Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Lazy Summer Cocktail (When One + One = WOW)

Seconds after walking into a dinner party last Sunday night, a guest thrust a shot glass of sparkling grape juice into my hand.

"Try this," he urged.

The non-alcoholic drink tasted like something you might serve at a Sweet 16 party. It was sweet and bubbly with a slight sour finish to give it a kick of sophistication. Frankly, I wasn't impressed.

But it turns out this wasn't just any Martinelli's or Trader Joe's variety of carbonated juice. It was a high-end German sparkler by Sekthaus Raumland, available on sale at two bottles for $20 at Wing Hop Fung* in Monterey Park. $10 for a bottle of fizzy Welch's? I don't think so.

But then I witnessed a little alchemy. Pour the Sweet 16 stuff on the rocks, add equal parts vodka and suddenly you have a drink worthy of a cocktail party on the veranda or an end-of-day "I've been working in the garden" pick-me-up. Seriously refreshing. Seriously deliciious. Seriously intoxicating.

I guess all those generations of teenagers spiking punch bowls with vodka had it right all along.

(*an unlikely but highly recommended wine store set in an apothecary/tea store)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

When Life Gives You Blight . . . Hire a Handy Man

It's not hard to find beauty in my garden. You can find good bones (two massive redwood trees in one side yard, a redwood and magnolia on the other side, plenty of mature fruit trees in the back yard) and some interesting meat on those bones.

This year, I've spruced up one of the formerly unused side yards into a favorite retreat; interspersed heirloom tomato plants among the inedibles in the back yard; added two raised beds and created some showy arrangements in urns and pots. Things are shaping up nicely.

But, among the beauty, it's equally easy to find the blight. One of the chief offenders is tucked into a corner, right next to the grape arbor, the pea tee-pee and the raised beds. That's where our neighbor, whose art studio is right on our property line, decided to install an A/C unit.

I was furious when this unit suddenly encroached into our yard a couple years ago, but I didn't say a word. When it comes to complaining, I have two die-hard rules: Don't do it when you're angry, and always offer a solution or a resolution. I couldn't get over my anger and I didn't have a solution, short of demanding that the neighbor yank the A/C unit and install it on a wall that juts into her own yard. And, since she lives on a different street, I haven't seen her for more than three years.

But lately that infringing A/C has been getting my goat - partly because I'm spending more time in that neck of the garden and partly because I'm hosting a garden wedding reception for a friend in June.

I considered a trellis, but it will take a full year to be lush enough to disguise the offending unit, which is, ironically, a Carrier. I thought about surrounding the unit with reed fencing, but that just seemed tacky.

I've come up with an idea for a decorative and functional garden element that conceals the eyesore.

I'm going to mount a strategically placed door and spray coat the inner panels in chalkboard paint. I can leave messages for the gardener or corny, inspirational thoughts. ("Friends are the flowers in the garden of life." "Thoughtless neighbors are the thorns in life's garden.") I'll hang a succulent wreath and seek out a rustic mailbox for storing my gardening gloves, clippers and chalk. A couple of hooks may come in handy too.

I've also written a note to my back-door neighbor asking her to share part of the modest project cost. (Wish me luck.)

How's that for turning blight into beauty? (I'll post pictures when the project is done in a couple of weeks.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Three Isn't Always a charm - Crab Cakes

Crab cakes from do not make the cut.

This year I made just two New Year's resolutions: Drink more bubbly and create the ultimate crab cake.

It's nearly five months into 2009, and I'm happy to report that I'm making good on the first goal. The second, not so much.

I made the first batch of crab cakes for a New Year's Eve party. Adapted from a recipe on the Williams Sonoma site, they were good but not the ultimate.

I tried again with the recipe from the Turf Club at Santa Anita. Now these are, as far as I'm concerned, the ultimate crab cake, without a bread crumb in sight. They were also labor intensive and require several hours in advance preparation.

For my third attempt, I went to and tried this simple recipe. I liked the idea of binding the crab cakes with the same tarragon aioli sauce that tops the cakes. I thought the 1 3/4 cups of panko (Japanese bread crumbs) was excessive, so I reduced the amount to 1/2 cup, but the crab still didn't shine through.

The quest continues.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

La Vida Loca - Crazy Mint

Have you heard the definition of crazy (or insanity)? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

Oh, I won't even begin to count the ways in which my life is "crazy" by definition, but I will divulge one: I am mint crazy.

