Noche de Altares (Night of the Altars)

Santa Ana has a very rich Hispanic culture. Every November, a good portion of the downtown streets are shut down and families set up large altars to deceased family members for Day of the Dead. Day of the Dead is an important day in the Hispanic community. It is believed that the souls of the departed return during those nights to visit family and friends and enjoy the offerings at the altar. Offerings of marigolds, bread, textiles, traditional dishes, and candles are placed on the altars. Elaborately decorated frames surround pictures of loved family members and friends. People walk the streets to see the glowing altars, several dressed in day of the dead fare with sugar skull face paint and long lace dresses and elaborately decorated hats. It’s truly unique. For such a somber day, it’s very celebratory.

How to be Neighborly: Remember those who made a difference in the community.


Reprint from OC Register, 2007

This was our first night of the altars, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty, the sense of community, and the pride each family took in constructing their altar. As Alex and I were walking through the altars, we saw a small altar set up in the corner of a restaurant our former teacher, mentor and friend had frequented. Mr. Ward…

Mr. Ward was the band director of our volunteer marching band, The Santa Ana Winds. It was the band where I met Alex. It was the group that tied me to Santa Ana, where I spent every Monday night windspracticing for 15 years. He believed in me and my creativity. He gave me the chance to be a leader. He even introduced me to this neighborhood. I was a docent at his home for the annual home tour in this very same neighborhood I would move to 20 years later. I can see his balcony from my living room window. This was the restaurant where I shared my first martini with him. And there he was on the altar, next to the owners’ other family and friends. Next to his photo was a martini.  His Martini.

I wasn’t expecting to see him, but I was so glad to see him remembered. He was there that night. I saluted him and thanked him for everything. You are missed, Mr. Ward.

Mr. Ward’s Martini

  • 3 oz Bombay White Gin
  • Splash dry Vermouth
  • Spanish Olives

Put gin in a cocktail shaker with ice.  Add a splash of vermouth.  Shake vigorously until ice cold.  Pour into martini glass. Top with olives.  SAWinds2000

Toast to a teacher that did something special for you.


Meet the Maker


Alex and I volunteered to be our membership directors for our neighborhood association. That means that we prepare welcome bags for new neighbors moving into the neighborhood, and we put on three mixers a year for neighbors to get together and meet each other. The neighborhood association hosts the bar, and the neighbors bring the food- potluck style. We get some truly delicious food at these events.

Another director, Sandy, had some extra wine from another event and she offered that we could use the wine at our next mixer, I just had to coordinate with her husband, Ed, to pick it up. So, off Alex and I went to pick up the wine. Sandy and Ed live in an amazing French Chateaux like home. You enter through a manicured garden, pass a hidden courtyard, and then enter through beautiful wooden and glass doors. The entire back wall of their home literally unfolds and overlooks a peaceful pool and garden. Each bedroom has a theme based on their travels… the London room, Asian room, etc. It is the perfect home for entertaining. This is what my home wants to be when it grows up.

We were greeted by Ed who said he had the wine ready for us. But… if we had some time, would we like to meet one of our neighbors, a wine maker? Who could say no to that? So we joined Ed and Charles at the dining room table, surrounded by maps of wine regions of the world, and Charles told us the story of how he began to make his wine. They were tasting a Napa Chardonnay, bright with hints of vanilla. It was delicious. It was so surprising to learn that we had not one, but two, wine makers in our neighborhood (that we know about). Charles then brought a couple more bottles to the next mixer for everyone to try. A mini wine tasting in our own backyard. What a treat!

How to be Neighborly: The best wines are the ones we drink with friends.


Image from


Cheddar and Apple Tart

IMG_1381 (2)I made this for the mixer/impromptu wine tasting with some apples our neighbors Bev & Erwin had left for us on our front porch. Think of it like a sweet and savory pizza.  Yummy!

  • 1 sheet Puff Pastry, thawed
  • 1 onion, sliced thin
  • 1 Tbsp Olive Oil
  • 1 apple, sliced thin (if apples are small you may need 2 or more)
  • 1 tsp Garlic Powder
  • 1/4 tsp Cinnamon
  • Sharp Cheddar Cheese, grated
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Cook onions in olive oil in a sauté pan until golden and translucent, about 5 minutes. If you add a pinch of sugar then they will brown better and be a little sweeter. Roll out the puff pastry to make it about ¼ larger, and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment or silpat. Spread caramelized onions on the pastry sheet, then sliced apples in neat rows on top of the onions. Sprinkle with garlic powder, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Sprinkle apples with cheddar cheese so that you can still see the apples, but you get good coverage with the cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15-20 minutes until puff pastry is golden brown and cheese is bubbling. Using a pizza cutter, cut into little squares.

