fresh strawberry cake

Fresh strawberry cake

10 October 2014

When she asked for strawberry cake with strawberry frosting, I didn’t even try to convince my kindergartener to consider pumpkin cake for her fall birthday. It’s been unseasonably hot here in California, there are still plenty of local strawberries at the markets, and strawberry cake is pink. You don’t have to be missing your front teeth to see the logic in it.

For many years my standby for every harried birthday season was this blissfully easy chocolate cake. But my youngest doesn’t let me off so easy. Last year she mixed it up with lemon cake and lemon buttercream, but usually it’s strawberry all the way.

This year I’ve finally hit on a cake-frosting combo simple and good enough to keep. Fresh strawberry puree adds natural strawberry flavor to both the batter and the cream cheese frosting. And I knew the cake, based on the ultimate vanilla cupcake recipe from The Cupcake Project, was a winner when kids at the party didn’t just lick off the sweet stuff.

With some guidance, I made this cake twice, once with fresh puree and once with cooked. The color and flavor are stronger with the cooked, reduced puree, but though it’s not hard, it adds a lot of time. So in my 80/20 approach to cooking, I’ll take the 80% good for the 20% effort. I want to eat well, but I also have a life to live.

read on…

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If I made a pie chart of the food groups in my diet, feta would have its own wedge. I use it in everything but never thought to whip it up into a spread – and who knew that with a little bit of olive oil, the crumbly cheese would whirl up into a creamy, intensely savory feta cloud? Of course the Greeks already know this. It’s called kopanisti.

I was in Seattle recently and grabbed dinner with new friends at Tom Douglas’s Greek-inspired Lola. We ordered a tableful of dishes to share, but it was the nondescript little cup of white spread, flecked with tiny bits of green, that hooked us all. Lola’s kopanisti has the usual feta and mint, with just a hint of garlic, but it also has an unexpected snap of bleu cheese.

Before I got distracted by the watermelon languishing in my fridge, this is the recipe I wanted to share with you yesterday. It takes no time to make, and it’s destined to be a regular at our fall football Saturdays.

read on…

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watermelon agua fresca

Watermelon agua fresca

2 October 2014

If, like me, you wistfully bought a watermelon recently, because it’s still warm where you live and you’re in denial about the sun setting earlier each day, only to find that the watermelon was only holding up a good face on the outside but inside its wan and pale flesh knows that summer is truly over – let me cheer you up with some agua fresca.

This is the perfect complement to my how-to-pick-a-melon post, because it’s far, far better to drink a mediocre melon in sweet, cool agua fresca form than to choke down tasteless pieces because you don’t want to waste the melon.

Agua fresca is awesomely easy and crazy refreshing. I would never hope for a dud melon. But sipping on this agua fresca, I’m glad I got one. read on…

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I’m all about breaking bread these days. Not necessarily in a literal sense, since no one but me seems to eat wheat anymore. But in a figurative sense, breaking bread is increasingly how I like to think of eating with loved ones in my home.

It’s the antithesis of entertaining. No elaborate preparation, stress or fuss – breaking bread is instead a modest sharing of what we have with others. An outstretched hand, an invitation to join, breaking bread is more about the time shared than the actual food offered.

Maybe I’m getting lazier with age, or protesting against heightened expectations from having food blog. But I think I’m just getting wiser about what it is that actually matters.

If I waited to have friends over until I could prepare a really special meal, it would never happen. We’re all busy. More than food, we crave relaxed time to visit. Goodness knows no one is underfed these days, or at this age. What we’re often running low on is meaningful social connection. read on…

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If the title of this post does nothing for you, stop for a minute and listen. The sounds you hear are squeals of excitement and moans of hunger from all the people for whom the three words zha jiang mian evoke yearning memories of their favorite comfort food, a deeply flavorful noodle bowl from childhood.

A Chinese-Korean hybrid, zha jiang mian may soon join the noodle bowls from around the world – ramen, pho, pad thai – that have become mainstream American fare. Korean food is expanding out of urban Koreatowns: restaurants are cropping up featuring bimimbab, the spicy vegetable and rice bowl, or light, crispy Korean fried chicken, glazed with a sweet garlic sauce. Momofuku’s David Chang is taking over the world. Zha jiang mian can’t be far behind.

Like curry from India growing into the national dish of England, zha jiang mian (pronounced zah-jahng-myun) is a Chinese dish that has been enthusiastically adopted as Korea’s most popular comfort food (phoneticized from Korean it’s jajangmyeon). In Korea, it’s as popular and ubiquitous as pizza in America.

Zha jiang may look mysteriously dark, but it’s simply an Asian take on spaghetti with meat sauce. Instead of tangy tomato, zha jiang is infused with a satisfyingly intense richness, salty and a bit sweet, with the heft of meat and the soft crunch of finely chopped vegetables.

