Dairy Free

Standard

I feel really fortunate that both the sous chef and I are adventurous eaters and that neither of us have any confirmed allergies or intolerances. The fact that red wine is a leading suspect of my chronic hives is not spoken about in our house. It’s like our Voldemort.

Of all of the common foods that folks have to give up for various reasons, the one that makes me the most horrified is cheese. I love cheese. Off the charts love. I love cheese so much that, as I wrote the notes for this post, the sous chef was driving me to Valentine’s dinner at a dairy farm (yes, yes, he’s a good sport).

So when my mom’s cousin asked for a blog post on dairy free foods for her husband who (voluntarily!) doesn’t eat cheese, I had two thoughts. 1) I silently sainted her. I’d be throwing a daily tantrum over this matter. And, 2) What the fuck do I know about dairy free food?

I mean, I was sure I could come up with something. It’s not like I eat cheese every day. (That last part was a lie.)

Who wouldn't want to eat this goat cheese?

Who wouldn’t want to eat this goat cheese?

So, I wracked my brain… I really didn’t want to offer suggestions with fake substitutes, or dishes that naturally didn’t require cheese to taste satisfying. That just didn’t feel like the point. My mom’s cousin does enjoy dairy and her husband doesn’t. I wanted to find something that would appeal to both.

Then I remembered a meal I’d made years ago that was tasty, simple, and filling – creamy, with (you guessed it) no cream. It’s made with nut butter… which, if you haven’t used before in recipes, give it a go. Nut butters add a ton of depth and richness to a dish that’s really hard to get without dairy products.

This recipe is delicious. And doesn’t have a speck of cheese. It is possible.

Chicken with Pecan Cream and Mushrooms

Chicken with Pecan Cream

Ingredients
• 3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
• 1 cup water
• 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
• 6 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• Cooking spray
• 1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
• 8-ounce package presliced mushrooms
• 4 cups cooked egg noodles
• Chopped parsley

Preparation
1. Place pecans in a food processor; process until smooth (about 1 minute), scraping sides of bowl once. With processor on, add water and 3/4 teaspoon salt; process until smooth, scraping sides of bowl once.
2. Sprinkle chicken with 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper.
3. Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add chicken; sauté 3 minutes on each side or until done. Remove chicken from pan; keep warm.
4. Add shallots and mushrooms to pan; sauté 3 minutes or until mushrooms are tender. Stir in pecan cream; bring to a boil. Cook 1 1/2 minutes. Place 2/3 cup noodles on each of 6 plates. Top each serving with 1 chicken breast half and 1/3 cup sauce. Garnish with parsley, if desired.

Cooking Light , October 2002

How food, and sitting down to eat, is such a unifying experience

Standard

My mother is making me crazy. They are the first to arrive tomorrow for a whirlwind week of family and holiday insanity. Her arrival has been preceded by three phone calls. The first required discussing my sister-in-law’s gift and how she did not understand why the Lululemon sweatshirt that I recommended was any different than the sweater she picked out. Ok. Then buy the sweater. She ultimately chose neither.

The second was a brief call during my workday because she had an emergency. Turns out that the emergency was that her best friend from law school needed a stuffing recipe. I deemed this an issue that could be addressed the following day (a Saturday) and told her so. Follow up emails on the matter were received.

The third call, meant to simply verify airport pick up plans, turned into a conversation about how she now intended to make chocolate mousse cake upon her arrival. I tried to explain that I’d already spent the better part of the weekend orchestrating the menu and grocery shopping. She replied that she knew her way to the store near our house and would go on her own. That’s about the point that I just put the phone down.

It’s a tale as old as time. Kids are driven bananas by their mothers. And mothers are exasperated by their kids’ lack of patience.

Surely my mother's favorite Christmas with me, before I could talk.

Surely my mother’s favorite Christmas with me, before I could talk.

Thank goodness there’s food. Over food, everyone calms down. Traditions are remembered. Old stories told. Laughing usually dominates arguing.

Unlike meals, board games will bring out the worst in your family at the holidays. Look at my mother's sly look as she is about to go in for the kill.

Unlike meals, board games will bring out the worst in your family at the holidays. Look at my mother’s sly look as she is about to go in for the kill.

Whether with friends or family or even strangers, a meal can unify like few other activities. There’s a collective agreement on the process of a meal, plus, it naturally engenders conversation. With mouths full, you have a moment to think before you speak. With bellies full, you feel satiated – you’re not looking to fill any gaps, physically or emotionally.

