Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On Happiness and Merrily Kissing 2008 Goodbye

This morning on the way to work, a very angry driver in a white construction material-loaded pickup truck nearly ran me out of my lane on the 91 freeway. I'm one to stay away from drivers with road rage, but this time there was no escaping Mr. Shiny White Truck as he erratically veered around me (missing me by inches), flew across two lanes to the left and then back in front of me before slamming on the brakes. I think he had malicious intentions.

It didn’t help that, at the time, I was listening to incredibly annoying commentary on NPR about "Non-Troversies of 2008" in which John Ridley named a number of big news stories from the year that he felt were completely irrelevant. I will spare you details, mostly because I’m not sure 2008 is a year that a lot of people want to re-live. Don’t get me wrong; 2008 certainly had its incredible moments. But, for the most part, I don’t think I’ll miss it. And, no, I don’t think Ridley’s “non-troversies” were irrelevant. There, I said it.

Suffice it to say that I did not consider that a happy start to the last day of 2008. I spent the rest of the drive to work fuming about nearly getting run off the road. Then, I started to realize that there was something wrong with the whole picture. Why should some stranger on the freeway have any control over how I feel? He probably didn't give our encounter a second thought as he drove on, so why should I let it bother me when, only seconds earlier, I was driving along minding my own business.

Anyway, I was soon sitting comfortably at my desk editing an article about happiness, which is a follow-up to this article that will run next week. I started thinking, again, about what really makes me happy, and I thought of you, my dear readers (however few you are) and this blog. I’m starting to think of this as a place where I share all of the things that make me happy, because I think that is something we, collectively as a nation or even a world, need right now. The party is over (for now, anyway) and it is time to look for the simple things that provide joy in life.

So, before I finish, I want to leave you with the picture that brought me out of my slump this morning:

This photograph was taken by my aunt, Linda Morrow, and is the January image in her 2009 calendar “Long Beach After Dark.” I hung the calendar right next to my computer at work on Monday. I don’t have a window near my desk, but I’ve already caught myself staring at this picture of the Second Street Bridge as if I were looking through a window. All of her photos are vivid and colorful with a painterly quality. I just love this one, which seems to capture dusk on the water beautifully.

I wish you a very cheerful and healthy New Year, but most of all, I wish you a very happy 2009.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cut the Chill with Some Holiday Warmth

Christmas is only two days away, and most of the country is in a deep-freeze. I think it's about time to share some secrets to staying warm around the holidays, inside and out. Following are my top-three ways to cut the chill. I would love to hear what you like to do to stay toasty and spirited when it gets cold outside.

Hot chocolate. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I love to savor good chocolate. Not just any chocolate will do. It has to be dark; the darker and more bitter, the better. A good friend of mine once wisely advised me to turn to hot chocolate to satisfy a craving. I can't say I do this all the time, but the following recipe makes for an incredibly rich, if not ever-so-slightly decadent, winter treat:

2 1/2 cups whole milk
4 ounces 100% unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Heat milk in a saucepan over medium heat until steam rises from surface. Whisk in chocolate and sugar, continuing to whisk until sugar is dissolved, about 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in vanilla. Reduce heat to low and serve in small cups.

The original recipe says that it serves six to 12. Twelve might be pushing it, but this drinking chocolate is so rich, I'd be impressed with anyone who could consume more than a modest cup of it.

Holiday baking. Nothing keeps a house warm like baking cookies, and lots of them. I dedicated a good portion of the past weekend to baking Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk, Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk and Ginger Molasses cookies to cut through the cold and add to the holiday spirit.

White Christmas. There are a few holiday movies that are required watching in our household between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My favorite, though, is Irving Berlin's White Christmas (1954). It may come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that a movie featuring the gloriously contrived show-within-a-show plot line might be a must-watch around here. White Christmas showcases Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney's singing and Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen's dancing (and waistline), requiring its audience to suspend disbelief so dramatically that watching this movie has become, for my family anyway, the greatest holiday escape.

You can imagine my glee when I found out that Irving Berlin's White Christmas, The Musical debuted a few years ago in San Francisco and has since toured the United States. It is now on Broadway. I happened to catch an exhilarating performance of it at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre in 2006 and nothing has topped it since. At first it took some doing on my part to get past the absence of Bing Crosby, but the finale was completely thrilling. Nothing gets me in the holiday spirit faster than listening to the music from White Christmas, The Musical, even if I do still miss Crosby, just a little.

So what do you do to stay warm during the holidays?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Roasted Chicken Welcomes Fog

Fall is by far my favorite time of year. In fact, this past July, when my activities consisted of barbecues, picnics, beach days and fireworks, I secretly wished that I was curled up by the (environmentally incorrect) fireplace, sipping hot tea and planning my holiday baking schedule.

