December 30, 2006

2006 in words and pictures...

Got this idea from Frectis, who I found through my midday surfing of holildailies.

1. -
2. I never know how to start these things...
3. Somewhere between the "Gorton's fisherman" Fridays of my childhood (complete with a commercial tartar sauce my brother euphemistically referred to as "pickles and puke") and my later discovery of (and ultimate obsession with) all things sushi, I think I lost touch with the whole Lenten sacrifice thing.
4. Friday finds us Nibbling again.
5. Day one of the Eat Local Challenge finds your heroine headed to Whole Foods -- for perhaps the very first time without a shopping list -- on a quest for foods produced locally.
6. What to do with halibut caught locally in Half Moon Bay?
7. “Some people wanted champagne and caviar when they should have had beer and hot dogs.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1890-1969)
8. August in Northern California brings some of my favorite colorful fruits and vegetables to the table.
9. In the scheme of things, it's rather plain and unassuming.
10. Somehow I made it through...Didn't know how lost I was until I found you...
11. Welcome to November.
12. I remember the moment like it was yesterday.

There you have it. The first sentences of the first posts for each month of 2006. It's been quite a journey through the magical, mystical world of food. (And you can bet I'm going to be pondering my first words of 2007 carefully...

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December 22, 2006

Tastes of 2006 - The Recipes

As 2006 draws closer to a close, I find myself reviewing the many dishes that have emerged from my kitchen (only a fraction of which I've succeeded in capturing in these pages). In "Tastes, Part II" I reflect on some of the recipes I've tried -- and the inspiration behind them.

Some people believe cooking for one or two people is more effort than it's worth. I'm glad I at least occasionally made the effort:

  • In February I rediscoveed how delightful it can be to spend a day or two in the kitchen with someone you love.
  • Sometims a little self-indulgence when you're sick is the best medicine of all.
  • In an attempt to recreate a Kentucky Fried favorite, we tried out this recipe. Interesting, but not what we were looking for. Back to the drawing board.
  • Who needs takeout? Proving that food elitists we are NOT, nachos and beer are the perfect accompaniament to a Friday night at home with the remote control.
  • After a month of out-of-town eating in March, I was eager to play a little Whole Foods roulette -- and quite pleased with the results.
  • And I'm proud of this springtime solution for using up leftovers.
Google This! With a virtual cookbook library at my fingertips, I've drawn inspiration for weeknight dinners from all over the Internets:
  • Last spring I committed to a month of "eating locally" from ingredients sourced within a 150 mile radius of home. In the process I learned a lot, and discovered some sensational recipes I know will be "repeaters" in my kitchen. Halibut Olympia was just one of many new favorites.
  • I reminded myself that just because a recipe doesn't turn out pretty doesn't mean it doesn't TASTE great when I made a Ginger Scented Pear Cake I found during a web search for pear recipes.
  • Emeril may be an annoying furry little troll, but his recipes have never failed me. July's Black Cod with Basil Cream Sauce was simple and satisfying.
  • Black Cod was a recurring theme on my menus this year. My favorite sprintime preparation was Sablefish with Strawberry Balsamic Sauce. Simple, satisfying, sexy AND scrumptious.
One of the most rewarding things about creating in the kitchen is sharing the output with friends and family:
When I found myself searching for inspiration, I could count on my fellow food bloggers gave me the energy I needed to get back in the kitchen and try something new.
  • It's probably the Iron Chef fan in me. I love the challenge of working with a set of prescribed ingredients to come up with a recipe. I did it twice this year. The Monthly Mingle challenge for October was to create a recipe using zucchini and sage. Taking inspiration from another blogger, I made a Roasted Zucchini Soup with Fried Sage that turned out to be one of my favorite recipes of the year. In July I took a couple ears of corn, a handful of pinenuts, a tablespoon or two of coriander and with a little internet reserach, created Coriander-Scented Coconut Creamed Corn. Say THAT five times fast!
  • A call for autumn inspired salads prompted me to pull out an old favorite: my 1000 Calorie Salad. A fair amount of effort, but worth it.
  • Surely you've heard of Sugar High Friday? Jennifer the Domestic Goddess created this tribute to sucrose and her sisters -- a monthly opportunity to indulge in the sweeter side of the kitchen. Indulge I certainly did. For July's international ice cream social, I pulled out the ice cream attachment to my trusty kitchen aid and made Meyer Lemon Gelato. Sans-oven, my surprise for September was that Sugar High Friday became Sugar High Monday -- but my Ginger Spice Cakes with Pumpkin Pastry Cream were a hit at the office. And decided that truffle-making really belongs in the hands of professionals.
  • October 16, 2006 was World Bread Day, and the food blogging world celebrated with a momentus bread bake-off coordinated by a blogger in Germany. My contribution: focaccia.
  • Over the course of the year, my food blogging friends in Australia introduced me to one of my newest inspirations: Donna Hay. I eagerly jumped on the bandwagon and "Hay, Hay, it's Donna Day" became one of my favorite monthly events. I braved bruchetta. Spawned some Sassy Savory Tartlettes.
  • The holiday season brought a Festive Food Fair, for which I dusted off my dad's recipe for Persimmon Fruit Cake.

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December 21, 2006

Cookies for Santa

Another food-focused writing prompt from Holidailies participant Planet Pooks: A recipe swap. The directive is to post a favorite holiday recipe, explaining its significance. Since I covered the Persimmon Cake in November and plan to tackle Touthlatch (Ravioli) after the first of the year, I thought I'd share a new recipe -- one I discovered this year that will be have a recurring role on my holiday cookie plate.

Chocolate Pine Nut Cookies
as published in Fine Cooking Magazine

1/2 pound (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
4 1/2 ounces (1 cup) confectioners sugar (more for dusting, optional)
1 ounce (1/3 cup plus 1 Tablespoon) unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
pinch of table salt
1/2 pound (1 3/4 cup) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup toasted pine nuts, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, for garnish

heat the oven to 325. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla and salt until smooth and creamy. Add the flour and chopped pine nuts and mix on low speed until well combined.

Shape 1 tablespoon scoops of dough into round balls and arrange on parchment-lined baking sheets about 1 1/2 inches apart. Flatten each slightly and press 3 pine nuts into the top of each cookie.

Bake cookies until the tops look dry, about 18 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes before transferring cookies to a rack to cool completely. Dust with confectioners sugar, if desired.

Yield: 46 cookies.

Enjoy this grown-up take on the peanut butter cookie!

