Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hot Toddy Time

I've often joked about being a "Hapa Hillbilly" - a half-Japanese, half-Scottish gal from the hills of West Virginia. (Well, in truth, it's more the Ohio River Valley than the hills, but saying that you're from the valley in West Virginia is as romantic as admitting that you’re from The Valley in Southern California.)

I've paid homage to my kimono-clad side with posts about my cooking class at the Japanese Buddhist Church and memories of my Tokyo-born mother. The hillbilly emerges when I talk about my love for beans and greens from Cracker Barrel; my quest for the perfect cole slaw-slathered, West Virginia-style hot dog; pitchers of iced sweet tea; pots of cabbage rolls and adventures in all-you-can-eat dining with Daddy.

But the Scottish roots? Not so much. Unlike my kilt-wearing, bagpipe playing brother, I haven't embraced the customs or foods of my father's side of the family.

So when a friend, who lived in Scotland for two years, offered to make a hot toddy for me, I immediately accepted. At last I'd found a Scottish tradition that I could wrap my cold hands around.

I think both the Irish and the Scots like to take credit for inventing the hot toddy. I for one would wager it was a fiendishly frugal Scotsman who found a way to stretch a shot of whiskey into eight ounces of comfort.

When I googled "hot toddy," I expected to find hundreds of variations, but the combinations are simple and limited.

To make a hot toddy, pick your poison from the list below (I've placed an asterisk by my choice):

  • Something hard: Whiskey OR bourbon* OR brandy
  • Something sweet: Sugar OR honey*
  • Something hot: Hot water* OR favorite tea
  • Something sour: Lemon juice (from 1/4 lemon) and lemon slice* OR orange juice and orange slice

Pour a shot or two of bourbon into one of those clear glass mugs or use a regular mug if you don't own one. Add sweetener, lemon juice, hot water and lemon slice.

If you're feeling daring, stud that lemon slice with cloves.

Drink this: When you're curled up by a fire with a good book or a good friend; when you feel the first signs of a cold, flu or cough; when you need a little help falling asleep; or when you want to get in touch with your inner Highlander.

(And for two more hot, delicious drinks, visit the Restless Chef.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cutting Up on Thanksgiving

The Land of "Ahhs": Cut it up right, and your carved turkey will be as beautiful as the whole bird.

Forget about that Norman Rockwell painting with the patriarch waiting to do his manly duty at the Thanksgiving table. As LA Times Food Editor Russ Parsons says, some things are best done in private. And carving a turkey is one of them.

This Thanksgiving, my brother, who flew out from
Buckeye country with his Bonnie bride, worked alone and in private as he cut up the bird. Lucky for me, he had just watched a Food Network segment that recommended removing the two whole breasts and then carving them against the grain. (Alas, table-side carvers can only carve with the grain.) The technique produces uniform-sized slices, a more tender bite, equal sharing of that crispy skin and a presentation that would make Rockwell proud.

This tutorial video from the LA Times shows Russ Parsons carving the bird in the same style that my brother learned from the Food Network. (The video is embedded at the end of this post. Sorry I wasn't able to insert it here.)

Now I just need to figure out a way to lure him out to LA for an al fresco Thanksgiving every year. I think the key may be that "al fresco" part.

Al Fresco Feast: With temps in the low 80s, we opted for outdoor casual instead of Limoges formal.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Trespassing Snobs

The San Marino Security van was parked in front of our trespassing site.

We may think that we live in an egalitarian society
, but let me dispel that myth.

We are all snobs in some way. Some of us are food snobs; others wine snobs and some among us are literary snobs. But the worst, most sanctimonious snob is the middle class Everyman who looks down on the tasteless members of the upper class. In Southern California, land of the conspicuous consumer, it's easy to find rich people to look down upon.

And that's why the terrace of a San Marino mansion on sale for $10 million was the perfect site for a trespasser's picnic. For one beautiful fall afternoon, eight members of the middle class felt vastly superior to the ruling class.

We took pot shots at the plaster statues, dismembered doric columns, Astroturf in the front lawn and the indoor-outdoor carpet leading to the grand entrance.

And then we sipped our sparkling wine with a pesto torta and a pimento cheese loaf (it's low brow food, but it gets a blesssing from the December Bon Appetit Magazine). We drank fine red wines in vintage glasses as we ate our green salad and hearty beef stew.