I waited patiently for months for fall to arrive, swearing off sunburns with SPF 40 and praying that it would not get warmer. Now, it is almost November and I think the sun is playing tricks on me. A snowstorm is sweeping down the East Coast. Even in Paris it is in the 30s, but what was Long Beach's high today? 83 degrees. Yesterday? 92.

You can only imagine how happy I was when, driving home from work this evening, I could see a thick blanket of fog rolling in from the water, almost like a ceiling closing in on land.

The temperature had hardly fallen, and it was still well over 70 in the empty house, but I wasted no time welcoming the chill by roasting a chicken.

This is my favorite way to roast a chicken. I stumbled across the recipe this time last year in Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris, no doubt rescued from the depths of a very scary-looking closet in our dining room soon after we moved into this house. Somehow, every time I make it, I figure out a way to stuff even more lemons inside, and this time I used two large onions instead of one just because I felt like it.

Lemon Chicken with Croutons

1 five-pound roasting chicken
1 large yellow onion, sliced

Olive oil
Kosher salt
Ground black pepper
2 lemons, quartered
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

6 cups bread cubes (1 baguette)
Olive oil

Kosher salt

Ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Toss chopped onion with a little olive oil and spread in a small roasting pan. Wash chicken inside and out, pat dry and place on top of the onion. Sprinkle with salt and pepper inside and out. Place lemons inside the cavity and brush the outside with butter.

Roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the juices run clear when you cut between the leg and thigh. The key to tender and juicy meat is letting the chicken rest for 10 to 15 minutes after it is done. Don't worry if the onions look burnt. They add tons of great flavor!

While the chicken is roasting, toss bread cubes with olive oil until evenly coated. Toss with salt and pepper to taste. Then, add oil to a sauté pan and heat until very hot. When oil is almost smoking, lower the heat to medium-low and add bread cubes. Toss them frequently.

Once browned, place croutons on a serving platter. Carve chicken and place meat and juices over croutons.

Serves 4

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stranger to the Rai-- I mean, Stephen Schwartz

One evening, shortly after my arrival in Paris, my French host mother jovially broke out in song at the dinner table. "I'll bet your family in California never sings at dinner," Mme. Benichou gushed after finishing her ditty. Oh, if only she knew.

I was five years old when I was first exposed to Stephen Schwartz. It was 1989. My mother had a perm and I was likely dressed in neon colors. It was May 1st and I was seated next to my dad on a scratchy orange seat in Servite Theatre. We were there to see Pippin, the very first musical in the very first season of Tri-School Theatre, the program Mom founded earlier that school year. I don't remember much about that night and, to be honest, I couldn't tell you what Pippin was about, but I was enthralled with the song "Corner of the Sky."

The ballad gripped me. I sat on my knees in my seat, leaning forward and slightly to the right so as to see around the giant man in front of me and watched as one much older and wiser (probably 16) sang about wanting something more. I was convinced by the end that I needed my own corner of the sky.

Since then, I have had some other run-ins with Schwartz. At 12, I found myself masquerading as a peacock ascending Noah's Arc in Children of Eden. Four years later saw me as a hippie follower of Jesus in a Woodstock-esque rendition of Godspell. Last March, I was relieved to be a member of the audience of Wicked at Pantages Theater in Los Angeles.

All of these formative experiences, and others, have brought two truths to light: 1. My mom knows how to put on a damn good show, and 2. through no fault of my own, I know Stephen Schwartz better than many. I like him, too, which always helps.

That's why, when Mom called a few weeks ago to tell me that Schwartz was in town and she bought tickets to see his "intimate cabaret" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, I was pretty thrilled. The evening promised a superlative performance. I dug out my black velvet heels and off we went to Samueli Theater, prepared for the opportunity of a lifetime.

The cabaret was, indeed, a treat for the ears. I feel lucky any time I have the opportunity to hear an artist perform his or her own work, whether it be a poet or an author doing a reading, or a musician at a piano playing his original score. I love the insight into the artistic process, and Schwartz wasted no time explaining how "The Wizard and I," from Wicked, came to be. He played three drastically different versions of the song and explained why they didn't make the cut. The trick was, he said, to make the audience wait for the obvious. In this case, the crowd would expect to hear Idina Menzel belt, so he wrote the song to start out slowly and build until she gives them what they want.

