Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mom's Chinese Turkey Jook

Looking for something different to make with turkey leftovers?  Try Chinese turkey jook, the Asian version of Jewish chicken noodle soup. Also known as congee, jook is a warm, porridge-like comfort food made with leftover turkey meat and bones.  But instead of noodles and carrots, jook incorporates rice and ginger. It's creamy, thick, and oh-so satisfying on cold winter days.

I was fascinated to learn online how many variations of jook people make all across Asia. The version my mom makes is the Cantonese style. A traditional dish that's low on cost but high on flavorful satisfaction, jook can be eaten at any time of day. While simmering for hours on the stove top, jook spreads its comforting smell slowly throughout the house as the rice breaks down into a thick white porridge. It wouldn't surprise me if scientific research showed that turkey jook has the same immunity building and therapeutic properties as its Jewish cousin.

Mom's Chinese Turkey Jook

Turkey bones with bits of meat (use leftover turkey carcass or turkey thighs)
6 cups water plus any leftover turkey pan juices or chicken broth for a total of about 12 cups of liquid (enough liquid to cover turkey)
1 cup uncooked, rinsed white rice
3 tablespoons sliced ginger
Salt to taste
3 tablespoons oyster sauce (a good brand is Lee Kum Kee)
Toppings to taste:  chopped scallions, slivers of ginger, fried sliced won ton strips, or cilantro

1. Simmer turkey bones and all liquids in a large pot on the stove for one hour, covered.
2. Add rice, sliced ginger, salt and oyster sauce. Simmer two more hours, stirring occasionally. Additional liquid may be added for desired consistency.
3. Remove bones and ginger. Ladle soup into bowls.
4. Top with chopped scallions and thin slivers of ginger or other toppings to taste.

If you're planning on roasting a turkey for Christmas or New Year's, consider making Chinese Turkey Jook for a warm and nourishing meal. Create a new tradition out of a centuries-old favorite.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

BAUMÈ: French Cuisine Moderne with a Zen Touch

Baume restaurant in Palo Alto recently received a coveted Michelin star. That in itself is enough to get me interested. Then I got the new Zagat San Francisco Bay Area 2011 book and noticed equally impressive ratings for food, service, and decor (28 out of 30 points each). Baume has the same total number of Zagat points as the French Laundry restaurant. Time to get a reservation.

My husband Brad is skeptical when it comes to small tasting portions and molecular gastronomy. But he promised to keep an open mind during our lunch at Baume. I skipped breakfast that day to appreciate each morsel even more.

Stepping into the restaurant, all is calm. The black painted windows create a quiet enclosure with an interior of dramatic orange coloring, curtains, and tasteful decor. The menu takes this simply stylish approach a step further; it is not really a menu but a listing of ingredients used in the dishes. It's a hint at what's to come, the chef artist's palette that could be used to create thousands of different combinations.

Leeks | Burgundy Truffle | Gigha Halibut | Shiso

Grass Fed Beef | Celeriac | Garlic | Ginger

Lantern Scallop | Lichee | Lilikoi | Chocolate

Champignons Sauvages | Foie Gras | Pumpkin | Kabocha

Fromages | Liquid Nitrogen | Maui Pineapple | Apple | 62˚ Egg

Alba White Truffle (Supplement)

Le Degustation $ 58
With Drinks and Wines Pairing $ 88

L’Experience $ 98
With Drinks and Wines Pairing $ 158

The waiter explained that the more traditional Le Degustation had four courses, while L'Experience had twice as many courses and more innovative flavors and preparations. We both ordered L'Experience without the drinks and wine pairing. The name of this eight course meal is brilliant. Coming to a restaurant like Baume is all about the experience and the food. Bring on the bold.

The ingredient list only hinted at the marvelous dishes that arrived, one after one, bite after glorious bite. I may not remember all these dishes correctly, but this is my best recollection. We didn't get the scallops because Brad is allergic, and I'm not sure what we got instead. Even though the list looks incredibly long, the small, precious portions allowed our stomachs to slowly expand in accommodating each and every bite. Using moderate portion sizes ensures maximum satisfaction and a wide variety of flavors. We got a lot of welcome extras on top of our eight courses.

- steamed wheat bun filled with leek and topped with gold leaf

- vegetable terrine with exploded orange (made icy with liquid nitrogen)

- rosemary and French breads with two spreads: parsley tofu and balsamic olive oil

- miso crunch squash soup

- foie gras with citrus gelee, quince, and cinnamon

- 62˚ egg with champignons sauvages, carrot puree, tarragon sauce and Burgundy truffle

- grass fed beef with celeriac, celery sponge and puree

- halibut with tapioca pearls and citrus

- orange segment with tangerine sorbet palate cleanser

- fromage plate (French cheese, goat cheese, and Point Reyes bleu cheese) with walnut toast and honey lavender pearls

- pumpkin cake with cranberry gelee topping, pumpkin brittle, ginger, and green apple sorbet

- squirting pineapple upside down gingerbread cake

- marshmallow confection to go in 3 flavors: mango, coconut, and green tea

It's difficult to describe the many flavors, presentations, textures, and aromas of our meal. It would be like trying to describe the movie 'Inception' with its unprecedented visual intricacies and plot levels. It's better just to see the movie. Several dishes arrived in one condition only to be transformed by the addition of another ingredient by the waiter. Impeccable service and attention to detail plus audacious creativity equals an outstanding meal. My favorite dishes that still linger in memory include the soup, foie gras, grass fed beef, tangerine-orange palate cleanser, bleu cheese and honey lavender pearls on walnut toast, and pumpkin cake. I loved having the little soft, fragrant marshmallow strips to enjoy at home hours later.

I've used Baume's menu ingredient format to create a poem of my experience with L'Experience. So many words, the ingredients of a writer's palette, come to mind, but how to combine them just so? It must be experienced to be known.

Mon Expérience

Michelin star | Open Table | Anticipation | Salivation

Elegant | Modern | Classy | Vibrant

Original | Fun | Exquisite | Delectable

Surprising | Sublime | Captivating | Daring

Artistic | Exceptional | Inspiring | Dizzying | Wow

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sinfully Rich Scharffen Berger Brownies

Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker is the first U.S. bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer established in the past fifty years. Its founding goal was to "create the richest, most flavorful chocolate by sourcing the best cacao in the world and using artisan chocolate-making methods." I remember clearly taking my son to a Scharffen Berger factory tour in Berkeley many years ago, our own little home grown version of Willy Wonka's. Things change: the company has since been acquired by Hershey's and closed its local factory, but we can still enjoy the chocolate which is obviously the most important thing.

I also clearly remember enjoying an unbelievable Scharffen Berger Chocolate dinner with my husband at Google's Cafe 7 featuring recipes inspired from 'The Essence of Chocolate' cookbook by company co-founders John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg. I enjoy poring over my cookbook autographed there by John Scharffenberger, remembering the fireworks of flavor from that choco-gastronomic meal. I kept the menu, not knowing that almost four years later I would use it for this blog:

- Goat Cheese Crostini and Nibs: Grilled pain levain, Laura Chenel Boursin cheese, candied orange zest, cocoa nibs

- Tortilla Soup Espumoso: Light puree of chipotle peppers, mirepois of vegetables, Latin spices, tomato, Scharffen Berger Chocolate, crisp tortilla, avocado, lime and sweet corn foam

- Grilled Scallop with Mild Thai Flavors: Mini local scallop brochette with coconut-chile and cocoa glaze

- Chocolate Martini

- Bread with Chocolate Butter

- Spinach and Almond Salad with Pears and Nib Vinaigrette: Organic field greens tossed with cocoa glazed almonds, dressed in a light balsamic-shallot dressing

- Chile-Marinated Harris Ranch Flank Steak with Mole Flavors: Served over baked navy beans with Applewood smoked bacon and unsweetened Scharffen Berger Chocolate

- Grilled Tofu Scallops and Roasted Squash: Three grain pilaf, vegetable medley and cocoa nib vinaigrette

- Chocolate Souffle: Bittersweet chocolate souffle, brandy liquor, sweet meringue, and chocolate cinnamon ganache center

- Petit Sirah Swirled Ice Cream: Housemade vanilla bean ice cream, swirled with Petit Sirah syrup, fresh blueberries and fresh raspberries

As I read this menu I can't believe we ate all of this at one meal! And now a link to the coup de grace, a sinfully rich New Classic Brownie recipe using unsweetened 99% cacao chocolate. I discovered this recipe on the Scharffen Berger website, written by Alice Medrich and featured in her book 'Cookies and Brownies'.  Company staff taste tasters liked this recipe best of three brownie recipes.

