Archive for the ‘Cooking’ Category

Za’atar – The All Purpose Middle Eastern Spice Mix

Friday, May 18th, 2012

I’m preparing a talk for this weekend on Jewish Gardening at Spavuot, a Jewish health and wellness retreat at the Shalom Institute in Malibu.

Few people realize that Judaism is firmly rooted in agriculture.  Many Jewish holidays have agricultural roots:  Passover at  planting, Sukkot at harvest, Tu b’shvat marks bud break in spring, and so on.  Plants and trees, fruits and nuts are woven throughout the Torah, both literally and figuratively.

Oreganum syraca, Za'atar Oregano, a key ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice mix of the same name

Many Jewish traditions incorporate planting and respect for nature, particularly for fruit trees.  Pomegranate, fig, grape, etc. translate directly  from ancient agriculture to modern gardening practices, many of which I will cover on Sunday, as I talk about how to grow these same fruits and vegetables in home gardens.

I always like to send people home from my talks with something in-hand to inspire their gardening spirits.  At the end of this talk, everyone will go home with a Za’atar plant.  Za’atar is a special variety of oregano (some people refer to it as a marjoram) used in the all-purpose Middle Eastern spice mix of the same name.  Za’atar mixture is typically sprinkled onto olive oil-slathered pita, roasted chicken, fresh vegetables, hummus, and many other foods.

Za’atar mixes sold at specialty markets are made from dried herbs, but it can be made from fresh herbs, too.  In fact, its even more flavorful with fresh herbs.

Fresh or dried, Za’atar is simple to make.

Za’atar from dried herbs

2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons thyme
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons marjoram
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup sumac

Store-bought Za'atar spice mix

Grind  sesame seeds in food processor or with mortar and pestle. Combine with the rest of the herbs.

Dried Za’atar will keep in an airtight container for several months.

Za’atar from fresh herbs is far more potent so the proportions need some adjusting, based on your taste preferences.  Store the fresh mixture in the refrigerator. Its best to mix small batches as it keeps only a week or two.


There’s still time to sign up for Spavuot which is being held Sunday, May 20th, at The Shalom Institute in Malibu. Click here to register

Spavuot is a project of The Big Jewish Tent, an organization headed by my childhood friend Craig Taubman and co sponsored by the Shalom Institute.

The Year’s First Seed Starting Workshop is a Big Success

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

it was cold and rainy, but that didn’t’ stop anyone from showing up for the year’s first seed starting workshop one evening last week at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant in Old Town San Diego.

We all knew that spring is just around the corner and with it, spring and summer vegetable gardens.

Nan Sterman with host and Cosmopolitan Hotel proprietress, Catherine Miller

I panicked a bit when the rain began, but Cosmo proprietress Catherine Miller knew just what to do.  Rather than have us work on the patio under the stars, Catherine had her fabulous staff set up tables, chairs, and lights on a covered walkway alongside one of the Cosmo’s historic dining rooms.

The group was small and very enthusiastic.  Several people were new to seed starting, others had tried seeds but with mixed results. All were eager to learn.

I began with a discussion about how seeds work, how to know which seeds to start at what time of year, and how to read a seed package.  We compared seed packets from Renee’s

Garden, Nichols Garden Seed, and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, three of my favorite seed companies.

We planted more than a dozen types of seeds

The best containers are those that support each plant from seed to transplant size









I introduced the group to my favorite seed starting strategy, one honed by years of trial and error growing my own vegetables  and testing seeds for Organic Gardening Magazine.

My best success, I explained, comes from using containers that can support each seedling from sprout to transplant size without having to separate and repot tiny seedlings.

Then, we got busy.  I had set up big trays of seed starting mix, containers for starting seeds, and a huge array of seeds to plant.  Each person planted four or five types of tomatoes, several types of pepper, two eggplants, basil, squashes, cucumbers, pumpkin, watermelon, cilantro, chard and more.

Containers are filled with seed starting mix

Gettin' down and dirty










Part way through the evening, Cosmo’s Executive Chef Andrew Sasloe decided we needed some nourishment.  He had prepared small bites using the same kinds of vegetables we were planting.

We swooned over eggplant carbonara on crusty bread, an eggplant, squash, and tomato lasagna, and a tomatoey bruschetta,.  For dessert, there were steamed lemon custards.  These dishes that aren’t usually on the menu but they certainly should be – they were absolutely delicious.  I’m drooling at the memory.

As we got back to work I listened to the excited chatter.  No one was in a hurry, they were simply enjoying the process and taking their time.

By the end of the night, everyone had a smile on their face and big tray of pots seeded and ready to sprout.


