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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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 Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes, which is a wholesome version of this food court favorite, without the frying or the MSG.

This sweet-sour dish isn’t authentic Chinese food, of course, but a strong element of sweet is integral to many authentic Asian favorites, from Japanese teriyaki to Korean barbecue to Thai sweet chili sauce.

In the way you would never find American-style spaghetti with meatballs in Italy, you would not find this specific chicken in China. But there are dishes, like a twice-cooked pork that my mom makes, that feature a sweet-tart sauce not dissimilar to this, though more as a light glaze than a spoonable sauce.

And that is what is so great about this first cookbook effort from the people who produce quarterly food magazine Lucky Peach (Peter Meehan, formerly of the New York Times and David Chang of the Momofuku restaurant group; “lucky peach” being the translation of the Japanese momofuku). The cookbook bills itself as “100% inauthentic,” but the recipes are mostly grounded in real Asian traditions. They’ve eliminated the frying – a messy reality of authentic Chinese cooking – and simplified preparations for Asian dishes with current appeal. read on…

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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 memory by the time next cauliflower season rolls around.

Lett writes that this warm roasted cauliflower, dressed with garlic, parsley, crushed red pepper and vinegar, is one of the most popular dishes at his farm-fresh, cool-kids eatery, as well as one of the easiest to make. The intersection of great and easy is where I want to live. And while we have our cast iron skillets handy from the brussels sprouts, we might as well have a go at cauliflower.

I promise after this I’m moving on. Strawberries are back at the farmers market here, and I’m feeling spring. read on…

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Brussels sprouts Gjelina

25 February 2016 Food
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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 […]

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Discovery Thursday

18 February 2016 Brain food
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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 […]

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Lentil soup with andouille sausage

1 February 2016 Food
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I’m warming my hands today in the fantasy bonfire I’ve lit to burn the January page I ripped off my imaginary wall calendar. I suppose it’s the jolt of another year gone by, plus my blasted birthday, but January invariably hits me like an avalanche of Mondays. Ooof. But good or bad, moods come and […]

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Baked pasta (cheater lasagna)

22 January 2016 Food
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It’s not sexy food, but done right, baked pasta is cheesy, meaty, tomatoey contentment. A good baked pasta communicates caring – soothing tastebuds, filling tummies, and showing love with warmth and abundance. It’s just what I want to be eating on a cold winter’s night, and everyone loves it just as much for lunch the […]

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