Fair warning:  These brownies are INTENSE. Brace yourself before taking a bite. These are not your everyday brownies, not the kind to bring to a potluck on the 4th of July or the school's bake sale.  These are grown-up, rated R, only for those strong enough to imbibe. They should be served with a warning that they may cause a temporary cocoa-induced stupor, and chocolate hallucinations for the weak-willed and knock-kneed. Eat at your own risk.

We made the brownies without nuts but I'm sure the toasted walnuts would provide a delicious balance to the extreme chocolate flavor. Also, I'd recommend using parchment paper instead of foil in the pan, as our brownies got stubbornly stuck to parts of the foil. Be patient while the brownies cool in the ice bath. And don't forget to share. You could possibly overdose on these if you don't.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Stanford Kitchen Confidential

I love heading back to the Stanford University campus every five years for my reunion activities. Besides parties, round table discussions, and the architectural sea of red, I enjoy taking classes and learning what's new. This year I took a fun and informative tour called 'Stanford Kitchen Confidential: Dorm Dining Today'. I was curious to find out how meal service has changed since my years of dorm eating so very long ago. I will never forget the California Surprise: a casserole composed of eggs and all the leftovers from the week, a concoction that kept us guessing each time it was served.  I will also not soon forget how the meals during critical finals weeks seemed to be the least tasty and nutritious.  The rumor was that the meal service staff had to use up all the leftovers each quarter before breaks, resulting in the worst meals just when we needed the best.

How things have changed! Stanford Dining supports the academic mission of the university in serving great tasting, healthy, sustainable food in a fiscally responsible manner. Its vision is nothing less than being the best in the industry. From all indications they are achieving this mission. I'm all the more grateful since my son Jacob is a freshman there now. Stanford Dining sees its role as food providers for students, which has a direct effect on quality of life, physical well being, and mental performance.  Some interesting facts about Stanford Dining, a nonprofit department of the university:

- They serve 12,000 meals a day in 10 dining halls
- Food includes grass-fed beef, wild Alaskan salmon, and locally, organic grown produce
- They figured out how to pay for cage-free eggs by turning on fewer lights during meals
- Besides the typical pizza and American fare, they offer Indian, Thai, vegan, and Mexican food every day
- One dorm is completely nut-free for those with allergies
- They have a no garbage policy; everything is compostable
- They've gone practically trayless which results in less labor, water, and energy to wash trays, in addition to cutting on food waste
- Smaller plates mean less food eaten and wasted
- Leftover food is donated to the homeless, and leftover oil is used for biodiesel fuel
- They collaborate with the Medical School and Center for Society & Ethics to provide programs on wellness, nutrition, and sustainability
- Student liaison Dining Ambassadors help the dining staff make changes
- Late night food is available from 9 pm to 2 am for night owls
- The football team has a special menu since the players eat four types of protein at every meal and LOTS of berries
- Summer camps and conferences don't provide the same menus, but subsidize much of the school year programs
- All dining halls are open to the public; you can pay cash and try out the meals
- A year of 19 meals a week costs students $5600, not at all cheap but IMHO worth it to ensure my son's nutritional needs are met

The many restaurants on campus are not run by Stanford Dining but provide a nice alternative for students, faculty, staff, and visitors. I was surprised to find out that the Subway sandwich restaurant in Tresidder Union is the highest grossing Subway in California. Tresidder also houses a Fraiche frozen yogurt shop, Peet's Coffee, Jamba Juice, and the CoHo (Coffee House).

Our tour ended with a nice breakfast. I had steel-cut oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins, while other reunion attendees enjoyed fresh Belgian waffles, egg scrambles, bagels and muffins, cereal, or yogurt and fruit. This isn't your typical institutional food, and Stanford Dining leads the way in innovating and transforming college meal service. Go Cardinal!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My First Food Blogging Conference

It's been a year since I started this food blog. In that time I've eaten, written, and learned a lot. But I truly didn't know how much I don't know about the world of food blogging until I attended the BlogHer Food conference in San Francisco. On this brilliantly sunny Saturday in October, I played sponge for a day, soaking in ideas, words of wisdom, tastes, and tips.

Some key learnings and insights:

- Food blogging really hasn't been around that long. It's estimated that fewer than twenty food bloggers existed in 2003.  Many old-timers have been blogging only since 2006. So this whole world has exploded in just the past four years or so.

- Many very successful food blog sites exist that I had never even heard of. Some get over 100,000 hits a day, or have over 200,000 registered users. We even have food blogger celebrities. Check out some of the blogs from people who spoke at the conference: Michael Ruhlman (he even has groupies), Serious Eats, Simply Recipes, Gluten-Free Girl, and the Pioneer Woman. We newbies have a lot to learn from these leaders in the field.

- I sat down at breakfast next to a nice looking woman. What a delight when I found out she is probably the world's #1 food stylist. Delores Custer is a legend, having worked and taught in the field for thirty years, including teaching at NYU and The Culinary Institute of America, and with Julia Child on her baking cookbook. I loved learning so many tips and tricks about what makes food look mouthwatering, such as white plates best highlighting food visually, using tools like steam irons to make cheese melt just so on top of chili, and how food styling has changed since the 50s. What a treat to meet Delores and learn from her wealth of experience. 

- We took a tour of the Ferry Building and learned a lot about its history, architecture, and incredible array of food available there. We also participated in a fun scavenger hunt, taking photos of various food items in the building. For lunch I had a delicious and quick steamed chicken bao and iced Vietnamese coffee from Out the Door. I ate it outside by the bay while people watching. What could be better?

- Food bloggers are a fun and passionate group of people: mostly female (at least at this conference), interesting, supportive, and in love with food and writing. Here no one had to apologize for their foodie obsessions, sharing in minute detail what they ate for lunch, the latest recipe under development, or how to make homemade almond milk. We could talk about the craft of writing, sharing our anxieties and triumphs in the way that writers do. We're all unraveling the technology, potential, and platform of blogs. I loved learning what other bloggers are passionate about and what they're doing, learning from a variety of seminars: recipe writing, storytelling, building a blog brand, food styling, writing tips, food photography, and building an online community.

- I ordered three books after the conference. Dianne Jacob has written a new edition of 'Will Write For Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More' which includes an entirely new section about blogging.   I've already read the first edition of her book but wanted to order the new version with its blogging guide. I also ordered Anthony Bourdain's new book 'Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook', after reading an interesting and convincing review on Michael Ruhlman's blog.   I have Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential' and 'No Reservations' books and enjoyed them both, and had a memorable Kepler's Bookstore sponsored dinner with him at the Left Bank restaurant a couple of years ago. Finally, I ordered Delores Custer's 'Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera' which took her fifteen years to write. It looks absolutely gorgeous, inspiring, and extremely informative. And I'm still so thrilled that I got to have breakfast with her.

I love discovering that there's so much more to discover about food blogging. For me it's a hobby, a creative outlet that combines writing, food, the Internet, and phototography. Now I see it's also a community, both in person and online, and a way to connect with others. The conference exceeded my expectations: I learned what I need to learn and do next to cultivate this blog. Time to get started.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Apple Upside-Down Cake from America's Test Kitchen

Now that fall has arrived, what better way to enjoy autumnal apple flavors than with an upside-down cake? It's a wonderful dessert using fresh apples from your local farmers' market or from your own trees. The flavors are divine, a change from the usual apple pie and pineapple upside-down cake, something different yet familiar. The cake turns out beautiful once revealed and released from the pan.

I saw this recipe demonstrated on the television show America's Test Kitchen, my favorite PBS cooking show. Using meticulous attention to detail and a scientific approach to testing various recipes, ingredients, tools, and methods, America's Test Kitchen chefs create recipes that satisfy. Watching the chefs prepare this cake convinced me to go online to print out the recipe and try it.

My primary addition to the recipe is adding a teaspoon of cinnamon to the apples when adding the brown sugar. I'm a big cinnamon lover, and love combining apples with cinnamon in recipes. My favorite cinnamons are the ones from Penzey's Spices, especially the Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cassia and the Chinese Cassia blends. I've tried all of Penzey's cinnamon varieties, and love their cinnamon sugar too for an easy way to add a lovely sweet fragrance and flavor to oatmeal, cinnamon toast, muffins, etc.

Now what about the delectable results? First enjoy the intoxicating smell emanating from the oven while the cake cooks. Then wait patiently for the cake to cool while your stomach grumbles, first for twenty minutes on a wire rack and then for another twenty minutes once it's inverted from the pan. Waiting makes your mouth water even more, and the anticipation creates an overwhelming urge to dig in. Then comes the payoff, the moment when you can finally take your first bite. The combination of warm, tart, cinnamony apples with butter and brown sugar makes a luscious fruit topping. And the buttery yellow cake underneath has just the right firmness, texture, and cakey goodness to complement the apple topping just so.

