Friday, July 1, 2016

July at Urban Home Blog

Here are our plans for the summery month of July at Urban Home Blog:
  • Attend neighborhood Fourth of July party. Musts include wine tasting, tennis tournament, and Santa Maria Tri-Tip.
  • Make ice cream to take to Fourth of July party.
  • Drive to Ventura to spend a day at the beach.
  • Go on photo safari in Griffith Park culminating in visit to The Autry to view Art of the West and eat barbeque.
  • Look forward to visit from best friend to show him the sights and sounds of Los Angeles. Musts: the Sunset Strip, Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood Boulevard, and a day in Boystown culminating in a drag show at Micky's or Hamburger Mary's.
  • Inspect air conditioner, air purifier and water filters; clean or replace as warranted.
  • Update household calendar with mid-year changes including doctor and dentist appointments, car maintenance, and work schedules and deadlines.
  • Go through tax records to ensure that all files including receipts are current and correct at the mid-year mark.
  • Check summer garden for signs of harvest, including tomatoes and peppers.
  • Watch for stone fruit to appear at farmer's markets. Can peach jam and apricot butter.
  • Celebrate birthdays of three dear friends: Carrie, Douglas and Amy.
  • Watch for Hallmark's winter holiday preview.
  • Spend a morning updating scrapbooks with memory pages from the first half of the year.
  • Make bath salts.
  • Spend hot day inside, watching surfer flicks and making Texas Red and peach pie for dinner.
  • Take advantage of annual Criterion sale to update home film library. Musts: Easy Rider, In a Lonely Place, The Manchurian Candidate, and anything by Antonioni, Ophuls, or the French New Wave.
  • Most important: continue to follow developments regarding the Orlando Mass Shooting. Be very active in demanding appropriate, definitive response from elected government. Continue to #SayTheirNames.
Reading List: The Secret Historian, Justin Spring; Under the Big Black Sun, John Doe and Tom DeSavia; The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine

July, 2013: Bath Salts, Salt Water Taffy, Outdoor Living, Picnic Food
July, 2012: Frozen Treats, Ice Cream Bar Party Invitation, Steak
July, 2010: Men's Health, Urban Bar, Appetizers and Party Foods, Los Angeles Travelogue
July, 2009: Weeknight Dinner, Conservation, Urban Bar, Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Grief and Pride

photo: Eric Diesel
It is about ten a.m. on Sunday, June 12, 2016. Along with the rest of us, I have spent my morning being shocked, enraged, and profoundly saddened by the news that, earlier this morning, an American-born terrorist slaughtered fifty innocent partygoers at a gay nightclub in Orlando, using a military grade weapon of mass murder that it was perfectly legal for him to obtain and to have. As of now, reports are of at least fifty more, also partygoers, also innocent, wounded, in a scene of chaos, of carnage, of terror. It was an egregious, brutal, and unforgivable act on the part of the killer, and it is warranted to condemn him for all eternity to suffer the full weight and force of what he did.

This comes at the halfway mark of a difficult year and an upsetting last few weeks. Aside from well-publicized public losses such as David Bowie and Prince, the last few weeks alone have seen the patriarchy conspire yet again to lighten the burden of answerability for a rapist just because he is a young while male of privilege; inattentive parents causing a chain reaction of preventable events that resulted in the slaughter of an endangered species and then having the affrontery to chafe at being told they are responsible for their actions; a political threeway circle jerk between a blustering asshole, a corporate politician, and an insider's outsider; and, prior to this morning, my own community distracting itself by arguing over whether what some smartass tv actor said about some closet case tv dipshit was "appropriate" (it was, and I acknowledge that I myself participated).

It also comes on an ironically gray and damp weekend in Los Angeles that happens to coincide with LA Pride. Usually, Pride Weekend is gloriously sunny in LA but the weather combined with an ongoing community discussion had caused John and I to consider skipping the festivities this year. Like most big city Pride weekends, LA Pride comprises a variety of events. When I first came out here, I was impressed by Pride, which was inclusive as illustrated by the breadth of the event planning: there were safe-space events for women, for people of color, for trans-identified individuals, for those in recovery, for young people, and so forth. That resonated with the Prides I remembered, which I have written about extensively both on Urban Home Blog and as a GLBT correspondent and feature writer since time immemorial. Every attempt was made, including accountability, to provide in some way for every individual. It wasn't thought of as lofty and anyone who suggested as much was decisively snapped away.

I have noticed that, in a steady fashion, each year LA Pride seems less inclusive and more corporate, less celebratory but reverent and more self-involved and, if not exactly less focused, than problematically focused. Here I note that this is also what I had begun experiencing of NYC Pride by the time I left NYC. LA Pride is headquartered both as an event and as an entity in West Hollywood, where the populace, while noticeably lgbtq* but not exclusively lgbtq*, is nothing if not alert to transgressions against equality and diversity. Over the spring, discourse started bubbling up in West Hollywood that LA Pride was becoming ageist (it is) and exclusionary (it is). Many lgbtq* people had decided to forego the festival in order to further the discussion and the reforms that already have and, it is hoped, will continue to proceed from it.

