Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Going, going, gone - Part II

I love my sister, and I love my niece.  Here's why:

My niece curled up and slept with me the night I arrived.

My sister got up at the crack of dawn to make sure that we were all fortified for that departure morning with freshly baked monkey bread and a pound of bacon.

My niece wanted to share every one of her favorite things with me while I was visiting, and had an itinerary for us that was planned down to the minute.   But she immediately changed it to make time for a stop at a Hallmark store so the three of us could send the girls a funny card a few hours after they left.   

My sister assured me calmly that the tornado warnings coming from the radio as the rain poured down and thunder crashed in the distance almost certainly did not pertain to the route that the camp buses were taking*.

My niece chose to sit on my lap on the shuttle bus** from church.  Mom had to go solo.

My sister drove like a maniac (but in a safe way) after dinner at a friend's house, just to make sure that I had a chance to try the best ice cream in America***.   We pulled into the lot of Maggie Moo's at one minute before closing time.    Not only was the ice cream incredible, it was just what the doctor ordered, as the monkey bread and bacon had worn off.

Cinnamon (on bottom) and Espresso Bean (on top)

My niece believes in fairies.  My sister had planned an expedition for my visit that gave her a fantastic reason for doing so.

Below are a few of the fairy doors we discovered in downtown Ann Arbor, thanks to my sister's intrepid research and my niece's eagle eyes.  The leprechaun house at the top is a secret one that only my sister knew about.

My niece, when we were heading to the airport to drop me off for my flight****, did not even touch the grilled cheese sandwich from her favorite restaurant.   Knowing she was starving, my sister asked why.

And my niece said quietly, "I'm too sad to eat."

I rest my case.  Saying goodbye to someone you love is the worst feeling in the world*****.  

* They did pertain to the route we were taking, but that didn't bother me nearly as much.
** We collectively decided that if the girls were on a bus, we would take the bus, too.   We pretended to wave at our crying parents as we left the church's overflow parking lot.  It was actually pretty cathartic for me.
*** Don't take our word for it...they've won that exact award nine years running!
**** She had instructed her mom to take the "most traffic-y way" to increase the odds of my missing the flight.
***** But saying hello is fantastic.  And I get to say hello to both of them in August.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Going, going, gone

The plane ride itself was uneventful, even fun.   The girls snacked, giggled, watched those dorky Nickelodeon shows on the seat back TV's and played games on their iPods.   I read a trashy airport novel, ate a salad, and, for a few blissful moments, napped a little*. 

 The mobile map tracks our progress toward Michigan, home of the upcoming sleep-away camp and my sister and niece.  What a combo!

We landed, collected the baggage and they took turns careening around on the luggage cart before it was loaded down with all their stuff.   My sister pulled up to the curb, and my niece was running, jumping and laughing all at the same time as I grabbed her and twirled in a circle, smiling like crazy myself.   Everybody was talking at once:

How are you guys?  Are you tired? 
What time is it here?  
Auntie Shar!  I'm doing math again**! 
They had TV's on the plane and we thought we almost missed our flight but we didn't really! It was scary!
Do you like pizza?  We're making you pizza!

And then the big one:

Are you excited for camp?

Yes.  They were excited for camp***.   For me, it was déjà vu all over again

Another parking lot full of people I didn't know.  Another rented bus waiting to take my daughter away from me.   You'd think I'd at least be better prepared for the onslaught of panic that gripped me as the doors closed.   But I wasn't.  Let's face it.  Waving goodbye to someone you love is the worst feeling in the world.

And sometimes the bravest thing a child can do.

I was going with the "tears of pride" theory when my sister turned to me and said, "Was it me, or were we the only black people here?"

I went back to the "tears of fear" area immediately.   

Do you see any black people in this picture? 