All the little details in the recipe add up to create this scrumptious confection, from slicing the apples in two batches with different thicknesses and cooking times, to the additions of sour cream and cornmeal to the cake batter, to using firmer Granny Smith or Golden Delicious apples to prevent sogginess. Everything works together in perfect harmony, all the effort and waiting are worth it, and the cake not only looks beautiful but tastes fabulous. This cake makes a great dessert for any fall day, an autumnal treat that will not soon be forgotten.

The website requires user registration in order to access recipes, but it's free, easy, and worth it. Without further ado, here's the recipe, adapted to include my cinnamon addition. Enjoy.

Apple Upside-Down Cake

From the episode: Old-Fashioned Fruit Desserts
Serves 8

You will need a 9-inch nonstick cake pan with sides that are at least 2 inches high for this cake. Alternatively, use a 10-inch ovenproof stainless steel skillet (don’t use cast iron) to both cook the apples and bake the cake, with the following modifications: Cook the apples in the skillet and set them aside while mixing the batter (it’s OK if the skillet is still warm when the batter is added) and increase the baking time by 7 to 9 minutes. If you don’t have either a 2-inch high cake pan or an ovenproof skillet, use an 8-inch square pan.
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter , cut into 4 pieces, plus extra for pan
  • 4 Granny Smith apples or Golden Delicious (about 2 pounds), peeled and cored
  • 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar (4 2/3 ounces)
  • 1 teaspoon high quality cinnamon such as Penzey's Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cassia
  • 2 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (5 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar (5 1/4 ounces)
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar (1 3/4 ounces)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter , melted and cooled slightly
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. FOR THE TOPPING: Butter bottom and sides of 9-inch round, 2-inch-deep nonstick cake pan; set aside. Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Halve apples from pole to pole. Cut 2 apples into 1/4-inch-thick slices; set aside. Cut remaining 2 apples into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Heat butter in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When foaming subsides, add 1/2-inch-thick apple slices and cook, stirring 2 or 3 times, until apples begin to caramelize, 4 to 6 minutes. (Do not fully cook apples.) Add 1/4-inch-thick apple slices, brown sugar, cinnamon, and lemon juice; continue cooking, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves and apples are coated, about 1 minute longer. Transfer apple mixture to prepared pan and lightly press into even layer. Set aside while preparing cake.
3. FOR THE CAKE: Whisk flour, cornmeal (if using), baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl; set aside. Whisk granulated sugar, brown sugar, and eggs together in large bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter until combined. Add sour cream and vanilla; whisk until combined. Add flour mixture and whisk until just combined. Pour batter into pan and spread evenly over fruit. Bake until cake is golden brown and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.
4. Cool pan on wire rack 20 minutes. Run paring knife around sides of cake to loosen. Place wire rack over cake pan. Holding rack tightly, invert cake pan and wire rack together; lift off cake pan. Place wire rack over baking sheet or large plate to catch any drips. If any fruit sticks to pan bottom, remove and position it on top of cake. Let cake cool 20 minutes (or longer to cool it completely), then transfer to serving platter, cut into pieces, and serve.

    Precook half of apples in butter to deepend their flavor and reduce their volume, allowing more to be added.
    Add raw apples, brown sugar, and lemon juice to pan, then cook briefly to preserve fresh flavor.
    Transfer apple topping to cake pan and gently press into even layer.
    Spread batter over apple topping and bake.
    Let cake cool in pan for 20 minutes to help set apple topping, then transfer to cooling rack to keep cake bottom dry.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Facebook Feeds

Facebook is everywhere you look--in the movie theaters, bookstores, and online. With 500 million users, it's the virtual place to be when you want to connect with your friends. It also happens to be a Silicon Valley success story, headquartered in Palo Alto next to the Stanford campus. Even though Facebook started in a Harvard dorm room, its move to the Bay Area has been key to its success.  It's here that Facebook has found its home.

So where do Facebookers like to eat? Based on information in two books written about the company ('Accidental Billionaires' and 'The Facebook Effect'), news articles, and in-person sightings, here's a list of some of the local places that feed the Facebook folks:

- The Counter, an inventive customer burger franchise on California Avenue in Palo Alto, the same street as Facebook's headquarters. My husband saw Mark Zuckerberg eating dinner there one week night recently. The Counter has something for everyone with its checklist of items that you can choose from including type of bread, patty, sauce, and toppings. If you haven't tried it yet, you should. Be sure to order the killer sweet potato fries.

- Village Pub, an upscale gourmet restaurant in Woodside. A splurge destination for a romantic meal or special occasion, the Village Pub was also the setting for a dramatic meeting that Mark Z. had with some VCs. The food is divine, and the service top-notch.

- Antonio's Nut House, a quirky dive bar that has notoriously moody wait staff. It also resides on California Avenue and is a popular hangout for Stanford students.

- China Delight, located just a couple of blocks from Facebook's previous office location. China Delight is one of many Asian restaurants in downtown Palo Alto. I've never eaten there, but have often enjoyed nearby Jing Jing's, as well as the Classico Gelato shop and artsy fartsy Aquarius Theater on the same block.

- University Cafe, an airy coffee house on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. It's a good place to meet for coffee, breakfast or lunch, and a great place to people watch with a constant stream of pedestrians strolling by.

- Finally the Old Pro, a sports bar also located in downtown Palo Alto. Even though Mark Z. said he wasn't planning to see 'The Social Network' movie, he and the other local Facebookers attended a private screening of the movie at Mountain View's Shoreline Century Cinemas on opening day. They celebrated later at an after party with appletinis at the Old Pro. If you see the movie, you'll understand why they ordered that particular drink.

Kudos to all the Facebookers and 'The Social Network' movie makers. You're making history and may be on your way to some Oscars too. Cheers!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Craving Kara's Cupcakes

What is it about cupcakes that's so sweetly satisfying? Of course there's the sugar, the marvelous mix of cake and frosting, and the incredible new flavors at gourmet shops sprouting up across the country. But it's more than that. Eating cupcakes creates an emotional connection to the past, evoking warm memories of birthday parties, baking in the kitchen, and celebrating with family and friends. Cupcakes are not an everyday treat; they're something special to enjoy on worthy occasions.

Cupcakes are also wonderfully accessible. It's a smaller commitment than buying a cake, everyone can choose the flavors they want, they look festive, taste fabulous, and can be eaten by hand. Cupcakes are adorable, and gourmet versions elevate the category, opening up incredible innovations for the dessert table.

One of my favorite local gourmet cupcake spots is Kara's Cupcakes in Palo Alto. They have five locations in all including San Francisco, San Jose, and Napa. They even have a mobile KaraVan to bring the cupcakes to you for special events. They cater for weddings and parties, and make an extra special dessert for any reason to celebrate.

What's most wonderful about Kara's, as they aptly promise, is that they bring 'a sophisticated twist to an old fashioned favorite.'  At Kara's you don't order just ordinary chocolate and vanilla. Oh no, you get to order from an array of enticing flavors such as Meyer Lemony Lemon, Raspberry Dazzle, Peanut Butter Milk Chocolate Ganache, Passion Fruit, and Java. I have to admit I've tried about a dozen of the flavors (!) although I had to do so as part of a consulting project I was working on (no, really!).

One weekend after brunch at Hobee's, I took my three kids to Kara's and let them each choose a cupcake to have after dinner for dessert. As we ate them later, I asked each one to describe their cupcakes to me. Here's what they said:

Jacob chose Coconut, a chocolate cupcake with coconut cream cheese frosting. He described it as having creamy, flaky coconut frosting, with a delicious coconut flavor that's stronger than the chocolate flavor. It's like a Mounds candy bar in cupcake form.

Valerie chose Kara's Karrot cupcake with cream cheese frosting. She said it had a yummy cream cheese frosting, walnuts, nutmeg, and raisins. She said it was moist and just as delicious as chocolate. Her strongest endorsement: "Mmmmmm."

Amanda chose the most sophisticated flavor, Fleur de Sel, a chocolate cupcake with ganache frosting, a sprinkle of fleur de sel on top, and caramel filling. She chose this flavor because it was filled. She described it as a dark chocolate cupcake with salt on top. Very moist, with a sweet caramel filling. It had an extra strong dose of sugar, nicely balanced by the salt.

I chose Sweet S'mores, a chocolate cupcake with graham cracker crust on the bottom and toasted marshmallow frosting on top. To me, this cupcake exemplifies what's so great about gourmet cupcakes. It transforms the traditional s'mores dessert into a whole new, mouthwatering form. The burnt marshmallow topping was fluffy and light, the chocolate cupcake moist and flavorful. The crumbly graham cracker crust had an utterly delicious, buttery toffee flavor. What a great combination of textures and flavors, and an impressive improvement on the original. The flavors danced on my taste buds.

