Images of Autumn

imageA happy accident landed me in Calistoga for the weekend. A Saturday morning stroll led me to the Calistoga Farmers Market. Markers of my most beloved season abound.

Nuns hawking baked goods, rustic bread, artisanal sausage, gorgeous seasonal produce. Locals greeting one another with warm embraces and the latest news. Just-made exotic food scents wafting down the aisles. A live bluegrass  soundtrack. This is something special. This is autumn…
 
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Dear French Laundry

cookingwithcaleb:

In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, one of my favorite posts…

Originally posted on Cooking with Caleb (and Sadie!):

It began with a good-natured letter to the French Laundry restaurant in Yountville.

Mateo and I had just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary and we made every attempt to honor our special occasion by dining at the French Laundry. Despite following the reservation protocol of booking two months in advance (only to get on the waitlist for several days), calling almost daily, even showing up on the day of with my hand-written sign hoping that we would come off the wait-list, we were unsuccessful in getting in.

We still had a fabulous and memorable anniversary celebration in the wine country. Once home, I sent a letter to the restaurant with a clip from my last blog-posting. Some expected that I would receive a call back from the renowned ‘temple of all things delicious’, but I wasn’t sure. Several days after putting my letter in the mail, however, I received…

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A Delicious Beta Test

Cheese boardBy now, you have likely noticed that I’ve almost completely hijacked what was to be a charming blog about cooking with my children and turned it into a big old flaming cheese themed me-fest! Well, hang in there…Caleb and Sadie will soon return. In the meantime, allow me to tell you about a delicious experiment.

Several weeks ago, I held a small event in my home and called it an Artisan Cheese Pop-In. I invited a handful of cheese-loving guinea pigs to help beta test an idea I’ve been incubating for far too long. For years, I have dreamed about starting a small business that offers food-themed workshops (not specific to cheese), both hands-on and informational, creating an inviting and inclusive environment around a family table of sorts.

Intimidated by business plans, loans, and lease agreements (not to mention big, scary leaps of faith and potential bankruptcy), I’ve kept my idea safely on the back-burner, until recently when I decided to just hold a gathering and launch the concept in the comfort of my home. What the heck.

So, I asked my guests to ‘bring to the table’ a selection of artisan cheese that they could tell us about, and a story or two about food memories from childhood. Culture Magazine was kind enough to donate a stack of recent issues and I had some of my favorite cheese books on display for good measure. Jesse Rogala, a talented local photographer and founder of Left Shore Photography, was onsite to capture the event. And capture it he did with just the right energy and mood.

My friends not only contributed a delicious and distinctive selection of cheese, but also came equipped with personal food stories that when told, brought us all a little closer. I supplied some of my favorites: Fourme d’ Ambert, Le Secret de Compostelle, and Epoisses, and accompaniments such as acacia honey, figs from our tree, olives, apricots, and plum preserves. Oh, and wine of course.

For me, this was not intended to be a cheese party – a two hour slot to eat cheese, sip wine, talk, then move onto the next event. It was an attempt at putting my ideas out there to see what it feels like and how they would be received. I feel successful and proud for having taken this first step, and I am grateful to those who took part. If you weren’t invited to this one, I am confident that there will be others!

Photographs by Left Shore Photography (Jesse Rogala)

A Paris Memory: Bacon and Egg Pizza

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Who doesn’t love a satisfying breakfast of bacon and eggs? Then, why not fall in love with bacon and egg pizza like I did on my recent solo trip to Paris?

On my second night staying in le Marais neighborhood in the 4th Arrondissement, and after a fulfilling day of walking my ass off through one of the most breath-takingly beautiful cities I’ve ever visited, I ducked into what appeared to be a very popular Italian restaurant. After looking around at the individual wood oven-baked pizzas sitting in front of the guests at the neighboring table, I quickly surmised that I should order the pizza. The waiter came to take my order, and with my very limited French, I promptly ordered something far different from what I had in mind.

