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 of boiled brussels sprouts for legions of instant converts.

The brussels sprouts-bacon combo is everywhere these days, but at least in the Bay Area we need to credit Drysdale for spreading the good word back when Brooklyn was still industrial urban jungle and kale was merely perky decor at tired salad bars. His original restaurant, Gordon’s House of Fine Eats, opened during the bubbly internet days and closed after the crash. But Drysdale resurrected the salad at Pizza Antica, where it still endures even though he has moved on.

The salad in its original form makes for great restaurant eating, warm and crisp. But at home you’d never sit and pluck every leaf off every brussels sprout (though my crazy-energetic friend Lisa has done this). And if you don’t eat it right away, the individual leaves become a soggy wilted pile.

For home cooks, roasting is the way to go. Brussels sprouts get browned and crisp outside, soft and creamy inside. And you can make a whole bunch at once, with virtually no effort. Rustle up some shallots and bacon (throw it in the same oven!), and all that’s left is to toss it all together. read on…

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apple pie crumb topping

Apple pie with crumb topping

13 November 2014

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 Thanksgiving, I have to make it myself.

This recipe maximizes what I can make reliably – a filling of soft apples spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, plus a buttery crumble topping – and minimizes what I can’t: pie crust. So I buy a good-quality pie crust (Trader Joe’s has a good one), and the rest is pretty much foolproof.

If you’ve been too scared to tackle pie, this is pie for dummies, by dummies. Believe me, if I can make a good pie, you can make one better.

The mechanics of pie crust aren’t hard – flour, butter/shortening (lard if you’re old school), a bit of salt and water. My problem is personality – heavy handed and impatient, I overwork the dough and get something inedibly tough instead of invitingly tender. I can take out my aggressions on bread, but pastry wants a light touch that I just don’t have.

Crust aside, the only trick to apple pie is what kind of apples to use. A mix of apples adds a nice variation in flavor and texture. But if I’m only buying one type of apple, I try to find firm Golden Delicious (not the mealy ones!), which at its best is sweet with great flavor. There are also many Golden Delicious cultivars on the market now, such as Gala, Jonagold, Pink Lady and Mutsu, which are also good options.

But apple types vary regionally, so ask around at the market for advice. My chef friend Heidi just conducted a fantastic apples-for-pies comparison and found that in general, tart apples break down when cooked, while sweet apples stay firm. read on…

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herbs feta popcorn

Mediterranean popcorn

4 November 2014

Enough with the sugar already. After Halloween, what I need is some salt.

Popcorn does a neat trick of being frivolous enough to be fun while also being real-food enough that you don’t hate yourself afterward. I used you guys as an excuse to make more popcorn than six of us could eat yesterday (“It’s research! For the people!”) and soothed my salt cravings with handfuls of popcorn tossed with oregano, basil, feta, garlic, red pepper and fresh rosemary from my yard.

After all that and a couple of apples, I recovered enough to eat just one more of the kids’ cast-off Snickers bars. read on…

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assembling macho salad

Macho salad

24 October 2014

I love this hefty-not-heavy salad, featured in a number of Hillstone restaurants, in spite of its goofball name. I’m not sure what makes it macho – lots of dates; very corny? And shouldn’t a macho salad be beefy, not chicken? But name aside, it’s the mix of flavors and textures – greens, chicken, chopped dates, corn, avocado, toasted almonds, goat cheese – that makes this salad meal memorably satisfying.

When you have leftover roast chicken on hand, or you’re grabbing a rotisserie chicken as a shortcut, this salad won’t leave you feeling like you cheated on dinner. It’s easy to assemble – you can use frozen corn straight from the bag, skip toasting the nuts – and the dressing is just a dab of mustard shaken with vinegar and olive oil.

You’d pay $19 for this at the restaurant, or easily $50 for two after tax and tip. It’s as good or better at home – though at the restaurant they do have pretty great cornbread croutons.

For this salad, I bought medjool dates for the first time from the popular vendor at my regular Sunday farmers market. He is always there, giving out huge plump dates as samples. The whole dates are nearly as big as Halloween candy, and almost as sweet, too – chewy and caramelly. I’ve enjoyed the samples before, and though I’ve been intrigued to try using dates as a sugar substitute in baking, it took macho salad to inspire me to man up and buy a bag.

You could sub in another dried fruit – figs, cranberries, raisins, prunes – and this salad would still be good. But the dates add an indefinable brown-sugary chew that is so much more interesting. read on…

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coastal run

Outdoor school

20 October 2014

I realize school can’t be fresh and different every day – goodness knows work and home aren’t either. But every once in a while the kids get a golden day – a break from routine to do something exceptional – and it reminds them how fun learning can be and recharges them for the regular daily grind.

In Ohio we had pioneer day, a day of old-time fun during which the kids stamp leather, churn butter, dip candles and make biscuits. Last month, my fifth grader went to outdoor school on California’s glorious coast, and I hitched a spot as a chaperone.

We’re lucky here in California. This coastline, much of it natural and undeveloped, is an hour drive but a world away from Silicon Valley. Pigeon Point lighthouse, one the tallest lighthouses on the west coast, is home to a hostel, where you can stay in a bunk for $28 a night and soak in the view from the spectacularly located cliffside hot tub. read on…

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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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Kopanisti (whipped feta and mint spread)

3 October 2014 Food
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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, […]

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Watermelon agua fresca

2 October 2014 Beverages
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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 […]

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Oven polenta – and breaking bread

22 September 2014 Food
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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 […]

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Zha jiang mian (noodles with meat sauce)

12 September 2014 Asian
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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. […]

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