Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ojai Adventure - Suzanne's Cuisine

The patio garden at Suzanne's Cuisine in Ojai

With gas prices low and my spirits high, I decided to take a day trip to Ojai for lunch with a friend.

She suggested that we make a reservation on the garden patio at Suzanne's Cuisine. As soon as I walked onto the back patio, I felt like I was a world, not two hours, away from Los Angeles. We were seated next to a lovely garden with a burbling fountain and hovering hummingbird. It was like being invited for lunch at a friend's house - a friend who loves to garden and cook and has an eye for details.

The bread was crusty and warm and the presentation of the butter with a flat parsley leaf delightful. There was just one problem. My salad Nicoise (unlike the one I prepared a few days later for the trespassers picnic) was a disappointment. The rare Ahi tuna and the dressing were bland and there were just a few small potatoes hidden under the abundance of greens. No green beans, no eggs, no capers, no flavor. I even did the unthinkable and sprinkled salt on my tuna.

Suzanne's Cuisine has an eye for beauty and details.

Ordinarily, I like to blather on about these things, but, for once, I silenced my inner food critic and instead focused on the good bread, the garden, the hummingbird and the sparkling two and a half hour conversation with my friend.

Flagstone pavers and a water pump - just like the one at Grandma Opal's - add character to the garden.

And, yes, I'd go back to Suzanne's in a heartbeat. As a matter of fact, looking at these pictures makes me long to hop in the car and drive there NOW. The other food on the menu, including the chicken chilli and vegetarian sandwich my friend ordered, looked delicious. I just won't order another salad Nicoise.

Suzanne's Cuisine
502 W Ojai Ave
Ojai, CA 93023
(805) 640-1961

Other Suggestions for an Ojai Day Trip or Weekend

Casa Barranca
A stunning Greene & Greene Craftsman house, plus a winery and yoga studio, with views of the entire valley. Owner Bill Moses makes fine Viognier and Syrah and a delicate, Burgundian-style Pinot Noir, all fermented with wild yeasts (he believes in minimal intervention). The winery is not open to the public, but tastings (from $4) are scheduled Wed–Sun at Firehouse Pottery & Gallery, 109 S. Montgomery St.;; 805/646-9453. (From Sunset Magazine, 4-07)
(Susan's two cents: Architecture, yoga wine and views all in the same spot? Sign me up.)

Ojai Valley Inn & Spa Loll in Moroccan splendor as you choose your treatment, perhaps the grapefruit body scrub. INFO: Open to day guests Mon–Fri; treatments from $50, plus $20 nonguest fee; 905 Country Club Rd.; 800/422-6524. (From Sunset Magazine, 1-08)
(Susan's two cents: This is the super-pricy resorted that recently underwent a $90 million renovation. I think $70 is a fairly reasonable price to get my foot in the door of the sauna.)

The venerable Oaks at Ojai destination spa (from $180, including classes and meals; minimum two-night stay required; 805/646-5573) offers a long roster of classes and fitness activities as well as treatments and theme packages, and serves three low-fat spa meals and snacks a day. Men are welcome but rare; the clientele for its 46 guest rooms is mostly women. (From Sunset Magazine, 1-08)
(Susan's two cents: This is one of the best deals in Southern California. My friend Karen went with her rare-breed husband and had a memorable weekend.)

RTK Studios:
A craftsman bungalow is the home of this tile workshop that specilizes in reproduciton tiles of Spanish, Craftsman and art deco designs. The studio is open by appointment only. The website says, "
As artisans steeped in the tile making traditions of a bygone era, we bring the old-world craft of the legendary Malibu and Catalina tileworks back to life." Their work can be found at many of the Spanish-Mission architectural gems around town, including the colonnade leading into Libby Park. (Condensed from Ojai Pages by pigletsmom)

Australian Plants Nursery:
Altadena Hiker recommends this nursery that specializes in "ornamental trees and shrubs for Mediterranean gardens."

My friend Debbi recommends The Ranch House, another beautiful restaurant surrounded by herbs and flowers.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Autumn Picnic - Featuring Salad Nicoise

Vibrant colors, a variety of textures and rich, briny flavors make this salad Nicoise one of my favorites.

If you're wrapped in an afghan
and shivering in the cold or watching snow flurries or cursing the thought of your next budget-breaking gas bill, then you may not be able to imagine a late-November picnic with temperatures in the 70's.

It's been so unseasonably warm here in Southern California, that I had to change both the site and menu for our al fresco autumn meal. We abandoned the "top of the world" location with no shade and settled on a tree-lined site in the lowlands. And I gave up on the idea of a hearty beef stew in favor of heat-friendly salad Nicoise.