This recipe for the pesto torta is from a 1991 issue of Sunset Magazine:

Pesto Cheese Torta

1 cup ricotta cheese

4 ounces cream cheese

Pesto filling (recipe follows or purchase a cup of your favorite ready-made pesto)

Fresh basil sprigs

Thin baguette slices

Crisp raw vegetables

With mixer, beat ricotta and neufchatel until well blended. Smoothly line a clean, unused, tall 2-cup flower pot with two layers of moistened, wrung-dry cheesecloth (or 1 layer moistened muslin); cloth should drape over rim.

With a spoon, press 1/4 of cheese evenly into pot. Press 1/3 of the pesto onto cheese; repeat, finishing with layer of cheese. (I like to also add a layer of sun dried tomatoes.) Fold edges of cloth smoothly over cheese. Cover airtight and chill at least 2 hours or up to a day. Fold back cloth and invert torta onto small plate. Gently lift off cheesecloth.

If making ahead, cover airtight and chill up to a day. Garnish with basil sprigs. Spread on bread and vegetables. Makes about 2 cups, 7 or 8 servings.

Pesto filling. In a blender or food processor, whirl 2 1/2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves, 1 cup (about 5 oz.) freshly grated parmesan cheese, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and enough water (1 or 2 tablespoons) to make a smooth paste. Stir in 1/4 cup pine nuts and season with salt to taste.

Sure, you can buy a similar torta from Trader Joe's, but if you make this easy home-made version, you will feel vastly superior.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Treat of a Retreat and Another Arroyo Food Co-Op Social

Ordinarily, when you're on a board and the president schedules a "board retreat," it's a good idea to make appropriate excuses. "Oh, I"m so sorry, but that's the day that I'm taking the cat to the vet." "Oh, no. I'm having a root canal that day." And, believe me, in most cases the root canal would be the less painful option.

If you're lucky, no board member has committed murder-suicide by the end of the "retreat." Even members of the most harmonious groups can turn into eye-rolling adolescents after being cooped up for eight-hours straight.

But that wasn't the case last Saturday when I spent eight hours with the steering committee of the Arroyo Food Co-op Store. Our retreat location, in a private cabin in the Angeles National Forest, was idyllic, the food was delicious and the company, even after that eight-hour stretch, was smart, insightful and fun.

We were even able to discuss the merit and meaning of words such as "gourmet," "real food," "local" and "organic" without breaking into a food fight.

Would you like to have an inside glimpse into the creativity and passion of this group? Would you like to become more involved on a task or planning basis?

Then join me at the first Pasadena social gathering on Saturday, November 14. You'll get to meet the organizers, find out how the Arroyo Food Co-op Store is progressing and learn ways to get involved.

When: Saturday November 14, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Yoga House, 11 W. State St., Pasadena
Admission is free.

And, since I'm in charge of food (and since this is a food blog), I'll share the menu for our "light refreshments":

- Homemade tri-color torta of pesto, sun dried tomatoes and marscarpone cheese with baguette slices

- Roasted baby potatoes

- Roasted Jerusalem artichokes

- Cold or hot apple cider (with a little something to spike it)

Come for the food, stay for the company and, before the end of the evening, sign up to become one of the first 500 members of the Arroyo Food Co-op.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sweet Childhood Memories

I was recently reminiscing about my favorite childhood meal: a Swanson's chicken pot pie washed down with a bottle of RC Cola with a Hostess cupcake for dessert. (Mind you, I had this dream dinner once and only once and, to this day, I'm suspicious of why my mom served it to me and me alone.)

When Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can't go home again," I think he was talking about childhood food memories. Frozen pot pies are now inedible and Hostess cupcakes haven't been worth the calories ever since they stopped using lard. RC Cola in a glass bottle is still a treat, if you can find it.

But I've found one favorite that's stood the test of time: the Mallo Cup. Were Mallo Cups a part of your childhood? The milk chocolate with hints of coconut? The whipped creamy, marsh-malloey center? The promise of wealth in the form of play money?

During our recent trip to West Virginia and Ohio, I found these at Cracker Barrel. I ripped into the trademark red, yellow and brown wrapper and temporarily tossed the chocolate candies aside. I was going for the fake money and was relieved to see that it was still there.
I scored two 5-cent cards and wondered how much more I'd need to redeem a prize.

