An Unforgettable Visit to the North Pole

Toward the end of November, my family drove to Sacramento for a long-awaited, magical journey to the North Pole on the Polar Express.

This annual Christmas season offering from the California State Railroad Museum is what memories are made of and the tickets sell out in a hot second. This year, after taking out a membership to the museum, Mateo was savvy enough to jump on-line at just the right time to secure four tickets for our family.

We arrived at the Sacramento train station in the early afternoon and after retrieving our tickets from will-call, all we had to do was look for families with pajama-clad children walking toward a classic steam train waiting expectantly on the tracks. We purchased a pair of Polar Express PJ’s for Sadie (Caleb was apparently way too cool to put on a pair), then we eagerly waited in line. Volunteers in classic railroad costume greeted and welcomed us, truly setting the tone for the fantasy journey ahead. Caleb and Sadie were all smiles and just over-the-moon when the time had come to board the train.

We quickly found our seats and then the train exited the station. On our way to the North Pole, we were greeted by a conductor who stamped our tickets, and then entertained by a hobo and a cast of other actors who reenacted scenes from the movie. Dancing up and down the aisle with hot chocolate and cookies, we eventually were offered our own individual Polar Express branded mugs with piping hot (and perfectly mediocre) hot chocolate, along with soft, fresh-baked cookies. The train rode along side the Sacramento river, making a gorgeous backdrop to this unforgettable excursion. The kiddos were in heaven and Mateo and I were feeling triumphant as parents who aim to make lasting, positive memories.

Eventually, our train arrived at its destination: the North Pole. Santa and his elves (several hot chicks in costume) were at the station outside the train, waiving at us, while packing and arranging Christmas gifts for the children of the world. Most of the kids on the train ran to the window to wave back at Santa and his crew. Once the train moved on, a very special visitor came on board and greeted each of the children – Santa himself. I was tickled by all of the thought they put into this exceptional train experience, which was bound to make perfect lifelong memories for our children.

The efforts by the volunteers dressed up in period costume, the crazy hobo who kept running up and down our car, the hot chocolate and fresh cookies, having the book read to us by a grandfatherly voice over the speaker system – all of this was just extraordinary. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m so glad we made this a part of our holiday plans this year – a wonderful way to end the year.

Happy Holidays from the Soltero Family!

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Fairy Princess of the N Judah (and Other Tales of the City)

In our last installment, Sadie and Caleb were spared the wrath of the wild dingoes and dragged through yet another agonizing food adventure [insert tiny-violin concerto here]. Caleb had been dangling a rain-check over my head to ride MUNI around San Francisco…the time had come to cash it in. Funny how we frequently expose our children to exotic cuisine and enviable food adventures around the Bay Area, yet they nag and fantasize about riding the MUNI, which was not something Mateo nor I took any youthful pleasure in.

After driving in just after the lunch hour on Saturday, we pulled into a parking spot in front of Ton Kiang Restaurant on Geary for some of the best dim sum the City has to offer. Before Mateo could even take the key out of the ignition, the kids and I ran into the restaurant, up the stairs to the second floor, and began ordering and eating in a manic flurry of hunger and excitement. Mateo soon joined us and we dined on steamed and baked pork buns, char siu stuffed rice noodle rolls, pork shumai, foil-wrapped chicken, custard buns, and other delectable bites.

Sufficiently stuffed, we drove across the park to the Sunset District, parked and then walked over to a N Judah metro stop. On board, Caleb especially, could barely contain his excitement. Their enthusiasm was magnetic and other passengers fell into easy conversation with us. One young woman described Sadie, in her fluffy pink tutu, as “The Fairy Princess of the N Judah.”

Once the initial excitement wore off, we jumped off the train at Duboce park and walked over to a local playground. Eventually, we were back on the N Judah headed for Cole Valley. At Carl and Cole, we exited the train and headed over to Say Cheese, a sweet yet pricey cheese shop. After happily sampling our way across the counter, I settled on a large hunk of Challerhocker, a nutty Swiss alpine cheese. We brought the cheese and some chocolate over to what used to be Tasajara Bakery – now La Boulange, where we sipped on artful lattes and vanilla steamers for the kiddos. I treasure memories of going to Tasajara on Sunday mornings with my parents, sitting around drinking coffee milk, which felt very ‘adult’ to me, and eating a blueberry cheese Danish.

