The Simple-Minded Chef builds Roots

IMG_6211Honestly, sometimes I feel like such a klutz in the kitchen. I’m slow, I’m uncoordinated. And yet…..I can get lost in a dreamy state just chop-chop-chopping away. It’s nice. I’m creating something. Hopefully something that is not just edible, but actually delicious. That’s my goal anyhow.

So tonight I wait as my first attempt at some-sort-of gratin cooks in the oven. I had an unusual collection of root vegetables to cook up from the CSA box: kohlrabi, turnips, rutabagas. I loosely combined a couple of gratin recipes from my trusty Alice Waters book, Vegetables.

I peeled the kohlrabi and rutabagas (though I hate to peel, with these two, it’s a must). Then I threw everything into my food processor using the quarter-inch slicing blade. I buttered a 9 x 12 baking dish and started constructing my layers: kohlrabi slices on the bottom, topped with salt, pepper and thyme, sprinkled with green garlic (which resembles green onions). Same treatment to the next layer (turnips). Rutabagas ended up on top.

IMG_6214Then I was supposed to add milk, but when I opened the refrigerator there was none. Crap! Now what? The recipe said “moisten up to the top layer with cream, cream and chicken stock, or milk.” I had to improvise with vegetable stock and almond milk (about a cup of liquid total).

I sprinkled Parmesan over the top layer and put the dish in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes. I tell you, it sure does smell good. The timer just beeped and I’m staring at a nicely-browned gratin.

How does it taste? The turnips and kohlrabi are divine – perfectly seasoned and tender. The rutabagas? A little dry and woody in texture. Next time I will know to put them on the bottom and perhaps use the thinner slicing blade as they obviously take longer to cook. I scooped out a big portion of the two bottom layers, stirred the rutabaga slices in the remaining pan juices and returned to the oven for 10 more minutes.

I am giving this experiment a thumbs up. I didn’t miss the milk at all (the veg stock was key though I’m not certain the almond milk did much to add or detract from the flavor). Once fully cooked, the rutabagas were just as delicious as the rest. And their yellow hue provided a little color contrast. Turnips and kohlrabi (both white on the inside) were hard to differentiate here – their flavors complement each other so nicely, they might as well be twins.

Ah, such a satisfying dish and a nice break from our too-familiar friend, the potato. I love it when I try using new-to-me vegetables and it works out. It certainly builds my cooking confidence in the kitchen. Maybe I’m not so much simple-minded as single-minded: I’ve realized my goal of creating something delicious!


Amateur Sewing Hour: My First Zipper & the $10 Dress-capade

IMG_6097IMG_6117Yet again on the hunt for a fancy dress to wear to a fancy-schmancy charity event. Since I volunteer at this event every year, I wanted something new and on the cheap. I went to my go-to party dress store (Ambiance in SF) and started digging for gold. The theme of the event, you see, was Gold Rush.

So I found the perfect gold/copper dress, a little Marilyn Monroe halter number. Only one problem – it was a size L and I’m XS. As a daring amateur self-seamstress, I thought, “How hard could it be? All I have to do is shorten the halter straps and cinch in the waist. Piece of cake!”

It’s easy to be bold when the stakes are low. The price tag was the clincher – on sale for TEN DOLLARS!  How could I resist? If I failed, chalk it up to a $10 sewing lesson.

IMG_6103I got my sewing machine several years ago out of necessity. Pants always need hemming (that’s the main thing I use it for). I am somewhat of a Lilliputian – usually below the lowest size – so my sewing has become more adventurous over time. But I’m still scared of wrecking items of clothing, especially if they are new. And for some reason, I’ve always been afraid of sewing a zipper. One of my first sewing attempts was a pencil skirt that I narrowed with a back seam; instead of properly fitting it with a zipper, I chose snaps and hooks and eyes (wimpy choice, indeed).

So I hadn’t yet faced my fears and wasn’t planning on going the zipper route with this gold dress. I was thinking DARTS. But when I got it home, I began to realize the complexity of this sewing adventure: the cinching was not going to be a cinch after all. There was just too much fabric here – including several layers of stretch, netting and sheer metallic. No time to be a sissy, I would have to go bold with the gold.

