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 shredded meat in a slow-cooked wine and tomato base.

Wild boars (cinghiale, pronounced ching-GYAH-lay), ancestors of domesticated pigs, aren’t cute pink Babes. Dark, shaggy boars run wild in the mountains and forests of Italy, devouring grubs and acorns, chestnuts and truffles. They wreak havoc on gardens and crops, much like deer in the United States, and like deer-hunting season here, each winter Italy sanctions wild boar hunting to thin out the feral population that is no longer kept in check by bears and wolves.

The meat of wild boar, leaner than domesticated pork as well as darker and richer tasting, is made into salami, sausage, and prosciutto di cinghiale. In Tuscany it’s common on menus to find rag├╣ di cinghiale, made with fresh wild boar meat and Tuscan wine, more often than not paired with fresh, eggy pappardelle noodles.

I haven’t been to Tuscany for 15 years, and I haven’t made this sauce for probably 10. But eating it now, I remember the frescoed storybook city of Florence, nestled in a valley with Tuscany’s scenic hills all around, the Arno winding through town as a picturesque excuse for scenic bridges and mirrored architecture in its waters. I see shimmery grey-green olive trees with gnarled branches, and forest-green cypress standing upright, tops gently waving.

And I remember how pleased I was when I first made this sauce in our first house, sometime after our first baby, when I was home-bound and wistful for the concept of a holiday away. Even with plain old pork, it was very much like what I remembered from Tuscany – the wine, the rosemary, the tender meat.

I love how food can transport us to another place, another time. read on…

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super duper veggie burger

Super duper veggie burger

12 February 2015

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.

It’s hard to beat the simplicity of a beef burger: take a hunk of ground meat, squish it into a puck shape and throw it on some heat, no seasoning needed. A veggie burger takes more work. But the finished product has all the comfort of a real burger with more nutrients, no greasiness and no guilt.

Let’s put it this way: it’s a whole lot more fun than eating salad.

Veggie burgers are kind of like falafel. Made with seasoned ground chickpeas, falafel are like meatballs but different and in many ways better. (If you live in Silicon Valley, you can get the best falafel of your life, stuffed inside an unbelievably fluffy homemade pita, for $5 at Falafel Stop in Sunnyvale). And similar to falafel, veggie burgers pair well with all kinds of fresh add-ons. read on…

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sangria

Fresh citrus sangria

5 February 2015

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 sun.

An open bottle of wine begs to be finished, but a carafe of sangria can easily hang out in the fridge for a couple of days, getting smoother and mellower, available anytime for a refreshing little glug here and there.

Sangria is best made with simple, inexpensive wine, making it a relaxed, accessible drink for any occasion, or no occasion at all.

After trying several variations, I found Cooks Illustrated’s to be the simplest and best: no weird stuff like soda or lemonade concentrate, just fresh orange and lemon. Clean and easy, it’s a taste of bright, crisp California sunshine. read on…

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s'mores cookies

S’mores cookies

27 January 2015

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 influx from my mom’s house, where she is getting ready for a remodel. Mostly I’m purging into recycling bins. But old belongings are a minefield of memories, and every so often I uncover something that punches me back in time: grade school stories, middle school yearbooks (big plastic earrings and a perm), an outfit I wore at 15 that fits my daughter at 10 (I finally grew just in time to drive).

And then my friend Nancy handed me a packet of letters I wrote to her during freshman year in college, when I was in New York and she was still in California. Some parts were as if from a stranger, recounting places I don’t remember going, people I don’t remember knowing – and others brought back sharp memories of those early, lonely days as an 18-year-old in a big city where I knew no one, 2500 miles from home.

Handwritten mail has so much more personality than typed correspondence. Too much, maybe. My letters stopped – regrettably, mercifully – sophomore year after I got my boxy Macintosh computer networked and entered the world of email.

Even in a life of good memories, the past is a hard place to visit.

To the rescue: cookies.

read on…

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rainbows end

When you get there

12 January 2015

Across the finish line, I’m a little unsteady on my feet in the silence.

The youngest of my kids started kindergarten, and the oldest just entered his teens. Our endless house project is at last over, three and a half years after it began. I thought the decade of my 20s was the rat race – 100-hour workweeks, city apartments barely used. But it was just a training sprint for the real marathon of my 30s: four kids, two cross-country moves, two giant construction projects, two aching deaths.