In the West Hollywood community, the discussion about Pride has been passionate, divisive, and occasionally rancorous. Though passion and anger were, division was most definitely not in evidence this morning. One of the cornerstones of LA Pride is a march, inaccurately labeled as a parade, that steps off Sunday morning to run a boisterous route down Santa Monica Boulevard, which places it along the literal artery of West Hollywood. As soon as the news about Orlando broke, the expected buzz started buzzing about whether or not the march or PrideFest should or would be cancelled, culminating with the correct call to hold them as outly, loudly and proudly as can be. Before step-off, there was an important moment of remembrance, there were galvanizing words of dedication and action from West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister and from Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti. Local and national news were all covering LA Pride, because the timing of the morning's devastating news from Orlando coincided with LA's Pride weekend.

And then, amid the rainbows and the feather boas and the sequins and the shirtless firefighters and the thumping dance music in West Hollywood, and the sorrow and the gravity and the unspeakable grief in Orlando, news surfaced that a simple phone call to tip police had resulted in the arrest of an individual in Santa Monica, whose car was equipped with guns and the components to make an explosive device, who was supposedly planning to attack LA Pride. These plans are not being reported as verified as I write this, beyond repetition of the claim that he was en route to LA Pride where, if true, it follows that he planned an attack. At the moment, details about this arrest are minimal though speculation is broad, but it is noted that the police made a point of releasing the information as a significant arrest. Everyone is being very careful not to link this individual with the killer in Orlando, at least not as part of a single, organized effort.

But there is one inescapable link: the Orlando slaughter happened in a gay nightclub, and the Santa Monica arrest happened on Pride weekend. Whether or not these two individual paths ever crossed in actuality, their destination, their target, was my community.

We who live in enlightened communities easily forget that the closet is a fact of life for more lgbtq* people than those for whom it isn't. Because we have entire business districts of restaurants and bars and card stores and bookstores and community centers and, yes, porno huts, we forget that there are lives lived where the closest gay bar is a long drive away, yet a paradise even to have it that close; where the closest thing to camaradie or companionship is available at a worship center whose doctrine negates lgbtq* lives; where letter carriers dispose of brown paper packages in case they might contain an lgbtq* book or movie; where being called FAGGOT or DYKE or HE-SHE or QUEER is not only a cultural norm but one that is colloquially protected in the names of religious freedom and cultural history. This kind of gender/sexism parallels the racism of those bigots who defend anything and everything from mammy culture to usage of the N word as part of the "rich cultural history" of a locale rather than the deep vein of cultural shame that it actually, and only, is.

It often happens that, when those of us who can move to an affirming location such as the gay district of a city or town or a university that has an empowered lgbtq* presence do so, once we settle our internalized issues we move forward with our lives just as if we have the same right to live them and the same rights pertaining thereto as anyone else. Often we succeed, even to the point of influence, maybe even significant influence. But complacency is damaging to our culture and our people. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and -- perhaps because they came from a recent history where being out could and did have very grave consequences -- our foregoers knew that. They created Pride in order to honor the past and to validate and to remember the lives of those who sacrificed -- often ultimately, very often anonymously -- for a better future than the past they themselves had known. They created Pride not just to celebrate the present and revel in the moment but to honor the past, to grieve its victims, to insist upon learning its lessons. Pride started out as a self-esteem movement, a social justice movement. We do not have Pride parades; they are civil rights marches.

Those who created Pride saw themselves not only as organizing action for their own lives but as setting up a better future for their children. For in that time and place, all gay kids were all gay people's kids, not just conceptually but in very real ways. We took gay kids in to feed and educate them, we taught them their own history even if it meant that we created our own schools, we demanded self-esteem of them because we knew personally and we understood intellectually the damages of stigma. Because we knew full well how bad the world could be for gay people, both because of what we had experienced ourselves and because we knew our own history, we were fucking determined to create a future where it would never even cross a kid's mind that there was anything wrong with being lesbian or gay or transgendered or bisexual or fluid or queer or asexual or any other goddamn way there is to be. In many ways, we succeeded -- some would argue too well, as in the community discourse I mentioned above regarding LA Pride. In the revelries of their selfhood, many younger lgbtq* people don't seem to know or remember or honor the cost of their freedom to be that callous. We fought for it, we created it, and we got it. And it has an effect, not the least of which is that there are still many more young people who are in situations of want and danger than who have the luxury of self-actualizing.