By the end of our day of traveling on MUNI and eating our way through some of my favorite neighborhoods, it was time to return back home. Rain-check redeemed, family happily fed, and kiddos wiped out from a day of adventure. Successful day? Check!

How Not to Feed Your Children to Wild Dingoes

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Last year, around this time, my family enjoyed a lovely day-trip to Point Reyes. It was a memorable day, which is why I documented it and named the post Ten Steps to Enlightenment.

This weekend, we returned to Point Reyes and the experience left much to be desired. Quite frankly, Caleb was acting premenstrual, bringing kvetching to a whole new level. Mateo and I returned home exhausted, ready to sell our children on the black market. In the spirit of that last trip to Point Reyes; a new top-ten list:

How Not to Feed Your Children to Wild Dingoes

  1. Don’t hop in the car on a gorgeous Saturday morning with promises of a fun road trip to be had. I don’t want to go on adventure. I want to stay home! Why do we always have to go on adventures?
  2. Don’t neglect to feed your children enough food prior to hitting the road. You never let me eat food. Do you want me to starve?
  3. Don’t drive to Point Reyes with promises of delicious cheese to be had at Cowgirl Creamery. I don’t want to eat outside, there are too many bees. What, do you want to get stung to death?
  4. Don’t buy your children gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. This doesn’t taste like grilled cheese and why does Sadie get all of the macaroni? No fair!
  5. Don’t drive to a beautiful coastal town with hopes of taking a family walk along the cliffs overlooking the sea. I’ve been walking all week. My legs hurt and I don’t want to move any more.
  6. Don’t get caught in a 20 minute traffic jam in the middle of a gorgeous state park surrounded by redwoods. Why can’t I listen to my station? Can you turn the music louder? When are we going?
  7. Don’t suggest a rain-check for something you said “no” to on the drive home. You always give out rain-checks. When are we going to drive to San Francisco and ride around on MUNI like you promised, it’s been two years!
  8. Don’t offer to let your child pick out a movie at the rental store on the way home. I’d rather go into San Francisco and ride around on MUNI.
  9. Don’t offer to buy Gordos burritos for dinner following your road-trip. Why do we always have to eat food from restaurants? Why can’t we cook at home? We never cook real food at home!
  10. Don’t offer to give your child a kiss goodnight while he’s tucking himself under the covers on the top bunk. I don’t want to give you a kiss. You’re taking away from my reading time. Can’t I just read my book in peace?

I’ll take a martini, thank you and a gold medal for braving a full-day trapped in a metal kvetching booth. Momma told me there’d be days like this.

Girly Girl Gorgonzola Fig Tart

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Sadie and I are home having a girly girl weekend, while ‘the guys’ are on their annual pilgrimage in Monterey. Staring out at our prolific fig tree this morning, while sitting with Sadie at the table, I suddenly felt bitten with inspiration by a Dash and Bella recipe I had recently salivated over for a fig and blue cheese tart.

I tucked my thoughts away for a while as Sadie entertained me during breakfast. I was reminded of how fun and tender she is. At one point, she picked up a photo of the two of us to show me and said with confidence “this is love!” At that exact moment, my heart turned to mush over a bowl of cottage cheese. Sadie went on to explain that our hearts are glued together. Indeed they are.

After breakfast, we prepared an easy tart dough recipe. She was clearly in her comfort zone, spending special time with me in the kitchen; not having to take back-seat to her big brother’s occasional bossiness.

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After returning from a lovely walk to the local farmer’s market with our friends, we headed back into the kitchen. We rolled out our now chilled dough, and then spread out the figs I had picked this morning, onto the  onto the rolled out pastry. I then sprinkled crumbled gorgonzola, shreds of prosciutto, and a light drizzle of honey and balsamic vinegar. When the tart looked like an art-piece, it was time for the oven.

