Get Potlucky!

Sweet potato pudding cake.

I love potlucks. Who doesn’t, right? Perusing the variety of dishes on hand, determining what to have for my first and second (and sometimes third) course, and invariably overeating are all part of the tradition for me. I enjoy finding out how each dish was prepared – and provided I’m on my game that day – showcasing one of my favorite recipes.

The problem with potlucks is that they sometimes fall victim to conventional expectations. Green salad and mac and cheese are almost de rigueur and, while there’s nothing wrong with these dishes, they don’t necessarily take advantage of the best the season has to offer. Always eager for a green challenge to foist upon my friends, I decided to host a little “sustainable” potluck. The rules were simple: Dishes should be made with local, in-season ingredients (pantry items like flour, olive oil, etc., excepted). Fortunately for all of us, mid-March affords a greater variety of produce in SoCal than elsewhere in the country, so I knew we’d have plenty to work with. I also requested that the food be brought in reusable containers. Other than taking on dessert and drinks myself, I didn’t assign main dishes, sides, appetizers, etc., figuring that we’d end up with an assortment of good stuff and the categories didn’t much matter.

I ended up with a smallish group of adults and kids, and the following menu: Black bean, corn, avocado and red pepper salad with lime dressing (amazing), purple cabbage and carrot salad with crumbled almonds (yum), fresh bread and cheese with raw pistachio pesto (scrumptious), and my own sweet potato pudding cake made with rum and coconut (a bit of a cheat, but technically a pantry item). We ate, drank, complimented each other’s culinary skills and shared recipes. Grown-ups and tykes alike chowed down and leftovers were scarce – a sure sign of success. And despite the lack of a traditional “main dish” (i.e. meat), everyone left with a full belly.

Following is my recipe for the sweet potato pudding cake. It’s a hybrid of a couple of recipes I found online, adapted to make use of the ingredients I had on hand and to cut down on the sugar. It doesn’t conform to my five-ingredient-or-less philosophy, but I think it’s worth making nonetheless.

Sweet Potato Pudding Cake

3 to 4 medium to large sweet potatoes (about 2 1/2 cups).
4 eggs
1/2 cup coconut milK
1 TBSP corn syrup (light or dark)
1 to 2 TBSP rum (optional)
1 TBSP pure vanilla extract
2 TBSP brown sugar
1/2 cup whole wheat flower
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Dash of salt

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 TBSP brown sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 1 1/2 qt. baking dish.
2. Bake sweet potatoes at 375 degrees until soft (about 45 minutes). Scoop the insides into a bowl and discard the skins.
3. Add all additional ingredients to the bowl and beat thoroughly with a hand mixer.
4.  Pour batter into prepared dish and top with coconut and brown sugar mixture.
5. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until just firm all the way through. This dish can be served warm, at room temp or cold, and as a side, dessert or breakfast.

So there you have my contribution to the sustainable potluck. If we’re lucky, I’ll be able to convince a couple of my guests to post their fab recipes in the comments below…

March 12, 2012 at 5:50 pm 1 comment

My Less-Dirty Dozen

What's in your beauty arsenal?

I was recently reading an article about the amount of personal care products the average American woman uses on a daily basis. The magic number? 12. This sounded ridiculous to me. Surely I don’t use that many, I thought. After all, my daily uniform of leggings and a hoodie, a super-fast blow-dry, and lipstick (until it wears off) qualifies me as your classic low-maintenance gal, right?

Then I decided to take inventory of the bottles, jars and applicators in my bathroom, just to be sure. And what did it add up to? Yep, the diabolical dozen. Here’s the breakdown:

1. Shampoo
2. Conditioner
3. Toothpaste
4. Body wash
5. Body oil
6. Vitamin C serum
7. Facial moisturizer
8. Sunscreen
9. Deodorant
10. Lip balm
11. Lipstick
12. Eyebrow powder (I hate this last step, but I plucked the poor suckers into oblivion years ago)

How can this be? Am I really so predictable, so vain, so average? Well, in a word, yes. But I figure this is my saving grace: I steer clear of most products with questionable (or unpronounceable) ingredients. And I even make some of them myself.

My shampoo and conditioner are store-bought. I tried making my own shampoo and not bothering with conditioner for awhile, but – surprise, surprise – my hair looked terrible. I rotate between brands, but look for stuff that’s organic and has a relatively short ingredient list. I’d like to say I use some virtuous toothpaste like Tom’s of Maine, but the truth is I use whatever brand my husband decides to buy.