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December 20, 2006

Indulging my inner list-geek: a taste of 2006 (Part 1)

Here we are again, approaching the end of one year and the beginning of another. Presenting list geeks everywhere with the opportunity to assess the state of the world in one of our favorite formats. Yep, you got it: Lists! Lots and lots of lists!

Today I reflect on the restaurant meals we've eaten over the course of the past year:

Stay tuned for part two: the recipes we prepared at home.

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December 19, 2006

Chestnuts roasting? Figgy pudding?

Finally the folks at holidailies have come up with some food-focused writing prompts. Today's query comes to us from The Write Coast: What's the one food it simply wouldn't be [your winter holiday of choice] without?

You can forget the eggnog. Don't bother preheating the oven for a marathon of cookie baking madness. And I've already explained my feelings about fruitcake. It's not a perfectly trimmed tree, mistletoe and holly, sparkly yard lights or piles of packages in festive wrapping.

For me, the holiday season's not complete until we break out the pasta roller and assemble my father's Aunt Lena's legendary ravioli.

Mo (and presumably Lena before him) called them "toothlatch". No amount of googling has satisfied my curiosity about the origin of the name. The result as Mo made them were pillows of ricotta & swiss chard-stuffed pasta slightly larger than traditional ravioli. Adorned quite simply in melted butter and grated parmesan, sprinkled with toasted pine nuts.

My must-have holiday kitchen tradition's going to be a little late this season. Sickness and scheduling issues have pushed the production back a week. Stay tuned -- we'll be making ravioli (and I'll share the recipe and the process) on New Years Day....

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December 18, 2006

For the first time

"Minor things can become moments of great revelation when encountered for the first time" -Margot Fonteyn

There's something magical about 'firsts'. First words. First steps. First kisses. First tastes of something brand new.

John and I are ten years and many wonderful memories past our first kiss. And not ready to dive into the commitment required for first words or steps -- except perhaps vicariously through our nieces and nephews. So -- especially given our shared passion for food -- we rarely pass up the opportunity to share a first taste.

Enter Chris. At eighteen, he thinks he might want to be a chef someday. But not a pastry chef because in his estimation pastry chefs don't get women. Okay, so he's got a lot to learn...

But that's another story for another post. A typical teenager, Chris loves meat. But he's cautious about anything he perceives as ethnic food -- Asia and South America reside of different planets in Chris' culinary universe.

John and I are on a mission to change that. And what better way to introduce a teenage carnivore to the many flavors of Asia than a field trip for Korean Barbecue, a cuisine whose cornerstone Ruth Reichl has described as "Bulgoki... the barbecued beef of the Far East"?

So Saturday morning, we loaded up the cars and caravanned south for The Palace Korean Barbecue Buffet in Sunnyvale. On arrival, the hostess surveyed our party for several seconds, clearly not sure what to make of us: Nine Caucasians -- four adults, two teenage boys two giggly adolescent girls and a fifth teenager, quieter and more mature than the others. Clearly not their average Saturday afternoon clientele. As she seated us at two tables toward the back of the restaurant, I suspect she had reservations about leaving the young people alone with open flame. Hmmm. Perhaps before we introduced Chris and Company to the concept of Korean BBQ, we should have reviewed the rules?

In the end, they did just fine. As we were seated and the waitress fired up the tabletop grills, John explained the premise: Three "buffet" lines. One for the raw meat you'd bring back to your table and cook. Sweet & salty bulgogi. Rich & succulent kalbi, or short ribs. Teriyaki chicken. Spicy pork loin. Marinated calamari. For the more adventurous: chicken gizzards, tripe, tongue, pork belly, and baby octopus. A second buffet line for the Korean side dishes (and a couple of buffet-style Banchan) - spicy kimchi, pickled cucumbers, meatballs and the ubiquitous eggrolls among the many selections there. Between these a mountain of clean plates (since you'll want to segregate your raw meat from the side dishes and the cooked meat) and a small salad bar. The kids nodded and off we went.

We returned from the buffet to stake out our real estate on the grills and found the waitress had delivered our beverages and supplied each table with tongs for managing meat on the grill and scissors for cutting your meat bite-sized. Since the kids had opted for their own table, John did double-duty -- eating on the adult side and drifting to the other table to make explanations, answer questions and take pictures. It was rewarding to watch as the teens -- especially the boys -- open their minds to things they'd never experienced before. They loved the cook-your-own aspect and were soon sworn devotees of the kalbi. We'd done it -- Chris was hooked on his first foray into Asian cuisine.

Okay fine, but where's the review? What about the food?

While it's not fine dining, The Palace certainly one of the best buffets in the greater bay area. We don't do buffet-style dining very often. When we do, a key to getting us to return is consistency -- a hallmark at The Palace. For $15.00 (at lunch, slightly higher for dinner), you can expect a clean environment (critical for a buffet), friendly, courteous service and high-quality fresh fare for barbecue. The side dishes are admittedly (but again consistently) mediocre -- but you're not going for the sides. When you DO opt for a salad or a small plate of noodles, you can be assured that while they're not local/organic/sustainable or for the matter much more than iceberg or chow mein -- they've also not been sitting in an ice bath or under a heat lamp for hours... or days. So if you're in Sunnyvale and in the mood for good quality Korean barbecue, be sure to check out The Palace.

The Palace Barbecue Buffet
1092 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale |

Other Online Reviews: Life, Love AND Food
Jason & Terry's Bay Area Review
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December 16, 2006

A menu for hope...

$15, 000.00



Okay, I give up... for an up-to-the minute tally of how much the food blogging community has raised for the UN World Food Programme, check out the donation page.

What? In the unlikely event that you've missed the excitement and have no idea what I'm talking about, allow me to explain. Now in its third year, Menu for Hope is Pim Techamuanvivit's brainchild -- and the food blogging community's opportunity to step forward and make have a real impact on world hunger. Last year's event raised over $17,000 for UNICEF. And we're well on our way to $30,000.00 in 2006.

How does it work? Food bloggers from around the world have donated a collection of wonderful prizes. An unforgettable meal at Manresa or an afternoon coffee with *the* Thomas Keller. Autographed cookbooks from some of the world's most famous chefs and foodies. A handful of interesting classes and once-in-a-lifetime experiences sure to expand your culinary horizons.

A ten dollar donation gives you a virtual raffle ticket for the prize of your choice.


Check out all the wonderful prizes Pim and her team have lined up for you. Pick one or two or ten you can't live without.

