Today I got taken out for my upcoming birthday. I had lunch with my brother and sister-in-law, my niece Jennifer, and her boyfriend John. I didn’t expect that birthday would be remembered—in fact, I haven’t given any thought to it at all. So it came as a pleasant surprise.
We were at the Kalaveras Restaurant in Redondo Beach. I was in the mood for a plato de carnitas with the pork slightly crispy. One of my favorite Mexican meals are home-made carnitas soft tacos with guacamole, hot sauce, and fire-roasted jalapeño chiles. The carnitas at Kalaveras came with cooked plantains and the usual beans and rice.
What with the conversation and the great food, I haven’t enjoyed myself half so much since Martine and I spent a week in Honolulu in September. Martine did not join us as she is still enduring the pain of a cast on her right arm after she broke two wrist bones late in December. She has a orthopedist appointment on Tuesday, so we’re both hoping the cast comes off, or is replaced with something less painful.
I don’t usually feel good about my birthday. In fact, I usually don’t feel anything about my birthday. Somehow, this year looks to be different.
Early in my adult life, I became a cheese-o-holic—particularly at breakfast time. I loved having hot Indian black tea with a couple cubic inches of cheese with crackers or bread.
Lately, I have taken to making my own Mexican quesadillas for breakfast using La Banderita soft flour tortillas, Monterey Jack cheese, and sliced pickled Jalapeños.
I usually have on hand Monterey Jack, Extra Sharp Cheddar, Parmesan, and a blue cheese, usually English Stilton. What I never eat is what is euphemistically called American Cheese or any similarly overprocessed “cheese food.”
Also excellent are sheep and goat cheeses. I remember visiting a wine and cheese shop in Amboise, France, that was built into the foot of the rock on which the Château d’Amboise was built. I must have tried a dozen varieties of goat cheese with local Loire wines. I was in hog heaven. I feel similarly about good quality feta cheese, especially in Greek dishes.
Once I open a packet of cheese, I always repackage it first in wax paper and then aluminum foil. It seems to last longer that way.
In terms of health, there are different points of view about cheese—as is true of almost any kind of food or drink. Despite the high sodium and fat content of cheese, my blood pressure and cholesterol are well under control. Consequently, I plan on continuing to enjoy cheese as long as I can.
One of the best things about living in Southern California is the availability of good sushi. It’s something you have to be careful of, because sushi made with seafood that is not fresh can not only be disgusting, but can make you ill. So I always insist on going places that have a trained Japanese itamae, or sushi chef.
Also, I will only eat sushi in places where really fresh seafood is available. I have always joked about starting a rock band named Inland Sushi.
When we go to Honolulu next week, I hope to go some places where I can have sushi and Martine, who wouldn’t touch the stuff, could get something she likes close by. That is possible only in shopping malls like the Ala Moana Center and the International Marketplace and Royal Hawaiian Center. There used to be a couple of Japanese food malls near Waikiki, but they were shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
They both look rather similar if you’re not a botanist: basil and oregano. I remember attending a cooking demonstration at a Greek Orthodox Church in Redondo Beach and being told by Pitsa Captain and Akrevoe Emmanouilides, the instructors, that in Greek cuisine the preferred spice was oregano. And that despite the fact that basil grew wild everywhere!
Although oregano is used in Italian cooking, the predominant flavor is of basil.
In point of fact, I love both herbs. And I have even been known to use both of them in the same dish, especially pizza.
I love using fresh basil in my Italian cooking, even though I have to pay a bundle each time I buy it. Some day, I will probably create my own little herb garden in a box that hangs from the iron railing on the back steps of my apartment.
As for oregano, I have only ever used it dry and have not encountered any recipes that call for the fresh herb. I wonder why.
In the Andes, one of the main sources of meat are guinea pigs. They are easy to raise, particularly if you don’t give them names or regard them as pets. The above picture was taken in Otavalo, Ecuador, famous for its Saturday tianguis, or market.
I have eaten many local foods, but never bothered to sample cuy, mostly because it is regarded as being full of tiny bones. According to one website:
All over Peru, towns honor the importance of cuy to their cuisine. Pachamanca, a traditional cooking method involving earthen ovens, often features guinea pig meat. A mural in the main cathedral of Cusco depicts Jesus and his disciples eating guinea pig at the Last Supper. During an annual festival in the town of Churin, residents celebrate cuy by dressing the animals up in colorful costumes. And across the country, townspeople gather and eat guinea pigs in honor of folk saints as part of a celebration known as jaca tsariy.
In Chivay, Peru, I ate alpaca, which wasn’t half bad. I had the opportunity to eat edible clay at Sillustani, Peru; but I passed on it. That didn’t protect me from getting a horrible case of travelers’ diarrhea aboard a boat on Lake Titicaca.
In general, I took to the local cuisines of the Andean countries I visited. Perhaps one of the most interesting phenomena was the prevalence of chifas, Chinese restaurants, in all but the smallest towns. Even at Machu Picchu, I had a tasty wonton soup in the cool of the evening before my trip up the mountain.
