Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Story of Sunset's Winning Coconut-Cranberry Chews

If you're looking for a new holiday cookie to make, consider these addictive delights. Flavored by butter, coconut, cranberry, and orange zest, this recipe makes a chewy, citrusy cookie that smells irresistible right out of the oven, with a delectable taste to match.

I first discovered this recipe at a Sunset celebration weekend held at company headquarters in my hometown of Menlo Park. Every attendee at the annual event received a little cookbook with recipes from their readers. This one was contributed by Nancy Jamison from nearby Woodside, the grand prize winner in a cookie recipe contest held ten years ago. 

These buttery beauties make a winning holiday dessert because of the unexpected combination of flavors, crimson cranberries, and pretty white color. It's the kind of cookie that always generates recipe requests. They make an elegant homemade gift packaged up in clear cellophane with a colorful ribbon. Even people who don't like coconut may swoon over these cookies, because it adds more in texture than flavor.

With the wonders of Google, I easily tracked down Nancy in nearby Woodside. She replied just as quickly, and from there I learned the story behind the cookies. Nancy created this recipe over about a month's time, continually refining and testing before submitting it to Sunset's contest. Sunset awarded Nancy the grand prize winner, but she was surprised that Sunset adjusted the original recipe when they printed it in their December 2001 issue. 

Nancy strongly feels her original recipe is better, supported by blind taste test results with friends. The differences? She originally included twice as much salt (1/2 t), the additions of baking soda (1 t) and orange oil (3/4 t), less orange zest (2 t), and additional fat in the form of Crisco shortening (1/2 cup).

The Sunset printed recipe batter does have a somewhat dry consistency at first, but as the recipe states, "Don't worry: The mixture looks too dry, but it will come together as a dough." I found that it does, especially if the butter is halfway melted in the microwave instead of just room temperature. The cookies don't taste dry in my opinion. But if you prefer an even richer cookie, try Nancy's original version and see what you think. Either way, you can't lose with this winner.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Red Velvet Cake Taste Test

There's something so intriguing about red velvet cake: the name, color, and hard-to-pin-down flavor. It's got secret ingredients (buttermilk and vinegar), the familiar hint of cocoa, a history, and that luscious and unusual color. Oh that color, visually striking and dramatic, it makes a special dessert for Christmas, New Year's, or birthdays.

My husband Brad is an engineer, which means he likes to make things and experiment. When he first tasted red velvet after I made Sprinkles cupcakes from their mix, he became enamored of the flavor and decided to find the best red velvet cake recipe. This was hitting the motherlode for me, so I've encouraged him at every step.

In our experiments we've tried:

Sprinkles cupcakes from the store and made from their cupcake mix
Duncan Hines moist deluxe mix
America's Test Kitchen Recipe
Cook's Country recipe
ad hoc cake mix from Williams-Sonoma (from award-winning Chef Thomas Keller's Napa Valley restaurant)

Some learnings:
- butter-based recipes taste than better than the ones with vegetable oil
- refrigerating and even freezing improves the cake, with a firmer, yes even velvety, bite and a nice cool temperature
- not surprisingly, the recipes made from scratch taste better, although the Sprinkles mix is great

Brad loves America's Test Kitchen cookbooks and their scientific approach. He insists that they're the only cookbooks we should use. Sometimes I think this biases his culinary experimentation, but I can't complain with the grand winner, an adapted version of a recipe from Cook's Country.

If you want the original recipe, you'll need to register for a 14-day free trial membership. However, below is an adapted recipe that Brad's fine-tuned through his experimentation, with changes made to the amounts of flour, baking powder, baking soda, buttermilk, cocoa, and butter. He also changed the cream cheese frosting recipe since the original makes more than you really need.

Try it out and enjoy. The picture above says a thousand words why it's so velvety good.

Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
2 tablespoons red food coloring
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups confectioners' sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, cut into four pieces, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch salt
Chopped pecans (optional)

1. For the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl.
2. Whisk buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla, and eggs in large measuring cup.
3. Mix cocoa with food coloring in small bowl.
4. With electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy, scraping down bowl as necessary. Add one-third of flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add half of buttermilk mixture and beat on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl and repeat with half of remaining flour mixture, remaining buttermilk mixture, and then the last of the flour mixture.
5. Scrape down bowl, add cocoa mixture, and beat on medium speed until completely incorporated. Using rubber spatula, give batter final stir. Scrape into prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool cakes in pans 10 minutes then turn out onto rack to cool completely, at least 30 minutes.
6. For the frosting: With electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated. Beat in vanilla and salt. Refrigerate until ready to use.
7. When cakes are cooled, spread about 1 cup frosting on one cake layer. Top with second cake layer and spread top and sides of cake with remaining frosting. If you love pecans, you can sprinkle some chopped pecans on top. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 3 days.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Steve Jobs: Of Food, Memories, and Thanks

My daughter Amanda's iPad artwork

I finished reading the new Steve Jobs book by Walter Isaacson in three days, immersed, amused, inspired, and unsettled by what I read. The book paints a fascinating portrait of a singular man who led life the way he wanted to, warts and all. 

It also struck me how much food had an influence on his life. Jobs was not only famously a vegan and macrobiotic eater, he also became more than strict, maybe even disordered, about what he'd ingest and how he thought about food. He felt that fasting gave him a special energy, probably first experienced when he went to India as a young college drop-out.

Some of the ways food played a role in his storied life:

- He worked at an apple orchard and once ate only apples for a week, which inspired him to choose the name Apple for his and Steve Wozniak's company. The name had a friendly feeling, much better than the other names they'd been contemplating like Matrix and Executek.