I make my own body wash out of vegetable glycerin, Dr. Bronner’s plain castille soap, tea tree oil and purified water. I’d include the recipe here, but I just kind of wing it each time I mix it up. My husband also uses this as a shampoo on his shaved head.

I use pure oils as body moisturizer: coconut in the summer, grapeseed in the cooler months (because the coconut oil solidifies). I also use the grapeseed oil to shave my legs in the shower.

I make my own vitamin C serum and apply it to my face and neck morning and night. I think it’s by far the most effective beauty concoction I’ve ever used. Here’s the recipe.

I usually top that with a relatively heavy moisturizer because I have dry skin. Right now, I’m using a Tilvee antioxidant cream and I really like it…although I just looked it up on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep cosmetics database and see that the Vitamin A Palmitate it contains is considered a cancer risk. Crap. Tilvee’s other products all seem to check out, though.

I once tried making my own sunblock and it didn’t work. The EWG advises against making your own sunscreen (wish I’d known that then) and offers this excellent guide to choosing safe sun protection. My favorite brand is Badger, for both myself and my kids.

I have a couple of sticks of Tom’s of Maine deodorant, neither of which work worth a damn for me. If I know it’s going to be a long day, I’ll be around a lot of people, or I’m going to be exercising a lot, I still use antiperspirant…but I don’t feel good about it. I haven’t done enough digging to find the latest scuttlebutt on what adverse health effects it may or may not cause in the long term, but inhibiting your body from performing one of its natural functions just strikes me as suspect. I’d actually love some recommendations here, so please share if you have any, readers.

I have to admit I have no brand loyalty when it comes to cosmetics, but I know some are better than others. Again, I recommend checking out the EWG’s cosmetics database to find out which products are the least toxic and most ethically sound.

Oh, shoot! I just remembered about my facial and body scrubs. Well…I don’t use them everyday, so I’m going to cut myself some slack here. But please stay tuned for a post about DIY recipes and product recommendations in the all-important exfoliant category.

I do wish that, in keeping with the theme of this blog, I could’ve written up some brilliant story along the lines of “The Only Five Products You’ll Ever Need!” But clearly, that would make me a hypocrite. So much for my low-maintenance myth.

Readers, do you have any morning routine shortcuts or product recommendations (like for deodorant) to share? Please chime in in the comments below.

January 31, 2012 at 5:33 am 3 comments

New Math

Five a day isn't enough, in my opinion, but this is the most official-looking logo I could find.

I’m hardly a weight loss guru (and that’s not what this blog is about), but I did recently have an epiphany of sorts that I’d like to share with anyone who may be battling with the scale and counting calories. First, a little confessional background:

After my first child was born, I was lucky enough to lose the baby weight fairly quickly. And then I kept going, watching the numbers on the scale drop with growing enthusiasm. I got into the habit of weighing myself every day, sometimes more than once to see how an hour of exercise or careful calorie restriction affected my weight. I’ll stop short of saying I had an eating disorder, but I think I was getting uncomfortably close.

I realize now that a large part of what drove this behavior was my need to assert some sort of control in my dramatically changed life. I found something that I could maintain dominion over from one day to the next, and that made me feel really good about myself – not only had I achieved something, but I looked great as well! I was a hot mom…or, at the very least, a cute and trim one (I live in LA, and the bar is pretty high here). Shallow as it was, I found the power to be intoxicating and addictive.

As ridiculously lame as this sounds, maintaining/losing weight became something of a hobby for me. I was constantly doing math in my head (total number of calories consumed, number of hours until my next meal, duration of time spent on daily exercise), planning what to make for dinner, checking menus online before going out to eat to figure out what I was going to order and allot my calories accordingly.

Again, lame.

Fortunately, by the time I had my second child, I was a few years older, wiser and better read (two highly influential books for me were In Defense of Food and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). My focus turned from calories to food quality, and specifically to my daily fruit and vegetable intake.

Needless to say, this is an immensely more gratifying approach to eating. Making sure I eat six to eight servings of unprocessed fruits and veggies a day makes me a more creative cook, and makes dining out more adventurous as well. What’s more, it renders weight maintenance pretty much a non-issue – when I’m eating mostly fresh, nutrient-packed foods, the calorie stuff tends to just work itself out. I can confidently ignore the latest diet trend and abandon the idea of trying a juice cleanse or fast. This isn’t to say I eat healthy all of the time – I treat myself to dessert almost daily, and still eat red meat and fried foods on occasion – but I know what the majority of my diet should be comprised of. And when I start to veer off course, I know exactly how to get back on track.

If you find yourself low on energy and high on weight loss anxiety, my advice is to stop counting calories and start counting fresh fruits and vegetables instead. So simple, so effective…so sane.