It's beginning to look a lot like autumn - finally.

And, of course, this wasn't just any picnic. It was another trespassers picnic, where crossing the line is part of the fun. My motto is the food always tastes better when you're being just a little bit naughty.

There seem to be as many opinions about the components of a proper salad Nicoise as there are opinions about getting us out of this financial crisis. Should the tuna be packed in oil or water? White or dark meat? What about the restaurant trend of serving rare ahi tuna? Should tomatoes be included? What about anchovies or capers? Are greens included in a proper salad Nicoise? This is one controversial salad.

In an effort to please almost everyone, I included both a water-packed albacore tuna and an oil-drenched Italian variety, both already on my pantry shelf. I added tomatoes for color, even though they are close to tasteless this time of year. And I left out the greens due to forgetfulness (I left them behind in the refrigerator), not for a desire to be authentic.

This recipe is adapted from the one posted by Tea and Cookies, who modified the recipe from the Silver Palate cookbook.

All mixed up - not as pretty, but just as yummy. It's better (and prettier) to add the eggs after tossing and then drizzle the dressing on top of the eggs.

Salad Nicoise (Pronounced "nee-SWAHZ")

8 small red potatoes, cooked in salted water until tender but not mushy
2 lbs green beans, trimmed, blanched in boiling water until bright green but still crispy
4 small ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 small purple onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup Nicoise olives
pinch of salt
1 tsp pepper
3/4 cup dressing (recipes follows)
6 hard boiled eggs, quartered
12 oz oil packed tuna
2 oz anchovy fillets

Assemble all ingredients, except eggs, tuna and anchovies, in a large bowl or on a serving platter. Toss With dressing. Arrange eggs, tuna and anchovies on plate or platter and drizzle with dressing.

1 tbs dijon mustard
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (or champagne vinegar)
1/2 cup virgin olive oil
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
1 small shallot, minced

(I've experimented with lots of different dressings for salad Nicoise, and this was the best complement by far.)

Put the mustard, vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper into a small jar and shake. Mix in the parsley and shallot.

Enjoy this classic dish in a serene, pastoral setting, preferably without the humming of leaf blowers and the din of trash trucks.

La Menu
Tuscan white bean dip with blue corn chips
Pomme frites
Salad Nicoise
French baguette
Fresh berries with cassis liquer and orange zest
Red and white wine

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gratitude and Giving - The Last Bamboo Leaf

Triangles of sticky rice and red beans perfectly wrapped in bamboo leaves make me grateful.

I reluctantly unwrapped the last leaf from the sticky rice yesterday. I say reluctantly because they were so beautiful that I just wanted to gaze at their artistry. The bamboo leaves were pulled taut and smooth with a top knot as a finishing touch. Do you see that knot? How does someone go about pushing a bamboo thread through sticky rice? Unwrapping one of the little treasures was like undraping an obi from a geisha (or so I imagine).

These were a gift from a family in Arcadia. The grandmother prepared them for me to show her gratitude for the persimmons they picked from our yard. I'm grateful for the time, talent and . . . . . gratitude that went into creating them.

Every time I looked at them I was reminded of the circle of gratitude.

Not just beautiful - they tasted pretty darn good too.

This post also appears at Cancer Banter.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Baa Baa Gold Sheep

Jonathan Gold's 99 Essential LA Restaurants list appears in last week's issue of LA Weekly, and I, like a docile little lamb, must follow wherever shepherd Gold leads.

Gold proves that, yes, Virginia, there is life beyond Melrose Ave and the Westside. He features three Eagle Rock and 10 San Gabriel Valley restaurants and even recommends spots in Bell and Norwalk, two cities known more for graffitti than gastronomy. I've included excerpts from Gold, along with my own humble opinions about these "essential" places near our neck of the woods.

(Baa Baa: I will follow.
Waa Waa: I may stray from the recommendation.)

1823 South San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel
(626) 288-7625

What he says: It may serve Guadalupe Valley Syrah instaed of margaritas, and chiles en nogada instead of nacho plates, but Babita is a relaxed corner Mexican place with great food, an Eastside joint whose service is burnished to a white-tablecloth sheen.

What I say: My friend MM, who's been frequenting Babita for years, introduced me a couple years ago, and I felt like I'd joined a secret club. Who knew that this little joint with tacky decor on the wrong side of the tracks in San Gabriel was pumping out sophisticated Mexican food. Chef/owner Roberto is charming and, if you play your cards right, you may get an invitation to one of his private wine pairing dinners.