- He unknowingly met his biological father at a Mediterranean restaurant his father managed in San Jose.

- He celebrated Pixar's Academy Award for the animated short 'Tin Toy' at the wonderful vegetarian Greens restaurant in San Francisco. 

- His non-alcoholic bachelor party took place at another favorite, Cafe Jacqueline in North Beach. 

- He had Odwalla juices and Peet's coffee available for employees at NeXT.   

- He thought he could use a disciplined diet to beat his cancer, but his inability to eat protein and other nourishment his doctors recommended contributed to a vicious cycle that sapped his strength.

- His sister Mona Simpson even referred to his eating habits in her touching eulogy, describing a typical dinner in his backyard with only broccoli served (and lots of it).

The book brought back memories of Jobs. Since my husband Brad worked for him at NeXT and we used to live in his Palo Alto neighborhood, we saw him throughout the years. Most notably, I invited him to speak at Stanford business school as a guest of the Marketing Club, and it was there he met his wife Laurene on October 5, 1989, exactly twenty-two years before his death. That night, as described in the book, he blew off a business meeting and instead asked her out to dinner. They walked to downtown Palo Alto and had their first date at St. Michael's Alley restaurant. And so I played an accidental matchmaking role that day, and have enjoyed telling this story many times since. (BTW, that was a memorable month for another reason: the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake struck just twelve days later.)  

The book also described his erratic driving and rule-breaking parking habits. This brought back another memory of when he swerved and parked illegally in the red zone in front of Whole Foods in Palo Alto once when I was pushing my son in his stroller. I thought who is this jerk? Out of the car popped Jobs, who said hi to Brad. 

His wife started a vegan food truck business called Terravera, and I remember ordering lunch from it many times when it would park in front of Intuit where I worked. Jobs enjoyed many local eating spots including: Fraiche frozen yogurt, Evvia Greek restaurant, and Jin Sho Japanese restaurant. It seemed as if Japanese food was the one kind of cuisine he ate with pleasurable gusto, especially at his favorite sushi and soba noodle restaurants in Kyoto.       

From my mom's Apple II purchase to my daughter's new iPhone 4S, Apple products have benefited our lives for over thirty years. We still have the original 1984 Macintoshes and a NeXT cube in our garage. My daughter's iPad 2 sits on my desk next to me as I type this. My iPod gave me a whole new and better way to experience music. Jobs wasn't perfect, but he was perfectly fascinating and complex. I'm grateful for his contributions, awed by his inventiveness and determination, inspired to teach his lessons, and compelled to think different. Thanks, Steve.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Cold and Creamy, Pumpkiny Dreamy

If you haven't tried pumpkin frozen yogurt or ice cream, put it on your to-do list for this fall. What a luxurious blend: cold, creamy ice cream paired with the autumnal, spicy flavors of pumpkin pie, all combined in orange-y perfection.

Many local frozen yogurt shops now offer pumpkin varieties as a seasonal flavor including Fraiche, Pinkberry, and Mix. I love them all, and they're flavorful enough to enjoy without any toppings. But if you're in the mood, any kind of chocolate topping adds a sweet touch.

Jamba Juice also makes its refreshing Pumpkin Smash smoothie this time of year, which I especially enjoy after a workout. It's got yogurt, pumpkin spice, soy milk and ice, and I add their immunity boost vitamins for extra nourishment.

For a richer dessert, try pumpkin ice cream. Both locally based and family-run, Rick's Rather Rich and Treat make wonderful pumpkin ice creams. They can be enjoyed along with Thanksgiving pies, or scoop and spread them into a graham cracker pie crust for a twist on the traditional.

For mass market pumpkin ice cream, both Trader Joe's and Dreyer's (headquartered in Oakland) are sold widely.

If you'd like to create your own pumpkin ice cream at home, here's an easy way to do it. This is one of those halfway recipes with no ice cream maker required.

Easy Homemade Pumpkin Ice Cream 
(adapted from Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Cookbook recipe for from-scratch recipe)

1 quart of vanilla ice cream (less dense varieties will be easier to use, such as Dreyer's vanilla bean ice cream)
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Let vanilla ice cream soften by thawing for about 30-45 minutes.
2. Scoop ice cream into a blender. Add the pumpkin, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and blend until combined.
3. Transfer ice cream into your preferred freezer-safe container and freeze to desired consistency.

Makes a generous 1 quart of pumpkin ice cream. Enjoy!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Trader Joe's: Another Stanford Startup Success

Stanford University is widely known as the birthplace of many entrepreneurial minds and businesses, especially in the high-tech industry. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Intuit, and Google all sprung from Stanford alumni. But what many people do not realize is that the low-tech, high-touch Trader Joe's grocery store was also started by a Stanford alum, a business school graduate named Joe Coulombe

Coulombe stated that he created the store in 1958 "for people who were overeducated and underpaid, so they could have a certain richness on the table they otherwise could not--like brie, olive oil, French mustard, wild rice, and wine. The customers I had in mind were the Fulbright scholar who returns with no money; schoolteachers, above all; plus young lawyers, museum curators, and classical musicians." (Sunset magazine, July 2011) That goal translated to inexpensive, high quality, and unusual items for sale. He added a friendly touch by creating a Hawaiian-like atmosphere in the store with employees' Hawaiian shirts and Polynesian decor. By offering fewer items in a smaller space than the typical grocery store, TJ's also makes it easier and quicker to shop.

