Mattapoisett Lobster Boil

Eating lobster

Seasons come and go in California with only slight changes. In good years, rain helps delineate winter from the six-month dry spell we call summer, but as it’s been well documented, it has been unusually warm and dry since December.


In New England, seasons are much more important. Labor Day is the bittersweet demarkation of the end of summer, bringing with it a shift in mentality away from vacation and toward work.


So arriving in Mattapoisett, a Massachusetts summer vacation destination, a week after Labor Day feels unusual. It’s quiet, for one thing. But we have the beach to ourselves. The beach is small but calm, perfect for learning how to paddleboard.


We came out for what was going to be a big family reunion. It’s been fun, but just like the end of summer, it has a bittersweeet feeling to it, too.

Fresh late-summer corn

My parents orchestrated this trip, but they couldn’t make it at the last minute. This has left us siblings, significant others, and offspring to rule the roost. We miss our folks, but we are doing our best to live it up, like they’d want us to. In fact, that’s exactly what my mom said: “I don’t want you worrying. You have to enjoy every minute for us.”


Enter the Lobster Boil. Sara, my sister in law, grew up here. She and my brother moved back to this part of the Massachusetts coast a few years ago. We hadn’t been back since their wedding, and they were looking forward to showing off their local spots. To say that Sara’s family is well-connected here is an understatement. Her family owns Turk’s, one of the most popular seafood spots in the area. Everyone around here knows it well. A few days ago, when we were in line in Turk’s fish market to buy swordfish, haddock, and scallops, an older woman with her hair piled on top of her head leaned over and told us that she won’t buy fish anywhere else.

“They sell it so fast,” she said. “You always know it’s fresh.”

just cooked East Coast lobster
Sara’s parents decided we needed a true New England experience, so last night they brought over a staggering number of lobsters from Turks, bags of local butter-and-sugar corn, littleneck clams, bread, salad, and plenty of butter. Richard knows I’m gullible, so he said he pulled over the road and picked the corn himself. (There are a surprising number of cornfields here.) Sara corrected him: he bought the corn. “Dad!” she sighed.

Baby meets Dog

The evening was dry, the first crisp night of the season, and the sunset seemed to light up the boats in the bay and bathe everything in a pink glow.

We shucked, boiled, toasted, tossed, melted, talked, and ate–a lot. The next day, I took the leftover lobster meat–mostly knuckles and claws but also some tail pieces–and made a pasta with the leftover corn and some sliced shallots and garlic and a few pinches of red pepper flakes. It tasted simple, sweet, and purely of New England.

End of summer cook out

How to eat lobster

Richard, Sara’s dad, gave us West Coasters a lobster-cracking primer. It went something like this:

  • Holding the body and the tail over something other than your plate (a deep tray or bowl works well), bend the lobster in half to separate the two pieces. Water (and sometimes guts) will come out when you break apart the lobster
  • Pull off and save the claws. Set aside the body — you can eat the guts and roe or not. Up to you.
  • Holding the tail like an upside-down taco, cup the shell with one hand and crush it like an orange to break it slightly.
  • Using two hands, with the tail underside facing down, grab the sides of the tail and raise them up to crack up the shell so it can be pulled off and discarded.
  • To shell the claw, twist the small pincher and pull it off. If you’re lucky, the quill in the claw will come out with the shell.
  • Crush the big pincher with a cracker (made for shells) or your bare hands, if you’re feeling macho. Remove the shell and you’ll have the claw meat. Some people prefer claw meat over tail meat.
  • To remove the meat from the knuckles, break the knuckle at the joint and stick your pinky finger through to push the meat out. Dunk the lobster meat in melted butter and mangia.

mattapoisett sky at dusk

It Started in Naples

Our trip had an inauspicious beginning. A day after arriving in Naples, I set off on a ferry with Shelley Lindgren, the wine director of A16 and SPQR in San Francisco. We were bound for Ischia, a picturesque island in the Gulf of Naples known for, among other things, wines made with the local Biancolella grape.

When the ferry docked ahead of schedule, we followed everyone else aboard and hopped off—on the island of Procida, as it turned out, although it took an embarrassingly long time for us to realize we were in the wrong place.