What was I thinking? Not only was there a gathered cummerbund, but an underskirt, crinoline and top skirt which were also attached to the zipper. There was no way around it – I had to cut through all four layers, remove a full 5 inches of material from each and then reinstall the zipper. The ZIPPER!!! Ahhhh!

Ok, take a deep breath. This all works out in the end (pun intended). I mean, the back of the dress required a complete overall, and I somehow pulled it off. And the zipper (the zipper!) was actually the easiest part. Here’s how I did it:

IMG_6094Before cutting, I noticed the skirt was attached to the underskirt until about 2 inches below zipper, while the crinoline was only attached at the waist. My aim was to replicate this (I made notes, I took pictures). Then I used my favorite scissors and cut through one layer at a time, removed the 5 inches, and sewed each of them back up. Like performing dress surgery!

I watched several zipper tutorials online, which I highly recommend. I followed the simplest guidelines, sewing as close to the zipper teeth as I could. It would’ve been easy except for that durn cummerbund – too bunchy, too thick and too much in my way. Because of this obstacle, the zipper was still visible (it was supposed to be hidden). I had to hand sew another stitch on each side (closer in than the machine stitch) to correct it.

IMG_6112IMG_6115My Frankenstein dress was starting to look normal again. Even better than that – it fit!  Fixing the halter straps was a snap (actually buttons, very easy to reattach). My greatest reward was at the event, when someone complimented me on my perfect-fit dress. Gold star!

Whew, what a rush. Next time I’ll try a simple pencil skirt zipper and reward myself with a literal piece of cake. As for you, dear reader, may this be a source of inspiration. If I can tackle such a daunting task with my unskilled hands, then SEW can you! (And on that bad-pun note, I’m off to another amateur sewing adventure….)


Tick Tock Chicken Salad

Sunday night – staring at Friday night’s carcass in the fridge. We bought an organic rotisserie chicken from Whole Foods and only ate half of it. Now it’s time to make the rest into chicken salad. So what else do I have in the fridge that needs to be used up quick? Some celery, green onions, plain yogurt, half a lime, one Gala apple. Perfect. I think this is going to work!

This is a no-mayo recipe; not that I’m against mayo, I just rarely have it on hand. Fortunately it’s possible to make tasty chicken salad without it. So let’s get started:

Image 42-3 cups pulled or cubed chicken
1 green onion
1/2 c celery
1/2 c apple
1/4 c walnuts
3/4 c plain yogurt
juice of half a lemon or lime
2 tsp Herbs de Provence
1 TBSP mustard (dijon or spicy)
Salt and pepper
drizzle of olive oil

Mix everything together in a big bowl. Yessss! All those random about-to-expire items are now attractively reassembled and ready to serve. Love when that happens.

Come Monday, I’m going to have one delicious lunch!

SF Like a Local – My Favorite Hike and a Cliff-Hanging Happy Hour

The best part about living in the big city is the all the workout walking. How better to end an indulgent dinner out than by having to schlep up steep San Francisco hills to get back home? Did I mention I never wear heels? For fear of tumbling down (or up) the block?

Ok, so walking city streets = good. If it’s your first visit, trust me, you will feel muscles that you never knew you had (as in “my shin muscle is on fire”). In addition to all the cross-town traversing, I invite you to follow me to the edge of the city for some stunning natural views and my absolute favorite Golden Gate hike.

IMG_5711I usually pick up the Batteries to Bluffs trail from Immigration Point in the Presidio (there is room to park along Washington Blvd, even on the weekends). I like this little-known starting point because you can avoid the bridge traffic and get right to it. And it makes for an easy return to your car after the hike.

ImageIf you don’t have a car, you can take the California 1 bus to Arguello Blvd, then walk into the Presidio to Inspiration Point. (Better yet, stay at the beautiful Inn at the Presidio and follow the short path behind it up to the Point.) Take in the city views, then continue on Arguello until you reach Washington (forks to left). From here you can stay on Washington or dip into the trails to catch a glimpse of the bridge towers at the National Cemetery Overlook. Eventually you will find your way to a campground that leads to Immigration Point. You can see a good color map of Presidio trails here.