One of the elements customers love about TJ's is the sense of discovering new items while stocking up on old favorites. We love:

- dried mango (my go-to sweet and healthy snack)
- mochi ice cream (green tea, mango, strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate flavors)
- orange chicken (savory and sweet)
- fruit tarts (lemon, raspberry, blueberry pear- so easy and good)
- Joe-Joe's cookies (in different varieties, a sometimes splurge)
- pre-packaged nuts and trail mixes (great for quick snacks on-the-go)
- sweet & spicy pecans (great combo of flavors)
- ice cream bon bons (small, sweet, and creamy)
- chana masala and naan (easy and quick way to get an Indian food fix)
- chicken potstickers (good over ramen)
- chocolate croissants (they rise so high and smell so good coming out of the oven)
- vegetable samosas (easy and yummy way to get your vegetables)
- hummus (we like the 4-flavor package)
- peanut butter filled pretzels (great for kids who exercise a lot, including the salt)
- turkey jerkey (chewy and tasty)
- fresh pizza dough (for making marguerite pizza)

TJ's is so popular that it's spawned cookbooks with recipes based on items you can find at the store. On the website Cooking with Trader Joe's: Where Mere Mortals Cook Like Chefs, you can find many recipes to try. Pictured above is a sweet chocolatey dessert that my 11-year-old daughter Amanda helped me make, the Chocolate Truffle Pie with Joe-Joe's Crust. It's so simple with only four ingredients, plus it's vegan. While its taste is different than the usual chocolate pie due to the hidden coconut milk, and not for everyone, it's something we enjoyed trying. I love the idea of simplifying recipes by using tested items easily available at TJ's. And as someone who sometimes feels overeducated and underpaid, I appreciate the tasty and fun items I can find there for a great price.  We love TJ's, and its Stanford connection just makes it that much sweeter.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Mrs. Fields' Halloween Pumpkin Spice Cookies

Long before Sprinkles cupcakes, lavender flavored macarons, and organic frozen yogurt, we've been eating Mrs. Fields' cookies. Super-sized, thick, soft, and chewy, packed with large chocolate chips, walnuts, macadamia nuts and more, these cookies make it easy to fall in love at first bite.

So what does the queen of cookies have to do with Silicon Valley? Surprisingly, the first Mrs. Fields' Chocolate Chippery cookie store opened in downtown Palo Alto in 1977 about a mile from the Stanford campus. With this humble start at the tender age of twenty, Debbi Fields pioneered an entire business built around freshly made cookies, and led the way for other gourmet dessert companies to follow.

Once autumn arrives I get in the mood to bake pumpkin treats. Mrs. Fields' pumpkin cookies offer a fresh way to achieve pumpkin nirvana. The recipe is simple and flexible enough that you can add whatever you like to the batter. We like to use Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips, pecans, and crystallized ginger. They're also delicious with walnuts, butterscotch chips, and dried cranberries. The texture is soft and cake-like, not as dense (or intense) as her chocolate chip cookies.

Whip up a batch when you're in the mood for a pumpkin treat. And while you're enjoying them, remember Mrs. Fields' motto that fueled her entrepreneurial determination: Good Enough Never Is.

Halloween Pumpkin Cookies
(adapted from a Mrs. Fields recipe)

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 can pumpkin (15 oz.)
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips
pecan halves
chopped crystallized ginger

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars together with an electric mixer. (This is easiest with a KitchenAid stand mixer.)
3. Add eggs and vanilla, beating until smooth.
4. Add pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, baking powder, and baking soda, mixing at medium speed for about one minute. Slowly add in flour until a thick batter forms.
5. Place rounded spoonfuls of dough onto a prepared cookie sheet (sprayed with Pam). Smooth the top with a spoon or spatula, then place chocolate chips on top to form a face. Be sure to push the chocolate chips into the dough as they will pop out a little during baking. Or add in other preferred ingredients like pecans, chopped crystallized ginger, walnuts, or dried cranberries to taste.
6. Bake for 12 minutes, or until bottom edges are golden brown. (We needed longer since we baked two cookie sheets at a time. Rotate sheets between top and bottom racks halfway through, or just bake one cookie sheet at a time.) Cool and serve.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Edgewood Eats: A Habit Worth Having

Chances are you've heard of the gourmet food truck craze. If you live or work close to Palo Alto, take a chance at the Edgewood Eats food truck fiesta. You won't regret it.

It took me a while to make it there, but once I started I haven't stopped. It's easy to become obsessed knowing those food trucks are lined up, their sweet and savory scents wafting from kitchens on wheels to hungry hordes waiting with anticipation.

Not only is the food delicious and different, it's also just plain fun. Each person in your group can pick what to eat from a variety of trucks. There's a lot to choose from, so the dilemma is what to have that night, with hopes of trying other trucks in the future.

Now running every Monday from 5-8:30 PM, the schedule shifts to the first Tuesday of every month from October to February and then turns weekly again in March when the weather warms up. It's located at Edgewood Plaza, 1161 Embarcadero Rd. between St. Francis Dr., Channing Avenue, and West Bayshore Rd. If you're coming down Embarcadero Rd. toward 101, turn left on Bayshore Rd. right after the Shell gas station. Bring cash.

