Until recently, one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the San Gabriel Valley was just a weed-strewn lot. It sat empty just off Pasadena's busiest street. Now it has been transformed into a culinary and environmental showcase, a tranquil garden amid the roar of traffic from the Arroyo Parkway. In its manicured planting beds an exotic harvest is just now reaching maturity, destined to grace the tables at the adjacent Parkway Grill restaurant.
When Parkway owner Gregg Smith leased the site in 1984, he also leased the vacant lot next door. The terms of the lease, he said, allowed the firm to develop the empty space to "its best use." Initially there was talk of building a Craftsman-style office structure on the site, but it never worked out. The lot on Marengo remained empty for six years.
"We are paying rent on all this--including the empty lot--so I thought we might as well use it," said Smith. The idea for a garden grew more and more appealing.
"I've been fighting since day one to get a garden on that plot," said Parkway chef Hugo Molina. "Now I feel very proud that this item or that is from my own garden and not something that's been sitting for a week in a warehouse."
Enter landscape designer Katarina Eriksson. The holder of a horticultural degree from Mt. San Antonio College, she has spent most of her eight-year career working with residential settings. "I've always wanted to do commercial farming," she said. "This is as close as I've gotten."
Both Smith and Molina were interested in making sure that the food was organically grown. Smith said he was motivated to use alternative gardening methods because of his customers' overall concerns about food safety and fear of pesticide residues on food.
To start, Eriksson laboratory-tested the soil to determine whether there were any chemical problems with the 4,000-square-foot plot. There weren't; its composition conformed with organic standards. "This is excellent soil," said Eriksson, who spends about 15 hours a week tending the plot. "It's clay-based and holds water well."
Eriksson doesn't use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides. When problems with bugs, mold or weeds arise, they are treated only with naturally derived compounds. When she spots a harmful insect on a plant, she just picks it off.
Eriksson scoured 20 seed catalogues before finding the right mix of exotic food plants. They include, among others, six varieties of radicchio, purple basil, whirly bird nasturtiums, white carrots, haricots verts , red Swiss chard, tree tomatoes, radish pods and saffron.
Saffron, obtained from the crocus flower (a relative of the iris), poses an especially difficult challenge. Only the stigma, or pollen-bearing tip of the blossom, is used as a flavoring agent. That means thousands of plants are required to produce just an ounce of saffron, which can sell for as much as $200. But Molina insists that the fickle plant will grow in Pasadena, even if the production amounts to minute quantities.
Molina and Smith, who have worked together for 11 years, know their garden won't begin to fill all the restaurant's produce needs. Still they estimate that the plot, which will be fully operational by October, should yield at least one daily menu special as well as one or two key ingredients for other dishes.
One night there was a spectacular green salad with flowers and "drunken" shrimp that included five ingredients from the garden: rose petals, colorful pansies, chive blossoms, mizuna (a Japanese mustard green) and radicchio. Molina worked his way through the garden gathering all the greens and flowers only minutes before the dish was prepared.
"The garden gives us another incentive to do something special," he said. Molina, a native Guatemalan raised in a household that held local spices, fruits and vegetables in high esteem, also raises exotic herbs and fruit trees at home. His grandmother was an herbalist who used to teach him about the benefits of various plants. He can rattle off a dozen plant-based headache remedies.
"I grew up with all of these varieties," he said. "I like colorful items such as Chinese kale. And then there are the six varieties of radicchio we're growing. Most people only know of one type."
The Parkway Grill isn't the only California restaurant operating its own garden, but most such efforts have been in the northern part of the state. In fact, Smith said he was partly inspired by several articles detailing Alice Waters' organic gardening efforts for her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.
"More and more, the ripple of organic is affecting most every marketplace in most every arena," said Robert Scowcroft, executive director of the California Certified Organic Farmers in Santa Cruz. "The values of (the Parkway's effort) is that it . . . is teaching people where food comes from, whether it be herbs or greens that customers are eating. It brings the food system closer to the consumer and that is great news."
Smith says that the restaurant has made a long-term commitment to the garden. "This is not just a gimmick," he said. "It's a very real thing that will cost well beyond $10,000 to implement."
And it took some gentle persuasion toward at least one doubtful person. But Eriksson said the offer of an occasional gift of tomatoes and lettuce mollified the neighbor.
"Many people in Pasadena are aligned with the slow-growth movement," Smith said. "But this is about as slow as you can get."