Then head over to the donation page and follow the simple instructions for making your contribution and selecting your prize(s).

But hurry. The campaign ends on December 22. There are only a few days left to get in on the action. And to make a difference during this season of giving.

The original goal for Menu for Hope III was $25,000.00. The program's well on its way to doubling that. Help us make that happen.

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December 15, 2006

Sick, again.

After a week and a half of the "coughing, sneezing, aching, stuffy-head-fever-so-I-can-rest-medicine" I've had it. Move over Nyquil. Step aside, Sudafed. I'm bringing in the heavy artillery of home remedies. In my household, that's a shot of bourbon and two tablespoons of honey in a glass of warm orange juice.

What about you? What's *your* tried and true cure for the common cold? Let me know in the comments -- I'm getting desperate here!

December 12, 2006

Retro Recipe Paydirt!

I'll admit it.

The challenges over at Retro Recipes have captured my attention for several months now. I followed Mr Peabody and Sherman on a culinary tour of the twentieth century, as each participant contributed a recipe published near their birth year. And last month's challenge, a collection of retro fall favorites.

I'll also confess I've been feeling a bit left out. Like a kid wearing a cast on the sidelines at an impromptu neighborhood baseball game. I *wanted* to play -- but I couldn't. In my case, no cool toys. No retro recipes.

But much to my delight, all of that changed a couple of weeks ago. Going through yet another box of my parents' things trying to find them space in my home, I came a small green recipe binder. Hmm. I'd seen it before -- I could close my eyes and picture it in my childhood home today. But I'd never paid a lot of attention to it. Curiosity got the better of me and I sat down to go through it.

The inside font cover states the book's purpose succinctly: "This book is the homemaker's file for her personal recipes, the family favorites, and many ideas clipped from magazines and newspapers. Use the envelopes provided under the proper headings for the printed clippings. Later, when they prove their worth, paste them on the plain paper. The lined paper is for recording your own recipes, menus and guest lists.

Well in my case, the lined and plain paper all remain in their original location at the back of the book, but each of the 12 sectional envelopes are stuffed with recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines in the 1940's, 50's, and 60's. Hallelujah, I've hit the retro-recipe motherlode!

Though I can't be positive, I suspect my newest treasured recipe collection belonged to my mother. Though she wasn't the cook in the family, the carefully clipped recipes bespeak her handiwork -- Mo would have just ripped pages out of whatever publication interested him. I also don't suspect many of these recipes got made in my parents kitchen -- whatever whim they captured that caused Mom to cut them out and file them away never caused her to go back to her collection for culinary inspiration.

I suspect that as I try some of them in my kitchen -- for the retro challenge or for the hell of it -- I'm going to have questions. Who spotted this one? What appealed to them? Did anyone make it?

My contribution to the December Boozy Holiday challenge is obvious immediately: a cordial-and-gelatine combination first published in the Oakland Tribune on Sunday December 2, 1962. Home economics writer Martha Lee promises to provide me with "two in one -- an after dinner cordial in dessert perfect for holiday entertaining."

I'm sold. I carefully gather up my yellowed newspaper clipping and head to the liquor cabinet to get to work on my Bavarian Mint.

1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup cold water
3 eggs, separated
1/4 cup green creme de menthe
1/4 cup white creme de cacao
1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Martha instructs me to mix together gelatine, 1/4 cup sugar and salt in the top of a double boiler. Stir in water then egg yolks (one at a time) stirring to blend well. Place over boiling water and cook, stirring constantly, until gelatine is dissolved and mixture thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. (I'm glad I have some previous experience with custard here, or I suspect I might have been in danger of scrambling the egg yolk a bit.)

Remove from water. Stir in creme de menthe and creme de cacao. Chill until mixture is the consistency of unbeaten egg whites.

Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. (again, previous experience is helpful here, she doesn't give us a lot of direction.) Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until very stiff. Fold into gelatine mixture. Turn into a cup serving bowl. Chill until firm.

If desired, garnish with additional whipped cream and chocolate curls.

Okay... a couple of observations.

First, my attempt didn't yield 5 cups. I suspect Martha missed a step. The ingredient list calls for 1 cup of heavy cream, whipped, but except for as a garnish, it's never mentioned in the body of the recipe. Since the faded photograph of the final product looks far more voluminous than mine, I think I should have incorporated some whipped cream in there somewhere. Ah well.

Second, Martha proudly claims that while Bavarian Mint is "a simple dessert to make" (she's right there) "it looks elaborate enough to delight the most discerning gourmet." Hmm. Maybe hers does. Mine pretty much looks like a green jello salad.

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December 10, 2006

Unconscious Mutterings

Found this surfing through the Holidailies entries last week, and thought I'd give it a shot. The premise is free association, which LunaNina (a bona fide psychology major) defines as "psychonanalytic procedure in which a person is encouraged to give free rein to his or her thoughts and feelings, verbalizing whatever comes into the mind without monitoring its content."

She posts ten words.

I reply with the first word or words that come to mind.

Here goes...

  1. Research :: Paper

  2. Chuck :: Wagon

  3. Insert :: Card Here

  4. Bang :: A Gong

  5. Lousy :: Rotten Scoundrel

  6. Rehearsal :: Dinner

  7. Critics :: Corner

  8. Memory :: Lapse

  9. Squid :: Ink Pasta

  10. Remove :: All Tags Before Wearing

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December 09, 2006

Color from shades of grey - a paradigm-shifting meal

In this my third installment of the Butterfly Effect Meme I am asked to explore the defining meal -- the one experience that forever altered the way I look at food. If part 2 was hard, this one was easy. On a cold January evening in 1996 new friends introduced me to a strange and exotic cuisine and there was no looking back. My culinary transformation took place in a four-table sushi bar in San Mateo. In thirty minutes, Koji changed the way I experience food.

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December 08, 2006

Dear Santa...

Dear Santa,

I want it all!

Seasons Greetings,

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December 07, 2006

The anti-recipe - a sensual journey through one woman's kitchen

Part two of the thought-provoking six-part Butterfly Effect meme has me pondering the single recipe or dish that has forever altered my "foodie life". This one's a challenge -- I can think of lots of candidates, most of them heirloom or signature dishes I've collected over the years from those who have most indelibly marked my journey with food:

The first and most obvious -- toothlatch -- the ricotta and chard ravioli that my family and I rolled out on an ironing board every Christmas season. A headliner on the Christmas Eve buffet table between the baccalau salad and the smoked salmon, my great grandmother's ravioli are the closest our family comes to an heirloom recipe -- at least from my father's side. But the story of passing the tradition on to my nephews will have to wait for another post...