Some of our favorite Edgewood eats:

Butterscotch-on-the-Go: Where else would a retired police chief and his wife refurbish a Red Cross disaster relief truck and turn it into a gourmet food truck business? Their specialty is luscious butterscotch pudding topped with toffee almond brittle, the kind of dessert that makes you go WOW when you take the first bite. Full of rich, creamy, buttery flavor with a crunchy, chocolatey topping and whipped cream to gild the lily. It's a crazy-good mixture of textures and flavors. Their triple vanilla pound cake with sweet vanilla cream and strawberry chunk puree is another swoon-worthy summer dessert, a magical combination. Also amazingly good: rich butterscotch sugar cookies, big and crinkly with a wonderful flavor. All their desserts are really, really, really good.

BBQ Kalbi Korean fusion: Kimchi quesadilla? Bibimbhap burrito? Each dish we tried was delicious, different, and immediately loved, familiar ingredients put together in a new way. Isn't that the definition of innovation? See Korean ingredients with new eyes and newfound appreciation. We tried the kalbi beef burrito, teriyaki chicken burrito, and kalbi cheese steak sandwich with no regrets.

An the Go: Garlic noodles- soft, fragrant, simple and oh-so good, especially nice topped with a skewer. We tried and enjoy beef, lemongrass chicken, and shrimp skewers. The smell will linger in your car for a few days.

Chairman Bao:  Asian steamed and baked buns made fresh and delicious. I loved the pork belly with daikon radish on both steamed and baked buns. The white steamed bun is small, like a little taco, full of flavor and very satisfying. The baked bun is sweet and soft, similar to King's Hawaiian bread. This truck consistently boasts the longest lines, about thirty people at one count, and for good reason. It's worth it.

Treatbot, the Karaoke Ice Cream Truck: Yes, you read that right--a gourmet ice cream truck with a karaoke machine. I thoroughly enjoyed my raspberry sorbet on a sugar cone, and my daughter loved the old school vanilla.

Shack Mobile: Lobster Shack on wheels! I've sometimes lusted for their award-winning lobster roll with chips and coleslaw. I've already publicly declared my undying devotion to this perfect sandwich.

Mayo & Mustard Sandwich Truck: Great sandwiches made to order. Pick your meat, bread, cheese, condiments, toppings and size (4", 6" or 8"). Really good, really reliable, especially if you aren't feeling adventurous enough to try the more creative combinations on other food trucks.

Armadillo Willy's:  We've always enjoyed the BBQ fare at this restaurant, and their truck offerings live up to their spicy standards. What a great deal to get BBQ brisket or pulled pork sliders for only $3 each. Their yummy BBQ sauce in regular and jalapeno versions made a delicious finishing touch, and the Texas corn salad with red onion, jalapeno, ciltrano and pepper add a nice kick for a side dish.

Sancho's Taqueria: Basic bean & cheese burritos, and fabulous fish tacos. Their little restaurant is on Lytton Avenue in Palo Alto.

If you haven't been to Edgewood Eats, try it soon. You'll see why it's habit-forming.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chez Pim Artisan Jams: Taking Fruit to the Next Level

Pim Techamuanvivit started food blogging around ten years ago, which makes her one of the first. Besides writing about food, Pim holds cooking classes and sells artisan jams made from sustainable Northern Californian ingredients. After she recently tweeted @chezpim about her artisan jams and marmalade for sale on Etsy, I decided to try some for myself.

I ordered three flavors from her 2011 summer collection, with her descriptions and my reactions below:

"Berry Figgy Jam: This jam is indeed berry, berry figgy. It's a blend of olallieberries, raspberries, and my own Desert King figs. Olallieberries, pronounced oh-la-lie berries (or oh-la-la berries if you're saying it quickly), are very special Northern California treats. It's a hybrid of blackberries, raspberries, and loganberries. The flavor is quite similar to blackberries, but brighter and a lot more delicious!"

I found this jam an extremely yummy concoction, pleasing to the eye and palate. Purply-red goodness, with chunks of flavorful berries and little seeds. I couldn't taste the fig at first but then its flavor emerged as the aftertaste (and its little seeds to nibble on). What an interesting combination, with berry as the top note and the fig revealing itself later as the lingering base note. Hmm, fruit jams designed like perfume? Makes sense (pun intended).

"Clementine-Ginger Marmalade: Made from delicious Corsican clementine from Gene Lester's farm in Watsonville, this tangy sweet marmalade got a little lift from julienne of young ginger."

This one took me longer to figure out, like a puzzle to unravel. Its consistency was quite thick, almost viscous like honey but not as sticky. The flavor came through more subtly and less spicily than I'd imagined. The chewy clementine rind had a sharp, bitter citrusy taste, with hints of ginger. I would have preferred more of a ginger kick, perhaps with small bits of candied ginger. Instead of tangy-sweet, I would have liked it tangy-spicy. It does give me the idea of adding some candied clementine peel to a nice gingerbread or ginger cake recipe...that could be divine. Also it started to grow on me over time, especially when I slathered it on a bite of butterscotch sugar cookie from Butterscotch-on-the Go. Yum.

"Strawberry Rose: This is a whole berry conserve or compote. Big, juicy, whole strawberries preserved in their own syrup, infused with rose geraniums. That is all."

I actually didn't get what I ordered but in no way, shape or form can I complain, because the strawberry jam I got instead was the best I've ever had. I was surprised by how sweetly delicious it was. Spooned into Greek yogurt, this fruity puree tasted like sweet summer in a spoon, a velvety version of strawberries and cream, an improvement on the original fruit with its full flavor shining through with the additions of sugar, lemon juice, and TLC. If strawberries could only taste this way all the time I'd be a very happy camper but for now I will carefully guard my precious jar while it lasts.