I should acknowledge here that I can write this because I benefitted from the shepherding of my own gay life by great influences who rescued me. I am of the generation who came of age in the 1980s, as AIDS was becoming a fact of life even as the social movement known then as gay lib was barely into its second decade while pre-Stonewall was a recent, vivid memory. Once I was part of my community, I benefitted from Day One. I was mentored by elders who had been on the cover of Newsweek while marching in the earliest Pride actions; who had been part of The Mattachine Society; who had worked on Broadway and in movies and on ice rinks and in gay bars; who sent soaring, eviscerating writing into the world. One of the most profound influences of my life routinely helped prepare Pepper LaBeija To Walk both by sewing hems and by mopping makeup. They demanded nothing from me except the opportunity to provide for me and that I pay it forward to my community however I could. Aside from my own history, they taught me skills for survival, everything from holding down a job to working up the nerve to go into my first gay bar. And, at the risk of divulging a secret men don't typically share, about the comport of the inevitible proceeding from that.

All of this is important because, back at Pulse, there is blood on the dance floor. Partying became an aspect of Pride celebrations early on, for just exactly that reason: to dance in the streets because we could, to celebrate living openly not just for ourselves but for those who weren't as fortunate. But it was always done not just for the joy of it, but in remembrance of those who went before, who were deprived of so basic a freedom as openly being who they were and doing so without fear. Sometimes it was a heavy message, sometimes even morbid, but those lives matter, and while grief and acknowledgment don't bring anyone back, it pays them the respect and appreciation that are their due by safeguarding their place in the library of life.

First and foremost and always, my heart goes out to the victims and survivors of the Orlando massacre. But I am not going to invoke the dreaded phrase "thoughts and prayers," because while that is perfectly correct for a condolence card, there is no condolence adequate to the cold-blooded slaughter of people who thought they were safe, who just wanted to go out and dance. It is an egregious, brutal act, and it is unforgivable. Thoughts and prayers surely are important, as are giving blood, handing out blankets and coffee, comforting the weeping and supporting the responders; all appropriate, all humane, all loving. But also all bereft, and accordingly all the more important, because at that immediate level of person to person care, we give what we have to give: help, support, comfort, strength.

It is not possible for any good to come from mass murder. This was a vicious, brutal, unforgivable crime, and we do the victims and their immediate survivors a disservice by characterizing or remembering or labeling it as anything other than the vicious, brutal, unforgivable crime that it was. These people died violently, through no fault of their own, through every fault of an individual, and that must always be not just acknowledged but stressed. We must hold this killer's immediate survivors, his supporters, his enablers, his memory, his very spirit forever accountable for the slaughter, the carnage, the irreparable rift he has caused that he had no right to cause. We must hold him accountable, forever, for the full weight and force of what he did, no clemency, no forgiveness, with all of the judgment that this horror demands.

We cannot undo this damage, but we can honor these people who did not volunteer to be, did not conceive they would become, sacrifices in someone else's war. Sooner or later, the press will start releasing the names of the dead. Light a candle and say their names. Donate blood or funds or time if you have them to give. Feed someone, clothe them, educate them. Make your life a source of learning and refuge for any of the marginalized you can reach. And while it is acknowledged that not all of this morning's victims were lgbtq*, they were taken in our space, and we both revere them for being there and remember them as one of our own, beyond labels, in profound acknowledgment and profound grief.

But Pulse is a gay club, and I predict that this horrific act will galvanize my community around such crucial social issues as lgbtq* inclusion, whose battles so clearly aren't over yet, whose victims are as high profile as this morning and as quiet as names passingly mentioned in police blotters; as gun control and its relationship to domestic terrorism; as religious- or other ideologically based acts of terror and hatred aimed at lgbtq* people and our allies. We can reclaim this crime, to deprive the spirit of he who committed it of whatever eternal glory he believed in, to use whatever hatred he held in his heart for just exactly its opposite effect: togetherness. We queers have been doing that throughout history; hell, we did it with the word "queer." We have banded together to change society before, often while hiding in plain sight, and you can damn well bet we are going to do that again. And to anyone who responds "only God can judge," I respond: work that out with your demagogue and get out of my fucking way. Or, to resurrect a war chant from my ACT UP days, my way of fucking.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

June at Urban Home Blog

Regular readers know that on the first day of the month, I publish a monthly calendar. Beyond that, I had a month's worth of columns cued for June, two of them inspired by Pride month. Out of deference to the seriousness of the Orlando shooting, I have removed all of the June columns including the calendar. I will publish those columns in the future and Urban Home Blog will resume July 1. Meanwhile, I have published a single column in response to the Orlando shooting. This is my memorial to those victims and a call to larger actions of social justice. To read it, click here

Friday, May 20, 2016

Homekeeper's Library: Gardening Books, Part Two

photo: John C. Wilson
Springtime is in full bloom in southern California. This month we celebrated Russian culture in Plummer Park, with festivities rooted in the seasonal celebration of May Day. There is no march around the Kremlin for this festival, but there are displays of Russian folk art from dances to embroidery to pysanky, Russian food from blintzes folded onto paper plates to bites of caviar scooped from shivers of ice, and -- my favorite -- a children's art show, where expressionists from pre-school to art-school-bound share their gift for visual expression. There is also a maypole decorated with twirling vines of ribbon, recalling May Day's earliest roots in the ancient holiday of Beltane, when sunshine was welcomed back from its recesses of winter gray.

