nothing showy about CJ's. The sidewalk seating is not of the vintage French bistro variety; the art on the walls is garish and mostly pointless. But this is why we like it. Living so close to Hollywood, breakfast can be a scene. Take Toast for example. Granted the fruit is delicious and includes exotic things like starfruit, the iced hazelnut latte is nothing to scoff at, and they actually have shakshuka on the menu, but is it really worth wading through Von Dutch microskirts and purses with puppies in them to get to your breakfast? Don't think so.

It's hard to believe CJ's is in the same city as Toast. Yes, there are young fashion plates at CJ's, but they're a little more urban, a little less Paris Hilton. And there are families. Adorable little kids in basketball jerseys and braids, old couples reading the paper over a cup of CJs' smooth mild coffee, groups of men simultaneously conversing with each other and the person on the other end of the cell phone. Is it sad that the idea of sharing a restaurant with normal people is novel to me?

The closest thing CJ's has to a gimmick is that it feeds the appetite of its community. I've only ever eaten breakfast here, but the breakfast menu says a lot. You have your standard diner fare, eggs, griddle stuff, denver/spanish/veggie omelets. You might have to stifle the slightest protest the first time your order yours with no meat, egg whites only, fruit instead of potatoes, dry wheat toast, but it's no problem, and after a few visits, they know your style. If you're going that route though, at least indulge on a glass of juice -- freshly squeezed combos of orange, grapefruit, celery, beet, and more. They've also got a complete Mexican breakfast menu -- served with rice, beans, and tortillas, you can get huevos rancheros with a just-the-right-amount side of chorizo (really the best around), machaca, chilaquiles, fried plantains, or huevos a la mexicana -- eggs scrambled with tomatoes and jalapenos, in the colors of the Mexican flag. The latter makes a substantial primary meal for me on many a Saturday or Sunday. Be sure to ask for salsa -- you'll get a trio of distinct varieties. Or you can go for southern breakfast -- catfish and eggs, chicken wings and eggs, grits, and more. Just as the kitchen is the heart of the home, CJ's is the heart of the diverse Wilshire Vista family.

After another delicious breakfast, we waddled our stuffed selves out of the restaurant and discovered a new shop on the opposite corner! The Home Grown Store sells artsy housewares, funky greeting cards, delicious candles, and the works of local artists in a gorgeous industrial/swanky space. Again the community feel came to the forefront the minute we went in -- the conversation between the locally residing owner and his old landlord turned to the public schools in the area, the rising rent as the location becomes a "hot-spot", and the backstory of Sierra Bonita Cafe, the coffeehouse down the block.

freshly squeezed grapefruit and orange juice

huevos a la mexicana

huevos rancheros

So, go to CJ's. It's good, and it's cheap, and it's not annoying.

CJ's Cafe is at 5501 W Pico Blvd at Carmona (1 block west of Hauser).
The Home Grown Store is at 5455 W Pico Blvd at Carmona (1 block west of Hauser).

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Celebrate Barbecue Diversity, Part 3

The fourth of July itself. A celebration of the United States of America. On a bluff in Pacific Palisades, overlooking the Malibu shoreline, I spent the evening with a bunch of people: a Smith, whose father met her Korean mother while stationed in her country as an American soldier (and who, incongruously, contributed homemade rugelach as well as Korean barbecue to the potluck. She perfected the rugelach recipe making it for her boyfriend's bubbe and zayde, who've been living in a bungalow on those bluffs for years). A Gandin, whose family has been in Los Angeles for generations, and has tamales running alongside matzoh ball soup through her veins. A Ziv, whose dad would pay the consequences of being AWOL in the Israeli military just to steal moments with the woman who would be his son's mother. A Har, whose expansive knowledge of American culture rarely belies the fact that she spent her childhood in Korea. A Morakawa, who keeps kosher in her mom's tradition, despite her secular friends' nagging her to stray. A Craig (just met him, don't know his last name!), a Brit living in Australia, walking the earth for 6 months on extended holiday, landing in LA just in time to experience a true American holiday. And many others, each with a unique and incredible history.

We ate cookies (and cornbread stars, and salmon burgers, and German potato salad, and Korean barbecue on skewers, and tomato salad, and Nathan's gourmet franks, and vegan bean dip, and more and more and more cookies), played frisbee, listened to old reggae and Stevie Wonder, and caught something like 10 different fireworks shows, peppering the sky, up and down the coast. Then at the end of the night, we lit our own sparklers, and waved them around, watching the glowing trails, fascinated by the shiny things like so many little kids. It's amazing how the fourth of July can send everyone back to their childhood, and sometimes even further back.

