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)

Life Changing

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I was derailed by a life changing event that took place over half a lifetime ago. Forcefully thrown from my tracks, which at the time were taking me in a bright and promising direction. I was a senior in college and on the Dean’s List, entering an exciting new relationship, working as a pantry chef in a well-paying gig, and in the midst of a coveted internship at UCSF. At the top of my 24-year-old game, I had a long way to plummet from just one bit of news.

The game changed dramatically and for a number of years, I wasn’t sure what sense to make of my future. Was it only as long as what I could see at the end of my nose, or was it out-stretched in front of me? With all this uncertainty, still a personal pact was made somewhere deep within, and took an enormous leap-of-faith. The years – they continued to stretch out before me. Life lurched forward and I was along for the ride.

Love came into my life – deep, unconditional, I will walk with you to the edge of the earth kind of love. One day at a time, it blossomed into a commitment that resulted in a spectacular and emotion-filled wedding, surrounded by the most loving circle of family and friends wishing us many, many years together on our journey. Two beautiful children were born out of this union, and they are now five and eight. You could say, that when it comes to love and family, I was no longer derailed.

However, when it came to my professional journey toward my life’s work, my higher calling, I still very much felt like I was laying helplessly on the side of the tracks. This repair job has felt much trickier and illusive at times. This leap-of-faith has been more terrifying to take for reasons only a deep talk over a glass of wine could explain. Only recently have I felt like I was making huge strides toward boarding that new train, heading in my right direction with help from family and friends. I will be writing more about this in upcoming posts. For now, I want to tell you what I did last night with my family!

I orchestrated an exotic dinner-time picnic in our living room, with table cloth splayed over the carpet, our best dishes and cloth napkins, and platters brimming with French Brie, truffle-flecked Gouda, ACME bread, thinly sliced Italian prosciutto wrapped summer-sweet melon, Spanish olives, French radishes dipped in creamy butter and fleur de sel, dry Italian salami from our local meat counter, vine ripened cherry tomatoes [oye - these kids don’t know how good they have it!], and a glass of wine for the grownups.

Around the world in one evening, our family delighted in a tradition we began less than a year ago. Picnicking in our living room just because and playing impromptu games of who can hold a straight face for the longest without laughing (Mateo), and how many countries have we represented in this meal (seven: France, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Holland, Mexico, & the U.S.)?

Where is this heading? The family Mateo and I created, this blog you’re reading, the adventures we go on together, the food I cook with my children, the special dates we make as a family to eat together, to commune, connect, and laugh – this is all part of that new, trippy journey I’m on. I believe I am on the right tracks again, and we’re heading somewhere really amazing. I can feel it.

Land O’ Cheese at Outside Lands

IMG_1832-1.JPG Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of sardine-packed concert venues, large crowds, contact highs, and Jumbotron-sized speakers blaring bands that I’ve never heard of. Schlep into San Francisco on a bone-chilling, foggy day only to be surrounded by thousands upon thousands of intoxicated young adults. Not so tempting. However, sweeten the deal with an opportunity to volunteer for Culture Magazine and be surrounded by an impressive selection of cheese for an entire day, not to mention be in the entertaining company of Lassa Skinner, the owner of Culture Magazine, and her merry band of cheese passionistas, and I could be swayed.

I’m grateful to Mateo for taking the kids around the city, while I spent the day volunteering at Cheese Lands, pretending I was a cheesemonger for the day – slicing and prepping cheese, then assembling enticing cheese plates for the masses of surprisingly sophisticated palates wandering Outside Lands. As long as I was within the confines of the cheese booth, surrounded by great people and copious amounts of amazing cheese, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. IMG_1833-1.JPG IMG_1830-2.JPG IMG_1835-0.JPG

Gorilla in the Mist

Caleb at Gorilla

Last weekend, with a day wide open for adventure, our family spontaneously made for the coast to the often fog-cloaked town of Pacifica. I’ve been hearing much buzz about Gorilla Barbeque, a small operation housed in an abandoned freight container. Clearly a local favorite, we joined the long line of shivering, yet loyal masses – those willing to brave the fog and crisp coastal breeze for a plate of ribs (and other barbecued meats such as brisket and pulled pork) and sides that warm you from the inside out.

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Caleb was so excited to order his helping of ribs that he spent our time in line rehearsing his order and bouncing it off me for feedback “I’ll have the kid’s special of pork ribs with a side of corn-on-the-cob! Does that sound right Mama?” Confident that he could deliver his lines without incident, I set him loose on the young, unsuspecting woman behind the counter. Before long, we were exiting the freight container, down the stairs and headed to a grove above the parking lot, bathed in…wait for it…fog.

Hungry and expectant, we sat down at a funky, rag-tag table and hurriedly opened our individual orders. In record time, we were making lip-smacking sounds and licking our fingers, while devouring perfectly seasoned pork ribs, slathered in award-winning barbeque sauce.

It’s rare that Mateo and Caleb get as excited about food as I do, but something about expertly made warm ribs devoured on a chilly day, made for their idea of a perfect culinary experience.

We will most definitely return.