Bulgarini Gelatino
749 Altadena Drive
(626) 441-3319

What he says: The gelateria, the love child of Rome ex-pat Bulgarini and his Altadena-born wife Elizabeth Foldi, is a singular perfect blossom in a world of international sweets conglomerates and by-the-book mixes: fragrant Sicilian pistachio gelato, vivid blood orange sorbetto, subtle cinnamon cream and dark, smoky chocolate gelati flavored with orange peel, with fresh hazelnuts or with rum. And Leo probably pulls the best espresso shot in the San Gabriel Valley when he’s in the mood, a thick, syrupy thimbleful made with an antique Italian machine. If you don’t believe me, ask him yourself.

What I say: Lucky me! Bulgarini is less than one mile from my house. If I've been very, very good, I'll treat myself to a walk after dinner and one of my favorites: orange chocolate gelato, blood orange sorbetto or lemon vanilla gelato. I'd like to order the Gold-recommended shot of espresso, but I rarely see Leo in the shop.

Casa Bianca
1650 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock
(323) 256-9617

What he says: Casa Bianca, the fiefdom of the Martorana family since 1955, serves the best neighborhood-pizzeria pizza in L.A. The sausage is homemade, but the mushrooms on the pizza are canned, old-school style, if that sort of thing bothers you.

What I say: This is my favorite pizza in LA, and I love to order it cut into funky little squares. There's just one problem: getting the box of pizza pie home intact. Oh, me of little self discipline. The only way to return home with a whole pizza is to transport it in the hatch of my Prius. It's also fun to avoid temptation by eating in at a table with a red checked cloth and a carafe of cheap red wine. Just be prepared to wait for at least half an hour for one of those checkered tables or a booth.

Chang's Garden
627 West Duarte Road
(626) 445-0606

What he says: An elegant Hangzhou-­influenced restaurant headed by chef Henry Chang, whose restrained, earthy style became known to the local Chinese community at the old Juon Yuan in San Gabriel Square, Chang’s Garden is well known both for its version of dong po pork, a dish favored by Chinese poets, and for the cooking’s congeniality to wine.

What I say: Sounds good. Let's go. Baa. Baa.

Chung King
1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel
(626) 286-0298

What he says:
Chung King is still the best place in the San Gabriel Valley to taste Sichuan cooking: sizzling with four or five different kinds of chiles, vibrating with the flavors of extreme fermentation and smacked with the cooling, numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns, lies halfway between dentist’s-chair Novocain and the last time you could afford a lot of blow, food that leaves you exhausted, narcotized and happy, drenched in foul, garlic-laced sweat.

What I say: I tried it, but think we must have ordered the wrong dishes. I need to go back, especially since Wandering Chopsticks lists this as one of her favorites.

El Huarache Azteca

5225 York Blvd.
Highland Park
(323) 478-9572

What he says: In Mexico City restaurants like El Huarache Azteca may be thick on the ground, but in Highland Park, there is nothing like it on a Saturday afternoon, a cramped storefront filled with families guzzling house-made horchata, tepache and watermelon drink out of huge foam cups, hovering over the few oilcloth-covered tables inside, gathering tacos and sopes by the dozen to bring home to their families, and coaxing burning-hot huitlacoche quesadillas — fried turnovers stuffed with musky, jet-black corn fungus — out of the stone-faced woman who mans the fry cart outside the entrance. What you have come for is, of course, the huarache, a flat, concave trough of fried masa mounded with beans, cultured cream and meat

What I say: Doesn't this sound lovely? Let's go. Baa Baa.

700 S. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park
(626) 282-9998

What he says: The roast squab has skin as delicately crunchy as any Beijing duck. The Shunde-style soup of seafood with minced ham and bits of bitter melon is as tautly balanced as the exhaust note of a Lamborghini. The balls of chopped shrimp steamed in nets of shredded turnip and garnished with their own roe —s the essence of the sea captured. And the morning dim sum breakfasts, ordered from menus instead of carts, are divine.

What I say: Have any of you tried Elite? Gold's review doesn't tantalize me, even though it made the essential list. Waa Waa

Euro Pane
950 E. Colorado Blvd.
(626) 577-1828

What he says: Sumi Chang’s bakery may be the center of civilized life in Pasadena: a place to buy excellent-to-superb scones and baguettes and pains au chocolat, of course, but also the heart of a certain sort of society, the Caltech professors, theology students and writers who worship at the twin altars of caffeine and conversation, a place where you are likely to bump into a zillion-dollar chef, a man who helped design the Mars rover, or the star of the play you saw last night at the Ahmanson. On a good day, Euro Pane’s magnificent croissants could be mistaken for France’s best in a police lineup, and, the natural-starter sourdough is superb. Toss in the homemade granola, the epochal bread pudding, the rustic fruit tarts and the gooiest egg-salad sandwich in town, and it’s no wonder that Europane’s regulars treat the bakery more as a permanent residence than as a café.