What arrived after my glass of vin rouge, was the happiest of accidents: an ambrosial and heavenly looking pancetta (bacon) flecked pizza with a large egg, sunny-side up in the middle. Not a big fan of farm egg on everything – still a craze on restaurant menus ranging from farm-to-table to Asian eateries – I pulled a c’est la vie and expectantly dove in. I quickly observed that what set me apart from the Parisian diners (apart from the fact that I wasn’t looking tres chic or planting kisses on the cheeks of friends at my lonely table), was that I impatiently sliced my pie into quarters, scooped the slice up in my hands, then hungrily stuffed it in my mouth. Other, more well-mannered patrons, had fork and knife in hand and were politely slicing bite-sized pieces – feeding their hunger slowly and with intention. Whatever! My pizza – a delicious dance of flavors including smoky, salty bacon, four cheeses, and a rich egg atop – was absolutely mind-blowing! I had left my camera back in my room and had no one to witness my perfect moment of blissful food transcendence, with a little egg dripping down my chin.

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Funny, that one of the best eating experiences I had in France was at a trendy Italian pizzeria. Once I returned home, I vowed to re-create this pizza in my kitchen. On a recent trip to TJ’s, I picked up pre-made pizza dough, shredded quattro formaggi, and diced pancetta – the organic eggs were waiting for me at home.

Last night, after a full day at work, I rolled up my sleeves, kicked everyone out of the kitchen, and summoned my inner pizzaiolo. Taking the advice of Phyllis Grant, a fellow blogger and skilled baker of sweet and savory, I made a round trough with my fingers in the center of each pizza, to eventually crack the eggs into. I then pre-heated the oven to 500F, assembled a larger pie for Mateo and I, and smaller pies for Caleb and Sadie. Once in the oven for 8-10 minutes (light golden topping), I pulled the racks out and gently slipped one raw egg in the middle of each pie, then let them bake for an additional 4-5 minutes.

I can say with confidence that I nailed it, having created the closest version of what I had enjoyed in Paris and was very pleased with myself as I bit into the first hot, salty, cheesy, and egg-oozy slice. Mateo quickly exclaimed that he has absolutely loved everything I have been cooking since my return, and Caleb ran over to me with a Dino hug and kiss. If you have any questions about how to make this at home, just ask. I hope you try…it was that good!!

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Meatballs and Chocolate to Tame the Wild Things

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Recently, I picked up soup and sandwiches from Rustic Bakery in Larkspur and delivered them to a friend in need. The soup I arrived with – spring minestrone with meatballs – wasn’t actually what I had ordered, but was unlike anything I’d had before. It tasted of spring and was nourishing, and full of flavor. I was inspired to make something similar at home.

Today, we had a break in the gorgeous weather and it actually felt like early spring with some light showers and slightly brisk temperatures — the perfect day for cooking with the kids.

Our trip to Monterey Market took its toll on me. Sadie and Caleb had been replaced by unruly wild things and it’s surprising we made it out alive with the ingredients for our meatball soup and triple chocolate cookies, not to mention good cheese, bread, and salad fixings.

By mid-afternoon, my children had returned on their boat from far across the world and in and out of a day. Caleb and I took on the triple chocolate cookie recipe together. He was so eager to help just had a great attitude with any task I threw at him. Could this have had anything to do with the fact that he was in close proximity to chocolate and plenty of utensils to lick? Most definitely.

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Later in the afternoon, I prepared the meatballs, then Sadie helped me to brown them in the pan. The soup came together rather quickly and before too long, we were sitting down to a gorgeous spring meal. The soup (which, of course, was still hot) was outstanding and we all fell quiet as we devoured it. The chocolate cookies were not too sweet, and were perfectly chewy and rich with flavor.

It felt good to be in the kitchen with my kiddos after a lengthy hiatus. We’ve just been too busy, and this was the perfect opportunity to slow our gears down a bit and bond over good things to eat.