Everyone brings a little something to a meal together. Whether it’s the food itself, or colorful commentary, or just some wisdom. You’re expected to contribute. And, you’re expected to respect the contributions too. And, you’re generally expected to have a good time – let loose, tell a joke, burp, have the extra glass of wine. A meal, most often, is joyous.

My family will need this in the next few days. And, likely, your family will too.

Holiday party food that doesn’t take 10 hours to make

Standard

Tis the season. For multitasking. As we speak, I am simultaneously making my grocery list for the holiday meals, ordering some last minute presents, chastising my cat for licking the gifts already under the tree (gross), blogging, and trying to figure out how to eat some food so as not to head off to my pasta-making class with an empty stomach and – at some point – freak out from hunger while rolling linguine.

Earlier this morning, I checked and replied to work and personal email, wrapped a few presents, cuddled with the same offending cat, and made an appointment to have my nails re-done, since all of the above have led to them being chipped and awful. Yesterday, my mom called me and said she hoped she wasn’t waking me. As though I had time for sleep.

I bet a few of you just read that and thought. Yes, that sounds pretty similar to my days right now. It’s such a cliché that the holidays are busy. But, damn. The holidays are busy.

That is, no doubt, what led to the requester of this post to ask for some ideas on party food that doesn’t take 10 hours to make. As well established previously, I am super lazy. I would rarely make something that required more than 30 minutes to make. So, she is in luck… I have a few recipes to share.

Pancetta Crisps With Goat Cheese and Pear – Ok, confession time. This is the single easiest thing I have ever made that people go absolutely bat-shit crazy for. It’s an instant hit and I’d highly recommend it.

Caramelized Onion, Gruyère, and Bacon Spread – Cheese and bacon on bread. You get the idea.

Potato-Gruyère Tartlets – This one is good on lots of fronts. 1) It’s potatoes on dough, which makes it carb-tastic! 2) It only requires a little gruyere, which is a perfect way to use up the leftover bits you have from the recipe above. 3) Puff pastry appears complicated, but it’s NOT! You buy it at the STORE! Anyone out there attempting to make their own puff pastry at this ridiculous time of year, I will slap your pretentious face.

Caramelized Onion Tartlets – You already have the puff pastry, make two kinds of little dealies to put out. Then it looks like you made a bunch of amazing stuff, when really you just repurposed some ingredients.

Scallops in Orange-Butter Sauce – Scallops and shrimp are the best possible things to serve to look fancy-pants but really aren’t. Both are incredibly simple to cook. If you want to ante-up the fancy-pants even more with this recipe, you can substitute bubbles for the white wine.

Saucy Asian Meatballs – Serving meatballs will make your dad happy because it’s traditional and meat-y and he’s barely recovered from you telling him you’re making a roast beef for Christmas dinner instead of turkey which is what your family has done since the dawn of time and you are messing with something that wasn’t broken in the first place. (True story.)

428225_10150577278099029_1322197576_n 425982_10150577164639029_966967814_n  395731_10150577159639029_1212071695_n

So, when typing the above sentences… I made an edit. I originally wrote that I never cook anything that requires more than 30 minutes to make. Never say never.

My all time favorite holiday party dish is Grilled Camembert With Exotic Mushroom Hash. This dish is not especially complex, but it does require multiple steps and special equipment. For the record, it also allows you to light food on fire – for the win!!! Overall, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass. But, it is also divine. And, it will absolutely be on my holiday table this year.

598372_10151257068259029_1699733529_n

Food with Friends

Standard

I met the sous-chef when I was 22… literally, the ink on my college degree was barely dry. Which means, I don’t have a ton of experience with blind dates. That’s a rite of passage that most folks in their 20s go through, that I simply never… passed.

What, in god’s name, does this have to do with food with friends? Lemme tell you. Move to a city of transplants and people are more than happy to set you up on blind dates with other friends that have just moved there.

Not having experienced the romantic side of this, I am conjecturing a bit, but I think it’s pretty much the same thing. There’s the pre-date nerves. Will we have enough to talk about? Will I recognize them when I get to the restaurant? There’s the first impressions. Wow, they’re taller than they look on Facebook. Oh, she’s awfully fashionable. There’s the sometimes awkward, sometimes seamless dinner conversation. We love all the same things! Um, I’ll ask a question about our mutual friend to move things along. Finally, there’s the assessment. That was so fun! It felt like we knew them forever. We are totally asking them out again.