The hardest part of eating Kara's Cupcakes is resisting the temptation to go back for more....and more!  They're that good.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Lee's Sandwiches

I love walking into a new food store or restaurant and instantly knowing I've found something authentic, different, and good.  I'd heard about Lee's Sandwiches for a while and thought I would finally investigate.  The closest one is in Sunnyvale so it was not along my usual driving route. Lee's offers mostly traditional Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, a wonderful combination of French baguette and Vietnamese fillings. It also has European style sandwiches, breads and pastries, Asian drinks and smoothies, and desserts. The company started in 1981 with a catering truck in San Jose. It has since grown to dozens of retail locations in California, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma. Lee's Sandwiches represents both a wonderful melding of Asian and French cuisines, and American entrepreneurial zeal.

It takes several visits to get a good sampling of Lee's offerings. There's so much to try! The company's website gives a good overview of the menu, complete with photos,  descriptions, and nutritional information. I truly enjoyed the vegetarian sandwich with fried tofu, vermicelli, bean curd, yam, carrot, house pickle, jalapano, cilantro, salt, pepper, and soy sauce all tucked into a soft baguette. I also loved the BBQ pork sandwich, which had the same tangy pork that's in Chinese bao. I also savored the grilled chicken sandwich with its soft baguette featuring just enough al dente on the crust, nicely seasoned chicken pieces, and crunchy julienne vegetables. The grilled pork sandwich is similar to the BBQ pork sandwich (I prefer the more flavorful BBQ pork to grilled). My daughters gobbled up the more familiar ham & cheese baguettes, a nice option for the less adventurous and for kids. What delicious sandwiches! The combination of spicy, tangy, savory, and sweet flavors, the soft bread with crunchy vegetables, and the melding of red, green, orange, and other colors makes for a satisfying new kind of fast food meal.

To top off the sandwiches, Lee's has many unusually tasty drinks.  The Thai iced tea with tapioca pearls features a refreshing black tea with sugar and condensed milk flavor, a pumpkin orange color, and the dark, chewy tapioca pearls which find their way up the extra large sized straw. Many different smoothies also tempt the palate. These are quite large, and in between what I think of as a smoothie and a milkshake, so be forewarned that either you drink up with an equally large appetite, save some for later, or share. The avocado smoothie was so unexpected and yet familiar with its green color, smooth texture, and unique creamy flavor. It was like drinking a guacamole elixir, with no salsa or chips needed. The mango smoothie was sweet and refreshing, more of an Asian mango flavor (such as Indian mango lassi) and probably more likely something kids would enjoy. I always opt for the big, chewy tapioca pearls at the bottom of smoothies. I also enjoyed the coconut delight dessert, which is like coconut Jell-o. It's not for everyone but I found its light coconut flavor and wiggly Jell-o texture a refreshing finish to my meal.

Here's hoping a Lee's Sandwiches will move up farther north and closer to Menlo Park. I have no doubt it would be full of hungry, happy customers as soon as its doors opened. I'd be first in line, eating my way through the menu.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Buck's of Woodside: Wacky and Wonderful Top 10 List

10. Friendly and comfortable for families, entrepreneurs, ladies who lunch, and the occasional celebrity.
9. Great breakfast menu including killer coffee cake and Buck's buckwheat pancakes.
8. Unique Silicon Valley landmark, and a fun place to take out of town visitors.
7. Situated in wealthy Woodside just a short drive from Highway 280, Sand Hill Road and Stanford University.
6. Shaquille O'Neal's size 23 shoe displayed on the wall. No kidding.
5. New York steak sandwich with 7 oz. NY strip, lettuce, tomato, and onion strings on sourdough toast.
4. John McEnroe's mangled wooden tennis racquet from a match against Jimmy Connors.
3. Dining next to an anaconda skin, narwhal tusk, and Cracker Jack prize collection.
2. Silicon Valley start-ups have gotten funded and launched here including Yahoo, Netscape, PayPay, and Hotmail.
1. Hot crab with melted cheddar on sourdough baguette: Buck's most popular sandwich, with good reason. Try it!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Jelly Belly, the World's #1 Gourmet Jelly Bean

They can rot your teeth. They have little nutritional value. They're not natural, organic, sustainable, or low in carbon footprint. But we love 'em, because they taste so good.

It's our family tradition to stop by the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield on our way back from Lake Tahoe where we vacation every July. This gives us something to break up the long drive home, and eases the inevitable end-of-vacation letdown.

Stepping into the Jelly Belly factory, shop and restaurant center is like entering a cross between Chuck E. Cheese's and the candy store of your childhood dreams. It's meant to get your children and the child in you excited, and it works. Where else can you get a piece or pizza or a hamburger in a jelly bean shape? The factory tour line can snake out with a wait time of almost an hour, but where else can you indulge your Willy Wonka candy factory fantasies? For us the highlight is the large shop which offers every kind of Jelly Belly you know about, lots you've never heard of, all kinds of branded merchandise, chocolate candies, and even lower priced Belly Flops, the jelly beans that came out misshapen but still taste great.

We have to set some ground rules before we head into the shop. Usually everyone can choose whatever confections they desire, as long as the total amount comes up to about two handfuls. Yep, that seems like a lot and it probably is. The kids fill up their bags with a mix of their favorite flavors. I usually get a pre-packaged bag of whatever strikes my fancy. Last time I tried the pomegranate flavor which I enjoyed not only for its tart, fruity flavor from real pomegranate juice, but also because it has Vitamin C and antioxidants added in. Jelly beans for the health conscious--who woulda thunk? My other favorite flavors include raspberry, black licorice, tangerine, and sizzling cinnamon.

Brad goes for the unusual, including buttered popcorn and jalapeno. To me the buttered popcorn flavor tastes bizarre. It just doesn't translate well from the original food to jelly bean form. And forget about the jalapeno for me, although Brad loves them and often gets jalapenos on his pizzas, in his omelets, and in his burgers.

Jacob's favorites include black licorice, sizzling cinnamon, and mint mint chocolate chocolate chip. Valerie has a hard time choosing favorites but loves lemon lime, root beer, and tutti-fruitti, while Amanda's up for most flavors like watermelon, bubble gum, and green apple.

Not only does Jelly Belly offer its fifty regular flavors, it also has extended its offerings to include Sports Beans (to give exercisers some carbs and electrolytes), Cold Stone Creamery ice cream flavors, Sunkist fruit flavors, Cocktail Classics, and BeanBoozled trick flavors. BeanBoozled jelly beans are nauseatingly brilliant when you think about it, with each normal flavor having a lookalike disgusting twin.  The top banana flavored bean has an evil twin that tastes like pencil shavings. The trick is to know which is which without actually having to taste barf, skunk, rotten egg, or booger flavors.  I remember once Brad's father Brian bravely tried a barf flavored Jelly Belly. He declared it sweet and tasty, and laughed at himself since he knew his sense of taste obviously wasn't as acute as it used to be!

It's also fun to experiment with Jelly Belly recipes which require combining different flavored beans to create something different. Did you know eating two cappuccino beans, one cream soda bean, and one chocolate pudding bean equals tiramisu flavor?

Jelly Belly has a fascinating history, a classic American success story. The brothers Gustav and Albert Goelitz emigrated from Germany and bought a candy store in Illinois in 1869. The family's second generation invented Candy Corn around the turn of the century. In 1960, the family's fourth generation based in Oakland expanded the company to include jelly beans and America's first gummi bears. The first eight Jelly Belly flavors were born in 1976: Very Cherry, Licorice, Lemon, Cream Soda, Tangerine, Green Apple, Root Beer, and Grape. Gustav Goelitz's descendants continue to make more than a hundred kinds of candies over 140 years after the brothers arrived in the U.S.

So if you're driving back from Lake Tahoe or Sacramento and want something sweet and fun, try some candy from the Jelly Belly factory and shop in Fairfield or the standalone shop in the Nut Tree shopping center. Your mouth will be happy.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Frozen Lemon Chèvre Cookie Bites

Did you know goat cheese is higher in protein and lower in fat than cow's milk cheese, and can be eaten by people who are lactose intolerant? If you're a goat cheese lover, you know how good it tastes, how smooth its texture feels melting on your tongue, and how just seeing its crumbly white chunks can make your mouth water. Knowing how good it is for you just adds to the pleasure of eating it.

Recently while watching the local talk show 'View from the Bay', I saw a frozen lemon chèvre cookie recipe that intrigued me. Demonstrated by Jacquelyn Buchanan, director of Culinary Development at Sonoma-based Laura Chenel's Chèvre company, the recipe sounded simple, refreshing, and with a wonderful combination of ingredients. I wanted to experience how this unusual mix of flavors would taste.