Done! Seeds started and ready to go

One of the participants left me a voice mail message the next day.  “It was amazing and wonderful,” she said, “lots and lots of wonderful information.”  That’s music to my ears!

I’m holding six more workshops just like this one between now and the end of March.   Workshops are scheduled all over the county, including a daytime workshop at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on March 18th.

You can find a list of dates and locations  on my homepage,  Space is limited to only 15 or 20 people per workshop.  If you are thinking of signing up, I suggest doing it soon.

Happy seed starting!

Blades of Glory: Whether catching morning dew or in your morning brew, lemon grass has it covered

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

It’s summertime and the living is easy, as long as I have a tall glass of lemon grass and mint iced tea to cut the heat. Fortunately, I grow both mint and lemon grass, so I can make ice tea whenever I want — and you can, too.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) gets its fresh, lemony scent from citral oil, the same oil that is found in lemon verbena, lemon balm and, of course, lemons! Thai and Vietnamese cooks harvest sheaths of lemon grass, chop up the tender bases and add them to soups, salads and curries. Lemon grass citral oil is even used in cosmetics like soaps, creams and deodorants.

This evergreen perennial grass comes from India and Ceylon. In our gardens, lemon grass makes a 4- to 6-foot mound of inch-wide, bright green leaves that sometimes take on a purple tinge in the cooler days of winter.

Lemon grass is beautiful and adaptable to almost any garden style: tropical, Asian, Mediterranean or modern. Plants prefer full sun or bright shade, and soil that drains reasonably well. Along the coast, lemon grass is fairly low-water. Inland, though, more water keeps plants looking their best.

Site lemon grass plants with enough room to reach their natural height and width. Fertilize only sparingly if at all, to keep growth under control. These are two key strategies of low-maintenance gardening.

Over time, older leaves turn brown. Simply comb them out by hand (wear gloves; the leaf edges are sharp). If the mound starts to separate in the center, simply dig it up and divide the plant into three or four sections, then replant each one (or give some away).

If you don’t have enough room in the ground, lemon grass does very well in a large container. You might even add some colorful variegated coleus and red- or orange-flowering canna for color. Water regularly through summer.

To harvest lemon grass, find the base of the mound, where you’ll see leaves arranged in bundles. Cut a bundle just below the rounded bottom edge and just above the roots. That tender, fleshy, ivory-colored, rounded base is the part used for cooling. Whatever you don’t cook with, simply steep in boiled water, along with fresh mint leaves, to make aromatic lemonade.

East Indian lemon grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) also contains the citrusy citral oil but tends to be used in the perfume industry rather than for cooking. Mosquito repelling citronella oil comes from lemon grass cousins, Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus.

Making Olives, Attempt #2

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Last year at this time, I bought olives with the idea that I would salt cure them, much like I saw in France a few years ago.  My French friends salted black olives, put them in perforated plastic bags, then hung them from tree branches.  As the salt drew the bitter compounds from the olives, it formed a liquid that dripped into a bucket below the bag.

The olives were delicious.

I’ve looked for black olives in San Diego, but all I seem to find are green olives sold by the Temecula Olive Oil Company.   I tried my hand at replicating the French process using Temecula’s green olives last year.  I suspect I took too many shortcuts, however, as the olives rotted.

With olives ripe again now, its time to try again.  So, here goes….

First, I rinsed the olives

I slit the olives to help the salt reach the inner flesh

I combined a cup of kosher salt and two pounds of olives in each perforated bag

Olive bags hang from the drying rack in my laundry room

Happy Father’s Day!

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads and honorary dad’s out there!

I’m playing sous chef and head dishwasher for my daughter Tamar, as she prepares a meal for her dad from Cooking With the Seasons, Rancho La Puerta.  This is one of the wonderful cookbooks from Rancho La Puerta, the fabulous fitness spa in Tecate, just south of San Diego.

Cooking With the Seasons, one of the wonderful cookbooks from Rancho La Puerta

Cooking With the Seasons, one of the wonderful cookbooks from Rancho La Puerta

Tonight’s menu includes aguas frescas made with lime juice and cilantro, Mexican coleslaw with red and green cabbage, lasagna Azteca with spinach and ancho chile salsa, and creamy dark chocolate flan with fresh berries.

I know my husband will be thrilled…not just by the food, but also by the fact that our daughter created this feast in his honor.

Tamar peels chilis for salsa

Tamar peels chilis for salsa

Gotta dash  – she needs oregano from my herb garden!

Later that night….

Dinner is served!

Dinner is served!

Happy Father’s Day one and all!

Festival of Flavors!