January 24, 2012 at 9:04 pm 2 comments

Fortress of Solo-Tude

Our very own Han "Solo"

I wish I could take credit for this brilliant idea, but I was inspired by a sight gag on the TV show “Raising Hope.” As soon as I saw Burt Chance walk through his self-imposed prison of Solo cups to answer the phone, I knew we had to build one at home for our almost-five-year-old son. Naturally, my first thought was of the environmental impact. As readers of this blog know, I try to avoid using disposable party items as much as possible, so we didn’t have a bunch of plastic cups lying around. But I figured that, unlike many kids’ building toys, these are 100 percent recyclable. And as long as our friends didn’t think it was too janky of us, we could always wash them in the dishwasher and use them for our next party. We hit Costco, and 12 bucks later were in the possession of 244 cups, to do with as we pleased. Talk about cheap thrills!

January 24, 2012 at 7:33 pm Leave a comment

An Earth-Friendly Birthday

How re-useable supplies, a homemade menu and a toy swap can make your next party greener

Note: This article was originally published in LA Parent magazine.

The birthday boy and his Lego cake

As my son’s fourth birthday approached, one thing was clear: He had enough toys. I’d tried before to specify “no gifts” on party invitations and knew that many people would disregard this request. But because I feel there’s way too much kids’ “stuff” – not only in my son’s bedroom, but being produced (and disposed of) in general – I wanted to encourage other parents to think about birthdays differently. That’s how I came up with the idea of a toy swap party.

I decided to take the green idea even further by making this birthday celebration zero-waste. Most of us have become accustomed to using disposable plates, flatware, napkins and decorations at parties. But when you consider the number of parties being thrown every year, that adds up to a staggering amount of trash.

The good news is, it really wasn’t that hard. Going zero waste required some extra advance planning and a bit of borrowing, but it was a heck of a lot less expensive. And when it was over, it felt pretty good to not be faced with an overflowing garbage barrel.

The Guest List

A couple of months ahead of time I presented the idea of a toy swap to my almost-4-year-old son, explaining that it would give him the opportunity to get some cool new (to him) stuff, and also to pass on toys that he didn’t play with anymore. He seemed to understand, and agreed to try it for his upcoming birthday party.

My initial ambition was to make this a large-scale event and invite every family we knew so that we could inspire them to do the same thing for their kids’ birthday parties. Fortunately, another green-minded parent I knew convinced me to scale it down a bit, inviting just other boys in order to cut the guest list in half. She pointed out that I would probably make myself crazy trying to make food and do dishes for more than 60 people. I agreed and breathed a sigh of relief.

Invitations were handled via Evite, a green if not especially creative option. After all of the RSVPs had trickled in, I was looking at approximately 30 guests, including both adults and 4-year-olds.

The Supplies

I started gathering non-disposable supplies a couple of weeks ahead of time. From my mother I borrowed the sturdy blue-and-white plastic plates and bowls I fondly remembered from many a backyard barbecue. She also had a set of unused inexpensive stainless steel flatware to supplement my own, as well as a big pile of cloth napkins that she was happy to pass on to me.

We’re constantly running out of clean cups at parties, so I took this opportunity to buy a couple dozen restaurant-style plastic cups (in grown-up and kid sizes) from Surfas restaurant supply store. Finally, I bought a couple of sets of recycled and reusable plastic dessert plates by Preserve. I was all set on food serving supplies.

The Menu

Next I turned my attention to the menu. The party was planned for 11 a.m. on a Sunday, so I’d be serving brunch. To create as little waste as possible in preparing the food, I planned the menu around ingredients that could either be purchased from bulk bins or that came in recyclable packaging. Here’s what I decided on:

  • Make-your-own berry and yoghurt parfaits with homemade granola
  • Cheese and egg soufflé
  • Bagels and cream cheese
  • Homemade chocolate cake
  • Orange juice and coffee

Berries came from the farmers market. Oatmeal, nuts and coconut for the granola were purchased from bulk bins using reusable bags. Cheese, milk and eggs for the soufflé were purchased in bulk from Costco. Bagels came in a big paper bag from a local bakery, and the cake would be made with ingredients already in my pantry. The yogurt and cream cheese tubs, berry containers, and egg, milk and OJ cartons could be recycled. All of this was also much cheaper than buying prepared food. So far, so good.

The Entertainment

Because this party would feature no balloons and no party favors, I wanted to do a little something extra to make it special. West is a fan of “Mr. David,” a kids’ rock and roll strummer we’ve seen perform at a local farmers market over the last couple of years. Mr. David offered me a great rate to come and sing at the party, and considering all the money I was saving on party supplies and food, I decided it was worth the splurge. Entertainment: Check.