Crowd pleasing seemed to be a theme for the evening. Schwartz admitted to disappointment when musicians don't play their "obligatory hits" when they perform. So, with the help of Liz Callaway, Scott Coulter and Debbie Gravitte, he covered a lot of ground thanks to tightly woven medleys fitting everything from "Day by Day" to "Colors of the Wind" into one long and entertaining number. To my own disappointment, not much from Children of Eden was featured and Debbie Gravitte's execution of "Defying Gravity" was downright dark, not at all the spectacular, soaring anthem that ends act one of Wicked. Callaway made up for any shortfalls, though, with her stirring performance of "Meadowlark," adding to the "vocal pyrotechnics" of the show.

The most memorable scene, however, came after the standing ovation and encore. Stephen Schwartz and friends finished the night in the lobby, selling their own music and signing autographs at tables buried behind a small but disorderly crowd. Mom and I gathered our courage and worked our way up to the front, only to be found speechless in front of Liz Callaway. She sat patiently unwrapping the CD that we bought from her so she could sign it. Awkward and adoring, Mom faltered, trying to tell her what a huge fan she is. I followed, stammering and explaining just why we might be fans ("She sang 'Meadowlark' at her own cabaret" I blurted out, referring to my mother). Callaway's gracious response endeared her in our hearts forever.

By the time we got to Schwartz, we had regrouped. Mom reclaimed our dignity with shoptalk about Children of Eden and I claimed my newly autographed program with a word or two expressing my admiration.

Moral of that story: Have a plan before you find yourself in front of talented people whom you admire.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Seattle Sunday

Last week, I failed to mention that one of my very favorite things to do is spend a Sunday in Seattle poking around the Fremont Market. Would you believe that, the other day, the stars aligned and I was able to do just that with one of my very favorite people, my friend Alison?

It was a gorgeous day and everyone knew it. The Burke-Gilman Trail was teeming with bikers, rollerbladers, dog-walkers, runners, skateboarders and hippie-ish wanderers dressed in oddly-striped leggings, and colorful skirts (we were in Fremont, after all).

Alison needed some "new" furniture for her apartment and I tagged along, remembering my own Fremont find--a rather large, unnecessarily heavy whitewashed desk with lots of drawer space that saw me through the writing of my thesis over a year ago. Over the summer, that desk made its way down Interstate 5 with some boxes and a mattress, which were then stacked unceremoniously in my parents garage. They remain there waiting for a new life, but I digress.

This was Alison's day to find furnishings. We strolled North 34th Street, avoiding clip-board carrying campaigners wearing goofy glasses and hats, and tasting samples of Golden Delicious and Gala apples and the last peaches of summer from Wenatchee. We passed orchid growers, Venus fly traps and the recycled furniture vendor from whom I bought a dresser to match my desk. I could hear his faint European accent as we walked by and I remembered him telling me "not to worry" in a dreamy voice when he dropped off my buy a few years ago. I had locked myself out of my apartment with the dresser in the hallway and the $10 that I owed him on the wrong side of the door (with my cell phone and keys).

Alison examined boxes and chests, tables and cabinets looking for adequate storage and a certain je ne sais quoi to add to her Capital Hill studio. In the flea market portion of the bazaar, inside a dimly-lit parking garage, we both poured over "deluxe junk" and haggled over the price of a nifty baroque picture frame with mesh in place of the picture to display jewelry.

We finished the bargain-hunting portion of the day by making a deal with one enthusiastic vendor for a pair of matching aqua-green oak pieces for less than their sticker prices. Soon we drove off toward Ballard in search of the Ballard farmers' market with Alison's car full of good finds.

We never did find the Ballard market. I'm pretty sure we missed it. We may have budgeted our money well in Fremont, but we didn't do the same for time. That's okay, though, because it was the perfect day to visit the Ballard Locks after a hearty bowl of clam chowder. Alison had never seen this nautical wonder and I was happy to re-acquaint myself with how it works (the Ballard lock system allows all kinds of boats to pass from the fresh-water Lake Washington ship canal to the salt-water Puget Sound).

We saw all kinds of boats waiting to pass--power boats out for a day cruise, sailboats, cargo ships and commercial fishing boats returning with catch from Alaska. We watched wistfully as kids rolled down the grassy slopes on either side of the canal--arms, legs and hair flying.

Then, it was time to leave. We crossed back over the foot-bridge where I snapped this Dantesque photo of our pedestrian shadows projected on the seawall below us.

That was my well-spent Seattle Sunday.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

These are a Few of My Favorite Things

A lot has happened in these last few weeks. Boy, is it ever easy to go on an angry tirade (maybe mixed with a little despair) about everything that is going wrong and how it has gotten this way. I think, however, that the right thing to do is usually harder to do, and that means acknowledging the things in life that actually make one happy.