Bottom line: Chez Pim artisan jams are pricey, exquisite, and worth it for a splurge. Total cost was $54 for three jars including shipping. My favorite way to eat them is swirled into Greek yogurt or slathered on buttered toast. The textures are entirely different than the usual jelled consistency of store-bought jams. These are fresher, more natural, tasting of intense, pure fruit essence and goodness. Eating these concoctions elevates an ordinary breakfast. The wonderful flavors demand the taste buds to wake up and pay attention. Delicious. That is all.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

BlogHer '11 Top 10 Alliteration List

10. Virgin Virgin. I'd never flown Virgin America before. Loved the design, service, and comfort. Its newish terminal at SFO has all the perks: Tyler Florence food (swooned over breakfast pizza with eggs, cheese, and bacon), Toto toilets, and free Google Chrome net books to use on the flight.

9. Silly Sculptures. Saw a 5' Statue of Liberty made from Twizzlers, a 6' high heel shoe made from Pepsi cans, and a 3' wide Ivory soap bar carved with the BlogHer logo.

8. Female Fun. Since the conference was designed by and for women, we had plenty of chocolate, pampering, parties, and celebs like Brandi Chastain. BlogHer creates an entirely different mood from the typical business conference. 

7. Sunny San Diego. Great location choice with our comfy Marriott room overlooking the marina, bay, and ocean, adjacent to the convention center meetings and an easy walk to downtown and Seaport Village.

6. Fab Food. Sponsors pulled through with Dove bars, Skinny Cow treats, King's Hawaiian bread sandwiches, Stacey's pita chips with Sabra hummus, and Shari's Berries cake pops.  I'd never had cake pops before but now intend to make them. 

5. Swell Swag. Best freebies ever: Tempurpedic pillow. Snapfish photo album. philosophy facial products. Nuance by Salma Hayek makeup. Knorr apron and flash drive recipes. Google+ shirt.

4. Excellent Energy. Everyone exuded creative passion and drive. What a great place to meet bloggers, network, brainstorm, and soak in all the innovative vibes.

3. Lots of Learning. Great panels on writing, ideation, product reviews, video blogging, proposals, food photography, and social media marketing. I love it when I attend talks and take lots of notes; it means I want to remember and use the info later.

2. Cooking Class. Knorr sponsored an asparagus parmesan risotto cooking class led by Master Chef Marco Pierre White. I'm glad I didn't know of his bad boy reputation beforehand since I would have been nervous. Met some lovely food bloggers like Kim and Amanda, and made a wonderfully creamy, flavorful risotto. Chef Marco led us expertly through the process, generously signed cookbooks and gave us lots of useful tips. What a treat to take a class from a 3-star Michelin chef!

1. Darling Daughter. I took my teenage daughter Valerie with me and immensely enjoyed experiencing everything with her. She was probably the youngest of 4000 or so attendees. BlogHer was our first mother-daughter getaway, but won't be our last.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Carmel Favorites

A favorite Bay Area getaway with beautiful beaches, rolling valleys, and plenty of great food, Carmel has it all. Known for its dog-friendly downtown, former movie star mayor Clint Eastwood, and its California Mission, Carmel has earned its reputation for fine dining as well.

My husband and I recently enjoyed a weekend getaway in Carmel and ate some great food. With so many restaurants to choose from, it's a good idea to check out websites with lists of optionsask friends for ideas, and check out Yelp reviews. On this occasion we tried some new places and returned to some old favorites.

Casanova Italian restaurant has never disappointed. Located near downtown in a converted cottage house, Casanova has a cozy feel, tasty food and attentive service. Only big enough to seat 30, it has a Zagat rating of 23/30 for food, 24 for decor, and 22 for service. We enjoyed:

- bread sticks with sun dried tomato dip (yum)
- antipasti: goat cheese with roasted eggplant, squash, and red pepper spread
- spinach gnocchi w/ parmesan cream sauce (a must)
- eggplant vegetable stack with mushrooms and tomatoes (Brad had pasta carbonara and slurped it right down)
- apple dessert w/ cinnamon ice cream

We found another dinner just as enjoyable at the Flying Fish Grill restaurant in the Carmel Plaza shopping center. Recommended by my sister-in-law, Flying Fish offers Japanese comfort food in a cozy setting. It feels even smaller than its seating capacity of 45 with private table nooks. Its Zagat ratings are 24/30 for food, 19 for decor, and 23 for service. My husband and I shared a shabu-shabu dinner, a very nourishing comfort meal cooked at a built-in stove at our table. The entire meal satisfied:

- fried won ton chips w/ ginger salsa (addictive)
- beef sabu sabu clay pot with mushrooms, bok choy, rice noodles, and tofu (oh yeah)
- 2 very different and flavorful sauces: ginger miso and aioli w/ mayo, ginger, and sesame oil
- creme brulee with strawberries, raspberries, and orange slices

When in town we always visit the Cottage of Sweets candy shop on Ocen Avenue, a small sweet shop jam-packed with all kinds of confections. Brad got some of his favorites--caramel pecan turtles and Australian kookaburra black licorice--while I went with my tried and true gourmet malted milk balls with a thick dark chocolate shell. We also picked up some realistic-looking chocolate rocks for the kids. Cottage of Sweets has been serving up its candies for fifty years, and offers a nice collection of handmade, classic, and foreign candies. There's something for everyone.

Lastly, we happily discovered a new breakfast favorite called the Little Swiss Cafe, a great spot to wake up with eggs benedict, buttermilk pancakes, omelets, and blintzes. Come early to avoid the wait, wake up with their good coffee and satisfying food, and bring enough cash to cover the bill. I really enjoyed the thin buttermilk pancakes with pure maple syrup. Since they were so thin, then didn't make me feel too full afterward. Brad gobbled up his Denver omelet with hash browns crisped up just right. The restaurant is decorated like a little Swiss cottage with a wonderful oil painting of the nearby coastal views on one wall. Service is friendly and efficient, and it's a solid way to start the day.

