Faking French

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The end of summer is fast approaching. I reflect on this season and take pride in the two vacations my family enjoyed; first to New York for our family reunion, then to Shasta Lake for a week of water play. This is all well and fine, but to know me is to know that I have a Grand Canyon-sized travel bug, especially in the summer and sadly it feels unfulfilled.

I’ve suffered through friend’s Facebook updates from France, Croatia, Hawaii, & Mexico and I have felt a palpable ache inside to be somewhere more romantic, more exotic – especially France.

That daily fantasy of gallivanting off to France, frolicking through the countryside, apprenticing at a goat cheese dairy, sampling every cheese in every fromager in Paris, sipping an artful café au lait at an outdoor café watching the sharply dressed world go by, has to remain just that for now – a fantasy. Here is my life in the Bay Area demanding my attention: school, childcare, full-time employment, a mortgage, and all of the other pressures piled high on my plate.

So what to do with this can’t-fly-off-to-Paris angst? Cook French food! Yesterday afternoon, after arranging a culinary play-date with my close friend Cecile – who just returned from three weeks in her native France – I planned a menu that included coq au vin, a savory roasted early-girl tomato tart, just-picked arugula tossed in a homemade vinaigrette, and bittersweet chocolate pot de crème for dessert. Not to mention the stinky French brie for an appetizer.

With a close girlfriend at my side and a glass of chilled white wine in my hand, we effortlessly fell into sync assembling the coq au vin. I had a cookbook open, but I followed my friend’s lead and observed her make a roux like this was everyday-business. Cecile had never made coq a vin, but she naturally took the lead and helped me to produce what smelled and tasted authentic and mouth-watering.  

Caleb and Sadie had helped make the chocolate pot de crèmes earlier in the day, which were cooling in the fridge. After preparing the tart dough in the morning, I quickly assembled the savory, custardy, tomato and anchovy-filled tart alongside Cecile and placed it in the oven. Finally, we assembled the arugula with vinaigrette, set the table, poured the Bordeaux, and we were off to France!

While not the same as an airplane ticket in hand, or a baguette jutting out of my bicycle basket while peddling through the streets of Paris, this meal was fulfilling on many levels. Truly delicious and very satisfying, every bite held promise that one day – perhaps not too far off from now – I could be enjoying this meal in France.

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8 Simple Steps to Fabulous Homemade Sushi

Sadie Preparing Sushi RiceMixing sushi rice

If you have been paying any attention to my ramblings, you may have gathered by now that I delight in cooking with Caleb and Sadie! Sharing my passion for food likely stems from the fact that my parents were foodies before it was cool to be called one.

Back in the mid-eighties, my father and I strengthened our already close bond over a hands-on sushi making class at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. Key takeaways: a) have all of your ingredients at the ready when you’re ready to roll, b) it’s much cheaper to make sushi at home, and c) don’t prepare sushi on an empty stomach!

Family assembling sushi togetherTa-da!!

Caleb and Sadie have eaten plenty of sushi in their short collective lifetime. We have even made Korean sushi (kimbap) before, but we have never made traditional Japanese sushi together. To prepare for our sushi-making adventure, I shopped at the local Ranch 99 for the ingredients we needed. On Saturday morning I prepared the sushi rice with Sadie’s help, then set it aside. Mid-day, we chopped the ingredients, and then put everything into small bowls for small hands.

Toward dinner time, the family gathered around the dining table to begin making sushi. Our ingredients included sushi rice, sashimi grade salmon and tuna, masago (fish row), cucumbers, avocado, wasabi, and of course the nori (seaweed). Our neighbor Mindy, lent us an ingenious wooden sushi-making contraption called Maki Sushi Ki. This made assembling our rolls a little easier for the kiddos. It might even be considered cheating!

Little sushi chefsHandsome husband

In full disclosure, making sushi with the kiddos was a little exasperating at first. With sticky rice hands flying everywhere and fish eggs (among other ingredients) falling on the floor, I had to take a deep breath and remind myself to be a patient teacher -and- to enjoy myself in the process. This helped. Before long, we were all feeling excited and accomplished as our rolls piled up on cutting board.

It was time to slice up our sushi rolls (maki) and arrange them on the platters. Mateo had a lovely idea to bring everything out to the patio, since it was still sunny and mostly warm outside. He poured me some warm saki and a glass of wine for himself. Caleb wanted to play the role of ‘waiter’, so we applauded and cheered as he carefully walked each platter out to the patio table. I created a Japanese-themed station on Pandora, then we got Caleb and Sadie settled at the table.

Our homemade sushi rolls were fresh tasting and delicious. We even assembled a sashimi platter from the extra fish. This was such a delightful and memorable cooking project. Caleb even remarked that this was “the best night ever!” I felt the same.