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Prelude to Summer: Soupe au Pistou

soupe Last Sunday, my family honored this Jewish-earth-mama with a home-cooked breakfast of luscious lemon ricotta pancakes, fresh berries, and crispy bacon, followed by a much needed reprieve from my share of the household duties. After a relaxing morning of feeding on love and lazing about in the sun with a good book, I could stand it no longer – I had to labor away at something!

In an attempt to prolong the afterglow from my trip to Paris, I recently began reading Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah. This delicious memoir is at once relatable, mouth-watering, and an edible journey through France. A lifelong foodie and Francophile, Mah embarks on a year of discovery – one regional specialty at a time.

I recently made the steak frites from her first chapter – receiving Dino hugs and rave reviews – and on Sunday, I decided to spend the afternoon exploring another recipe from the book: soupe au pistou.

With the summer harvest nipping at the heels of late spring, the time was ripe to put the latest stars at our local farmers market on display. Soupe au pistou, a Provencal summer soup reminiscent of minestrone, seemed an optimal way to taste the season.

With a little assistance from my favorite prep cook (give Caleb le Cuisinart and he’ll wiz and whir the day away), we prepped the ingredients and started the slow process of making the soup. The beans had begun soaking the night before, I rinsed them off and began cooking them in the Dutch Oven first. Then came the diced vegetables, and other ingredients; lastly, the pistou (think pesto).

After several hours, the fragrance emanating from the kitchen, redolent of basil, left us eager to spill out onto our patio and dine al fresco with a close friend who had joined us for dinner. The finished soupe au pistou, with a blend of emmental and parmesan sprinkled and melting on top was heavenly, and elicited happy sounds and compliments from all. Enjoyed with a simple arugula salad, Acme’s Bread Company’s pain au levain, and a glass of chardonnay laced with crème de cassis (for the grown-ups, of course), we were transported from the San Francisco Bay Area to Provence for a few delicious hours and the perfect end to Mother’s Day.


Soupe au Pistou

Makes 6 servings

For soup

  • 1/2 cup dried white beans, such as cannellini, sorted, soaked overnight in water to cover by 2 inches
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberry beans (or borlotti beans), sorted overnight in water to cover by 2 inches
  • 2 pounds zucchini, trimmed
  • 2 to 3 medium-size red potatoes
  • 2 pounds fresh green beans, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 cup elbow macaroni
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For pistou

  • 2 to 3 plump garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 large bunch fresh basil, washed, dried
  • 1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
  • Pinch of salt
  • Garnish: 1 cup grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese, or a combination

Preparation

    1. Drain beans. In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, add beans and enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring to boil on medium-high heat, skimming off foam from the surface. Lower heat and simmer until beans are tender, about 11/2 hours. The cooking time for beans varies greatly, so make sure to test the beans for tenderness from time to time (they might be tender after 50 minutes or so).
    2. Meanwhile, peel the zucchini lengthwise, leaving half of the skin on, making stripes; cut into 11/2-inch pieces. Peel and cube the potatoes into the same size. When beans are tender, add zucchini, potatoes and green beans. Bring to boil, lower heat and gently simmer until zucchini starts to disintegrate (about an hour, adding more water if necessary); use a fork to mash a few pieces of potatoes and zucchini against the side of the pot to thicken soup. Raise the heat slightly and add macaroni, cooking until very soft. Taste and season as needed.
    3. While the soup is cooking, make the pistou. With the motor running, drop garlic into feed-tube of food processor. Add basil and process until finely chopped. Add tomatoes and pulse to very finely chop, intermittently stopping motor to scrape down sides. Add olive oil and process to combine. Add salt and pulse to combine. Taste and add more olive oil or salt if needed.
    4. Remove soup from heat. Stir in pistou and combine thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve, passing the grated cheese at the table for topping. The soup can be prepared in advance and reheated.

    Source: adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Eating” by Ann Mah

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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A Day Not To Be Forgotten

Toward the end of this past holiday weekend, Mateo and I knew that, in lieu of a traditional family vacation, we needed to take our kiddos on an adventure. To end our three-day weekend on a high-note, we planned a fun and food-filled trip into San Francisco. First, we drove over to Larkspur from the East Bay, and after grabbing some drool-worthy pastries (man, do they know how to make a croissant!) from Rustic Bakery at Larkspur Landing, we walked over to the terminal and boarded a ferry headed to the City.

I won’t bore you with oodles of details (you can see from our photos), we got just what we needed – concentrated quality time together, spontaneity, laughter, and wait for it….good things to eat. After sampling cheese at Cowgirl Creamery at the Ferry Building – I now let Caleb do all the ordering and he went straight for the Redhawk – we walked over to Yank Sing for traditional dim sum. Playing tourist in our native city (at least for Mateo and I), we sampled everything we could fit into our bellies. After letting the kids chase each other around the courtyard for a bit, we headed back to the Ferry Building, then boarded our ferry.

With little energy left after a fun-packed day, Caleb and Sadie entertained themselves on the boat, by quietly drawing and reading. Mateo and I were sharing the same thought – how did we luck out with such amazing, funny, bright, and adventurous children?! What good fortune we came into.

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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