The Sierra’s Gambit

When I was a kid, I was regularly subjected to bribery at the hands of my father. The man was forever running the most tedious errands around the west San Fernando Valley — shopping for bricks and concrete at Jacobi Building Materials, picking up the rent from his apartment buildings in Canoga Park, etc. — and he wanted a buddy to come along. Usually, the promise of lunch at Sierra’s was enough to get the job done.

Canoga Park is a sufferingly hot, flat patch of mostly apartment buildings and car repair shops and a few really depressing looking strip clubs. But Sierra’s was an oasis — after traversing the blazing black asphalt parking lot, you would enter through the big wood front door into a dark, windowless, air-conditioned labyrinth of smooth leatherette booths and exotic Mexican kitsch. The chips and salsa and iced water arrived almost before you sat down. The salsa was hot, and those chips were good.

I would fold my small arms onto the cool endless resined wood of the booth tabletop, waiting for my big plastic-covered menu. There were convincing paintings of Mexican revolutionary heroes, and ceaseless surprises if you stared into corners and toward high shelves — big ceramic piggy banks, paper mache parrots and bunches of fruit, burro piñatas, maracas and little guitars. Years later, waiting in my car in Tijuana to cross the border back into the U.S., I would understand where all that stuff came from.

Okay, but — “How was the food?” you might in all fairness be wondering by this point in the essay. It was of the sort typical to Mexican-American eateries of the latter half of the 20th century — enormous platters-for-one boasting a continent of red-tinged rice and a sea of refried beans, plus whatever entree you chose. Usually for me it was a couple crispy tacos filled with shredded chicken. It all tasted greasy and good, not especially ethnically Mexican but close enough for the gringo kid and his dad.

In later years, my dad and I and sometimes a brother or two would go to Sierra’s to sit in the bar, eat those chips, drink pitcher of ice cold Mexican lager and talk about nothing in particular, maybe catching the action of whatever football game was on out of the corners of our eyes.

Steak milanesa

Sierra’s closed in 2012, a couple years before my father passed away. Now when I drive past, there is only a weedy empty lot that looks much smaller than the wonderfully caliginous palace of pinto beans from my memory. The funeral home where my father was cremated is just beyond. I had never noticed that back in the day.

A few weeks ago, I was at the Vallarta supermercado and saw some thinly sliced tri tip beef on sale. I purchased it, not sure what I was going to do with it. The idea came to me later — Mexican milanesa. I breaded and fried the big shavings of steak, topped the meat with shredded cabbage, salsa, lime and crema, and served it with red-tinted rice and refried beans.

It was the quintessential old school Mexican American restaurant meal, and it reminded me of Sierra’s and those weekend days with my dad. Maybe you have a Sierra’s in your past — maybe you’re lucky and it’s still standing. Pour yourself an ice cold Tecate, find some thinly sliced steak, cook up some milanesa and take your own meandering valley drive to the Mexico America of yesterday.

* * *

Mexican milanesa with rice & beans
serves 4, amply

1 lb. thinly sliced tri-tip or other lean steak cutlets
1 cup flour
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup plain bread crumbs
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup shredded cabbage
1/2 white onion, thinly sliced
generous handful cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup Mexican crema
salt
fresh lime

Preheat oven to 170.

Place canola oil (or other veggie oil) in a large pan and heat over medium-high.

Dredge steaks in flour, then dip in egg, and dredge again in bread crumbs. Cook two or three cutlets at a time, about 3 or 4 minutes per side, until golden brown and crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and place in the oven to keep warm. Continue until all cutlets are cooked (there should be 4-6 cutlets per pound, depending on cut and thickness).

Toss together cabbage, cilantro and white onion. Place a cutlet or two on each of four plates. Top with cabbage mixture, and then a generous drizzle of Mexican crema. Squeeze fresh lime over meat.

Serve with refried beans and Mexican rice.