Recipe for sushi rice

Caleb inhales sushiDinner

A Korean Feast Like No Other

Chapchae DinnerThere are a multitude of reasons for why I love living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Being able to travel the world through ethnic cuisine is on my short list. Having long been a fan of Korean food, I was particularly thrilled when our neighbor Soonoak invited my family and one other over for a chapchae cooking lesson. I didn’t just jump at the chance, I did a pirouette, a back flip, and threw in a few break dance moves to underscore my enthusiasm!

Late Sunday afternoon, my family showed up on Glenn and Soonoak’s doorstep. Upon crossing the threshold, I could immediately smell deliciousness. Glancing over at the counter, I was excited to see sliced kimbap rolls. I had definitely come to the right place! The other family soon arrived and within minutes, rice wine and soju (Korean vodka) were being poured into small sake cups, more food was being placed on the counter, and conversation was flowing. One of the greatest pleasures of the evening was getting to know my neighbors better. Learning about their interesting careers, their families, and what brought them to El Cerrito.

A Korean custom we were taught was that the drinker never pours their own drink. It is not uncommon to clear your throat as a sign of needing a fill-up. Jokingly, we all got into the swing of clearing our throats throughout the night and sure enough, the drinks did not stop flowing. I found it particularly amusing that our gracious hostess, who had initially declined the opportunity to be photographed for my blog, warmed up to the camera after a few shots, posing with great animation.

Chapchae Dinner

After grazing on kimbap, chive omelets, kimchee pot stickers, rice cakes with soy bean powder, and spicy seasoned cucumbers, we finally sat down to feast on our chapchae. We gave the kids an amuse bouche of brown rice balls, sprinkled with fish roe, seaweed, and sesame oil (that I mixed by hand with traditional plastic cooking gloves under Soonoak’s guidance. Remind me to invent a version that doesn’t burn your fingers when handling rice just out of the cooker!) The rice balls were a clear hit with Caleb.

The star of the show, our chapchae, was outrageously good. The perfect meal to warm your belly on a crisp autumn evening, it consisted of warm cellophane noodles (made from sweet potato), tossed with sautéed onions, carrots, spinach, bell pepper, mung bean sprouts, marinated beef, sesame oil, and other seasonings. The chapchae, as well as the other Korean delicacies we prepared, including a refreshing dessert of sliced Korean pears and apples, was far better than what I’ve tasted in restaurants. I am so proud of our collective effort and am grateful to Soonoak and Glenn for opening up their home and treating us to a fabulous Korean cooking lesson amongst neighbors, who I can now call “friends.”

I have already begun dreaming up the cooking demonstration I would host. I’m thinking a cheese, wine, and food pairing. Not exactly the Eastern European cuisine of my people, but an invitation I would bust another one of my break dance moves for any day.

Oh Mexico

“Oh, Mexico
It sounds so simple I just got to go
The sun’s so hot I forgot to go home
Guess I’ll have to go now”

–James Taylor

Our family just returned from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. With the Pacific Ocean at our feet, the sun above our heads, and the lush mountains at our backs, we devoured our time together and all the delicious food we came in contact with.

We feasted on the freshest seafood (mariscos), cooled off with fruit filled paletas (popsicles), enjoyed mango on a stick, shrimp on a stick, juice from a coconut, flan, rice pudding, fajitas, guacamole, and the freshest salsa that tasted so right because we were eating it in Mexico…I could truly go on.

Caleb was particularly adventurous when it came to our food adventures. I’ve never seen him consume so many quesadillas and plates of coconut shrimp in his six years on this planet. Sadie was thrilled to have so many ripe avocados available to her. Mateo and I were clearly in food heaven too.

I can still hear Caleb and Sadie’s laughter as we all ran along the beach, the sound of the waves crashing on the shore below our condo, feel the sun on my face, and the bug bites on my legs. Our time together in Puerto Vallarta was muy delicioso!

Little Dumplings

Last year, Caleb and I participated in a fabulous empanada-making class taught by our friends, Simran and Stacie of A Little Yumminess fame.

Not only did we make by hand a variety of delicious empanadas, we were also treated to a demonstration of one of their most popular recipes, easy-peasy dumplings. Following the demonstration, Simran handed out the recipe and we came away excited to re-create them at home. We had made pot-stickers and dumplings before, but I was impressed with how easy (hence the name) these were to make and how delightful they were to gobble up. It was also clear that this would be a hit with my dumplings.