From there the possibilities are endless: the neighbor who taught me how to make zucchini fritters from summer's bounty, Aunt Linda's signature torta di riso, Andy's grandmother's Rainier cherry pie, John's mom's saurbraten or her pommes frites.

Each of these dishes has its own story to tell (and tell it they will, in their own time). But after much deliberation, I decided the story behind THIS post lies in one of my first cooking classes at the hands and in the kitchen of my parents' friend Maria -- and her non-recipe for chiles rellenos.

At fourteen, I'd done my time as an American and Italian sous chef. My mirpoix passed both my father and Henriette's inspection for inclusion in the Thanksgiving stuffing. I could make a mean hollandaise and a bernaise sauce. And I'd assisted with prepping, rolling and stuffing several hundred pounds of the aforementioned toothlatch. I knew my way around a kitchen and a recipe. I was ready to broaden my horizons, tackle new techniques, new cuisines.

And Maria was happy to indulge me -- and to teach me how very much I didn't know.

In hindsight, I'm a bit embarrassed about how very little of Maria's story I know. She was born and raised in a small village of Mexico. Moving to California as a young adult in search of the proverbial American dream, she settled in Oakland where she lived for over 60 years -- and where she and her husband crossed paths with my parents and forged a lifelong friendship. I know she lived a difficult life in Mexico -- one she rarely spoke of. She was a strong, gentle, stoic woman -- a role model in ways it's taken me a lifetime to discover.

But back to the kitchen. That warm summer afternoon found me as confused as a Top Chef candidate staring at a vending machine searching for inspiration. Maria presented me with a list of ingredients. No quantities. No instructions. Just ingredients.

"What's this? a shopping list? Where's the recipe?"

She smiled her soft, patient smile and sighed, "There's no recipe." We were going to do this entirely by feel, by instinct. Gathering the chiles from the counter, the flour from the pantry, the eggs and cheese from the refrigerator, I knew I was out of my league. I also knew I was going to learn. I had no idea how very much.

I abandoned note taking almost immediately, realizing I'd miss more than I'd capture with that approach. In subsequent attempts to learn the kitchen secrets of my food friends I often employed a tape recorder. With Maria I simply stood back and absorbed as much as I could.

She taught me how to pick the best chiles from the batch, roast and peel them. How to determine when the egg whites had the right consistency. Where in the Mexican grocery to find the cheese -- no plain Monterey Jack would do. How to slice it so that it melted consistently. The proper proportion of egg yolk to flour -- and the pale lemon yellow of the yolk mixture when they had been beaten to perfection. Folding it all together and dipping in the stuffed chiles without breaking the batter. Frying them to crisp-tender and finishing them in a low oven.

I've made chiles rellenos a dozen or so times since that first lesson. I've almost always consulted a published recipe. But I've never used it as more than a guideline. More often than not, my result is a qualified success. And when it's not, I know why not. I added burned the chiles. Added too much flour to the egg yolk. The oil was too hot or not hot enough. And I can identify these same mistakes when I order them from a restaurant kitchen. I cannot eat a chile relleno without wondering what Maria would think.

Maria taught me that a large part of the cooking process is sensual, tactile. Not how much or how long or at what temperature. But how it looks, how it feels, how it tastes, how it smells. That's changed how I approach everything I make, from pancake batter to salad dressing. No matter how closely I follow the recipe, I also consider the texture, taste and color -- and I'm not afraid to adjust accordingly until it looks/feels/smells right.

You just can't get that out of a recipe or a cookbook. And although I don't have a treasured family recipe for Maria's chiles rellenos, I can't help but feel I have so very much more.

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December 06, 2006

A is for Avocado - One ingredient changes everything

"I remember when I was around 12 I learned about the three A's for the first time: asparagus**, artichokes**, and avocados. I think I tried all three for the first time in the same year, and they've been favorites of mine ever since." -David Reiley*

In my case I was eight, and it was avocados -- but not for the first time.

Until I was 8, I *hated* avocados.

The springtime salads of my childhood arrived at the table colorfully adorned with the colors of the Italian flag -- bright red raspberries or strawberries, crisp white jicama and buttery pale green avocados.

And I religiously picked the offending bits of avocado out and quarantined them on the edge of the plate, wiping my fork to eliminate all possible contamination.

Until one fateful afternoon midway through my eighth year.

I had a crush on the sandy-haired, hazel-eyed boy who sat behind me in school. The shy, quiet type. Introspective. Not terribly athletic. A smile that warmed me from the inside out. Sadly, he didn't seem to realize we shared oxygen.

I spent several weeks exploring my options. He was a smart kid, no candidate for a tutor. He displayed no interest in sports, so I couldn't impress him with my ability to hit a fast ball.

After much deliberation, I decided to seduce him with my secret weapon: my grandmother's amazing chocolate chip cookies.

I didn't know it at the time, but this would become a lifelong pattern for me. Many of my most memorable relationships -- romantic and platonic alike -- began with a shared love of food.

I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I had the attention of the object of my affection. He loved my cookies. In return he wanted to share his lunch with me. A super submarine sandwich on a deli roll. Stuffed with mortadella and salami, spicy brown mustard, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. And adorned with... avocado!?!?!?


I had zero experience with relationships, but I was confident that picking apart his sandwich might derail our budding romance. And worst case, he could infer from my reaction that I was picky or high maintenance and lose interest altogether.

Can't have that.

So I closed my eyes, opened my mind, and bit in.


I didn't gag. It wasn't bad. I took another bite. It was pretty good.

Who knew?

And in that moment I set another pattern in motion -- no matter what my previous experience with an ingredient or a recipe, if the future of my love life depends on it, I will close my eyes, open my mind, and swallow whatever's put in front of me. I haven't always LIKED it. But I have always been willing to stretch my culinary comfort zone in the name of love.

So where'd we go from there? Dave Reiley* and I swapped school photos and "went together" for a week and a half. After which he unceremoniously dumped me for the blonde who sat in the last row. Whose mother made fudge.

I soothed my heartache with the latest issue of Tiger Beat, a good friend with a broad shoulder, and a bowl of guacamole.

* Not the same David Reiley, but the coincidence was too good to pass up.