* * *

Mexican rice
serves 4

1 cup long grain white rice
2 cups water
1 tbsp. chicken bouillon powder
1/4 cup cilantro stems and leaves, finely chopped
2 tbsp. tomato paste

If you have a rice cooker, combine all ingredients and press the “on” button.

If not, combine all ingredients in a large sauce pan on high. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook for 20 minutes until done.

In either case, fluff and serve.

BBQ’d Oysters for Breakfast

So this past summer, when we were driving around the Northwest avoiding gas station bathrooms and eating everything we could find that came out of the ocean, I should’ve been doing some blog posts.

Early in my blogging career, I wondered if I would get blogging burnout. It took about a decade, but I sort of did. Actually, it was partial blogging burnout, partial “busy with other stuff,” cute kids who used to appear on the blog becoming teenagers and so forth. Also I’d taken to posting photos on my @skinnygirlsandmayo Instagram account, which required no writing beyond a clever caption, and for which I was rewarded many satisfying and instantaneous “likes”.

Sitting at home during the first months of the pandemic inspired a burst of blogtivity, but then it receded like a tide. Like the tides in Coupeville on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, in fact, where I should’ve been doing some blogging about the clams I was digging from the sand and the Dungeness crab I was dipping in butter.

Once we left Washington and headed south again, it because all about oysters. We drove along Hood Canal, heading toward Oregon, but not before a sign for “Hama Hama” captured my heart and imagination. Sure enough, in Hama Hama we found the Hama Hama Oyster Company, where I purchased two dozen oysters to go. Another four or five hours and we were in Garibaldi, home port of the Oregon crabbing fleet. Popping into the local grocery store to get provisions for our Airbnb, I had hoped to snag a crab or two. They had none, but they did have local oysters — $10 a dozen, so I bought two dozen. The next day I walked over to the harbor and found a fishmonger, who did have fresh Dungeness. I bought two — and another couple dozen oysters, different variety, also $10 a dozen. You can do the math.

Grocery store in Garibaldi, Oregon

With six dozen oysters in the fridge and no one in my family eating oysters but me, I knew I had to focus. Fortunately, apparently perceptive to the main attraction of the area, the Airbnb had crab pots and four different oyster shuckers.

If I’m eating oysters, like most folks, my preferred method is raw on the half shell. They are also pretty darned tasty crisped up in a batter in hot oil. But the one way not as many people know about — at least those who haven’t spent a bit of time on the Sonoma coast eating them this way as my family and I have — is barbecued. Especially if you have larger oysters like the ones I got at the Garibaldi grocery store.

Beside being ridiculously convenient — you don’t even have to shuck them, you just put them on a hot grill and cook until they pop open, when they are done — barbecued oysters are plump and subtle, resting in a little hot bath of their water. Add a dab of butter and some cocktail or barbecue sauce, and you may be converted from your “raw way or the highway” mentality.

The historic Coast Guard pier at Garibaldi

I was at my own local grocery store this morning when I spied several jars of Pacific oysters — the already shucked kind — for $.50 a jar. (Usually $7 or $8 a jar). What gave?? They had likely reached their expiration date. Which, in the case of freshly shucked oysters in a jar, is only a couple days after they’ve reached the store. Still perfectly fresh and fine to eat, although I would not venture them raw. The first jar made a tasty lunch of those fried oysters I was talking about. The next couple will hit the barbecue.

What’s the best time to eat barbecued oysters? They’re pretty darn good anytime, and a strong argument could be made for the afternoon with a nice cold beer. But I like them in the morning — a true weekend breakfast of champions, especially if you’ve got some champagne to enjoy them with.

I hope this bit of precious wisdom has gone aways toward redeeming me for not blogging all summer. Maybe?

More oysters in Garibaldi

Orange Julius

When I was a kid, and we used to go to the Topanga Plaza Mall, I always hoped my parents might find it in their hearts to swing me by the Orange Julius.

You couldn’t miss the Orange Julius — over beyond the Cracker Barrel (or was it a Hickory Farm?), turn left at the Radio Shack, just before the Miller’s Outpost and there it was — the bright orange sign with the curvy type beckoning you.

