magic mushrooms

Magic mushrooms

24 April 2015

Ripe fruit can be perfect in its naked glory, but vegetables like a bit of dress up. A juicy tomato wants great olive oil, a fluffy baked potato begs for melting butter. And this mushroom saute, with minimal enhancement, simply showcases the earthy richness, meaty texture and indefinable umami that are the essence of mushroom goodness.

Mushrooms give off a lot of liquid as they cook, which is why prepared mushrooms often end up watery or shriveled. The genius of this preparation is that thick slices of portobello are cooked just until soft and silky, and the flavor of the cooking liquid is magically transformed, with a bare touch of soy sauce and cornstarch, into a lustrous umami boost. This is mushrooms at their best.

There are so many good uses for these mushrooms: heaped on a burger, rolled into an omelet, piled on crostini with melted cheese. But they also make a simple, richly flavorful meal over a bowl of rice, greens or polenta – especially with a runny fried egg on top.

And did you know the real magic of mushrooms? Like us, they make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight – even after they’ve been picked. So if you put your mushrooms out to sunbathe first, they’ll stockpile vitamin D for you while you stay cool and wrinkle-free in the shade. read on…


I picked up a wavy green head of butter lettuce at the farmers market last weekend, fully intending to make salad. But as I washed its ruffly leaves, the neatly cupped shapes begged for something warm and savory to hold. I felt like the mouse in the kids’ book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk to go with it. If you give a girl butter lettuce, she’s going to want a scoop of minced chicken, glazed with soy sauce, garlic and ginger, to go in it.

In these anti-grain times, lettuce is taking on new roles as surrogate hamburger buns or taco wrappers. But this Chinese dish, traditionally served in iceberg leaves, has in fact been around for ages. It’s not strictly paleo food, since soybeans (in hoisin sauce and soy sauce) don’t hold up in paleo court. But it is legit Chinese food without rice or noodles – doing that neat Asian trick of salty-sweet-tangy-spicy, all in a snappy lettuce leaf.

Minced chicken in lettuce cups didn’t originate at PF Chang’s, but the restaurant chain gets credit for bringing the Cantonese dish to mainstream America. I’m all for authenticity, but sometimes the old school needs a bridge to the present day. Check out this recipe from an traditional cookbook I have:

old school minced squab

The only selling point to “fried minced squab” is that looks better than “chicken kidney fritters” on the opposite page. Good food is good food, but there’s something to be said for marketing and presentation – not to mention current-day ingredients.

My California take on this dish incorporates a pile of fresh vegetables, minced fine like the chicken, which add flavor, texture and lightness while still blending right in. Even my kids who won’t touch lettuce happily wolf down the minced chicken over rice, hardly noticing the vegetables camouflaged in. read on…


nut warning

Discovery Saturday

28 March 2015

How smart is this nut warning on a stack of cookies? Like a pirate flag, the lone walnut waves its warning to those on the lookout for a nut attack. Thanks to my smarty pants friend Nancy for this cute and pithy signal.

I love sharing recipes, but eclectic discovery days are my favorites here…and (yikes!) I haven’t had one since last July. I never stop collecting gems, but sometimes I get delayed sharing them.

Unloaf your banana bread

Who knew a pan shape could change everything?

Every so often I bake banana bread in a baking dish: it cooks faster, and squares of banana bread are easier to eat out of hand. But this week I made two in quick succession – a regular loaf that disappeared in two sittings, and the same in a rectangular baking pan two days later. Normally the crowd’s enthusiasm flags a bit the second round, even for a favorite, but this time everyone from my mom to my husband to my kids raved even more.

Banana bread in the baking pan was lighter and softer – so much so they actually thought I’d used a different recipe. In a loaf pan, the bread develops a thicker crust from being in the oven about 50% longer, and the center ends up denser. In the baking dish it ends up with a lighter, softer crumb and makes a great snacking cake.

My mom also loves this method because she has trouble getting the baking time right in a loaf pan. A banana bread loaf browns outside long before it is fully cooked inside, so it’s easy to end up with a gooey center, or to overcompensate by overbaking. In a baking dish there’s no deep center for raw batter to hide.

Girly repair

You know when you drop your makeup bag, and your favorite compact powder cracks into expensive crumbs of pigment? Grab a spatula and a few drops of rubbing alcohol and watch this video to fix it in just a few minutes. Thanks to my friend Kathleen, who knew I would love the resourcefulness of this genius fix. read on…


If you’ve never made bread before, Irish soda bread – faster and easier than biscuits or cornbread, and just as delicious and versatile – is the place to start. And what better day than today to make a freshly baked loaf that is so soul-satisfying it’s a daily staple in Ireland?

Toast St Patrick with a Guinness, a sharp aged cheddar and a crusty loaf of classic soda bread. Or unwind with a hot cuppa and the cranberry-orange version, delicately sweet like a scone but with the lighter texture of a bread.

