Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Breakfast Gal Gets Her Fix in SF, "The Breakfast City"

Japanese breakfast: sweet, sour, salty and steamy in a bowl.

I wasn't born a breakfast gal. Up until a year ago, breakfast was something that I gulped, skipped or forced down. Grab it and go was my motto. Or, in more challenging times, grab it and just keep it down.

But then something happened and, like magic, I was transformed into a breakfast gal. I rise ravenous and my first thought of the day is, "How shall I break this fast?"

I just spent two days in San Francisco, heaven on earth for a gal who loves to celebrate the first meal of the day. As a matter of fact, I'm dubbing SF "The Breakfast City" because diners think nothing of waiting in line for an hour to break their fasts.

I didn't have to wait at all for my first SF breakfast, room service at the Kabuki Hotel in Japantown. The hotel staffer was rapping on my door at the appointed 7:30 am time with the designated meal, a traditional Japanese breakfast served in a bento box.

A feast for the eyes, a treat for the mouth. Soup, salad, seaweed and salmon - "The 4 Ss" of a Japanese breakfast. Oh, and pay no mind to the bottle of ketchup lurking in the background.

Savor the flavors: Crunchy fresh cucumbers, crisp sweet yellow radish, salty/sour plum

I spent Tuesday night at my friend Sisi's home, which is just a few steps away from Coit Tower.

On Wednesday morning, we walked down the hill into North Beach for breakfast at Mama's, a place so popular that 90 minute weekend waits are the norm.

Our Wednesday morning wait was less than 20 minutes.

I had the eggs Benedict with crispy fried bacon and roasted potatoes.

My friend had the French toast special. Don't forget to slather on the olliberry jam on the table. Tart and delicious!

Check out these top ten lists for best breakfast in SF:,CA/Restaurants/Breakfast/

And, if you get there before I do, save me a seat.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Altadena Breakfast Club: The Frugal Diner Discovers There's No Place Like Home

Why is it that out-of-town guests
like to venture to Beverly Hills?

Is it the celebrity spotting? The opportunity to see how the pampered people live? Or the lure of breakfast in a beautiful setting?

I discovered last weekend that I don't need to leave Altadena to experience all three.

My first celebrity siting was at the local Altadena Library. Everyman actor John C. Reilly was checking out baseball books for his sons. It seems like we're always waiting in lines together - buying batteries at the local Rite Aid, grabbing a caffeine fix at The Coffee Gallery or indulging in gelato at Bulgurini.

Later that day, I looked up and saw "Spencer Loves Heidi" written in the sky. It turns out that Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag are the reality stars of MTV's The Hills. They exchanged vows at Westminster Presbyterian Church, a Gothic gem near Altadena's edge. I even caught a glimpse of the bride and groom as they ran into the limo, while cameras rolled and paparazzi snapped.

Saturday's LA Times Home & Garden Section featured 14 online photos of a magical garden. Turns out that garden, part of the Garden Conservancy's annual tour, is just three blocks away from me, so I took a stroll there on Sunday morning.

Of course, my own back yard looks humble by comparison, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying an al fresco breakfast.

My David Austin roses are in full bloom.

Just-squeezed orange juice served on a copper tray purchased that morning from another Altadena treasure, Hughes Estates 50% off sale.

What did I learn last week from my breakfast in Beverly Hills? That sauteed spinach makes a great morning meal side dish with ham and cheese eggs. West Coast Grrlie Blather bought one of the $1.99 "pillows" of spinach from Super King and shared with me.

Celebrities? Check.
Stately homes and gardens? Check.
Breakfast in a beautiful setting? Check.

It's all here in Altadena, along with a whole lot more.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Beverly Hills Breakfast Club: A Frugal Diner Splurges on a Morning Meal

You know times are tough
when the recession hits the 90210, home of swimming pools, movie stars and prostitutes who look like pretty women.

The Visitor's Bureau decided to give the Beverly Hills economy a shot in the mouth by throwing a breakfast sale in April.
25 participating restaurants are offering discounts on breakfast specials until the end of this month.

Even though I discovered a long time ago that the city is two parts myth, two parts movie magic and one part silicone, I couldn't resist the idea of having breakfast in Beverly Hills. I emailed a west-side friend last Sunday, "Would you like to join me in the morning for a decadent breakfast in Beverly Hills?" She bit.

My idea was to create a fantasy micro-mini vacation by dining al fresco at a posh hotel. I figured I couldn't afford the suite, but I could get a feel for the lifestyle of the rich and pampered by springing for breakfast.

