Tuesday, July 14, 2009

California Choking

PJ and I, both California transplants, first encountered artichokes in a Pacific Palisades home in the early 1970s. Though it challenged my Midwest sensibilities, I remained intrigued and open-minded. Importantly, I did not choke, and passed a newcomer’s litmus test.

An artichoke is a perennial thistle. Someone, a long time ago, in North Africa, came upon an artichoke plant, peered at it, and exclaimed, “That looks like food!” His grub gathering partner noted the bulbous, prickly head at the end of a long stem – cut it off at its base, and then preceded to beat the crap out of his buddy, who had obviously been grazing on too much cannabis.

Fast-forward to today, and California is the home of both artichokes and cannabis, though I am just guessing on that second point. In fact, eating an artichoke without choking is one of the tests to become a Californian, third only to a valid driver’s license and choking on smog.

Today, it is not a staple in our house, but we enjoy one once a month. I have seen so many ways to prepare artichokes (or use as an ingredient) that this thistle could compete with the litany of shrimp uses recited by Forrest Gump’s best buddy, Bubba. But, you would expect that in California, home to nearly 100% of the chokes grown in the United States.

The choke migration began in North Africa. The French brought it to Louisiana, and the Spanish carried it to California. Those Spanish were everywhere in the 19th Century. Eighty percent of the production is in Monterey County, with Castroville claiming the title, “Artichoke Capital of the World”. A young Marilyn Monroe was crowned Castroville’s first “Artichoke Queen.”

Technically, an artichoke is a flower. If so, then deflowering one is something guys should know about, involving removing lots of layers, and careful handling to get to the heart of the matter.

Okay, since I have taken you this far, in the 16th Century only men were allowed to eat artichokes because they were considered an aphrodisiac and thought to enhance sexual power. As a former marketing maven, I have no idea why the California Artichoke Commission isn’t all over that tidbit. Knowing this, I suspect a lot of guys would eat them raw.

Eaten by themselves, chokes don’t have much flavor. Why else would they contain zero fat? I am not aware of anything called the Artichoke Diet, but when it comes to diets, nothing surprises. Chokes need dips to delight. The most common ones are melted butter and mayonnaise.

Think of eating an artichoke as similar to chips and dips – an American staple. The petals are the chips. After a couple of years of not choking on chokes, you will become Californianized. Zounds! Relax, you still can refrain from tofu and alfalfa sprouts.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Small Pleasures

Life’s small pleasures can enliven as much or more than an endless straining for those elusive peak periods.

Our herb garden is one of my small pleasures. My recipes require lots of fresh herbs. Most days I grab some scissors and walk outside – disappointing our dog, Dutch. Ever the optimist, he always assumes that I come outside just to play with him. Fortunately he hasn’t taken enough offense to dig up or pee on our small plot.

I grow fresh sage, mint, rosemary, chives, oregano and thyme. Rosemary, if you allow it, will become a large bush. Mint, if you allow it, will not only take over your yard, but the neighbor’s as well – on both sides. Originally I made the mistake of planting mint with the rest of the unsuspecting herbs. I’m still finding mint sprouts after thinking I uprooted them two years prior.

I re-planted the mint in two separate locations outside our kitchen alcove, giving them their own space, and am allowing them to become full bushes. As long as they don’t uproot our house, we will have a peaceful, productive co-existence. I have been preparing more lamb lately, so I’m using more mint.

I flunked the tarragon and dill classes, two more favorite herbs. They died a quick death. Or maybe Dutch peed on them behind my back. Herbs I still purchase, in addition to tarragon and dill, are basil and parsley. See my earlier Basil Me post. I use way too much to grow it. Nor do I have enough space for parsley.

I don’t know if herbal medicine works wonders or not. I do know that my HMO wouldn’t pay for it. Until someone comes up with a study to the contrary, PJ and I will remain herbally heavily medicated.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tour de France Groupie

Stay-at-home guys, domestic engineer or otherwise, have total control of the TV – at least during the day. Granted, there isn’t much on of interest during the day, unless you are a closet soap opera fan (if so you might want to kept that nugget of information from your best buds), or think Judge Judy is hot. You could watch Regis fawning over himself, or the catfights on The View.

I pass.

But for me, every July, primetime begins at 5:30 AM PST. That is the West Coast start of the Tour de France.

Okay, I don’t get up at 5:30, but close. Already a 6ish riser, in July, grabbing the remote is the first thing I do. Well, I put clothes on first. The broadcast is finished by 9 AM, leaving me with a full day to fulfill my Domestic Engineer Guy duties, work in some writing time, play computer Solitaire, and watch the grass grow.

I am a Tour de France groupie. Yes, I rooted for Lance during his incredible record-breaking run. But I also was a devotee during the three years he “retired.” I believe the Tour to be the #1 athletic challenge in the world, surpassing Ironman, triathlons, 100-mile endurance runs, and 50-year marriages. Any winner awes me, regardless of nationality.

Lance is back, at age 37. That still seems quite young to me. To the Tour, it is not. I’m pulling for him again, and not just because he is American. He is a walking medical miracle, not only because he is a cancer survivor, but because he is a cancer survivor who has won a record seven Tour titles.

After one victory he was quoted as saying, “I believe that the man who works hardest deserves to win. When it is pouring rain and you go ride for six hours with no one on the side of the road cheering you on or booing you, that’s why you get to nights like tonight.”

His above average femur bones’ length, one-third larger heart, and higher capacity lungs don’t hurt. Cap that with a 4-5% body fat at Tour time.

A native Texan, Lance is multi-lingual, fluent in English, French, and Texan.

The next few weeks will tell if the Tour has once again become The Tour de Lance.