Spreading the love… of curd 

This year, Alex and I stayed home on Valentine’s day.  No neighborhood parties, no dinner reservations, just the two of us, well, three with our dog Wiley.  A neighbor had told us about this great Persian supermarket with amazing fruits, veggies and meats.  We took a field trip to see what it was all about and stock up for V-day dinner.  We got a rack of lamb, Persian flat bread, and colorful tomatoes.

How to be Neighborly: Let your neighbors in on the secret hole in the wall finds!

Now I was off to menu planning.  My mom had given me some blood orange curd, so I needed to find some way to use that for dessert. So this was what I whipped up for dinner: Continue reading

Brazilian Hospitality

IMG_1586We are fortunate to have a couple chefs in our neighborhood. When we became Membership Directors of the neighborhood association and were responsible for creating a welcome basket for new neighbors, I wanted to create a basket of locally produced treats. I reached out to one such chef, the Brazilian wonder Chef Mila, to see if she might contribute her “Chocolate Sauce for Adults.” Kinky? No. Delicious? Yes. It’s a rich Kahlua chocolate sauce that is good on everything. She sells it in high end boutiques, and at our neighborhood events. She graciously agreed to supply the sauce, and a friendship was forged.


One night, Mila and her wine aficionado husband Richard invited us over for a dinner party with two other couples. Mila and Richard live in one of my favorite homes in the neighborhood. It’s actually the home I had always wanted, from the moment I became aware of Floral Park. Fortunately for them, they beat me to it. It is a 1920’s craftsman masterpiece that was totally restored by the couple that lived in the home before Mila and Richard. It is a 2 bedroom home with lots of built in wood cabinetry. The kitchen has generous storage and the most adorable O’Keefe & Merritt stove. Upstairs, there’s an artist’s loft with square windows on all sides that make you feel like you are in a treehouse or an old fire lookout. It’s perfect for Mila, because she is a gifted painter. Out front, Mila has created a California native garden and in back is a perfect kitchen garden with herbs, peppers, tomatoes and more. The chimney is the most striking feature of the home, with stacked limestone rising high above the second story. Perfection.

The eight of us sat down to a dinner of small plates Mila had worked on all day long. It was a typical Brazilian experience where food, wine and stories are shared over multiple courses. I can’t even remember how many dishes we had… it just kept appearing from the kitchen. Bruschetta, quiche, short ribs, and of course her famous chocolate sauce for dessert. Richard paired the chocolate with a vintage port from 1992 that was divine. He generously gave us a bottle from his collection to take home. As good as everything was (and everything was amazing), there is one item that was so simple but so divine that I HAD to have the recipe. Thankfully, she shared it and has allowed me to share it with you.

How to be Neighborly: Share your stories and recipes.

Beware- once you try this, you will NEVER look at tomatoes the same way. I always double or triple the recipe because I go through these so fast (*). Obrigado, Mila and Richard for a wonderful evening.

Chef Mila’s Oven Roasted Tomatoes

  • 4 lbs ripe roma tomatoes
  • 10 whole garlic cloves
  • 1 c olive oil
  • 5 sprigs rosemary, per pound
  • 1 tbsp crushed red pepper
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 300 degrees for 10 minutes. Cut roma tomatoes into halves and remove all the seeds (!). Place tomatoes face up on a baking sheet. Add salt, pepper, rosemary, garlic and drizzle oil on top of every tomato. Bake tomatoes for about 3 hours until well roasted. If you have the time, bake at 250 degrees for about 4 to 5 hours.

Reprinted courtesy of Chef Mila Payne, One of a Kind Cookbook

Delicious on sandwiches, in pasta dishes, added to salads, or as appetizers on sliced baguettes. Keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks (*). I like to serve these on toasted bread with goat cheese.

Hint: Go with the LONG COOKING version.  You will be rewarded for you patience.

