Monday, March 22, 2010

Reconnaissance Tour

Have you ever had one of those weekends away in which everything seems to click perfectly into place? It’s as if the stars align and the universe conspires, filling every moment with an unusual amount of very good karma. Weekends such as these are what personal legends are made of, providing stories that will be remembered and retold for years to come. I’ve been blessed with several such holidays over the past few years, some resulting in stories that sound like the far-fetched imaginings of a chick-lit author; so good, the most gullible would be skeptical. This past weekend was another one for the books, but I have no qualms in saying, it was better than any other. It was perfect; but not in the way you might expect. It wasn’t idyllic, although many moments were. It was momentous, and it was personal, and it was real. It had all the characteristics I value most in my life, and I really mean ALL.

The plan was for my roommate Ang and I to head up north Thursday night via the 101, to stay with a dear friend in Ventura and continue up the coast the next morning. On Friday afternoon, we were to meet my sister Kathy, her husband Rob and their friends Cleve and Gloria, in Paso Robles. But the three weeks prior to our little getaway had kicked our asses, both of us sick without respite, both of us utterly exhausted from our emotionally draining jobs inspiring tomorrow’s leaders. So from the get-go we had to adjust, and we were a phone call away from backing out of the trip altogether. Instead, we canceled our first rendezvous in Ventura, leaving a morning later than planned. That choice was dripping in disappointment for me, as I’d been longing to see my friend, but I knew in my gut that if I ignored what my body was telling me, the weekend would be over before it began. After a good night’s sleep, we were raring to go, ready for the jaunt up Interstate 5.

Road trips are my favorite way to travel, as I love to connect home to destination. I’m mesmerized by the patterns of changing terrain, and am grounded by observing the realities that exist outside my protective little world. The trip between LA and Paso Robles offered it all: breathtaking beauty, and depressing reality. Whether the LA Aqueduct, giant beef lots, agri-business farms, or oil fields that look like something out of Mad Max, each reminded me of the daunting issues of our time. But at the same time, there was blue sky and there were hills covered in wildflowers; there were snow-capped mountains, and orchards in full bloom. At every stop there were kind people, and along the way I was with Angelina. Ang and I travel well together, and our car trips are always epic, with just the right balance of fun and depth. We talk and laugh hard, we listen to great music, read aloud, or quietly watch the road. And of course, we snack. For this trip I packed homemade rosemary cashews, farmer’s market tangerines, and a chard and goat cheese tart that just might make you swoon. It's that good.

As we neared our destination, the conversation changed, and I began to get butterflies in my belly. Paso Robles, and its environs, has been calling me for a while now. Oh, I’ve been there countless times…in fact, it’s a place I’ve spent key moments of my life, with the significant people of my past. It has always drawn me close, and felt greater than the sum of its parts, and in my gut I’ve suspected it would someday offer more than a simple weekend away. But I’m getting ahead of my story, because the reasons I feel called to Paso is a tale for another time. Suffice it to say, that lingering in the background of this trip was much hope and expectation, and I was looking for signs in and around the events of the weekend.

Our little travel group was eclectic, and hilarious. We range in age from late twenties to somewhere around fifty, and our political and philosophical beliefs are probably as expansive. With some, such differences can get in the way of connection, but with this group it simply felt like it enhanced the dynamics. Belly laughter was abundant, as was engaging, thoughtful conversation. We drank more good wine than I thought was humanly possible; we ate heavenly food at surprisingly great restaurants, met the loveliest people, and soaked up the general good energy that Paso has to offer.

After seven hours straight of luxurious wine tasting on Saturday, I thought I might puke if I looked at another glass of red. With dinner reservations set for 7:30, Ang and I thought a nap was in order, and I prayed a second wind would greet us on the other end. Not surprisingly, we passed out hard, and didn’t stir until a knock on the door signaled it was time to leave. It is not an understatement to say I felt disgusting at this point, but there was no time for showers and primping, or careful outfit planning. We threw something on and ran out the door. The restaurant was lovely, and although the thought of wine and rich pastas made me queasy, I was a trooper and survived yet another delicious meal. After dinner we debated about whether to check out one of the bars our limo driver had recommended. Honestly, I think I can speak for Angelina and say we were both longing to climb back into bed and pass out cold. But we always say we need to go out when an opportunity presents itself…I throw so many bloody dinner parties, we never meet anyone outside our established circle of friends, which is apparently not a good dating strategy. So feeling anything but Saturday-night-sexy, we dragged our hung-over selves to Level 4, we sat at the bar and ordered a vodka gimlet.