"Must save 500 points"

The answer: 490 more points would score me a $1.00 rebate check (enough to purchase one more Mallo Cup package of two).
Who in their right mind would purchase a hundred Mallo Cups for a $1.00 rebate? That has got to be the worst return on investment since Bernie Madoff's pyramid came tumbling down. The postage alone to mail the cardboard coins would approach a buck.

Man, was I wrong. According to the Boyer Company website (Grammar, punctuation and capitalization are the work of the Boyer Company):
  • Consumers continue to save Play Money for over 73 years. Over 5 % of all play money is redeemed nationwide!
  • The Largest Amount of Play Money redeemed by a single consumer was in 2006 a gentleman from Uniontown Ohio mailed in enough coin cards to receive a $353.00 Check! That's 176,659 points saved (That's a lot of candy!)
Today I spoke with Angel from the Boyer Company and learned the following (Grammar, punctuation, capitalization and statistical analysis are mine):
  • Mallo fans can also redeem their play money for actual prizes. The minimum number of coin cards needed is 2,500. (Now that's a lot of candy.)
  • The 1-cent and 1-dollar coin cards are no longer printed.

Photo courtesy of
  • Boyer prints the coin cards in a continuous roll with the following order repeating endlessly: 5, 10, 5, 25 and 50-cent piece.
  • That means that your chances of getting a 5-cent card are twice as great as drawing a 10, 25 or 50. (You have a 20% chance of 10, 25 or 50 and a 40% chance of drawing a 5.)
  • Your chances of drawing a 10, 25 or 50 card are equal. This surprised me because getting a 50-cent piece was once like winning the Golden Ticket.
Of course, I'm sure the folks at Boyer would say that everyone's a winner who bites into a gooey, delicious Mallo Cup. And I'd have to agree with that 100%. Just the same, I wouldn't mind getting that $1.00 check in the mail. I could buy a bag of Sour Patch Kids.

(What's your favorite childhood candy?)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Hometown Hospitality

I love my home town of Ravenswood, West Virginia, but it's not exactly a destination city. (It's more like a departure city, a place you plan to leave.) And that's too bad because the small town (population 4,000) has a bed and breakfast that I'd be tempted to visit even if I didn't have family in that bend of the river.

Chestnut Acres B&B, located on chestnut-lined Chestnut Lane, is a turn-of-the-last century mansion that's been spit polished to perfection. The Inn also includes a comfortable two-bedroom, two-bath cottage that was built on the chestnut-wooded property more than a century later. All of this is just a stone's throw away from a family of wild deer and the meandering Ohio River.

The Ohio River and view from the living room

Hospitality and trust: hallmarks of a small-town business

When I called to make a reservation for the cottage, I was disappointed to learn that the owners would be out of town. No problem, they assured me. They would leave the door of the cottage unlocked and the refrigerator stocked with bacon and biscuits and sausages and eggs and juices and sodas and, well, you get the idea. The staff checked in on us every day and even delivered fresh-baked cookies one afternoon.

All of this for a rate of $85/night for two people and an additional $20/night for the third adult.

Chestnut Acres has all the virtures to turn it into a favorite West Virginia destination. Chances are, you may never want to depart.

Chestnut Acres Bed & Breakfast
One Chestnut Lane

Ravenswood, WV 26164


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Arroyo Food Co-Op Market: More Hip than Hippie

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

By now, most of us are familiar with these words of wisdom from Michael Pollan. Sounds simple doesn't it?

Too bad our quest to eat the right thing has become so complex and confusing. Is it green? Sustainable? Organic? Local? In season? Grass fed or corn fed? Free range or caged? Farmed or wild? ( offers great tips on purchasing fresh, frozen and canned fish.) And how much of this really matters? It's enough to make any well meaning cook throw in the toque.

The good news is that I have no shortage of options for picking up produce. And the bad news is that I have so many choices: my own back yard, swapped produce from neighbors' back yards, two Pasadena farmers' markets, two buyers clubs (NELA and Our Little Market), CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Super King, traditional super markets and a half dozen Armenian produce markets.

Factor price, convenience and flavor into my decision-making matrix, and I'm so overwhelmed that I'm ready to comfort myself with a bag of potato chips fried in saturated oil and a can of dip made with processed cheese.

