Guess who’s coming to dinner?

I recently decided to subscribe to a CSA — a community supported agriculture subscription.  My subscription entails me picking up a box of organic fruits and vegetables from a local farm every other week.  I opted for a “small” box from a local farm in Escondido.  I stop by an art gallery in North Park and am surprised every week by what’s in the box.  Sometimes it’s great news (plump blueberries! fragrant strawberries!  avocados! plums! peaches! oh my!).  Other times it’s a bit of a letdown (4 pounds of turnips again?  mizuna — who cooks with mizuna?  fiberous basil again?).  Nevertheless, my CSA box is always a surprise every other week and it forces me to try and eat more organic veggies.

Here’s what came in this week:

two giant heads of lettuce
grape tomatoes
swiss chard
fava beans
yellow squash

I made a nice light minestrone with the carrots, fava beans and leeks. I’m sure a roasted beet salad will be in the works later on this week.

Bread recipe for people who are afraid of baking

I actually tried Jim Lahey’s recipe for No-Knead Bread some time last year.  It could be nicknamed “a bread recipe for people who are afraid of baking” which is me to a tee.  It’s a fool-proof recipe (evidenced by the fact that I could make it and serve it to people who didn’t spit it out after taking a bite).

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

How to have a proper staycation

A “staycation” is the poor man’s (or frugal man’s) vacation.  It’s actually not a bad idea considering the times that we’re living in.  Since I consider myself both a resident of San Diego and Pasadena where I grew up, coming to Pasadena for two days is still a staycation for me.  I just got back from an amazing staycation over the weekend which felt more like a 3 day getaway than an overnight trip.

Here was my itinerary:

Saturday 11:00 am – Wake up really late because the alarm clock batteries are dead.  Rush in a panic to pack suitcase and feed the cats.  Race onto the freeway by noon.  Take the back road freeways (i.e. avoid the interstate 5 at all costs since it’s a holiday weekend) and make it to Pasadena in just 2 hours.

Saturday 2:00 pm – Run into hotel lobby of the Langham Hotel and meet up with my friend Deanna.  Drop bags off with the bell hop and head to tea.

Saturday 2:15 pm – 4:00 pm – Indulge in the best high tea of my life.  Our server was so gracious and attentive and it sounded like she really meant it when she said “Let me brew you more tea instead of just adding water to this pot.  You really want your last cup of tea to be a good one.”  Also, we were bombarded by incredibly gourmet pastries and mini sandwiches that put all the high teas I’ve had in England to shame.  And I paid for those high teas in British pounds!  Never again!

Saturday 4:10 pm – Check into room and get an unexpected room upgrade thanks to that wedding party that reserved most of the basic rooms. Our room was huge — almost half the size of my house. The bathroom alone was almost the size of my first apartment. We had a gorgeous view of the hotel’s estate and some nice amenities like a welcome fruit plate which we ate after having just eaten our tea!

After laying on our beds like sloths, we decided to get up an tour the grounds of the hotel.  There are private cottages on the grounds of the hotel which are immaculately landscaped and decorated.  Someone out there has a lot of money because one of those cottages was receiving mail.

On the way back from our tour, we spotted a nice patio bar area and went over to investigate.  We were meant to just take a peek but then decided to have a drink before heading off to a nearby Mexican restaurant for dinner.  The waitress who took our drink orders informed us that the bar would have live jazz music in about an hour so we decided to stay at the hotel and just feast on gourmet bar food instead and enjoy the live music.  Out came lobster corn dogs, spring rolls, Kobe sliders, and fried calamari.  The summer light was slowly fading out with the sunset and the city lights of LA twinkled in the distance.  It was a simple but relaxing evening.

Saturday 11:00 pm – Finally get ready for bed and fall asleep around midnight.