Traditional Irish soda bread requires only four ingredients – flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt. It mixes up in minutes and goes into the oven with no kneading necessary. For so little work, it’s shockingly tasty – a crisp crust with a soft interior that contains the moistness and faint tang of buttermilk.

American versions of soda bread are sweetened, with dried currants and caraway seeds added. I’m giving you two recipes here, one for the classic bread, an excellent companion for any meal, and one for a lightly sweet cranberry-orange variation. Both are as good toasted the next day as they are fresh from the oven.

The worst versions of soda bread are dry, with the unpleasantly metallic taste of excess baking soda. But the best versions of soda bread are moist and light, soft and delicate, like a giant loaf of the best scone you’ve ever had.

I promise a warm slice from one of these golden rounds will dissolve any doubts you may have about how any bread so easy to make could possibly be so good. read on…


open kitchen shelves

Sparking joy

13 March 2015

I haven’t gotten around to the real meat of Marie Kondo‘s improbable bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (the tidying part, that is). But the real magic of the book is Kondo’s simple perspective: hold on to the things you love, or as is translated in the book, things that spark joy. And get rid of the rest.

So tidying is not about old or new, things you use or things you don’t. It’s about identifying sources of joy in your environment and, by default, recognizing the distraction of other things you are better off without. It’s making space in our lives for what we value by getting rid of the clutter.

It’s a beautifully lucid way to think about cleaning your house, and an even better way to think about prioritizing your life.

I didn’t see it this way at the time, but building a house and moving was kind of a fresh start for me, from a Kondo point of view. I have the soul of a minimalist, but my daily reality is jammed with four kids and all that goes with them. In our move, I kind of Kondoed the household by only unpacking the things that we really needed. Having had a few months of uncharacteristic peace, I have a more skeptical eye for whatever remains in our unpacked boxes.

Who knows why and what objects bring joy? Kondo suggests people hold each item to make the judgment, because our physical reactions are instinctively honest. It’s true. I may decry materialism, yet I can’t deny the little bubble of joy that I get from my favorite kitchen geekery.

There’s no more logical explanation for a human-inanimate object connection than there is for why two people genuinely connect. Years ago my husband’s grandmother was nearing 90, and when asked what she wanted for her birthday, she smiled wistfully and said, “Honey, I wish there was something that I did want.” The joy of objects was gone for her, and the feeling of connection.

So on this frivolous Friday, I thought it might be fun to share some things that spark joy for me in my house. It’s an eclectic collection. But I put my faith in Kondo and let my camera trigger finger be the judge. read on…


My mom is the best party guest of all time. She is very kind and wise, ever smiling and helpful. And chances are, she will come to the door bearing a big platter of crispy won tons, golden fried wrappers encasing a succulent nugget of meat and vegetable, with a side of temptingly tangy dipping sauce.

My mom’s won tons have been at all kinds of parties over the years, dinners and brunches, birthday parties and picnics. And no matter what other delights have been served, sweet or savory, everyone walks away sighing, “Those won tons…”

Why are they so good? Like any fried food, fresh is always immensely better. But I think it’s also because the fried indulgence of my mom’s won tons is balanced with a filling that isn’t greasy – ground turkey lightened with crumbled tofu, mixed with finely minced zucchini and scallions. And the dipping sauce, flavored with garlic and a splash of pineapple juice, is as essential as ketchup to fries.

My mom makes and rolls her own wrappers for her legendary pot stickers, but for won tons she buys wrappers at the Asian market – which makes it entirely achievable for the rest of us to make won tons just like hers. The filling is easy. And I can show you how to fold won tons like a boss. read on…


Tuscan wild boar sauce (no boar required)

26 February 2015 Food
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I couldn’t tell you what Renaissance masterpieces I marveled at or which churches I visited during the two times I’ve been to the red-roofed dream of a city that is Florence. All I know for certain is that on both trips I lingered rapturously over fresh, wide pappardelle ribbons with wild boar sauce, rich with […]

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Super duper veggie burger

12 February 2015 Food
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Veggie burgers have hit the big time. No non-vegetarian would choose fake bacon over the real thing, and only a desperate teetotaler would drink near-beer. But veggie burgers have become more flavorful and creative as mainstream ground beef has become sketchier, and now you’ll find plenty of omnivores choosing a tasty veggie patty over beef. […]

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Fresh citrus sangria

5 February 2015 Beverages
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Why not sangria in February? This is peak season for the sweetest, juiciest citrus fruits, and I have an orange pile of Valencias, navels, clementines, tangelos and blood oranges on my countertop, plus smooth Meyer lemons and heavy grapefruit. We had a springlike January here, and sangria seemed like an appropriate salute to the winter […]

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S’mores cookies

27 January 2015 Chocolate
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What does it say about me that out of an excellent, accessible cookbook of family dinner ideas, the only recipes I’ve made are cookies? Huh. I guess my nerves are a little frayed. This blog is better than therapy. I’ve been going through boxes of stuff – dregs from our own move, plus a fresh […]

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