We welcome the return of sun and warmth just as we welcomed the wet winter that helped, if not alleviated, the California drought. Our beloved California laurel, which hung onto its leaves in defense of want, has finally shed them, only to burst into curls of new growth seemingly overnight. In the laurel's shadow, the baby palm has put forth annual new fronds, curled and spiky, folded in upon themselves. With water and sun, they will open as the arms that they are to embrace sun and sky. The hummingbirds and bees are fussing for sweet nectar, and between the corners of the old rock wall, a spider web attests both to new growth and to spring housekeeping.

Shadows are cool and invigorating, sweetened with the perfume of lemon blossoms that is unmistakably the fragrance of springtime in Los Angeles. Amid the sunshine and perfume, the patio beckons, as do the sidewalk, the park bench, the tennis court. And so does the garden patch. Our elemental selves resonate with the turning of the seasons. We are deeply touched when we touch the soil. While there is no substitute for getting your hands dirty, gardening letters are an important shelf on the homekeeper's library. Reading about gardening is inspiring and educational, from basic gardening to specializing, from useful reference tomes to gorgeous photo essays. Following my first column about gardening books, here are some further titles to beautify and inspire not just your gardening library but, most importantly, your garden.

Gardening Books, Part Two
As with all guides at Urban Home Blog, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list but one of suggestions based on my own experience as a lifestyle writer and homekeeper. As always, none of these is a compensated endorsement.

Conservation is a core value in our urban home, and outdoor living is a crucial element in that. We feed hummingbirds and advocate for bees to make our patch of yard as hospitable to possible to the creatures who not only share our garden, but care for it in partnership with us as part of the great family of Mother Earth. No one wrote more eloquently about stewardship for Mother Earth and our responsibilities for care and conservation than Rachel Carson. Her Silent Spring is a pillar of conservation, as powerful and important a read now as when it was initially published. Among the titles on the conservation shelf of our homekeeper's library are books about Frogs, Rats, Bats, and The Kingdom of Fungi.

The studies of ecology and conservation encompass everything from entomology to hydrology, with any topic therein being relevant to gardeners. The fundamental discipline for gardeners is botany, and the home gardener could hardly find a more beneficial guide to the study of plants than Geoff Hodges' Practical Botany for Gardeners. Plants are an advanced, highly adaptable kingdom, with respiratory systems, methodologies for marking time, even communication systems amongst themselves and with their caretakers. This book is written to be understandable and useful, which values reveal themselves as you find yourself interacting with your plants as the living beings that they are. As a bonus, this book is beautiful; the kind of book you leave on a table not just to dip into for the writing but for the gorgeous illustrations.

A basic gardening guide is invaluable for the gardening bookshelf. As noted in the first column about gardening books, Better Homes and Gardens New Complete Guide to Gardening is a comprehensive resource for the home gardener. The Best of Martha Stewart Living Gardening 101 and its rare companion volume Gardening from Seed are less encyclopedic than BHG, but as practical and inspirational as their creators intended them to be. Anyone who saves seeds will benefit from Gardening from Seed, whereas Gardening 101 is as thorough as its directions for plotting a garden, caring for soil, and growing common home garden plants from fruits and vegetables to trees, shrubs, and grass. Gardening 101 also contains an important section covering stewardship that every gardener must become familiar with, such as USDA heartiness zone and seasonal considerations such as weather.

Home gardening is not just an outdoor pursuit. For many home gardeners, indoor gardening is the preferred method and for some it's the only option. We've previously covered resources for container gardening, but two invaluable vintage titles are Ward & Peskett's Indoor Plants and All About House Plants by Montague Free and Marjorie J. Dietz. They are easy to understand but comprehensive in usability. With them, the indoor gardener learns the vital skills of determining what indoor plants are suitable for their home environment along with the particular care and conditioning that indoor plants require. This is very important for, as I always counsel, plants are members of your family, and must be cared for as such. You can augment these selection and care manuals with Sunset's Decorating with House Plants. I found these three vintage titles in a favorite hideaway used bookstore, where I love to shop for the treasures that invariably await, to support local business, and to keep books and the knowledge they contain circulating through usage.