Now that we’ve made it into the heart of the Presidio, let’s take that stair-step trail on the left down to Lincoln Blvd below. Here you will find many trail head signs. Follow the one that says Marshall Beach. This leads you to the “backside” of the Gate – basically you’re hiking all the way down to a tiny nestled beach that looks like the mythic home of a troll living beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

Image 2Speaking of trolling, this secluded spot has a reputation for being a nude beach. Why on earth someone would want to expose their bits to the frigid weather here is beyond me, but it does happen. You may spy one or two nudists near the rocks – or even get lucky enough to have Naked Guy photo-bombing your pic of the bridge!

Hike back up (staying left at fork) then head left on Lincoln until you get to the batteries and Golden Gate Overlook. Take a seat on one of the new stone benches (built in 2012) and see the cars and people maneuvering below. Here the Golden Gate Bridge seems so close – as if we were seagulls hovering just above.

IMG_5710After a rest and a snack, explore the earthwork batteries to the left, built for seacoast defense after the Civil War. Climb the ladders, stand on top and take in the stunning views of the sea. Congratulate yourself on traveling a less-touristy-laden path to the Golden Gate, and imagine what it looked like over a century ago (long before the bridge was built in 1937).Image 1

All right, my trolls and seagulls! It’s time for our post-hike rewards, into the belly of the tourist beast! Pick up the car on Washington, turn south on Lincoln, wind through Seacliff past the Legion of Honor and keep heading west until you reach Lands End. Park in the Visitor Center lot or along the Great Highway.

Enter the Cliff House with some trepidation (this prime tourist spot is perpetually crowded). I often get lucky and snag one of the small tables in the lounge area to the right. This is perfect for happy hour – drinks/apps only – and the views of the sun-sparkled ocean are blindingly gorgeous. You may even see a whale swimming by Seal Rocks, as I did one afternoon.

IMG_4454I have never attempted the main dining area, but I have scored a table in the bistro (left of hostess stand). Here you can order from the full menu and may end up with views of Ocean Beach.

IMG_5693After hanging out at the Cliff, you may feel revived enough to explore the ruins of Sutro Baths (in view of the restaurant, below the Lands End Visitor Center). Bonus hike: take the Coastal Trail east to discover the Lands End labyrinth. The labyrinth is well hidden, but also well worth it!

That’s about it for the hike and the hang. So tell me, did I whet your appetite?



My Faux (Grits) Pas: Cauliflower Fail

ImageI love making dinner out of whatever bits and pieces I can find in the kitchen. Most of the time this works quite well, especially with accessible internet recipes and my favorite cookbooks on hand.

Last night I opened up my Alice Waters’ Vegetables book to the chapter on cauliflower and tried a new recipe: Cauliflower Soup with Salmon Caviar. Did I have salmon caviar on hand? No. But I had a beautiful cruciferous head of yummyness and some fresh Italian parsley from the CSA farm box. What could go wrong?

Image 3The soup was lovely to look at, but without the contrasting tang (and salt) of roe it was rather dull – even when topped with green onions and the divine butter-fried croutons that I whipped up in the sauté pan. I did not have the recommended dollop of crème fraîche. A few shavings of cheese helped, but….eh.

Today I brought out the leftovers hoping for improvement (homemade soup does usually taste better the next day). It was thicker than the night before, more like porridge than soup. I nuked it for only a minute (the recipe said to serve tepid or room temperature). I tasted the same blandness. Doctored it up with a drizzle of olive oil, more salt and pepper, and a heavy sprinkling of Parmesan. Suddenly it had the consistency and flavor of grits. I invented faux grits.

Vegetarians, rejoice! Just what you’ve always wanted! But wait, aren’t regular grits already vegetarian? Who needs faux grits? No one, I guess – unless there are no grits in the kitchen.

Image 1(My less-than-obvious point here is that you should make this recipe. Look how pretty it is. Make it better than me. And get the damn roe.)

  • Boil one head of cauliflower in salted water until tender.
  • Roughly purée in food processor with some of the reserved pot liquor.
  • Return to pot and thin with milk to desired consistency. Simmer 5 minutes.
  • Add some Italian parsley and simmer 2 minutes more.
  • Season with salt and pepper. Serve with green onions, butter-fried croutons, and something far more exciting than a few shaves of cheese, please. Get original recipe here.