Last week, I visited the big Wednesday Farmers’ Market in Santa Monica and picked up a bottle of pickled okra. I have always liked okra, though Martine won’t touch it. (The seeds hurt her gums.) I remember liking to cook a vegetarian Indian dish called Aloo Bindhi, which consists of a dry curry of okra and potatoes. Quite tasty, though you have to dry the okra with paper towels after washing it so that it doesn’t turn to mush.
What I haven’t tried is the main okra dish that is part of American cuisine, namely gumbo. But that has nothing to do with the okra per se as the fact that I am not fond of chicken, shrimp, or crawfish.
Today I chowed down on the pickled okra while warming up my ground turkey tamale pie. I am very fond of pickled vegetables when the temperature outside begins to soar.
By the way, if you’re interested in trying Aloo Bindhi, here is a recipe that looks pretty good.
Of late, I have become addicted to limes. In the morning, I squeeze a wedge of lime into my cup of hot tea (currently Darjeeling). At dinnertime, I mix the juice of half a small lime with a glass of tea remaining in the pot since morning, and add a packet of non-caloric Splenda to sweeten it.
Sometimes, when I think I am drinking too much tea (as I am wont to do), I just replace the cold tea with water, sometimes adding a dash of tequila, particularly when it is hot.
Typically, I buy limes by the bag. The unit price at the market is ridiculously high, and I have no difficulty finishing a bag of twenty or so limes within a few days.
What about lemons? I used to use lemons the way I use limes, but I have come to prefer the flavor of limes. During my travels in Mexico and Central America, I have rarely seen lemons at all. I presume that they grow there, but the locals, like me, probably prefer the taste of limes.
Martine has always liked good plain food, preferably old-fashioned American chow. There are fewer and fewer places which serve that type of food. One of the best is Philippe’s The Original, which sits at the corner of Alameda and Ord at the edge of Chinatown and just a few steps north of Olvera Street and its Mexican restaurants. Also, it is within walking distance of Union Station.
Philippe’s was opened 114 years ago and has been popular from the first. Whenever there is a home game at nearby Dodger Stadium, the lines could run out the front door. On any given day, you can find policemen, firemen, railroad employees, and God only knows. Everyone could use a great sandwich. Once Martine was there when there were even a bunch of Contra Costa County cops from Northern California chowing down on Philippe’s famous single-dipped roast beef sandwiches.
At a time when there are any number of “creative” chefs building little towers of unlikely ingredients into tasteless messes, it is good to find a place that knows how to (1) keep it simple and (2) keep it tasty.
I do not share Martine’s requirement for simple food, my preferences being Asian and Mexican; but I do appreciate having a restaurant in town where I can take her without giving her a pain in the tum. And I actually like their food, too.
What I like best about the summer months are the fruits that are available in the markets. By the end of May, I get very tired of apples and oranges and look forward to the arrival of peaches, apricots, and cherries. The apricots and cherries are available for only a short time, but the peaches last until the end of August or the beginning of September.
I particularly love white peaches. At this point of the year, they are not quite freestone, but they are delicious even if you have to cut around the stones.
Every day, I try to eat two or three different types of fruit. The most frequent are limes, which I squeeze into my hot and iced tea. Occasionally, I squeeze a lime into a glass, fill it almost to the top with water, and finish it off with a glug of tequila. Few drinks are as refreshing on a hot day.
In really hot weather, I make a pitcher of iced tea with lemon, a little dark rum, and several packets of artificial sweetener.
Later in the summer, the peaches become easier to divest of their stones, and tasty plums of different varieties become available. In September, I regret the passing of the summer fruits and look forward to fuyu persimmons. After persimmon season, it’s strictly apples and oranges until strawberries become available in February.
There is more to Hawaiian cuisine than the simple “plate lunch,” but it is as typical for Honolulu as Hamburgers and French Fries are on the mainland. Typically it consists of:
A meat serving, such as kalua pork in the meal on the right
One or two scoops of plain white rice
What you don’t see is a salad. You get meat and a ton of carbs. Usually it tastes pretty good, but it drives haolies (mainlanders) nuts not to see their favorite grindz (food) on the menu. So many of them stick to hotel restaurants that cater to their expectations.
Oh, yes, there’s also poi, made from taro leaves.
Actually, poi is supposed to be very nutritious—even if it resembles slimy purple goop. I’ve never had any, but promise to sample some when Martine and I go to Honolulu later this year.
There are several other Asian cuisines that are part of Hawaiian food, especially Japanese and Chinese, with a hint of Portuguese in the form of their excellent linguica sausage.
Since Martine flat out doesn’t like Chinese food, and will only eat one or two Japanese dishes, I suspect we will eat mostly plate lunches (but no poi for her) or whatever mainland American chow she can find, even hamburgers and fries.