I went up to an older Italian gentleman pulled, apparently, from central casting.

“Ischia?” I asked, pointing to the ferry terminal.

“Procida,” he corrected.

“Si, ma, ah, Ischia, ah…”

“All’ una.” Another ferry wouldn’t be coming until 1 p.m.

Procida, it turned out, was known for its prison, not its wine. Shelley pulled out her Trio (this was the pre-iPhone era) and scrambled to find a number to call to let the Ischian winemakers know that we would be at least four hours late. And then we sat in a café near the harbor, shared a ham and cheese panino, and waited for the next ferry to arrive.

This was January of 2007. Shelley was six months pregnant and in her last window of opportunity to travel abroad. I was a very green journalist. Although I had cooked at A16 a few years earlier, Shelley and I didn’t know each other all that well. Yet we had somehow finagled a book deal to write A16 Food + Wine and so we dove into the book-creation process, learning as we went along. Still, as we sat gazing out onto what I later learned had been the setting for the movie Il Postino, I had little understanding that this trip would forever inform my understanding of Italian food and wine culture. [click to continue…]

Whole-Grain Waffling

Whole Grain Waffles

It makes no sense that waffling on an issue means you can’t make up your mind. I waffle about most quotidian decisions—but never about waffles. If they’re there for the taking, I’m there for the eating.

I could probably eat waffles most days, but they seem to be appropriate only on weekends when lugging out a waffle iron, heating it until it chirps, and assembling a batter doesn’t come with the guilt of avoiding more important things. Plus, weekday breakfasts tend to be more solitary than weekend brunches, and eating waffles should be done with company.

Part of what’s great about waffles is their texture. The waffle pattern provides plenty of crisp surface area to hold syrup, jam, or yogurt. I love how easy it is to pull them into squares or wedges by following the seams seared into them by the iron. Convenience! Even bad waffles aren’t all that bad. (The same isn’t so for bad pancakes.) If waffles turn out a little dense or a little soft, they are still waffles and therefore good to eat.

While I like the eggy soufflé quality of big Belgian waffles—the kind made by separating the whites from the yolks, beating the whites into a stiff foam, and folding them gently into the batter—lately, my preference in the morning is for something homelier with more substance. I want whole grains that will stick with me so I’m not hungry in an hour. [click to continue…]

Chiles, Garlic, Anchovies Put to the Test, Plus a Few New Books

Grilled shrimp with chile-anchovy sauce
An update on the mild, umami-rich condiment I made a week or so ago: After testing the chile-garlic-anchovy sauce on grilled shrimp, even already-peeled grilled shrimp that were “grilled” indoors on a cast-iron grill pan (in other words, under less-than perfect circumstances), I give the sauce/shrimp combo a solid thumbs up. This little condiment experiment reminded me how easy it is to put together good meals when you already have a few flavor boosters on hand.

Which is why, after making a recipe for a small batch of pickled red cabbage from Andrea Nguyen’s new book, The Banh Mi Handbook, I have yet to put it on banh mi. Instead, I’ve eaten it in salad, alongside grilled chicken and rice, and on top of a homemade veggie burger made in by following Food52‘s instructions. The patty needed some oomph (my veggie burger game is severely lacking), and Andrea’s pickled cabbage did just the trick. So I will just have to make more when actual banh mi happens. [click to continue…]

Tricks of the Trade: Chiles, Garlic, Anchovies

Happy Quail Chiles

After I wrote about some of the tricks of the trade I’ve picked up while working on cookbooks, I had an email exchange with Heidi Krahling, whom I worked with recently on her second book. She was curious: What tips did I pick up from her, really?

Heidi owns two popular restaurants in San Anselmo, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. Insalata’s is her tribute to her first food love—Mediterranean (she comes from a large Italian family, and Insalata is her maiden name). Marinita’s, her restaurant down the street, focuses on her second food love, Latin American, and mostly Mexican. Despite all this, she is quite humble about her accomplishments. For Heidi, it’s how she would do any other job: working hard to do things the right way—day in, day out.

