Rain, and Minestrone

When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, Californians were locked in the kind of drought pattern that limits how often you can water a lawn or flush a toilet. My mom would save the suds from the dishes to water her roses. When rain came, it was worth celebrating – even more so if you were an introvert kid like me who preferred to stay inside and draw during recess rather than play 4-square on the blacktop.

For the past three years, it’s felt like the 1980s all over again. California’s been locked in another bone-dry spell of weather. This past December was arid, and it didn’t rain at all in January. Which made yesterday’s wild rainstorm all the more incredible. In Sonoma, part of Guerneville was under water after receiving 8 inches of rain and pushing the Russian River beyond its capacity. All the excess water caused manhole covers to blew off in San Francisco.

Luckily, I worked from home all day and never had to battle the standing water on the road. It was definitely one of those days that make you want to use only the food you have on hand–no trip to the store necessary. [click to continue…]

Butternut Squash and Yellow Split Pea Soup

Butternut Squash Yellow Split Pea Soup

Heidi Krahling is one of those people who other people want to be around. The chef-owner of Insalata’s and Marinita’s, two long-running restaurants in Marin County, California, is persistently upbeat. It’s the kind of energy that underplays the mule-like stamina (her words) that you need to run a restaurant successfully.

I helped Heidi write her second book, Insalata’s and Marinita’s: A Tale of Two Restaurants, released this past November. In the book, she provides the backstory of her restaurant through recipes divided among kitchen workstations.  In 1996, she and her husband, Mark Krahling, opened Insalata’s in a vacant space off of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in San Anselmo. She wanted to have a large takeout counter with a little restaurant and a coffee bar, but the restaurant became super popular, encroaching on the coffee bar and takeout counter. Within a year, she had a big restaurant, a little takeout counter, and no coffee bar.

Every six months or so, Heidi would get a call from San Francisco restaurant veteran Pat Coll. He wanted to partner with her on another restaurant, but Heidi always said no. Insalata’s was definitely enough. When a space opened up down the street from Insalata’s in 2008, however, she changed her tune. In 2009, Heidi and Pat opened Marinita’s, a restaurant serving Latin American (mostly Mexican) fare.

Heidi’s restaurants embody her two food loves—Mediterranean and Mexican. What I didn’t expect to find when working with Heidi was discovering the common ground between the two different regions. For instance, Sikil pak, a Mayan dip of crushed pepitas and seasonings, is similar to Turkish tarator, and both work as a dip or as a topping for fish.

While Insalata’s certainly became more than a big takeout counter with a little restaurant, its takeout counter is still a key part of the restaurant—and it sells buckets of soup. Butternut is a perennial favorite, and through the years, Heidi has made countless variations. Most winter squash soup is creamy and slightly on the sweet side, but it doesn’t have to be. In her new book, Heidi offers a recipe with yellow split peas for a savory depth of flavor.

To free myself from a post-Thanksgiving stupor with some wholesome cooking, I made her soup. I cut back a bit on the original quantity of split peas to reduce the yield, but I could have bumped up the quantity of ginger to counter the sweetness of the squash. [click to continue…]

Apple Raisin Brown Butter Cake

piece ofapple raisin brown butter cake
There are a lot of complicated ingredients in the food world. Yesterday, I was reading all about hydrocolloids—things like xanthan gum, guar gum, carageenan, and agar. They thicken store-bought salad dressings, add texture to gluten-free bread, and congeal vegan jello. Hydrocolloids are in almond milk and frozen convenience foods. Remember when it was all the rage to serve foam on plates? Hydrocolloids helped hold those suds together.

Maybe that’s why it is comforting to bake something simple and fall-worthy with a few recognizable ingredients. Filled with chopped apples and raisins, there isn’t anything complicated about this cake. I served slices of it with a spoonful of yogurt on Saturday night for a few friends. My baking experiments are not new to them—they’ve sampled a bunch of trials from Mindy’s book. And I’ve known them all long enough to know that they won’t tell me it’s delicious when it’s just OK.