When I walked out to the dining patio at the five-star, five-diamond Raffles L'Ermitage Hotel, my friend was already waiting for me, nursing a $10 cup of coffee. I perused the menu, but didn't see the advertised $25 special listed. The waiters kept pointing out the $27 continental breakfast special of coffee, juice and pastries, but I didn't drive 90 minutes for an overpriced cup of Joe and a sweet roll.

When it was clear that noone knew what I was talking about, our amiable waiter offered to fetch the manager, who was
equally clueless about the offer. He went back to his office, did a Google search and found the special online:

JAAN Restaurant at Raffles L’Ermitage Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills Burton Way Breakfast: Eggs Benedict, potatoes, steamed spinach and special smoothie of the day, coffee or tea. $25 per person (excludes tax and gratuity)

Apparently, the staff didn't get the memo.

We both ordered the Burton Way Breakfast, and I asked the waiter to make sure that my friend wasn't charged separately for her $10 coffee. While we were waiting, our smiling waiter offered to get us toast. My friend and I shot nervous glances at one another. Would we be billed $15 for sliced bread? We passed.

A few minutes later, the waiter again offered toast or a bagel and cream cheese. This time, we accepted and munched our sourdough toast with butter and jam while we waited for the special.

The breakfast was perfect - beautifully presented and full of flavor. And, with the exception of the hollandise sauce, it was a hearty, healthy morning meal with at least five cancer-fighting foods (blueberries, spinach, tomatoes, asparagus and green tea).

The manager had informed me earlier that picture taking is forbidden in the hotel (apparently for the protection of high-profile guests). But, since no other guests were in the dining room, I pulled out my camera and took a couple shots of our power breakfast.

A beautiful balance of colors and flavors. Not pictured: the blueberry smoothie

A pot of ginger green tea washed the breakfast down.

After breakfast, we asked the manager if we could see one of the rooms. He showed us a spacious 675 square-foot retreat, the smallest size the hotel offers. I've read that Julia Roberts likes to stay at the L'Ermitage when she's in town and tried to picture her lounging on the platform bed.

I know the Visitor's Bureau would have loved it if I dropped a few retail dollars in their city, but instead, I took advantage of two of the city's many free offerings.
After breakfast, I headed for the "Oscar Library," the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library for two blissful hours of writing. I would have stayed longer, but I wanted to keep within the city's generous offering of two-hour free parking.

I rewarded my writing with a trip to the Museum of Television and Radio, where (on the advice of my improv teacher) I checked out rare footage of Jackie Gleason in his non-Honeymooner roles.

It will be a while before I drop $25 on breakfast again (almost $33 with tax and tip), but, for at least one morning I felt like a pretty, pampered woman. I also felt like a practical, frugal one taking advantage of the stimulating free offerings in the city. And, that, I suspect, is the real magic of Beverly Hills; it can cater to both.

(You can still become a member of the Beverly Hills Breakfast Club. The specials will continue until April 30.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pick Your Poison: Harvey Wallbanger Cake or Cocktail

Galliano is the secret ingredient for a Harvey Wallbanger - both the cake and the cocktail.

Tonight I baked a Harvey Wallbanger cake
as a belated birthday treat for a friend (OK, my (ex) husband, but it's complicated). It's his favorite cake, and it's one of my favorite cocktails, so it's become my tradition to BUI (bake under the influence) of the Harvey Wallbanger. I'm thinking of changing the name of this dessert to tipsy cake.

Harvey Wallbanger Cake
To intensify the orange flavor in the cake, I omitted the vodka in the original recipe and replaced it with Galliano and orange juice. I also added orange zest.
  • 1 (18.25 ounce) package yellow cake mix
  • 1 (3.5 ounce) package instant vanilla pudding mix
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 5 fluid ounces Galliano liqueur
  • 5 fluid ounces orange juice
  • zest of one orange
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour bundt pan. Arrange orange slices on top.
  • Combine cake mix and pudding mix in a large bowl. Blend in eggs, vegetable oil, 5 ounces Galliano, and 5 ounces orange juice. Mix batter until smooth and thick and pour into prepared pan.
  • Stir in orange zest.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Let cake cool in pan for 10 minutes then remove and place on cooling rack. Spoon glaze over cake while it is still warm.
  • To Make Glaze: Combine 1 ounce Galliano, 1 ounce vodka, and 1 ounce orange juice with the confectioner's sugar and blend until smooth. Spoon glaze over warm cake.

