Dia de Los Muertos

Our family had many a ‘Kodak moment’ this past weekend. My favorite? Attending Skelefest, a Day of the Dead celebration for families at the Richmond Arts  Center. We came dressed in costume and skele-tastic face-paint in honor of my mom, Lola who passed away 7 years ago this month.

I felt grateful for the opportunity to attend an event at the Richmond Arts Center, a local resource I knew nothing about. Creative offerings for all ages. There was even a Diebenkorn exhibit available free to the public (Diebenkorn!). Art projects, story telling and live music…where was this place when I was growing up? Not that I suffered from lack of culture in San Francisco, but this center has something special to offer. I’m excited to return. A few pictures from the day…

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.

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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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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Taking the Plunge

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There is no better way to get closer to your family than by holing up in a cozy cottage down a dirt road, surrounded by pine and oak trees, bears, deer, squirrels, and a rattlesnake which we had the privilege of crossing paths with (thankfully, to no one’s dire consequence).

We just returned from our Shasta Lake vacation — our ‘last hurrah’ summer getaway.

During the day, we drove into Redding and in search of respite from the hot sun, we explored the local water park or the community pool, which cost bubkes to get in and was far more fun. The people-watching up in Redding was priceless! Still a hick town, if I may say so, I noticed one swimsuit-clad mom with a tattoo of a life-sized gun slipped into a garter belt on her leg. If only I could get away with that look!

One evening, we dined at a Benihana-style restaurant in town. Our young chef amazed and dazzled us with his knife juggling skills. Broccoli flying through the air for our mouths to receive, an onion volcano erupting on the large Japanese griddle before us, and the occasional burst of flames, which sent Sadie dropping to the floor beneath the counter top for protection. At dinner’s end, both kiddos waddled over to the waiting area and flopped down face forward on the benches, their bellies bursting at the seams.

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On our last full day in Shasta, we spontaneously rented a patio boat from one of the harbors off Highway 5. We actually had no intention of doing this when we left the house that morning, but on the drive into town, Sadie started complaining of feeling nauseous. Fearing an accident in the car, we quickly pulled off to the side of the road, just at the harbor. When all seemed well with Sadie, we proceeded down the road and found ourselves renting a boat for the half-day. This was truly the highlight of our vacation.

With Mateo and Caleb as co-captains, we motored around the lake for several hours. Caleb steered the boat for much of that time, taking great pride in his ability to keep us from crashing into large rocks or other boats. I was really proud of him. At one point, we cut the engine and I spontaneously grabbed Mateo to take a look at the majestic view from the back of the boat. On the spot, we renewed our wedding vows in the middle of Shasta Lake with Caleb and Sadie as our witnesses.

Before heading back to the harbor, I did something I’ve needed to do all my life. I was the first to fearlessly jump in to the middle of this huge lake. My family, inspired by my lunacy, quickly followed me in with life vests on. All with smiles from ear-to-ear. This plunge held real symbolic meaning for me; the time has come to get my ass off the sidelines and begin a new chapter in my life entitled “Follow Your Bliss and Do What You Love!”

This was a great escape; one that inspired a palpable internal tectonic shift and provided my family with the connection time we needed before the school year begins, and life starts pulling again from every angle.

Taking the plunge

Eating New York

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It’s not hard to love New York.

Our family just returned from a week-long family reunion trip, which took us to New York City, then to the Catskills. Did I love the 100 degree humid weather, clothing sticking to my skin? Navigating the disgustingly hot subway system with two little ones asking “when are we going to get there?” Getting eaten alive by every flying insect within the city limits? Not so much. What I loved about my time in New York was the food, the energy, the people watching, and the New Yorkers!

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When I was six, my dad took me on a trip to New York, to retrace the footsteps of his youth, to meet my grandfather who was still living out in Brooklyn, and eat our way around town. There is a classic photo of me, still hanging in my dad’s house, where I’m holding a slice of New York pizza in one hand and a Nathan’s hot dog in the other, while simultaneously sipping on a soda. This was the beginning of a life-long love affair (obsession) with food, kicked off in one of the best cities for the food-obsessed.

On this latest trip, we were only in town for two full days, but we tasted a good sampling of what this world-class eating city has to offer. Dinner at Carmine’s on the Upper West Side, where we dined on outrageous chicken parmesan and handmade ricotta ravioli for the kiddos, Tal Bagels for just baked biales and bagels, breakfast in Greenwich Village (where, to quote our double decker bus tour-guide with a thick New York accent “there is a large homosexual population, where boy meets boy and girl meets girl!”), to Shake Shack for a top-notch hot dog smothered in cheese sauce and crispy fried onions, Katz’ Deli for a warm potato knish, matzo ball soup, dill pickles, and a kick-ass hot pastrami (not to mention the cream soda and cheesecake chasers), and finally to Excellent Dumpling House for handmade dim sum fresh from the steamer. As you can imagine, I truly could go on.

I have plenty more to say about our time in N.Y.  and haven’t yet touched on the family reunion, but wanted to share a few images and memories with you. More to come…

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The Diner at the Corner of ‘Hip and Hick’

On Saturday afternoon, on the heels of a day-long set of activities in Sonoma, we followed the recommendation of my city- turned country-mouse sister Niki and showed up at the Fremont Diner. Located at the corner of ‘hip’ and ‘hick’, this restaurant serves up an unpretentious farm-to-table menu, which varies depending on the time and day you arrive.

With both indoor and outdoor seating, we chose on this warm evening at dusk to sit outside at a picnic table, surrounded by others in what was an old fenced off farm field. Adorned with canning jars, several bottles of hot sauce, silverware wrapped in dish towels, and other funky accouterments, I slid right into the retro-country atmosphere at our shabby chic outdoor dining table.

After settling in, we started to feel that ‘you’re in the country now, so relax already’ vibe. Mateo and I examined the menu and after being told that we were limited to the BBQ offerings, the decision making was made easy. We ordered a platter of dry-rubbed ribs, two sides of Vella mac n’ cheese, a kale salad with slivered almonds, dried cherries, and sharp cheddar chunks, and fresh hulled English peas bathed in butter. Soon after ordering, our canning jars of pinot arrived.

My eyes took inventory of the old kitsch signs scattered around the outside of the restaurant. Beyond the fence, we were surrounded by barns and farm animals. Caleb and Sadie lit up when their mac n’ cheese arrived, then fell silent as they busily gobbled it up. I tried it. It was flipping delicious!

Our platter of ribs arrived, laid out on two slices of white bread, and topped with slices of home-cured pickles. Although the ribs were a little dry, they were infused with layers of flavor: mustard seed, coffee grounds, cayenne, and other rib loving spices. There is nothing better than eating something in its perfect environment. I expected a little pig to go trotting by with a cute squeal as we devoured its sister Lulu [insert sick sense of humor here].

The sun was fast disappearing and the goose bumps were coming out. Our perfect ending to a memorable day, had come to an end. I hope you get a chance to visit the Fremont Diner, where city hipsters and country locals sit shoulder to shoulder enjoying home grown food that epitomizes ‘taste of place’.

Fremont Diner – 2698 Fremont Drive in Sonoma