A few years ago, I decided that what the holidays really needed was another party. I can’t remember if this was prompted by the desire to see people congregate under mistletoe or just eat, drink, and be merry, but we will go with the latter response. Happily what started out as a small food blogger cookie swap has continued for several years and looped in friends outside of the blogosphere too. This Christmas cookie exchange lets me try new cookie recipes to discover the right mix of flavors and options for an enticing collection. I have further amended the cookie swap, hosting it at teatime and dubbing it as Tea & Cookies. Who wouldn’t enjoy a spot of afternoon tea with their sweets, right? For this year’s cookie swap I focused on test driving new 2014 cookbooks and am sharing my findings. Include your favorite cookie and recipe link if you have it, in the comments section.
When I heard Alice Medrich was penning a book on baking with whole grain flours from the perspective of flavor first, I became intrigued. My friend, Irvin and I cemented our friendship years ago on this very topic of thinking of flours as a flavor base upon which to build in baking. Teff works marvelously well with chocolate and is naturally gluten-free. How many people think of teff is griddled into injera flatbread used to scoop up delectable Ethiopian food. Teff flour is darkly hued and works so very well with 70% chocolate. What I liked about Flavor Flours is that each of the flours used also is naturally gluten-free, even if Medrich is leading with flavor first, making the entire book gluten-free. I’ve gotten to work with her before and she is meticulous about recipe testing. Her brownies are already a favorite of mine and these teff brownies were popular at the cookie swap. Plan on cutting small squares—they are quite rich. Friends with birthdays coming up can expect me to bake Chocolate Chestnut Souffle Cake (p. 206), Yogurt Tart (p. 110), and Buckwheat Cake with Rose Apples (p. 172), though I’m keeping an eye on these Buckwheat Linzer Cookies too. I’m quite convinced that roses and chocolate are meant to be along with other dynamic duos like basil and tomato or strawberry and vanilla. Mandarin Rose consists of a smooth black tea tinged with a floral high note of rose petals.
Winter time in California means citrus in as many shades as you can imagine. I was given Isa Does It as a gift and let me tell you that it paid off in a friendship with a neighbor who saw it in my window and decided she liked the inhabitants of our apartment before meeting us. That is a win. These cookies are vegan and use coconut oil in two very interesting ways: the oil is used in the cookie batter and then again in the lemon glaze. Because I had a pomelo, I substituted it for the lemons called for in the recipe. I also had just picked up some citrus chef’s essences from Afterlier and was jonesing to try them out. So, a dash of bergamot oil and two dashes of blood orange oil later, I had morphed Norah’s Lemon Lemon Cookies into Citrus Cookies. They are screaming good and offer a chewiness with a bit of crunch in the glaze. Cookbook notables in Isa Does It iclude the Tofu Butchery section which shows the myriad ways to process a cube of tofu into edible bites. Dishes I’m looking forward to cooking up include Sunflower Mac (p.116), Sesame Slaw (p. 58), and Tamale Shepherd’s Pie (p. 231). Prince Wladimir tea reminds me a bit of an Earl Grey with sass. It has a bit of a smooth profile with a bit of vanilla playing off the citrus notes. It pairs perfectly with the Citrus cookies.
I sped read my way through this gorgeous book one evening after it appeared in my mailbox. A day later and I learned it was a gift—the best possible kind of gift. I had already marked these little Sarah Bernhardt Cakes as being ideal for a cookie swap given how unique they would be in contrast to more expected cookies. Mimi Thorisson writes in A Kitchen in France that she received this recipe from her Icelandic mother-in-law and serves them with coffee. The base of the cake is akin to a macaron cap, mine even developed feet (that little ridge that crops up around the edges of macaron caps). The caps are then frozen while the mocha frosting is made, which is then smeared on the caps. Lastly they are dipped in melted chocolate. Though they have a few steps involved, these cakes are not hard to make but are quite fancy. They are the kind of sweets for which you pull out the good porcelain dishes. A Kitchen in France is smattered with lush photography and seasonal menus. Other recipes I’m itching to make include her Mont Blanc (p. 281), Chestnut Velouté (p. 248), Roast Chicken with Herbs and Crème Fraîche (p.46), and Happy Valley Wonton Soup (p. 291) from a Chinese New Year section in this French cookbook—look for her Tea Eggs recipe (p.293) there too. The multicultural feel of this book won me over. Thorisson grew up in Hong Kong and describes visiting her French grandmother and learning from her too. It reminded me of my own multicultural roots and the ways that each of us brings all that is woven into our cultural DNA onto the table. These rich little mocha cakes pair well with a stout breakfast blend tea to cut some of the sweetness. This tea stands up well to the cookies.
