There’s something so special about writer-illustrators of children’s books. They create a world and then personally lead you through it, the way a singer-songwriter does with music. Well-paired writers and illustrators can make a great team effort too. But the product of multiple people calls for compromise, whereas the vision of one mind can remain charmingly, idiosyncratically, deliciously singular.

Children’s literature is harder than it looks. Anyone can be a windbag. It takes a specific genius to be clear, simple and poetic – and, perhaps hardest of all, be entertaining enough to hold the attention of a little kid.

On top of all that, illustrations require a creative hand in addition to a creative mind. These folks have a disproportionate amount of talent.

For last-minute holiday gift ideas, here are some of my favorite illustrated children’s books, which I only just realized are almost all products of writer-illustrators:

The Big Orange Splot, written and illustrated by Daniel Pinkwater

The Big Orange Splot is the story of Mr Plumbean and his neighbors, who take pride in their neat street where all the houses look the same. A funny, lovely book about acceptance, understanding and dreams. Daniel Pinkwater is one of my all-time favorites. (Somebody please for the love of childhood put Pinkwater’s The Wuggie Norple Story, illustrated by the great Tomie de Paola, back in print.)

Fortunately, written and illustrated by Remy Charlip

Fortunately is the story of Ned and his adventure-filled day of fortune and misfortune. This book will teach your child the long and useful words “fortunately” and “unfortunately,” but the real lesson here is about rolling with the punches. (Another book we need back in print: Remy Charlip’s small red jewelbox of a book, I Love You.) read on…

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Gift ideas 2018

8 December 2018

I don’t have separate kids and adults gifts this year – my kids are all officially old, and their Christmas requests span the spectrum from I-like-surprises (not helpful) to detailed lists with hyperlinks to specific items, size and color noted (easy).

It’s not like the old days, when I’d be sifting through the toy world for four kids and nine cousins, looking for inexpensive amusements for stockings or gems of lasting value. I’m glad to be entering a new phase – after 17 years, this elf is tired (though the archives are always here for you).

Books are always the last on my buy list, because they don’t sell out. I’m working on a favorite book list for you too. Hope to get that out in the next few days.

But for now…my gift ideas for you this year, for big kids of all ages.

HP Sprocket mini photo printer

I get the cute retro appeal of Instax cameras, but the image quality is awful. For the money, I’d rather have the pocketable HP Sprocket printer, which spits out cute 2×3-inch prints of any photos you want to send over via Bluetooth from your phone, tablet or computer.

The image quality of any smartphone camera beats an Instax, the print quality of the Sprocket is far better, and you’ll have the digital files too. Ink is built into the photo paper, so there are no ink cartridges to buy. And – bonus! – each photo is a sticker with a peel-off back. read on…

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Santa Claus doesn’t take Christmas off. So after being absent here since spring, I’m back for Thanksgiving, the Superbowl for home cooks and my fave holiday by far. We eat, and we give thanks. My kind of holiday.

On any given Thursday, the food we eat in America is as diverse as the world – meat-and-potatoes, curries, stir fries, tacos and savory stews. Thanksgiving is the one day of the year Americans – at home and around the world – voluntarily eat more or less the same meal. Growing up as the child of immigrants, dinner at my house didn’t normally look like dinner at my friends’ homes. But on Thanksgiving we were one with Americans everywhere. I still love that.

Thanksgiving’s early this year, because November started on a Thursday. Don’t stress if you’re not ready. With a little organization, there’s plenty of time left.

I’m sharing a day-by-day timeline to keep us both on track, plus a list to mark what to make and what to outsource. I have a few pro tips, and at the end I assembled all my Thanksgiving recipes here for you from the archives.

Tip 1: Make what you like most. Outsource the rest.

Thanksgiving should be a potluck situation. Sharing is the spirit of the holiday. Guests contribute a dish they like to make or want to eat, and hosts appreciate the team effort.

It generally makes sense for the host to handle turkey and gravy, since it’s hard to transport a hot, slippery bird. Side dishes, desserts and drinks are fair game for outsourcing.

I love when friends and family bring their additional Thanksgiving traditions to the table. My mom makes sticky rice stuffing in addition to my bread stuffing, and Asian stir fried green beans. For my mother-in-law in Ohio, Thanksgiving isn’t complete without coleslaw. For my sister-in-law’s Italian family, Thanksgiving turkey comes with a side of lasagna. It’s always an unexpected assortment, and we enjoy it all.

I admit I don’t really outsource the basics – turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy – because I enjoy making them. But I think it’s a wise idea to share the load. At the end of this post you’ll find a link to a printable worksheet you can use to organize your list of what to cook/buy/outsource to a willing guest.

Tip 2: Simple is good.