One of the joys of gardening is the community of gardeners, and one of the pleasures of plugging into that community is interacting with each gardener's individual personality. Sometimes those personalities lead to passions, and it is always interesting to encounter the cultures of gardening specialists. As they would be, gardening specialties are as varied as botany itself. There are gardeners who specialize in roses, in herbs, in cacti and succulents, in tropicals, in bonsai, in florals, in aquatics, in terrariums, and so forth across the species of plants. If you're an herbalist, you may already know about Llewellyn's nifty Herbal Almanac series, and if your specialty is coastal gardening, you will find beautifully presented inspiration in Molly Chappellet's Gardens of the Wine Country. As I care for my baby palms, I have found Betrock's Essential Guide to Palms indispensable both for it care and cultivation teaching and for the cultural history and ecological significance of this magnificent species.

I have long been fascinated by the specialty of moss, lichens and worts. So has George Schenk, whose scholarly Moss Gardening carries the seal of approval of no less an authority than the American Horticultural Society. In Gathering Moss, Robin Wall Kimmerer gathers her own indigenous history unto some of the most knowing, beautiful writing about Mother Earth that I have ever read.

I must admit that, if I dared, I would specialize in poisonous plants. I do grow wormwood, which if not poisonous is mischievous, and earns a place alongside the nightshades, weeds, intoxicants and other Wicked Plants in Amy Stewart's book of the same name. Stewart's writing is vivid and naughty, as befits her topic, and since I don't dare grow poisonous plants out of deference to animal life, I will have to content myself with a visit to one of the poison gardens included in the book.

Finally, some of the nicest books about gardening come from learning centers such as museums and botanical gardens. Insects and Flowers and The High Line Field Guide are two such, the first from an exhibit at The Getty Center and the second from the book stall at New York City's famous elevated park. Check out both of these online resources, along with The Huntington Library and The Brooklyn Botanic Garden.


Sunday, May 15, 2016


No less a sage than Julia Child has christened ratatouille as "one of the great Mediterranean dishes," and who are we -- or is anyone -- to argue with Her? Ratatouille is an expression of sunshine; of the full, rich flavors and textures and fragrance of gorgeous produce; of a cuisine of olive oil and herbs and wine. Why, then, is it easier to find a mishandled ratatouille than one well-rendered?

Primarily, it's because to some, the dish seems labor-intensive. Contemporary cooks are often pressed for time and contemporary cooking often reflects that. The typical result is to compromise by streamlining the recipe. Such recipes are not automatically bad or wrong, but even when serviceable, these often result in dishes that are fair enough vegetable medleys, but that's not ratatouille. It isn't ratatouille if it isn't prepared with careful, which is not to say obsessive, attention to the quality of the vegetables being used to constitute it. It isn't ratatouille if it isn't baked slowly at low steady heat, to coax those veggies to release their full, sensual nature in a bath of creamy tomato and fragrant herbs. It isn't ratatouille if it's rushed.

Lucky for us, then, that ratatouille isn't really complicated. There's some careful choosing from the garden whether at home or at market, some chopping and seasoning, and some baking. That's it. It is no more true to the dish for it to be complicated or showy than it is for it to be jumbled or hurried. The truth of ratatouille lies in creating an environment where the vegetables express themselves as the symphony they are, not in showing off what a good (or clever or inventive) cook you are. Ratatouille is about the music, not the conductor.

Here's a recipe for ratatouille that takes full advantage of gorgeous spring produce to create a dish of lush flavors and textures. Make your ratatouille on a slow spring afternoon when sunlight slants through the windows and the garden is entering full bloom. Serve your ratatouille with white rice for a simple supper (and leftovers for lunch the next day), or as an accompaniment to roasted pork, roast beef, or sautéed chicken. Serve French martinis, Blood and Sands, or a dry red wine before dinner, with chunks of blue cheese and simple crackers to awaken the palate for the rich, orchestrated flavors of this simplest, most lovingly cared for, of dishes.

Use the best vegetables you can obtain for your ratatouille: firm, glossy eggplant and peppers; zucchini, onions and leeks that display no soft spots. A ceramic baking dish is indispensable in your urban kitchen; you can obtain a good one here.