** For the record, asparagus and artichokes make my A-list too.

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December 05, 2006

Change one thing, change EVERYTHING

It has been said something as small as the flutter of a butterfly's wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world. -The Butterfly Effect, 2004

When writer's block strikes (as it will, after a marathon of more than thirty days) I find myself turning to some of the memes I've followed over the last year for inspiration. I spent the summer compelled by some of the most fascinating "what if" stories -- a result of Dan from Salt Shaker's Butterfly Effect meme.

The premise: expound on the the small, simple food items or events that forever altered the way you view the world. He offers the following categories:

1. An ingredient
2. A dish, a recipe
3. A meal (in a restaurant, a home, or elsewhere)
4. A cookbook or other written work
5. A food “'personality'” (chef, writer, etc.)
6. Another person in your life

Stay tuned: Between now and January 1 I will reflect on each of these categories individually, sharing the small epiphanies that have spurred my culinary curiosity...

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December 04, 2006

Playing with Sugar

Now I want a Sugar High Friday do-over.

Because if waited to attempt the Caramel Truffles until after Shuna showed us the "wet sand" method, I might've had a prayer.

Or at the very least I'd have known how to clean my saucepan...

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December 03, 2006

Spin chain and exchange the gears -- November's recipe roundup

Warning... I've got enough obscure square dance references to last me through several years worth of monthly recipe roundups.

Here's what I flagged for trying in November. Squash, persimmons, warm winter spices and goat cheese take center stage. Enjoy!

Kitchenography's Curly Endive Salad -- because everything tastes better with bacon & goat cheese!

Soups -- perfect rainy day lunch fare
A classic Pumpkin Soup from one of my first friends in the blog world, a Thai Spiced adaptation from Heidi @ 101 Cookbooks, or this sweet-savory version provided by The Passionate Cook.
A scientific approach to Cream of Mushroom Soup.
And Peabody temporarily trades her mixer and oven for a stockpot and blender as she shares an artery-clogging if soul-soothing Potato-Cheese Soup.

I'll soak up that soup with some of Joe's Onion & Fontina Beer Bread.
Sweet and savory and oh-so-seasonal: Gluten Free by the Bay's Roast Butternut Squash with Sage makes the perfect accompaniment to simply sauteed chicken breasts.
Vanilla Garlic's simple but sensational Potato Bake.
C for Cooking offers creative suggestions for Stuffed Squash.
Orangette's marvelous if disappearing Squash Puree.
A great application for leftover fall herbs: Je Mange la Ville's Herbed Biscuits.

Main Dishes:
Nothing says fall like strudel, and The Passionate Cook's Pumpkin & Chestnut concoction is just the remedy for a cold evening in.
Lex Culinaria shares a light but hearty Fish Dumpling recipe -- with a well-stocked pantry a pretty plate doesn't take hours to create.
Everyone's favorite Creampuff offers a soul-satisfying Butternut Squash Gratin. There's that goat cheese again...
The next time I need a W-O-W dish for a dinner party, I'm going to try Prosciutto-Wrapped Pesto-Stuffed Salmon from the Culinary Chase. Three ingredients. Almost zero preparation. Ultra-extravagant.

One brilliant application of November's answer to tropical fruit after another: Persimmon Madeleines from Cook & Eat and Simply Recipes' Persimmon Pudding Cake are two of my favorites.
After our recent home-run with Peabody's Pumpkin Cheesecake, almost everything she creates makes my list -- especially this creative employment of cranberries! She can improvise in MY kitchen any time...
"Bastardized" or no, Eating Suburbia's twist on a classic cookie is a must try!
Your heroine is glad that Julie gave into the holiday baking pressure -- and shared this Pumpkin Cake.
Just look at that photo -- yeah, I could eat the whole coffee cake.
Comfort food comes in all flavors -- and layers -- Foodbeam's take on Millionaire's Shortbread will drive the winter blahs into submission.
Salted Caramel is the new French Vanilla. I'll take two scoops Molly!

Onion Soup photograph courtesy of Cooking for Engineers. Cranberry Poundcake photograph courtesy of Culinary Concoctions by Peabody.

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December 02, 2006

Welcome Hollidailies Readers...

For those of you finding your way here through the Hollidailies website, welcome to my little corner of the world. Pull up a chair, grab some ice cream or a hearty bowl of soup. Join me on a tour of some of the bay area's best restaurants and farmer's markets. And allow me to share my "food philosophy...

Repeat after me: I am NOT a foodie. Yes, I have a passion for food -- how it's grown, how it's prepared, how it's marketed. What makes an efficient home kitchen. What makes a successful commercial kitchen.

But it's not about what's new and trendy and hot. I can be as happy with a Chicago-style hotdog on a park bench as the sleekest sexiest stunt sushi. Sometimes happier. Food is about family and friends and community. It offers me a connection to my past, an opportunity to learn, grow, create and share.

That's what this space is about. Sharing some of that with all of you.

Bon Appetit!

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December 01, 2006

Rites of passage

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was a week away from my sixth birthday. It was about 4:00 on a warm but breezy Tuesday afternoon. I was so excited I hadn't bothered to stop to change out of my uniform -- just tied the bright blue sweater around my waist.

I walked up the stone steps of the neighborhood Lbrary, reached up to open the heavy wooden door, walked up to the pretty lady with pink lipstick that matched her sweater who smiled at me warmly. I handed her a copy of the Highlights magazine that proved my residence and announced I wanted to apply for a library card.

Thus began what's been a life-long relationship with the library system.

Over the years it provided plenty of fodder for elementary school book reports. A wealth of informaton for high school projects and college theses. Its spacious couch was a comfortable perch to curl up with a good story on a drizzly afternoon. And one of my favorite community service projects was spending Thursday afternoons with my sorority sisters reading to young children just learning how exciting the world inside a book could be. More recently, its newspaper and local history collections provide windows to the past when I pitch in to help with a genealogy puzzle John's trying to solve.

And recently, the memories recounted above came flooding back as I once again stood in line at the reference desk to turn in an application for a library card. There's something simply awe-inspiring about the potential the little plastic card represents -- new and exciting cultures and climates and cuisines to explore.

In 1970-something, I started my journey through the library's collection with the story of Laura Ingalls and her pioneer family. Over 30 years later, I opt to explore the world through Tony Bourdain's eyes. No... let's not reflect on what these facts say about me psychologically...

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November 30, 2006

Nothing says 'festive' like... Fruitcake!

In my copious free time in the last few weeks I've been sifting through my parents' old recipes -- some of which I didn't even know existed -- but more on that in a future post. For now, just know I've found some real gems.