I say this for a number of reasons, but for two most of all. The first is the fact that lots of little things make me happy every day, but they get swallowed up by the big picture, disappearing behind a cloud of news headlines, to do lists and less-than-remarkable moments. The second is that I was lucky enough to celebrate my birthday last week, so I had a solid reminder of all the things that I love, simple, extravagant or otherwise. So I'll tell you some of mine if you tell me some of yours.

I love:

1. Thought-provoking and entertaining reads, especially the newest addition to my library: Secret Ingredients, The New Yorker Book Of Food And Drink

2. Slatkin & Company "Black Tea and Berries" soy candles

3. Fresh flowers

4. Beautiful desserts, like this elegant peach cheesecake that Mary made last week. Each slice of fruit was perfectly placed atop a creamy mound of cheesecake filling and graham cracker-crumble crust, proving that detail work is the key to a perfect presentation.

5. Chocolate Souffle. It could be considered a beautiful dessert, but I believe that a good chocolate specimen is deserving of a category all its own.

6. A French restaurant that offers an exquisite dining aesthetic, namely Frenchy's Bistro and Wine Bar. Don't be discouraged by this restaurant's humble exterior. Walk through Frenchy's front door and you would never know that you are on Anaheim Street in Long Beach.

7. Cupcakes from Frosted Cupcakery, because they are just such a treat! (Do you see a trend, here?)

8. Pedicures--this is especially significant because last week was my first pedicure since an unhappy 1,200 pound horse pivoted on my right foot seven months ago.

9. While we're on the subject, I might as well admit that I love my new Ariat Performer III riding boots. I treated myself only recently. I don't know why I waited so long, but my toes are much happier (and safer) now, thank you.

10. Fall. It's finally here! I've been waiting since July to see fall come and now we are waking up to overcast mornings and enjoying cooler afternoons. The sun is lower in the sky and I don't have to feel so odd about lighting warmly-scented candles and brewing a pot of tea. I'll try to get in as much autumn love as I can before the Santa Ana winds hit Southern California and set everything ablaze. Take what you can get, I always say!

Perhaps there was more wisdom in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" than we give them credit for. I feel better already!

Now it's your turn. What are some of your favorite things?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Seafood Encounters and Struggles with Aioli

My grandma, whom I call 'Seilla, was the first to teach me how to cook. I remember nights in Downey, standing on a step stool in the kitchen "helping" to cook dinner after gymnastics class. I remember reading the recipe for chocolate chip cookies off the Nestle Morsels bag, sifting flour, salt and baking soda through the sifter, and using half butter, half Crisco to make the cookies soft and chewy. My favorite part was when everything came together in her mixing bowl. Yellow egg yolks swirled with vanilla and became grainy in the sugar, then smooth with the powdery flour. I would finally dump the chocolate chips into the big bowl, standing on my tip-toes and peaking into the speckled batter. My cookies never taste as good as those did. Maybe I should bring back the Crisco.

I also remember my first lesson on seafood. My grandparents took Brendan (4) and me (7) out for a sail in their Catalina 34 and we spent the summer afternoon fishing for halibut. Brendan was the first to make a catch. He proudly reeled in his impressive yield; Papa removed the hook from its lip and tossed it into a large bucket of sea water. Smaller fish were caught and released, uninjured, playing their part in a sort of innocent nautical utopia.

For me, however, the thrill of a tug on the pole was short-lived. After patiently waiting my turn, I reeled in a catch and found that my fish had swallowed the hook. Papa tried to remove it. He followed the wiry fishing line down its mouth and into its stomach. Blood was everywhere, and soon the fish was called dinner, living out its numbered minutes in a bucket on a boat.

We took that bucket home and Brendan and I watched Papa gut the two fish with a knife in the grassy backyard. He brought them to 'Seilla on a kitchen platter and she grilled them in butter on the stove. That was my first taste of seafood.

So it is fitting, I think, that on Friday 'Seilla and I took a class together on cooking fish at Prep Kitchen Essentials in Seal Beach. After introductions and going over the menu for the evening (and pouring two glasses of Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc), 'Seilla and I set to work on our assignment: Whole Roasted Snapper with Aioli and Tomatoes. The kitchen bustled with 10 to 12 people chopping, measuring, grinding, mixing and frying.

I chopped cloves of garlic for the aioli and spent about 10 minutes just looking for a wet-measuring cup (God forbid we use a dry-measuring cup for olive oil). Then, we did our best to puree garlic, salt, cayenne pepper and a tiny bit of oil in a food processor. There didn't seem to be enough in the processor for the garlic to puree. We watched, frustrated, as the food sat untouched underneath the frantically spinning blades, so we added some more oil along with the lemon juice and eggs. A few minutes later, the mixture was not emulsifying, so we poured the contents into a bowl and tried using an infusion blender instead.