* A frenzy of late-night labeling and packing had kept me up.   Every single item in her duffle bag had to have her name on it.  As in, each individual sock.   Can you say, overkill? 
** We have a private joke about this.  I pretend to be appalled by her "big girl" skills and she taunts me with shouts of "four plus four is eight!" before dissolving into hysterics.
*** They (my daughter and her close friend from school) were also excited for the backyard full of fireflies that greeted them at my sister's place.    I quote: "It's magic here!"   It was also cloyingly hot and humid, even at 11 at night.   And, between that, their nerves, and the time change, nearly impossible for them to sleep that night.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade - Episode 17

After dipping our collective forks into the faddish food trucks and flash-in-the pan havens of organic produce and bacon-laced desserts, the OG Foodie Girls got a hankering to visit someplace in this town that had been around for a while.   A place with history, not halogen lighting.    Where the staff speaks from experience, not from crib notes.    And leather is something you sit on, not wear.     The proper adjectives would be words like "classic", "timeless" and "an LA institution."

In other words, a place a lot like us*. 

This is the moist towelette that you get after your meal at Langer's .  Although we were all seriously stuffed, we were also secretly hoping this was a complementary chocolate bar.

Episode 17 - Kickin' it Old School at Langer's Deli
The impetus behind this particular outing was definitely FG6's husband, who went from a quick hello to a full blown soliloquy on the gastronomical glory of the Langer's pastrami on rye one afternoon.   The man was literally in a state of bliss just talking about the stuff.    His eyes practically rolled back in his head as he described the crusty bread and piles of thick-sliced, peppery smoked meat on top.    The salivating was not my imagination, either.   With that kind of recommendation, the voyage to the edge of MacArthur Park jumped straight to the top of our to do list.     On a bright Tuesday afternoon, eight of us converged on the corner of Alvarado and 7th street for a trip back in time.

Our waitress, Sheila, was amazing.  Drinks all around, menus for everyone, and a tray of warm pastrami samples from the kitchen arrived as if by magic.    There was a brief fit of hysterical giggles as someone pretended to consider ordering the diet plate (cottage cheese and some kind of fruit, I think).  Ha Ha Ha!

A guest FG sighed with pleasure at the long list of available items.  "This is my soul food, girls.   I feel like I've come home."  She immediately placed an order for the cheese blintzes, by which, according to her, one can tell the true quality of a deli instantly.  If that is true, this place is among the finest, because those blintzes were ridiculously delicious.   A platter of them arrived, fat and golden brown on the outside, stuffed full of rich, cheesy goodness.   Customized with sour cream, applesauce, and jelly, every single FG raved when they took a bite.

It was only a little pathetic that each and every other one of us ordered some form of pastrami sandwich.  After all, they have hundreds of things to choose from.   But far be it from us to argue with generations of Angelenos who flock here from miles around for just this meal.    In a gesture to the notion of completeness, we decided to add other dishes and pretend they were sides:  Potato pancakes.  A plate of lox and bagels.  A huge order of fries.    Pickles and sauerkraut appeared somehow, too.  Otherwise, it was the famous #19, with pastrami, Russian dressing and coleslaw on rye.   And my #10, grilled pastrami on rye with swiss cheese and Russian dressing.

Despite being a last-minute addition, the lox plate was a huge hit.  The fish was incredible!  Smooth, cool, flavorful, and totally fresh tasting.  The bagel was perfect, too, warm and just lightly toasted.   The pile of fixings that came with it again made it easy for each of us to make our own little custom appetizer out of it.    Opinions diverged on the potato pancakes, with some finding them yummy and others longing for more crunch and more robust flavor.     The crispy, perfectly cooked fries disappeared in a heartbeat.    The pickle lovers among us were delighted.  And we all loathed the sauerkraut.  As FG11 said, "It tastes like an old shoe.  And not in a good way."