The Swap

I knew that keeping a toy exchange among a group of 4-year-old boys orderly and civilized could be a challenge, so I decided to handle the donated toys like party favors. Upon arrival, I took each child’s toy and put it aside in a room downstairs. My plan was that each kid would go down with his parent and choose one toy right before he went home. That way, only one kid would go down at a time and we could avoid disputes. It didn’t quite work out that way.

While I had expected the party to mostly take place up on our main floor and in the backyard, many of the kids ended up in the downstairs room, and the “swap” items ended up getting mixed in with my son’s other toys. This meant I had to help sort things out as each child left to make sure none of my son’s still-beloved belongings were taken by mistake. But for the most part, each child handled himself beautifully and everyone seemed happy with what he got to take home. We were left with a few items that nobody wanted – they’re still in a bag downstairs waiting for my next trip to Goodwill.

The Cleanup

The only other big challenge of the party was dishes. Thankfully, my mother-in-law and a close friend of mine were on hand to help out. Loading the dishwasher with the first set of dirty dishes during the party was key. I unloaded when the party was over and then re-filled it with the remaining dishes. After I had put away all the dishes, wiped down the tables and picked up the toys in the yard, the house was good as new. And our trash can was still empty. Amazing.

Eco-Friendly Party Tips

• Stock up ahead of time on reusable dishes, flatware, cups and cloth napkins. If you know you’ll use these supplies for years to come, buy whatever you need. If not, borrow from friends and family.

• Build your menu around foods that don’t come in a lot of packaging. If practical, buy ingredients from a bulk bin mart or local farmers market – and bring your own bags.

• If you’re planning a toy swap, make sure your guests know what to expect. Use unequivocal wording in your invitation: “Absolutely no new gifts, please. Simply bring an unwrapped toy your child doesn’t play with anymore. At the end of the party, every guest will get to choose a new (to him/her) toy to take home.”

• Keep the toy swap orderly by collecting items from guests upon arrival and placing them out of the way during the party. As each child leaves, his/her parent can help choose one toy to take home. For older children’s parties that parents don’t attend, the host or an appointed helper can take each kid to choose a toy right before leaving.

• Don’t give in to the temptation to buy party favors. Our guests were scrupulous about bringing toys that were of value and in good condition. An actual toy that he/she got to choose is bound to be much more exciting to each of your guests than some random tchotchkes from the 99 Cent Only Store.

• Enlist a couple of close friends or family members to help out during the party by clearing tables and loading and running the dishwasher, so you aren’t overwhelmed with a mountain of dirty dishes when it’s over.

November 17, 2011 at 8:14 pm 1 comment

Home Shopping Network

Out with the old, in with the new (to me).

In the last year, I was invited to four clothing swaps, and hosted one of my own. I love it that this concept is becoming so popular! If you’re interested in hosting a swap of your own, but aren’t quite sure how to go about it, here are some tips and details based on my own experience.

The Guest List

I like to cast a wide net. I believe the general rule of thumb for event attendance is to expect a 20 percent decline rate, but an exchange requires more of your guests than a typical party, and some of the people you invite may frankly be uninterested in trying on other people’s clothes (or contributing some of their own), so figure on a decline rate closer to 40 or 50 percent. That said, you should be prepared to accommodate almost everyone you invite in case you end up with a terrific turnout.

When I told my husband about the event, he pointed out that I could run into problems if the people who showed up weren’t similar in clothing size. I wasn’t concerned, nor, as it turned out, did I need to be. My friends come in all shapes and sizes, and pretty much everyone found at least one item from someone else that worked for her. Some people wear things tight, others wear them loose, particularly when it comes to articles like sweaters and tees. My advice is not to waste time worrying about clothing compatibility among your guests. The point of the event is to have fun, and as long as you present that attitude yourself, nobody is going to take the exchange over seriously.

The Invitation

Your invitation should clearly communicate what to expect from the event so that your guests come prepared, but also present it as a fun party not to be missed. Here’s how I worded my last clothing swap invite:

Clothing Swap Party and Potluck

De-clutter your closet and have a good time while you’re at it! Bring any old clothes you don’t wear anymore and food or drink to share. If you just did a drop at Goodwill and don’t have anything left to offer, come join us anyway – I have a feeling there will be plenty of clothes to go around. And really, it’s just an excuse to have a party.