It wasn’t quite a storefront, yet was more than a stand. In a glass case was a tower of oranges, just to show you that they actually made the drinks from fresh squeezed. I remember the building sense of anticipation as the line moved forward and we approached the counter.

Not me and my father

Forget the sexy teenage girls in their impossibly high hats, knee-high boots and TWA stewardess-inspired one pieces. It was the drink I was after. An ambrosial blended concoction of orange juice, milk, vanilla and ice. Every straw-sucked slurp from the wax-coated paper tumbler was pure heaven, and when I reached the foamy ice-flecked bit at the bottom, I was thoroughly satisfied.

For awhile, there were still a few Orange Julius shops around, hold-out testaments to an earlier, more innocent time. I haven’t seen one in a long while and am not sure if they’ve gone the way of the dodo. But I figured the drink out. So that that one time when I said to my children, “Come closer, let me tell you the story of the Orange Julius…” and initiated them into the legend, and they replied, “Dad, will you take us?” I could ease the inevitable heartbreak with the words, “But I can make you one…”

I call it “Orange Julius-ish,” just in case there are any toupee’d 70s-era vintage copyright lawyers out there in the ethernet, waiting to pounce.

Enjoy!

____________________

Orange Julius-ish
serves 2

1 cup orange juice
1 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tbsp. sugar
6-8 ice cubes

Place ingredients in a blender. Blend on high. Pour into glasses, add straws and find sexy teenager in knee-high boots and tall hats to serve.

The Accidental Beekeeper, Pt. II

Between my business (which is still in business), my various creative and entrepreneurial pursuits, my art and music, my cooking and food blog — not to mention pandemic, three children at home requiring motivation, homework help and sustenance — I didn’t need another thing.

But the bees thought otherwise.

Olga and me in our bee suits (note: Mexican straw cowboy hat perched stylishly on top of my bee suit)

Considering our chicken coop and pig, terraced gardens that grow nothing but Swiss chard, and my general food nerd tendencies, I sorta fit the profile of someone who would be susceptible to bee keeping. Plus, we use a lot of honey at our house, and I rather like mead. But it sounded like a hassle — there were big boxes, the need to understand the complex societal structure and enigmatic behavior of bees, and goofy space suits to zip into. Oh, and the fact that on the rare occasion that I do get stung by a bee, the sting site swells up like a balloon and itches for three days.

Once, many years ago, I put an owl box in an oak tree off the bedroom deck in hopes of attracting an owl to chase away rodents. A tiny owl moved in for a week, but unable to attract a mate with his fervent hooting, departed. And a bee hive moved in. For several years, we watched the bees come and go, respecting each other’s personal space. Then one windy day, the hive fell. Angry bees swarmed like a buzzy cloud all over the property. Eventually they dispersed and we collected the honeycomb from the ground. It was remarkable to drizzle Greek yogurt with honey that came from bees outside your window.

Flash forward: seven or eight years, and another hive of bees had moved into a cavity in the siding of our house. As luck would have it, we had a new client who happened to be a beekeeper. I sought his advice, and he suggested outfitting a cardboard box with wire and lemongrass oil to lure the bees out of the hive and move them. I set up my box a little too near the hive, making the bees rather angry but fortunately suffering only one sting (resulting in a Popeye right arm), and waited. It sort of worked — at least some of the bees came out, swarming around a tree, and then flooding into the box. But the main colony was still in the wall, and now I had a box full of bees in addition to the hive. Which was not exactly the solution I’d been seeking.

Moving the box bees to their new home

I decided to consult with my friend Olga, who lives a few houses down. Olga is a stylish beekeeper — a fleek Russian who Instagrams curated photos of her beekeeping, her grapefruit-and-rosemary cocktails in Mason jars and her multicolored Martha Stewart-esque chicken eggs arranged in neat circles. The reward of a whiskey sour was enough to get her over with an empty hive box and two beekeeping suits. We social-distance drank and, our courage fortified, climbed into our bee suits.