Later, we still had a soupy mixture on our hands. Colleen Johnson, our instructor mentioned that we must not have added the oil slowly enough and, by now, it would probably never emulsify. So we started from scratch and 'Seilla vowed that she would never make aioli again.

Eventually, we were back on track with a properly-thickened sauce, boiled garlic, and a slew of spice-concoctions to rub onto the fish. It was time to prepare the snapper. Colleen brought him out, red, scaly and staring right at us with his mouth hanging open. He was a beauty. We stuffed him with garlic, rosemary and thyme and set him up on slices of beefsteak tomatoes. He was quite happy to bake for about 30 minutes.

Colleen took him out of the oven and plated the dishes, and soon we were discussing whether the aioli was too lemony. I thought it was fabulous, with just the right amount of zing, and the perfect ending to a fun, if not educational, evening.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Making Happiness with Berry Cobbler

I've been thinking about cobbler for a very long time. Mixed berry cobbler, to be exact. This, like my delight with oysters, can be blamed on Seattle. Something about all those fresh, raw ingredients, so many flavors just waiting to be savored. Wild berries of all shapes, sizes and colors grow abundantly in the Pacific Northwest, which is why I grew fond of berry cobbler living there.

My friend Katy wisely said, "You have to make your own happiness," and so I did. I just couldn't resist, after finding jewel-like raspberries, blackberries and blueberries at the Long Beach farmers market. I took them right home, washed them and then sampled a few. Oh, they were good, as good as late-summer berries come--big, juicy and perfectly-shaped. Yes, they would do.

I mixed them with sugar, cornstarch and almond extract and their deep colors ran together, creating a rich mélange in a bold purple hue. They got a head-start in the oven as I mixed the doughy crust. A few minutes later had me dropping spoonfuls of the dough evenly across the top of the hot berries and, before I knew it, I was taking the golden-topped dish out of the oven. The whole process took about 45 minutes, 40 of which was baking time, making this probably the easiest dessert I've ever made.

It was good, if you don't mind my saying so. Really good. The crust was more biscuit-like than flaky, glittering with sugar. The berries really shined, though. The simplicity of the recipe allowed their natural tartness to come through with bold flavor.

So, in the spirit of my very favorite blog and at Linda's request, here is the recipe to my berry cobbler. I adapted it from a recipe for nectarine and berry cobbler in Celebrate the Rain, a cookbook by non-other than the Junior League of Seattle.

Mixed Berry Cobbler

1 1/2 cups, or more fresh blueberries
1 1/2 cups, or more fresh blackberries
1 1/2 cups, or more fresh raspberries
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter refrigerated and cut into small pieces
3/4 cup buttermilk

Serve with freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

Preheat oven to 400 F and lightly butter a 2-quart baking dish.

Gently mix blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, sugar, cornstarch and almond extract in a large bowl. Pour berry mixture into the baking dish and bake until it begins to bubble, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, stir together flour, 1/4 cup of sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt until it is evenly mixed. Add butter and knead with your hands until mixture resembles a coarse meal. Slowly add buttermilk and mix just until dough comes together.

When it is ready, remove the hot, bubbly berry mixture from the oven and reduce oven temperature to 375 F. Drop the topping by spoonfuls onto the baked fruit so that the dough covers the filling evenly. Sprinkle the remaining one tablespoon of sugar over the dough.

Bake cobbler for about 20 minutes or until the topping is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes and serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream, or both!

Serves 6

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Joys of Seattle and Oysters

There is nothing like a Seattle summer. It's the best-kept secret about the Emerald City, if you ask me. Spring creeps up after winter slowly, teasing the soggy soil, the seagulls and those who frequent the city's lush outdoor markets with spots of sunshine and temperatures that could almost be considered warm. But summer arrives suddenly, brazenly, warming every corner of the un-air-conditioned city until it screams for mercy and drives all of its residents to lakes and beaches. There, skin is exposed, sun-starved and marbleized with tattoos, more often than not.

The other well-kept secret about Seattle is the food. It's really good. With the Puget Sound to the west, Alaska farther north and rich farmland only a zip-code away in any direction, Seattle's local markets are abundant with fresh ingredients for truly remarkable meals. I have been spoiled by River Valley Ranch and Port Madison Farm's chevres, Skagit River Ranch's organic beef and eggs, Partners Crackers and other local foods but, most of all, Bill's oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms.