The good news is that  – often – these blind friend dates (much like blind date-dates) happen over a meal. And food is an amazing equalizer. It gives you something to talk about. Have you been here? Oh, what did you eat? It gives you something to gush/commiserate over. Mine was delicious! Yours? Yeah, this was only ok. And it gives you a peek into how they manage relationships. We’ll pick up the tab. We insist! I had the cup of soup and the chicken, so I owe $27.50. A dinner together will teach you a lot about your new-found friends. And, if you happen to all be foodies, so much the better!

Just a few nights ago, the sous-chef and I met new friends. We were all connected by a dear pal in Boston. We courted for several weeks by email. Like most busy professionals, our crazy schedules delayed our actual get-together by several weeks. But, we could already see in our written correspondence that the possibilities were there.

We finally made it work over some soul food on a Sunday night. All new-ish to San Francisco, we chose a place that’s a bit of a local institution. The fried chicken was delicious. The laughter and conversation were better. The food did what food did… it created a platform for connection. Food is, ultimately, essential to the foundation of most relationships. What a remarkable thing.

Oh, and future plans were made to cook each other our favorite meals as soon as the holiday dust settles. Continuing to let food guide the path to creating more love and life in this world.

Tricks for make-ahead and slow cooker recipes for our busy lives

Standard

Once and a while I’ll make a reference to a slow cooker recipe to some foodie and they will snarkily come back with, “oh, like ‘set it and forget it’?” As though your cooking cred just dropped through a sinkhole. Well, to everyone that’s ever said that, I say back, “screw you.” Slow cookers are AWESOME. I’ve had the same one for ten years and I’ve used it dozens and dozens of times.

Here’s why I like it. Slow cooker recipes are easy. As already established in this blog, I am lazy. Score one. Crock Pots make lots of food that does really well as leftovers (as do pretty much any slow cooked dish). Score two (especially if you don’t want to cook every night!). Lastly, you make your dinner the night before when you have a little time (maybe after you’ve finally stopped checking your email or your kids have gone to bed) and then you don’t have to do SHIT the next evening, when you’re tired and crazy and past-the-point-of-consolable because you ate a block of cheese and some Kit-Kats for lunch (not that this has ever happened to me, of course). Big score three.

This time of year is stellar for slow cookers. They’re perfect for making cozy, filling meals and they feed an army (otherwise known as the extended family that’s descending on your 900 sq. foot apartment for the holidays – oh, sorry, I was projecting there for a second).

One friend told me that she plans to cook a batch of chili in her Crock Pot and just keep it on low all Christmas day. That way, as random friends and family drop by, she always has something warm to serve them. Brilliant. I am totally stealing that. She also mentioned that it’s great for the 20-something cousins that show up hung over. Makes perfect sense to me.

So, if you’re freaking out over all of your cooking duties this hectic time of year – or, if you entire life is nothing but one continuous series of chaos and madness (see: my life), these recipes are just what you need.

Asian-style pulled pork

540088_10150760464589029_400831645_n

Crock Pot Chili

Moroccan Meatballs and Spicy Tomato Sauce

999788_10152012965784029_836902684_n

Peasant Stew (One of my all time favorites.)

301427_10151176355134029_1188687195_n

Vegetable and Chickpea Curry

P1020063

How farm to table has become generic and lost some of its charm

Standard

You know how in The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell talks about the Hush Puppy shoes and how a handful of NYC hipsters started wearing them when they were all but out of business and then they became a huge national fad?

Hush Puppies are now food. Um, wait. As in, the Hush Puppy shoe. Not the delicious fried ball of cornbread. Which is, and always had been, food.

What I mean is, food has jumped the trendy shark. And I kinda hate when things I love jump the trendy shark. I have a deep fondness for the weird, the odd, the unique. (Am I stating the obvious? I did just move to SF.) So when something goes from quirky to mainstream, it absolutely loses its charm – at least for me.

The requester of this post inquired specifically about “farm to table” food. What’s absolutely gorgeous farm to table is its authenticity. It feels like a wholesome, approachable experience. A nice old-fashion way of dining (for which you’ll lay down a mortgage payment for the privilege).

Farm to Table

You know where the food came from and you feel confident that it’s fresh and good for you. It may even be organic (but never assume, especially in a restaurant – they are notorious for offering a grey truth about the percent of what they serve that’s truly organic).