That's why I'm supporting the development of the Arroyo Food Co-Op Market, a "homegrown community market" that will serve Altadena, Pasadena and the surrounding communities. The market will be committed to providing a simple alternative for fresh, healthy, local and sustainable food choices at competitive prices. What I really like about the proposed co-op market is the opportunity to strengthen an already vibrant community.

If you'd like to learn more, come out to one (or both) of these two upcoming events or visit the Arroyo Food Co-op Market's website.
Now how simple is that?

Monthly Social

What: Find out about the history-making Arroyo Food Co-Op Market at one of Altadena's most historic estates. Light refreshments (including homemade Sangria) will be served.
When: Wednesday, October 7, 7:30 pm
Where: Zane Grey Estate, 396 E. Mariposa, Altadena
For more details, visit the website.

RSVP: Please email your name and number attending to

Community Membership Launch Meeting
What: Unveiling of the business plan for the Arroyo Food Co-op, a brief presentation by representatives from Santa Monica's successful Co-Opportunity Market and the opportunity to become a charter member of the Arroyo Food Co-op. Continental breakfast will be served.
When: Saturday, October 10, 9:00 am
Where: Altadena Community Center, 730 E. Altadena Dr., Altadena

For more details, visit the website.
RSVP: Please email your name and number attending to

If you have any questions, you can also email me at susancarrier at

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting Figgy With It

Enough with the tomatoes already.

The backyard figs have suddenly burst from green to deep purple and are behaving like typical toddlers. They want my attention and they want it NOW. And if I ignore them? They act out by throwing themselves on the ground.

Up until this year, I simply cut the figs in half, squeezed on a little lime juice and ate them greedily over the sink. If I was a little more ambitious, I'd make a simple salad of arugula greens, figs and shards of machego cheese (bitter, sweet and pungent).

This year, I followed the lead of the Food Librarian and made a fig tart. And guess what? It couldn't be simpler. Roll out the puff pastry. Crimp the edges. Scatter brown sugar over the crust. Arrange sliced figs. Top with melted butter and a little more brown sugar. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until the crust is brown.

A cheap tart: $2.00 for a sheet of puff pastry (from an Arenian market) topped with free figs

How to get "picky eater" to eat a fig? Make a fig tart. "This tastes like it came from a bakery."

As I write this, a small pot of drunken fig jam is cooking on the stove. (I'm not canning, so I divided the recipe by 8.) I have been craving fig jam ever since I spread goat cheese and the nectar on top of a cracker, thanks to poet Linda Dove. At the moment, my experiment at small-scale jam making does not look very jam-like, but we shall see.

In the meantime, there's always the tart. (The fig tart, that is. Not the toddler tart)

Fig Jam Upadate: It worked! Now that I've fig-ured that out, I just need to pick up a log of chevre.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tower of Tomato Power

Anyone flying over Altadena could spot more than a hundred seven foot cylindrical towers, including five in our back yard. Aliens might wonder about the concentration of tall towers in our foothills community.

Altadenans may have a reputation for being independent and quirky, but the tall cages aren't an attempt at inter-planetary communication or an art installation, ala Christo.

They're the result of a group effort by our local produce-sharing group, COFE. Earlier in the spring, we constructed more than 100 cages from seven foot fencing, and now they're providing support for thousands of tomatoes.

After cutting the fencing, we didn't need any special equipment to connect the ends together into the shape of a tall cage. You can see in the photo below how a horizontal piece of wire was wrapped around a vertical length of wire. Some ingenious gentleman even figured out how to use a six-inch piece of pipe to bend the wire into place.

I purchased eight-foot stakes from OSH, wove them through the fencing and then pounded one-foot of the stake into the ground. Those cages aren't going anywhere.

I'm still enjoying the fruits of our collective labor. Today I made panzanella, a traditional Tuscan bread and tomato salad, for a lunch for one. It was a good way to use up the rock-hard chunk of baguette and the bounty of heirloom tomatoes.

You really don't need a recipe for this, but the basics are:
- Cubes of stale country bread
- Fresh chopped tomatoes
- Chopped basil
- Dressing of olive oil, red wine (or balsamic) vinegar, salt and pepper

Other delicious add ins:
- Chopped pepper
- Diced cucumber
- Sliced kalamata or nicoise olives

Toss and let the salad sit for at least 15 minutes to soften the bread and mesh the flavors.