Among the collection is one of my favorite holiday memories of my late father. A sense memory of sorts.

A recipe originally published in the mid-seventies in the local newspaper that quickly found its way to the top of my father's gift-giving list, where it remained until his last Christmas some 20 years later.

A recipe almost perfect for Anna's call for contributions to her Festive Food Fair. What's more festive than a 6 pound Persimmon Fruit Cake?

I have several pounds of ripe persimmons on the counter begging to be put to good use. Most of the other ingredients reside somewhere in my kitchen. And then there's that persistent sense memory...

From the moment that persimmons hit the market each fall well into the Christmas season, barely a weekend went by without the sweet-spicy smell of persimmon cake wafting from the oven as it baked. We sent the finished cakes to family and friends in the Midwest and Arizona who were intrigued by the exotic flavor of this "strange California" fruit (long before a global economy put persimmons in the produce aisle of every mega-mart in the country). People who professed to hate fruitcake begged for a second (or third) shipment. Some offered to pay for additional cakes -- in today's environment, my childhood kitchen could have been the set of a Food Network Special showcasing a homegrown recipe gone commercial. And to this day, the smell of ripe persimmons beckons vivid memories of Christmas' past -- and my father's myriad contributions to them.

Yet when I ponder contributing Mo's infamous persimmon cake to the festive food fair, I hesitate...


Certainly not to protect an heirloom family recipe. Sharing these recipes and their stories with others -- even those I may never meet -- is a big part of what keeps them alive for me.

No dear reader, I hesitate because I HATE fruitcake. Or more accurately the brightly colored candied fruit that MAKES fruitcake. So while I crave the scent of the persimmon cake and the mental images it brings, having never tasted it, I can't really completely recommend it. And the thought of baking 6 pounds of it -- and then having to dispense of it -- leaves me hesitant.

So I reread the recipe. Again. With a creative eye. How can I make this work for me? The offending ingredient stares back at me in my mother's handwriting: 1 C candied mixed fruit. Can I leave it out? Or what can I substitute?

Convinced that a cake that smells this good can't taste bad I forge ahead, opting to include a blend of dried cranberries, cherries, and apples in place of the candied fruit. I include the recipe below as published for those of you who aren't offended by candied fruit and want to try it as is. Or tweak it in some other way to make it uniquely yours.

The oven is heating now. It's exactly the crisp-cold California afternoon for baking memory-inducing recipes of old, and I'm looking forward to being enveloped by the scent if not the ghost of Christmas' past.

Mo's Persimmon Fruit Cake (as published in the Oakland Tribune, circa 1970-something)
Yield: 1 Cake, about 6 pounds

3 cups persimmon pulp
1/2 cup California Muscatel
2 cups sugar
1 cup seedless dark raisins
1 cup muscat raisins
3 cups walnuts (Mo used a combination of pine nuts and pecans here -- so I did too)
1 cup candied mixed fruit
1 cup milk
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2/4 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking soda

In a large bowl, combine persimmon pulp, wine, sugar, raisins, nuts, mixed fruit and milk. Re-sift flour with spices, salt and soda. Add to persimmon mixture and mix well. Pour into well-greased 3 quart heavy-aluminum pan with glass cover, set in pan of hot water. Bake, covered, in moderate oven (350) for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, or until sides shrink away from pan. Remove cover for last 1/2 hour. Set pan on wire rack until cool. Invert pan on heavy foil wrap. Wrap and store in cool dry place or freeze. If desired, the cake can be baked in a 10-inch tube pan covered with aluminum foil.

Check this blog entry again in another couple of hours for a photo of the finished product, and the comments section for my thoughts on how it tastes.


UPDATE: Apologies to those of you patiently waiting to see how this turned out. And special thanks to Sarah, John and Brian who provide subtle and not-so-subtle reminders to come back with an update.

The verdict?

I'm a fruitcake convert!

At 6 pounds it's not a light cake, but it's got a sensational crumb and maintains moisture beautifully. Part spice cake, part fruit cake, part rum cake -- each of the flavor elements makes its presence known without overwhelming any of the others.

One warning: small slices. A little goes a long way!

Now go check out the other delectable contributions to Anna's Food Fair.

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November 29, 2006

Comfort food, indeed!

Okay, okay, there's only so much orange juice your heroine can drink in a 48 hour period.

There's a pound of sablefish in the refrigerator that's not going to last much longer.

A pound or so of organic new and German butter potatoes from last week's CSA delivery.

A pint of cream from my truffle adventure.

A Google search for "sablefish" + "potato" + "cream" nets this "comfort food" preparation. A cursory glance through the ingredient list... check. I've got almost everything. I toss aside the neon-wrapped loaf of ramen noodles I'd set out for dinner, roll up my sleeves and get to work.

First, the potatoes. I decide not to peel the red potatoes -- just scrub them well and toss them in the pot. Peel the German potatoes to reveal their buttery soft yellow flesh and quarter them. Add three smashed garlic cloves, a pinch of salt and leave them to boil away.

Moving on to the fish, I improvise a bit -- mixing a generous tablespoon of miso paste in with the butter and spreading it across the fish fillets. I've found inspiration in this recipe, but I'm still feverish and miso is one of the most restorative ingredinets I've ever worked with. Add a splash of leftover Viognier, and into the oven they go.

I prepare the mustard sauce as directed, using Mendocino Mustard's "Seeds and Suds" variety for both its palate-stimulating and sinus-clearing properties. Plus it made the sauce a rich yellow color.

The final result? I'm quie pleased. I was confident I'd enjoy the flavors but wasn't sure how the dish would plate -- a lot of white with touch of yellow? In the end it plated beautifully -- shades of yellow and white sprinkled with rich reds, greens and golds.

Comfort food. Delightfully simple yet at the sme time slightly indulgent comfort food. That looks pretty on a plate.

Moe over oatmeal. Make room orange juice. There's a new comfort food recipe in my repetoire.

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November 28, 2006

A diet of Tylenol, toast, and orange juice...

Yes, on Sunday night after an activity-filled but enjoyable holiday weekend, I uttered the words "I think I need another four days off."

This is not exactly what I had in mind.

Because while I have a pantry that would probably sustain me through four weeks of quarantine and the internet as my infinite library of recipes, I don't have the energy to lift a spoon let alone peel potatoes or marinate the cod in the 'fridge.

It took me an hour to unload the dishwasher this afternoon. The carrot soup recipe I unearthed for combining the bounty from this week's CSA box with Tammy's latest blogging event will have to wait.