It wasn't summer when I first encountered one of Bill's oysters. It was February, cold and dreary. My mom had come to visit for the weekend and she joined me for my usual Saturday outing to the University Farmers' Market. We met up with my good friend Ashley and collected the makings of a hearty dinner. After two loops around the grounds, we ended up in front of Bill's stand, stacked with different varieties of oysters, clams, mussels, geoducks and lots of ice. I had never been tempted by raw oysters, perhaps because of the foreign texture or perhaps due to a childhood memory of my mom wielding a sharp knife against a closed oyster and, inadvertently, her left hand in a shucking mishap. This didn't stop her from making a beeline to Bill at Ashley's suggestion. Before I knew it, I had Ashley, Mom and Bill all coaching me on how to slurp down my very first oyster.

I was very brave, my dear friends. Oyster Bill picked out the smallest of them all, a tiny, perfectly-shaped Kumamoto, and taught us how to properly (and safely) shuck it. He told us that oysters are at their peak in February and these were especially sweet and flavorful ("because they're having sex this time of year!" he hissed with a grin). He recommended that I chew it thoroughly to get the most flavor. With that, I lifted the half-shell to my lips and slurped up the meat and juice, chewing just enough.

That little Kumamoto was salty and sweet, with such a distinct flavor and texture. It was like swallowing all of the good things about the ocean--the cool breeze, the salt and the misty air. I never needed to "acquire" a taste; it was born in me that day.

We left the market with a dozen Virginica and Kumamoto oysters and a proper shucking knife and, that night, we feasted on our winnings with a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Oysters may be at their peak during the cold and grey winter months, but I find myself craving them in the summer as a way to cut through a suffocatingly hot day. A few weeks ago, summer had pounced upon Seattle, startling the early-June snowfall into submission. I was up from Long Beach for the weekend to visit my friends, and Ashley, Peter (her fiancé ) and I wandered down to a corner restaurant for dinner.

I had been looking forward to my arrival in Seattle for weeks, and I wanted nothing more than to eat oysters with Ashley again. We were in luck when we strolled into The Harvest Vine in Madison Park, although these Virginica oysters were lavish, served in tall shot-glasses adorned with layers of strawberry, cucumber, fennel ice and topped with cracked pepper.

It was a far cry from slurping down a tiny, unpretentious Kumamoto, snatched from a bucket of ice and shucked in a parking lot. To be honest, I prefer my oysters sans embellishment. I don't even like covering up the flavor with lemon, but I consented in the spirit of things and I'm sure glad that I did.

It was quite a mouthful and took at least two good swallows to get the stuff down, but the combination of contrasting flavors and textures was tremendous. The Virginica was salty next to the sweet slices of strawberry. The fennel ice added a soothing chill and helped it all slide down. Most surprising was the pepper, which added a bite and could have nearly choked me had I been unprepared. But I wasn't unprepared and the tastes melded just long enough to make me want more.

The Harvest Vine, however, had plenty more to offer. Our small table hosted tender, perfectly browned scallops served on a bed of lentils; chorizo with some kind of chocolate sauce; "Revuelto de Patatas y Tfufas" (basically a glorified omelet featuring egg, potato and black truffle which turned out to be the star entrée); and a cheese platter with six varieties, each paired with nuts, dried fruits and a different kind of marmalade, paste or sauce. It was a Basque feast so enjoyable that Ashley and Peter are considering holding their rehearsal dinner there.

The evening effectively quelled my oyster craving and kicked off a classic summertime weekend in Seattle.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Open Sesame

My brother and I had the most delicious lunch this afternoon in Belmont Shore. A few weeks ago I noticed that Steak-O-Rama, on the corner of Second Street and Nieto, had closed and the empty eatery was dressed with a sign saying “Open Sesame, Coming Soon!” As sad as we were to lose the “Best Steak Value in Town” (Okay, actually we were relieved. Would you trust the beef served at a place called “Steak-O-Rama”?) I was intrigued to learn that Open Sesame, a Lebanese restaurant that has been a Belmont Shore staple since 1999, was opening another dining room only a few doors down from their bustling original location.

Open Sesame #1 (5215 E. Second St.) always has a crowd of hungry patrons congregating near the hostess, waiting for tables. Last summer, I enjoyed a few hearty meals on the sidewalk patio not entirely realizing that the restaurant is actually two very well-decorated holes-in-the-wall under the same awning.

So today, Brendan and I decided to try the new Open Sesame on the corner formerly dominated by Steak-O-Rama (5201 E. Second St.). The hostess took our name and gave us a pager so we could wander down to Banana Republic while we waited for a table. We were only a block away when the pager called us back to be seated. To our surprise, a hostess from Open Sesame #1 led us down the street to a table at the original location. As we strolled, she told us that they are still working out the kinks but the two separate dining rooms form one restaurant, so guests can be seated at either location. The new venue is meant to accommodate larger parties.