I sent the invitation using the old paperless standby Other online (and therefore eco-friendly) mailing options include,, and

The Menu

You have a lot of flexibility when it comes to serving food and drinks at your clothing exchange. I’d avoid serving a heavy meal because no one wants to try on clothes after stuffing herself. Of course, what you serve will depend on the time of day. A light brunch buffet is a nice, easy option if you’re doing it in the morning. Mid- to late-afternoon is a good between-meal time when you can get away with a few light snacks and possibly beer and/or wine. For evening swaps, I recommend starting after the dinner hour and serving wine or cocktails and a couple of sweets.

A word of warning about serving alcohol: If you or your friends are drinkers, you’ll probably serve spirits at your swap. Just be prepared to experience some “swapper’s remorse” the next day if you imbibe a little too much. I, for one, have ended up with a few items that looked a lot better on me when I was wearing my “wine goggles.” But at least it didn’t involve a hit to my wallet.

Setting Up

Think of your home as a pop-up boutique; you’ll want to make it easy for guests to display and sort through the clothing on offer. Chairs, curtain rods, clothes drying racks, pack and plays, and anything else you have on hand for draping and hanging should be put to use. A coffee or dining room table is a good place to lay out folded clothes. Make any extra hangers you have available for guests to use, and encourage them to bring their own as well.

A friend of mine had the brilliant idea to borrow an actual clothing rack to use at my last swap. She found it through the borrowing website To use the site, one need only fill out a brief registration form, and then search for items to borrow, as well as list items she is willing to loan out. It’s easy and free.

You’ll need one or more full-length mirrors. Again, consider borrowing or asking a guest to bring one if necessary. You should provide at least one private space for guests to try on clothes. Some people may feel comfortable changing in front of the group, so if you have an extra mirror to set up in the main gathering area, do that as well.

The last item you’ll need is sticky labels. I picked up a pack of 2” by 4” labels at Target and cut each one into five strips. Each guest got a stack of label strips to write her name on and use to tag the items she was interested in taking home.

Execution and Etiquette

Serve food and drinks for the first hour of the event. This gives everyone a chance to arrive and lay out/hang up her offerings. You may want to designate certain areas of the house for specific items of clothing, e.g. dresses and skirts in the living room, pants and tops in the dining room, etc. Once everyone has arrived and set up, take another hour or so (depending on how many guests you have and how much clothing is available) for trying on clothes. Tell each person to place her labels on the items she likes and then place them back wherever she found them.

When everyone is done trying things on, it’s up to the host to divvy up the goods. For each item with more than one sticker, you’ll need to pick a name out of a bowl or hat. Fold the stickers in half (sticky side in, so that they don’t all get stuck together), making sure the names are still legible. Any item with only one name will naturally go to that person. Unclaimed items can either go back home to the people who brought them, or you as the host can collect them all to donate to charity.

November 17, 2011 at 7:51 pm Leave a comment

Season’s First Squash

Fall is hands-down my favorite time of year. Even though I live in season-deprived SoCal, the air is undeniably crisper come October, especially after our first good rain of the season. The feeling I get when I sense that change in the air is simultaneously soothing and invigorating. And boy did I need it this year. Sleepless nights thanks to a wakeful one-year-old and criminally early-rising four-year-old have sapped my energy and enthusiasm for cooking lately, and I was in need of inspiration. It came in the form of acorn squash.

I chose to this particular winter squash because the skin is edible, and I try to get away with not peeling vegetables whenever possible. I found a lovely acorn squash at the farmers market; a dull finish and a few spots of orange on the dark green skin meant it was ripe and ready to go. Here’s what I did to it:

Roasted acorn squash.

One acorn squash
1 TBSP olive oil
Fresh sage (I didn’t have any, so I used dried thyme)
Grated parmesan (optional)
Salt to taste

1. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Scrape out all of the pulp and seeds with a metal spoon. (Set them aside if you’d like to roast the seeds – instructions to follow).
2. Cut each half of the squash into slices about 3/4″ thick (it’s OK if they aren’t all perfectly even).
3. Toss the slices with olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet and spread into one layer. Sprinkle with herbs and parmesan if using.
4. Roast at 425 degrees or until slices are tender and just starting to caramelize around the edges.

Now, here’s what to do with those seeds. Why let them go to waste? They’re just as tasty as pumpkin seeds, just a little smaller.

1. Separate seeds from pulp as much as possible and rinse.
2. Pat seeds dry and lay flat on a baking sheet. I use the same sheet I used for the squash, as the leftover oil and browned bits give the roasted seeds a nice flavor.
3. Roast seeds at 350 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until they just start to turn a golden brown, checking frequently to make sure they don’t burn.

Roasted squash seeds.

October 7, 2011 at 11:38 pm Leave a comment

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