Instead of using Belgian waffle cookies to sandwich the lemon curd cheese filling, I decided to use store-bought gingersnaps. I've always loved the tart and spicy combination of lemon curd and gingersnaps, which I first tasted at Lisa's Tea Treasures. These cookies are easy to prepare, and make a great cold confection to enjoy during hot summer months. The filling reminds me of lemon cheesecake, and the goat cheese flavor finely complements the other ingredients.

Here is the recipe adapted with my changes. The original recipe, along with several other goat cheese recipes, can be found on the company's website.

Frozen Lemon Chèvre Cookie Bites

  • 8 oz Laura Chenel's Chef's Chèvre
  • 8 oz lemon curd
  • 1 box gingersnap cookies
  1. Mix equal portions of Laura Chenel's Chèvre and lemon curd.
  2. Top a gingersnap cookie with a spoonful of the chèvre/curd mixture. Close with another cookie to make a sandwich.
  3. Continue making cookie sandwiches until all the filling is used. Place cookies in layers in a container and freeze for at least 2 hours.
  4. The cookies can be made a week in advance, wrapped tightly in foil or in a glass container. Keep frozen.
My sister Sara served another great goat cheese appetizer at a recent dinner party. She simply placed a log of goat cheese on a serving platter, topped it with lemon zest and drizzled honey, and served with crackers. It was a delightful mixture of creamy, tart, and sweet, and so easy to make.

I love Jacquelyn's approach to educating others about artisan cheese. "I let the cheese dictate what should be done with it," she says. Well said and well done.

P.S. I took my two daughters to see a taping of 'View from the Bay' which was both fun and informative. You can get free audience tickets on their website.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Vancouver Vacation Eats

I just got back from vacation in Vancouver and am itching to write about some of the fantastic food we tasted there. Even though Vancouver's far north of Silicon Valley, I can't not share these culinary discoveries:

- Japa Dogs: I first learned about these fusion-flavored hot dogs on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations show.  Sold from a cart on a busy downtown street corner, Japa Dogs make a tasty lunch treat. Atop the familiar hot dog sits surprising Japanese condiments. Mine had a combination of Japanese mayonnaise, teriyaki sauce, onion, and dried seaweed. Unexpectedly yummy!

- BeaverTail Pastries: On the top of majestic Grouse Mountain we found these fried confections shaped like you-know-what.  We tried BeaverTails with cinnamon sugar, apples and cinnamon, and Nutella. Crispy yet soft, warm, sweet, and sticky. Definitely delicious.

- Mongolian BBQ: We had to make a return trip to this restaurant for dinner. Part of the fun was participating in creating our meals. We filled our bowls with noodles, meat, vegetables, and whatever sauce creations we chose. I used the recipe for the House Special sauce with six ingredients: 1 small scoop each of sesame oil and honey lemon, and 1/2 scoop each of crushed garlic, mongo pau, mongo sauce, and mongo wine. Then the cook poured our bowls out one at a time on a large 4' diameter circular griddle and cooked up the concoctions with long wooden sticks.  Each bowl cooks up fast in about a minute. Our restaurant was all you can eat so both Brad and Jacob had seconds.

- Maple Leaf Sandwich Cookies. When in Canada, try the maple goodies. We loved Christie's Maple Leaf Cookies from the grocery store. Crunchy maple leaf shaped cookies plus a sweet maple cream filling equals pure maple goodness. We also enjoyed Tim Horton's maple dipped donuts at the airport. Sweet.

We stopped in Seattle on our way to Vancouver to visit with Brad's sister's family and enjoyed even more scrumptious food: salmon chowder at the salmon locks; French palmiers at Pike's Market (I loved that place! It was like the Ferry Building on steroids... I could spend several days eating my way through the market); Stu's grilled wild salmon and flank steak; Dawn's crab spread; and a memorable Vietnamese pho and sweet coffee lunch at a restaurant called (no kidding) What the Pho!

I love trying new foods on vacation. It's part of discovering and experiencing different places. Reminiscing over flavorful meals helps create great vacation memories. I adore Vancouver and definitely want to go back someday. Happy travels!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sunset Celebration Weekend: Fabulous Frickle, My Favorite Candy, and the Incredible Potato Tower

Ever since I was a kid, I've been reading Sunset magazine.  My mom always subscribed to it, and once I graduated from college I subscribed too. Over the years I've enjoyed the creative, upbeat tone of Sunset and its array of ideas for the Western home, garden, travel, and food. Now that I think about it, it's probably the magazine I've read the longest, for about forty years (egads!).

Sunset's headquarters office is just a few miles away in our town of Menlo Park. Every summer Sunset hosts a Celebration Weekend with a variety of demonstrations, hands-on activities, foods, beer & wine, and exhibits. This year my husband Brad and I took our 10-year-old daughter Amanda to check it out. Among the highlights:

- Numerous food stands where we tried not only the usual lemonade and kettle corn but also Fabulous Frickle fried pickles, Acme bread, Recchiuti Fleur de Sel Caramels and Spring Jasmine Tea chocolates, Straus yogurt, and my favorite candy in the whole wide world, R & J Toffees premium almond toffee. Needless to say, I bought a bag of the toffee! We also bought an Acme walnut loaf, some of the best bread around.

- Gourmet food trucks including Seoul on Wheels Korean BBQ and Sam's Chowdermobile.

- A variety of wines and beers. Brad's favorite beers were the Lagunitas India Pale Ale and the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra India Pale Ale.

- A tour of the Sunset test kitchens where all their recipes are created and perfected. Surprisingly, the food staff is not made up of professional chefs, just really good cooks. They publish about 35 recipes in each monthly issue, and each is tested about five times before it's printed. Since they have 3-12 month leadtimes, sometimes they have to go to great lengths to create their recipes out of season. Our guide told us one time they spent $80 making a strawberry pie!

- Making an original munch mix with Amanda using Post cereals, popcorn, and pretzels. This mixture can then be customized by combining with various seasonings and baked. They have many fun recipes on their website for all kinds of cereal snack mixes.

- Exploring the Sunset gardens and chicken coop, with an emphasis on fruit and vegetable gardening. One of the most clever ideas I saw was the Potato Tower, an ingenious way of growing potatoes that saves space, creates 2-3X the usual yield, and requires no digging! You can just reach in and get your potatoes when they're grown or undo the tower and watch all the grown potatoes tumble out.

We enjoyed wandering around, listening to the live music, seeing the exhibits, and smelling the wonderful foods. Celebrity chefs demonstrated their cooking prowess all weekend, featuring recipes to try for yourself.

What a treasure to have Sunset in our home town. I'm already looking forward to next year's celebration.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Very Berry Crisp with Webb Ranch U-Pick Berries

What could better than picking and eating fresh, delicious, organic berries? We're fortunate to have a local gem of a farm that opens its berry fields for picking every June. The Webb Ranch in Portola Valley has been owned and operated by the Webb family since 1922. They began by planting strawberries and have since expanded to include a variety of vegetables including corn, green beans, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes and bell peppers. The ranch operates a local farmers' market open daily on Alpine Road near the 280 freeway, and its U-pick berry farm is just a bit farther west up Alpine Road. Webb Ranch is widely known for its corn picked hourly. They never sell day-old corn, instead feeding it to their pasture horses.

Our whole family has enjoyed picking berries there for about five years. Some tips for picking:

- Wear sunscreen, a hat, and comfortable, closed-toed shoes
- Pick inside the bush for berries with the best flavor
- Ripe berries come off easily
- Look for the berries with dark coloring
- Bring gloves since some of the vines have thorns

The ranch planted 6,000 new berry plants last season so this year's crop is particularly abundant. And there's an impressive variety of berries available: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, and loganberries.

Telltale signs of successful berry picking include berry stains on hands and mouth, purplish lips, and a big smile. Of course the berries are delicious fresh, but we also love them with whipped cream and baked in a berry crisp. One of my favorite desserts is fruit crisp, especially when made with ripe, flavorful fruit. Below is a berry crisp recipe that I've had for so long I can't remember where I got it. Even though I can't trace the originator, I know that whoever created this recipe has left a delectable legacy for all those who have enjoyed it.

Very Berry Crisp

5 cups fresh berries of your choice
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup regular rolled oats
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, separated
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, ginger, or cinnamon
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup chopped nuts or coconut

1. Place washed fruit in a 2-quart square baking dish. Stir in the granulated sugar and 3 tablespoons of the all-purpose flour.

2. For topping, in a medium bowl combine the oats, brown sugar, 1/4 cup flour and nutmeg, ginger, or cinnamon. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the nuts or coconut. Sprinkle topping over filling.

3. Bake crisp in a 375 F degree oven for 30 minutes or until fruit is tender and topping is golden. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream or your favorite vanilla ice cream. Makes 6 servings.