Even though we didn’t get to try out the new dining room, it was fun to introduce Brendan to a new cuisine. We sat in the back corner of the busy restaurant, near a large Arabic-speaking party and among tapestry-adorned walls. Brendan noticed a glassy-blue Evil Eye hanging on the back wall, to banish trouble from the premises. The ambiance was a welcome departure for one like me with the travel bug and no plans to go anywhere soon.

The food was delicious. I ordered “Ali’s Favorite Plate” under the combinations, which came with slightly pink and perfectly tender sirloin steak over basmati rice and roasted tomato and onion. Hummus and tabouleh salad garnished my plate and added complex and exotic flavors from the mixed herbs and spices that the restaurant’s founder, Ali Kobeissi, boasts is his specialty. Kobeissi also promises super-fresh and nutritional ingredients, which add to the flavor and help dispense the guilt that comes with the glutinous inhalation of a large meal. We both left satisfactorily full and glad we tried something different.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Horse Season

It's horse season again! Two weeks ago, we saw the Kentucky Derby and the Rolex Three-Day Event and Saturday will be the Preakness. We can't turn on the TV without a deluge of commercials for the racetracks at Hollywood Park, Los Alamitos and Del Mar. No wonder I have equines on my mind these days. Okay, I'll confess that I think about horses more than the average person but here is why horses can be fun for everyone:

1. Who wouldn't want to spend a Saturday sitting under the sun, sipping beer and betting--legally--on the mightiest steed on the track?
2. Haute couture hats at the Kentucky Derby
3. Degas' paintings of the races (like the one to the right)
4. Equestrian-influenced fashion: Ralph Lauren, Hermes, Coach and so many others. Tall boots, anyone?
5. Horsepower
6. Real cowboys. And the ones in movies too.
7. Budweiser Clydesdales
8. There was a time when horses were necessary for: transportation, war, farming, cutting cattle (they still are), policing and fire fighting, hunting, delivering mail (remember the Pony Express?) and coal mining, just to name a few.
9. Just imagine: 120 years ago, men would regularly stand around in stables talking about the magnificence of live animals the way they now make a beeline for the garage to stare at a new car engine. Don't believe me? Read Anna Karenina.
10. Horse-related vacations, like a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park

Since, after all, this blog is called "Dine & Travel" and we are now officially in celebration of what I deem to be horse season, I thought I might take this opportunity to tell you about a recent family trip to the Kentucky Horse Park (via Cincinnati). We took the easy drive across the Ohio-Kentucky boarder and 90-minutes after our mid-morning Starbucks stop we pulled into equestrian Mecca. Green rolling hills lined with 30 miles of pristine white fences and frolicking mares and foals greeted us. A quick spin in the car around the large complex revealed home offices of more than 30 equine associations and breed registries, forming what they call an "equine village," the "horse capital of the world."

The day was glorious. Blue skies and puffy white clouds overhead; miles and miles of horses, stables, museums and gift shops to explore on the ground. We could have spent a week there (I would definitely recommend multiple days). We were lucky to fit some of the main attractions into a half-day visit. After lunch, we toured on foot the dressage complex, three different barns, the farrier shop, tack shop and the International Museum of the Horse. By 3:15, we had wandered to the Breeds Barn to see the "Parade of Breeds."

We happened to visit the park the day of the memorial service for John Henry who was an unlikely champion gelding that had been retired after winning $6.5 million in his career as a racehorse. We wandered through the horse cemetery and up to the Hall of Champions where a crowd was dissipating. Dozens of flower arrangements decorated John Henry's former stall and photographs and cards dedicated to his memory filled an entire wall. He was buried in front of the hall, not far from his paddock.

The depth and breadth of the relationship between man and horse was palpable the day of our visit. We saw working draft horses, prancing dressage competitors and retired racehorses. We saw grooms and farriers and trainers and riders who have dedicated their lives to honoring the equestrian spirit. We saw life-sized monuments of legendary stallions and mourning admirers of John Henry, a superstar known for his crankiness and imperfections. Horses offer more than just the companionship expected of a beloved pet. The equine has served man and fallen for man in a way that no other animal ever has. They give with their hearts whatever is asked of them. They are depended upon. Horses embody the heart and spirit of strength, freedom, beauty, athleticism and capability and, with these things, hope. We left the park that day with a greater appreciation for the rich history of man and horse and the partnership between them that has built nations.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Visit to the Getty

The other day, I got to spend the day in one of my favorite ways: wandering the many rooms of an art museum. Not just any art museum, but LA’s J. Paul Getty Museum, which is perched in the hills off the 405 overlooking a spectacular view of Los Angeles and Southern California’s rugged landscape and coastline.

