simplest mashed potatoes

Foolproof mashed potatoes

23 November 2016

I finally figured out the best way for a distracted cook to manage homemade mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. No peeler, no risk of overcooked spuds – just potatoes, butter and milk in the most fuss-free and relaxed method I’ve found.

Here’s the trick: quickly score each potato around the center before boiling them whole. You don’t need to worry much about overcooking potatoes this way; the skins will keep the flesh from getting waterlogged.

Then leave the cooked potatoes in the covered pot until just before you want them. They stay hot forever. Get on with your other cooking and come back when you’re ready. The scored peels slip easily slip off the cooked potatoes, and the mashing part is easy. read on…


This shredded kale and cabbage salad, coated in a sweet honey-mustard dressing and generously showered with crushed peanuts, has a cult following at Hillstone restaurants across the country, from Houston’s to Bandera to various Grill outposts, such as Cherry Creek, Bal Harbour, Palm Beach and Rutherford. You see it on almost every table, as starter, side dish, or tossed with rotisserie chicken as a main dish. And you think, all those people can’t be wrong.

They are not wrong. Next to sticky ribs, a loaded omelette or a fat cheeseburger, it’s a scene-stealing side that will leave you wanting more.

A salad fanatic, I got seriously obsessed with making this salad at home. How hard could it be?

I picked the brain of a really nice server at my local restaurant. Kale, cabbage and peanuts, clearly. She gave me a few hints: roasted peanut oil, both green and savoy cabbage, some reggiano cheese (presumably Parmigiano-Reggiano). I kept some salad to bring home. And she gave me a little container of dressing to go.

I tasted it at home and immediately identified honey mustard. Only the tiniest amount of vinegar. A lot of sweetness, which really works to offset the bitter edge of kale. Flecks of red – a dash of hot sauce. Flecks of green too – maybe parsley flakes. Finely minced something – I’m guessing shallot. All in all, subtler and more delicate that I would have come up with on my own.

For those who want some relief from heavier Thanksgiving dishes, this salad provides a great fresh contrast on your plate, and kale and cabbage both have a happy affinity with mashed potatoes. It’s also easy to make ahead – you can prep all the greens a day or two ahead, whisk together the dressing, crush the peanuts and store them all separately until you are ready to toss and serve. read on…


pumpkin loaves

Pumpkin bread with chocolate

16 November 2016

I have a beef with pumpkin breads that aren’t pumpkiny. A drier bread makes for easy cutting and tidy presentation, but the pumpkin bread I want to eat is a little soft, with big sticky crumbs, and super rich with pumpkin flavor.

In Ohio we live for pumpkin bread, from a little bakery called Beehive Bread. It’s a glistening, weighty loaf, dark orange inside and generously studded with chocolate. You can feel the moistness in its heft, even before you cut into it and bite into a fat slice of spiced pumpkin perfection. It’s so beloved that Beehive makes it year round, and we love it just as much in the thick heat of summer when our minds can’t even conjure the crisp chill of fall.

But fall is here now in California, and the pumpkin bread of our dreams is 2500 miles away. It took me a few different recipes to hone in on a recipe that fully lives up to our Beehive memories. And though I’m often weary of eating something after I’ve tested several batches, I’m still going strong on this one. Because pumpkin season is in the air, and this pumpkin bread is that good.

Even my non-chocolate daughter admits the chocolate in the Beehive loaf is hard to beat. But I also tried a version with a cinnamon-sugar topping instead of chocolate, and we loved that variation too. read on…


When I’m stressed, I don’t want a beer, I want a bakery. Or to bake something. Science backs me up on this: sugar reduces the stress hormone cortisol in our systems (don’t try to substitute fake sugar, it doesn’t have the same effect). Even before eating, the warm olfactory combination of flour, butter and sugar in the air is deeply comforting.

My friend Nicole texted me, despondent, the morning after the election: “I need to bake.” And I wanted to send her rich, gooey, sugary comfort. Instead, I have pancakes, but they are really good ones – sweet with banana and maple syrup, pocketed with melty chocolate chips. And symbolically I think we all need to start a new day off right, with love and comfort and hope. read on…


I’ve had a best chocolate cake recipe forever – easy and reliably fantastic – but it took years of trying before I finally found the perfect yellow cake. When we lived in Ohio with my husband’s side of the family, chocolate was the only cake we ever needed. But in California, my Chinese family likes anything but chocolate. And what they like most is plain yellow cake.