They went bananas for this nothing-crazy cake. Or at least Jana went bananas.

fall color
I had planned on making a persimmon cake with brown butter, but the hachiya persimmons I had bought were not quite soft enough. So I switched to apple and abandoned the original recipe—except for idea of using brown butter. [click to continue…]

Tamarind Ginger Cookies

Tamarind Ginger Cookies // modernmealmaker.com
There is a reason that cooks from all over the world like tamarind. Its pulp adds a blast of tang and pucker to food—both savory and sweet. Tamarind is like tangy MSG. It makes your mouth water.

In Mexico, it’s used in sweets and agua frescas. Fany Gerson incorporates a few recipes using the pod—like tamarind candy balls season with chile, sugar, and salt—in her fun cookbook, My Sweet Mexico.

It’s also used throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, and India. Phat thai wouldn’t be the same without it. When I visited Kerala, nearly ever meal came with a small cup of sambar, a broth of dal, tamarind, and vegetables. Louisa Shafia uses tamarind in a tangy condiment in The New Persian Kitchen, her modern Persian cookbook. In it, she writes:

“It’s believed that the word ‘tamarind’ comes from the Persian tamar-i-hindi, or ‘Indian date,’ so named because the pulp looks similar to a date.”

But I had never thought of connecting tamarind with cookies until I stumbled upon a recipe from Australian Dan Lepard, a UK-based baker who writes for a variety of publications, including The Guardian. His recipe, a spiced-up ginger cookie, adds a spoonful of tamarind concentrate, a dark-as-molasses paste you can find among Southeast Asian coconut milk and shrimp paste or Middle Eastern pomegranate molasses and rose water.

I was immediately drawn in by Dan’s genius idea of tamarind in cookies. [click to continue…]

Fall Salad: Delicata Squash, Kale, Pomegranate Seeds, and Hazelnuts

fall salad with squash, hazelnuts, and pomegranates//Modern Meal Maker
My great-grandmother Emily, a sturdy, short woman of German farming stock, did not find her sense of humor until she turned 80. Instead of comedy, she spent most of her life extolling the virtues of hard work and education. This may explain why, a few years after surpassing her 100th birthday, she “fired” the security guard at her assisted living facility. All he did was stand around. “It’s okay, though,” she then said, acknowledging his personable demeanor. “You’re the bomb.”

If my born-in-the-1800s great-grandmother Emily could work an odd bit of 1990s lingo into conversation, so can I. This kale salad is the bomb.

Say what you will about kale —I thought for sure that interest in this brassicas variety would have peaked in 2013—but there is no denying that its sturdy leaves are made for hearty fall salads.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Cortney Burns, the co-chef at Bar Tartine in San Francisco, for a freelance piece. We ended up dissecting the restaurant’s perennially popular kale salad, which frames mildly bitter leaves with sunflower tahini, yogurt, yogurt powder, and rye bread (For specifics, look up the recipe in the Bar Tartine cookbook.) The salad is one of the few dishes that rarely leaves the menu, but Cortney said it would be off in a second if she or co-chef Nick Balla were tired of it.

“Our guests love it, but we also like to eat the kale salad,” she said. So the kale salad trend—like the burrata trend and the pork belly trend before it—is likely here to stay.

And that’s a good thing. The idea for my bomb-worthy salad came from [click to continue…]

How to Salsa Verde


An American-size tomatillo (left) and a smaller tomatillo (center), the size favored in Mexico

It’s been more than a year ago since my mom and I traveled to Mexico to spend a week with her sister’s family, the Acasusos.

Their home base is just outside Oaxtepec, a town more than an hour away from Mexico City in the state of Morelos. My aunt Pam packed our week with the kinds of activities that most gringos never get to experience. We visited the temazcali in Cuernavaca, where we sat in a pitch-black mud smokehouse sauna and flogged our backs with an herb branch dipped in water—a native nahuatl tradition for cleansing the body and mind. After the self-imposed shvitz, we wrapped ourselves in mats so the healing properties of the smoke could penetrate our skin.