I am crazy about mint, the perky, fragrant and versatile herb that gives a flavor boost to everything from cocktails and teas to salads and side dishes. Nothing wrong with that.

But I was also certifiably crazy in my approach to growing the vigorous herb. For years, friends (who bragged that their mint was "growing like crazy") shared cuttings and I planted them in a semi-shady spot in my garden, only to have them die. Each year, I would try again, make a minor alteration and . . . fail. Same thing. Same results. Same head scratching.

As Dr. Phil might ask, "How's that workin' for ya'?" Well, it wasn't working, thanks for asking.

This year I decided to get sane. A member of my seed and plant exchange group, CASAPE, brought five kinds of mint to share at a swap meet. I took all five home and planted them in an entirely different, sunnier part of the garden. And guess what? The mint is thriving and spreading and screaming out to me, "Why didn't you do this before, you crazy lady?"

For lunch yesterday, I made a simple salad of cucumbers, red onion, tomatoes, mint and feta cheese. Served with a piece of grilled chicken and brown rice, it was a lovely way to celebrate a sunny day and sanity.

Minty Cucumber Feta Salad

1 cucumbers, peeled and diced

1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 or 2 tomatoes, diced
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice
1 fresh garlic clove, minced
4 T. fresh mint, chopped
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place all the ingredients in a bowl and toss well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill for two to three hours before serving.

This recipe is so easy, it's crazy. In a good way.

(Is there an area in your life, the kitchen or the garden where you're doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Do tell.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mentoring and Ramping It Up

The enigmatic Miss Havisham has challenged me to explore the theme, “If I could have met with a mentor on a weekly basis when I was a teenager, I . . . "

I grew up in Clarksburg, West Virginia. I'm tempted to write, "I grew up poor," because that's what people from outside of the Mountain State expect. I suspect we were, but I never knew it at the time. My (once-well-to-do) mother from Tokyo could outdress and outclass anyone. She insisted on buying my clothes from Claurice's Boutique, not from Sears or the five-and-dime like all the other girls at Broadway Elementary. So, even though our family income may have been below the magical line, we didn't look or act the part.

My hard-working dad, like most of the dads in our neighborhood, lugged a metal lunch pail to work each day to a blue collar job at a glass factory. That is, when the factory wasn't shut down. Even in the 60s, the economy was dicy in WV, and it seems there were always layoffs and plant closures.

My world was small. Women were housewives or spinster teachers and dads worked at factories. I knew of just three exceptions. At the time, they seemed to be in a "privileged set," but looking back now I can see that they were scraping by. Jennifer Andy's dad owned Pete Andy's, a little corner grocer. Bobby Lindsay was the son of a fireman. And Allen Saoud's dad owned and drove a small candy truck that heralded, "Here comes Marcelle the Candy Man."

I didn't know much about what laid outside the 'burg, but school assemblies changed all that. I was impressionable and easily impressed, in awe of every one of the speakers who flung up windows to whole new worlds. Most students looked at assemblies as a ticket out of classwork, but not me. I can still vividly recall presentations I heard more than four decades ago.

If I could have chosen a mentor it would have been my favorite assembly speaker, Jim Comstock, publisher and editor of the West Virginia Hillbilly.

I was probably nine at the time, and he must have been in his fifties, but I was mesmerized by his wit, his energy and his passion for writing and publishing. His newspaper was published in Richwood, a small town in southern West Virginia known for its annual wild ramp festival. One year the mischievious Comstock decided to celebrate the pungent wild onion by infusing ramp juice into the ink of the newspaper. He stunk up post offices all over the state. The Post Master made him promise never to pull that stunt again.

Oh, how I loved that story! It demonstrated to me so many possibilities. Of being wildly creative and fearless. Of leaving your mark (and your scent). Of loving the outcome. These were all things that had not occurred to me before hearing Comstock. I felt intoxicated and would have loved nothing more than getting drunk on him every week.

I smile now every time I see humble ramps on the menu of fancy-schmancy restaurants. I wonder what my "mentor" would have to say about their new lofty status. I think about those West Virginia post offices that must have smelled like "wild onions and bear piss." Then I take a big, imaginary whiff, and I'm still intoxicated by the aroma. For me, ramps will always smell like the sweetest scent of all - possibility.


Kathy's fresh approach is a far cry from our family's springtime tradition. We ate our wild ramps scrambled with eggs and rolled in flat bread purchased from one of the several Lebanese families in our neighborhood. We were, apparently, early food fusion trendies.