But flash forward to the present. The United States may be celebrating its independence, but Italy just beat Germany in the last two minutes of overtime -- truly something to celebrate! So, I made a caprese salad. I recently was looking at an issue of Cooking Light at my sister's and they had a recipe for caprese. It seems silly -- it's like giving a recipe for fried eggs. So, I won't. Just the ingredients in mine: a wide variety of cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzerella balls, fresh basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, the end.

Stars and Stripes (and bibimbap, and pupusas, and dolma, and tahdig, and onigiri, and tacos, and felafel, and bao, and pho tai, and tom ka khai, and sag paneer) FOREVER!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Celebrate Barbecue Diversity, Part 2

Yesterday's barbecue was bittersweet. Erin, a member of our cliquish foursome that is Team Tokyo, is making a pilgrimage to the motherland. She quit her job, packed up, and is moving to Tokyo tomorrow. She'll be doing a 4-month stint at a visual effects house there, and we're a little devastated to see her go. My work environment will suffer immensely -- I met Erin about 4 years ago when I hired her at the internet startup where I used to work. Not long after, she left that company to work at Rhythm&Hues, and not long after that, she got me a job there as well (big shocker -- the internet startup went belly-up). She is extremely bright and I'm excited to see her thriving careerwise. She's also one of those wonderful people who is always up for fun, and as I experienced when we traveled through Japan together, she eats up life and never lets 'tired' get in her way. She's also a master behind the karaoke mic, and her rendition of Air Supply's "Out of Nothing At All" is truly something to behold. I know she'll have a blast back in Tokyo.

So, Erin and her roommates put on yesterday's barbecue at their apartment. Erin's parents were in town, and her mom provided a Filipino feast. I walked in to an expansive spread of grilled meats -- both on skewers and in sausage form. Additionally, she had made lumpia: addictive bite-size bits of seasoned ground meat wrapped in thin pastry and deep fried, vegetarian spring rolls, and pancit -- glassy rice noodles with vegetables, hardboiled eggs, and chicken. So much good stuff I had never tried!

Amazingly, the night eventually turned into a mellow, cozy, living room karaoke party. And when we sang the New Kids on the Block's "Please Don't Go Girl", we meant it.

Celebrate Barbecue Diversity, Part 1

This four-day weekend, I've gone to not one, not two, but three barbecues. All of them fit with the theme of celebrating the United States by stuffing your face, but there was nary a hamburger or potato chip in sight. The food selections better reflected the true flavor of this nation: a spicy, flavorful, exotic, toothsome mix of tastes from all over the world that come together to make something entirely unique, and even more delicious than each of its parts.

I spent the day at my sister's house on Sunday. I took the kids to see Garfield 2 (the second time for me. Joy.), then we grilled and played and ate and ate. The menu was Mexican, mostly because my sister and I feel the same way about margaritas -- if opportunities to drink them don't create themselves, you have to create opportunities! I was in charge of meat and fruit. So, on the way over, I stopped at the fruit cart near my apartment, where a small group of women was already ripping into their bags of fruit while finishing up their transaction. These carts are ubiquitous in LA, and one of my favorite healthy street-food snacks. The stand contains piles of peeled fruits on display behind glass, and the guy has a cutting board and a sharp knife. I chose mango, pineapple, and jicama (although cucumber and cantaloupe sound great for future visits), and four dollars and much hacking and chopping later, I had a big plastic bag of fruit, sprinkled generously with salt and chili powder, swimming in the freshly squeezed lime juice.

I stopped at a carnicería near my apartment and picked up some marinated carne asada, which Ray kindly grilled along with corn on the cob.

On her end, Torreh made a fresh and really yummy three-bean (green, black canellini) salad, with sweet corn, bell peppers, and avocados, and lots of cumin in the dressing. She also made fresh guacamole (or 'broccomole', if you're 3), and limy, salty, icy, perfect margaritas.

We were stuffed, but after some time running around, swinging on the swing set, and playing 'baseball', we managed to squeeze in dessert -- mint ice cream (no chips! Yes!!) Drumsticks -- out on the grass. As Ray put it, there is something magical about kids and ice cream, especially in the summer. Yep, I think so.