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

What’s the surest way to get the most flavor from vegetables and fruits?  Grow em yourself…..from seed!

Starting vegetables from seed was the topic of the talk I gave at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden’s Festival of Flavors this past Friday. The topic seemed fitting since the huge variety of vegetables seeds on the market offers gardeners their widest range of possiblities!

It always seems so magical to me to start with little pieces of what look like wood; Add with some water, light, and a bit of seed starting mix to make those seeds  sprout and grow into bountiful plants that produce delicious vegetables.

Homegrown veggies always put supermarket veggies to shame.

By 3 pm Friday, the seats in the speakers’ area were full and everyone had a package of gourmet red chard ‘Scarlett Charlotte’ seeds I brought with from my good friend Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden Seed.

My dear friend and mentor Jan Smithen, author of Sun Drenched Gardens, introduced me to the audience and away we went.

I love the fact that people are interested again in growing their own vegetables, herbs, and fruits. It only follows that they are interested in starting them from seed. It is a skill that was once commonplace, then nearly lost, but is now coming back around again. Much to my delight!

We started with a lesson on reading seed packets.scarlet-charlotte-2


Its ironic how important label information is and how little effort most companies put into their labels. Some companies do a great job and Renee writes some of the best. She deftly combines romance and detailed how-to with delicious suggestions for cooking and eating each variety.

Being a frugal gardener (is there any other kind?), I presented several examples of containers for starting seeds – old cottage cheese or yogurt containers, take-out food containers, or plain ‘ole four packs recycled from the nursery.

I prefer four packs to six packs, since the cells in a four pack are large enough to support seedlings all the way to transplant. With six-packs, seedlings can get only so large before they need to be “moved up” to larger containers. Saving that step saves my time, and it also means seedlings develop faster since they don’t have to go through transplant shock twice (once being moved up and the second time when I put them in the ground).

And by the way, someone asked me about using egg cartons. The simple response is: “don’t bother.”

Anything being reused has to be disinfected first, of course, to keep the tiny seedlings free of deadly bacteria and fungi. I give containers a good soak in a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach to 9 parts water). While I’m at it, I throw in plastic plant labels so I can reuse them, and I give my pruners a dip too (I dry and oil them afterwards).

Fresh seed starting mix is important as well. As compared to potting soil, Seed staring mix is more finely milled so the tiny seedlings have an easy time pushing up through the surface. It is also pasteurized to kill the pathogens. Black Gold seedling mix is one of my favorites. I had the purple-and-black label bags with me on Friday.

We spent half an hour going through the how-to process of how to start seeds, both small and large, in containers and as what I like to call “seed sandwiches” (more on that in a future blog).

When we ran out of time to talk about how to do cuttings, the audience insisted on continuing. So, I spent another 15 minutes demonstrating cutting basics a beautiful pink-flowering perennial Salvia chiapensis from Monrovia growers.

The audience was wonderful. They were tremendously enthusiastic asked great questions – always the most fun part of any talk.

During the hour-long presentation, I divulged some of my favorite hints for success …Think I’m gonna give them all away here? No way! But I’m happy to share those secrets when you invite me to speak to your group or event!

Stroll With Me Through Stone Brewing World Bistro Gardens

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Yesterday, I visited Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in anticipation of the program I am doing there next Sunday, March 15.  For the Ides of March, I am leading a stroll through the brewery’s wonderful gardens.

I remember the first time I visited Stone.  It was September of 2005 when CEO Greg Koch toured me through the not-yet-open brewery. 


 I was totally taken by the amazing facility.  A plane Jane tilt-up building was being transformed transformed into a beautiful, striking structure, adorned with local rocks, boulders from on-site, worn brick from a historic building in downtown San Diego, and slabs of granite leftover from a quarry not far away that makes tombstones.   Countering the gray and black, and white textures were vast surfaces of coppery rusted steel.  But that would not be finished for a while.  Click here for a photo log of brewery and garden construction

Inside the brewing facility were two story tall stainless steel silos –

Stainless steel silos await their fate brewing Stone beers


or so they looked to me – where the brewmasters soon would be doing their magic.

An enormous glass wall stood between the brewery and the soon to be bistro.

The bistro itself was a vast space with soaring ceilings, bamboo planted water features, a long bar (of course), and a huge, outward slanting wall of glass with roll up glass doors that when open, erased the line between inside and outside.

At that point, however, I had to wonder why anyone would want to go outside.  Greg pointed past the construction zone he called a dining patio to a HUGE hole in the ground.  It looked like the entry of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The hole, Greg explained, was the detention basin for the entire commercial development around Stone Brewing.  If or when, there would be a 100 year flood, all the water in the surrounding properties would rush into the big hole where it would enter an enormous culvert and diverted to who knows where. 