1 28-ounce can peeled San Marzano tomatoes or 1 large jar safely home-canned tomatoes
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, cut into bite sized chunks
1 large eggplant, about 1 pound total weight
4 medium zucchini, about 1-1/2 pounds total weight
1 each green, red and yellow bell peppers, stemmed and seeded, cut into into bite-sized chunks
I leek
2 tablespoons sweet Vermouth
1 tablespoon red wine or sherry vinegar
4 medium cloves garlic, peeled
Several springs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh oregano
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the vegetables
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Pour a three-count of extra-virgin olive oil into a ceramic baking dish. Use a clean pastry brush to paint the inside of the baking dish with the olive oil. Sprinkle the oiled surface lightly with salt.
  3. Gently empty the tomatoes including their juices into the baking dish. Use a potato masher to break the tomatoes into bite-sized chunks.
  4. Lightly sprinkle the tomatoes with salt.
  5. Place the pan in the oven and roast the tomatoes and their juices, uncovered, until they start to thicken and become fragrant, approximately 30 minutes.
  6. While the tomatoes are roasting, cut off the root end of the leek. Cut off the tough green ends of the leek. Safely cut the trimmed leek down the center from top to bottom to form two halves. Safely cut each half top to bottom to form quarters. Cut across the quarters to form small dice. It is okay if the leeks are gritty.
  7. Carefully scrape the diced leek into a medium bowl. Fill the bowl 2/3 with water. Gently swirl the water to clean the leeks, noting that the water gets cloudy and dirty as it should. Drain the water and repeat the cleaning process one or two times, until the cleaning water is clear. Drain the cleaned leeks in a sieve or colander.
  8. While the leeks are draining, place the cut onion, eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers into a colander and rinse the vegetables under cool water. Drizzle the vegetables with extra virgin olive oil. Lightly sprinkle the vegetables with salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper. Gently toss the mixture in the colander to coat the vegetables with the oil and seasonings. Set the colander aside to drain.
  9. Cut a length of kitchen string. Bundle the thyme, rosemary, and oregano together and wrap the bundle two or three times with the string. Tie the string so that the bundle is good and tight.

Assemble and bake the ratatouille
  1. After the tomatoes have roasted 1/2 hour, carefully remove the baking dish from the oven and safely place it on a rimmed baking sheet.
  2. Working carefully to avoid burning yourself on the hot ceramic, press the garlic cloves into the baked tomato mixture. Add the drained, diced leek to the tomato mixture. Measure the vermouth, vinegar, and 2 tablespoons olive oil into the baked tomato mixture. Use a wooden spoon or silicon spatula to gently stir the tomato mixture to incorporate the new ingredients.
  3. Gently transfer the oiled onion, eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers to the pan containing the tomato mixture. Use a silicon spatula to get all of the vegetable juices into the dish.
  4. Gently stir the vegetables and tomato mixture together until well-combined. Nestle the herb bundle into the center of the dish. Sprinkle the top of the ratatouille with a light sprinkling of salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper.
  5. Cover the baking dish with its lid or with aluminum foil, shiny side down, taking care that the foil doesn't touch the food.
  6. Carefully return the baking sheet containing the baking dish to the oven.
  7. Bake the ratatouille, covered, until the vegetables are soft but not mushy and the ratatouille is very fragrant, approximately 1 hour.
  8. After 1 hour, gently remove the covering from the baking dish and roast the ratatouille 5 - 10 minutes longer, until the top is browned and slighy crisp.
Serve the ratatouille
  1. Once cooked, remove the ratatouille from the oven. Allow the ratatouille to sit about 5 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Spring Vegetable Soup

In our front yard, a growing patch of vegetables started three springs ago is showing signs of fullness. Cherry tomato vines clamber up the sides of the rock wall, basking red and yellow fruit in the sun. Potatoes send tendrils from the soil beneath the baby palm, where they live as the good neighbors we all are on our block. The bean plants will need staking for the first time, and a black pepper plant that I thought had passed on has made a surprise, and welcome, reappearance.

Nothing makes a kitchen happier than fresh vegetables, and never moreso than those you grow yourself. Something visceral happens when you pick, clean, prepare and eat vegetables from plants you have grown. It connects to our own ancient souls; those lines of ancestors who kept themselves and their families fed before grocery stores, refrigeration, vendors, bazaars, traders, hunting and gathering, and so on back to the dawn of agriculture.

We can't all be gardeners, and not everyone wants to be, but for those who are interested, urban gardening is rewarding and, once you are into it, surprisingly easy to do. It's as if the plaintives we commonly put up against the very idea -- not enough room, not enough time, have to take kids and pets into account, don't know where to start -- suspend themselves as the first tendrils poke out of the soil (often after a few failed attempts). There are numerous resources to learn which food plants are suitable for home growing in your area, techniques to create a healthy environment for these living beings including space even when that is at a premium, and groups to meet with to learn, to share, and, most importantly, to garden together.

Once our garden starts yielding, the question arises what to do with our harvest. Canning and freezing preserve summer bounty, but often spring vegetables are so fresh and tender that we want to utilize them right from the garden. Fresh lettuces enliven salad bowls from a luncheon Cobb to a side salad with Manchego and dates, from cherry tomatoes to chopped greens. We simmer green beans with tomatoes, lemon andoregano and sprinkle potatoes with sumac. We serve vegetables with pasta hot and cold. But perhaps the ultimate use for fresh spring vegetables is grandma's vegetable soup.