Berry crisp is best eaten outdoors after a nice summer meal. It tastes even better if you picked the berries yourself. Look at the luscious berry colors, smell the intoxicatingly sweet, buttery fragrance, and dig in. It's summertime!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Google's Big Table Cafe

One of the well-known perks of working at Google is free lunch served at a variety of cafes on campus. My husband Brad, the Gmail Spam Czar, sometimes takes this benefit for granted, but every time I join him for lunch there I remind him how very fortunate he is to be so well fed at work.

Eating at a Google Cafe is not like eating at an ordinary company cafeteria.  From the start, Google has taken its food seriously, and hired skilled chefs who have created food not only big in quantity but also big in flavor, variety, and nutrition. Over the years, I've tried about ten of Google's cafes. This month I joined him at the Big Table Cafe at a new office building he recently moved into near Shoreline Park in Mountain View. Surprisingly, there is no actual big table at Big Table. Rather, the cafe's moniker refers to the codename of some technical project that I'm not privy to. As Brad says, 'It's too hard to explain,' but Googlers are in on the secret and to them it makes perfect sense.

I greatly enjoyed my Asian-inspired meal, just one of the many meal options offered that day at the cafe:

- Baby bok choy and pickled red cabbage
- Ginger garlic noodles
- Ginger sesame asparagus
- Onion pancake with spicy Szechuan peanut sauce
- Grilled corn on the cob with butter and lime juice
- Hint water flavored with pomegranate and tangerine
- Pineapple
- Rum ball

It's truly a delight to eat excellently cooked vegetables, and the bok choy delivered.  It had a firm yet delicate texture, and its simple sauteed preparation allowed the fresh flavor to express itself. Even with its small size, the baby bok choy varied as I ate starting with the light green, mild, crunchy bottom up to the richly dark green and slightly bitter leaves. It oozed not only with flavor but with nutrients and cruciferous crunch. I know a vegetable has been perfectly prepared when eating it is as enjoyable as eating dessert. Knowing how good it is for me only increases the pleasure.

I also loved the ginger garlic noodles, thin and cooked al dente, delicately coated with a sparkling touch of ginger garlic sauce. The combination of those two Asian ingredients creates a well known combustion of fiery flavors that have been enjoyed for centuries. The delicate noodles provided just the right amount of bite and sustenance to carry the flavors forward all the way from tongue to stomach.

The grilled corn on the cob also started a flavor party in my mouth with its sweet, rich and sour combination of caramelized corn, butter, and lime juice. I've always loved corn on the cob, best hot off the coals and dripping with butter. Sweet and crunchy, corn on the cob is the taste of summer, eaten in rows like keys on a keyboard, and bringing back memories of 4th of July picnics.

To make this meal even more memorable, we sighted both Larry Page and Sergey Brin. I admit I'm a groupie when it comes to Silicon Valley movers and shakers, and felt a little thrill spotting the two Google guys. It was all very ordinary for Brad, but for me it was a treat. Enjoying lunch with Googlers talking and eating animatedly all around us, I felt a palpable energy, a kind of social vibration that emerges when I'm around engaged and enthusiastic people. That kind of energy is contagious, and I want more.  I'm convinced the food at Google is an integral driver of this vitality, not only delighting and nourishing employees, but also instilling a creative energy that fuels their ideas just as much as their work. It's part of the secret sauce that propels innovative thinking and helps the company stand out from the rest. It's no wonder why Googlers are feeling lucky. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hooray for Hobee's

Why has Hobee's been voted best breakfast in Palo Alto by readers of the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper so many times it's now in the Hall of Fame? Let me count the ways. Hobee's offers the quintessential California breakfast and brunch with a lively atmosphere and comfortable setting. You can even order breakfast for dinner and no one will bat an eye. Starting with their very cinnamon-y hot or iced tea, robust coffee, or fruit smoothie, a meal at Hobee's brings comforting nourishment as well as big flavor and smiles. Featuring a diverse, friendly, healthy, and mouthwatering selection of choices, Hobee's is as sure-fire a restaurant for anyone looking for a satisfying meal as there could be.

Widely known for its tall blueberry coffeecake with cinnamon crumb topping, Hobee's features seasonal coffeecake flavors including apple walnut, peach pecan, cranberry, and banana toffee. The omelets and scrambles never fail to deliver. My favorites include the Florentine scramble with spinach, mushrooms, and cheese; the Pruneyard omelet with turkey bacon, onion, mushrooms, and Swiss; the Santa Cruz scramble with artichoke hearts and lots of garlic; and the breakfast burrito, a whole wheat tortilla stuffed with eggs, rice, salsa, cheese, and guacamole.  Sometimes I'll either take the coffeecake to go or just eat the top, which of course includes the cinnamon brown sugar topping. My husband often orders the BDBIT, the Best Darn Breakfast in Town -- two eggs, country-style hashbrowns, and coffeecake or toast.

Hobee's sells some items to go, including large tins of coffeecake, cinnamon tea, and crunchy granola. They also sell their famous t-shirts, and if you bring in a photo of yourself wearing the t-shirt at some far away yet recognizable landmark location, you can earn a free meal. Just look at the wall of photos inside every Hobee's to get an idea of its devoted fans and the lengths they will go to to get a free Hobee's meal.

Hobee's is always busy so if you go at the height of the breakfast or lunch hour, you may have to wait. I think the longest we've waited to get into Hobee's was forty-five excruciating minutes, but it's always worth it when nothing less will do. Luckily they have many locations in Silicon Valley. Just make sure if you're meeting a friend, to make it very clear *which* Hobee's you want to meet at so that you're not waiting and wondering, growing hungrier by the minute! (I speak from experience.) It is a good place to meet people, and sometimes you will overhear Silicon Valley business deals being made at nearby tables. It works for both business and pleasure get-togethers, but choose another restaurant if you're looking for a romantic meal or quiet conversation.

The restaurant is extremely kid-friendly with crayons, a kid's menu, and a fun happy face made of fruit on glass plates to start. My daughter Amanda's usual choice is the Mickey's Pancake, and she always gets a kick out of the menu item which reads, "Liver & Onions--with brussel sprouts, broccoli, eggplant, and lots of beets, $29.95." Dinner meals also please the palate: pastas, wraps, and sandwiches fill the menu, as well as burgers, salads, hash brown concoctions, and any of the breakfast egg dishes. It's a good place to bring a largish group with kids because there's something for everyone.

There must be something special in their cinnamon, because the cinnamon tea and cinnamon coffeecake have a special allure that always brings me back. It's extra spicy and flavorful, the kind that makes my taste buds do a little dance, and something about it fires off powerful neurons in my brain that reinforce my love of the place and the food. I wouldn't be surprised if scientific studies showed the cinnamon triggers endorphins which have the magical effect of stimulating animated conversation and pleasurable eating.

It's comforting to know that a Silicon Valley institution like Hobee's is just minutes away, and that here I can find one of my favorite breakfast meals even if it's for dinner. It would be hard to count how many times I've eaten at Hobee's over the years. Sometimes I take it for granted, and going there is more of an afterthought than a destination. But it's good to take a moment to be grateful and appreciate the wonderful elements of ordinary life, including nearby restaurants that have always been there. Hobee's definitely delivers.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


If you like the vibrant flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, hip decor, and exploring new restaurants, it's worth checking out XANH. Winner of four awards on OpenTable (hot spot, most booked, vibrant bar scene, and Vietnamese cuisine), XANH offers a flavorful and fashionable culinary adventure you won't soon forget. The restaurant achieves its goal to "fuse the culinary traditions of Vietnam with modern aesthetics and complexities."

XANH, which means 'green' in Vietnamese (I love Google Translator on my iGoogle page), also boasts the Michelin Bib Gourmand designation. Located on the eclectic and electric ethnic Castro Street in Mountain View, XANH offers a completely different world for your senses the minute you set foot inside. Decorated in soothing blues with thoroughly modern decor, hypnotic background music and traditional Vietnamese motifs, the restaurant immediately creates an intriguing and inviting ambiance.