My mom is a butter lover, so for her birthday I’ve often made a yellow butter cake, dusted with powdered sugar. But for other birthdays, especially kids’, I feel like a frosted cake is more celebratory, and a butter cake seems like overkill when you’re going to slather a layer of butter and powdered sugar on top.

This yellow cake is a keeper – moist and springy, rich taste but not overly sweet, still soft and delicious a day or two later. It has enough butter for flavor, plus my favorite baking ingredient for extra moisture: plain yogurt (or sour cream, or buttermilk). And in the ultimate compliment, kids who are normally frosting-lickers actually eat this cake too.

My brother Ray, an adventurous eater but a plain-Jane cake guy, loved the birthday cake we made him recently. We threw it together last minute, leaving it in the pan for easier transport, with a quick chocolate-chip arrangement on top as a festive nod. We made it again for my daughter’s birthday party, with chocolate chips, M&Ms and two gummy peach rings to form the number 8.

And today I’m celebrating two special birthdays: my forever friend Grace, soulmate since we met freshman year of high school, and my dad, who would have been 79 years old today.

My dad, an engineer always in search of creative solutions to problems, would have liked this cake and the novel technique, from master baker Rose Levy Beranbaum, used to make it. Instead of starting by creaming butter and sugar, soft butter is mixed with dry ingredients before wet ingredients are added. I don’t know why, but it works beautifully. read on…


My parents avoided the crowds and tension of cities, so we rarely traveled to urban areas on family vacations, unless we did the Asian thing and stopped for a college tour. To their immigrant eyes, the wonders of America were not in cities but in the immense protected landscape of the country, unusual in a world where natural resources are regularly depleted, polluted or destroyed.

My parents found great joy in the preservation of natural lands here – 14 percent of the U.S. land mass is safeguarded to some degree, representing an impressive 10 percent of the protected lands in the world. They took us to local and state parks on occasional weekends, but big family vacations were dedicated to the nation’s finest natural wonders – America’s national parks.

So we loaded the station wagon with regularity, leaving suburbia to pay respects to the crown jewels of the land. We marveled at the dramatic waterfalls and cliffs of Yosemite, the geysers and wildlife of Yellowstone. We walked in awe among the colossal redwoods of Sequoia National Park, the largest standing since before Christ was born, and drove our car through the massive trunk of a living giant.

On one trip to the hot, marshy Everglades, I waded through a meadow and climbed on a picnic table to photograph an alligator in the water, accidentally stirring up a swarm of mosquitoes in the tall grass. We all sprinted to escape, slamming car doors shut and slapping madly to kill the buzzing, stinging attackers, laughing ruefully at the absurdity of it as my dad drove away.

In the Taoist tradition, ours was the church of nature. You’ve seen this philosophy in Chinese landscape paintings – mountains, waterfalls and countryside, often with a lone figure, miniature in the vastness. Spiritual communion by way of art.

In later years, my parents enjoyed traveling outside the country, but they would always finish their travel report by saying that what we have here is even better.

I spent my pre-parenthood adult life as a Manhattan urbanite, journeying outside the country at every opportunity. So it was with the warmth and pang of childhood nostalgia that I returned to my wonders-of-America roots a few months ago with my mom and my own kids. read on…


Sliced green bean and ground turkey stir fry

23 September 2016
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One recipe, two ideas here: First, that you can use ground turkey in a stir fry. Second, that when you have older, thicker green beans, you can transform them by cutting steep diagonal slices that will absorb a fantastic amount of flavor. My mom has made green beans like this for years, so it always […]

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Eggs and zucchini in tomato sauce

15 September 2016
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Daily dinner in my house probably isn’t what you imagine. With four kids in three schools, and an activity or two per kid, every day is a lot of screeching around corners in my loaded minivan hauling people hither and yon. I might use a brief stop at home to rummage around and prep, but […]

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Matterhorn macaroons (and a belated 6th blogiversary giveaway)

31 August 2016
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Coconut macaroons are a humble cookie compared to their French macaron cousins: one pale and bumpy with shredded coconut, the other smooth with finely ground almond, two delicate pastel-tinted rounds sandwiching a creamy center. But there’s a down-home charm to the unassuming coconut macaroon, and a deeply satisfying chew from the rich, dense pile of […]

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A local’s guide to San Francisco

23 July 2016
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I would never trade summers in the midwest with family, but I’m always a little heartbroken when far-flung friends email, “We’re coming to San Francisco this summer!” and I have to write back, “Sorry, but we won’t be there…” Good friends came to San Francisco for the first time this month, and when they emailed […]

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