Because an entire table lined with chocolate chocked cookies might set my heart aflutter, but perhaps not appeal to those that don’t have a card in chocoholics-are-us, I had selected this Buttered Popcorn Rice Crispy Treat recipe for its fun flavorful approach to the well-known sticky, chewy sweet. My copy of Homemade Decadence sat on our kitchen table with such promise, decked out with the ingredients required as indication of how easy it would be to pop, melt and mix. As things go with party-hosting, I ran out of time before the cookie swap started to whip up a batch. This lapse in time judgment will work well for our next movie night–can you imagine anything better for movie-watching that combines sweet and salty? I’m a regular reader of Joy the Baker partly because Joy Wilson has a way of writing that makes baking fun and approachable, much like Joy herself. So, now the real question is to ask, what movie we should watch when it’s time to turn out these treats.
Tis the the season of Julie Andrews singing about her favorite things. If each of us composed our own version of the song, what would be the items you might use to replace “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens?” When the folks at Negra Modelo hired me to accompany Chef Rick Bayless on a crawl with other food bloggers and writers through San Francisco’s Mission district, I leapt at the chance to work with them. I wanted to encounter some of his favorite things, discovering his local San Francisco haunts and ask him questions throughout a Mission district walking food tour. It also served as a proper place to learn what makes Negra Modelo the perfect complement to Mexican food. Because we were introduced to so much during our crawl through the Mission, I’m going to separate it into sections that are not necessarily chronological, but tell the story better.
Photo by Vanessa Bahmani for Negra Modelo
My History with Negra Modelo Beer
Before we begin our stroll through the Mission, though, let’s start by snapping off a cap from my favorite Mexican beer. Long before I met my husband, Nathan, the bonafide beer drinker in our household, I tolerated one or two beers, not yet possessing the language for flavors I loved (floral, malty, robust, effervescent) and those I’m not fond of (hoppy). On a trip to Mexico to visit family, I had tried my first Negra Modelo and it became my mainstay for what to sip when eating the foods of my ancestors and heart: Mexican food. Ever since Nathan has been introducing me to more beers, I have begun playing around with using it in cooking and even have a pinterest board dedicated to beer-infused foods. My appreciation for Negra Modelo met its match during the Mission crawl as I had a chance to talk with Katherine from the company. I learned that its smooth, caramel notes come from slow-roasting caramel malts, and that it is a Munich-style dunkel lager, that uses a technique to make the brewing process last twice as long as that of other beers. The company shared that they’ve been making the beer since 1925. And I shared that we just drank bottles of it at an Oakland local taqueria, Xolo. The timing couldn’t be more on point to pick up more ideas for pairing their beer with food.
Pairing Negra Modelo Beer with Food: Suggestions from Chef Rick Bayless
Later on in the evening when we finally ended up at a Mexican restaurant, we sipped chilled Negra Modelo and ate tacos and mini tortas. We listened as Chef Rick Bayless suggested ideas of types of Mexican food to pair with this medium-bodied dark beer. I nodded along as he described the malt in the beer as being so roasted that it gives “a soft impression of sweetness.” Yes, it does. Does it pair well with ceviche? No, but, according to Bayless, whip up a Veracruzano fish stew with guajillo chile, epazote, garlic and tomatoes, and the beer stands up to the hearty flavors. Black mole was an easy example for a perfect pairing, along with tacos of lamb barbacoa. Bayless also uses Negra Modelo in a chocolate ice cream they serve at his restaurant, Frontera, which made sense and made me completely want to try a scoop of the ice cream he described as making “the chocolate taste better than chocolate” deriving some maltiness from the dark beer. I already started eyeing that beer-braised lamb with leeks recipe that gets pulled out at this time of year and began wondering how it would taste with Negra? This might have to happen soon.
