One of the best meals to be had in New York City – and very often my first destination off the plane – is a $5 tray of steaming hot dumplings in Chinatown.

Xiao long bao – pronunciation shao (rhymes with now) lohng (long O like tone) bow (as in take a bow) – aren’t your ordinary dumplings. They don’t look different from your ordinary bite-sized dim sum treat, little packets in a bamboo steamer, but the secret is inside.

Also known as Shanghai soup dumplings, xiao long bao don’t swim in soup, like won tons. Instead they do the neat trick of carrying soup inside the wrapper, the hot broth flavoring both the tender nugget of ground pork and the thin casing of dough tucked tight around to hold in every golden drop.

It’s not an easy trick to get right, and few places do. To get the soup effect, broth is added during the dumpling making, or a bit of cooled gelled broth (the gelatin from broth made with bones makes the liquid a solid gel when cooled) that will melt into liquid during cooking.

Then you have to eat it within minutes of steaming, before the broth gets absorbed into the dough. A xiao long bao made right is ready to burst with meaty juice at the first careful nibble.

I’m back in New York City for a couple of days, celebrating a milestone birthday of our family friend Jenny from Ohio. I planned this quick trip (just an 80 minute flight from Ohio), coming off a fantastic first visit with the kids in April. But I think I came back for me as much as for Jenny, because in April I never got my xiao long bao fix.

Since the xiao long bao craze hit New York City in the late ’90s – in 1999, the New York Times had a great cartoon-strip illustration of the proper eating technique to capture the broth in the without squirting hot broth or burning your mouth with steam – Joe’s Shanghai, with locations in Chinatown and midtown Manhattan as well as Flushing, Queens, has become the go-to spot for locals and tourists.

But for my money – and I’ve had xiao long bao in Shanghai too – the best are at Shanghai Cafe, which somewhere along the way got a neon-uplighting upgrade from its Chinatown utilitarian decor and became Shanghai Cafe Deluxe.

Deluxe or not, $4.95 will still get you a round bamboo steamer with eight little doughy pouches of pure meaty, juicy gold ($6.95 if you want the pork-plus-crab version). read on…

{ 2 comments }

June is freaking me out.

I’m a week away from being the parent of a high schooler. The two minor graduations we have next week – middle school and elementary – are reminders that in four years our household count will start shrinking. My heart hurts just thinking about it.

It sounds silly that end of the school year is such a freak out time for me. I started my career working in mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street, a cross between spreadsheet sweatshop and frat house. It was brutal hours and high intensity. But in retrospect it was easy, because it wasn’t emotional.

The weighty emotional load is both the loving gift and the daunting responsibility of parenthood. I don’t harbor fantasies of providing perfect childhoods for my kids. The pressure comes from knowing moments will be remembered. Like forever.

We strive to be our better selves for our kids. But it’s not the countless hours you spent reading to them, feeding them, teaching them to ride a bike, helping them with math homework that the kids remember. What they remember is when someone spilled an entire box of cereal on the kitchen floor and you lost it and “used the S-word” (stupid).

At first this seems maddening. But then you realize it’s the sign of a generally happy household that these are the moments that stand out.

My husband and I took the kids for an incredible spring break in New York City – Statue of Liberty, top of Rockefeller Center, Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn Bridge, Hamilton, for crying out loud.

But the one thing they tell everyone is how our third grader rushed onto the subway train alone while some of us were still stuck at the turnstile, and we all froze as the doors shut, our 10 eyes locked in horror on his full-on Macaulay Culkin look as the train pulled away.

You need a sense of humor to survive parenthood. read on…

{ 12 comments }

empire state

The greatest city

12 May 2016

I’ve spent more years living in California than New York, but because I was in Manhattan for my first independent decade – the years between leaving my childhood home to having children myself – New York City is where I feel most free and alive. I went to college there, built a career there, met my husband there, became a real adult there.

Two of us left New York in 2001, just before the horror of 9/11. Fifteen years later we returned as six, on the first trip there our kids will remember. And it was like coming home again – to a brighter, cheerier, remodeled home.

The year I moved to New York City, 1990, was the year homicides peaked in Gotham. The city was dark and grimy, and streets reeked of stale urine. Salespeople followed me suspiciously around stores, and I realized with chagrin that my normal west coast attire – frayed cutoff denim and a worn khaki canvas backpack – made me look more homeless than middle class to Manhattan eyes.

Then, the word Brooklyn evoked images of Bed-Stuy and deadly racial tensions. Nolita wasn’t a thing yet, and a few fetish clubs were the only life in the Meatpacking district. Chelsea Piers and Chelsea Market didn’t exist. Alphabet City on the Lower East Side housed squatters and junkies. The windowless walls of the abandoned New York Coliseum cast a dark shadow over Columbus Circle. The twin towers of the World Trade Center still dominated the Manhattan skyline.

The city’s rejuvenation began slowly with the disappearance of daily nuisances, like the uninvited squeegee guys and drawn-out honking at intersections, as the police began ticketing minor offenses they used to let slide. Then, quite suddenly, the city seemed to bloom with good developments – cleaner streets, fewer vagrants, brighter storefronts, safer neighborhoods – as if clearing the weeds had made way for flowers to grow. It was astounding to witness.

The New York City of today is even brighter than the city of my rosy memories. It took me a couple years to grow to love the rough and scruffy NYC, but NYC today is worthy of love at first sight. read on…

{ 12 comments }

roast pork loin garlic rosemary

Rosemary roast pork loin

29 April 2016

Dining at my house is family food, family style, no matter who is eating. Heaps of food, piles of plates, and everyone grabs what they like and sits where they wish. If I thought of having people over as a Dinner Party I’d probably scare myself out of it, because it would imply things I never do, like set the table nicely or use my wedding china. It’s casual here, feeding family, and friends as family.