Hello There, New Bird Pillow

IMG_5473We welcomed in the new year with a Calvin Klein bed set in deep purple (a radical change from our other-end-of-the-color-wheel butter yellow). I loved the new comforter and pillows, but felt a bit overwhelmed with all the purple. So I set out to find the perfect throw pillow to add the right pop.

I wanted to tie in the colors from the painting above our bed (a lovely pastel by Bob Richey), which narrowed down my choices quite a bit. After hitting every home store in SF, I had nothing to show for all my searching. Luckily the most fabulous fabric store imaginable is right in Union Square. Britex Fabrics has four floors of eye candy for the fabric enthusiast. I headed to the home decor section and soon became overwhelmed by all the choices. It’s hard to see what you’re seeing in there.

I had just about given up when I spotted this bird print draped on a display way up high. “Where do I find that?” I asked the sales clerk. She dug through bolts until she uncovered it. Half a yard later, I headed out the door and down the block to Crate & Barrel – my go-to spot for pillow inserts. They have a large selection of sizes (in both down and down alternative) for an excellent price. I got an 18 x 12, which seemed just about right for my new bird.

I chose the right bird for my pillow front

I chose the right bird for my pillow front

I have made many, many pillows (read my Make a Pillow Out of Scraps post) – yet this one presented a new challenge: I had to measure carefully to have the image centered just so on the pillow. I was terribly afraid of cutting pretty bird’s head off. Yet I wanted to keep his tail on there, too. What’s a girl to do?

I draped the fabric over the pillow insert many times, pinning the approximate place where the seam should be. I made my first cuts, but I was too cautious. Pillows should have a seam allowance of half an inch on each side. That was cutting it close to my feathered friend, but it had to be done (the pillow cover must fit snugly over the insert). In the end, I decided it was better to err on the side of the head than the tail. I left more head room and trimmed the bottom very close to the tail feathers.

Whip it good

Whip it good

I folded the fabric inside out, used the sewing machine for three sides and left room to stuff in the down insert. Then I sewed up the rest of the seam by hand (note: I used an invisible ladder stitch, but a simple whip stitch works as well; it’s very easy to learn how to do this by following one of the many tutorials online).

IMG_0914I’m so happy with how it turned out! It’s exactly what I had envisioned and it cost much less than a fancy store-bought pillow (total cost, including $9 insert: $36). Plus the whole project took a fraction of the time it took me to shop for pillows. The custom fabric is just perfect. Hello, beautiful bird!

SF Like a Local – Top 5 Treats

My favorite local gift gems! Ok, so most of these are food. Or food-related. Nothing wrong with that! Consumables are an excellent gift idea, since most of us have too much stuff. All of these goodies are made right here in San Francisco, and these five companies have certainly won my heart.

IMG_4124L’ Amourette Chocolate

I have many local faves when it comes to chocolate (see my post, Confessions of a Dark Chocolate Snob), but this is the current winner. A $5-8 bar may sound extravagant, but oh so worth it as a slowly-savored treat. So far I have tried the Dried Fig; Shredded Coconut; and Sea Salt varieties. With over 20 bars listed on their website, I cannot wait to discover more! Candied Pomelo Peel, anyone?


firepepperSpice Ace

I just love going in this store. A feast for the senses. Cleanly stacked glass jars with white labels and lids line the walls. And inside these small jars? Pungent, fresh and delicious spices, salts, herbs, extracts. There are tester jars for each, so you can whiff away (and even taste, if you like). I find the prices to be very reasonable – mostly cheaper than what you see at the grocery store. My favorites so far: San Francisco Fire Pepper (pictured), Herbes de Provence Sea Salt (Sel Gris), Black Truffle Parmesan Seasoning, and the exotic Dukkah (an Egyptian blend of “Hazelnut, Sesame Seed, Pistachio, Coriander, Cumin, Sea Salt, Black Pepper”).  And you gotta get the Bacon and Onion Smoked Sea Salt!

