Monday, July 23, 2007

Pottering About

I've never read the Harry Potter books though my friend Jeff has already cast Daniel Radcliffe as me in the forthcoming, sure to be ridiculous, movie of my life. Newcomer producer Jeff swears we met at Santa Monica College in Home Ec 101, but I beg to differ: I met him panhandling outside some fancy shop on La Brea Boulevard. Back when I worked in movie advertising the company worked on the first Potter movie for a couple of weeks before Warner's moved the project elsewhere. We each received a copy of the book to get us into the swing, but in that stressed out world, when you move on, you move on like it never happened. The latest hottest brief, book or script takes precedence. So I didn't read that one or any of the other Potter books and each new movie remains a fresh treat. Controversial or not, I find them very entertaining, and we went to see the latest last week at The Vista Theater, a block from where I live. The Vista Theater has been restored during my time in the neighborhood and there is no place in the world that I like to see a movie more. The Vista has wide open aisles and a wooden floor sprung like timpani, which bounces and magnifies the sound of its remarkable speaker system. Sound has become one of the most interesting parts of a movie for me and a concrete floor does nothing but soak up the acoustics in most other theaters. The Vista was built with remnants of the set for D.W. Griffith's Intolerance in the late 1920's, filmed on that site and which provided inspiration for architectural elements at Hollywood and Highland which houses the Oscar driven Kodak Theater, and in The Vista some of the original re-gilded golden busts look down at you as you sit in front of its single silk framed screen. It is now privately owned. I am excited by the fact that I live in a building that was part of the original studio row.

Hogwart's Dining Hall, in the first of the Potter movies, was filmed on location in a place where I ate frequently for the first two years of my tenure as an Oxford undergraduate until I took to the countryside in my last year. Lunch and dinner were served to us by our Scouts, individuals assigned to our residential staircases and who took care of our apartments and us. To attend Oxford University, a federation of 40 or so colleges, one has to be admitted to one of them to attend The University, and I was absorbed into Christ Church (they drop the "college" nomenclature). Built around Oxford Cathedral by Cardinal Wolsey as his country seat, it was quickly appropriated by Henry VIII when Wolsey fell out of favor. It is mentioned a couple of times in The Tudors, Showtime's semi-fictional, melodramatic and rather strange miniseries that has just ended here on cable TV. I don't subscribe to cable and my neighbor Shauna Tivoed it for me as she thought it was important that I see it. As a result of Christ Church's passage of ownership, the reigning monarch is always its head, and is called The Patron. Charles I, as Patron, held court here, on the run, from The Deanery during The Civil War and surrendered to Oliver Cromwell from there after he lost The Battle of Oxford. Like Wolsey before him, Charles, having tested Cromwell's favor, subsequently lost his head and then the country spent 10 years or so under Cromwell's Protectorate. Since then, traditionally, Christ Church is the College of England's Princes and aristocrats if they attend Oxford. Christ Church is the largest College in The University with about 350 Members. "Students", at Christ Church are actually the college faculty, the students are called "Members". I have no idea what the current figures are but the entire university in those days numbered but 7,000 heads. As a Member of Christ Church, the staircase to Hall, Hall itself, and The Cathedral Cloisters, in the Potter films are familiar. The success of the movie franchise means that all these places have been rebuilt digitally and on permanent set to avoid regularly disrupting life at the college. After all, in England, you are instilled early on with the idea that food is mostly a time to enjoy bounty and to "network", and that , in my time was considered an important part of an education. Would not be good to perpetually interrupt that. The Hall, its gothic staircase, and the cloisters, can be seen here in the college's excellent QTVR virtual tour.

Institutional food is always lacking and I remember little of the food served there. If one got tired of it, The Sorbonne, which closed its doors in the early 90s, served a good Rable de Lièvre (saddle of hare) in an alleyway round the corner from the college above The High, or if you felt like venturing further there was the excellent Quat' Saisons then in not so grand a location. I do remember trying to get invited to next-door Merton College as often as possible, as some rich American had left an endowment to them just for food, and any day of the week you were able to choose from roast duck or beef and a dozen other main dishes decently cooked. Amongst the most pleasant memories of dining at Ch Ch was sitting at the long tables with those glowing lamps neatly interspersed along them, we in our gowns, our voices rising up into the rafters, dark wooded paneling and ghostly portraits, many by the leading practitioners of each century on English soil. I personally loved the Lely's, a Dutch portraitist who did well in England during the 17th century. I remember The Grace spoken in latin by a Scholar stood beside their table at one of the large fireplaces near High Table before we ate, and the feigned boredom of many of The Dons at High Table. I have not yet used my right to sit at High Table.