Carmel offers so many other splurge-worthy restaurants we've tried over the years: Fresh Cream (moved from Monterey), Marinus at the Bernardus Lodge, and the Rio Grill just to name a few that we will return to someday. Along with the natural beauty and proximity to the Bay Area, Carmel's delicious food options make the town an alluring getaway any time of year.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Can, Can, Can You Do the CAN CAN?

A few months ago while channel flipping, I ran across a story on the local Eye on the Bay show about a San Francisco company that makes a different kind of liquid cleanse. Called the CAN CAN Cleanse, this program includes healthy fruit, vegetable, and nut drinks to detoxify your system over one to three days. We all overindulge at times; my vices happen to be coffee, sugar, and carbs. I'd never done a cleanse before and didn't know if I could last even one day, let alone three, but CAN CAN piqued my interest so I thought I'd give it a try.

The program includes eight liquid drinks or soups for each day made from organic fruits and vegetables sourced from local farmers. The menu changes with the seasons so I tried the summer menu:

8:00am  Lemon Lime Juice (lemon, lime, cinnamon, cayenne, filtered water)
9:00am  Green Juice (celery, cucumber, green cabbage, broccoli, fennel, romaine, spinach, kale, parsley, mint, ginger, lemon, apple)
10:30am Hibiscus Tea (dried hibiscus flowers, filtered water)
12:30pm Green Pea Basil Soup (green peas, basil, mint, celery, onion, garlic, thyme, sea salt, olive oil, filtered water)
2:30pm   Watermelon Juice (watermelon, apple, lime, filtered water)
5:00pm  Green Juice (same as above)
7:00pm  Vanilla Almond Milk (raw almonds, vanilla bean, dates, filtered water)
8:00pm  Lemon Balm Lavender Tea (dried lemon balm leaves, dried lavender flowers, filtered water)

Besides the price ($175 for three days, $65 for one day), my main concerns were taste, how I'd feel (detox symptoms can include headaches, irritability and skin breakouts), and the waiver that reveals the juices are not pasteurized. The main benefits I sought: fewer caffeine/ sugar/ carb cravings, more energy, and hopefully lose a little bloat for swimsuit season. 

So how did it go?

Taste varied by drink and over time. It was shocking to have the first lemon lime juice concoction with cayenne pepper and cinnamon. It made a strange start to the program, so different from my usual first beverage of the day, Peet's French Roast with skim. The next drink, the green juice, was even more shocking. Made from a long list of vegetables, it had an earthy smell and grassy taste to start, but then unexpectedly I started to enjoy it. It seemed like each sip tasted a bit different with the various ingredients popping on my taste buds. Everyone else in the family couldn't stand the smell. The hibiscus and lemon balm lavender teas were light tasting herbal teas, nothing extraordinary, although I marveled at the bright red color of the former and lavender scent of the latter. At lunch time the flavor kicked up a few notches with the green pea basil soup. I loved the delicious, warmly nourishing soup with a bright green color to match its flavors. Then at mid-afternoon my favorite beverage came, the watermelon juice. Yummy and summery, I found it a wonderfully refreshing drink that quenched my thirst and then some. Later it seemed a bit strange to have vanilla almond milk for dinner, but I found it surprisingly soothing. It had a mild flavor, and felt creamy and pure going down.

I found enough variety over the course of a day, but since I did the 3-day cleanse, I repeated the same schedule for the next two days. It got a little repetitive and less exciting, yet also somehow I started to enjoy and appreciate the flavors more over time. The unusual ones started to grow on me, while I still looked forward to my favorites (watermelon juice, pea soup, and almond milk). I paid more attention to what I consumed. 

Was I satisfied? The program is about 1000 calories a day and surprisingly I wasn't very hungry. I expected to feel sharp hunger pangs and weakness. Instead I felt pretty good, yet sometimes tired because I cut down on caffeine. The second day I noticed more energy and even made it through my boot camp class okay. The third day I managed a 5 mile hike in the hills with no problem. I still drank one cup of Peet's a day, and also had an approved apple and handful of almonds. It sure made me appreciate the simple acts of chewing and biting more.

Would I do it again? Yes, I would. The CAN CAN website suggests customers do a quarterly cleanse. I'm not sure what the right frequency is, but I can see the rhythmic logic to a seasonal liquid cleanse. Since the menu changes with the season, I'm also curious to see what the other varieties of drinks would taste like. It was a good exercise for my taste buds, for trying a liquid cleanse, and for being mindful about how I felt. It took some willpower and discipline, yet I found it did reduce my cravings for the sugary things and coffee that I usually love. I also lost a few pounds of bloat, a welcome result that gave me a mental lift and motivation to eat healthier moving forward. I wasn't expecting an attitude change from only three days, but I think the experience and benefits will stay with me.

Check out CAN CAN if you're curious, and see what others say on Yelp.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lobster Roll and Clam Chowder Round-Up

When it comes to seafood, there's something so irresistible about lobster rolls and clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Maybe it's the mix of fresh, chewy bread with sweet shellfish deliciousness, or the balanced mix of protein and carbs, salty, yeasty and tasting of the sea. Maybe it's the way the flavors remind me of lazy summer days at the beach. Or maybe it's just because both of these taste damn good.

Clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl makes a great lunch or dinner, especially when made by Boudin. The Boudin family accidentally invented sourdough bread in 1849 during the Gold Rush due to the serendipitous combination of San Francisco wild yeast with their traditional French bread recipe. With several restaurant locations including Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf, Boudin's soup in a bread bowl makes a true San Francisco treat.

Other yummy renditions of this seaside delicacy can be found at the Santa Cruz pier restaurants, at Sam's Chowder House in Half Moon Bay overlooking a nice little beach, and at Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach, where the line inevitably winds down the block. When we curiously joined the line over the 4th of July weekend, the woman in front of us declared her love of the clam chowder in a bread bowl. She had just driven four hours to satisfy her craving, so it had to be good! It's extra yummy with crab and shrimp piled on top of the soup, the sourdough bread filling lightly toasted and buttered. Eating at a picnic table on the pier with a wonderful ocean view made it taste even better.

Another seafood favorite of mine is the lobster roll. Even though it originated on the East Coast, the lobster roll has found its fans on the West Coast too. Nearby in both Portola Valley and Redwood City, the Old Port Lobster Shack sells a delectable version with a buttery roll and lobster flown in fresh and live from Maine and Massachusetts several times a week. The owner, who moved to California from Boston when he married, brought his extensive experience in the lobster business to his Bay Area restaurants. While known mostly for its lobster roll, the Lobster Shack offers many other dishes and, for those who are ready to yield to their desires, sweet blueberry pie a la mode. 

Perhaps most impressively, the Old Port Lobster Shack's lobster roll was named 'Best of Show' at last month's Lobster Roll Rumble in Manhattan. While some East Coasters grumbled about the rumble judges choosing a West Coast sandwich, we in Northern California can rest assured we've got the best right here.

Yankee Pier restaurant at the Santana Row shopping center also offers a delicious lobster roll. With its elegant, upscale shopping location near the Winchester Mystery House and Valley Fair mall, Yankee Pier creates a delightful stop to enjoy the atmosphere and re-energize for shopping. 

Both of these seafood dishes have the mark of a winner: As soon as I'm done eating, I'm already thinking about the next time I'll get to indulge.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Simply Organic, Simply Delicious

Jesse Cool is a Bay Area pioneer in healthy, organic, local, sustainable food. For thirty-four years she's created dishes using these principles, creating delicious food and feeding thousands.  Now she has three restaurants, a catering business, and seven cookbooks.  More impressive, she has a loyal following of customers who enjoy her delicacies for both a healthy body and community.

It's not just a feel-good experience to know that the food she's created adheres to these healthy principles. The bottom line is that her dishes taste fantastic. Every time I eat at her restaurants, I enjoy the food immensely. The acclaimed Flea St. Cafe celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, an impressive feat given that the vast majority of restaurants don't survive more than a few years.  

Cool Cafe at the Cantor Art Center on the Stanford campus makes a perfect stop after viewing the impressive and varied collection of art in the museum open Wednesdays through Sundays.  The Cantor museum is a local treasure with free admission, a Rodin sculpture garden outside, numerous Asian art treasures, and rotating exhibits.  The museum also houses the famous Golden Spike, the ceremonial rail spike driven by Leland Stanford to join the rails of the first Transcontinental Railroad across the United States in 1869.

Jesse's newest restaurant is the Cool Cafe in the Menlo Business Park. Recently I visited the restaurant with my friend Judee to try it out. I ordered the Grilled Veggies of the Season sandwich, which had Spring Hill herb cheese spread, seasonal pesto, spinach, and wheat bread, served with organic root chips. The menu also features sandwiches with Niman Ranch ham, Marin Sun Farms grass fed beef, and pasture-raised curry chicken salad. I also love the Balsamic Beet salad, which has Point Reyes bleu cheese, spiced walnuts, and arugula.

Jesse's vision extends beyond the expected. She's collaborated with the Stanford Hospital to create an organic, healthy, delicious menu for inpatients. Who says hospital food has to taste terrible? Called Stanford Hospital and Clinics Farm Fresh, the new menu items aim to help patients heal as quickly as possible, and show them that they are cared for. Soup is one of the main ingredients of the new menu, with seven seasonal choices and chicken noodle soup with vegetables. She offers her soup recipes on the Farm Fresh website, so you can try them at home. We made the potato leek soup and all enjoyed it.

Jesse Cool is a Bay Area food original, an innovator who's made a positive contribution to our community. Savoring her meals not only benefits our stomachs and taste buds, it helps connect us to our local farmers and the bounty they produce.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Cheery Cherry Frozen Yogurt

My teenage daughter Valerie is a great cook, and we count ourselves lucky when she gets in the mood to whip up something delicious in the kitchen. For a couple of years now she has enjoyed making a variety of frozen yogurt flavors using our Cuisinart ice cream maker. She's tried vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, blueberry, orange, and mixed berry flavors. Now that it's cherry season, it's time to make some cherry frozen yogurt with sweet, tart cherries from C.J. Olson's.  

C.J. Olson's has been growing cherries in Sunnyvale, California for 110 years. Now in its fourth generation of family growers, C.J. Olson's sells at a farm stand as well as through a website and at local airports. Besides a variety of fresh cherries, C.J. Olson's sells dried cherries, cherry juice, jams, chocolate covered cherries, other dried fruits, and more. 

