The Urban Forager

Author Elisa Callow finds success with her first cookbook

Elisa Callow has a simple answer about how she pivoted in middle age from a high-profile local nonprofit consultant to a trained chef and cookbook author.     

“My mother was a horrible cook,” she says.

The Altadena-based Callow penned “The Urban Forager: Culinary Exploring & Cooking on L.A.’s Eastside” (Prospect Park Books). A top seller and critical success, the book is in its second printing. In December, LAist’s food editor Elina Shatkin called “The Urban Forager” an essential Los Angeles cookbook.

“It’s a collaborative community cookbook,” Callow says. “It’s my love of this city in a different form. I wanted a cookbook that would be a love letter to Los Angeles.”

The book reflects this intention and, though rife with recipes, it’s far more than a typical cookbook. It also functions as an effective primer for the home chef. At the outset, the book outlines necessary equipment and ingredients to keep handy at the counter, as well as instructions on how to build and maintain a pantry.

The recipes are then conventionally grouped into sections—breakfast and brunch; soups, pasta, rice and legumes; salads and vegetables; seafood and meat, and desserts. Each section is interspersed with a profile of a local chef—Minh Phan, Mario Rodriguez, Jack Aghoian, Rumi Mahmoud and Sumi Chang—along with illustrated lists of his or her food influences.

Of this group, only Phan of the highly regarded Porridge & Puffs and Chang, the founder of the original Europane bakery, are practicing professionals. The others are local enthusiasts and home chefs, all of whom also provide recipes.

“Urban Forager” concludes with an eclectic, alphabetized list of 57 local purveyors of food, ingredients and equipment. From the Aladdin Nuthouse to the Vallarta Supermarkets, the list is comprehensive and compelling. The book’s cover and binding are sturdy and kitchen ready and the text is interlarded with gorgeous, full-page color photos by Ann Elliot Cutting, as well as charming illustrations by Simone Rein.

Change of heart

Callow was in high demand as a consultant to nonprofit arts organizations before she wrote “Urban Forager.” Informally partnered with Hope Schneider, Callow’s first major project as a consultant was the curatorial revamp of the Natural History Museum, which resulted in the award-winning “Interplay” program. It brought various community stakeholders into direct conversation and response to specific exhibits at the museum.

Prior to that, she most notably served as the founding executive director for the now-venerable and -beloved Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.

Having been born and raised in Los Angeles, her progressively minded father Seymour Greben was a teacher in the LAUSD until The Red Scare and the Hollywood Blacklist compelled him to leave. Her parents separated and her father joined the Peace Corps and became a program director in Malaysia, where Elisa joined him at 14 and lived for three years. It proved to be an influentially formative sojourn.

“I loved being the ‘other,’ the foreigner in another country,” she says.

Callow found herself learning the customs and tastes of a country with three very distinct ethnic populations and traditions: Chinese, Malay, and South Indian, both Hindu and Muslim. She volunteered teaching art and helping to prepare meals at an isolated aboriginal hospital, where she recognized a very distinct community.

There, she learned about rice and dried fish.

“It was a beautiful experience,” she added.

The experience was her first taste of food as an indicator of culture and community.

With the Vietnam War raging, Callow followed her father back to the states and to Washington, D.C., where he served as the Peace Corps’ public information director. Upon the advent of the Nixon administration, her father was fired and the family returned to Los Angeles.

He was hired as the deputy director of the Department of Recreation & Parks for the city and later the director of the county department.

Callow finished school at Hollywood High and enrolled in San Jose State over Scripps because, “I liked the idea of going to a public university.”

She studied studio art and then earned a master’s in art education from Cal State Los Angeles. It was during the graduate program that she joined the Pasadena Art Workshops as executive director in 1983. The educational arm of what was then The Pasadena Art Museum (now The Norton Simon Museum), the program formed the basis and impetus for the purchase and renovation of the building and programming that would become The Armory Center for the Arts in 1989.

Even though Callow started cooking as a child, her real love of cooking came out of having her own children.

As she taught, consulted and advised her children on cooking and food, she realized she had a trove of personal recipes and culinary improvisations that might make a great book.

“What if I codified what I make up all the time,” she thought.

In two years, she assembled 200—as she says—poorly written recipes and consulted with her editor at Prospect Park Books. Callow took a six-month culinary course at The New School of Cooking, and the scope of the book continued to open up.

She began to “forage” actively in the community, meeting chefs, home cooks, vendors and suppliers as she fully recognized the local area as a unique nexus point of very diverse cultures.

Asian, Latino and Eastern European traditions abound and inevitably collide in this part of Los Angeles.  It’s this dynamic and diverse landscape that provided the influence and inspiration for the next turn of Callow’s journey.

“I know how to find out about community and this city honors community food,” she says. ”


‘Pantry super chargers’

These are short but sweet recipes that support the notion of maintaining a great pantry as inspiration for inventive, delicious and less stressful cooking.

“That’s why I call them ‘pantry super chargers,’” Elisa Callow says.

One recipe, as shared by her cookbook contributor and chef Minh Phan, involves foraging for geranium leaves, which add a delicious and rare flavor to the pickling liquor.

Crème Fraiche

This is an ingredient you will want to have around. It is easy to make, delicious and much less expensive than the purchased version. I use it on nearly everything that tastes better with a creamy tang; it is yummier than store-bought sour cream, as its texture and flavor are more delicate.

Makes 2 cups


2 cups heavy cream (avoid the ultra-pasteurized version, as it may never thicken and has a lot of the nutritional quality blasted out of it)

1/2 cup buttermilk


In a tall pitcher or other large container, whisk together cream and buttermilk until incorporated.

Cover container with a light cloth or a couple of layers of cheesecloth and leave at room temperature. The mixture will thicken within one or two days depending on the room’s temperature.

Before using, give the crème fraiche a good whisk.

Store in the refrigerator, covered, up to two weeks. 

Minh’s Geranium Pickled Baby Onions

These are not only delicious, but absolutely beautiful, resembling tiny rose petals on a plate.

Makes 1 cup


I cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

Pinch salt

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup rose geranium leaves, packed*

1/4 pound baby red pearl onions, outer skin peeled, and cut in half


In a 3-quart saucepan over high heat, stir rice vinegar, sugar, salt and 1/2 cup water until sugar and salt are dissolved.

Place geranium leaves in the bottom of a clean 16-ounce glass jar.

Add onions, then pour the hot vinegar mixture over the onions and geranium leaves.

The onions will become flavorful within three to four hours. Keep in the refrigerator covered up to four weeks.