A great visual joke in the Potter movies is the attention to detail with regard to the arrangement of food down the center of the long tables in Hogwart's Hall. In this last movie I felt some envy, for they seemed cornucopial in a Regency sense, smacking of Careme's accomplishments, visually at least. If school cooking had been this elaborate back in my time, even and only with regard to presentation of such don't touch just look centerpieces, you might have justifiably called us all "spoiled". I haven't had to deal with institutional cooking since those days, except for a couple of times in a federally funded kitchen here in Southern California, and I'm glad to say the food there was worse than anything I remember before at University in England, or at prep school where we were subjected to pretty horrible spam fritters and toad in the hole. Like bad teeth, bad food is one of those myths we Americans love to perpetuate about the English.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Windswept One

I call Peter Huck "The Windswept One", on account of his man-of -action good looks and fiery coif. Peter is a man of action though, a journalist, international traveler, bon vivant and superb raconteur, and we gave him dinner last night. Matt made one of his own amazing risottos, devoting a half hour after chop-prep, to the labor intensive ebb and flow of successive reductions which results in the soft and creamy, but never mushy, dish of rice; every kernel retaining its firm interior. This is perennially a dish to die for. Matt usually makes risotto with shrimp, but, last night he made it with triangles of portobello mushroom that released their flavorful moistness in the mouth, and garnished with mildly smoked bavarian ham. The risotto was finally confettied with flat leaf parsley and topped with parmesan cheese. A simple salad provided fresh greens. Peter always brings food for thought to his dinner conversation, and, by midnight, we had chewed much fat off the world. Hopefully today it is a better place as a result.

I have a great time when I commune with Peter and - or Barbara Drake (his other half). Barbara is enduring 150kph winds in New Zealand at the moment or she would have further polished the evening. Recently, the two of them took a vegetarian Indian cooking class with a luminary of the cuisine. A couple of weeks ago they shared some of the fruits of that occasion with friends, me in attendance, at a dinner in their luxuriously appointed pied a terre located Hollywood proper.

Here is that menu sans dessert courtesy of Peter:
* Dahl.
* Palak Paneer which is spinach combined with paneer. Paneer is a milk-based protein made from curd after it has been separated from the whey somewhat similar to tofu in texture and appearance but actually a cousin of cheese. They boiled the milk, added buttermilk and goat's yogurt.
* Gobhi, which is cauliflower in a sauce made with jalapeno, cumin, mustard seeds and ginger.
* Basmati rice.
* Chapatis, which Barbara bought at a shop on Venice Blvd (the only pre-bought item with the relishes below).
* Coriander chutney
* Mango chutney

They made this feast completely from scratch, including the paneer (see pic above) which is an elaborate process in itself. Palak paneer is a favorite of mine at Indian restaurants and such establishments often make it in advance to keep it on hand but I have never eaten it in total fresh. The difference is immense partly because the spinach retains its rich viridian color and correspondingly clean flavor, and the paneer its own mildness, whereas in restaurants the spinach is often browned from age, and the paneer is too, having soaked up that same brown "flavor" with time. The whole thing usually tastes, texturally or flavorly, like bad risotto: a mush. Not the case this night.

A prep heavy dinner in itself, The Huck and The Drake must have been slaving for half a day or more to put it all together and the results were obviously special and delicious. Their Dahl, anyplace a favorite of mine, could easily have been a meal in itself with a couple of dabs of their piquant chutneys on the side. I would advise them to look into the possibility of packaging the Dahl. I'll negotiate my cut for the suggestion later.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rest, Faithful Servant

Yesterday, this intrepid gas stove (left), which has resided in the apartment for many more years than I have, was replaced. Suffering a wacky thermostat that has been kaput for some time, broken hot plates, and a dangerously sprung eat-you door, I regretfully asked my landlady for a new one (on the right). Every stove has its idiosyncrasies and I surely knew this one's. Built like a tank, it was probably a relic of the sixties. The new one seems not so solid but hopefully will be more efficient. I cook almost every day so it's important. It is shiny and spotless, but I will soon change that.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Heatwave Remedy: Rosemary's Iced Cream

This is foremost a commentary on food-ish experiences in and around the region that surrounds my little kitchen and it's not really a recipe write. I also think its a no brainer that South Africa popped up prominently in the last post, as I am continually reminded that our local landscape echoes that of The Cape and its hinterland. Many of the flora we take for granted originated down there: the bird of paradise, aloe and certain palms to name some. A place in Capetown made, to my memory, the best malted milk shakes I have ever had. I sat in a sea-breezed, palm shaded garden near the beach, and stood a spoon in the thick creamy delight which seemed twice my size, a treat which was akin to a love gift by my parents.