On to the main event.  The hype?  Completely deserved.  This pastrami is to die for.   Unlike any other pastrami I've had, Langer's version is sliced thickly, so you get a real sense for the meat itself.   It's like the revelation of slab bacon compared to what you get at the cafeteria.  The cure is expert, the juiciness just right.  Tender doesn't begin to describe the texture.  As for flavor, it's briny and peppery and deeply satisfying.    Although we were all almost full just from the "side" dishes, those sandwiches were pretty much gone.   Sheila came by once to see if FG6's apparent half sandwich should be wrapped to go, and was informed, "I already ate all the meat out of it.  So, no."

I personally preferred the pure combination of the buttery, crisp grilled bread with the pastrami and cheese, but others loved the melding of the cool, crunchy coleslaw with the warm meat and freshly baked bread in the house special.    That bread, by the way, is outstanding.   So much so that as I excused myself to visit the little girls' room, the rest of the crew moved almost as one for the take-out counter.   Jars of pickles, loaves of hot bread, and pounds of meat to go were wrapped up and followed us home.
FG Final Verdict?
Langers is ON the list!
Pricing Information:  Sandwiches and other dishes $10-18, sides $4-6
FG Value Rating:  Fair Deal

Find out where and when the FG's will strike next!  Visit our website and get the scoop.  You'll also find links to great articles about Langer's and LA's award-winning deli scene.

*Except of course, we're way to young and good looking to be considered any kind of institution.  We would be called "classic, timeless, yet still quite hip and sexy" instead.

 Photographic evidence of the post-lunch devastation of a FG lunch outing

Monday, June 21, 2010

Why I don't write about my Dad

There are several key reasons why my father does not make regular appearances here on my blog.  Let me lay them out for you as follows:
  1. He tends to communicate via extensive, enumerated lists to make his point*.   While his logic is inevitably irrefutable, this doesn't make for good sound bites**.
  2. He's been a very successful bureaucrat for most of his professional life.  Meaning he's diplomatic, even tempered, detail-oriented, authoritative and thoughtful.  But not funny.
  3. He's had both hips replaced, his back hurts a lot, and he should be retired.  But he goes to work every day, cooks and cares for his wife when she's ill, and supports my mom financially.   He's devoted to his dog.   Making him a shining example of nobility and selflessness, but not exactly riveting copy.
  4. He taught me to love reading, puzzles, George of the Jungle cartoons and Monty Python movies.  He put me and my sister through college, raised two strong, confident women, and is inordinately proud of both of us.  And he adores his crop of rapidly growing grandchildren enormously.   We are beyond lucky to have him, but this is more of a personal benefit than a public one.
  5. Perhaps most relevant of all, he's got an iron grip***, is really tall and intimidating, and may actually read this someday.  
Dad with his grandkids and the characters from South Park at his 70th birthday party****.

So, instead of blogging about my Dad on Father's Day, I'm going to blog about what I cooked for my Dad on Father's Day.   It's much safer.  

Warm Grilled Potato Salad
This was an experiment I tried as an accompaniment to our Father's Day mixed grill, and we all loved it. 

About 2 lbs. of red rose or other waxy potatoes, washed and cut into 1/3 inch slices
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 c. of olive oil
2-3 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1/2 c. of chopped green onions
grated zest of 1 orange
3 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
Another 1/2 c. olive oil
Plenty of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3-4 cups of arugula

Put a pot of salted water on to boil, and add the potatoes.  Cook for 6-8 minutes, or until potatoes are nearly done but not quite.  To check, look for them to opaque at the edges but still crisp in the middle.

Remove from water and drain well on a towel.

Meanwhile, whisk the garlic, 1/2 c. of olive oil, and mustard together in a small bowl, and season liberally with salt and pepper.  Brush one side of the potato rounds with this mixture, and hold onto the rest.   Mix green onions, orange zest, vinegar and the other 1/2 c. of olive oil in a large mixing bowl until well blended.  Set aside.   Arrange arugula in a shallow serving bowl and keep in the fridge until you need it.

