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…

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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…

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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…

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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 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

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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When you get there

12 January 2015 Brain food
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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 […]

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Spiced Mexican wedding cookies (and a giveaway)

16 December 2014 Food
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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 […]

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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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