The First Seduction

I've noticed that lots of people (especially, ahem, older folks) really love to talk about the weather. What it was like a few days ago, the upcoming forecast, and the current moment's temperature - sky, light, precipitation or lack thereof - are all equally consequential. Perhaps I have noticed this more acutely after spending over a decade in a mostly sunny and 75 degree arid region. But LA does have its seasons. They come in hints, little seductions: the Santa Ana winds in the fall, the rains in the winter, the return of the bright blue sky in the spring followed by the June Gloom and the smog in the summer. There, I was a dog walker – out in the elements every day, and still it was rather pointless to check up on the forecast to figure out whether stockpiling was in order or making sure I had the right 'gear.' With the exception of the annual week long rainy season in February, a hoodie and a light scarf would always suffice.

Back in Southern California, with bounty and sunshine available all year long, I never gave a second thought to sharing a story and a recipe about my patio garden, fresh tomatoes or an anecdote about traipsing around by the beach. In March.

But my how the winds have changed. I haven't seen green grass or fresh tomatoes in months, I've spent the least amount of time necessary outside in the elements bundled up in a strata of fabrics with only my watery eyeballs exposed. The closest thing to any beach-like elements involved the salt stuck on my boots from being poured over the sidewalk after shoveling the snow from the front of our house. The trees have been bare and the sky grey.

Until a few days ago.

A few days ago the sun shone brightly and the temperature reached a balmy 70 degrees. And the city came alive – it was pulsing. People were out on their porches, out in the parks, out in the restaurants, out on their bikes, they were everywhere. And though the trees are still bare, and there is no green grass or fresh tomatoes yet, the promise of all of that and more was palpable. Exciting. Because it's a hint of the breathtaking glory, the explosion of Spring (which is downright stupendous here) that is just right around the corner. Even better than a clandestine glimpse between the button of a blouse, it was a major seduction.

And I do love a seduction. A little tease. Probably why I so love the femme fatales from Film Noir. It's all about the want, the suggestion. Once the characters get what they want, it's all downhill. But, given the chance, they would undoubtedly do it again. Just like the four seasons and our responses to each one and the one sneaking up next. Agitated about Winter by the end of Winter, daydreaming about carefree Summer, then agitated about Summer by the end of Summer, daydreaming about cozy Winter. I guess we aren't much different than the duped Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. He knew it was a bad idea, but Barbara Stanwyck's anklet, her seduction, was where his will and determination would lead him, hell or high water.

Speaking of the onset of Spring and of films, one tell-tale event that speaks to both, the Academy Awards, is happening this weekend. And in that very city of subtle seasonal changes, the city of limos and lights, Los Angeles (which, in an interesting twist from the ultimate femme fatale, Mother Nature, is experiencing torrential downpours). Though I was never directly involved in 'the business' during my tenure in LA, nor did I get too, too wrapped up in the glitter and glamour of that which is Hollywood, I have always enjoyed the Oscars. I love a simple little soiree to celebrate the occasion replete with drinks, precious crabby snacks and homemades and, of course, the requisite Oscar ballots for everyone to cast their votes.

So, tomorrow, on my first Oscar night back in Richmond, with my oldest and dearest friends all around me, I will take a peek back into the city I left behind, my City of Angels, glowing bright and beautiful, rain or shine. And I will serve these delicious little sandwiches, which are a twist on the classic Croque Monsieur, which I was first seduced by at the famed Chateau Marmont – easily my single most missed place in all of Tinseltown. That place is magical. Talk about a seduction.

Croques Besito
(Recipe adapted from Food & Wine magazine May, 2010)

Makes 16 bite-sized sandwiches

Sixteen 1 1/2-inch cubes of a rustic loaf of bread (remove all crusts)
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, 2 tablespoons melted
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/3 cup whole milk
4 ounces of Comté or Gruyère cheese, shredded (1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup finely diced, cooked bacon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Finely chopped fresh chives (for garnish)

Preheat the oven to 375°. Using kitchen scissors, cut a 1/2-inch square from the center of each bread cube; don't cut through the bottom. Discard the squares. In a bowl, toss the hollowed-out bread cubes with the 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Arrange the cubes on a baking sheet and bake for about 8 minutes, until they are lightly toasted.

Increase the oven temperature to 425°. In a small saucepan, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the flour and cook over moderate heat, whisking, until smooth, about 1 minute. Whisk in the milk until a thick paste forms. Remove from the heat and fold in the cheese and bacon. Season with the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Spoon the cheese filling into the bread cubes. Bake for about 5 minutes, until the cheese is melted.

Top with fresh chives. Serve hot.

Two years ago: Byrd's Fresh Apple Cake
Three years ago: Son of a Gun
Four years ago: The Dogtown Dog Truck

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