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Spring Minestrone with Meatballs

ingredients

  • 6 ounces ground turkey (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan, divided, plus more for garnish
  • 4 garlic cloves, 2 minced, 2 thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
  • 1 large egg, whisked to blend
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 leek, white and pale-green parts only, sliced into 1/4″ rounds
  • 5 cups low-salt chicken broth
  • 3/4 cup Israel couscous
  • 1 cup peeled and small diced carrots
  • 1 cup (packed) baby spinach or other greens
  • Chopped fresh herbs
  • Fresh Parmesan

preparation

Mix ground turkey, breadcrumbs, 3 tablespoons Parmesan, 2 minced garlic cloves, chives, egg, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl. Form into 1/2″-diameter meatballs (makes about 28).

Heat oil in a small pot over medium heat. Cook meatballs until golden all over, about 3 minutes (they will finish cooking in soup). Transfer to a plate; set aside.

Add leek to pot and cook, stirring often, until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves; cook for 1 minute. Add broth and 2 cups water; bring to a boil. Stir in Israeli couscous and carrots; simmer until pasta is almost al dente, about 8 minutes. Add meatballs; simmer until pasta is al dente, carrots are tender, and meatballs are cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add spinach, kale, or favorite green and remaining 3 tablespoons Parmesan; stir until greens are wilted and Parmesan is melted. Season with salt and pepper.

Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with herbs of choice and Parmesan.


Triple Chocolate Cookies

ingredients

  • 10 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons all purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ cup chopped pecans (optional)
  • 6 ounces (1 cup) semisweet chocolate chips

preparation

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Stir chopped chocolate in top of double boiler set over simmering water until melted and smooth; remove from over water. Cool melted chocolate 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in another medium bowl until crumbly. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Continue to beat until mixture is light, pale, and creamy, about 5 minutes. Add lukewarm melted chocolate and vanilla and beat just until blended. Fold in dry ingredients, then chocolate chips.

Drop chocolate cookie batter by 1/4 cupfuls onto prepared baking sheets, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake cookies, 1 baking sheet at a time, until tops are evenly cracked but cookies are not yet firm to touch, about 12 minutes.

Hot On the Cheese Trail

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Mateo recently returned home from a work retreat with a map of the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail. This handy little map brought to you by the California Artisan Cheese Guild keeps making its way back into my hands, so on Saturday I decided to take it for a spin. Mid-morning, my family packed into the Camry and embarked on a cheese trail adventure.

Our three stops on the Marin driving tour were Marin French Cheese Company just outside of Novato, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company in the small town of Nicasio, and our family favorite – Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes.

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We arrived at Marin French just in time for lunch, along with a merry band of bikers. Inside the sizeable retail operation, we sampled their cow’s milk offerings. I’m not a big fan of this dairy, but some of the first ‘exotic’ cheeses I ever sampled in my youth, were their Rouge & Noir camembert and brie. I find their cheese to be too mild, lacking in distinguishing qualities, and most everything we tasted was young and not ripened enough to my liking.

Just as I was about to give up on flavor, I honed in on a style I hadn’t heard of, Schloss, a square wash-rind variety that makes up for all of their mild-mannered options with the flavor and pungency of an Austrian style aged cow’s milk cheese. We walked our stinky little Schloss out to a picnic area near the small, picturesque lake and enjoyed it with a hearty seeded baguette and salami. Sadie and Caleb shared a portion of our snack with the geese and ducks gathered near our table, while Mateo and I sat in the sunshine basking in a quiet moment.

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We then drove for about 10 minutes until we reached Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. There, we sampled a large variety of…wait for it…more mild-mannered cheeses. My taste buds were losing interest fast and I’m thinking bring on the stink bring on the funk! At last, I found a happy marriage of flavor and pungency in their Nicasio Reserve, a Swiss-Italian mountain cheese. We bought a square to later share with our friends at dinner, then on to Point Reyes Station!

Cowgirl Creamery never lets me down. I will wait in the longest of lines only to be rewarded with delectable, perfectly aged cheese that lacks not at all in flavor and personality. Caleb and I particularly enjoyed the Gouda-style Wagon Wheel and a very mature Red Hawk, which is made right where we stood and flourishes off the salt air cultures unique to that area. Finishing our cheese tour at Cowgirl Creamery was the perfect end note and with happy bellies filled with way too much cheese, we returned back to the East Bay. What a trip!

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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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