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Profile: Retiree Christy Cowell & California Roll Salad

Serves 4–61½ cups long-grain rice¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, divided¼ cup sugar1½ teaspoons salt1 tablespoon sesame seeds2 sheets nori3 tablespoons vegetable oil2 tablespoons pickled pink ginger, julienned4 scallions, cut lengthwise into 1-inch strips½ cup carrot, peeled, finely grated1 English cucumber, quartered lengthwise, cut into 1-inch pieces1 avocado, peeled, pitted, cut into ½-inch cubes½ pound surimi (mock crabmeat), cut into ½-inch slicesDressing2 teaspoons wasabi powder1 tablespoon hot water2 tablespoons cold water2 tablespoons soy sauce2 teaspoons ginger juice, squeezed from freshly grated ginger root {pinterest_rich_pins_images} Profile: Retiree Christy Cowell & California Roll Salad {/pinterest_rich_pins_images}

Profile: Retiree Christy Cowell & California Roll Salad

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    Christy Cowell
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    California Roll Salad
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    First dress the rice with a vinegar mixture and then add the sesame seeds, nori, 3 tablespoons vinegar, oil, ginger, scallions, carrot, cucumber, avocado and surimi to the rice, and toss to combine.
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    Dry-toast the nori and then cut it into thin, 2-inch strips.
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    Past Hollywood Bowl picnic menus.
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    Christy's homemade jams, relishes and condiments.
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    Christy's homemade jams, relishes and condiments.
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    Christy's collection of summer teapots.

Text, photos and food cooked by Michal Martinek

Jul 4, 2016

Print this recipe

Christy Cowell is a very good cook. On a recent Thursday afternoon in her home in Pasadena, California, she told me about her upcoming series of summer picnics at the Hollywood Bowl. At the iconic hillside amphitheater—where a Beck concert one night may alternate with a Bach concerto on another night—you’re encouraged to bring provisions and get full and tipsy (some choose to get high) under the stars.

“I do about five concerts a season, and I create a different themed menu for each,” says Christy. She references her substantial cookbook library and annotated magazine clippings—as well as her own recipes—and buys the ingredients, cooks all the food, and pairs it with wine. Her friends’ only jobs are to show up, help her set the box table with a tablecloth, plates, glasses and silverware—“It’s real, no plastic; I like to go all the way”—eat the food, and enjoy the music.

Past menu examples include the Moroccan Picnic (bastilla, spicy lamb kefta, and honey dew mint salad with orange flower water), Pan-Asian Picnic (crumbled beef and pork on cabbage leaves, California roll salad—see recipe below—and hoisin chicken), and Soup and Salads Night (avocado vichyssoise, chopped salad, sesame broccoli salad, and orzo pepper feta mint salad). “It’s a lot of fun. I’ve been going for more than 10 years.”

In mid-December, Christy gives her annual Christmas Tea and Cookies party, for which she spends even more time in her kitchen. She typically bakes between 15 and 20 kinds of cookies (vanilla kipferl, Swiss almond macaroons, biscotti di Natale, raspberry hazelnut triangles, her great-grandmother’s Christmas cookies, and lebkuchen decorated with Santa Claus pictures), as well as a Christmas cheesecake with English toffee filling, and a “gooey and ridiculously rich” trifle. Plus, she serves a variety of sandwiches (turkey salad, smoked salmon, cucumber) and seven different kinds of tea in charming, offbeat teapots that she collects.

“This party is for all my women friends and one male,” says Christy. “He’s an Anglophile and likes to be the rooster in the hen house.” 

Age Early 70s. — Hometown Born in Chicago and raised in its suburbs, but I’ve lived in the L.A. area since the mid-1960s. — Where do you live? Currently living in Pasadena. — Occupation Retired from L.A. County. Worked for 15 years in Child Protective Services and with the chronically and acutely mentally ill, then for 15 years with the County’s Department of Health Services, most notably in the AIDS Program Office, developing programs, writing grant applications, and working with community-based organizations and activists. I retired 16 years ago—hooray! — Signature dish I would probably have to say my “Industrial-Strength Brownies,” my variation on an old recipe for gazpacho, or the California Roll Salad. I have used these recipes numerous times for Hollywood Bowl picnics. I also have a favorite recipe for perfumed olives (who doesn’t like olives?!). — Who taught you how to cook? I’m a self-taught cook. I have taken the occasional short cooking class (like for one evening), but nothing longer than that. My mother, may she rest in peace, was a wonderful person but not a particularly good cook. I guess I took it up in a vacuum. Also, the fantastic store/restaurant where I used to work as a high school kid, then through college, inspired my interests in cooking and food presentation. The biggest influence, though, was my junior year in college when I studied in Vienna. I traveled all over, from Israel to Finland, and tried all sorts of wonders like souvlaki in Greece to supplì al telefono in Italy to open-face Danish smørrebrød. — Favorite kitchen tool My KitchenAid mixer, since I’m a baker. Second favorite is my set of Microplane graters and zesters, since I gravitate to recipes that include grated citrus rind. — Always in your pantry Umpteen containers of specialty mustards and condiments—like harissa paste or Japanese ginger or Hungarian paprika—as well as homemade jams, relishes and condiments. Jars and packets of spices, some of which I’ve brought back from trips (ras el hanout, baharat pepper blend, and spices for Dutch pea soup). I always have a variety of sugars used in baking. Plus, I always have white and red onions, garlic, and lemons, lemons, lemons (I have a thing for lemons!). — Go-to snack String cheese, peanut butter, and grapes. — Favorite cuisine French (including Provençal French) and all Mediterranean (especially Italian and Greek), Eastern Mediterranean (including Israeli and Palestinian, a recent interest), and Moroccan (a longtime interest). I also like Belgian recipes that include some of their fantastic beers. — Do you diet? I diet from time to time, but I’m more typically on a maintenance diet with primarily fish/chicken/eggs, plus lots of green veggies. — Food addictions Soft tacos, especially fish or carnitas. — Food allergies I’m allergic to scallops. — Food fad pet peeve I’m tired of viewing kale as the answer to world peace or some such. I mean, it’s good, but it’s not the Ultimate Food Item. Enough, already! — Who’s your sous chef? I do not have a sous chef, unfortunately; I guess I’m my own. — Drinking while cooking? I tend to drink only on social occasions, like when I’m hosting a dinner party. When guests are here, I’ll have a small amount to drink while finishing up the meal—but not too much, as I get distracted. I’ll definitely partake once the dinner’s underway, though! — What’s for dinner tonight? Dinner tonight will probably be a pan-fried or baked fish fillet with two kinds of veggies. — Do you ever cry over spilled milk? No crying. I most typically will be trying a new recipe out when I have friends for dinner. I note on the recipe what I thought of it and whether it warrants a return visit. — Best meal you ever had Either a roast lamb with haricots verts in a rustic hotel in Provence in the 1970s, or else the first time I had bastilla, at the old Dar Maghreb restaurant in Hollywood, probably early 1980s.