But there is a reason people keep coming back for her fresh, healthful food: flavor. While working with Heidi, I learned about tarator, a tahini, nut, and seed blend and houriya, a harissa-spiked sweet-savory dip made from carrots or parsnips. Both are often cycled into Insalata’s trio of dips, which she serves with warm pita wedges. She also taught me that verdolagas—she uses them in a braised pork in salsa verde at Marinita’s—are the same thing as purslane.

Heidi’s second book is due out November 1st, just in time for the holidays. (An entire chapter is dedicated to Thanksgiving, in case you’re looking for turkey inspiration.) In this second book, she offers great ideas for condiments and vinaigrettes. I used one of her ideas—chile jam—as a springboard for this garlicky condiment. [click to continue…]

Tricks of the Trade: Meet the Dough Roller

pastry roller

One of the reasons I collaborate on cookbooks is to pick up new tricks. Every book I’ve co-written has given me plenty of new ideas to apply to my own cooking style.

With A16 Food + Wine, it was the wonderful world of Campania–particularly its wines (Fiano!), citrus fruit, peppers, and tuna conserva. I learned how easy it is to cook an octopus. With The Preservation Kitchen, it was an understanding about acidity and botulism and, basically, how to not be freaked out about canning. I learned that pickling liquid makes a great base for vinaigrette. With SPQR Modern Italian Food + Wine, it was ancient-meets-modern Italy, with its fast-paced cities and autostrade and itslow-paced foods and wines. I learned that a sharp pair of scissors is much better at trimming delicate herbs and vegetables than a knife. And with Insalata’s and Marinita’s (due out this fall), I learned how toasting farro in olive oil before cooking it makes the grain much more flavorful. 

The most recent book project is Cookie Love, or what I lovingly refer to as The Mindy Cookie Project. For this one, I dove down a dessert rabbit hole with Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate in Chicago. I’ve always liked to bake. But before The Mindy Project began, I had never made basic pastry things, like hot fudge. (This was quickly remedied–Mindy’s recipe is foolproof.)  Since working on this book, I have had plenty of opportunities to hone my skills in pastry technique.

For this book, most of the shortbread dough needs to be rolled out into a flat sheet, like you would if rolling out pie crust. Then you can bust out the cookie cutters. I am decently proficient with a rolling pin, but I’m always looking for ways to make the rolling process faster and less fussy. Sometimes you want to spot-treat a too-thick area that’s too small to warrant a whole rolling pin, for example. Mindy had a solution. She introduced me to the dough roller/pastry roller. [click to continue…]

Summer Fruit Mashup, and Clafoutis

Blueberry Apricot Clafoutis

Grocery stores in Berkeley are generally frenetic places, but during the summer when they are also overflowing more than normal with produce, they become obstacle courses. Apricots! Plums! Yellow Plums! Plumcots! Dino Pluots! Attack of the stone fruits and their mashups.

Earlier this week, I walked by an enormous bin of blueberries and scooped up a couple of pounds. They were a good price. I needed some for a compote for cookies from Mindy’s book (blueberry kolachkes) and the rest would be for me. And then I passed pretty red-orange, semi-soft apricots. So what the heck? Into the cart they went. I didn’t sample either before buying; I was on a mission to get out of Berkeley Bowl in under 30 minutes.

I got home, unloaded the goods, and popped a few blueberries in my mouth. Disappointing. They were sweet but flabby, with none of the acidic spine that all good blueberries should have. If you put these in a smoothie, you’d have bland, lightly sweetened (but very purple) goo. They would make a lackluster blueberry pie. Maybe I could turn them into a syrup, but I’d need a lot lemon or lime juice to make it all worth it.

Blueberry Apricot Clafoutis
Onto the apricots. They tasted as if they’d been injected with lemon juice. Too sour. Those were going to be a challenge, too.  What to do…

Bingo. I’d combine them. [click to continue…]

Gallo Pinto: The Stuff of Surf Vacations

gallo pinto, costa rica
I was not born to surf. That calling went to my brother, Joe. Surfing always looked a tad scary. It’s one thing to stare down a wave and know that you can dive underneath to avoid getting caught in an oceanic tumble cycle. It’s another when you have a big board strapped to one ankle that could bash into you and knock out a tooth or an eye. Swimming, boogie boarding, snorkeling—I was comfortable with those water sports. But my sister and I left surfing all to my brother.