What I say: I mainly go for the tarragon chicken salad on rosemary currant bread or the rustic fruit tarts, but I have been known to "worship at the twin altars of caffeine and conversation."

Golden Deli
815 W. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel
(626) 308-0803

What he says: Golden Deli, you may not need to be told, is one of the best Vietnamese noodle shops in Southern California, a well-worn citadel of banh hoi and pho in a busy San Gabriel mini-mall, a restaurant so popular that its customers wait up to an hour for a spot at one of the sticky, cramped tables. Golden Deli has the best cha gio, fried Vietnamese spring rolls, in the observable universe, and the owners know it. And after a bite or two, so will you.

What I say: When I was a 3-week guest at Hotel Hope, visions of spring rolls danced in my head. I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into those crunchy, chewy egg rolls, swathed in Romaine lettuce, filled with fresh herbs and dipped in fish sauce. I've tried other fried Vietnamese spring rolls, but none of them compare to the golden rolls at Golden Deli.

Golden Triangle
7011 S. Greenleaf Ave.
(562) 945-6778

What he says: Golden Triangle may be the best place in California to taste Burmese food, a phantasmagoria of a cuisine that draws from the cooking of nearby India, China, Thailand and Laos — the country is in a pretty good neighborhood. The restaurant specializes in the garbanzo-flour-thickened catfish chowder called moh hin gha, the biryani-style rice dish called dun buk htaminh, and lap pad thoke, a salad made with pickled tea leaves that have the consistency of stewed collard greens and the caffeine kick of a double espresso, and also in a sour vegetable dish made with a special Burmese green that the owner grows in his backyard.

What I say: I don't think I've ever had Burmese food (never made it to the Rangoon Racuet Club in BH in the 80s), but this sounds intriguing. Let's go to Whittier. Baa Baa

La Casita Mexicana
4030 E. Gage Ave.
(323) 773-1898

What he says: When you sit down at La Casita, the spiritual home of Mexican cooking in Los Angeles at the moment, you are brought a basket of warm chips drizzled with jet-black mole poblano, a chile-laced red pepian and a green pepian made from crushed pumpkin seeds: the dense, complexly sweet mother sauces that are at the heart of La Casita’s cooking. Chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu are everywhere if you follow Spanish-language media, demonstrating recipes on the Univision morning show, opening supermarkets, on billboards advertising Mexican avocados. They dominate the food pages of La Opinión, and no local discussion of mole poblano, nopalitos or chilaquiles is complete until they have had their say.

The two haunt communal farms, looking for
huazontle, hoja santa and nopales as fresh and beautiful as they might be in the Jalisco villages they grew up in. But mostly there is the cooking: a half-dozen different kinds of chilaquiles at breakfast, a beautiful purple-corn pozole, delicious enfrijoladas, and an impeccable version of chiles en nogada, the most famous dish of haute Mexican cuisine.

What I say: Where the hell is Bell? I know that's what you're thinking. Believe me, if ever there was a reason to find out, this restaurant is it. Gold does not exaggerate. The setting and prices are modest, but the food like nothing you've ever tasted before in a Mexican restaurant.

1496 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock
(323) 254-0934

What he says: Every dish on the menu is probably somebody’s best recipe: The tart, creamy potato salad is credited to Aunt Carolyn; the ground-beef-intensive chile verde to chef Mackey’s grandpa; the caramelly-tasting banana pudding to Mama. But one thing is beyond argument: Mackey’s fried chicken, tender-crusted and juicy, golden and singing with the taste of clean oil, is about as good as it gets in Los Angeles restaurants.

What I say: One of my favorite places for lunch, happy hour or dinner. Charming setting in a converted craftsman home, friendly wait staff and, oh, mama, that wonderful fried chicken.

2005 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock
(323) 255-OINK

What he says: "Slow fast food,” proclaims the sign outside: smoky Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwiches, chopped salad, and fast-food-style Angus-beef hamburgers with sweet house-made catsup. He roasts chickens on a creaky rotisserie and smokes his own pastrami. Would you be willing to pay a couple dollars extra to experience artisanal soda pop, purplish Fosselman’s-based ube milkshakes and other fast food with a chefly edge? Guerrero is betting that you are. With all of the above, of course, it is necessary to have an order of Belgian fries, fried twice to leave them light and hot, their fluffy potato essence encased in a stiff, perfectly golden capsule of crunch.