Sunday 9:00 am – 1:00 pm – Reluctantly wake up and then enthusiastically start thinking about breakfast. We took our time getting ready and left the hotel at 11 and ended up grabbing lunch in Eagle Rock. We also did a couple of scenic drives in Eagle Rock and Pasadena and then made a mandatory pit stop at Peet’s Coffee my favorite coffee place in the world. My friend Deanna has a favorite house in Eagle Rock and I have a favorite street in Pasadena. It was also a trip down Memory Lane for me. I’m so glad I never took for granted how beautiful a city Pasadena is.

Sunday 1:30 pm – Say goodbye to Deanna and return to the hotel to read my complimentary LA Times Sunday Edition. An hour later, work out at the hotel’s swanky gym and spa. Shower in the swanky spa area and then pack my bags and check out. I’ve really made the most of this stay.

Sunday 4:00 pm – Window shop in Old Town Pasadena and then settle in for an early dinner at Le Pain Quotidien. Whenever I’m visiting Pasadena and I’m not with my parents, I like to eat the same no-fail meal at Le Pain Quotidien. I always start with their fresh Gazpacho soup which is especially wonderful in summer and then move onto a proscuitto and buffalo mozerella tartine. The meal ends with coffee served up in a small latte bowl. That’s heaven to me.

Sunday 6:00 pm – Head home on the back road highways and experience no traffic. Come home at 8 pm to very appreciative kitties and a dirty litter box.

This little piggie went to the fair

The Del Mar Fair, that is.  (This is Showtime the bunny and his owner.)

It was a work outing so I got paid to go and gorge on all kinds of deep fried badness (deep fried butter, deep fried girl scout cookies, deep fried kool aid, deep fried Klondike bar, and a corndog).  In all fairness, I only enjoyed the corndog and just went along to taste all the other deep fried stuff.  I’m a purist when it comes to junk food — don’t batter it and fry it.  It’s better in a purer state.

Of course, being a city girl, the highlight for me was the barn animal exhibit.  We also paid a dollar to see a giant horse named Hercules.  He’s a Belgian horse.  I guess they know how to supersize animals there.

Also, there are rabbits and then there are Flemish rabbits which would scare most children.  These guys must weigh about 20 pounds each. Remember when Oprah carted out a wagon filled with fat to represent the sixty pounds she lost (that first time around)?  I’m trying to lose about 20 pounds so that amount of weight could be represented by one of these Flemish rabbits, carted around in a wagon. Their mass alone makes me realize what a long haul it will be to lose 20 pounds.

Regular bunnies

And of course, I can’t help but be enamoured with baby cows.

In general, I love photographing animals who I like to think of as “bad ass vegetarians” or animals who only eat vegetables but can do as much damage to you as a carnivore.  Hercules the Belgian mega horse is a bad ass vegetarian.  So was that rhino from Kenya who walked into our parking lot in Nairobi.

Sienna Month 4

I just visited my quickly growing niece.  She enjoys kicking me in the stomach as she babbles on and on about her day in baby Spanish and baby English.   It’s only month four and I’m completely taken in.

Epilogue: If you’re flying from London to Los Angeles . . .

. . . lift up your window when your map on your media console tells you that you’re flying over Iceland and you’ll see this.  Beautiful isn’t it?  You might have a moody steward or stewardess bark at you to close your window, but it’s worth it.

Act V: If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” — Cicero

That’s probably one of the nerdiest things Cicero ever said, but he’s right.  London offers some of the most amazing parks (actually vast and pristine estates) and one of the most admirable libraries in the world — the British Library.  I would just add a sandwich from Pret a Manager to that list (preferably the argula and crayfish triangle sandwich) and then I would agree — you truly do have everything you need.

London’s parks are huge, vast estates that give provide tired tourists with the shady, pristine haven we need after pounding the pavement in Trafalgar Square or elbowing our way to the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.  I personally like to take a book and sit on a bench or wander down a tranquil, solitary lane with my iPod blaring out a soundtrack for my reverie.  My favorite park is Regents Park. 

