Profile: Retiree Christy Cowell & California Roll Salad
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.”
- Serves 4–6
- 1½ cups long-grain rice
- ¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, divided
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- 2 sheets nori
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons pickled pink ginger, julienned
- 4 scallions, cut lengthwise into 1-inch strips
- ½ cup carrot, peeled, finely grated
- 1 English cucumber, quartered lengthwise, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 avocado, peeled, pitted, cut into ½-inch cubes
- ½ pound surimi (mock crabmeat), cut into ½-inch slices
- 2 teaspoons wasabi powder
- 1 tablespoon hot water
- 2 tablespoons cold water
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 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.
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