songteaSong Tea

Around the corner from Spice Ace is another neighborhood wonder: Song Tea. I do love my tea. I’m usually buying good-quality teas, but this place really steps up the game. At first I was taken aback by the hefty prices (some upwards of $100 for 8 ounces). Whoa! I took a chance and bought the Gold Peony White ($22/2 oz) then went back and got the deliciously fragrant Longzhu Jasmine Green ($16/2 oz). I’ve been keeping track – because I can steep these leaves 2-3 times, I’ve been able to yield more than 45 cups each. So it works out to be about the same cost per cup as a $5 box from the grocery store. Score!

molinariMolinari Salami

I first discovered Molinari salami last year when I was looking for holiday treats. Someone posted on Facebook that Molinari Delicatessen had to-die-for ravioli. I had to investigate, of course. Bought the ravioli for myself, and a couple of links of salami as a gift. My taste buds have never been the same. I never cared one whit for salami, but that’s because I’ve never tasted the good stuff until now. Yes, now I know. I even dug up this LA Times article that explains why San Francisco is the salami capital of America.

ettaandbillieEtta and Billie

At last but not least, my only non-food item to make the list. You may not be able to eat or drink these products, but you’ll sure be tempted – with heavenly scents and textures such as those found in the Grapefruit Cardamom Body Scrub, the Bergamot Ginger Body Lotion or the Citrus Poppy Seed Soap. I love the simplicity here, both in the packaging and substance. As soap maven Alana Rivera states, “My soap is made with real natural ingredients like Lavender and Coconut Oil, rather than irritating chemicals like Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Trisodium Etidronate.  And it’s handcrafted with care by a human being, not created by a machine in a factory. The choice seems pretty simple to me.” I agree.

So there you have it, my Top 5. If you’re not a local, you needn’t worry – all of these SF companies are available online! Now tell me, what are your top five local favorites?

Bitter-Sweet: Let’s Eat

imageTime to use up that Swiss chard (it goes bad pretty quick, you know). Let’s see, what else do we have? Why, a sweet little sugar pumpkin makes the perfect pairing. So here we go: Swiss chard and lentils with a side of mashed pumpkin. Delicious!

Cut pumpkin in half, scoop out seeds (I like to use an ice cream scoop for this job). Add a dab of organic raw coconut oil in each half and bake cut side up in 375 oven for 45 min (can turn over halfway through cooking). Meanwhile, put half a cup lentils and one cup water in a small pot and gently simmer until water is mostly gone (around 30-40 min), then turn off heat and cover.

Saute a minced garlic clove in 1 TBSP olive oil for 1 minute, then add chopped Swiss chard stems. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add another TBSP of oil and the chard leaves and stir over medium heat until leave are bright green and barely wilted. Turn off heat, add the lentils. Salt and pepper. Squeeze of lemon.

Remove pumpkin from oven and let cool slightly. Use that ice cream scooper to transfer the pumpkin flesh to a bowl. Add a pat of butter. Salt and pepper liberally. Herbes de Provence sea salt from Spice Ace really puts the flavor over the top.

The timing is very easy here; it all comes together nicely. The colors, textures and tastes are in perfect balance. It’s bitter-sweet, and just right!

Note: This pairing can easily be made vegan by substituting more coconut oil for the butter.




Strange Afflictions – Raynaud’s Phenomenon

Raynaud-hand2This is first in a series of posts where I’m sharing what I call my strange afflictions. I guess all afflictions seem “strange” when we face something that we consider to be “not normal” in our own bodies. They can be congenital (from birth) or be the result of an injury, or sometimes just inexplicably appear, like Raynaud’s Phenomenon.

This is my experience: In 2005, I started a part-time job working as an usher at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. I couldn’t wait to be on my feet, showing people to their seats while listening to incredible live music. I was in my mid-30s; it had been awhile since I’d worked a job like this (standing for several hours straight), probably not since my days as a waitress in college. I was thrilled to be out from behind a desk. I wanted action!

I forgot that “on your feet” jobs can sometimes include long periods of standing in one place, which is tough on the knees, feet, back. And I wasn’t 20 anymore. The very first week, I noticed something strange going on with one of my toes by the end of my shift.  My second toe was red and swollen. I was convinced it was a spider bite (a painful, itchy blister forming at the tip). The next night I had to wear hiking boots to work, as these were the only shoes wide enough to fit over my swollen toe.