I was sure this wouldn’t last more than an hour. We sat there talking about our day, laughing over the adventures we’d had, while observing the locals doing their Saturday night thing. The gimlet went down pretty easily considering, but I was about ready to crawl back to the hotel when Ang’s voice got strangely serious and she told me not to turn around; for a certain handsome gentleman was standing right behind me. He and I had chatted earlier in the day at a winery, and frankly, I’d been a bit smitten. The second wind I’d been waiting for suddenly arrived, and at the same moment a drastic change in music occurred. The first notes of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean came on, Ang and I exchanged a glance, and nearly sprung to the empty dance floor. For thirty minutes or more we danced our hearts out to a steady stream of 80’s tunes, and at the same time I kept my eye on the lovely man across the room. It wasn’t until I was resting on a couch, that he came and sat beside me. We flirted and talked, and before I knew it we were on the dance floor busting a serious move: tall, dark and handsome...and he dances. Ten points - sexy stranger.

After the first bar the gentleman took us on a tour of Paso night life that included a cowboy bar with live music, more dancing, two satisfying games of billiards, a Scottish bar, several pints of beer, and a bar that was closed, but supplied us with shots of tequila anyway. I should’ve been falling down drunk, yet somehow I was fine. The three of us crossed the street to our hotel, dropped off Angelina, and he and I took a walk to procure a nice bottle of Justin Cabernet. It was a beautiful night and the sky was ablaze with stars. While walking through a park we were simultaneously inspired to jump on the swings and pump our way to great heights. There was a magic to the night, which had now turned to morning, and we meandered our way through several more hours of great conversation and mindful intimacy. It wasn’t until 8:30 Sunday morning that the man with smiling eyes and kind hands parted my company, leaving me to begin the day content, but exhausted.

Our final day was a delirious whirlwind of activity. We all hit one more winery, shared a lovely lunch and managed to stay awake for the ride back home. Our last experience wine tasting was something special, and it brought me right back to my core, and the reason I’d taken this trip in the first place. This was a reconnaissance tour, and I was looking to the universe for direction. I can’t say the weekend brought a moment of epiphany, or that the answers I was seeking were handed to me on a silver platter. Clarity rarely shows up in the form of a step-by-step To-Do List, or a treasure map leading to the destination of our dreams. But shining light onto one new insight can lead to a hundred more, and one step taken with confidence can fashion a whole new path.

There was a special energy propelling us through our weekend in Paso Robles, to be sure. Yet, what strikes me most is the way events seemed to reflect a poetic integration of so many disparate parts of myself. Integrity is my highest ideal, something I strive for in every moment, and so the hint of it here seems a positive sign. I don’t know exactly what is waiting around the next bend, but I don’t think I need to; I feel confident I’m headed in the right direction, and one step at a time, I’ll get there. But, as one Paso local wisely stated, “Sometimes you’ve just gotta grab your balls and jump.” Next task: discern which cliff is mine for the taking, and leap for my life.

From Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin

1 frozen sheet all-butter puff pastry (8x12 inches)
2 egg yolks
1 large bunch Swiss chard, cleaned, center ribs removed
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup sliced shallots
1 tsp. thyme leaves
½ cup whole milk ricotta, drained if wet
¼ cup crème fraiche
6 oz. semi-aged goat cheese (I used a mixture of Bucheron and Chevre)
Currant-pine nut relish (recipe below)
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Make the Currant-Pine Nut Relish (recipe below), set aside, and then turn the oven up to 400 degrees.

Defrost the puff pastry slightly and unroll it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use a paring knife to score a ¼ inch border around the edge of the pastry. Make an egg wash by whisking one egg yolk with ½ teaspoon water, and brush the egg wash along the border. (You won’t need all the egg wash.) Chill the puff pastry in the freezer until ready to use.

