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Life on California's beautiful Central Coast

Easter cooking column

Twenty years ago, my family had a wonderful Easter tradition. Every year, we would picnic on the top of Figueroa Mountain.

It was a big gathering of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. We would try to get there early to snag one of the best picnic tables off the dirt road below the fire lookout. My brother and I would immediately run out for a spin around the nature trail. Later we’d challenge our cousins to vicious competitions of kick-the-giant-pine-cone. At the end of the day, we always walked to the fire lookout before going home.

There’ve been a lot of photos and commentary about Figueroa and its wildflowers on Edhat this spring, and all I can add is to say that the mountain is a really special place. It has some of my best childhood memories and a lot of great adult ones, too. If you go up there, drive slowly and be sure to roll down the windows. Better yet, get out of the car and go for a hike. Take a picnic in a backpack. That’s about all it takes to fall in love.

We stopped going to the mountain a long time ago, deciding it was easier to have the picnics in our own backyard, and I just hope that there are other families up there enjoying it in the same way we did – even if the nature trail has now fallen off the hillside. It was getting pretty raggedy 19 years ago.

After all the pinecone kicking and Easter egg hunts had exhausted us, there was another great part of a mountain picnic: the food. Here are three recipes. My grandmother Doris’ potato salad, a new asparagus dish that I never would have eaten as a kid, and the cute cupcakes – coconut on top with jellybean garnish to make a little Easter basket – that my Mom always made. We hauled a lot of coolers up that mountain.

Doris’ Potato Salad

3 cups new potatoes, boiled with skins on, cooled and diced
2-3 hard boiled eggs, diced
½ cup mayonnaise or ¼ cup mayonnaise and ¼ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon pepper
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup chopped parsley

Be sure to fork prick the potatoes before boiling so that they don’t explode. You’ll know they’re done when the skins start to fall off. I am usually too impatient to let them cool in the colander before dicing, but they’re a lot more manageable if you let them sit for 30 minutes.

Don’t leave the parsley out. It may seem pointless, but it really adds a lot to the salad.

Raw Asparagus Salad

This is from the same page of Food and Wine magazine that led to my artichoke disaster last week. I got brave and tried again, and I’m glad I did because this recipe is easy, tasty and good for you.

1 bunch asparagus. Must be fresh or this won’t work. Cut off a generous amount at the ends and discard. Wash, dry and shave with a peeler into thin strips (harder than it sounds).

Add ¾ cup coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (the better your cheese, the better this recipe is going to be. Might be worth taking a trip to the Italian grocery. The cheese should be freshly grated, not pre-grated.)

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (I squirted three generous slices of fresh lemon into the bowl and that was fine.)

2 tablespoons warm water.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (again, the higher the quality, the better this is going to taste. If you haven’t been to Il Fustino, the olive oil specialty store on upper State Street, this is a great excuse to make a trip there.)

Mix and serve immediately. The only disadvantage to this is that it really can’t be made ahead. But it’s simple enough that you can throw it together pretty fast.

Easter Basket Cupcakes

The fun in these cupcakes, like most fancy cupcakes these days, isn’t in the cake itself but in the frosting on top.

The cupcakes can be any kind you want – white cake, yellow cake, chocolate, etc.

Make the frosting from scratch. Use ½ cup butter, 1 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1 ½ tablespoons milk, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Let the butter sit on the counter until it reaches the ideal soft consistency. Once mixed with a fork or electric mixer, the frosting can be refrigerated.

Make your frosting green by adding food coloring. Separately, color coconut green by adding just a few drops of coloring. Frost, top with coconut, and add jellybeans.

The best jellybeans to use are little tiny ones. As a kid, I would only eat cupcakes with yellow and pink.

However you celebrate, have a wonderful Easter. And to my family, thank you for those wonderful picnics that I will remember forever.


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