Veggie soup is one of the ultimate comfort foods, and so it should be. The ingredients are put forth by Mother Earth with a love matched only by that of the kitchen chef putting them into a pot. Veggie soup is cooked slow to allow those bright, fresh flavors to develop in mellow concert. This soup takes advantage of produce common to the home garden, but all of the ingredients will be available at a farmer's market or supermarket. This soup is full of traditional flavors, but once you start making vegetable soup, you will find yourself experimenting with the mix of veggies that go into it. Because this is a master recipe, it will withstand almost anything you add to it, from turnips to escarole, from red bell pepper to Swiss chard, based on what you and your family grow and like to eat.

Veggie soup is the ultimate lunch whether dished into wide bowls for a table set with fresh linens or poured from a thermos at a worksite. The classic accompaniment for vegetable soup is grilled cheese, but in our urban home, in deference to my grandmother whose recipe this is adapted from, we often serve our veggie soup with squares of date nut bread spread with honeyed cream cheese. However you serve it, vegetable soup is a pleasure to prepare that gives the gift of anticipation as it slow simmers on the stovetop throughout the morning. From anticipation proceeds gratitude, and that is the ultimate lesson, responsibility, and blessing of the springtime garden and the meals that result from it.

Spring Vegetable Soup
Use safely home-canned tomatoes if you can. Other than the onion, cut the vegetables to reflect their natural shape: carrots are round, zucchini and celery are moons, etc.

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4" coins
2 ribs celery, rinsed and cut into 1/4" crescent moons
1 medium zucchini, rinsed and cut into 1/4" half-moons
1/2 pound fresh green beans
1/2 pound fresh baby potatoes, such as Yukon Gold or French Red
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 pint canned tomatoes or 1 14-1/2 can diced tomatoes in juice
1 cup chicken stock or vegetable stock
1/4 cup dried pasta, such as broken spaghetti, alphabets, or little stars,
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
  1. Pick through the green beans and snap off any vines, rough ends, or dark spots. Roughly chop the green beans into bite-sized pieces. Remove any eyes, brown spots, or sprouts from the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into rounds. Add the potato rounds into the colander containing the green beans. Rinse the potatoes and green beans under cool water.
  2. Lightly sprinkle the green beans and potatoes with salt, toss to coat, and place in the sink to drain.
  3. Cover the bottom of a large soup pot with a five count of olive oil. Heat the oil over medium-low heat until shimmering, approximately 2 minutes.
  4. Carefully add the onion to the olive oil and stir to coat. Cook the onion over medium-low heat until it starts to turn translucent, approximately 4 minutes.
  5. Once the onion starts to turn translucent, add the carrots and celery to the onion in the pot. Lightly sprinkle the vegetables with salt. Gently turn the vegetables to mix and cook over medium low just until the vegetables start to sweat, approximately 5 minutes.
  6. Open the tomatoes and gently pour into the soup pot. Measure out the stock and pour a bit into the tomato jar/can. Swirl to get all of the canned tomatoes and pour into the pot. Pour the remainder of the measured stock into the pot.
  7. Stir the vegetables and stock together.
  8. Gently shake the colander containing the green beans and potatoes to express any collected water. Gently add the potatoes and green beans to the mixture in the soup pot.
  9. Gently pour cold water into the soup pot to cover the vegetable-stock mixture by about an inch. Add several grindings of black pepper to the mixture in the soup pot.
  10. Place the lid on the soup pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, approximately two hours.
  11. After two hours, add the corn, pasta, parsley, and oregano to the soup pot. Stir the mixture together. Add more water or stock if warranted; the mixture should be thick and fragrant but not thin.
  12. Cover the soup pot and cover over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally and adding water or stock as needed, until all of the vegetables are tender and the soup is fragrant, approximately 1 hour.
  13. Turn off the burner. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper or dried herbs as warranted, and serve the soup while hot.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Urban Bar: Blood and Sand

Photo: Eric Diesel
On that first, fateful trip to Los Angeles six years ago, one landmark we knew we would visit was Rudolph Valentino's crypt at Hollywood Forever. To this day, I remember every moment. We left behind the graceful, gaudy pastiche of the great lawn, where soaring palms stood sentinel as peacocks patrolled the grounds, to enter the sepulchral chill of the mausoleum. Here reverence was commanded by sunlight filtering through stained glass, statuary respectfully mute, chalk white marble cool to the touch. Rudy's crypt is around a far corner, halfway up a wall about eye level. It's next to a stained glass window, with a lone bench placed for remembrance. Another mourner had already placed a spray of orchids and baby's breath by the plaque bearing his name. I placed my red rose on the bench in commemoration and communion.