Hopefully the advice nurse I spoke to is wrong -- and my symptoms DON'T indicate an acute sinus infection -- and I'll be back in action in the kitchen before the weekend.

Because Tylenol, toast, orange juice and ramen noodles just aren't inspiring...

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November 27, 2006

Dear Food Diary....

When Sam issued her holiday challenge last week I knew the challenge for me would be more in the presentation than the participation. Like many of you, my camera's almost always with me -- and photographing everything I eat isn't *that* much of a stretch from a normal day.

It surprised me then, over the course of the week when I started to weigh my food choices based on the challenge ahead. Not because I was hesitant to share with you my diet of Chicken McNuggets, Whoppers and Twinkies. No -- I found myself evaluating food not based on its nutritional value but on its photographic appeal. I discovered my usual mid-afternoon snack of a hunk of cheese with some nuts really doesn't photograph well. And like Sean, I was worried about the photographic results of my wine consumption. Not that you'd balk at 11 glasses of wine over the course of 7 days. But that they'd make an awfully boring collage.

Over the course of 7 days, I ate 42 different items. I ate at home, at work, at restaurants. In bright light and in candlelight. I ate alone, with family, and with friends. We cooked for others, and we ate what others prepared for us. Rather than bore you with 5 tubs of yogurt (my breakfast staple) and 11 glasses of wine, I've arranged my thirty-some photographs into representative collages.

Breakfast first, with it's dairy products and fruits.

Lunch, largely leftovers and takeout.

Dinner runs the gamut: The Thanksgiving feast made more meaningful having fed others first. A gathering of friends giving John and I a chance to play together in the kitchen. A series of simple "just us" suppers.

And one celebratory sumptuous dinner out.

Thanks Sam, for inspiring me to look at a week's worth of meals in a whole new way!

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November 25, 2006

Table for 6? I'll make the salad...

Top Chef fans will note that Carlos packed up his knives this week, largely because the judges felt his salad was an easy attempt to skate through the elimination challenge in the middle of the pack. Tom Colicchio went so far as to ask what he did with the rest of the four hours he had to work with.

Cutting edge or not, some of my favorite salad recipes are quite labor intensive. In response to Gabriella's call for favorite fall salads, I included a cool-weather standby on tonight's menu; a creation I euphemistically refer to as my "Thousand Calorie Salad".

Owing it's origins to this recipe, production begins with toasting and then candy-ing the almonds. Yes, I could just as easily buy them in a bag. No, they don't taste nearly as good. This part of the project was actually far more tedious (and occasionally painful -- hot caramel BURNS) before the advent of the silpat.

The Candied-Almond Process:

Line cookie sheet with clean Silpat. Mix 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil without stirring until mixture turns deep amber color, brushing down the sides of the pan with a damp pastry brush as necessary. Remove from heat and stir in almonds. Immediately pour onto prepared Silpat, spreading almonds out to the edges in a single layer. Allow to cool and harden.

Time-consuming step two in the Thousand Calorie Salad centers around the salad dressing itself. will tell you that it takes 20 minutes to reduce 4 cups of cider to 1/2 cup. would be L-Y-I-N-G. It typically takes upwards of an hour. But it is an hour well spent. The viscosity and the sweetness of the reduced-then-chilled cider creates one of the most complex sweet salad dressings I've ever encountered.

The Salad Dressing Process:

Boil 4 cups apple cider in heavy large saucepan until reduced to 1/2 cup. Transfer to 1 cup Pyrex container and refrigerate (2-3 hours will produce a nice viscosity). Remove from refrigerator and whisk in 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons each minced shallot and Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon poppy seeds. Gradually whisk in 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil. (The original recipe calls for 1 cup olive oil, but I found that produced too heavy a dressing).

What happens next depends on what ingredients I have on hand and on how I intend to serve the salad. I typically toss 10-14 ounces of lettuce (butter lettuce and romaine both work very nicely, endive and radicchio add a pleasant bitterness) with sliced apples of whatever variety I have handy and/or a handful of candied cranberries, plus a small red onion that I've sliced finely and soaked to remove some of its punch. If I'm going to serve the salad straight out of a single bowl, I toss 10-12 ounces of crumbled goat cheese in at this point too, adding the dressing and the candied nuts immediately before the salad hits the table.

If I'm going to plate individual salad servings, I dress the goat cheese up a bit. I slice a log into disks 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, dredge them in nutmeg-seasoned panko crumbs, and pan fry them lightly until the bread-crumbs darken and the cheese softens a bit. I plate the lettuce mixture across the requisite number of servings, add a couple of goat cheese disks, a small handful of the nut brittle and drizzle the dressing lightly over the top.

This salad pairs nicely with hearty, meaty fall fare -- such as the Individual Beef Wellingtons and French Onion Soup with which we served it tonight.

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November 24, 2006

Following Turkey comes... Chocolate!

The Passionate Cook dedicates Sugar High Friday #25 to the devine, the sinful, the delicious: chocolate truffle. The catch? She's expecting us to MAKE them.

I've surfed around. A lot of you are good at this candy-making thing. REALLY good. Bordering on professional-good. My candy-making endeavors to date include fudge, caramel corn, and a failed attempt at divinity.

I have a lot to learn.

And I realize my limitations -- I'm not going to wing it on this one. I'm counting on Google for some tried-and-true recipes to get me through.

What better way to spend the Friday after Thanksgiving than freckled with chocolate? White chocolate for the Limoncello Truffles. Bittersweet chocolate for the Caramel Truffles. Milk chocolate for the Nutella Truffles.

I opt to start slowly, with what looks like the most idiot-proof preparation: the Nutella truffles. Plus if I fail, I've still got 3/4 of an open jar of Nutella and a spoon... I assemble the ingredients, boil the cream mixture, add the chocolate, and let stand as directed. So far, so good. I like a recipe that gives me time to clean-as-I-go. Whisk in the Nutella and refrigerate.

On to Limoncello. I struggle a little here -- enough to forgo the digital camera for a bit. I have no problem infusing the cream with the lemon zest, but by the time I've strained it, it's not warm enough to melt two ounces of white chocolate, let alone 8. So I return the mixture to a saucepan over a VERY low flame and whisk like heck until I have meltage. Into the refrigerator next to the Nutella it goes...

I take one look at the Epicurious recipe for the Caramel Truffles and practically punt the camera out a window. It's not technically difficult, but it's a lot of steps for one person. So I concentrate on executing and save the photography for the end product.