Place potato slices, oiled side down, onto a hot grill.   Brush the tops with the remaining mustard/garlic mixture.   If you have any of the mustard mixture left, stir it into the large bowl with the balsamic dressing.  Close grill and cook potatoes for 6 minutes.   Flip over and continue grilling for another 6 minutes.   The potatoes should be nice and brown and crispy looking when they're done.   Immediately transfer to the bowl with the dressing and toss, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.  Get out your serving dish, and spoon the potatoes over the arugula, drizzling with any extra dressing.  Serve immediately.

Bonus! The trick to great grilled steak

When you put the steak on the grill, place a few thin slices of cold butter on top.   It will melt into the meat slowly.  When you flip the steaks, put another few slices of butter on the steak.  This will melt quickly.  When you eat the steak, it will literally melt in your mouth.   You will never grill any other way again!

* I suppose I have made use of this methodology here from time to time, so perhaps he has had an impact after all.
** What it does make for are long, drawn out conversations that have a strong tinge of the old college lecture about them.
*** Those of you who have met my dad know what I'm talking about.
**** He may not be that funny himself, but he has a great appreciation for comedy (which he passed on to me) and for campy Godzilla movies (which he thankfully did not).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The best 20 minute meal you'll ever make

 Step 1:  Go to Trader Joe's and buy four things*.
  1. Salmon
  2. Trader Joe's Island Soyaki Sauce
  3. Trader Joe's Frozen Organic Jasmine Rice
  4. Asparagus
Step 2:  Put the salmon into a dish and pour about 1/2 the bottle of sauce over it.  Cover and put into the fridge for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour or so.   Read your mail, yell at the kids, feed the dog, etc. Whatever the normal evening walk-in-the door routine may be at your house.  When you've just about had it with everyone, come back and start dinner.

Step 3:  Set your oven to broil, and move an oven rack into the top position.  Cover a baking sheet with foil, set a metal cooling rack on top of it, and coat rack with non-stick cooking spray.   Take salmon out of the fridge and place on top of the prepared pan.   It is more than OK if some of the sauce is still on it.  Put the salmon under the broiler and set the timer for 12 minutes.  Keep an eye on it, but you actually want it to get pretty brown.

Step 4:  Rinse the asparagus and trim the ends.   Coat lightly with olive oil and a healthy sprinkling of kosher salt.   Get out a large frying pan, add a couple more tablespoons of olive oil to the pan, and heat over medium high heat.

Step 5:  Take out a bag or two of the frozen rice.  Read the directions if you want, but I can tell you it's pretty much open the microwave, put the bag in, cook for three minutes, take the bag out.  The rice will then be fluffy and perfectly cooked.  It's like a miracle.

Step 6:  While the rice is cooking, add the asparagus to the hot pan and stir fry for 4-6 minutes, depending on how thick the stalks are, or until crisp-tender.   Ideally you'll get some nice char on parts of it, almost like grilling.   The rice will be ready right in the middle of this, but don't worry.  You can just leave it in the microwave until you're done with the asparagus.

Step 7:  About two minutes before the salmon comes out, heat up some more of the Soyaki sauce in a small sauce pan.    Add about 1 Tbs. of butter and a handful of minced green onions, if you like.   Stir until the butter is melted.  It's done.  You can easily do this while the asparagus is cooking.   Trust me, I do it all the time.

Step 8:  Take salmon out of the oven.  It should be caramelized and nicely browned all over.  Check to see if it's done to your liking.  If it needs more time, place it on a lower rack in the oven for a couple more minutes.

Step 9:  Serve this delectable salmon, rice and asparagus to your stunned and delighted family.   Tell the cat to get down from the table.  Pass sauce alongside.

Step 10: Say a prayer of thanks to that most holy and blessed patron saint of harried mothers everywhere:  Trader Joe's.