A chunk of stale bread + garden tomatoes, pepper and basil = satisfying lunch

And for more ideas on what to do with those bushels of tomatoes, check out this article in the Food Section of the LA Times, Got Tomatoes? We've Got Recipes.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Lazy Days of Summer: Simple and Simpler

It's almost the end of summer time, and I honestly can't say that the living's been easy, but the cooking has been.

Take Tuesday night's dinner: lime and garlic chicken breasts, roasted potatoes and cucumber and tomato salad. My picky eaters gobble up potatoes, roasted with olive oil and sea salt, faster than French fries. The homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers were dressed with what Bonny from Hip Cooks calls the "Holy Trinity" - a splash of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of sea salt. Simple and easy.

Easier yet? Pick up a roasted chicken from Soumarelo in Pasadena. The chicken, along with a package of pita bread and a pint of rice pilaf, costs a whopping $7.99. Toss your own salad and dinner is served.

Summer time drinks tend to be on the sweet side: lemonade (made from backyard Meyer lemons), Sangria (backyard lemons and oranges) and sweet tea. What's the common denominator in these three beverages? Simple syrup.

I once paid $6.00 for a bottle of simple syrup, which is more embarrassing than the time I paid $20 for a pair of J. Crew flip flops that I could have purchased from my local Rite Aid for 99 cents. In case you didn't know, simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water, brought to a boil and simmered slowly until the sugar dissolves.

I usually make a cup of simple syrup at the same time that I make the beverage, but I recently got smart. I made up a quart of simple syrup and now store it in my refrigerator so that beverage making is simpler than ever. (Japanese coffee shops frequently offer a small bottle of simple syrup at the table for iced tea. Brilliant!)

While I was at it, I decided to start storing water in the same kind of bottle. Mozza Pizzeria uses a similar bottle for their free tap water, as does the Bodega Wine Bar at Paseo Pasadena. For some reason, the water tastes better when I pour it out of the glass flask.

I think I just posted a recipe for water. How simple is that?

Bottled water , straight from the tap into an elegant glass container
(picked up on sale at Cost Plus for 99 cents)

Friday, August 14, 2009

CRUNCH: In Pursuit of the Perfect Potato Chip

A chip off the old block

It's not that I need an excuse to indulge in my favorite junk snack food, potato chips.

But when I heard Dirk Burhans, author of the scholarly CRUNCH! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, interviewed on NPR, I had license to crunch my way through six states. Burhans confirmed what I had always suspected: I wasn't just pigging out when I sought out regional chips. I was engaging in culinary anthropology.

"This is my scholarly pursuit," I said to myself as I grabbed a bag of Tom's in Tennessee. "Just doin' my homework," I muttered under my breath when I snagged a bag of Mister Bees (my home town's regional chip) in West Virginia.

"Say 'Mister Bee,' please." On second thought, don't bother.

But in spite of Burhans' recommendation of chips fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (I forget his rationale), I was disappointed. They left a waxy aftertaste in my mouth.

I discovered the perfect potato chip while driving through eastern Ohio, considered the Mecca of the local chip. These didn't come in a bag. The straight-from-the-fryer potato chips, made to order, were as local and delicious as you can get.

Bagless chips from the Flying Dog Cafe in Nelsonville

In Southern California, Nick and Stef's in downtown LA once served a homemade potato chip during their happy hour, but they cut them off a couple years ago. Smitty's in Pasadena still serves a hot-0ff-the-fryer chip, free at the bar or $5 from the menu. The free chips make up for the double-digit Manhattan I like to order at the bar.

Inspired by the chips I crunched in Ohio, I decided to try my hand at chip making. I borrowed Altadena Hiker's mandolin and went to work slicing the spuds. I heated the vegetable oil to 375 degrees, fried the potatoes to a golden brown and sprinkled with sea salt.

Here's what I discovered. The perfect potato chip is imperfect. Some cooked dark brown, others light. Some paper thin, others thicker.

And as it turns out, I have a knack for imperfection.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

On the Road Again: Where Has All the Road Food Gone?

Ahh, the road trip. As a child, it meant long hours squeezed between battling brothers or, if, I was queen for the day, sandwiched between the 'rents. I had no control over the destination, the radio station or the stopping places. I endured it all for the possibility of a soft serve cone that could melt away the pain and boredom.