LA and Orange County offer more than enough tourist attractions to keep visitors busy for weeks but, for art and culture enthusiasts, a trip to the Getty is a must when exploring Southern California.

Heeding warnings of crowds and difficult parking, my companion and I chose to visit on a weekday in the off-season. We arrived at the museum when it opened at 10 am and had no trouble parking at all (reservations are no longer required, as they were when the complex first opened). Other than a few school groups, the crowd was minimal making it easy to navigate through the five pavilions that house permanent collections as well as changing exhibitions.

We started the day with a 45-minute tour highlighting some of the most notable pieces on display. The tour included a stop at an incredibly realistic Spanish Baroque wood-carved statue of St. Ginés de la Jara from the 17th century. We also heard trivia about Rigaud’s 1701 state portrait of King Louis XIV, which the king loved so much he insisted that it be copied several times for each of his chateaux. J. Paul Getty purchased the third copy of this portrait for a mere $500 or $600 in the 1970s; the painting is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or more today and partner copies hang in the Louvre and Versailles.

The tour ended in front of van Gogh’s “Irises” in my favorite room of the whole museum. I was happy to see most of the major Impressionists and early 20th century French experimenters represented. I always feel like I’m visiting old friends when I see one of Cézanne’s still lifes or pieces from Monet’s many series of water lilies, wheatstacks or the Rouen Cathedral. The Getty’s cathedral study is not currently on display but be sure to see “Sunrise,” a companion piece to Monet’s 1872 “Impression: Sunrise,” which is considered the birth of Impressionism. Also, new favorite of mine is “The Rue Mosnier with Flags,” which Manet painted in 1878 from his second-floor window overlooking the street. All of these can be seen in the same room on the second floor of the West Pavilion.

For one most content when wandering the halls of the d’Orsay, the gardens of the Rodin Museum or the basement of Musée Marmottan in Paris, a trip to the Getty was long overdue. By the way, admission is free—the way it should be.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Raw Nirvana

I am a huge fan of sushi. There is something delightfully satisfying about wrapping your mouth around an uncomfortably large piece of raw fish stretched across rice, seaweed, carrot, avocado, cucumber, crab and any other vitamin-rich, low-fat piece of vegetable, mineral or animal that can be crammed into a roll. Friends and family alike have learned that conversation pauses after I take a bite of sushi.

Like any decent sushi aficionado, I have my favorite haunts. There is the neighborhood sushi-bar, just steps away from home; the authentic Japanese restaurant featuring the freshest fish in the area and the über-trendy sushi spot with a twist, always with three-letter monikers. Yen, no exception to the three-letter rule, is a regular stop of mine along the road to raw nirvana.

Last weekend, Long Beach experienced record-breaking heat for this time of year. Saturday evening's balmy weather just called out for a walk down Belmont Shore's Second Street to grab a bite at Yen. My friend and I were seated on the restaurant's sidewalk patio, which offers outdoor heaters for cooler nights and a lively atmosphere as nighttime strollers, bar-hoppers and culinary enthusiasts all take advantage of the area's many food and shopping-related attractions.

The service at Yen is nothing special. I've never had an ordering mix-up in my many visits to the restaurant but the servers can be fairly inattentive and clueless when it comes to pouring a bottle of wine. The food, though, makes up for the extra ten minutes that you sat waiting to put in your order.

This time, we started with a plate of edamame to stave off pesky hunger pains. Then, I ordered a garden salad featuring basic mixed greens tossed with a tangy ginger dressing. Small tempura vegetables added a little extra crunch.

The highlight of my dinner, however, was the Salmon and Spicy Scallop Roll. The eight-piece set came out served on a long, rectangular plate, like many of their sushi rolls. Scallops came surrounded in a thin layer of white rice and avocado while tender pieces of salmon tightly hugged the top. A white and a red sauce decorated one side of the long dish, adding to its elegant appearance.

This roll was truly a treat for the senses. The pieces were small enough to pop into my mouth in one bite and the rice was minimal, accentuating the dynamite combination of the scallop and salmon. The roll itself was not spicy until I dipped it in the red sauce. The scallop was melt-in-your-mouth-tender, contrasted with the firmer, denser piece of salmon, which requires a bit more chewing. The sauce added as much flavor and spice as I wanted, culminating in an exquisite texture and taste experience.