Feral Parrots and California Sunsets

Last Friday as I was driving home from work, the sun decided to make a brief appearance after a gloomy and partially rainy day. It came out from behind layers of clouds that were painted across the sky like brushstrokes, and then started arcing toward the horizon line, leaving a trail of golden red.

I ran inside, grabbed my camera, and set out to photograph. As I was walking toward the beach, I heard a familiar squawking sound coming from the palm trees. I looked up to find dozens upon dozens of slender green bodies flying from one palm tree to the next. 

It was the feral parrots in all of their glory.

According to the Orange County Register, there were originally only five feral parrots living in Long Beach in 1987. How they got here, I'm not entirely sure, but according to a former ornithology professor at Cal State Long Beach, there are now over 200 of them in my neighborhood of Belmont Shore. From the sounds and sights of them -- squawking and carrying on like a band of ill-behaved children running through a restaurant -- I would easily believe it. For the majority of the day, these parrots are hiding out in their secret roosting spot and you wouldn't even know they exist. At sunset, however, the world is theirs and the rest of us are just living in it.

I've been wanting to photograph them for ages; yet, I was having difficulty steadying my hand. The palm trees were impossibly tall and I unfortunately don't have a tripod. These were the best I could do with the zoom lens on my point and shoot digital camera. If you want to see some professional photos, the Long Beach Press Telegram has a great collection of them here.

After a few meager attempts at capturing the parrots with my camera, I then walked down to the pier to find a sunset that had only become richer and more vivid. It was then that I fully realized something I've been working on for the past several months now, and that is the importance of pausing and enjoying life. The importance of treating myself like an actual person, and not just an unfeeling robot who does nothing but grade essays every minute of the day. I realized that I can decide to be either of those two people, no matter how intense or demanding work gets. It's always my choice, so it's time I start choosing wisely. 

I'll talk more about this in a later blog post, but for now, I hope you enjoy the photos -- and take time to watch some sunsets of your own.

The Best (and Easiest) Homemade Hamburger Buns

I bought my copy of Date Night In, the new cookbook by food blogger, Ashley Rodriguez, a little over a week ago, and to say I am obsessed with it would be a massive understatment. I open it no less than three times a day to stare at the beautiful photography and marvel at the simplicity she brings to making things that often sound more challenging -- like friend chicken and homemade hamburger buns. I've made both of those recipes so far, and have also tried my luck at the Pickled Peppers, Salted Chocolate Chip cookies, Yeasted Belgian Waffles, and Ricotta Cheese.

As you can see, I'm only teaching part-time right now. My schedule is relaxed and I am taking full advantage of it.

Yet, part of the beauty of this cookbook is that it both inspires and dares us to keep coming back to the kitchen -- even when things get crazy. The premise of Date Night In is that Ashley and her husband found themselves with jobs and children and little time to connect. They started dedicating one night a week to creating elaborate meals that they would share together in an effort to strengthen their relationship and reconnect. It's a record of some of their favorites with step-by-step directions for prepping most of the dishes days in advance. 

I'm finding that it makes cooking a lot more manageable when each dish is planned ahead and broken into two separate stages. With these hamburger buns, for example, I was able to mix the dough on Saturday, and then let it slowly rise in the refrigerator over night. On Sunday, all I had to do was form the dough into balls, place them on a cookie sheet, and cover them in egg wash/sesame seeds before popping them in the oven. I prepped the hamburger patties on Saturday, as well, so that on Sunday evening, I could easily toss them in the cast iron skillet whenever we got hungry.

Granted, I know I am married now and that this cookbook is geared toward an audience of love birds, but to all of my single friends: there is absolutely no reason why you couldn't use it and love it too! Most all of these recipes make enough for multiple servings, so I say grab the book, ignore all the gooey love stories -- or be inspired by them, depending on how you are feeling that day ;) -- and invite your girlfriends over for homemade pizza, or perfectly crusted fried chicken, or Spring Vegetable Green Curry with HOMEMADE CURRY PASTE!! That will probably be my next recipe to try . . .

In the meantime, give these hamburgers a shot. The burger recipe is all mine, but the buns are from Date Night In. The only thing I did differently is that I used Instant Rapid Rise yeast instead of Active Dry Yeast because that is all I had in the cupboard. The two yeasts are basically interchangeable, except that instant yeast requires warmer water to active it-- typically, around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Homemade Burger Buns 
(adapted from Date Night In by Ashley Rodriguez)


1 cup warm water (120 degrees, if using instant rapid rise yeast)
3 Tbsp. milk
2 tsp. active dry yeast, or instant yeast
2 Tbsp. honey
1 large egg
3 1/2 cups bread flour
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
Neutral oil, for brushing

Start this dough the day before you plan to use it. In the bowl of a Kitchen Aid or stand mixer, whisk together the water, yeast, and honey. Let it rest a second so that the yeast has time to activate and the temperature cools down. Next, whisk in the milk and egg until fully combined.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Attach the dough hook to the stand mixer and then add the flour mixture all at once. Mix for 5 minutes on medium-low. Add the butter and then mix for another 2 minutes. The dough should be soft, smooth, and kind of sticky. Dump the dough into a sealable container that allows plenty of room for it to rise. Place it directly into the refrigerator and leave it there over night.