Fast forward a few decades, and I love road trippin'. I'm now the King of the Road - master of the destination, the radio (or CD player) and the stopping places. And you better believe that road food restaurants top the list for places to stop.

Two weeks ago, I did a fly-drive trip to six states: Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. I was in heaven behind the wheel of my rental car while listening to the audio book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I stopped for Georgia peaches from roadside farm stands and drove under the influence of those intoxicatingly sweet fruits.

But, other than those peaches, I discovered that finding good road food is less likely than Daddy letting me pick the radio station. I passed scores of Wendy's, McDonald's and Hardy's. Dozens of Dairy Queens and at least half a dozen Sonics. But where was the regional road food? describes road food as "great regional meals along highways, in small towns and in city neighborhoods." Where were the rib joints and the diners with fresh peach pie or biscuits hot out of the oven? What happened to the little hole-in-the-wall joints where I could get a bowl of beans with a side of corn bread?

Two years ago, I discovered just such a place near my home town in West Virginia. Hoggs and Doggs served up West Virginia style hot dogs (with slaw), beans and corn bread, biscuits and gravy and sweet tea. I've returned a half dozen times since then, but this time Hoggs and Doggs had, apparently, gone to Hogg Heaven. They vanished without a hub cap trace.

But the goddess of road food looked kindly upon me as I drove from Columbus to West Virginia. When I reached the halfway mark in Nelsonville (population: 5,000), the Flying Dog came to my rescue. Local beer on tap and a West Virginia style hot dog came to $3.35. An order of hot-from-the-fryer potato chips was less than $2.00. With free WiFi, I was ready to move in.

The Flying Dog was determined to soar above the Sonic and Dairy Queen down the street. I couldn't wait to stop again on my way back to Columbus.
But, alas, in spite of promises of a dollar dog on Tuesdays, Flying Dog had taken a belly flop. Its doors were closed.

What's your favorite, non-chain road food? When you hit the highway, where do you like to stop?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The First Gift of Summer

I always lowered my voice an octave and held up an imaginary bell when I bellowed out my favorite line from the classic Christmas book, The Polar Express. "The first gift of Christmas."

Today, I plucked the first red Celebrity tomato from the garden. I held the shiny fruit in the sun and shouted out, "The first gift of summer" (without lowering my voice an octave). Isn't gardening dramatic?

And the best part? Just like Santa's bag, the vines should produce an endless supply of gifts - some red, some yellow and some green and striped like a zebra - all summer long.

The gift that keeps on giving, all summer long - vine ripe tomatoes. With a little salt and fresh chopped basil, what could be better?

(And with heat in the 90s here in Southern California, I may cool off by reading The Polar Express. I'll drink Sangria chilled with ice shaved from the Polar Ice Caps instead of hot chocolate "as thick as chocolate bars.")

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Open Mouth, Insert Milk

We have one more mouth to feed at the Open Mouth household, but it will be a while before we insert a fork.

Daughter C. gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. He arrived a month early, but is healthy and strong and already developing a taste for the ultimate comfort food - mother's milk.

Please forgive the shortage of posts. Between the new baby and a trip to the East Coast (which I hoped to complete before baby's arrival), I'll be a bit tied up until the 28th.

I look forward to finding a bigger baby boy and a few dozen vine-ripe tomatoes when I return.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Trespassers Picnic, Part III

The day of living dangerously: Trespassers enjoy an idyllic picnic.
(Photo courtesy of Petrea from Pasadena Daily Photo)

A few years ago,
my friend Barbara attended a memorial service where family members served the mom's "signature dishes." We both panicked when we realized that we didn't have our own time-honored dishes to serve at our funerals. God forbid that I should die and someone should mutter, "Well, you know Susan was working on those crab cakes, but she never quite got 'em right."

I may not have a signature dish, but I do have bragging rights to a signature event - the trespassers' picnic, where crossing the line is half the fun. The picnics are held on private property and are loosely centered around a theme. The first featured traditional picnic foods, such as fried chicken, deviled eggs and chocolate layer cake. We gave a nod to France on the second picnic and served pommes frittes, salad Nicoise and French wine.

Last week we gathered at a favorite private vacant lot and shared Asian-inspired food.

We started with green mango with chilli salt, a popular Thai street food that, according to my friend who lived in Thailand for nearly a decade, is as common in movie theatres as buttered popcorn. I think I'll try sneaking this sweet, sour, salty and spicy dish in on my next visit to the Laemmle. (The very next day, a friend served me a snack of mangoes with cracked black pepper, and it was equally delicious.)