As it should be, the food is what's most compelling. As servers bring out dishes for fellow diners, it's fun to see what others order. The biggest challenge is choosing what to have off the lengthy menu. We finally settled on these dishes:

kobe roll marinated beef, rice noodles, fresh lettuce, cilantro, carrots, cucumber, and roasted peanuts | served with nuoc cham vinaigrette

papaya salad poached shrimp, green papaya, carrots, cu cai trang, sliced mango, cilantro, mint, caramelized shallot | served with roasted peanuts and nuoc cham vinaigrette

bun thit nuong choice of sautéed beef, grilled pork, or grilled shrimp | with rice noodles, sliced cucumber, sliced green apples, cilantro, mint, carrots, and crispy shallots | served with shrimp cracker, roasted peanuts, and nuoc cham vinaigrette

XANH shrimp cakes minced shrimp and chicken, glass noodles, carrots, and garlic atop toasted bread | served with lightly spiced vinaigrette | servings of four or six pieces

XANH full moon wraps™ four baby rice crêpes stuffed with shrimp, bean sprouts, white and green onions | served with lettuce, sliced mango and fresh herbs

My favorite dish was the XANH full moon wraps. Everything comes piled on crispy green bib lettuce leaves, with a little dish of sweet sauce to drizzle over before rolling it all up in the lettuce and taking that first incredible bite. The melding of crisp, crunchy, sweet, and sour ingredients works beautifully together, like a symphony's crescendo sending chills up your spine. Eyes widen, pupils dilate, the heartbeat quickens, and salivary glands go into overdrive. It's one of those dishes I could easily develop a craving for, pulling me back for more addictive delight.

I also greatly enjoyed the kobe roll and bun thit nuong, which our server assembled quietly yet dramatically for us at the table. The papaya salad gave a wonderfully crisp and clean start to the meal. The shrimp cakes were my least favorite dish. While I enjoyed the interesting flavors (did I detect cinnamon?) and the stylish European fusion (the cakes came atop a circle of toast), it didn't quite work as well overall.

We saw so many other wonderful dishes that our fellow diners seemed to enjoy, all with beautiful presentation and a bit of drama (look out for the dry ice!). It's one of those places that draws me back to try out all the dishes that wouldn't fit in my stomach the first time. I think that's a mark of great menu design and food: describe and offer dishes so mouthwatering and enticing that diners return to try out more things and tell their friends about it. Next time I want to try:

lucky egg noodles (mi xao don) chicken, shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, baby bok choy, baby corn, and white onions upon a bed of golden crispy egg noodles

crab martini fresh crab claw meat, mixed bell peppers, avocado and other fresh herbs

ahi tuna tartare spicy ahi tuna, cucumber, avocado | served with wonton chips

tamarind prawns sauteed jumbo prawns on a lake of tamarind sauce

Ahh yes, I must go back soon to get my fix...the crave-worthy full moon wraps and other delectables await....

Friday, April 9, 2010

Edible Enjoyment in a Korean Strip Mall

I love exploring ethnic markets--deciphering packages, discovering new ingredients, and stepping into the unknown. One such Silicon Valley market is the Galleria Plaza Korean market in Santa Clara. In a little Korean strip mall at 3531 El Camino Real, the Galleria Plaza is full of items I know nothing about. I've started to learn a bit more about Korean cuisine ever since my brother Doug married Yoojung Kang, who moved to the U.S. from Seoul during college. (By the way, Yoojung used to be my daughter's preschool teacher and I introduced her and Doug to each other!)

After an 'extreme' Korean spa experience at the Lawrence Health Center next door (that's a whole other story), I went to the Galleria Plaza in my blissed-out state to look for some new items to try. I ended up purchasing:

- Sriracha chili sauce in the famous rooster bottle, made in California
- crunchy rice crackers, lightly seasoned with soy sauce and individually wrapped, making them nice lunch box snacks
- S&B Curry Sauce mix, made in Japan
- kimchi, one of numerous varieties offered, including huge jars that would last for years in our home (imagine the odeur) but probably would last a month or so in a big Korean family's refrigerator
- Super Lemon hard candies, surprisingly one of the most sour flavors we have ever tried (these make a great kid's activity or fun little gift)
- Hanmi pumpkin hard candies, just because I love pumpkin
- Orion Choco Pies, like moon pies (two chocolate dipped cookies with a marshmallow filling), because I once watched an infomercial on a Korean television channel all about this company and how singularly focused it is on producing the highest quality Choco Pie dessert snacks imaginable in the entire universe

In just one shopping trip I acquired a wide variety of interesting, tasty, and, for most Americans, unusual collection of edibles. Prices are so reasonable that it's little risk to try something completely unknown. If you don't like it, pass it on to someone who might. I enjoy conducting taste tests with our family of five to see what everyone thinks of new foods and to get their ratings. We all have very different preferences, and I have to say that there wasn't any one food (even the Choco Pies) that got an enthusiastic thumbs-up from all of us. My husband loves anything hot and spicy, so prefers the chili sauce (on almost anything) as well as the kimchi. The kids like the rice crackers, Choco Pies, and sour lemon candies best.

Our most eaten food in this list is the S&B Golden Curry sauce, one of those fairly rare dinner meals that we all enjoy. It's easy to make, and completely flexible in what ingredients you include. Just follow the directions on the back. The sauce cooks up in a saute pan on the stove top, while you can make rice in a rice cooker or however you prefer. We like to serve it over brown rice cooked with sauteed onion, carrots, and peas. It would be easy to add any kind of meat pieces or other vegetables like potatoes or broccoli. We usually get the mild version because of our kids' more sensitive taste buds, but the more adventurous can try the medium or hot versions. Japanese curry tastes different from Indian curry but has a familiar aroma and kick, both sweet and spicy, with a creamy texture that coats the ingredients in its velvety embrace. It's considered Japanese peasant comfort food, a meal that starts brightly in your nose and mouth, and settles warmly in your stomach.

I'll never forget when my husband and I were in Tokyo and we enjoyed a nice curry dinner from a unique diner. We ordered our food choices from a vending machine, handed our tickets to the fast order cook, and he made our curries to order. We ate in the casual diner-like restaurant, sharing tables with other curry fans, and watching the passers-by outside through the windows. Of course it's not as sophisticated or artistic as sushi, but Japanese curry hits the spot. If you'd rather eat it at a restaurant, Gombei restaurant at 1438 El Camino Real in Menlo Park serves Japanese curry dishes.

Choco Pies are another item worth mentioning in more detail. Considered the quintessential snack of Korea, Choco Pies could be considered the Asian equivalent of Oreo cookies.  The Orion Confectionery company has made these snacks for about thirty-five years.  They now make up an impressive two-thirds of the Chinese cookie market! Also big sellers in Russia and Vietnam, Choco Pies are apparently considered a sign of capitalism by the North Korean people. Similar to Oreo cookies because of their chocolate flavor, sandwich cookies, white filling, and manufactured appearance and flavor, Choco Pies still offer some fun, sweet pleasure with their squishy marshmallow middles, crumbly cookies, and chocolate coating. You don't have to be a capitalist to eat and enjoy one.

Next time you're in the area, wander around the Galleria Plaza and try something new. You just might find a new favorite.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Etoiles Michelin

Top tier restaurants around the world covet elusive Michelin stars. Michelin stars are the equivalent of Nobel prizes in the culinary world, and just as hard to attain. Awarded by anonymous, professionally-trained experts, Michelin stars instantly endorse a restaurant for outstanding quality in culinary achievement, not only for taste and appearance, but for innovative food, drink, and top-notch service. I've been to a handful of restaurants which have received this honor and enjoyed each one immensely. The three-star designation in particular is exceedingly rare with only 81 restaurants in the world achieving this status. The following Bay Area restaurants have received a Michelin star for 2010:

Three stars:
The French Laundry, Yountville

Two stars:
Coi, San Francisco; Cyrus, Healdsburg; Manresa, Los Gatos; The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena.

One star:
South Bay/Peninsula: Chez TJ, Mountain View; Plumed Horse, Saratoga; The Village Pub, Woodside.
San Francisco: Acquerello, Ame, Aziza, Boulevard, the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, Fifth Floor, Fleur de Lys, Gary Danko, La Folie, Luce, Masa's, Michael Mina, One Market, Quince, Range.
East Bay: Chez Panisse, Berkeley; Commis, Oakland.
North Bay: Auberge de Soleil, Napa; Bouchon, Yountville; Etoile, Yountville; Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant, Forestville; La Toque, Napa; Madrona Manor, Healdsburg; Murray Circle, Sausalito; Redd, Yountville; Sante, Sonoma; Solbar, Calistoga; Terra, St. Helena; Ubuntu, Napa.

Of these, I have enjoyed deliciously memorable meals at Chez TJ , The Village Pub, One Market, Bouchon, and Chez Panisse. I count myself lucky to have this many Michelin starred restaurants to choose from in the San Francisco Bay Area, and look forward to trying even more.

This year I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Michelin group has created a new tier of recognition for more ordinary restaurants called Michelin Bib Gourmand. These restaurants have been designated as high quality and good value for the money even if they don't achieve worldwide status. Good value for the money means that for less than $40, you can get two courses and dessert or wine, not including tax or tips. This category of more affordable, casual, and realistic options identifies a welcome new set of go-to great restaurants for Bay Area food lovers to choose from.

