Hot On the Cheese Trail

DSC_0066

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.

Marin Cheese Trail

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.

Marin Cheese Trail1

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!

Marin Cheese Trail2

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!

20131130171104_1-004

Faking French

DSC_0191

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.

 DSC_0180DSC_0184

DSC_0201DSC_0205DSC_0194

Taking the Plunge

Mars landing

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

DSC01345-002

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!

NYC1

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…

NYC

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 

The Muffins That Sadie Baked

Zesting a lemon

Going into the oven

Cooking with my kids anchors me in the present moment, reminding me of what’s most important in life – spending quality time with family, especially when making good quality food that can soon be enjoyed around the family table.

Lately, I’ve been writing more about my personal adventures in food, namely cheese. A recent cheese experiment—attempting my first batch of homemade aged goat cheese—resulted in two gallons of very expensive goat’s milk going down the drain. Literally.

After a tiring week and an expensive cheese mishap, I was in need of an easy, happy experience in the kitchen. On Sunday morning, Sadie woke up before everyone else. While I attempted to scrape myself off the mattress, Sadie quietly entertained herself with toys in the living room. In appreciation of her sensitivity, and because Caleb was still asleep (Mateo is camping this weekend), I invited her to join me in the kitchen for a blueberry muffin baking session.

I love a quiet house on a weekend morning. I especially enjoy filling it up with the aroma of warm, sweet baked delights. Sadie and I carefully followed each step of the blueberry muffin recipe, until we had blueberry-laden batter ready to spoon into the muffin tins. Our time together was relaxed, not rushed, and I felt unusually patient in Sadie’s presence as she paid close attention to my instructions and did a wonderful job as assistant pastry chef. Caleb has always enjoyed helping me in the kitchen, but Sadie is especially patient and curious, and is clearly soaking up every lesson. I look forward to seeing what they both do with this kitchen training.

As the muffins were going into the oven, I could hear the heavier patter of footsteps coming down the stairs, followed by a sleepy “good morning.” With Caleb now awake and the scent of baking blueberry muffins dancing in the air, it was time to get the breakfast show on the road.

Once the gobbling commenced, happy sounds filled the air. The meal ended with Caleb’s butt poised up in the air on his chair as he examined the contents on the dining room floor, as Sadie sang a happy song which she had just made up. I just sat there admiring my treasures.

My children are happy, healthy, whimsical, curious, and creative. I am anchored in a loving relationship and surrounded by the best quality human beings for friends and family. I live in a beautiful and bountiful part of the world, surrounded by good food, nature, mixed cultures, and countless activities and opportunities.

All combined, it makes an unsuccessful first attempt at cheese making much easier to put into perspective.

 

Blueberry Muffins

From a Baker’s Kitchen by Gail Sher

Ingredients

1C fresh blueberries

1tb all-purpose flour

2C all-purpose flour

1tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

½ C sugar

1 C yogurt

1 egg, at room temperature, lightly beaten

¼ cup unsalted butter, melted

1 tsp grated lemon rind

Wash the fresh berries, drain them on a towel, and place them in a strainer. Holding the strainer over a plate, sprinkle the berries with flour and tap the strainer so that the excess flour falls through. This will help suspend the berries in the batter and prevent them from bleeding.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. In a separate smaller bowl, mix the yogurt, egg, melted butter, and lemon rind. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry, stirring only until the dry ingredients are moistened. Gently stir in the blueberries. Spoon the batter into well-buttered or paper-lined muffin cups and bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.

An Unapologetic Cheese Plate

Anya's Cheese Plate

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the (wo)man who walked a thousand miles
To fall down at your door

For show-stopping cheese and some well deserved time to myself, I would walk 5 miles at the very least, for fromage that makes my taste buds do a pirouette. Today, with my family out of town on a camping trip and the desire to recharge my batteries, I set off on foot to the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley (exactly 5 miles, round-trip).

All the way, The Proclaimers song I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) was running a loop in my head. The theme being, with time to myself and my pick of activities, I would walk however long it takes to fall down at the door of a good cheese-monger in pursuit of cheese transcendence.

Today was my day to personalize a cheese plate that pairs music (in this case The Proclaimers), a good pale ale, multi-seed crackers, and nectarine chutney with three ‘big personality’ cheeses: Saint Agur – a double crème blue cheese, Old Quebec Vintage Cheddar, and Bierekase – a Wisconsin made Limburger-style cheese.

Now, Caleb and Sadie love most cheeses I place in their mouths, but these three might scare off even the most open-minded adult. Saint Agur is a creamy cow’s milk blue cheese from France with a sexy mouth-feel (that’s right, I just worked “sexy mouth-feel” into a sentence!) and a pleasing taste and aroma that lingers for a while. The Old Quebec is the perfect example of a sharp white cheddar that leaves a lasting impression on your palate and makes you want to savor it beneath the shade of a prolific fruit tree.

The Narsai’s Nectarine Chutney that I purchased for this cheese plate was the perfect match for the cheddar, but complimented the other cheeses. The pungent Bierekase was an ass-kicker of a cheese. I went to the cheese counter hoping to find an example of a Tilset (which they did not have in stock) and came away with a new favorite, strong enough to scare off a bad date!

This exercise of creating my very own, unapologetic cheese pairing, walking several miles to get the goods, and taking the weekend off to really savor it comes at a time when it is clear I have been running on fewer cylinders than is necessary to function as the best version of myself. This was my much-needed time for introspection; for taking up as much space in the Universe as I need; for figuring out how to integrate my passions more fully into my life. A time to blast dorky music of my choosing, and to consume really stinky cheese.

Da da lat da (Da da lat da)
Da da lat da (Da da lat da)