(*) You can freeze these so you always have a handy appetizer ready to serve.

(!) You can squeeze the tomato halves into a bowl and the majority of the seeds will pop out.

Love. Thy Neighbor.

It was February 2014, Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s day is stereotypically a day when couples head out for an overpriced pre-fix meal and compete with every other couple for the attention of wait staff. But it is tradition, so we carry on… that is, until we were invited to a neighbor’s home for dinner on Valentine’s Day.

This couple started a tradition to host a Valentine’s Day gathering for all their family and friends. Prerequisite: You must be loving, but it is not necessary to be in love. We were honored to receive an invitation… so (without hesitation) we gave up on finding that elusive reservation and headed one block north to their home for Valentine’s day festivities.

The hosts were a charming couple in a charming home. They lived in a butter yellow Tudor home the size of a postage stamp. Small in stature, it has all the amenities you could ever need. They had recently completed the expansion of the front of the house putting in a small office. The room floods with light from surrounding windows, all of them matched to the original 1929 windows, and the built in oak buffet looks like it could have been constructed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The generous sage and white kitchen is complete with a table that appears from the cabinets and a craft beer tap. It is the perfect size for a couple, and it is absolutely bursting with love.

IMG_1584When we arrived, we were greeted with a big hug, and personalized wine glasses affixed with heart studded wine charms with our names on them. In attendance were both singles and couples, all of whom shared a love of wine, cheese, food, old homes, and equality in love. They had set up stations around the living room that paired various wines with various cheeses. White wine and cheese to the right, red wine and cheese to the left. Dessert table in the middle. I don’t know where their furniture went for the night, but much of it was removed to make room for mingling. One piece remained, and it was the long antique pew from an old church. This was the spot where everyone rested for a spell between sips. In the kitchen, the hosts set out two soups, roasted tomato and veggie, with tasting cups to ladle as you saw fit. Next to the soup, they had sliced tender, delicious, bread from our local restaurant Crave to dip into the soups. They had also made an apple crisp topped with bleu cheese and walnuts, which we munched straight out of the oven. Everything was delicious, and truly heartwarming.

How to be Neighborly: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

IMG_1578That night, we sipped, we mixed and mingled, we munched and chatted, and sipped some more with new found friends. That night, I observed how love can be all accepting and all welcoming. I watched how neighbors could truly love each other, and that was far better than any pre-fix menu.

This is my tribute to that night…



Heartwarming Roasted Tomato Soup

Roasted Tomatoes:

  • 3 large tomatoes, halved and seeds removed
  • 1 sprig rosemary, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbsp olive oil


  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ¼ onion, chopped
  • 1 yellow pepper, seeds and ribs removed, chopped
  • ½ tsp smoked paprika
  • ¼ tsp cumin
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • 2 c chicken broth (or veggie broth for the vegetarian)

In a bowl, combine tomatoes, rosemary, garlic, and 2 tbsp olive oil. Coat the tomatoes, and place on a roasting pan cut side down. Roast at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

To make the soup, put 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan, and add onions, pepper, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. Sauté onions until lightly translucent. Add broth, and allow to heat up.

In a blender, combine the broth mixture and tomatoes, and blend until smooth. Makes about 3 cups.

Can make ahead and reheat.  Enjoy with someone you love.

The Crust Off

Our friends with the pizza oven invented a new reason to fire it up last night: A Crust Off. Add competition to anything and I’m there. I never said I wasn’t competitive. The goal was to identify the perfect crust for future, larger, pizza parties.IMG_1915

The plan was in the works for a week. On Wednesday, we received specific instructions via email. Arrive early, 6:18 pm to be precise, recipe in hand, ready to set up the pizza station. Toppings would be provided, but we were instructed that if our crust would be “shown in a better light by your own toppings, please go for it.” The competition would begin at 7:00 pm. This was serious business.

I’d been travelling in Chicago all week and arrived home on Thursday at 9:45 pm. Friday I was in the OC, and was running around town visiting my clients. I left work early, 4:12 pm to be exact, stopped at the store for flour and yeast at 4:23 pm, and sped home to assemble and get my dough rising by 5:15 pm. My dough needs 1 hour to rise, so you can see the time line is important. It’s a 3 minute walk to the pizza oven. Nailed it.  I’m very punctual.