The meal is generally beautifully laid out on simple, distressed wood tables, decked with mason jars filled with lemonade and rustic country loaves with golden crusts. Don’t get me wrong; it is usually delicious. But it’s also pretty formulaic and it’s become a little… boring. I have to admit, I’m already seeking the next food fad – something that challenges me and is still low on the radar.

I still really enjoy farm to table, I’ve just become a lot more selective about which opportunities I pursue. We belong to a fabulous winery called Scribe, and they host a quarterly pick-up party. It’s got a lot of the elements that I just poo-poo’ed, but the thing is, it’s totally legit. If you show up on a random Wednesday, they’ll show you the same hospitality – it’s just how they live. When you go there, it just feels warm and casual and inclusive, like you’re part of the family. My demands for these experiences have become pretty strict, and Scribe delivers.

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

I hope you find a farm to table experience that remains special and cool. And when you do, please let me know – I promise to keep the secret between us.

Local Trips for Good Food

Burgers and cider in Alameda
Standard

I travel constantly. As in, my suitcase never makes it back in the closet / I am on a first name basis with flight crews on certain routes. I commute back and forth to Boston at least monthly for work and often have the odd trip to other destinations for my job. And, as though I was not flying on a plane or driving in a car enough, I somehow still manage to believe that I love to travel for pleasure – be that a far-flung destination, or just a short weekend trip away.

I’m sure it goes without saying, but food plays a key role in any trip that I make. NOTHING bums me out more than paying for bad food. If I make a meal that’s less than stellar, I chock it up to experimentation or building my cooking skills. Eat out and have a crappy meal? Tragic. Naturally, making sure you are always eating well in destinations that are unknown to you is kind of a challenge.

So, per request as always, here are my tips on how to successfully make local (or, really, even far) trips for good food.

1)   Do some research before you go. I know this one seems pretty obvious – and it is – but it’s truly the best thing you can do to ensure tasty meals away from home. Bookmark or pin articles with suggested restaurants, ask around to friends who’ve been there before, check out what’s trending on Yelp. You know the drill.

I also highly recommend that you also look up where places are on Google Maps. You might read about a place that the travel mag loves, but if it turns out that it’s 20 miles from where you’re staying, I don’t care how scrumptious the bread basket is, the reality is you’re probably not going to haul your butt over there.

Lastly, if you’re going to a big city or to a popular destination for a holiday or special event, make reservations. There are great online tools available (I’m an OpenTable addict) and having a confirmed spot will totally save you from getting turned away from the place you’ve been dying to go or from eating dinner at 11:30 at night (Unless you’re in Madrid. Then, good luck getting a rez before 11 pm.).

French macarons in LA

French macarons in LA

2)   Look for a crowd or a full parking lot. Sometimes your research fails. This happened to me and the sous-chef just recently. We were in Tahoe for a long weekend and tried to grab lunch at a lakeside restaurant that was highly recommended by a friend. Turned out, the place had closed for the season. Needing to make a quick decision, we got back on the road with eyes pealed for a decent place. We only had to go a few blocks before seeing a little roadside café with so many cars in the lot, there was overflow parking on the street. Felt like a good bet and it was.

Skillet garlic mussels in Sausalito

Skillet garlic mussels in Sausalito

3)   Sort your sh*t out before you are starving. Trust me on this one. This is the a-number-one way to end up eating a craptastic dinner while traveling, which is not only a bummer but is only going to add to the pissy mood you put yourself in by letting yourself get that hungry. We’ve all done it. You go too long without eating and you make a restaurant choice based on desperation. You go wherever is close or has no wait (hi, there’s a reason there’s no one there) and the food is rarely (ok, never) good. Do yourself a favor and plan ahead, or for a worst-case scenario, keep a granola bar stashed in your bag.

Burgers and cider in Alameda

Burgers and cider in Alameda

4)   Don’t ask locals for advice. And, god-forbid, don’t ask at your hotel. I know that this flies in the faced of every clichéd travel article you’ve ever read. I acknowledge that it makes sense on the surface – they live there, of course they know the great places to eat. But my general experience has been that locals (and, absolutely, your concierge) will tend to direct you to the touristy places. They’re sort of the first thing that pops to mind for locals and, also, they feel like safe, “that’s a good place for a visitor” choices. They’re not. Do the work on your own and you’ll be better off.

Divine cheese and fig plate in Sonoma

Divine cheese and fig plate in Sonoma

Above all, just hit the road, keep your iPhone handy, and eat some awesome stuff. If you ask me, life is all about the cool stuff you find the minute you step out your front door.