Also, the British Library is an underrated gem that is the mecca to all nerdy tourists like myself.  The British Museum might be stuffed to the gills with Babylonian and Egyptian artifacts that document the world powers that forever changed the scene of the world, but it doesn’t possess the gems that once belonged to the rock band that forever changed the world.  It’s only at the nerdy British Library where you’ll find the first drafts of the Beatles’ lyrics for “Yesterday,” “Ticket to Ride” and “I Wanna Hold your Hand.”  Another plus for me was a copy of Canterbury Tales published in the 16th century.  (I loved studying the Canterbury Tales in Middle English in college.)  And to top it off, there’s an extensive Philatelic Collection (500 vertical drawers containing thousands of stamps from around the world) for those of us who always wondered what stamps from Hawaii looked like 75 years ago. 

Act IV: The highest of all London High Streets

Throughout England, if you’re on a High Street, then you’re probably on the main shopping drag of the neighborhood.  Not all high streets are, however, created equal.  Without a doubt, Maryleborne High Street tops them all.

First of all, Marlyeborne High Street is not overrun with tourists and chain stores.  Instead, it’s a charming major street that shoots off of Oxford Circus, a street often spilling over with crowds.  Do your gift shopping on Oxford Circus and peek into its many well-known and reputable chain stores, but step onto Marlyeborne High Street to linger and meander in and out of shops with character.  You’ll find independent book stores, gourmet, organic grocery stores and cafes, European boutiques and the occasional farmer’s market and craft fair.  As someone who dislikes crowds, I’m always searching for that uncrowded, unspoiled patch of London whenever I’m in town.  I found it on Marleyborne High Street.

Act III: Not all chain stores are evil

Here’s what I saw in front of the Apple Store on Regents Street.

I hate to dismiss any chain store as evil, but this was kind of ridiculous.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, but  all these people were waiting to just get into the Apple Store.  Thankfully I had visited the Apple Store the day before and only had to endure its lack of air conditioning and the long checkout line.

London, however, has some amazing chain stores that I heartily welcome.  I can’t tell you how many times the ubiquitous sandwich shop Pret a Manager has saved my life.  It’s such a shame they don’t have any stores in the U.S outside of New York.  They provide students, busy professionals and travelers on a budget with French baguette style sandwiches, tasty salads, desserts, pastries and coffee at very reasonable prices.  Pret a Manager is my beacon for economic yet completely fulfilling meals and they recycle like crazy.  It’s weird to wax poetic about a chain store, isn’t it? 

Last year, in London Heathrow Airport, I made a mad dash for the Pret a Manger in Terminal One when my stomach was running on empty.  After inhaling a sandwich, I turned to my friend and said “I’m going to get another sandwich in case I get hungry again on the plane.”  I’ve never pursued a sandwich with such conviction and determination.   You really have to try these sandwiches.  Their crayfish and rocket sandwich tastes like heaven shoved between two slices of whole wheat bread.

Act II: Going to the movies . . . abroad

I find myself going to movie theatres when I’m traveling abroad.  I once went to a great art house movie theatre in the Latin Quarter in Paris back in 2003. Right after Katherine Hepburn passed away, they played a Katherine Hepburn film festival including Bringing up Baby (Le Fantastic Monsieur Bebe) the day I left.

Last year in Paris, I watched the Coco Chanel biopic starring Audrey Tatou in a Paris movie theatre on the Champs Elysees on its opening day.

This time around, I found out about the British Film Institute from my London guidebook.  When you come from a country where art house and vintage movie theatres are falling away into extinction, a venue like the British Film Institute is heaven.

The week I was in London, they were playing Rashomon, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and La Strada.  I ended up seeing La Strada.  Anthony Quinn was wonderful as the moody, selfish, narcissistic strongman and Guilettia Massina was a very poignant, Harpo Marx, impish female hero.  I just love Fellini.