The ones I've eaten at include: Bay Wolf, Crouching Tiger, Junnoon, The Slanted Door, and Yank Sing.  I haven't been to elegant Bay Wolf in years, but used to love going there when I worked at the Clorox Company in Oakland.  Crouching Tiger isn't too far away from us in Redwood City, and features many spicy and mouth-watering Szechuan dishes. Junnoon takes Indian food to a new level with its Indian-California fusion cuisine and fabulous ambiance, featuring colorful decor and hypnotic music. The Slanted Door is a Bay Area institution, with to-die-for Asian dishes including spring rolls and BBQ steamed pork buns. Yank Sing features delicious dim sum and is always busy. A dim sum tip: Get a table near the kitchen so you have first pick of the hot dishes as they're wheeled out on carts.

Which Michelin restaurants have you eaten at? I would love to hear what you think of them, both good and bad, and what dishes you'd recommend. Bon appetit!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Popping Chocolate Gomashio


Even though it's been twelve years since I worked at Intuit software company, several former co-worker friends and I enjoy getting together for food and conversation. Recently Mari Baker, CEO of PlayFirst, invited six of us over for a delicious dinner featuring food and a cooking lesson from Chef Laura Stec, co-author of a cookbook called Cool Cuisine.

Laura is one of the Bay Area's forward thinkers when it comes to food and its link to the environment. She believes our food choices can have an even greater effect on global warming than our driving choices. As a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and former chef at local restaurants Flea Street Cafe and Left Bank, Laura has in-depth experience creating flavorful and innovative dishes using local, organic, environment-friendly ingredients.

She calls her food philosophy 'high vibe', meaning that we put energy into growing, producing, transporting, selling, and preparing food, and then get energy from eating food both physically and emotionally. It takes more effort to seek and use the ingredients and recipes that adhere to Cool Cuisine's high vibe principles. But by putting in the effort, Laura walks her talk and teaches others about her food philosophy. Taking this approach to the food we eat can result in more meaningful and satisfying meals.

I enjoyed each dish that Laura prepared for us. Laura's stories behind the foods helped me appreciate and understand each ingredient better. I ate more mindfully. It felt quite different from mindless eating that can happen when I'm preoccupied, in a hurry, or just plain stressed. Her approach is live to eat, instead of eat to live.

Our menu included these delightful dishes:

- Hometown Cheese Platter featuring bee pollinator crops
- Grass-Fed Beef Tagliata on Crostini with Arugula and Green Peppercorn
- Local Honey Sparkler
- Japanese Hot Pot with Slow-Cooked Carrot, Cauliflower, and Braised Tofu
- Baked Hato-Mugi (barley) and Brown Rice
- High Vibe ice cream with Popping Chocolate Gomashio

While each dish brought plenty of flavor, texture, and sustenance, my taste buds popped most both literally and figuratively when savoring our dessert, the Popping Chocolate Gomashio. Gomashio is a Japanese condiment (goma= seed, shio=salt). Laura brilliantly combined chocolate nibs, sesame seeds, brown sugar, agave nectar, sliced almonds, and (surprise!) pastry pop rocks (available at Rubber Chef). When Laura combined the ingredients and sprinkled them on top of Straus ice cream, she created a cold, crunchy, sweet, savory, popping experience both unique and delectable. I enjoyed every bit of the sundae, marveling at her and its genius. The sesame seeds added a wonderfully nutty flavor and texture, and the pop rocks made me laugh out loud. Try this dish if you want to make a dessert that's truly memorable, completely original, and indescribably yummy. Oh yeah, it's earth-friendly too, making it that much more enjoyable, especially when eaten with good, long-time friends.

Popping Chocolate Gomashio

Our food choices can have an equal and possibly greater effect on global warming than our driving can! Eating carbon dioxide pop rocks, like the ones in Popping Chocolate Gamashio, won't solve global warming, but they are a great conversation starter about the issues and a fun addition to any dinner party. This sweet gomashio can be sprinkled over your local organic ice cream, yogurt, pudding, or fruit. Makes 1/2 cup.

3 tablespoons brown sesame seed
1/4 cup chocolate nibs (look for fair trade and organic)
4 teaspoons organic brown sugar (see note)
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
2 teaspoons agave nectar
2 tablespoons pastry pop rocks (optional- sold at pastry stores and online)

Heat a stainless steel frying pan on high. When hot, pour in 1/2 of the sesame seeds in a single layer. Cover; the seeds should start popping immediately. Toast while shaking the pan as if you were popping popcorn, for 30-60 seconds. Watch and listen closely because the seeds burn quickly. The seeds should be lightly toasted, not dark brown or black. Pour popped seeds from the skillet into a medium-size bowl while they are still popping. Repeat with remaining seeds. Add the chocolate nibs, almonds, sugar and agave nectar; combine. Right before serving, mix in the pop rocks.

Note: Look for organic, fair-trade sugars and unique varieties, such as dark brown molasses sugar.

(Cool Cuisine- Taking the Bite out of Global Warming. Reprinted with permission from Laura Stec.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chez Panisse

I have one of the weirdest birthdays of the calendar year: New Year's Eve. It's in that holiday dead zone between Christmas and New Year's when people are traveling, sleeping, eating, and watching football. Still, I always look forward to this day not because I'm another year older or there are so many festivities and parties, but because it's one day of the year that I get to choose a nice restaurant for a gastronomic feast with my husband. It doesn't matter if it's expensive, trendy, prix fixe, has tiny portions, needs a month-in-advance reservation, or requires driving over an hour. It's my birthday, and we'll dine there if I want to.

For my birthday in 2009 to close out the decade, I made reservations at a renowned Bay Area restaurant we'd never been to before, Chez Panisse. All you foodies out there know about Alice Waters and her pioneering quest to combine environmental harmony and delicious flavor. Would the restaurant live up to the hype and the legend? We drove out to Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto to find out for ourselves.

Knowing we ran a risk entering Bear territory with my Stanford Alumni license plate holder (at least we weren't wearing red), we obeyed all traffic laws and paid the parking meter like good citizens. Only we soon discovered that this wasn't really the Berkeley way. We noticed several people sitting on the grassy median eating their pizza slices from the Cheeseboard restaurant right next to big signs stating 'Keep Off Median'.  Apparently civil disobedience is the name of the game in Berkeley territory, and we Cardinals had some lessons to learn.

We showed up on time for our lunch reservation, and eagerly walked up the steps to the restaurant entrance. We had reservations at the more casual, a la cart Cafe upstairs, which I knew would suit us better than the fancier and more expensive prix fixe dinners offered in the restaurant on the ground floor.  We had a nice carafe of still filtered tap water and some fresh bread with rich yummy butter to eat while we waited for our food.

I ordered and thoroughly enjoyed the following dishes:

- Salad of beets and cauliflower with a ginger and preserved lemon dressing. I'm a big beet lover although I never make them myself. The vibrant purple beet nuggets felt firm to the tongue with a fabulous sweet/spicy/sour taste when combined with the ginger and lemon. The cauliflower florets were like no other I'd ever had, small and tender, white and green, probably grown nearby and a beautiful example of fractal shapes found in edible nature.

- Homemade orecchiette pasta with mushrooms, sage, and pecorino cheese. I love any kind of homemade pasta. I love any kind of mushrooms. I love sage and cheese combined with mushrooms and pasta. While the flavors of this dish weren't as revelatory to me as the salad's, I savored every bite. The pasta was so tender yet had enough al dente to each bite. I love, love, love mushrooms, so earthy and savory, tender and bursting with juicy umami goodness. The sage and pecorino cheese perfectly highlighted and brightened the other two ingredients. I ate every morsel happily, with a smile on my lips.

- Apple and sour cherry tart a la mode. This was one of those to-die-for fruit desserts made all that much better by the perfect blend of tart apple, sour cherry, and buttery pastry flavors. Of course vanilla ice cream provided the perfect harmonious complement to the fruit tart, not only for its creamy melting texture but also for its rich, milky flavor and icy coldness. To me, this was dessert perfected.

- Blue Bottle coffee. One of the best coffees ever, and locally roasted to boot (see previous post called Yin-Yang Refreshment for more about Blue Bottle).

Brad ordered the cannellini bean soup, and a whole haddock with potatoes and coleslaw. He ate everything quickly and without speaking, a sure sign of his gastronomic enjoyment. His other telling signs included nodding up and down while chewing, tilting the soup bowl to get the last drop, and protesting when I moved the tart plate closer to me so that I could reach our shared dessert more easily. (Hey, it was my birthday, after all!)

So did Chez Panisse meet my high birthday expectations and culinary anticipation? Yes, it did. Every bite tasted divine. Each dish made its main ingredient the star, was simple and fresh, beautiful and natural, made with tender loving care. I'll remember it as a wonderfully satisfying and lovely meal, and a delightful place to try for the first time on my birthday. I wonder where we'll go next year?