What I say: I found this place good but a far cry from essential. Should I give it one more try? Waa Waa

101 Noodle Express
1408 E. Valley Blvd.
(626) 300-8654

What he says: A bleak mini-mall storefront next to a bowling alley, 101 Noodle Express isn’t undiscovered, exactly, although in all my visits I have never had a waitress say a word to me in English that didn’t happen to be “7-up” or “Coca-Cola.” Everybody orders a lovely if orthodox bowl of hot-sour soup, and a tan, wrinkly specialty called “De Zhou chicken.” But mostly, the café is home to the Shandong-style beef roll, a massive, bronzed construction that commands its platter like two El Tepeyac burritos laid side by side — brawny Chinese pancakes rolled around slivers of stewed beef and seasoned with a sprinkling of chopped scallion tops and fresh cilantro.

The inside of the beef roll is smeared with a sweet, house-made bean paste with an ethereal, almost transparent top note, a bean paste that bears the same relationship to ordinary hoisin sauce that a fine demi-glace might to a slug of canned brown gravy. It is a simple composition, and yet not — ordinary street food raised to a transcendent level.

What I say: This is my kind of food - "ordinary street food raised to a transcendent level." I gotta' go. Baa Baa

Pie 'N Burger

913 E. California Blvd.
(626) 795-1123

What he says: This is the best neighborhood hamburger joint in a neighborhood that includes Caltech, which means the guy next to you may be reading a physics proof over his chili size as if it were the morning paper. When compressed by the act of eating, a Pie ‘N Burger hamburger leaks thick, pink dressing, and the slice of American cheese, if you have ordered a cheeseburger, does not melt into the patty, but stands glossily aloof. And the exquisitely crunchy patty melt is careful without being insipid, oozy in just the right way, and sweetened by its judicious load of grilled onions When the fruit is in season, don’t miss a cut of the epochal fresh-strawberry pie.

What I say: I've never understood Gold's obsession with Pie 'N Burger. I like the homy setting, the chatty waitresses, the thick milkshakes and the pies. But the burger patties are tasteless and credit-card thin, the French fries fat and wobbly and the prices inflated. He does make that patty melt sound good.

Renu Nakorn
13019 E. Rosecrans Ave., Suite 105
(562) 921-2124

What he says: While the expense-account crowd awaited each new overhyped East Coast import this year, the Thai-food cognoscenti paced anxiously outside a gentrifying Norwalk mini-mall instead, worrying as the structure rose to resemble a series of potential GameStops. But finally, after larb-less months of anticipation, the redone Renu Nakorn is modern and spacious, and filled with Breck girls from the local Bible college, as well as Thai folk happy to be reacquainted with the restaurant’s minced-shrimp larb and sour Isaan rice sausage.

If you ever went to the original Renu Nakorn (or to the fabulous Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, which is run by family that owned the restaurant in the 1990s), you probably know the tripartite nature of the menu, the usual Thai specialties supplemented by the barbecue and spicy grilled-meat salads of the Isaan region, and an almost-hidden list of specialties from the Chiang Mai area, which may be the kitchen’s real strength: pounded roast-chile dips to scoop up with freshly fried pork rinds, sweet pork curries influenced by Burma and coconut-enhanced khao soi noodles. After dinner, you can wander next door to the last working dairy in Norwalk and pick up a load of free cow manure, or better, a quart of the excellent chocolate milk.

What I say: When I first came to Califoria in 1976, I taught at a private school in South Gate, but many of my students came from nearby Norwalk. Since then, I've had no reason to return to this somewhat desolate area of So. Cal. Until now. Who wants to go on a field trip for Thai food and chocolate mik from a working dairy? Baa Baa.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Beauty and the Bowl - Ozoni (Japanese Mochi Soup)

Ozoni, a traditional Japanese New Year's dish, is as simple and complex as a haiku.

One of the things I love about Japanese food is the presentation. After preparing this beautiful Ozoni soup at my Japanese cooking class last week, I wondered if I would ever go to the trouble of making it at home. If I did, I think I would be way too needy. I'd need to hear gushing about the delicacy of the broth, the beauty of the carrot flower, the symbolism of the hexagon shaped daikon, and that cute little knot hand tied in the pink fish cake. And, of course, the essential mochi (missing from the photo above) would have to be praised.

And if guests didn't voluntarily start gushing, I think I would gently point out these things to them. "Did you see that little knot in the fish cake? I tied that myself. And ya' know those carrots don't grow in flower shapes by themselves." So obnoxious.

This is a soup that should be admired and then savored slowly because the cook went to a lot of effort to make it so beautiful and to imbue it with symbolism.

Special cutters are used to make the flower shapes.