Three neighbors volunteered their creation for judgment: me, Ashley, and Kim. Although the host had also made some dough, he felt the home field advantage was too unfair to enter the competition himself, although we all enjoyed his offering. The judges were chosen: Jess, Jeff, Eric, and Rich. The competitors agreed that each dough should have the same toppings for fair judgment to occur. The dough’s were numbered, and randomly presented to the judges.

The first crust was very crispy, with strong wheat flavor… it felt healthy. The second crust was crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, slightly sweet. The final crust was also crisp, and very yeasty. All were good, and surprisingly different given they all contained the same thing: flour, salt, water, and yeast.

It was time for judgment. It was unanimous. The second crust was the winner. Whose was it? It doesn’t matter, they were all great. In the words of our host:

“We are all winners. Eat well”

That’s how to be neighborly, my friends, and yes we ate very well. The winning recipe is below. Ciao.

Pizza Dough

  • 2 c lukewarm water
  • ¼ c olive oil, plus more for rising
  • 3 tsp honey
  • 2 packages rapid rise yeast
  • 6 c flour, plus more for dusting
  • 3 tsp kosher salt

Place water, olive oil, honey and yeast in stand mixer with dough hook and allow the yeast to bloom (about 3-5 minutes). Add flour and salt and mix on low until it comes together and pulls away from the sides. It should be one big ball attached to the hook.

Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 2-3 minutes until a smooth ball is formed. Put more olive oil (about 2 Tbsp) in the stand mixer bowl to coat the sides and bottom. Roll the dough in the olive oil and cover with a clean kitchen cloth. Allow the dough to rise for about 1 hour until doubled in size.

When ready to use, knead lightly for about 1 minute, then stretch onto pizza pan. Makes 4 pizzas.

Can divide into 4 balls and save for 3 days, or freeze.

Moving In

The Creative Community

The dust barely had a chance to settle on my half unpacked boxes when I noticed a bunch of ladies strolling down my street, laughing, pointing (more on this later), and what’s that- are those shopping bags??? My curiosity peeked. I headed to the curb to see where the ladies were going. I noticed the home 4 doors down seemed to be having an open house of some kind, and there was a sign out front. So I moseyed on down just to see what the excitement was all about, and found a sign proclaiming that a holiday craft fair had landed squarely on our street, and just our street. What luck!   Do some holiday shopping AND I get to peek into some of my new neighbors homes? Sign me up!

Five of my crafty neighbors opened their homes and put their artistic and creative talents on display. Jewelry, embellished crosses, purses, etc. and oh yes, Caramel Sauce. I chatted with the home owner/crafters and found that I had entered a creative community. These were not the business people I had expected to be my neighbors. These were creative spirits. These were my people.   Before they even began to tell me about their creative creations for the fair, they first shared the story of their historic home.

How to be Neighborly: Be prepared to share the history of your home. When was it built? What style is it? How many people have lived there? What’s original, what’s not? You must tell this story to everyone who enters your home.

I clearly had some research to do on my own home. I put that on my to do list, which I knew I wouldn’t get to for a while. At least I had the caramel sauce to remind me… this is my version of the craft fair special.  Make, share, enjoy!

Bourbon Salted Caramel Sauce

  • 1 c sugar
  • 3 Tbsp water
  • 1 Tbsp corn syrup
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 c heavy cream
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1.5 Tbsp whiskey (*)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 tsp salt

Combine sugar, water, corn syrup, and vanilla in heavy medium saucepan. Stir ingredients to combine and place on stove top over medium-high heat. DO NOT STIR.   Allow mixture to boil until syrup turns deep amber color, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with wet pastry brush, about 10 minutes (time will vary). Remove from heat. Pour in cream (cream will make the sugar solid and mixture will bubble vigorously). Continue to stir to melt the solid sugar into the cream. Mix in butter, bourbon, cinnamon, and salt. Cool sauce completely. Pour into a mason jar. Makes three 4oz mason jars. Seal and refrigerate. (Can be made 2 weeks ahead.)

Serve with hard salty Cheese (like Noord Hollander Aged Gouda). Yes, I said cheese. Try it. You’ll love it. If not, there’s always ice cream.

(*) I keep Evan Williams Whiskey on hand for all my baking and cooking needs. It has a strong Whiskey flavor, and is relatively inexpensive.