Finding Fresh Masa at a San Francisco Tortilleria
On a drizzly San Francisco afternoon, I wormed my way to our first stop on the Mission crawl and joined a team of inquisitive bloggers and Chef Bayless at a neighborhood Mercado and tortilleria, where we were invited into the kitchen. I set myself into a pocket of space and watched Maria and Noemi slap together corn tortillas from handmade organic masa that they grind in-house. In addition to griddling the tortillas, we sampled huaraches that Maria was making. Huaraches get their name because they are long and wide, like the shoe. I contributed a huarache recipe to “Sated Magazine” a while back and like them for the flexibility of being a blank canvas for interesting toppings. So, as Maria and I chatted, she patted a green huarache, flipping it and saying that this nopal flavor is her favorite. And, I’ve been dreaming of them ever since. Plates piled high with huaraches garnished with carne asada made the rounds as did plates huaraches stuffed with zucchini and cheese. Watching Noemi make tortillas by hand, you could see she is a pro from practice. She makes them everyday and laughed when I asked her if she eats them at home, responding, not really. I was grateful for time with these two ladies and really wanted to learn more about their kitchen stories.
Rick Bayless on His Favorite San Francisco Tortilleria
Rick Bayless described how in Mexico City, at the biggest open-air market you will see huge huaraches with all matter of toppings sprinkled on. He laughed as he recounted how the hawkers yell huarache topping options. Here’s the kicker: this Mercado in San Francisco’s Mission district is exactly where Rick Bayless would head for masa when he taught classes for the week at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. He explained the traditional process of making masa: the corn gets boiled with an alkaline lime solution and ground with salt plates. “You create flavors you can’t anyway else, the old traditional way.” He continued to talk about how most masa available in conventional stores is bland. Watching Maria and Noemi making tortillas and huaraches from fresh masa at the tortilleria in the Mission, Bayless described them doing “what needs to be done everywhere.” I had wondered why Bayless settled in Chicago when he could have ended up in other hubs of thriving Latin American communities. I quickly got my answer, “Chicago has the greatest number of tortillerias in the world, even outside of Mexico. You walk into a Mexican grocery store in Chicago and there are stacks of warm fresh tortillas available.” He continued, “This is the canvas upon which Mexican food needs to be painted – good tortillas.” And as if that was not definitive enough, “Without no good tortillas, there is no good cuisine.” Bayless went on to explain that access to fresh masa and the wealth of tortillerias in Chicago was one of the reasons he settled there.
Photo by Vanessa Bahmani for Negra Modelo
A Mexican Butcher in San Francisco Brings Flap Meat to North America
Sal welcomed us into his butcher shop. As we crowded together he began telling us the story of how he helped bring flap meat to the United States. In Mexico, they butcher the animal differently than in the United States. He described a time when he showed a person from IBP how to cut flap meat (at the time there was no name for it in English). Three weeks later, IBP started selling flap meat. Now it is available in the Unites States, Canada, and around the world, but up until that point, it had only been available in Mexico. Sal detailed how in Mexico they don’t waste meat and cut it differently to minimize waste. Maybe you’ve never heard of flap meat before, but maybe you’ve heard the term carne asada, made from flap meat. I marveled at hearing about Sal’s experience in butchery- his family has been in business for 54 years at the helm. When I shopped at the farmer’s market in Oakland this weekend and saw flap meat on the menu for a local rancher, I thought of Sal and how far his impact had reached beyond the Mission district of San Francisco.