Tear the chard into large pieces. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, the shallots, and the thyme. Saute a few minutes, and add half the Swiss chard. Cook a minute or two, tossing the greens in the oil to help them wilt. Add the second half of the greens, and season with a heaping teaspoon of salt and a pinch of pepper. Cook a few more minutes, stirring frequently, until the greens are tender.

Spread the greens on a baking sheet to cool. (Or refrigerate to cool more quickly.) When they’ve cooled squeeze the excess water out with your hands.

Place the ricotta, remaining egg yolk, and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the bowl of a food processor. (Vigorously whisking is probably fine.) Puree until smooth, and remove to a mixing bowl. Gently fold in the crème fraiche, and season with a healthy pinch of salt and pepper.

Spread the ricotta mixture on the puff pastry within the scored border. Crumble half the goat cheese over the ricotta, arrange the chard on top, and sprinkle the remaining goat cheese over the tart. If you aren’t ready to bake, cover the tart with plastic and chill.

Bake the tart for 20-25 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through, until the cheese is bubbling and the crust is golden brown. Check underneath the tart to make sure the crust is really cooked through (if you under-bake the tart, it will be soggy).

Cool a few minutes, and then transfer the tart to a cutting board. Spoon some of the currant-pine nut relish over the tart and serve it on the cutting board at the table. Pass the remaining relish in a small bowl for anyone who would like a little more.


½ cup pine nuts
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ sprig rosemary
1 chile de arbol
¾ cup finely diced red onion
1/3 cup dried currants
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
kosher salt and fresh black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Toast the pine nuts for about 8 minutes, stirring once or twice, until they’re golden brown and smell nutty.

Heat a small sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Turn down the heat to medium, and add the olive oil, rosemary, and chile. When the rosemary and chile start to sizzle, add the onion and season with ½ teaspoon salt. Turn the heat down to low, and let the onions stew gently for about 10 minutes, until tender. Transfer to a small bowl to cool and discard the rosemary sprig and chile.

While the onion is cooking, place the currants in a small bowl and cover with hot water. Let the currants soak for 10 minutes, and then drain well.

Add the balsamic vinegar to the pan the onions were in, and reduce it over medium-high heat to a scant 1 tablespoon. Stir the reduced vinegar into the onion mixture. Add the toasted pine nuts, currants, and parsley to the onion mixture, and stir to combine. Taste for balance and seasoning.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Back to Basics

My relationship with food got off to a rather shaky start. I’m positive that no one who knew me early on would have guessed I’d evolve into the vigorous, adventurous eater I am today. As a child, I ate almost nothing outside of macaroni & cheese, potatoes, pizza and ketchup. I wouldn’t eat food that was green, mushy, textured, chewy, bitter, tangy or brown. I was wary of meat, all things gooey, and battled my mom over eating things I Did. Not. Want. I was once at the table for hours after everyone had finished, a mouthful of sauerkraut firmly lodged into my cheeks, a tepid glass of milk haunting me as I stubbornly refused to swallow.

I clung to processed foods for comfort, and McDonald’s was my favorite. On the rare occasions that my family patronized the golden arch, I’d order a cheeseburger, only to scrape everything off. Including the cheese. Or so the family story goes. More commonly my family would go to In-N-Out*, especially on Friday nights when it was my dad’s night to do dinner. I didn’t like it, and I’d literally beg we pass by McDonald’s on the way home to grab some french fries, for me. Because apparently, I didn’t like the kind of fries made to order from fresh potatoes…I liked the processed, flavored-with-beef, deep-fried, frozen-then-refried kind.

I remember clearly the moments when Real Food caught my fancy, but believe me; I was reluctant to let go of my finicky reputation. So I tucked those experiences away, and on the sly started trying new things. I began to get swept away, feeling near ecstasy when a food experience would catch me by surprise. I remember the first time I tried a homegrown green bean from my sister’s garden. I was amazed it was the same vegetable my mom** often served from an aluminum can. It was crunchy, flavorful, and appetizingly green, as opposed to that muddy-grayish-green I thought was customary. A friend’s mom made us whole-wheat banana pancakes with real maple syrup, and I was astonished. I’d never even HEARD of real maple syrup. It came from trees? I thought it came from an Aunt Jemimah bottle, and was made up of fifteen ingredients or more!? I also clearly remember going with my brother to a local-legend called Tommy T’s. We went for the prime rib tacos, only available once per week. Oh my. What a tragedy, that the restaurant is gone and I’ll never experience that pleasure again.