Ganache is in the refrigerator now, and as soon as I hit "publish post" here, I'll begin truffle assembly. Stay tuned for an update with the outcome -- and more photographs!

8:00 PM Update: Production complete. Tasty, but time consuming and not terribly pretty. I'm glad I tried my hand at truffles, but I'll probably go back to paying $4.00 a piece at the local chocolatier.

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November 23, 2006

Giving thanks by giving back

Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action. (W.J. Cameron)

We''ve talked about it for years.

Dispensing with the stress of of who is hosting, what's on the menu, and what to do with all of that leftover turkey.

Heading instead to the local food bank or a homeless shelter or some organization helping others and offering our services for the day.

When we talked to Daniel and discovered he was again working with the local chapter of Loaves and Fishes, opening the restaurant and preparing a traditional Thanksgiving feast to feed the homeless, we knew that this was the year we were going to do it. A chance to spend the afternoon playing in a commercial kitchen AND contribute to the community in the process? What a deal!

Service was scheduled from 2-6 PM, so we showed up promptly at 1 and rolled up our sleeves to get to work. Tracy finished up the last of a dozen pumpkin pies while Heather tackled the mashed potatoes, John prepped turkey parts for the gravy, and Daniel and I assembled a plantain gratin -- plan B if we ran out of sweet potatoes.

But with 2 - 18 pound turkeys, two large vats each of potatoes and stuffing, a gallon of cranberry chutney, 10 dozen rolls and several pounds of veggies for sauteeing --- plus extra containers with several servings of vegetarian options for each of the sides -- we weren't likely to run out.

From the gratin I moved to the vegetable saute station under Daniel's expert direction, while John whipped a half gallon of cream for topping the pies.

While we spent the majority of our afternoon in the kitchen -- other volunteers waited the tables in the dining room -- we familiarized ourselves with the menu options in case there was a rush and we needed to switch gears. Our dining room volunteers offered each guest a beverage: milk, coke, diet coke, sprite, iced tea, coffee or water. They could then select from white meat, dark meat or vegetarian, and servers inquired about nut or other food alergies. Children (and there were a few) could choose vanilla ice cream in place of the pie for dessert.

After climing over one another creating the first few plates the process princess in me and the professional chef in Daniel kicked in and we created a makeshift line that worked pretty well right and left-handed alike.

Roll on a pie plate in the oven. Check.

Potatoes at 12:00, dressing at 3. Turkey over the top, and a ladel of dressing over the entire ensamble. Check.

One step to the right, add sweet potatoes at 6. The sauteed vegetables -- 3 carrots, a quarter cup or so of cabbage and a broccolini spear -- at 9. Check.

Pull the roll from the oven and add it to the center of the plate. Check.

Hand the enitre ensamble to Heather, who added the cranberry sauce before delivering to the table.

In the end we served 18 dinners over the course of 4 hours -- we might have seen a larger turnout if public transportation had been an option, but it doesn't run in Contra Costa County on Thanksgiving.

The biggest surprise for both of us was the amount of food waste. While some of our early guests requested seconds -- not sure where or when their next meal might be -- most plates came back largely untouched. I think back to the stories my parents told about the depression -- how grateful hungry families were for whatever the soup kitchen served -- and I don't know how to parse the waste I witnessed. I just know it bothers me.

In spite of the food waste, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It was fun to play in a real restaurant kitchen. And both interesting and educational to work with Daniel and his team. And uptimately reaching out and helping other human beings -- that's what Thanksgiving's about to me.

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November 22, 2006

The Melting Pot (Larkspur)

We've been to La Fondue in Saratoga a couple of times. Once early in our relationship -- an experience with dining companions that we still ponder 11 years later. There's a huge difference between commenting that the chocolate course demands licking the bowl and actually picking it up and using one's beard as a brillo pad. I will never forget the look on our waiter's face.

We've also journeyed to the much lower key Fondue Fred -- with the aforementioned dining companion and a pack of his Star Trek loving friends. We enjoyed the cheese and the chocolate, and ignored the freaks speaking in Klingon.

So when a summertime visit to friends in Marin left us with an open evening and a recently opened Melting Pot in Larkspur, we were eager to check it out. Even with the caveat that it would cost us $30-40 each. Frankly, we figured that was a bargain in Marin County.

We chose the Pacific Rim three course fondue dinner -- traditional Swiss cheese fondue, a salad course, and Asian-inspired dippers like teriyaki sirloin, duck breast, chicken breast, shrimp and the somewhat strange potstickers, cooked tableside in a bouillon broth.

Despite the Emeril-sized dollop of garlic our waitress enthusiastically added to the pot, the cheese course was delightful -- buttery, creamy, slightly sweet, utterly decadent.

I selected the seasonal strawberry salad and was quite pleased. For the product of a chain restaurant whose specialty is NOT fresh produce it was excellent. John went with the mushroom salad and was far less enthralled with the button mushrooms tossed with iceburg lettuce in a standard Italian vinaigrette. But we didn't come for the salad.

The main course was little more than adequate. The dipping selections were plentiful -- but not terribly interesting. The dipping SAUCES -- specifically a green goddess dressing that was recommended paired with the veggies -- were the highlight of this course.

None of the chocolate courses on the menu spoke to us -- we're generally of the less-is-more and premium-is-ideal school of chocolates so "Chocolate S'mores" and "Cookies & Cream - Marshmallow Dream" sounded like a bit of overkill. In the end we opted for a simple dark chocolate with a shot of Grand Marnier for a hint of orange flavor. They went a little nuts with the dippers here - the fresh fruit was lovely, but marshmallows? They're clearly aiming at a family audience, providing something for every palate.

One final commemnt -- given that this is a chain establishement aiming at a mainstream middle-American family demographic, the menu is a little -- schizophrenic. We've done the fondue thing before and we found the menu confusing -- we'd have been completely lost as beginners. Fortunately, the waitstaff is friendly and well-versed in how it all fits together. But a newbie diner with a newbie waiter might find the experience a bit overwhelming.

In the end, if you're in the bay area looking for a romantic fondue experience, plan ahead and make a reservation for two at La Fondue in Saratoga. If you're in a larger group and looking for a budget cheese-and-chocolate experience, take BART to Fondue Fred. Save Melting Pot (additional establishements opening soon in Pleasanton, San Mateo & Walnut Creek) for smaller groups looking to explore traditional and non-traditional fondue in a relaxed, family-style atmosphere.

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