Rick Bayless on Mexican Butchery
Later on in the evening, Rick Bayless corroborated Sal, the Mexican butcher’s experience citing one of his own. Chef Bayless described visiting a Mexican butcher shop in Chicago where a company poster for organ meats hung from a wall. In a regular butcher shop, there was an English-speaking poster on the wall from the same company, but only showing center cuts.
Looking for the Sweet Life at a Local Panaderia
It can be a bit overwhelming to walk into a panaderia with its walls of pastries. I always make a beeline to the walls looking for two particular baked goods. As a child, even my sweet tooth couldn’t convince me that conchas, the pastries with the shell pattern stamped into them, were any good. No, I always had eyes only for two things: the empanada de calabaza with its mild sweet dough stuffed with pumpkin, or chanchos, little gingerbread pigs. Sure enough, both of my sweeties were in the window beguiling all who walked by the panaderia and reminding me of my childhood. We learned at this panaderia that they make all of their baked goods in-house from egg, milk, sugar, and flour. I tried to imagine what their production system looked like as Sal, the son of the owner, described making 25 different kinds of bread. One of the bloggers asked him his favorite baked good and he smiled, talking about how good conchas are when they come right out of the oven, saying they reminded him of glazed doughnuts. I thrilled to hear they are going to begin making their own jellies soon, focusing on flavors of strawberries and pineapple. Listening to Sal talk, we broke corners off of several pastries with new appreciation.
Rick Bayless on Panaderias & What’s New is Old
Rick Bayless mentioned how what Sal and his panaderia are doing reminded him a lot of young chefs who he has encountered in Mexico. His newest season of his TV show focuses each episode on a different chef and restaurant in Mexico, trying to help tell their stories. These chefs are getting deeply interested in learning from the artisan bakers in the small towns where long ferments and wood-burning ovens are not “hip ways” but old-fashioned. He said he is also seeing many Mexican bakeries go back to making their own jellies in-house like at this San Francisco panaderia. When asked what his favorite pan dulce is (everyone has one), he described the flaky campechanas he would eat when he lived in Mexico City. The dough from campechana is also used to make banderilla pan dulce but uses a different method.
The Restaurant as Classroom
Everything wrapped up at a local Mexican restaurant where we gathered for supper and Chef Rick Bayless spoke on several important ingredients of Mexican cuisine. Can I just say that where Rick Bayless shines is as a teacher? It’s his natural mode that taps into his background of anthropological linguistics. When he talked about the different kinds of fresh and dried chiles and how they can be used, his voice was tinged with an eagerness to share his love for the culture and these key ingredients. Don’t get him started about whether a Pasilla pepper is also an ancho… I was fascinated to hear him talk about the different kinds of avocadoes that exist and the ideal ways to use them. On to talking about onions, he shared a tip that I’m planning to impart to my Cooking Matters students that can alleviate tears when chopping onions (Halve them and then rinse them in cold water).
Rick Bayless and Going Home to Consider Cultural Change
For a few minutes, Chef Bayless and I talked about how cuisines change as cultures do. He described how his circumstance when first in Mexico brought about his education. As a young student, he didn’t have a lot of money and would go visit the markets to get food to eat. “That’s where I ate. Those were my teachers.”As we chatted, I wanted to get a sense of what he saw happening to Mexican cuisine in homes in Mexico now. He had already talked about what he was beginning to see chefs doing in restaurants, but I’m increasingly inclined to believe that if you want to see where a nation is going with its foodways, go home. As suspected, convenience foods have begun to take root. “In Mexico, people have gotten away from traditional foods in homes. They’re eating a lot of foods like in the United States but with more spice.” But even so, Mexico is a culture steeped in tradition, and he reiterated that the whole family goes to mom’s house on Sunday. The mom used to have a full-time maid and she might not anymore. “Young chefs of Mexico have become standard-bearers. What used to be made at grandma’s house is filtering into restaurants.”
DISCLOSURE: Negra Modelo paid for me to attend the event, share about it on social media and write this recap. My longstanding appreciation for their beer, respect for Rick Bayless and impressions of the Mission walking food tour are all mine. Check out Negra Modelo on facebook, twitter and follow #ThePerfectComplement for more beer and food pairing ideas.