Today, in LA, we suffer a rally of the heat wave that punished us last week. I wish I was at Rosemary's. I would pop in there now but for the fact that Rosemary's Ice Cream Parlor is in downtown Bakersfield, a sprawling oil town with 300,000 plus inhabitants and a corresponding real estate boom. "Ole Bako" regularly enjoys temperatures of 100 degrees and worse. It's an hour and forty five minutes north of us, in the South Central Valley and is its agricultural epicenter. Most of our country's table grapes, pistachios, almonds and carrots, come from this rich, masterfully irrigated part of the valley. Bakersfield is famous for its style of country music, for Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and also for its oil. As Gloria Swanson bullyingly cajoles William Holden in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard:

Norma Desmond: Shut up, I'm rich! I'm richer than all this new Hollywood trash! I've got a million dollars.
Joe Gillis: Keep it.
Norma Desmond: Own three blocks downtown, I've got oil in Bakersfield, pumping, pumping, pumping! What's it for but to buy us anything we want!

When you drop down from the beautiful mountain ride into The Grapevine, named for both its luge-like passage and the vines bounded by the triangle between the north and southbound lanes of I-5, you immediately see a fantastic birds-eye view of the valley. When you hit the floor, the oil is ever pumping and here my allergies start to kick in. After a half hour of what is still a beautiful drive, now on I-99, you streak past vineyards and orchards, and depending on the season, potatoes, mustard, and cotton. This is where Cary Grant gets threatened by a crop duster in Hitchcock's North by Northwest and you occasionally still see them swoop over the freeway from field to vast field. Then you hit Bakersfield. Most people in LA will tell you that it's a place they rush through, from-to. When I gingerly turn onto White Lane I momentarily come under the impression that the world's supply of oil is endless and the environment is a nagging aunt you should ignore, on account of the fact that probably at least seventy-five percent of the vehicles are huge flat-bed trucks or SUVs. The occasional Honda, small Chevy, Lexus or Bentley provides light entertainment. I have a small economy car, and once in a while I feel a little threatened by leers from aggressive flat-bed drivers, as if a small car is a sign of my worth. Sometimes one will roll by with Haliburton or Schlumberger emblazoned on its side as a reminder that this is a company town, conservative and somewhat dated despite state of the art gated tracts. When my much loved natively resident in-laws went shopping for a hybrid vehicle recently they easily purchased one from surplus on the lot. Here in LA you have to get on a list. That will change as there is now an influx of disenchanted Angelenos moving in, but I'm still not sure if modern Bakersfield is the American Dream personified or a hastily manufactured illusion of it.

Bakersfield is certainly a great town for old-school food. There are the usual "luxury" chains, from Tahoe Joe's to P.F.Chang's, but what remains of the town's past are excellent Basque restaurants, five or six of them from the old pack, lead by Woolgrowers'. French Pyrenees' Basques settled here in force a century ago and are still a great influence in the region. A gem is the Pyrenees Bakery, near Woolgrower's downtown, their breads and pastries best sampled at their own outlet. Not far from there a fifties flavored Chinatown barely hangs on, and two leading ice cream manufacturers, Rosemary's and Dewar's (pronounced there dwars). Dewar's is famous for its iced milk and salt water taffy. They have a couple of outlets including the original, rather tattered, location. But, there is no frozen delight that compares to Rosemary's iced cream served in its single hallowed location. A family business, established in the mid-seventies and named for the founder's daughter, they make their iced cream on site, and toppings too. Chances are, one of the chit-chatting daughters, if not the maestro, will break away from family talk and quietly help you at the till when you leave. Their dining room is large, muraled with cherry topped enticements, and filled with white painted steel chairs on a checkerboard floor and marbled tables that remind me of a famous, lime green hued soda fountain in Cambridge, Mass. I have sent many people to Rosemary's when they have called me from the freeway, between towns, asking where to go for lunch, as they also serve straightforward toasted sandwiches (my favorite being the liverwurst). I am such a fan of theirs that I would do a website for them for next to nothing. In all forthrightness, a Black and Tan (see picture), overflowing with chocolate and vanilla ice cream, layered plentifully with hot fudge and butterscotch, topped with their own confectioner's cream and a cherry, glass of water on the side, will leave you full of its own accord. I won't mention the voluptuous banana splits and countless other fabulous standards on the menu. And you feel you are in your hometown.

In this LA neighborhood, gelato shops abound and the trendy, in my mind overblown, Pinkberry's "iced delight" is a stone's throw from my door. Rosemary's iced cream in Bakersfield beats and trounces them all, hands down, and if I could I would sniff disdainfully at them if I were passing by on my way to a local Rosemary's outlet. Rosemary's is a positive American Reality now, in Bakersfield, my hometown for almost four years.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Bazaar Bizarre

I would like to thank both Winfernal and Wolfgang for their comments in the recent Figs post. Winfernal, apparently a meat eater, shares his excellent vegetarian recipe for spaghetti carbonara with us, and a skepticism about the unhealthiness of raw eggs, amongst other things, and is well worth the read. Wolfgang poses some challenging questions. These independent comments address related topics which I will discuss in this post.