I’m 42 years old, and the last time I had daytime quiet in my home, I was 29.

It’s not the a-ha moment I thought it might be. The tide of life will always flood in to fill the void. But I am breathing a little easier, and I marvel to see daylight at my desk instead of the lone glow of my computer screen in the dark.

I’m not young, but I don’t feel old either.

And I’m surprised to find I am much smarter at 42 than I was at 29. I’ve thought many times I was losing my mind – during pregnancies and amidst the demands and sleep torture of young children – but for all the times I’ve been on the brink of insanity, through it I’ve become a more perceptive, effective and understanding person than I was before. And, oddly, calmer.

Life has changed me, in unexpected ways.

read on…

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Sometimes you have to listen hard to hear the universe whispering, and other times it pokes you so persistently you want to tell it to calm down already, you got the message.

Christmas cookies aren’t normally in my December lineup – holiday sweets are everywhere already, and Santa doesn’t have time to bake, for Pete’s sake – but driving in my car Friday I had a sudden memory of my favorite cookie: a melt-in-your-mouth cloud of powdered sugar, hiding a tender, buttery shortbread nugget with the fine crunch of nuts. In California I’ve always known these as Mexican wedding cookies, but I’ve also heard them called Italian wedding cookies, Russian tea cakes or snowballs.

Saturday morning I woke up to an email from my friend Jojo in Munich, with a picture attached: crescent-shaped holiday cookies, covered with powdered sugar. A Bavarian Christmas tradition, Vanillekipferl are made with finely chopped almonds instead of the pecans used in Mexican wedding cookies. Some Vanillekipferl recipes include egg, but I love the crumbly soft texture of Mexican wedding cookies, which only have butter, flour and powdered sugar. I smiled and took out butter to soften.

I hadn’t made the cookies in years, so I tried a few versions to compare, testing out almonds, pecans and walnuts. It’s hard to go wrong with butter and powdered sugar. I found it impossible to pick a favorite.

Over the weekend I read through The Pollan Family Table – a cookbook released this fall featuring fresh, uncomplicated family food – which in an unusual move last week I’d agreed to review here. I’m a sucker for healthful home cooking, and cooking for big families is my jam. It’s also the Pollan family, which includes food luminary Michael Pollan, actor Tracy Pollan, two more sisters and their mom, former New York magazine writer Corky Pollan. A family of food lovers and writers? I couldn’t say no.

When I got to the desserts chapter Monday morning, I had to laugh when I flipped to “Isaac’s Mexican wedding cookies”: a take by Michael Pollan’s son on the traditional recipe, but with the powdered sugar coating spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg.

It seems a bit unfair to single out a dessert to represent the Pollan family collection, when the book in general is health-conscious in a relaxed, real-food kind of way. But once I tried the subtle tingle of the spiced cookie, festive and unexpected, I knew it was the recipe I had to share with you here.

read on…

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Snowy honey roasted almonds

11 December 2014 Food
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I’ve solved half my almond problem. I know it doesn’t seem like a problem, having the most incredible almond vendor at the farmers market I go to every week. Rodin Farms sells the most killer almonds – some savory, some sweet, all super fresh and super crisp – and though they’re there year round, and […]

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Holiday gift ideas 2014

5 December 2014 Gift ideas
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Eleven months of the year, I’m grateful for my large family. But when I’m trying to outrun the December avalanche, I can’t help but wonder how I thought four kids was such a fantastic idea, or why I didn’t marry a nice orphan. Daily life is busy enough, but when you pile on the tree, […]

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Roasted brussels sprouts salad

20 November 2014 Food
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Back in 1999, when brussels sprouts were far from cool, San Francisco chef Gordon Drysdale put on the menu of his new restaurant a salad made of brussels sprouts leaves, briefly sauteed in olive oil and tossed with bacon, caramelized onions, hard-boiled egg and a red wine vinaigrette – and immediately obliterated the childhood memories […]

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Apple pie with crumb topping

13 November 2014 Food
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I only make pies when I have to, because pies are bad for my self-esteem. In Ohio I never had to make pies, because there are amazing pies in the heartland. But California is not pie country. I don’t know what it is – fear of lard? – but to get a good pie for […]

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