I figured, like any bite, it would subside in a few days. It did. But then my middle toe “caught the bug.” That’s when I knew this was no spider bite. But what could it be? I went to the foot doctor, who promptly said, “I think you have lupus.” Ack! What?

He referred me to a rheumatologist who thankfully did not concur. He said, “You have Raynaud’s, but I don’t think you have lupus.” Ok, good. Now, what was that again? What is this thing I have? And how do I get rid of it?

Not my toes, but a good look at chilblains.

Not my toes, but a good example of chilblains.

The doc gave me a few maintenance suggestions to avoid chilblains (the itchy swollen toe problem that is a common symptom of Raynaud’s) and sent me on my way. I supplemented that with internet searches. It’s common for Raynaud’s sufferers to see their extremities (especially toes/fingers) turn patriotic colors (red, white, blue) during colder weather. It can feel similar to frostbite, though the temps do not have to dip too low to cause a reaction. I figured out that wearing socks that are too thick (which in turn make my shoes too tight) will trigger it. Baths that are too hot will trigger it. Sometimes my entire feet will turn blue or red without much provocation. More than once (in yoga class) I’ve had someone say to me, “Um, why is your foot blue?” It’s not cool having smurf feet.

I’ve been living with Raynaud’s for nine years now. I’ve been able to keep my toes fairly in check; not many flare-ups lately, though I still see tale-tell signs of poor circulation (puckering of the skin and dry, brittle toenails). Then the other day I noticed what looked like bruising on the lower part of my index finger. Very bluish – as if the blood vessel underneath had burst. Hey wait a minute, didn’t I see the same thing on my ring finger a few weeks ago? Oh….

Top hand shows loss of heat with Raynaud's

Top hand shows loss of heat with Raynaud’s

It’s not as if circulation problems in my fingers are anything new. I’ve had issues with RSI (repetitive strain injury) for years. Repetitive motion and connective tissue diseases are linked to Raynaud’s. That bluish discoloration I’m seeing in my fingers seems to be a result of a recent pinched nerve (literally someone pinched my hand trying to steady me from falling). And by recent I mean three months ago. It didn’t hurt much at the time, but since then I have felt weakness and numbness in that hand. The Mayo Clinic mentions RSI or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome as a secondary cause of Raynaud’s: “This condition involves pressure on a major nerve to your hand (ulnar nerve) producing numbness and pain in the affected hand. The hand may become more susceptible to cold temperatures and episodes of Raynaud’s.”

It’s important to see a doctor to find out if you have primary or secondary Raynaud’s. While the primary version is benign, there are several more serious conditions that can lead to secondary Raynaud’s (scleroderma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjögren’s syndrome, as well as diseases of the arteries). In addition to a doctor’s visit, I recommend reading about it on the Mayo Clinic site, Wikipedia and this Q & A article from the New York Times.

And here are my own personal tips for keeping Raynaud’s episodes to a minimum:

1. Exercise – this is a circulation problem after all; target range-of-motion exercises in the fingers/toes; yoga is an excellent choice (going barefoot brings circulation to the toes).

2. Wear proper foot gear – most importantly, avoid tight shoes. Thin socks with minimalist-soled shoes works well for me when I’m walking around the city (again, allows for more circulation). I love my Brooks.

3. Avoid standing for long periods of time. If you cannot avoid it, then use pressure-relieving mats and shift your feet often (back in my ushering days, I developed an ants-in-the-pants sort of jig when I had to stand on the hard tile floor).

4. Keep joints comfortably warm (socks, gloves) indoors/outdoors. Fingerless gloves when working on the computer can ease discomfort in the fingers. Avoid quick temp changes (such as grabbing something out of the freezer – use a mitt or dish towel).

5. Ease yourself into a bath instead of jumping into a full tub – allow your toes to warm up slowly under lukewarm water from the faucet before increasing the temperature.

6. Use a Rubz ball on the feet and hands – a small rubber ball with acupressure points. It can help break up scarring/adhesions of the fascia (connective tissue that surrounds the muscles).