What I saw as a hole, however, Greg saw as a garden.  He talked about making it the brewery’s backyard by filling it with fruit trees and natives. He envisioned boulders and seating areas in a garden where patrons would learn where their food came from.

Who was doing the design, I asked.  Well, Greg said, he’d talked to some landscape architects and some other folks, but he was thinking he’d just do it himself.

Honestly, I thought he was nuts.  But then again, I it was the first time I’d met Greg Koch.

Today, the hole in the ground is indeed a lovely garden filled with fruit

 trees, natives, bamboo, and other plants that together, create the brewery’s backyard.  There are lawns surrounded by groves of fruit

 trees, natives, and bamboo.  A stream running through the center is filled with cattails and other aquatic plants.  It flows into what looks like the most wonderful swimming hole, thanks to strategically placed boulders and cascading waterfalls.  Of course, it isn’t a swimming hole.  It is the big hole that I once imagined leading to the inner world.

This coming Sunday, I have the honor of leading folks on a stroll

 through the garden, pointing out its

amazing and fantastic features.  The fruit trees are coming into bloom, the natives are thriving, the pine forest (not native but pretty darned impressive) of formerly distressed trees, the fantastic agave hill, and


It is a lesson in success that comes from not listening to the experts (though there are some features of the garden that I know Greg will eventually live to regret, like planting running bamboo without a root barrier), a lesson in sustainability, and a lesson in following one’s heart.

Come join me in Stone’s garden at 1 pm on March 15.  Come early and eat lunch, have a beer (but not too many), and then mosey on over to the patio bar where we will be gathering.

La Cocina Que Cantar

Sunday, January 18th, 2009


Weather Report:  Last night’s low 35.7 F.  Today’s high: 81.5 F.  Precipitation: 0. 


I spent most of this morning pruning fruit trees -an activity that I both love and hate.  More about that another day since it was the afternoon that was the highlight of my day.

I attended a talk by Deborah Szekely, founder of Rancho La Puerta and the Golden Door, the spas that spawned no pun intended) the health and fitness spa industry.  Rancho La Puerta (“the Ranch” to those who’ve been there”) came first, founded in Tecate, Mexico, in 1940 when Deborah was barely 18 years old. 2009 marks her 69th year in the business!

I’ve had the honor of interviewing Deborah for several articles over the years.   She is one of the most fascinating and inspiring people I’ve ever met.  At 86 years young, her energy and creativity are the envy of people half her age, myself included (though I am a bit more than half her age).

Today’s talk was to promote the Ranch’s new cookbook, Cooking With the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta – Recipes from the World Famous Spa, a collaboration between Szekely and chef Deborah Schneider.

Cooking With the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta - Recipes from the World Famous Spa

Cooking With the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta - Recipes from the World Famous Spa

The two Deborahs spoke at the Bookworks, a wonderful, independent bookstore in Flower Hill Mall in Del Mar, California.   For an hour, Deborah Szekely addressed a packed house on healthy eating, personal determination, being true to one’s self, and taking power over one’s life, among other topics. 

The audience laughed as the diminutive Szekely (“I’m five feet tall but I used to be five one and a half”) spoke about the evils of dieting (“The word ‘diet’ has the word ‘die’ in it”)  and how much more sense it makes to eat in moderation.  

So, for example, when Szekely dines out, she asks for at take-home container at the time her food arrives.  That way, she is done eating when she is full, rather than becoming so engrossed in conversation that she loses track and finishes everything on her plate.   That’s a great idea for us small people (On a tall day, I measure 5’ 3”) and one I’ll try next time I dine out.

Clouds hang low over Tres Estrellas organic farm on a late winter morning

Clouds hang low over Tres Estrellas organic farm on a late winter morning

Deborah Schneider spoke about Saturday cooking classes offered as one-day visits to La Cocina Que Canta (the Singing Kitchen), the Ranch’s cooking school located on the grounds of Tres Estrellas, the organic farm that supplies Ranch guests with fresh herbs, vegetables, fruits, and flowers. 


Gardeners care for organic vegetables destined for Rancho La Puerta's kitchens

Gardeners care for organic vegetables destined for Rancho La Puerta




Red and golden beets grown at Tres Estrellas

Red and golden beets grown at Tres Estrellas

Having spent time at the Ranch, I know how fabulous the cuisine is.  So, of course I bought the book.  Actually, I bought three, one for me, one for my mother, and one for my youngest sister, and had them signed. 


The books for my mother and sister are a surprise, so don’t tell them, please!