Harvey Wallbanger Cocktail

6 oz. orange juice
2 oz. Vodka
1/2 oz. Galliano Liquer (about a tablespoon)

Pour OJ and vodka over ice in a highball glass. Splash on Galliano. Garnish with a lemon slice.
Sip while the bundt is in the oven.

What's next? Inspired by The Restless Chef, I looked up recipes for "bourbon cake" and found 39 possibilities on No recipe necessary for sipping the bourbon.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Room for One More? Polkatots Cupcakes

New kid-cake on the block - Polkatots on N. Lake in Pasadena

The way I figured it, Pasadena needed another specialty cupcake shop the way that Octomom needs another baby. We already have two locations of Dots (one on Arroyo Parkway and another in Old Pasadena) and Violet's in Old Pas. Nearby are Pearl in San Marino and My Sweet Cupcakes in South Pasadena.

Turns out
there's room for one more cupcake contender. Polkatots', just six months new, has already managed to beat out 33 other cupcake competitors for two first-place prizes in the 2009 Nesquick Cupcake Challenge. Judges voted Pokatots' dulce de leche the best original cupcake and best overall cupcake in Southern California.

Fresh spring flowers brighten up the courtyard of Polkatots' mini mall setting.

I popped in to their North Lake shop to purchase two mini cupcakes (hey, big spender), but they all looked so delicious that I ended up taking home a dainty dozen.

Eenie, meenie minie, moe . . . Grab a cupcake, go, go, go.

I found most of the traditional cupcakes a little too sweet for my tooth (probably because of the extra sprinkling of sugar on top), but I went nuts over the pistachio cupcake. Alma, one of the owner/bakers, said that it was her favorite too.

My faves: pistachio and dulce de leche

Alma and her 20-year-old partner, Melany, also love creating cupcake cakes (CCC). Even though these are often maligned on, Alma and Melany turn those three Cs into creative, classy and convenient.

You'll pass Polkatots as you're driving north on Lake Ave. As a matter of fact, you'll drive past it when you're headed for Altadena. (Hint. Hint. Wink. Wink.)

720 N. Lake Ave.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Going Hog Wild Over Biscuits and Sausage Gravy

Upscale, downscale: Strawberries drizzled with lemon curd and biscuits smothered in sausage gravy.

I love to have friends over. ("Entertain" sounds so pretentious.)

Sometimes I invite groups of friends who all know one another. Other times I try to mix up my friends. When I do this, human nature invariably kicks in, and people gravitate to people they already know. The party then seems more like a tossed salad than a well mixed drink.

This time, I put no thought whatsoever into the guest list; I let the guests invite themselves. A dozen friends answered my blog and Facebook calls for company to share biscuits and sausage gravy. I stood back and watched as this diverse group of friends blended better than Makers Mark in a Perfect Manhattan.

Why did we all feel so connected? Our common thread was a desire to pig out on biscuits and sausage gravy on a Saturday morning. We all speculated about the qualities of folks who love a heavy dose of carbs and fat in the morning: down-to-earth, hearty, warm, highly intelligent . . . modest.

I've baked plenty of biscuits in my lifetime, but this time I decided to try Margaret's flaky, buttery biscuits that she adapted from Julia Child's Baking with Julia. Margaret uses butter instead of shortening and buttermilk instead of milk. I like both substitutions.

The Julia & Margaret Biscuit

2 C flour
1 T baking powder
1 t salt
1/3 C butter
1C buttermilk

- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Mix the dry ingredients.
- Add the butter and smush it into the dry ingredients with your fingers until the whole mess resembles cornmeal, although it’s fine to have a few bigger pieces of butter sticking out.
- Add the buttermilk and mix with a fork. It will be wet and messy.
- Turn onto a floured cloth and knead — and this is the secret — knead only ten times. You will want to keep kneading, but you must resist that urge.
- Roll out or pound out with the heel of your hand and cut into rounds.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes at 425 degrees.
(My biscuits weren't as good as Margaret's. I wonder why?)


This was my first time making sausage gravy. I started out following the instructions for Frank's Famous Sausage Gravy, but immediately discovered a fatal flaw. The recipe called for one cup of flour and one cup of milk. I think Frank's recipe must be famous because it looks like wallpaper paste, not because it's flavorful.

I did some major revisions to come up with Susan's now famous sausage gravy.