  1. This exact same plan works great with almost any kind of firm-fleshed fish.  It's awesome with swordfish, for example. 
  2. You can sub in a salad or Trader Joe's yummy "steam-in-bag" sugar snap peas for the asparagus if you don't want to deal with a frying pan.
  3. You can cook rice from scratch if you're so inclined.  Just start that cooking before the salmon so the timing comes out right. 
*This will cost you less than $20.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Magnify the positive, shrink the negative and miniaturize the pecan pie

I have been trying for a while to become smaller.   Rather than taking the traditional approach of eating less, I've gone with the somewhat unconventional strategy of intermittent exercising combined with dining out, cocktails and frequent baking.    Thus far my method has not been that effective*, but it's been quite enjoyable, and I'm OK with that.  Particularly after hearing the message of the week in my kickboxing class today.

Magnified view of the tasty main ingredient

The idea was simple but perfect:  Magnify the positive, and shrink the negative.  Both are out there, but YOU decide what's important, and what you want to look for.   If you focus your attention on the good in life, in the people you meet, in  your work, in your family and friends, suddenly amazing things are everywhere.   Our teacher likened it to a google search.  You put out there that you're looking for ways to feel great, and that's what you get back.  Everything else is filtered out.  If instead you're convinced that LA is full of people who can't drive, you'll definitely run into an idiot around every corner**.   

I personally love this plan.  I've set my inner google to find delicious food, inspiring ways to exercise at least some of those calories right back off, and friends who think I look great just the way I am.   Positively brilliant.

As are desserts that come in packages small enough to enjoy without any exercise at all.

Mini Pecan Tarts

My mom first began making these many many years ago, and passed the recipe along to me***.  They are 100% guaranteed to impress the hell out of people.  Partly because they're adorable and elegant at the same time, but mostly because they taste so damn good.

3 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 stick (1/2 c.) butter, softened
1 c. minus 2 Tbs.  flour     
2 Tbs. powdered sugar

1 c. brown sugar, packed
1 beaten egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbs. butter, melted

about 1/2 c. of toasted pecan pieces

Using electric mixer or beating by hand, mix cream cheese, softened butter, flour and powdered sugar together to form a soft dough.  Roll into 24 small balls, just over 1 inch in diameter.  Press into bottom and sides of 24 mini-muffin tins to form crust.  Sprinkle crushed pecans on bottom of each cup.  (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate the muffin tins for a day or so before baking if you like.)   

Preheat the oven to 350.   Whisk brown sugar, egg, vanilla and melted butter together.  Pour into muffin cups until almost full.  Sprinkle a few more pecans on top.  Bake at 350 for 25 minutes, or until crusts are golden brown.  Allow to cool in pan for 5 minutes, then remove to cool completely.  

Click to print this recipe!

NOTE:  This recipe is made infinitely easier by two pieces of special equipment.  The first is a rather phallic tool called a tart tamper that lets you push down on the ball of dough to form a perfect crust.  They are about four bucks at Amazon.  You should definitely get one if you plan to be in the mini-tart-making line of work at all.   Mine is shown in this photo making chocolate mini tart shells.

The second helpful item is a plastic squeeze bottle.  I find that if I put the filing into a squeeze bottle and drizzle it into the tins, I have almost no drippy mess to deal with.    

* The best I can say is that I am somewhat more compact (i.e. denser) lately, due to kickboxing and the taskmasters at the Pilates place near my house.   In a remarkably unpleasant way, they pervert ordinary tasty food phrases into torturous exercises with spring-weighed pulleys.  I now want nothing to do with "catfish" or "scrambled eggs."
** Which was so weird because I had literally been surrounded by a sampling of the city's worst vehicular operators on my way to this very class.    Especially the slowpoke in the beat up Corolla in front of me on Magnolia.     I'm pretty sure I wasn't looking for him, but maybe he was sending out vibes about finding someone whose day he could ruin and found me!
*** I also inherited her mini-muffin tins, which have to be at least 25 years old and still going strong.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I'll show you the ropes, kid

We collected our salad bowl and said good-bye to the other parents at the end of year party.   The group was lingering over wine and dessert, a bit teary-eyed from the slide show retrospective of the kids and the heartfelt departure speech from their teacher.   There were hugs all around.   As we walked down the driveway towards the car, the soft murmur of conversation floated after us through the balmy June night.