California Roll Salad

Refreshingly flavorful with sweet, sour and spicy notes, this hearty, deconstructed salad is based on the popular sushi roll. Steamed rice splashed with vinegar plays a starring role along with imitation crab, fresh veggies, toasted sesame seeds, and nori.

Because it easily feeds a crowd and travels well, Christy likes to bring it to her Hollywood Bowl picnics. The dressing is up to you; she usually skips it, because the “salad is fine without it.” 


  1. Serves 4–6
  2. 1½ cups long-grain rice
  3. ¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, divided
  4. ¼ cup sugar
  5. 1½ teaspoons salt
  6. 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
  7. 2 sheets nori
  8. 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  9. 2 tablespoons pickled pink ginger, julienned
  10. 4 scallions, cut lengthwise into 1-inch strips
  11. ½ cup carrot, peeled, finely grated
  12. 1 English cucumber, quartered lengthwise, cut into 1-inch pieces
  13. 1 avocado, peeled, pitted, cut into ½-inch cubes
  14. ½ pound surimi (mock crabmeat), cut into ½-inch slices
  15. Dressing
  16. 2 teaspoons wasabi powder
  17. 1 tablespoon hot water
  18. 2 tablespoons cold water
  19. 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  20. 2 teaspoons ginger juice, squeezed from freshly grated ginger root


Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the rice and cook for 10 minutes. Drain the rice in a colander and rinse. In a pot that fits the colander, add water to about 5 inches high, and bring to a boil over high heat. Set the colander over the water (make sure the bottom of the colander is not touching the water), lower the heat to medium-low, cover with a kitchen towel and a lid, and steam until fluffy, about 10–12 minutes.


While the rice is steaming, combine ¼ cup vinegar, sugar and salt in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and set aside.


Transfer the rice to a large bowl, and pour in the vinegar mixture. Combine and let cool completely on the kitchen counter.


In a skillet, dry-toast the sesame seeds over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Set aside.


In the same skillet, dry-toast the nori over medium heat, until it turns bright green, about 45–60 seconds per side. Using scissors, cut the nori into thin, 2-inch strips.


Add the sesame seeds, nori, 3 tablespoons vinegar, oil, ginger, scallions, carrot, cucumber, avocado and surimi to the rice, and toss to combine.


In a small bowl, mix the wasabi powder with the hot water. Stir in the cold water, soy sauce and ginger juice.


Serve the salad cold or at room temperature, drizzled with the dressing.


4 reader comments on Profile: Retiree Christy Cowell & California Roll Salad.

Bryan Mershon said:

As a beneficiary of dinners in Christy’s box at the Hollywood Bowl, dinners in her home, and her Christmas tea (yes, I AM the rooster!) and gifts of her jams and preserves, I can testify to Christy’s amazing culinary/baking/preserving abilities.  In addition to her skills in assembling the menu and executing the dishes, there are all the extra little touches she brings to entertaining: the carefully chosen candles, flowers, linens, dishes and flatware to complement the theme, excellent wines to pair with the courses , and other table decorations or accessories from her extensive travels.  But most of all I treasure her friendship.  A major point of getting together and breaking (exquisite) bread is about enjoying each other’s company!

July 24 at 11:15 pm

Bill Lewis said:

As an honored guest at Christy’s table—countless times over the past 40 plus years—I cannot recall a single culinary misfire.  Move over, Julia!

July 7 at 4:31 pm

Linda Dacon said:

I have known Christy for about 30 years and had the ineffable pleasure of her company and her amazing cooking throughout that time.  She’s a wonderful cook and a boon companion.  Her Hollywood Bowl dinners have all the folks in nearby boxes drooling with envy - and Christy is happy to share some of her more irresistible dishes if they ask nicely.

For many years, we were included in her gracious and elegant Christmas dinners - evenings which I will always remember with great fondness and not a small amount of drooling myself. 

And I have her recipe for Perfumed Olives.

Lucky me!

July 4 at 2:51 pm

Julie Marenco said:

I’ve been enjoying the fruits of Christy’s labors for years. We can vouch for the industrial strength brownies. She is indeed a very good cook and a remarkable person.

July 4 at 11:22 am

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