After long last, it came time to make these bite-sized treats in our own kitchen. Hoping that it wasn’t too much of an undertaking for a weeknight, I shopped for the ingredients after work, picked up the kids, and drove home to embark on our dumpling making adventure. In no time, I had the ingredients laid out on the kitchen table, and Caleb and Sadie at my side ready to make some delicious dumplings. Caleb mixed all the ingredients in a bowl and Sadie assisted some. I placed the won-ton skins out on a mat and let the kids take turns using a tiny spoon to dole out the filling onto the wrappers. While the water was coming to a boil on the stove, Caleb brushed the wrappers with egg wash and both kiddos took turns folding and sealing the dumplings with their tiny hands. As busy as we were, it was a sweet sight to step back and behold.

We experimented with two different cooking methods – first steaming, then boiling. We were most successful with the boiling method – not too much water at a medium boil in a large pot. The dumplings didn’t stick together and they looked appetizing and ready to enjoy. We could hardly wait to eat them. Before sitting down to dinner, I made the easy dipping sauce from the recipe and placed it in individual ramekins. I found that tripling the recipe made enough to go around for my little soy sauce junkies.

Caleb and Sadie very quickly gobbled up their creations before I could even ask what they thought. It was evident that our easy-peasy dumplings were a weeknight hit. What a gratifying (and tasty) treat! Not just making these delicious dumplings, but having a great excuse to spend some special time with my kiddos in the kitchen, at the beginning of a busy week ahead. They clearly enjoyed taking part in the dumpling production and I appreciated how easy it was to pull together.

Make these at home (try pan frying for instant pot-stickers!) and let me know what you think! Click here for the recipe and for more inspiration, do check out my friend’s website: A Little Yumminess - it will very quickly become a favorite destination when in need of cooking and eating inspiration for your little dumplings.

Kimbap – It’s How We Roll

Growing up in San Francisco’s Richmond District, I was exposed to kimbap, Korean style sushi, at an early age. I would skip down to the local Korean market and for a few dollars, make off with a tray of delicious, sesame oil scented kimbap.

I have a fondness for these Korean rice rolls, which are frequently filled with seasoned rice, marinated beef (bulgogi), fishcake, cooked egg, carrots, spinach, daikon, cucumbers, even kimchi. When my friend Mary – who was born in Korea and raised in Southern California – offered to teach me how to make them, I jumped at the opportunity.

Mary and her older son Christian came over in the late afternoon for our kimbap lesson. Christian and Caleb are buddies and met through Sadie’s childcare program. The boys ran out into the backyard, while Mary and I prepped the kimbap ingredients, some of which we had prepared in advance. Once the ingredients were laid out and we had cooked the bulgogi (which Mary purchased raw and marinated at a local Korean market in Oakland), we got to rolling.

This is how we roll

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As we assembled our kimbap, Mary offered “I heard once that the Japanese eat with their eyes, Chinese eat with their stomachs, and Korean’s eat with their mouths.” She was referring to how much Korean’s value good flavor in their food. I then added “…and Jews, we just eat and eat and eat!” We laughed.

The boys came into the kitchen for a brief lesson in kimbap making and each took turns adding ingredients to a roll, which we then helped them roll up in a bamboo sushi mat. When we brought them some neatly sliced pieces of kimbap, they quickly gobbled them up and ran back to their game playing in the backyard. I don’t think Caleb grasped just how excited I was to be making this exotic snack from my childhood. That’s okay.

This was a fabulous cross-cultural exchange that I enjoyed immensely. Thanks to Mary for the kimbap lesson. If you want a helpful visual of a kimbap recipe, just click here.

Something to Chaat About

We may be house- and childcare-poor, but Mateo and I consider ourselves to be quite family-rich. World travel just isn’t in the cards for the time being. To seek out the exotic, we head out for good things to eat in our little corner of the San Francisco Bay Area. Today, we went on a lunchtime food adventure to Vik’s Chaat Corner in Berkeley.

Already apprehensive about bringing our kiddos to a “spicy food” restaurant, it didn’t help matters when as we were walking toward Vik’s, we witnessed a young boy retching violently into a potted plant outside the front door; his mother hovering over him (turns out this was not a bad omen, as his family was just entering the restaurant, not leaving). Mateo and I very quickly ushered Caleb and Sadie inside with reassurances that they would not meet the same fate.

Beyond the front doors and through the narrow Indian market leading into the restaurant, my senses were flooded with intoxicating Indian fragrances and the promise of exotic and delightful things to eat. We watched crowds of hungry people of all walks of life, flood the line toward the front counter. Mateo and an already weary looking Sadie quickly grabbed a table, while Caleb and I stood in line with great excitement. I was overwhelmed by all of the Chaat choices on the chalkboards above our heads. Chaat is a term describing savory snacks, typically served from road-side stalls or carts in India. We are fortunate to have in our midst, an abundance of restaurants featuring these delectable and most affordable treats.