My husband started the car and I phoned home to check on our son.

Me:  We're on our way home.
Him:  OK, I'll be ready.

30 minutes later, the three of us were crossing Hollywood Blvd, crawling with a Friday night mix of tourists, black-clad club goers, cops, guys waving light sticks in front of packed parking lots, and a bunch of extra people in leather.  My son's eyes were roving everywhere, even as he tried to act nonchalant*.   As we walked through the entrance to the Palladium, the din of hundreds of twenty-somethings screaming to be heard over the pulsating soundtrack hit us like a sonic brick.

Judging by the lines at the bar and the exuberance of the throngs around us, the crowd was primed and ready for the show. 

As we fought our way through to a relatively unobstructed position, I had an odd sense of deja vu when I found myself clinging desperately to my child's hand so we wouldn't be separated in the mass of strangers**.  Finally, just after 10:30 pm, the band took the stage and the place went nuts.   I was right there with them.  These guys were great!

My son:  Jeez, Mom!  What are you doing?  Are you OK?
Me:  I'm dancing!  I love this song!  Dance with me, honey!
My son:  (Moving away from me so fast that he nearly injures himself on a protruding pillar).  You have got to be kidding me.  Stop.  Just stop.  Please, I'm begging you.  That is so not right. 
My husband***: I know it looks strange, but it's pretty dark in here.  Just stand over there and ignore it.   I'll go get us something to drink.
My son (calling after him in desperation):  Dad!  Don't leave me alone with her.  I think she's singing along now!

I am, indeed, chiming in at the top of my lungs.
Me:  (pumping my fist) The FURNITURE...is in the GARAGE!!!" 

My husband tactfully decides to take my son to the bathroom.  Just as they walk off, I am tapped on the shoulder by a guy behind me.

Me: (beaming with pride and also yelling) YEAH! WE DID!  HE'S A BIG LCD FAN!
His buddy:  YOU ARE LIKE, MOM OF THE YEAR, DUDE!!!****

We high five and keep bopping around.  When my son comes back, they give him two thumbs up and toast him with their suspiciously empty beer bottles.  He shrugs*****, accepts a few back slaps and happily starts jumping in time to the music with them.

With my son distracted but probably safe, I pull my husband close and whisper anxiously in his ear.

Me:  I think I might be going into menopause.
Him:  WHAT?
Him:  WHERE?
Me:  Here!  I've got menopausal symptoms.
Him:  WHAT?
Him:  Right now?
Me:  Yes.  I'm having hot flashes, big time! Just look at me.  I am sweating all over!  According to what I've read, it's a classic sign.

Just then the guy in front of me lifts up his dark blue t-shirt and begins fanning himself wildly.   His girlfriend kindly wrings out the front of his shirt for him while she wipes her own dripping brow with a tiny cocktail napkin.  He resumes a crazy form of movement that strongly resembles the Elaine dance from Seinfeld******.  He even whips out the old "shooting pretend guns from his hips" move.

My husband:  It's not menopause.   It's a ROCK CONCERT!

Relieved beyond belief, we roar out the next line of the encore number together.  My son throws his hands in the air and joins right in.

The whole family, as one:  We are NORTH AMERICAN SCUM!  Ah whoo hoo!

* As nonchalant as a newly-minted 14 year old boy can be under the circumstances.
** Just like trips to Disneyland when he was five, these were absurdly happy strangers with light up necklaces.   Unlike that crowd, however, these people were openly downing beers and only a few had mouse ears.
*** Who is also dancing, by the way, but apparently in a less mortifying way.
**** He had no idea how spot on he was.  I'd spent a good week of my life making that tear-jerker slide show of my daughter's class for the parent party.
***** In preparation for this, his first true rock concert, we had advised him that drunk people in extremely noisy rooms generally respond well to agreeable nodding and shrugging.