While it baked, Sadie further entertained me with a “birthday song” she had made up on the piano (for no one in particular’s birthday). She commanded me to dance around in circles while she performed. I complied. When she finished, she handed me an imaginary piece of birthday cake, which I quickly gobbled up. I asked her if it was chocolate and she responded “yes, but with a little poop in it!” It was delicious…who knew poop was the new it ingredient!?

Once out of the oven, I wanted to throw myself at our fig tart – it looked and smelled divine. I eagerly sliced myself a corner and devoured it, appreciating the perfect marriage of sweet, salty, and savory. I love how the figs caramelized under the melted gorgonzola, and how good they tasted with salty prosciutto. What a great use of our figs, as well as our time together. Don’t tell Sadie, but it was a cut above chocolate cake with poop.

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Birth Announcement

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IT’S A CHEESE BLOG!!!

For those of you who have witnessed the hijacking of my beloved blog—dedicated to raising my children to become global citizens through cooking and eating good food—with personal adventures (and misadventures) in cheese, I am pleased to inform you that my cheese ramblings now have a home of their own…

Announcing my new blog: Turophile

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a connoisseur of cheese : a cheese fancier

Please visit Turophile and if you like what you see, I would invite you to follow. You can also ‘like’ the new Turophile Facebook page. The only changes to Cooking with Caleb (and Sadie!) will be more Caleb and Sadie!

Tell a friend!

What Fondue Will Do


French onion fondue

Call me a relic, but I miss the days of dialing up my friends on my old rotary phone to chat for hours about nothing in particular. In my low-tech opinion, modern-technology threatens to disconnect us from those things that intrinsically tie us to our youth, our personal history, and our network of close friends. Of course, other commitments pull at us like work, family, and various responsibilities, but with the prevalence of Facebook, texting, and email, I feel increasingly disconnected from my friends and family. I have to work harder to experience them in 3-D.

When I learned of the Harvest Fondue class scheduled to take place at the Cheese School of San Francisco, I immediately reached out to (yes, emailed…sigh) my three oldest friends, Sarah, Virginia, and Deborah – The Fondette’s. For nearly thirty years, we have gathered regularly to perfect our fondue recipe; a tradition we three deeply value. Virg, who I’ve known since first-grade and Sarah, who became my “best-friend” in second were both free to join me and last Friday night, we met up in San Francisco and embarked on a fondue-making adventure that was just pure pleasure!

After an unrelenting week of working and parenting, it was a treat to meet up with two of my oldest girlfriends. It was especially comforting to set eyes on Virg and Sarah, and have a glass of champagne thrusted into my hand upon arrival, after having just survived Friday full-moon rush hour traffic and a near accident which left me shaky.

The classroom was filled with fondue fanatics and there were several fondue stations throughout the room. Each pot had a different recipe and the group of people seated around that pot were responsible for assembling a unique fondue. The high-point of the class, was taking a tour of the stations and with fondue fork in hand, sampling each recipe. The tour of fondue recipes forced this group of strangers to mingle, converse, and delight in food together. We laughed, shared tips, and decided on our winners for the best recipe of the evening.

My winner and the recipe that my friends and I assembled, was the French Onion Fondue: Comté cheese, sherry, fresh thyme, and caramelized onions. This pot of warm cheesy goodness was profoundly delicious. I will be sure to make it again at home.

I enjoyed the class immensely – the sensation of a week’s worth of stress melting away in a pot of cheese – and most important, time spent with close girlfriends. I am inspired to invite a group of friends and family over on a cold, rainy evening in winter to come out of isolation and gather around a welcoming pot (or two, or three) of fondue. Keep an eye out for your invitation!

French Onion Fondue

By Lenny Rice, Author of Fondue (our fabulous and ebullient instructor)

1 pound Comté or Gruyère, grated
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, cut in half and thinly sliced crosswise
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
1¼ dry sherry

Toss the cheese with the flour in a bowl and set aside. In a fondue pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown and very soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Add the sherry and increase the heat to medium-high, stirring constantly. When the liquid just begins to boil, decrease the heat to medium-low and add the cheese mixture, ½ cup at a time, stirring until melted after each addition. Serve immediately.
Makes 3 cups

Classic fondue pots

Creamy, Dreamy, Oozy, and Luscious

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I am, of course, referring to heavenly burrata cheese; fresh, soft mozzarella filled with rich cream and stracciatella, small hand-torn pieces of cheese. What’s not to love!