Susan's Super Sausage Gravy
1 lb. ground sausage

1/2 c. flour
2 c. half and half and 1 c. milk (or any combination of cream or milk)
salt and pepper to taste hot pepper sauce to taste

- Brown and crumble the sausage in a large skillet.

- Coat the cooked sausage in 2/3 c. flour.
- Begin gradually adding the milk (or cream) and stirring until it reaches the consistency you like.
- Season to taste with salt, pepper and hot pepper sauce.
- Serve over biscuits.

- Walk around the Rose Bowl six times (or more to suit your taste). Or, if you prefer, fall asleep while watching reruns of Saved By the Bell.

I was a little nervous about how this was going to come out, but we devoured every one of the three batches of biscuits and the gravy. As a matter of fact, I asked a guest to pass the gravy, but none was left. So I did what every hearty, down-to-earth Southern gal does: I cleaned the sides of the bowl with the biscuit.

(I'm submitting this recipe to
Blazing Hot Wok's Regional American Food Roundup for April.) This month's roundup is being hosted by Eating Club Vancouver.

Blazing Hot Wok

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Japanese Cooking Class at Pasadena Buddhist Church, April 14

If you'd like to join me at my next Japanese cooking class, we'll be making buta dofu (pork and tofu), hijiki (seaweed) and carrot/cabbage tsukemono (pickled salad). I have to admit that the sound of these dishes does not cause instant salivation, but our teacher manages to make everything delicious or "oishii" as they say in Japan.

When: Tuesday, April 14, 7 pm
Where: Pasadena Buddhist Church, 1993 Glen Avenue, Pasadena
How Much: $15 includes a hands-on lesson with a professional instructor and three-course dinner. (It's "sucha diru" as they say in Japan.)
Misako Morihiro,

If you're interested in attending, please be sure to email Misako.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Biscuits and Gravy, Anyone?

Pork belly is in. Bacon is blazing hot. Bone marrow is tres chic. Even lard is no longer a four-letter word.

But biscuits and sausage gravy? I'm trying to convince Sumi at Europane that her customers (i.e. me) are craving this comfort breakfast, but she's not buyin' it. And that's too bad.

Until I can make it to Willit's, California, or anywhere in West Virginia, I've decided to make my own biscuits and gravy and submit the recipes and photographs to Blazing Hot Wok's Regional American Food Roundup for April.

There's just one problem: Will I be able to find anyone willing to share a batch of biscuits smothered in artery-hardening sausage gravy with me before April 15 (the deadline for submissions)?

Come on. It's just once a year. Anyone? Anyone?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Indian Lunch in Under 4 Minutes, $4 and 400 calories

Some days, I make a beautiful salad for lunch.

Other days, I cook an easy, healthy meal like sauteed spinach and mushrooms with ground beef or Italian-style beans and greens.

My happiest days are when I can reach into the refrigerator and pull out cartons of leftover beef stew or takeout Thai curry. Heat and eat.

And then there are the days when I reach in and come up with. . . nothing. And, of course, those are the days that I want food and I want it NOW.

How do I bring on the fast and easy without resorting to my daughter's favorite lunch, ramen that's ready in three minutes? Or grabbing for the bag of chips with a side of salsa?

Peak into my pantry and you'll always find a stash of these ready-made Tasty Bite dishes that I learned about from Wandering Chopsticks.

Bombay Potatoes is one of 18 Indian vegetarian dishes available from Tasty Bite.

The nutrition label says that the packet includes two servings, but I find it perfect for lunch for one.

With a serving of heat-up Trader Joe's jasmine rice, here's how the time, cost and calories stack up:

(I don't know how to make nice, neat columns in blogger, so I'll have to itemize in little chunks.)

Indian Food, Tasty Bite Bombay Potatoes
Time: 2 minutes
Cost: *$2.19
Calories: 220

Rice, Trader Joe's Thai Jasmine
Time: 1.5 minutes
Cost: $.75 per serving
Calories: 180

Time: 3 1/2 minutes
Cost: $2.95
Calories: 400

*$2.19 at Fresh and Easy but $2.99 at Cost Plus

Take an extra 10 seconds and add a handful of chopped cilantro and a few mint leaves.

Mix it all together, enjoy and get back to work.

What do you do when you want "fast food"?

NEWS FLASH: I just returned home from Cost Plus for my monthly supply of cheap cava and discovered that Tasty Bite meals have been reduced from $2.99 to $2.00. I stocked up.