Each experience opened me up, and as I began to love eating, I naturally fell into cooking. My first culinary endeavors were my attempts to recreate the foods I’d sampled somewhere and loved. Whether it was the “unique” taste of a McDonald’s hamburger (yikes), a perfect homemade flour tortilla, or Bonnie’s chicken chimichangas; if a food caught my attention, I couldn’t rest until I recreated it. The more surprising experiences I had with food, the more adventurous I became, and that’s how I’ve ended up in the foodie place I find myself in today.

I continue to attempt to master the preparation of foods I love, which at this point is pretty much everything. I’m on some kind of crazy culinary pilgrimage these days, working my way through classic preparations of meat, sauces, seafood, and pastries. I play around with Indian, Thai and Moroccan, and dapple in the nouveau world of California, vegetarian and fusion cuisines. The more I learn, the more complex my endeavors become, leaving me ever more curious to see what food adventure is around the next bend. However, with all this complex food preparation going on, sometimes I need to be brought back to balance, where I can tap into my core and just enjoy. Every now and again, I need to be reminded that my first love is simple, wholesome, seasonal food, and even though I adore a snazzy-good meal, nothing nourishes the soul like a hearty bowl of homemade soup.

My lovely roommate is on a culinary journey of her own these days, and I was the grateful recipient of this amazing Kabocha French Lentil Soup she made the other night. It is healthy, hearty, and beautiful, with a perfect balance of flavors you can’t quite identify while eating it. It’s a lentil stew, but could also be served alongside chicken curry with naan, because it’s almost an Indian dal. Delicious garnished with home-toasted croutons, drizzled with plain yogurt, or sopped up with a piece of whole grain toast, this dish will satisfy no matter how you choose to serve it.

*As an adult I am quite obsessed with In-N-Out. Like, I should be on a commercial, I love it so much. Just needed to set the record straight.
**Oh, and my mom served lots of lovely food growing up. It wasn't all canned green beans and sauerkraut.


This is a recipe twice removed: it came from a favorite site of mine,
101 Cookbooks, where Heidi Swanson posts healthy vegetarian recipes, some her own, and others she happens upon in her own food adventures. She pulled this from a cookbook called SoupLove, by Rebecca Stevens, which Heidi found at a shop in the Mission District in San Francisco. Do yourself, and those you love a favor and make this soup. I feel certain, even the staunchest of carnivores will find it deeply satisfying.

1 kabocha or other dark orange winter squash, 1 1/2 lb. (I highly recommend using kabocha squash which has a nice starchy quality that adds to the consistency of the soup. Whole Foods should have it this time of year.)
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil
sea salt
1 cup / 7 oz green lentils, rinsed
5 coin-sized slices ginger, 1/8-inch thick
1 whole star anise
6 cups water
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1 yellow onion, medium dice
1 leek, sliced into 1/4 moons
1 fennel bulb, medium dice

red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 425F with a rack in the top third of the oven. Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds. Oil and salt the squash and roast cut side down (in a rimmed baking pan) with the 1/2 cup water poured into the pan. Roast until tender, about 35 to 45 minutes. When cool enough, scoop out cooked squash and set aside.

In the meantime, in a medium saucepan, combine the lentils, ginger, star anise and water. Simmer until tender, about 30 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon salt.

In a large stockpot combine the olive oil, onion, leeks, fennel and additional salt. Cook covered over low heat until vegetables soften, about 7 - 10 minutes.

Remove the star anise and ginger coins from the lentil sauce pan, then add the lentils, lentil broth and squash to the vegetables in the stock pot. Stir well and cook for another 15 minutes or so, allowing the flavors to blend. Taste and adjust the seasoning here with more salt if needed, and pinches of red pepper flakes to taste.

Serve as is, or topped with lots of garlicky homemade croutons.*

Serves 4 - 6.

*For the croutons simply rip up the remainder of a day-old loaf of good bread into tiny shreds, douse it in olive oil, garlic, and a bit of salt, and toast it in a 350 degree oven until golden and crunchy.