Sometimes weight loss books are so quick to get to the skinny victory. They check off a former self with its struggles as a completed task. There is distancing from being fat as if it might be an infectious disease. It makes me sad to see this happen, even if I am someone on the sideline cheering on the lifestyle change. Deep down, each of us is a compilation of greatest hits of what has occurred in our lives to get us to the point we are at now. If we erase 5 or 10 years, our music isn’t as rich and full. Growing up fat isn’t everyone’s story, but it is mine. And it’s Andie Mitchell’s too.
In her memoir, It Was Me All Along, she doesn’t dole out condemnation, even now that she’s 135 pounds smaller. What she does instead is share her story of suffering and survival, of coping and coming to grips, accepting being “the fat girl” and then making lasting changes. Being fat is really misunderstood in our culture. A person’s size might be more of an indication of deeper problems and is a cloak of protection as it was for Andie. “I built walls around myself with bricks of cake, using frosting as a mortar.” (p. 68) Just like in food writing, often food is the conduit through which to talk about deeper truths. Unlike alcohol, food addiction isn’t something one can abstain from consuming entirely.
Pieces of Andie’s story reflect like a mirror into my own life, like combating loneliness, “Our apartment wasn’t so lonely with two dozen cupcakes cooling on my kitchen counter.” (p. 51) Her weight loss challenges start at childhood, follow her through high school, and then coast on into college where a trip to Italy helps her conquer her disordered eating. Andie describes how she and her mother regarded her weight like New England winters, “wishing they weren’t so burdensome, but accepting that they probably wouldn’t change any time soon.” (p. 54) And yet, that after many futile attempts at dieting, support groups, calorie counting and bingeing, she is able to change is powerful. Her story hooked me as I read it cover to cover one weekend annotating my copy with penciled-in underlines and comments.
Years ago, I met Andie at a healthy living bloggers conference. I began reading her blog and kept coming back to it because of her strong writing voice and ability to tackle the tricky terrain of weight loss with compassion. Like her blog’s title, Can You Stay for Dinner, hers is a hospitable place where often readers open up in the comments section, feeling safe to share their own stories and struggles. She is a kindred spirit and friend, so when I learned she would pen a memoir I became excited. Her story is one of overcoming—it is one that gives others courage and a glimpse that they too can overcome whatever obstacle they are battling.
There are moments in the book where the reader feels squeamish on her behalf, like watching her as a child in a room full of adults at a Weight Watchers meeting. When she and a group of college friends are passing a frat house, pausing to find out about the party going on inside as a frat member looks at her and yells, “No fatties allowed!!” (p. 103), I winced. She brings the reader into the scenes of her life as a witness. I sobbed when I read about her father’s death. But even, and especially in the struggles to make a lifelong change to lose weight, we see her character shine on: “Moments when I felt my weakest, when I was absolutely certain that I’d rather give up than keep going: that was when I learned what I’m made of.” (p. 129) And this is where the book really excels. That is a learned quality anyone can glom onto, whether weight is the challenge or perhaps something else, like addiction.
Readers will cheer her on as she makes the connection between satisfaction and contentment. “I sensed contentment coursing through me. It was what it was: a much loved meal. And now, I said to myself, it’s over. Remember it fondly. Another plate wouldn’t have brought me any greater satisfaction, because contentment doesn’t double by the serving.” (p. 142)
From the cover of the book, a young Andie in a swimsuit grins at the camera showing gaps between her teeth. The ocean surf is lapping the sand behind her posed posture. Her joy is infectious. She embodies childhood. In this snapshot, her story is just beginning. The power is summed up best in the title that gets fully realized in the closing chapter. Whether she is skinny or was fat, she is always the same person. And that truth is one size fits all, just like her book.
Full Disclosure: There are amazon associate links included in this post.