We also swam in the sulfur-infused waters of an enormous community pool in Cuautla, which proclaimed itself a fuente de juventude, fountain of youth. Swimming in the water made our skin tingle and stink—we were advised to bring old swim suits—but the after effects were calming. I was a spry 28 again. Until some unknown insect bit my knee and it swelled to grapefruit-size, making me hobble about.

(My aunt, two hours later: “How are you feeling?” Me: OK, but my knee is freaking me out.” My aunt: “We can rule out a scorpion bite, then. You’d be feeling much worse.” Me: “That’s good…?”)

Apart from the stress-detox adventures, we also were there to learn some real Mexican cooking skills. Pam had asked the cooks at the family restaurant, Suz, in Oaxtepec, to show us how they make salsas at home. [click to continue…]

Weekday Kale with Roasted Chickpeas

roasted chickpeas and kale

Getting more vegetables into the rotation–especially during the weekday shuffle–is not easy to do. Salad greens bought over the weekend don’t tend to keep well in the refrigerator. My usual thing to do is to roast cauliflower florets, but I can’t eat cauliflower every week. And what about the nights when you just need a little something to tide you over until morning?

Yesterday, my answer was found in a can of chickpeas and a bunch of lacinato kale *also called dino kale and Tuscan kale. [click to continue…]

Moment of Zen: Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea

It’s not often when we can push away from the computer screen, take a seat in a garden, and be treated to tea and platters of treats. But the stars must have aligned yesterday, because that’s exactly what happened.

There is no single right way to drink tea in the afternoon–and there is no shame in gulping down a cup of PG tips when the need arises. But this was an all-out throwdown of an afternoon tea. In her last life, SandyB must have been a stylist for the likes of Australia’s Gourmet Traveler. She set a table in the shade (shade being important, since we are in the middle of a heat wave), with a double layer of tablecloth and an assortment of china tea cups and plates. Zinnias–which she allows to grow nearly five feet tall in her garden–made up the simple centerpiece. My iPhone photo doesn’t do her table justice. [click to continue…]

Almond Spelt Biscotti

almond spelt biscotti
I’ve been pushing myself to bake more with alternative flours. Playing around with different flavors and textures can be a lot of fun—but it can lead to disaster. A batch of cookies I made with toasted soy flour may be one of the worst things I’ve ever pulled out of an oven. (Using sucanat in place of sugar did not help matters.) But hey, you never know until you try.

Milled from what is allegedly a nearly-forgotten strain of wheat, spelt flour is easier to use than many of the other ancient grain flours on the market. In Berlin, the Du Bonheur bakery uses it in place of other wheat flours because the pastry chef, Anna Plagens, believes it’s easier to digest.

Still, opting for spelt flour in place of conventional wheat flour is not a 1-to-1 switch. [click to continue…]

Tasting Notes: Sicilian White Wines

Sicilian white wines at A16SF

In 2007, when Shelley and I sat down to write about grapes for A16 Food + Wine, there wasn’t much new to talk about in the world of Sicilian white wines. Apart from the luscious dessert wines produced on the island of Pantelleria, Sicilian white wines—at least the ones reaching the U.S. at the time—tended to be mixed bag. Many were tropical fruit bombs made with international grapes. These exports overshadowed the nuanced, experimental wines made with native grapes that were starting to percolate on the local scene.

“Sicilian whites have been so underrepresented,” Shelley explained to me Wednesday when I stopped by to join a few members of the A16 and SPQR teams for a tasting of some of the island’s whites. “It used to be that many of the wines were very pineapple-y—and not in a good way. They often tasted overripe.”

But, Shelley continued, the native grapes have always had lot of potential; they were just waiting for vintners to tune into more nuanced ways to showcase their qualities. In the past five or six years, these wines not only have emerged on the international wine scene but also have become favorites among wine writers and sommeliers. Not bad for a region once known for growing white blending grapes for Marsala. [click to continue…]