This is how the spinach looks before it is cut into 2" lengths for the soup.


1/2 lb. chicken (deboned leg or breast)
6" length daikon (white radish)
1/2 bunch spinach
1 medium carrot
1 cake kamaboko (fish cake)
4 cups dashi (see previous post for recipe)
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. soy sauce

- Slice the chicken on the diagonal into thin pieces and sprinkle with salt. Blanch in lightly salted water until whitish . Drain.

- Pare lengths of radish into hexagonal shape and then cut into slices about 1/4" thick. Parboil in lightly salted water until alost tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. (Hexagons make up the tortoiseshell pattern. The tortoise is the symbol of longevity.)

- Steam the spinach. (I will have to add more details later about how to get it into the shape shown in the photo above.)

- Peel the carrot and cut into 1/4" rounds. Cut into flower shapes. Parboil in lightly salted water until almost tender, about 10 minutes.

- Slice the fish cake into 1/4" half rounds.
- Bring the dashi just to a boil in a pot. Turn down heat and keep at simmer. Then stir in salt and soy sauce and season to taste.

- Arrange spinach, single carrot slice, single daikon slice, chicken, mochi and fish cake in soup bowl. Ladle hot broth into bowl. Garnish with sprig of mizuna.

I may not recreate this at home, but I promise: if someone serves this to me, I will be the most appreciative, gushing guest in the dining room.

(This recipes was submitted to Blazing Hot Wok's monthly regional recipe roundup. The Japanese event is being hosted by Wandering Chopsticks.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

I'm Turning Japanese - Onishime Vegetables

Onishime Vegetables - a Japanese New Year's tradition makes a great side dish any time of year.

My mother was born and raised in Tokyo. My grandfather (who I never met) was the chef/owner of four Tokyo restaurants. How is it that I never learned to cook Japanese food?

The answer is simple. My father, stationed in Tokyo during the American Occupation of Japan, married my mother and whisked her from sophisticated city life to a simple life in Catfish Hollow, West Virginia. There she found Uncle Ben's Converted Rice, but no short grain rice; Ritz Crackers, but no rice crackers; dill weed, but no sea weed. The closest we came to any Asian food was Kikkoman's chow mein. (Come to think of it, the pre-packaged stuff was considered so precious that my mother horded it all to herself.)

But thanks to Hitomi, the instructor at the monthly cooking class at the Pasadena Buddhist Church, I'm learning the ropes of Japanese cooking.
Most of the students are second (nisei) and third (sansei) generation Japanese Americans, who had abandoned tradition for convenience. Hitomi is contemptuous of processed foods and lazy shortcuts, such as using instant dashi powder instead of homemade dashi stock. The instant version is the equivalent of chicken boullion cubes in place of homemade chicken stock. That's a no-no in any language.

This simple dashi stock is the base for dozens of traditional Japanese foods, from miso soup to yosenabe (fish stew) to Onishime vegetables.

(Recipe from Hitomi)

1 ½ oz. kelp (konbu), 20-inch length
2 qts. water
3 T. loose bonito flakes (2oz.)

- Moisten a clean cloth and wring well. Carefully but thoroughly wipe the surface of the kelp. Kelp should never be washed since flavor is lost in the process. - Place the cold water and kelp in a soup pot and leave about 30 minutes. Slowly bring to a boil over medium-low to medium heat. Regulate the heat so the water takes approximately 10 minutes to reach a boil.

- When fine bubbles begin to appear at the edges of the pot, remove the kelp from pot. (Do not allow the water to boil while kelp is in the pot.)

- Add ⅓-½ cup cold water. Add the bonito flakes.

- When the stock returns to a boil, remove it from the heat. When the bonito flakes sink to the bottom , strain to clarify. Do not wring the flakes.


These vegetables are typically served for Japanese New Year's celebrations, but don't wait until then. The vegetables' rich, deep flavors, imparted from the dashi stock, soy sauce and mirin, are oishii any time of year.

1 3/4 lb. carrots
1 1/2 cups dashi
4 T. sugar
2 T. mirin
1 T. soy sauce
1 tsp. salt

- Peel the carrots and cut into 1/2 inch long rounds.
- Cook in dashi about 4 to 5 minutes.
- Stir in sugar, mirin, soy sauce and salt.
- Turn down heat, keep at a simmer until almost tender.
(This same recipe can be used for shiitake mushrooms.)