When you are ready to bake the buns, remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide into 8 or 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball by covering the dough with one hand and gently rotating that hand in a circular motion. As your hand is moving, use your fingertips to tuck the edges of the dough under itself. Do this on an unfloured countertop with lightly floured hands.

Place the rolled buns on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the buns lightly with a neutral oil (I used grape seed oil), and then cover the tray loosely with plastic wrap to prevent the dough from drying out.

Allow to rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Egg Wash

1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. water
2 Tbsp. sesame seeds (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Whisk together the egg, egg yolk, and water. Once the buns have doubled in size, carefully remove the plastic wrap and brush the buns with the egg wash, then sprinkle with sesame seeds. 

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the buns are golden on the top and bottom, rotating the pan once during baking. The buns should feel hollow when gently tapped. Cool on a wire rack.

Hamburger Patties

1 lb. ground beef 
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
Sliced onions (optional)
Sliced raw milk cheddar (optional)

Combine ground beef, garlic, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes in a large bowl and mix it with your hands until fully combined. Form the meat into 4 patties of equal size and shape.

Place the patties in a cast iron skillet on medium-high heat. Cook for about 3 minutes, and then flip to the other side and cook for an additional 3 minutes. (Cook less if you want a more rare burger, and cook a little longer if you want the meat to be well done).

As the burger cooks, it will release quite a bit of fat and juices. I threw several slices of raw onion inside the pan and let them saute alongside the meat. If you'd like to add cheese to the burgers, add it during the final 2 minutes of cooking time and let it melt on top.

Additional Topping Ideas: arugula, avocado, sliced tomato, ketchup -- that's what I used on mine, anyways :) 

Lemon, Yogurt, and Olive Oil Cake (with coconut sugar)

Ah, citrus season. Almost as great as pumpkin season, but not quite. As my friend and former roommate, Brigid mentioned on her new food blog, the citrus trees in Southern California are abundant and always great to have around -- except, of course, when your current landlord decides they look unseemly and proceeds to chop them down without giving you any warning.

Yes friends, I am sad to report that this happened to Paul and I today. We looked out our window to find that both the beloved lemon trees that adorned the walkway of our apartment complex have been chopped to tiny pieces and loaded into the back of a pickup truck. May they rest in peace.

When I saw that they had been removed, I ran down to the yard workers and asked them if anyone had bothered to save any of the lemons.

"They're all in the tuck," one of them told me. "It's parked out back and you can look through it if you want to."

He led me to the back alley where the dumpsters are, and showed me the flatbed of his pickup which was loaded to full capacity with hunks of tree trunk, leaves, and twigs poking in every which direction.

He frowned. "They might be buried pretty deep in there."

He opened the bed and started digging around, feeling blindly for the soft, round skin. He found a few and began handing them to me. They were slightly dirty from all the mess; some with bits of stem still attached and lovely pock marks and physical imperfections that only occur on home grown fruit. I managed to carry five of them in my arms, cradled like little babies.

"If I find anymore, I'll save them for you," he said.

"That's okay," I told him. "Just leave them for the other people in the apartment."

I wandered back to my kitchen and dumped them all on the counter top, wondering what would be best to make with this last batch. Lemon risotto? Lemon bars? Chicken with lemon and rosemary? Lemon poppy seed muffins?

I finally settled on merging several lemon cake recipes together and then adapting them to make the final product a bit healthier, yet still loaded with sweet and tangy flavor. I swapped coconut sugar for processed white sugar, which worked great. The only difference was that the sugar itself was brown in color, and thus made the cake resemble the shade of a spiced apple cake, as opposed to being the pale yellow of a typical lemon cake. I also swapped out the canola oil for olive oil, which made the texture richly and intensely moist.

I did, however, feel it was important to use confectioners sugar for the glaze. I mixed it with freshly squeezed lemon juice and then slathered it on top with a paint brush. There were multiple coats involved. The whole cake came out fantastic and I wouldn't change a thing.

All in all, I'd say it was a good way to honor our lemon tree's life.

Lemon, Yogurt, and Olive Oil Cake

1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
zest of one lemon
1/2 cup well-stirred plain whole milk yogurt (not low fat or nonfat)
1 cup coconut sugar
3 eggs
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan or bundt cake pan with butter or cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment to mix together the yogurt, coconut sugar, eggs, vanilla, and lemon juice until everything is combined. Add the olive oil, and mix again until the batter is smooth and well incorporated.

Pour it into the prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Next, use a butter knife to loosen the edges and allow the cake to cool on a wire rack. While it's cooling, make the lemon glaze.

Lemon Glaze

1 cup powdered/confectioners sugar
3 Tbsp. lemon juice

Mix the powdered sugar and freshly squeezed lemon juice in a bowl until smooth. Transfer the cake to a plate, and then either drizzle or paint the glaze on the outside of the cake. Apply liberally, as you can never have enough lemony goodness.