As a child, I went where my parents went, and we were often in South Africa. Major cities, Jo'burg, Cape Town, Durban, had bazaars, colorful markets that were a cross between the modern swap meet and food hall and to my memory very large and sprawling, in devoted, permanent, locations. It was the sixties and the bazaars were under segregation, divided by race. I tread lightly with the terminology here, but there was the Indian Bazaar, and the African Bazaar, which I understand is now no longer operating. Both fantastically colorful and full of the bountiful produce that that fertile country provides, they were always a fun excursion for a wide-eyed child such as myself. At the Indian market it was quite something to see 40 kinds of curry powder arranged in conical heaps ranked by heat, the hottest being Mother-in-Law curry, and each brightly and differently colored according to its spice content. My father would always stock up before our return to Britain, as in those days it was difficult to find authentic Indian curry in England. But what I remember vividly, besides being expected to bargain for Zulu chachki, was the inevitability of a sheep's head at various meat stalls, eyes-in, buzzing with flies which the vendors would swat at and fan away. The smell of spice outweighed everything to my sensitive seven year old's nose, a reminder that spices were originally used to cover the taste and smell of rotting meat and vegetables, and sometimes to preserve them from further deterioration. Although I hear sheep's head is a delicacy I would probably not partake. There is little I will not try, but there are some I revisit rarely. I am, for instance, fussy about what is combined with eggs, and potatoes too, but I can't think of anything that I am truly disgusted by, except perhaps insects or larvae, which are eaten with relish in many parts of the world. I would not eat horse, or dog, or cat, though I have eaten lion biltong (jerky), defined after the instance, in Africa. I have eaten tripe, blood sausage, frog's legs and rattlesnake, and I relish fresh sautéed sweetbreads. Lamb's kidneys are a great favorite of mine. Farmed pheasant, the only kind available to us, is boring, hung for only a couple of days it cannot compete with its weeklong-hung counterparts in Europe, rich, delicious and gamey, and perfectly healthy. I will eat any vegetable or spice, though I don't care for hot peppers in any quantity as they then tend to destroy subtler and equally important flavors in any meal.

Above all, quality suppliers are supremely important, which, apart from the grocer or butcher, includes any restaurant you might eat at. I check labels and country of origin at market and I prefer to buy fresh local produce, seasonally current. I patriotically, stay clear of meat and fish from abroad if I can, though, unless you want to hock the family jewels, it is hard to find good lamb originating any place other than Australia or New Zealand. Government checks and balances are, to my mind, overly stringent in our country, particularly with regard to dairy. Do not think for a moment that a French Brie purchased at market is anything like what they are eating in Europe. You may as well have bought it in Europe and stone blasted it to conform to our government's standards. I remember being on a farm up-coast from Durban, South Africa, where I learned to milk a cow at the age of 8. We took the bucket back to the kitchen and tasted of the butterfat and it was truly wonderful. After home pasteurization it was still superior to what passes for milk in the the domestic market, though I'm sure if you own your own cow you can do the same here. One can get very sick if milk is not pasteurized at an early point, but does one really have to nuke it if it will be naturally processed into cheese?

In parts of the world where hygiene is almost absent, I have had to eat what has been set before me, so as not to offend my hosts (who have not necessarily been the providers of the food) and risked the bodily consequences usually for professional reasons. Cleanliness in the kitchen is Rule One which includes keeping vegetables and meats apart unless your preparation is swift. I was once obliged to taste the wine at a Mediterranean vineyard belonging to a family member of a friend and was served their latest white from a filthy glass in an equally filthy kitchen. I bit the bullet with the consolation that the wine had a high alcohol content (not a fail-safe antiseptic). Mostly I dine at friends' and a gracious host will not put you on the spot if you leave a portion of your serving, though they might gripe about it after you have left. It's unusual to be served something that isn't fairly "safe" at such events. If I can't eat something I quietly leave it and hope to be invited again.

As a postscript to the Big Eden post: I saw Ratatouille this weekend at El Capitan, which was magnificent, and I highly recommend it. Despite being somewhat anti modern Disney on account of their aggressive and invasive marketing, I bit the bullet. Daniel and Helena, 4 and 2 respectively, pictured above with uncle Matt and the theater backdropped, were completely spellbound at the immense imagination that unfolded on the silver screen. This was Helena's first time in front of the big screen. I do hope our nation's mothers and fathers will eventually let their children know that feral rats were responsible for the bubonic plague and are currently the source of hantavirus which is a killer here in the southwest. But, suspend belief once again, and see the film. It is absolutely terrific.