I will definitely make these Onishime-style shiitake mushrooms at home because the preparation is simple and the outcome spectacular.
1 3/4 lb. gobo (burdock root)
3 cups dashi
5 T sugar
2 T mirin
/3 C soy sauce

- Scrape and julienne gobo. Keep in cold water to avoid discoloration.
- Parboil about 10 minutes.
- Place parboiled gobo into a pot with dashi, sugar, mirin and soy sauce into a pot.
- Bring to a boil ovr high heat.
- Cover with a drop lid (otoshi-buta) and simmer until reduced by approximately 30%.

The drop lid is made from a circle of parchment with ventilation holes on top.

Renkon (Lotus Root)
1 lb. lotus root
2 cups dashi
1 1/2 T sugar
1 1/2 T mirin
2 1/2 T soy sauce

- Peel the renkon and cut into 1/3 inch pieces.
- Parboil renkon for about 3 minutes.
- Put renkon and dashi into a pot and cook about 5 minutes.
- Add sugar and mirin. Simmer 3-4 minuts and then add soy sauce.

Hitomi encourages to take the extra step to make our creations beautiful. We cut into the sides of the lotus root to make them look like flowers.

I won't kid you. What you see here requires lots of cutting, lots of pots, lots of watching and lots of time. No wonder this is typically done just once a year. But don't be afraid to prepare one vegetable. The depth of flavor is worth it.

(These recipes were submitted to Blazing Hot Wok's monthly regional recipe roundup. The Japanese event is being hosted by Wandering Chopsticks.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Incredible Inedbile - Homemade Playdough

Away from the maddening wedding crowd: All ages, from 18-months to 13 years, have fun at the playdough table. (Photo by Skye)

A few weeks ago, I hosted a small wedding ceremony and reception at our home for my brother and his bride. My job, big brother said, was to "just show up," and, in theory, I could have done just that. After all, the wedding coordinator, my brother and his bride had taken care of the the caterer, cake, flowers, music, photographer and the dozens of other details that go into pulling off a wedding.

But I wasn't content to loan the house and garden and "just show up." I wanted to leave my little mark in some other way. A few days before the wedding it hit me. I would create a play station for the five children (and any playful adults) attending the wedding.

On the wedding day, I set up a separate children's table away from the more formal adult setting and threw on a vintage table cloth. My niece helped me make the playdough while I perused two local thrift stores for fun things for shaping or poking into the dough. I hit "play dirt" at our local Altadena shop - for $1.00 I got a bag with dozens of miniature forks, little parasols and clowns. I found a bag of of small plastic animals in my garage and pulled out mini muffin pans, a meat ball maker and plastic cookie cutters from the kitchen stash.

The secret to a great playdough station: things for shaping and things for poking. (Photo by Susan)

Nephew Will shows off his mini fork. (Photo by Skye)

Forget fancy-schmancy tools from the toy store. Just use what's on hand at home. (Photo by Skye)

(This is the same recipe that I used when my daughter, now 19, was a tadpole.)
1 cup flour
1/2 cup salt

1 cup water
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons cream of tartar
food coloring

Mix flour, salt and oil, and slowly add the water. Cook over medium heat, stirring until dough becomes stiff. Turn out onto wax paper and let cool. Knead the playdough with your hands until of proper consistency. Add a few drops of food coloring. Store in an airtight container.

Advantages of Homemade Playdough
- It's cheaper to make than to buy.
- All of the ingredients are kitchen staples, so you don't have to run out to the store
- It's less crumbly than the commercial version.
- Children can be involved in the making.
- There's no need to get the right color playdough back into the right color can.
- You can create your own colors and even jazz it up with glitter. (Pink Princess Playdough, anyone?)
- No need to worry about children eating it - the salt will turn them off right away.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bringin' Home the Bacon, Drowning in Spinach

Who says salads are just for summer? This hearty spinach salad with hard boiled eggs, mushrooms, red onions and bacon hits the spot any time of year.

When I'm rushing about on a day of errands, I sometimes stop for fast food. And there's nothing faster (and healthier) than cruising the salad bars at Whole Foods or Ralph's.

I'm not looking for Mr. Goodbar, just Mr. Good Deal. But buyer beware. The bars charge one flat rate per pound, whether you're filling up on beets or blue cheese, carrots or caviar. Stay clear of the heavy but cheap items like dense, raw veggies. I once paid Whole Foods more than $10 for a very small salad that was heavy on red onions and beets and light on lettuce. Ouch!

Since then I've made a bit of a science of getting the most salad bar bang for the buck. One of the best bets is the crumbled bacon, an easy (and lightweight) way to add pizazz to any salad. As a matter of fact, it's such a good deal that I often purchase a "salad" of nothing but the bacon crumbles from Ralph's.