It was both terrifying and interesting to walk into a cloud of bees. Olga gathered up the box while I sprayed the bees with sugar water to “calm them down.” It seemed to have more the opposite effect, as a swirl of angry buzzing clouded my vision. But I wasn’t getting stung.

“How do we get them into the hive box?” I said as we descended the property with the cardboard box toward a lonely patch of earth down by the chicken coop we had identified as a suitable spot for a new bee home.

“We’ll pour them,” Olga replied.

Pour them??” I gaped. “You can pour bees?”

Sure enough, while I opened the hive box, Olga tilted the cardboard box and the bees came pouring out — not unlike liquid — into their new home.

“That was stressful!” I said as we reclaimed the deck and stepped out of the white jumpsuits. It was time for another cocktail.

Where do things currently stand? Well, I now have bees in three places instead of one. But I also have a borrowed bee suit and patience. And the hope that one day in the bright future, my bees will all have relocated to the hive box at the far corner of the property, and we will be spooning fresh honey over our Greek yogurt and toasting with glasses of mead. Am I a fledgling beekeeper or merely a harassed homeowner? Too early to tell…

Stay tuned…

And if you’d like to read about our original misadventures in beekeeping, check out The Accidental Beekeepers.

Nixtamalnutrition

One of the most troubling aspects of home isolation is that it compels you to indulge your worst food-nerd impulses. I was lying in bed this morning thinking about actually making puff pastry, for example.

Unable to pop out on my various weekly forays to my favorite ethnic markets (“How is he sourcing green papaya without access to the Island Pacific Indonesian market!?” you’re probably wondering…), I find myself lurking about food websites, coveting assorted sundries but bristling at exorbitant shipping costs.

The marketers are smart. They have collected enough data on me to know exactly where and when to strike. So it was that I received an email from Anson Mills, my favorite artisanal grain mill (do you have a favorite artisanal grain mill!??) in South Carolina. There were lots of wonderful seasonal products they knew I needed. But none so essential to my current housebound predicament as dried hominy corn and calcium hydroxide (i.e. “lime”).

Among those food-nerd thresholds I had yet to cross was nixtamalization. I had just received, as a pandemic present to myself, Enrique Olvera’s new beautiful Phaidon cookbook, “Mi Casa Tu Casa,” in which the celebrated Mexican chef goes into some depth about the process of making masa, the cornmeal essential to tortillas. I had made homemade corn tortillas many times, but always with masa harina — pre-ground, instant corn dough produced in an industrial process with commercial corn. The product was always good, yet nothing — Olvera assured me — but a shadow of what you got with heirloom corn varieties produced in the traditional method. The eerily coincidental timing of the Anson Mills email (sucker) made me realize the time to take the nixtamal plunge was now.

It took a couple weeks for my Henry Moore varietal field-ripened corn and bag of lime to arrive. Soon the kitchen was filled with the comforting smell of corn steeping in burbling lime water. The next day, I summoned Flynn who helped with making masa balls and pressing them flat in the tortilla press. I had to overcome the technical obstacle of not having a fancy Molinito masa grinder, which was accomplished with the Vitamix and more water than is preferable — resulting in the need to add some masa harina after all to get the proper consistency. That night, we enjoyed spectacular Baja fish tacos and chile verde tacos, wrapped in our own deliciously rustic, corn-fragrant tortillas. A few days later, Flynn and I got in the kitchen and did it all over again.

I was now in deep. But there was further to go…

Enrique Olvera buys his hominy from Masienda — a company that has single-handedly rescued an array of nearly extinct heirloom corn varietals from Oaxaca and other points deepest Mexico. I went to masienda.com, and I didn’t stand a chance.

When I can get stacks of 50 decent, freshly made corn tortillas for $2 at the Vallarta market, is it really worth spending $13.50 plus $18 shipping and several days’ work to make my own stack of 30 heirloom varietal corn tortillas. What do you think?

Next stop: puff pastry.

Previous Older Entries