I tried out this recipe for Thai Beef Salad, developed by Clare at Rainy Days and Sundays. I could live for days on the dressing alone.

Cold soba noodle salad, Thai beef salad and Banh Mi - cool foods on a hot day

The Menu:

Japanese Rice Crackers
Green Mango with Chilli Salt

Main Dishes
Cold Soba Noodle Salad
Thai Beef Salad
Vegetarian and Pate Banh Mi from Lee's Sandwiches

Red Bean and Sesame Buns from Din Tai Fung
Red Velvet Cupcakes (made by Chinese bakers)

Iced Tea
Rose Wine

As Liz put it, our afternoon was filled with "questionable wine, manageable danger and good company." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Do you live in the Pasadena area? Do you have a flexible weekday schedule? Would you like to be invited to the next Trespassers' Picnic at the end of summer? Email me at susancarrier AT or leave a comment.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Driving for Empanadas: Chile vs. Argentina

Long before the euphemism "hiking the Appalachian trail" was associated with a certain South American country, Argentina was known for Evita, tango and empanadas.

I drove to Tito's Market in El Monte last Friday to pick up a dozen empanadas for a potluck happy hour. At $1.39 each, the hearty beef pies are a tasty, inexpensive and lazy way to feed a group.

On Saturday, I was invited to another potluck dinner (is this a sign of the times?). Still more in the mood to drive than bake, I headed to my old haunt, Rincon Chileno in Hollywood, for a Chilean version of the meat pie. They sell for $2.25 each, but are about 50% larger that the ones at Tito's. (And if you purchase six, the seventh one is free.)

Chilean empanadas from Rincon Chileno, Argentine empanadas from Tito's

Then I headed back down to El Monte for a half dozen Argentinian empanadas so that I could compare the two.

For me it was no contest. I love Tito's, BUT I prefer the flaky golden crust of the Rincon Chileno pies. I also prefer the beef filling, which is fried with onions and surrounded by boiled egg and olives. Tito's omits the onions and the eggs and limits the olives to one per pie.

Chilean empanadas from Rincon Chileno, Argentine empanadas from Tito's

I thought that the Rincon Chileno empanadas would be scooped up while the Tito's pies went begging. But guess what? They were both scooped up (another sign of the times?), and many of the potluckers told me they preferred Tito's.

You'll have to be the judge.

Rincon Chileno
4354 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 666-6075.

Tito's Market
9814 Garvey Ave.
El Monte CA
(626) 579-1893

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Swap 'Til You Drop

Do you think the squirrels will come back later to finish these half-eaten apricots?

It's that time of year again when my back lawn becomes littered with the carcasses of half-eaten apricots. The squirrels are experts at picking the freshest fruits, taking a few nibbles and then throwing the partially eaten apricots on the ground. (Except for the Oscar Madison squirrel, who lined up his fruits on a limb.)

Last year I joined a community crop sharing group, so I have lots of help in picking and eating the fruit. (If you'd like to read more about the group, see the story I wrote for the LA Times Home & Garden Section.) In a nutshell, we share and swap our surplus produce with other members in the group.

In an effort to distract the squirrels from the apricots, I put up a bird feeder. Unfortunately, the word has gotten out that the Carriers are hosting a back-yard smorgasbord.

I feel lucky to have a yard with plenty of fruit trees (apricot, pomello, lemon, orange, grapefruit, avocado, persimmon, fig) and enough room for a vegetable plot.

For those not fortunate enough to have their own piece of dirt, the good news is that LA County has more than 4,000 community garden plots. The bad news is that hundreds of wannabe gardeners are on the waiting lists.

One creative solution that's being explored in Southern California is yard swapping or share cropping, where landowners share their plot of land and part of the harvest in exchange for a little sweat equity. (You can read my LA Times story about modern day share cropping here.)

How green is my garden? The peas just sprouted and the green zebra tomatoes are almost ripe.

The fruits of someone else's labor: donut peaches and Swiss chard in exchange for apricots

Do you live in Los Angeles and want to explore a yard sharing arrangement? Check out

If you aren't in LA, check out, a national group that's facilitating yard sharing arrangements.

After all, in these recessionary times, swapping is better than shopping.