If you haven’t tasted burrata – and I would define this as the worst culinary crime – you can likely purchase it at your local cheese counter, Whole Foods, or at a contemporary Italian restaurant. Cutting into freshly made burrata, topped with a drizzle of bright olive oil causes the sumptuous innards to spill forth, forcing you to quickly slather the oozy goodness atop a warm slice of garlic-infused crostini. The experience, if you can’t already imagine, can border on transcendent. Combining burrata with slices of late-summer heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil – mind blowing!

Why do I have burrata on the brain? I recently participated in a hands-on cheese making class at the Cheeseboard Collective in Berkeley. Taught by the Milk Maid (aka Louella), this cozy class made up of burrata enthusiasts, taught the art of making fresh mozzarella and burrata cheese. A friend joined me and together, we paid close attention and followed each step of the cheese-making process.

With the right instructor and the proper ingredients, making fresh mozzarella and burrata isn’t as difficult as I expected. You really get your hands into the ingredients, making it a fun, tactile experience. The best part was returning home with handmade examples of both cheeses, and then sharing them with my very appreciative (and lucky!) family.

Click here for a great step-by-step burrata recipe and demonstration brought to you by a fabulous blog called Sunday Suppers. If you haven’t already developed a love-affair with burrata, go in search of some. Let me know what you think!

Pulling apart the cheese

Stretching the mozzarella

My burrata

Oh When the Plates Come Crashing Down

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I often don’t realize how many plates I have spinning on numerous poles until I reach a breaking point and some or all come crashing down. Recently, everything got to be too much and the breaking point – because there inevitably is one – came when attempting to decide what color to choose for an exterior paint job we have planned. Mateo came home from work one afternoon; I just crawled onto his lap and began to cry. Although, I consider this to be somewhat of a yuppie crisis, for me it happened to be the plate that sent it all crashing down.

To know me is to understand that I probably have too many plates spinning at any given time. I work full-time in a job that isn’t where my passions lay; I have two young children with tons of energy for my 44-year-old self, a mortgage to pay off, a marriage to nurture, and a constant itch to do something creative and fulfilling.

When I reached my breaking point last week, I realized that it was time to restore balance in a number of forms. First, I promptly employed a professional color consultant at the behest of a friend and in 90-minutes, we had the paint colors locked in. Whoo, what a load off! Then, there was the full-length massage given by a practitioner of Tibetan medicine. As I lay exhausted, overly stressed, and depressed on her table, she healed through her trained hands, as well as these Tibetan bells, which she placed along the chakra channel. Feeling the chiming reverberation through my body was simultaneously electrifying and deeply restorative. I came away feeling as if my re-set button had been pushed.

Next, I lined up a free day with a close girlfriend and together, we left our families and drove off to wine country where we imbibed and consumed gorgeously plated food whose taste was as divine as its appearance, at one of my favorite Yountville restaurants, Redd.

After lunch, we found some gelato and sat on a pristine lawn in the shade, where we continued to talk, laugh, and relate.

We then walked over to the French Laundry so I could pay my respects to the ‘Temple of Delicious’ and take some photos with Cecile. We crossed the road to the restaurant’s sizeable organic garden and brushed our fingers over the vast array of herbs they use in the kitchen. Then, I did something forbidden; I plucked a ripe tomato off the vine and quickly popped half into my mouth, then shared the other half with Cecile. I was willing to go to jail for this criminal act, but luckily the garden cops didn’t witness my misdeed.

The day was healing and it became apparent that I need more days like this; shared with family, friends, and on my own. With both arms, I need to push back the stresses of life, just a little more often and find a way to get more out of the present moment – whether it’s through cooking, laughing with a good friend, going out on a date with my husband, or partaking in a pillow fight with Caleb and Sadie. I need to question how many plates I have spinning at any given time, and then give myself full permission to lighten my load for sanity’s sake. It can just get to be too much.

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