The story of zha jiang mian is the story of my family. My parents both came from Shandong, the coastal province in northern China that is also the ancestral home of Confucius and zha jiang mian. Beginning in 1897, when Germany leased from China the main city of Qingdao (and promptly set up breweries, such as Tsingtao), Shandong endured a tumultuous half-century, from German control to Chinese-Japanese dispute post-World War I, to Chinese warlords, to Japanese invasion, to civil war and finally the iron curtain of Communist control in 1949.

No wonder that desperate people from Shandong left to seek opportunities elsewhere. Like many men of their era, both my grandfathers labored in Korea, sending money home to their wives and children in China and visiting rarely. When the situation in Shandong became dire, both of my grandmothers took what children they could and begged, borrowed and bribed to find transit to Korea.

War broke out in Korea shortly after. My parents grew up in shanty towns with other Chinese refugees, and though my mom lived in Korea for over a decade, she speaks no Korean at all. The main cultural exchange was through food. Like many others, my mom’s family sold food by the roadside for income. My parents developed a lifelong love of spicy Korean kimchi, and Koreans were exposed to many Shandong specialties, including zha jiang mian. read on…

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yogurt and strawberries

Yogurt at home

29 August 2014

If you don’t make yogurt at home, you may wonder why anyone does. Sure it’s cheaper, but yogurt is not expensive and you’re probably not eating enough to care. For me it’s the taste (pure and natural), the health benefits (DIY probiotics) and the digestibility (low/no lactose). You can’t buy the equivalent at the store at any price.

People thought it was a little odd when I started making yogurt a decade ago, but now there’s more awareness about gut health and its impact on all kinds of chronic conditions. Food didn’t end up being the cause of or solution to my mother-of-all-eczema-episodes a few years back, but since then I look at food in a more health-focused way, and I see the nutritional wisdom behind many traditionally-prepared foods (true sourdough bread, yogurt, long-soaked beans).

Now I find myself giving yogurt away frequently to friends and family eager to try it. This summer, I gave jars of yogurt to two family members on strong antibiotics, to help them replenish beneficial bacteria in their systems. I hooked my neighbor, who was happy to find that my yogurt doesn’t irritate her throat the way store-bought yogurt does. And I gave both yogurt and starter to a friend who, upon sampling the yogurt, was near tears because it reminded her so much of her childhood in Germany.

So I decided that maybe the world could use one more recipe for homemade yogurt after all. I took these pictures three years ago but didn’t think enough people would want to make yogurt at home. Now I think the interest may be there.

Homemade yogurt is really easy to make – heat up milk, cool it to warm, add starter and wait. And the benefits are many:

Probiotics – Commercial yogurts are not fermented nearly long enough to have high levels of probiotic bacteria, but homemade yogurt is a live probiotic source you can count on. My great friend with gastroesophageal reflux, her husband with pancreatitis, plus his good friend with ulcerative colitis all swear by homemade yogurt as a major factor in their improved conditions. Gut health has gained focus in recent years as people realize that the food you eat only provides benefits if the body is digesting and absorbing nutrients, as well as eliminating toxins, as it should.

Easier to digest than milk – Long-fermented yogurt is near lactose free, making it an excellent source of calcium for the dairy-sensitive. Yogurt bacteria eat the lactose for us, and we eat the bacteria. Everyone wins. read on…

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Grilled peach and mozzarella salad

13 August 2014 Food
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It might be okay that I’ve discovered the perfect summer salad after summer fruit season is past its peak. When peaches are at their juicy prime, the kids devour them before I get a chance to cook with any. Now it’s my turn. I’ve had this salad five times in four days, and I can’t […]

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Melon divination

5 August 2014 Food
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A melon purchase is a commitment in a way that buying an apple, say, is not. A mealy apple can be philosophically tossed, but a mealy watermelon is a sloppy, head-shaking disposal project. Summer is the season to practice melon-picking skills, since your risk of getting a total dud is low. Even so, shipments vary […]

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Discovery blogiversary

23 July 2014 Discoveries
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I need to start thinking of my birthday the way I think of my blogiversary. Now that I’m on the scary road past 40, I’m not sure what it is I’m supposed to celebrate on birthdays anymore. But as I mark four years of this blog’s existence, the reasons to celebrate are happily clear: another […]

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Blondie bake-off

15 July 2014 Food
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She looks normal, my friend Jenny – slim, medium height, blond and cheerfully energetic – but she’s the Takeru Kobayashi of sugar. I have a sweet tooth, as does my husband and all of my kids, but in a sugar-eating contest the six of us would be groaning with pain under the table while Jenny […]

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