When you consider that the average price of uncooked bacon is $5.00 per pound and half of that cooks away in grease, Ralph's salad bar bacon crumbles at $5.99 per pound are a steal. A quarter pound is enough to top several big salads and a few bowls of soup.

Best of all, it makes salad making a cinch when the bacon's already fried up and crumbled.

Last week, I was in the mood for a spinach and bacon salad, so I purchased a giant bag from Super King in Altadena. The bag was somewhere between the size of a small pillow and the Island of Guam. And at $3.49, it was about ten times cheaper than the 6 oz. bag for $3.99 I saw at Ralph's.

I made bacon and spinach salad for lunch twice last week. Since the bacon was already cooked and crumbled, all I had to do was boil eggs, slice red onions and mushrooms and whip up a balsamic vinagrette dressing. Lunch was ready in less than 10 minutes. And I think it cost me about a dollar.

Fast Food: Tossed with balsamic vinagrette and served with a side of cruncy bread sticks, this makes an easy, satisfying lunch.

Bacon and Spinach Salad

Fresh spinach
Hard boiled eggs, sliced or chopped
Red onions, sliced
Mushrooms, sliced
Crumbled bacon
Other yummy options: chopped tomato (when in season), peas, blue cheese, chopped avocado

Balsamic Vinagrette Dressing
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
minced garlic clove
minced shallot
salt and pepper to taste

Put the ingredients into a small jar, shake and store in the fridge for up to two weeks.

In addition to those two spinach salads, I made a big batch of spinach Florentine. I gave away a two-quart bag to a neighbor, and I'm still drowning in spinach. I think I'll try this recipe from Closet Cooking for sauteed chard with raisins and pine nuts. I'll just substitute spinach for the chard and will probably use dried cranberries instead of raisins. And maybe I'll try pecans instead of pine nuts because that's what I have on hand. So much for following the recipe, but I think I'm true to the concept of something bitter, something sweet and something crunchy.

Do you have any other favorite spinach recipes?
Do you have a salad bar strategy?

Friday, November 7, 2008

We have a winner - Wandering Chopsticks

It's a good thing I used the random integer selector on to pick the winner of the copper kettle apple butter from West Virginia. It sure beat writing names on slips of paper and asking my cat to pull one out of a hat.

When the computer program selected #6, Wandering Chopsticks, I thought, "Oh, no. People are going to think this contest is rigged and I'm after the chilli sauce she offered to trade." And a few of you may know that I first discovered Wandering Chopsticks a year ago when I was a three-week guest at Hotel Hope (City of Hope) for a stem cell transplant. WC's blog was a triple E hit with me - it kept me entertained, educated and engaged with food. I spent hours perusing her blog and making lists of foods and restaurants I wanted to try. In the springtime, I had the privilege of meeting her in person during a fruit exchange at my house.

Congratulations to Wandering Chopsticks. I couldn't have picked a better winner if I tried. (But I didn't. Honest.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

150 Year Tradition: Making Apple Butter and a Give Away

A Taste of Autumn - Home Made Apple Butter

Smearing apple butter on a hot buttered biscuit will never be the same for me again.

I always thought that apple butter was just apple sauce with a dash more cinnamon and a little more time on the stove. I had no idea that "a little more time" meant 10 hours of brewing in a 150-year-old copper cauldron.

At least that's how the Allen clan of Sardis, West Virginia, do it. They whip up 150 pints of apple butter every year as a fund raiser for a local church youth group. Three days and dozens of hands go into making a jar of the bread spread. Start with a day of picking local wild apples. Spend another day, slicing, chopping and cooking down the apples. Finish off in the cauldron, where the apples are mixed with sugar and cinnamon oil. That final day stretches from 6 am to 6 pm.

Double, double, toil but no trouble: the 150-year-old copper cauldron was first used by cousin Nathan's great-great grandfather. Now seven generations have stirred the pot.

The key to good apple butter is constant stirring so that the bottom doesn't stick. This year, the Allens retired the original 150-year-old paddle and replaced it with this one, hand crafted by a sixth generationer.

The finished product is scooped into sterilized jars.

Nathan's son Travis (on the right)is the great-great-great grandson of the copper pot's original owner. He and a friend retire the pot until its next 10-hour workout.

Now when I spread some apple butter on my biscuit or toast, I'll think of crisp air, fallen leaves, copper cauldrons, a labor of love and a 150-year tradition.

Leave a comment if you think you deserve to win a pint of home-made apple butter. The winner will be randomly selected.

My brother and I did a taste comparison of the 2007 and 2008 batches. This year's is as complex as a fine wine and a definite winner. You can taste the sweet, tangy and cinnamony hot components in each luscious bite. Now could someone bake me up a batch of biscuits?