I don’t get worked up for holiday meals (again, too much pressure) so it was just a happy surprise that our Easter meal this year was actually pretty, holiday-ish and guest-worthy. Because in truth I just picked the easiest main dish I could think of for our party of 20: two giant roast pork loins, rubbed with garlic and fresh rosemary from my yard.

Pork loin is ideal company food. You need at least a small crowd to cook a roast, so just having one is special. A roast takes very little prep – a quick pat of aromatics – and cooks in the oven without fuss. It’s not expensive, unlike beef tenderloin, and doesn’t call for tying like its beef counterpart.

There’s hardly any work with pork loin. You could trim off some excess fat. But you’ll want to keep a layer on to keep the meat moist as it cooks. Once it’s done, it slices as easily as a loaf of bread. read on…

{ 0 comments }

I’m just back from New York City for the kids’ spring break, and it was like gulping at the spring of life for a few glorious days – food food and food, miles of walking, brisk clear springtime and long-missed friends. My soul is refilled.

I don’t know if it’s the travel home or just the allergy season, but we’re a little sniffly-sneezy this week. At the end our trip I had a spicy, steaming cup of ginger, lemon, honey and mint tea (really a tisane if you want to get technical, since there was no actual tea in it), and after a week of NY pizza, bagels and pastrami sandwiches, the fresh citrus and ginger rushed in like a tingly immune boost.

I’ve made many fresh herbal tisanes with mint, lemongrass or lemon verbena when I’ve grown them. Fresh ginger tea has always been a favorite of mine, and I often make a hot lemon-honey drink for sore throats. But I love the idea of putting lemon, ginger, mint and honey all together in a warm wellness cocktail.

Fresh lemon juice has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, as well as a load of vitamin C. Ginger and mint are excellent for digestion, and ginger has additional anti-inflammatory agents. Even honey is more than empty sweetener – it brings a wealth of antioxidant, antibacterial and probiotic properties as well.

This ain’t no powdered vitamin drink. Absorption is always better from real food, and nature’s food has compounds that are not quantified by percentage numbers on a nutrition label.

Plus it’s a treat to drink. And a toasty beverage always mellows me out. read on…

{ 0 comments }

Post image for Ghetto guacamole

Ghetto guacamole

31 March 2016

You might think that with four kids in the house I’d actually plan what’s for dinner. But more often that not, I have no idea what we’re eating until, toward the end of the day, I turn my attention to cooking it.

I’m a planner in many areas of my life, but cooking isn’t one of them. More often than not, meals bubble out from a pot of variables, such as what we have on hand, what we’ve eaten recently, what the weather’s like, what my mood is, and how much time I have.

My uncomplicated approach keeping my family fed healthfully and economically is this: 1) buy good ingredients and 2) make sure they get consumed. 

The foundation of it all is making sure I have good ingredients. I buy food that we like, that looks fresh, that we haven’t eaten in a while. How it gets cooked is a later choice – the same vegetable can be roasted or sauteed, added to soup or pasta or salad. Protein can be stir fried, braised, grilled or stuffed into tacos.

I know if I have fresh, perishable food in the house, my compulsive frugality will ensure it gets consumed. I’m constitutionally unable to let good food go to waste.

So the routines of my week revolve around ingredient sourcing. Sunday mornings I hit the farmers market to buy fruit and vegetables. Tuesdays I pick up a weekly delivery of fresh-caught local fish. Thursdays I pick up our regular CSS fruit box. We get what we get, and we go from there.

Winter is a not a great time for local fruit, even in California, but I continue my subscription year-round to keep our local delivery site viable. The last couple of months I’ve been getting two avocados a week in with my citrus and apples, and after gorging on avocado toast, I finally got around to making guacamole. read on…

{ 4 comments }

Chinese takeout chicken (less the grease/guilt)

15 March 2016
Thumbnail image for Chinese takeout chicken (less the grease/guilt)

You know you’re more American than Chinese when you’ve succumbed to the cheerfully sweet, garlicky appeal of those fried nuggets of chicken lacquered in shiny amber sauce sold in Chinese-American eateries around the country under names like “General Tso’s” or “sesame.” Hard then to resist this smart, simple recipe for “mall chicken” from Lucky Peach […]

Full article →

Roasted cauliflower Gjelina

8 March 2016
Thumbnail image for Roasted cauliflower Gjelina

I know, I know, it’s boring of me to feature two roasted vegetables in a row, both cruciferous, from the same cookbook. But California cuisine guru Travis Lett has a genius for both roasting and vegetables, and if I don’t etch this into my virtual memory now, it may be long gone from my actual […]

Full article →

Brussels sprouts Gjelina

25 February 2016
Thumbnail image for Brussels sprouts Gjelina

Brussels sprouts may sound like a curious substitute for birthday cake, but today’s veggie delight will be appreciated by my lovely pal Anne in Venice, California, who lives down the coast from the Santa Monica pier and down the street from Gjelina, the restaurant that in a few short years has exploded from neighborhood eatery […]

Full article →

Discovery Thursday

18 February 2016
Thumbnail image for Discovery Thursday

Fun discoveries for your Thursday – favorite kitchen tools, updated recipes, and my latest obsession with BBC Radio’s podcast Desert Island Discs. Desert Island Discs I can’t get enough of the online treasure trove of Desert Island Discs – interviews with public figures broadcast weekly on BBC Radio since 1942. Selections from the vast archives […]

Full article →