When Rodulphus Alfonso Petrus Philibertus Rafaele Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella arrived in the Hollywood movie colony during the height of the silent era, everyone from Jesse Lasky to Nazimova took notice of the dashing young man with the black patent-leather hair and the indecipherably thick accent. He was originally cast in bit roles as an "exotic," the inherently if unknowingly racist practice of the time of casting Caucasians as people of other ethnicities. Rudolph Valentino rose to prominence because audiences reacted passionately to his graceful, compelling screen presence. He was a very skilled dancer, which infused his image with a balletic quality that contrasted with the prevailing two-fisted masculine ideal of Teddy Roosevelt and Douglas Fairbanks. And if he had always been known as jaw-droppingly handsome and in fact had survived on his looks, he was ever so much moreso when his image was captured on film.

The intersection of cultures is the crux of Rudy's personhood, tracing back to his beginnings as half-Italian and half-French, a lad sensitive and intelligent but also ill-behaved and troublesome. His ability to inhabit dichotomy was his stock in trade as a film actor. He was a white man whose greatest success was playing an Arab; his audience's ideal romantic male even though all that made him that was the very opposite of the manhood of the time. We would rightly call it gendered thinking nowadays, but the fundamental paradox in Valentino's legend is the masculine/feminine one: seductive but romantic, of a time and generation that so beatified women that society couldn't reconcile the adoration with the realities of sexual congress. His magic, even to people who are not attracted to men, is undeniable, and if there was a threat, that is where it resided. 

Blood and Sand was released in 1922, just as Rudy was ascending the height of his career. The Sheik had been released to an avalanche of ticket sales, capitalized upon in the Hollywood way by the successful pairing of Rudy with Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks. Blood and Sand was the first picture Rudy was expected to carry himself, not with the wait-and-see receipts of his earlier films but as a bona fide movie star who was expected to deliver big numbers at the box office. In Blood and Sand, Rudy played a bullfighter, and the title referred to both the danger of the profession and the arena in which it was played. Paramount Studios -- the very studio built on land donated by Hollywood Forever, just on the other side of the fence -- had a hit, and one of the ways blood and sand became elements of a night on the town was by rendering the symbolism of the title into the contents of a cocktail glass.

The Blood and Sand is rightly reckoned as a Prohibition cocktail, for it speaks to the speakeasy just as eloquently as it speaks to the silver screen. Doctor Cocktail gives it a place in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, and no less an authority than Dale DeGroff includes it in his pivotal The Craft of the Cocktail, where he notes that it is one of the few cocktails built with Scotch. But my favorite, and to my knowledge one of the earliest, draft of the recipe for the cocktail comes from the venerable, leather-bound chapbook Old Mr. Boston De Luxe Official Bartender's Guide. My copy dates to 1935, and the Blood and Sand is included, as matter-of-factly as the page numbers and the line illustrations of hooch bottles, between the Blarney Stone (whiskey, Absinthe, Curacao, Maraschino and bitters) and the Blood Bronx (gin, French vermouth and blood orange juice).

If you want the truest of Blood and Sands, your destination is The Dresden Room, where it has been the house cocktail for as long as anyone remembers. One rumor, or, if you prefer, myth, has it that the Dresden started featuring the Blood and Sand as a response to a Brown Derby and a silent movie theatre being just up the street. As befits the space, the Dresden's Blood and Sand is the classic, ultimate version, sweet and smoky at the same time, swathed in doxie's rose-gold and arriving in a crystal coupé.

If a cocktail can be dapper, seductive, and mythological, it is the Blood and Sand. It is the very soul of the Jazz Age, created to honor one of silent cinema's most mythological presences. Rudy's legend lives today, in public and in private from film festivals to ceremonies at his crypt. He is the paradox redoubled, an immortal of the screen whose mortality guaranteed his legend. In our urban home, we celebrate Rudy's birthday with a red rose at the cemetery, a screening of one of his films, his favorite meal of long spaghetti, and a toast of blood and sand.

Blood and Sand
Cherry Heering is a cherry liqueur available at most liquor stores; you also need it to build a Singapore Sling. Blood orange juice is truest to the cocktail, but fresh orange juice is fine. Serve your Blood and Sand in a stemmed cocktail glass that showcases the drink's gorgeous rose-gold hue.

1 shot blended Scotch, such as Ballantine, Cutty Sark or Dewar's
1 shot Cherry Heering
1 shot orange juice
1 scant shot sweet Vermouth, such as Vya or Maurin
  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with crushed ice.
  2. Measure the ingredients into the shaker in the order listed.
  3. Place the cover on the shaker. Shake the cocktail until the shaker is too cold to touch.
  4. Strain the cocktail into a cocktail glass.
  5. Garnish with a preserved cherry and serve.