It’s tempting to make Thanksgiving more complex than it needs to be. You could have cornbread stuffing with sausage, apples, dried cranberries, toasted walnuts and fresh sage, next to cranberry sauce with orange zest, Grand Marnier and pecans, next to mashed potatoes with cream cheese, chives and three cheeses. But I find the complexities get a little lost, and the meal gets unnecessarily heavy.

Each dish at Thanksgiving only needs to do one job. The combination on the plate is where the magic happens. read on…

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Oprah Winfrey may eat this coffee cake. Right now, she might be at her Santa Barbara home, sitting on her shaded patio with a big mug of hot coffee and a square of this coffee cake, dotted with sweet pops of blueberry and scented with Meyer lemon just picked from her yard.

How great to have a private chef, Oprah muses as she looks out over her sunny yard and the vast Pacific Ocean beyond, so I can have reliably great coffee cake, moist and springy, topped with that sweet crumb topping I like so much. Yes, she thinks, forking another bite of warm cake. It’s good to be me.

Has Oprah really had this coffee cake? I can’t say for sure. What I do know is that my great friend Kathleen gave me this recipe, which came from her friend, who through some connection got the recipe from Oprah’s private chef.

I just like thinking about Oprah and I both eating this coffee cake. And I can tell you for sure that it’s Oprah-worthy.

Coffee cake is a funny concept in America. Apparently coffee cake in sensible Britain is a sponge cake with coffee icing. Here there’s nothing coffee about coffee cake, except it’s served in the morning when you are likely to be drinking it. read on…

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I love the luxury of brunch. Brunch implies a late wake-up and leisurely morning, the kind of carefree day that allows for booze before noon. None of this actually applies to my life as a parent of four kids. But when there’s a holiday, guests in the house, or a rare weekend morning with friends coming over, I like the excuse to make a big late-morning meal and pretend I have a life that allows for the indulgence of brunch.

The standard-bearer of brunch in our family is my mother-in-law’s egg, sausage and cheese strata, a gorgeous make-ahead casserole that provides a savory centerpiece for big family gatherings. Every Christmas Eve we quickly assemble a quadruple batch, stash it in the fridge overnight and bake it Christmas morning as family members casually roll in.

Last Christmas, my mother-in-law was skeptical when I suggested we try a vegetarian version with spinach and feta. But everyone loved it, traditionalists and meat-avoiders alike, so I thought I’d share it with you all for Easter. When you’re having a mixed crowd of eaters, it’s nice to have a built-in vegetarian option, and you can always supplement with bacon or sausage on the side.

Making strata is super easy. Theres no crust, like quiche, or whipping of eggs, like souffle. It’s a lazy cook’s egg dish for a crowd. read on…

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I’m crushing especially hard on two casually brilliant Los Angeles eateries – Gjusta in Venice and Sqirl in Silver Lake. Both have attracted a lot of media and social media love in recent years, so I thought it would be fun to take you on a virtual visit. We ate at Gjusta four times in 48 hours during my last girls getaway in LA. And then I topped that off with a bonus trip to Sqirl, out of my usual LA orbit but absolutely worth the drive. Drool warning ahead.

Fresh and innovative, but still comforting and accessible, Gjusta and Sqirl both make food you would eat daily if you could. Both restaurants feel like the future of American food, made by people who fuse flavors like chefs, are connected to the earth like farmers and actually care about your health like a loving grandma.

Gjusta

I’m stalker-obsessed with Gjusta, industrial-hip bakery/deli in Venice by artist, surfer and self-taught chef Travis Lett that manages to synthesize the California ideals of health, creativity, laid-back cool and sunny gorgeousness. read on…

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Girls getaway: Los Angeles

13 March 2018
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I’m coming clean with the fact that I, a native northern Californian, have become a total LA fangirl. Sibling rivalry is strong in California. I’m from the north, land of geeks, tree huggers, fog and earnestness. Southern California is home to sun, surfers, avocados and cosmetic enhancements. We’re all family, but like many close geographic […]

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Slow-cooked pulled pork carnitas

31 January 2018
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Feeding a lot of people is something we do often here, so I’m always excited about recipes that make entertaining easy. My friend Brooke sent me this truly outstanding carnitas recipe last fall, and it’s quickly become a favorite for family gatherings or potlucks. In wintertime especially, it’s hard to go wrong with a big […]

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Simplest soy-glazed fish

23 January 2018
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My favorite easy fish preparation is also a perfect January recipe. It ticks all the new years resolution boxes: Cook at home! Be healthier! Eat more fish! Lose weight! My husband swears he always loses weight after we have fish for dinner, even if he’s stuffed after the meal. We all know fish is great […]

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Holiday gift ideas 2017 – adult edition

13 December 2017
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When it comes to gifting, adults are often a weary afterthought tacked on after the kids on the list. It’s okay – adults more often than not have much of what they need already. But Santa Claus doesn’t come for grown-ups, so we have to look out for one another. I really love giving gifts, […]

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