But challenges are good, and so is a tropical beach vacation. That’s how I found myself at surf camp in Tamarindo, a beach town in Costa Rica. A group of us from San Francisco arrived in town for one thing and one thing only (mostly): To surf.

tamarindo sunset

[click to continue…]

Spaghetti Bolognese, Revisited

eggplant "spaghetti bolognese"
This entire spring I was either glued to my computer or hovering by the oven, all in an effort to meet the deadline for Mindy Segal’s cookie book manuscript. We made it, just. I don’t think I’ve ever typed so many words in a month as I did this past May. I certainly have never sampled so many cookies. Nearly everything else in my life went on hold so I could think cookies, cookies, cookies. (This blog was one casualty.)

There were times when I felt it would be impossible to finish the book on time. But when we galloped through four chapters in two weeks, the ideas coming at us fast, I started to wonder: What if I could be that productive all the time?

eggolant on the stove

Sadly, I can’t be. Working under the gun gives you something akin to a sleep deficit, setting you up for exhaustion. Instead of sleep, you’re cheating rest, the down time your brain needs in order to maintain its ability to function at optimal levels. It’s the law of diminishing returns: Too much cheating and productivity inevitably drops off. By the time I started assembling all of the chapters in one document, my brain was cheap toast. It was all that I could do to write up a strung-out email, attach the manuscript, and send it to the editor. [click to continue…]

Music Memory

The other day, when we were deep in a conversation about writing cookbooks with chefs, a friend recommended listening to the same music as the chef. This would help get in her head. It made sense. Music, or lack of it, can define a kitchen.

Chefs usually fall into two categories. Those that want music in their kitchens to help them get into the groove and those who feel it is a distraction. When I cook and bake at home, I fall into the “listen to music” camp, but most chefs I’ve worked for have not been supporters of a greasy staff boom box. Yet most of the kitchens tended to have at least one resident music geek who did his share of talking about bands, shows, trivia.

It took working with food for me to truly listen to music. I spent my undergrad years at the kind of university that excelled in training future food scientists, engineers, veterinarians, and sports psychologists. The most musical nook on campus was the tiny theater/art/music department, where a music appreciation class  had us singing Gershwin’s Summertime on the first day. Otherwise, our campus was not musical, and neither were my friends. Dave Matthews Band and Phish loomed large and no one thought there was anything wrong with that. Toad the Wet Sprocket was the biggest show to come to campus. But UCDavis wasn’t really about music. It had Picnic Day dachshund races instead.

When I worked at La Farine, a bakery on the Oakland/Berkeley border, straight out of college, it was different. Music was everything. Corey, the afternoon bread baker, took pity on my music starvation diet and we began to work through Dylan albums (with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline on heavy rotation) until everyone needed a break from the nasal incantation. Lanky and pale, with a skull and crossbones tattoo in the back of his head, Corey had a ghostly presence, intimidating to the unacquainted. But he hardly poked fun at my vanilla music background. When the shop closed up and we were left with our mixers and dough, Corey would switch to Anticon and other music that was percolating in the Oakland scene at the time. The memory of some sounds ties directly to the memory I have of bakery smells—eggy lemon curd for the cheesecakes, damp waxy boxes of lemons, sweet/sour  butter, omnipresent cinnamon. Jeff, the owner, studied music at Northwestern and never minded tunes in the kitchen.

After locking up for the day, the other Jeff, the manager, would stand by Corey’s table as he shaped sour baguettes. Jeff would fill us in on the neighborhood gossip. There was the woman who came in a couple of times a week for a brownie and then would berate us about how terrible our brownie was. Jeff always suggested something else—a chocolate cookie? a luscious slice of tart? She would not be swayed from her brownie purchasing or hating. Rockridge in those days was not short on strong personalities, and Jeff liked to spin a yarn. But the main topic of conversations—other than tattoos; Jeff had several and Corey was working toward becoming a tattoo artist—was music. Everyone seemed to play some sort of instrument. Sometimes, if Jeff and Corey forgot I was coming in, they would be blasting their doom metal band du jour, although they never thought it was polite to do so around me.

Today Jeff and Corey have scattered to the winds and La Farine is populated with completely new faces. But there is still a stereo. I hope someone still has fun with it.