For this batch, we used Straus low-fat plain yogurt with C.J. Olson's fresh Rainier cherries grown in Sunnyvale. I love the sweet, delicate flavor of these red-yellow cherries with their crunchy, juicy texture, a mix between Bing and Van varieties.  We topped the frozen yogurt with some of C.J. Olson's dark chocolate covered dried Bing cherries to create a new confection reminiscent of Ben and Jerry's Cherries Garcia frozen yogurt. This fresh, frozen concoction turned out delightfully creamy and flavorful, a just-right dessert that takes advantage of locally grown fruit in season. 

Cheery Cherry Frozen Yogurt

3 cups coarsely chopped, pitted fresh cherries or pitted frozen cherries (we used C.J. Olson's fresh Rainier cherries)
1 cup granulated sugar
4 cups low-fat plain or vanilla yogurt (we like Straus brand)

1.  Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.
2.  Freeze in an ice cream maker following manufacturer's instructions.
3.  Serve or transfer to a freezer container and freeze.

Makes about 6 cups. Top with chocolate covered dried cherries or chocolate chips.

One great feature of the cherry is its bi-annual seasonality: cherries ripen both in late November through February, and again in May through August. At other times of the year, you can still enjoy them dried or chocolate covered. For more cherry recipes including Bing Cherry Cake and Classic Cherry Pie, check out C.J. Olson's website. Cheerio!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Go Giants Garlic Fries!

True confessions: I'd never been to a San Francisco Giants baseball game in thirty years of living in the Bay Area. Obviously I'm not a big baseball fanatic, but now that the Giants are on top it is a great time to see them play.

Our whole family went to AT&T Park on Easter Sunday to see the Giants vs. Atlanta Braves. Game time was 1:05 pm (why the five minutes past the hour?). Of course I did the research ahead of time on food and drink at the park. On Yelp the biggest food recommendations appear to be the garlic fries, corn beef sandwich, crab sandwich and Ghirardelli hot fudge sundae.

I went to the Giants shop at the Stanford Shopping Center to get snazzy black baseball caps for the game. We picked up Jacob from his dorm and headed on up to San Francisco. What a fun family outing! We had the cheap seats in the outfield, but even from there had a great view, lots of enthusiastic fans nearby to entertain us, and oh-so-many ballpark food options to choose from.

We got hot dogs for the girls, chicken tenders for Jacob, a bratwurst dog with sauerkraut for me, and a tri-tip chipotle sandwich for Brad. The yummy garlic fries had tons of minced garlic on top. They make a perfect ballpark food: greasy, warm, and spicy enough to clear your nasal passages. I noticed a little whoopie pie stand and tried to get some later, but the stand had closed. We didn't have room for the Ghirardelli hot fudge sundaes either, but Amanda managed to catch some Ghirardelli chocolates when the Easter bunny tossed candy out to the crowd between innings. The girls enjoyed sno-cones in a cup, Jacob ate a ballpark classic Carnation chocolate ice cream, while Brad genuinely enjoyed a few beers.

If you're not interested in ballpark food, go to one of the many nearby eateries. My friend Kathy recommends the Palomino restaurant. The Ferry Building isn't too far away either with its many food choices including Out the Door. My friend KC has a free parking tip: Park at the Embarcadero shopping center near the Hyatt Regency, and get your ticket validated on weekends at nearby eateries including Peet's Coffee. That's a lot cheaper than the $25 we spent at a lot just a few minutes' walk from the park.

I'm glad we finally made it to a Giants game, even though they lost, and plan to head back for more baseball and more food. I would definitely like to try the crab sandwich next time, and either the hot fudge sundae or whoopie pies. If the Giants could win more games and stop the torture, it would be even more fun!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Cows at the Stanford Dish

One of my favorite local hikes is the Stanford Dish, a scenic and invigorating loop in the Stanford hills between the campus and 280 freeway. Its nickname comes from the two large radiotelescope satellite dishes that sit near the apex. The main loop is about 3 miles around, while an extra length from the Alpine Road entrance makes a longer path of about 5 miles. For locals, it's an easy and sure-fire way to get in fresh air, exercise, and great views. On a clear day I can see south to San Jose, north to downtown San Francisco, and east over the Dumbarton Bridge to Fremont.

For about half of the year from November to May, a couple hundred cows make their home at the Dish.  They're young cattle recently weaned from their mothers and purchased from breeders. For seven bucolic months they graze on the Dish's green grass before they eventually move on to a feedlot until they're large enough for slaughter (sniff). Some are not shy at all, get very close to hikers, and seem just as curious about us as we are with them. It's wonderful to see these bovine beings grazing, meandering, and lazing in the sun.

By now many have learned that grass-feed cows produce healthier meat than corn-fed cows. Corn-fed beef has more saturated fat and less of the good omega-3 fatty acids. In the book Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes how cows have evolved over millions of years to eat grass, while grasses likewise have evolved to be eaten by cows. Cows help grasses by keeping them trimmed, eating other plants that might compete, spreading grass seed, and fertilizing. It's a natural, healthy, co-dependent cycle.

There's some debate about how good grass-fed beef tastes compared to corn-fed. Many eat grass-fed beef because of the better quality of life for the cows. Some believe beef tastes better when combining grass fed and grains, which may be a good balance between the two. A growing awareness of the morality of eating meat brings both more knowledge and confusion, but becoming more informed of the larger context of our food choices makes us better consumers. The intertwined life cycles of grasses, cows, and humans can be sustainably balanced--if we try.

For me, the main benefit of seeing cows at the Dish is that they make me smile. While the cows chew their cud, stare back, and moo, I appreciate them most for being part of the pastoral landscape and enhancing my Dish experience. If you haven't hiked the Dish loop in a while or ever, go soon and say hi to the cows while you're there.