Here are Hugo Molina's recipes using organically grown produce from Parkway Grill's garden:
STUFFED ZUCCHINI BLOSSOMS WITH RED AND YELLOW PEPPER COULIS
12 zucchini blossoms
6 ounces goat cheese
6 ounces smoked or plain cooked chicken, finely chopped
3 ounces bacon slices, cooked and finely chopped
3 basil leaves, finely chopped
Freshly ground pepper
Red Pepper Coulis
Yellow Pepper Coulis
Rinse zucchini blossoms and carefully pat dry with paper towels. Combine crumbled goat cheese, chicken, bacon and basil and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide into 12 portions and stuff zucchini blossoms. Cook in steamer (or place in pan with small amount of water) 2 minutes.
Spoon some of Red Pepper Coulis on half of each dinner plate. Spoon some of Yellow Pepper Coulis on other half of plate. Arrange 3 stuffed zucchini blossoms on each plate. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.
Red Pepper Coulis
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 small white onion, coarsely chopped
2 small red peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chicken stock or water
1/4 cup butter, softened
Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and onion and saute until transluscent. Add red peppers and chicken stock. Cook about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and place mixture in blender. Blend to smooth consistency. Strain in fine colander. Stir in butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
Yellow Pepper Coulis
Repeat above recipe using 2 small yellow peppers. Keep warm.
LOBSTER-STUFFED MEXICAN COCOA CREPES WITH FLOWER CONFETTI
1/4 cup olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/3 cup brandy
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
2 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns
1 quart unsalted chicken stock
3/4 cup whipping cream
7 to 8 pieces sun-dried tomatoes
Mexican Cocoa Crepes
Sour cream or creme fraiche, optional
1/2 cup edible flower variety, cut into confetti pieces
Separate lobster tails and claws from heads. Reserve tails and claws for stuffing.
Cut lobster heads in halves. Heat olive oil in large pot and saute onion and garlic. Add lobster heads. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Carefully add brandy (it will flame up). Add celery, carrot, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns and chicken stock.
Simmer about 7 minutes. Stir in whipping cream and cook another 5 minutes over medium heat. Remove from heat and strain. Pour liquid in blender and puree. Add sun-dried tomatoes and blend to smooth consistency. Return to heat and reduce to desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour about 1/4 cup lobster bisque sauce on bottom of plate. Place about 1/4 cup Lobster Stuffing on half of each crepe and fold. If desired, drizzle with sour cream piped from pastry bag with thin tip. Place stuffed crepe on center of sauce. Sprinkle with confetti of edible flowers. Makes 8 servings.
Mexican Cocoa Crepes
1/2 round tablet Mexican-style sweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 tablespoons black pasilla chile powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
3/4 to 1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Blend chocolate, milk, egg, chile powder, garlic, flour and cayenne. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Warm up crepe pan or 6- to 7-inch non-stick skillet over medium heat. Brush with butter and pour about 2 ounces batter on center of skillet. Swirl around to make thin crepe. Cook about 1 minute, or until top is dry. Turn over and cook 1 minute longer. Keep warm. Repeat with remaining batter. Makes about 8 crepes.
Reserved lobster tails and claws
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup julienned leeks (white part only)
1/2 cup whipping cream
4 ounces Jack cheese, shredded
Cook tails and claws in boiling salted water about 7 minutes. Drain. When cool enough to handle, remove meat. Chop 8 to 10 ounces lobster meat and use remaining as desired.
Melt butter in skillet. Saute leeks about 1 minute. Add lobster and saute about 1 more minute. Add whipping cream and Jack cheese. Cook and stir over low heat until very thick. Makes about 2 cups.
GARDEN GREENS AND FLOWERS WITH DRUNKEN SHRIMP
1 pound unshelled large shrimp
1 cup orange liqueur
1 ripe papaya, peeled, halved and seeded
2 heads mizuna (Japanese mustard green)
1 head spotted red radicchio
4 ounces baby garden greens
Few leaves purple basil
Marinate shrimp in orange liqueur and chill about 30 minutes. Remove shrimp from liqueur. Place liqueur in saucepan over medium heat. Bring to boil. Peel shrimp and add to boiling liqueur 5 to 10 seconds, then remove from liqueur. Cut shrimp in halves lengthwise.
Slice papaya halves in thin diagonals. Place mizuna around plate. Spread radicchio and baby garden greens in center of plate. Arrange papaya and shrimp on top of greens. Drizzle Orange Vinaigrette over top. Decorate with edible flowers and serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Note: Other soft lettuce may be substituted for mizuna.
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons minced ginger root
2 tablespoons julienned green onions, white part only
2 tablespoons julienned sweet red pepper
3 tablespoons orange liqueur
1/2 cup peanut oil
Combine lime juice, orange juice, brown sugar, ginger root, green onions, red pepper, orange liqueur and peanut oil. Mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 1 1/3 cups.