Wanting to appeal to everyone’s food tastes, I ordered the vegetable samosa (fried puffed-pastry appetizer filled with potatoes, peas, onions, and spices), lamb biryani (seasoned rice entree with fall-off-the-bone lamb), a large cholle bhature for Caleb (huge puff of hollow, fried dough, larger than your head), pani puri (bite-sized crispy puffs, filled with curried chickpeas, yogurt, spices, and tamarind chutney), mango lassi (amazing tart yogurt and mango drink), and a handful of desserts of primary colors. Not knowing which desserts to choose from the expansive case filled with an overwhelming assortment of handmade treats, I asked the Indian man behind the cash register if he’d pick out some of his favorites. I’m not usually a huge fan of Indian desserts, but he did not let us down. After lunch, our desserts were gone in a flash.

I wanted to make my friend Simran proud by telling her that Caleb was venturing toward the spicier, more exotic food choices. Instead, he took comfort in the ‘tame’, as he hoarded the cholle bhature (fried dough), his mango lassi, and most of the dessert. Sadie only took bird-sized nibbles of the biryani as her eyelids got heavier with sleep. We’ll get there, I have no doubt. For now, my kids aren’t huge fans of the spicier foods. Give them stinky French cheese though and they’re the happiest little budding foodies.

We left Vik’s with enchanted taste-buds, full bellies, and a very tired Sadie-bug. We headed out to the parking lot feeling very satisfied and world-traveled. It was time to head home to put Sadie down for a nap.

Vik’s Chaat Corner is located at 2390, Fourth Street in Berkeley, CA.

A Time in Ireland

Sheperds Pie with Cheddar Topping

In the early eighties, I left San Francisco and headed off for a six-month adventure in Dublin, Ireland. I went to live with my sister Jody and experience life in another country.

I arrived on a typical Dublin day; cold, wet, and dreary. I was ecstatic when I set eyes on Jody in the airport. She had come with her friend “Jacko” to pick me up. I was missing her immensely, since she left San Francisco to follow a flame to Dublin. My parents seized the opportunity to send their tween-angst-filled daughter off to Ireland – a much needed break for them and an exciting opportunity for me to visit my big sister, 13 years my senior.

Right away, Jody enrolled me in St. Catherine’s, a Catholic Montessori in Dublin. There, I learned to sing Catholic hymns beautifully (a huge departure from all of the songs I had learned in Jewish summer camp), prepare shepherds pie, and learn basic Gaelic, which I’m sad to say, has come in handy not at all! Not only was I the school’s only Jewish student, but I was the lone American. Classmates were fascinated by me, tempted to poke sticks at me, and unsure of what to make of this curly-haired, left-wing-raised, wacky kid from San Francisco.

After school, I occasionally took disco classes in downtown Dublin, or played around in the open field outside our house with a neighbor friend.

In need of extra-curricular activities, I quickly learned the ‘lay of the land’ in Jody’s kitchen, which she shared with her boyfriend and another couple who rented the house with them. In their kitchen, was a giant sack of potatoes slumped against the wall next to the oven. Cooking – already my most beloved hobby – was something I very quickly took solace in. Taking advantage of this wealth of potatoes in our kitchen was a welcomed challenge. On a regular basis, I would return from school and make either French fries (“chips”) or potato latkes.

Jody’s Jewish friends very quickly caught onto the afternoon latke making tradition and would occasionally show up unannounced, lining up on the front stoop with plate and fork in hand. Okay, I think it was just one friend, but I was clearly very popular with her.

My mom came to pick me up from Dublin at the end of the school year. We met up with my father in London, and then traveled to Denmark to visit family. As much as I was thrilled to spend a large chunk of time with my sister, I was understandably eager to travel back home with my folks and return to the familiar.

Back in San Francisco, I proudly showed off my Irish brogue (lasting all but two weeks), shepherds pie expertise, disco moves, and a new-wave music catalog, which hadn’t yet made its way to the States. I was thinking I was pretty cool.

Last night, St. Patrick’s Day Eve, I made shepherds pie with Caleb and Sadie. This dish allowed me to tell tales of my time in Ireland, while hanging out with my kiddos at the end of a long week.

After we polished off our hearty Irish comfort-food, we ended the meal with ice cream sundaes made with Strauss Family Farms Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, toasted almonds, and warm fleur de sel caramel sauce. Caleb played us an after dinner tune on his guitar and I reflected a bit on the past 30 years. Interesting thing, this life continuum. I love what I have learned and have taken with me along the way, and the opportunities I now have to share these parts of my personal tapestry with my children.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Click for shepherds pie recipe (Addition: add shredded cheddar before placing in oven.)

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream with Toasted Almonds and Salted Caramel Sauce

An Irish Ballad