A famous man once said, “Winter is coming” and the evil king disliked that idea so much that he beheaded him. Okay, the man was really a fictional character, and the king really didn’t chop off his head just because he made the proclamation about the seasons changing. But, sometimes fictional characters are written to be just as large as life-sized and sometimes the idea of the nip in the air and the requisite need to pull out three layers of clothes can change a person, freezing them from the outside in. If you crave all things roasted, braised or wrapped in blankets this season, you are not alone. This winter fruit salad evokes the brightness of fall flavors to complement said roasted and braised objects of table side affection. In it, you’ll find colors to brighten up those early evenings too. Then again, you could whip up a winsome bowl of winter bounty to pass on a new tradition at the Thanksgiving table, though I’ve been eating scoops of winter fruit salad with plain yogurt for breakfast. So, pop on over to Ideal Magazine for this easy recipe.
Not that long ago, Nathan and I set off from our coast to the other one on a whirlwind trip to New York. One afternoon at a restaurant situated on the edge of Greenwich Village, a friend and I caught up over kale salads (with tempeh bacon for me, tofu for her). Our conversation strung along easily, even though it had been several years since we had last met up. After the trip, I made an intention and plan to write a thank you card to dispatch quickly to New York but first needed to find its companion, a book that I referenced during lunch. I found the perfect card, all adages and best wishes. Visiting one store, then two, I began to grow a bit listless as a dawning reality settled upon me. This book that is among my cherished books, a book that sandwiches old comments and markings of mine in the margin next to recent ones is no longer in print. The awakening continued with the surge of thought: if this can happen to this prolific poet’s words, then what becomes of the rest of us?
A few weeks ago, on an evening when Nathan was away, I took myself on a date at home, complete with dinner and a movie. We had steered clear of seeing “The Fault in Their Stars” in a movie theater the way that I had wished someone had warned me about “A Walk to Remember.” Cancer has hit too close to our family and frankly, I can’t imagine getting invested and absorbed into a fictional story when I’ve cried, prayed, and lived it through our own family narrative. So, in the same way that I catapulted myself into seeing “The Exorcist” in junior high to confront my terror of horror films, I watched this movie. Inevitably, the plot doesn’t turn out in quite the way you assume in the beginning, but still wrenches apart something good and whole inside movie viewers. A scene that has stayed with me and even then caught my attention is when love interest, Augustus Waters is asked in support group what he most fears. His answer is simple and leaves me a bit breathless: oblivion.
And so, Augustus Waters and the Poet mashed up in my head together. What happens to a writer when their words disappear from bookshelves? The importance of oral literature and of making time to sit around and tell tales is seen in a new light. Each of us is a walking storybook that others might rifle through or read deeply. As we get ready to gather around the Thanksgiving table and a fork and knife chase the last bits of cornbread dressing into cranberry relish, there is a magical moment that sometimes happens if we catch it before it scampers off the table. And it is this: before we get up to clear the plates, before we excuse ourselves and flip on the TV to catch a football game, sometimes a story trickles out of one mouth. If you’re lucky, as it enters all those other ears, it comes out of a different mouth, similar but with a few stray details that build upon its flavor like a drizzle of pan gravy moistens the meat. These are the bits of the Thanksgiving meal that go unnoticed and are not planned into the most elaborate menu. Even so, they are the moments that give curvature to our lives, that pull us into the past, present, and future and erase the possibility of oblivion. When I share my appreciation for the Poet’s work with someone new, they come to life again. Their words continue coursing in me finding new meaning long after the book is out of print. Their ISBN is still catalogued—their work existed! They existed! And as we linger around the Thanksgiving table amid the messiness of the meal and possibly flinging together the disparate elements that can make family gatherings messy, passing platters and our stories to one another grounds us into who we are, where we’ve been, and perhaps illuminates where we might go next. In this way, we are never doomed to oblivion.
Who do I thank for the extra hour of sleep this morning? We have officially turned the corner into fall even in our still sunny landscape. The leaves got the memo and have begun turning red and burgundy across the street, letting a plume of wind set them in flight. I have pulled out my warmer pajamas, which isn’t saying much since we are still in California. But as the weather begins dipping into chillier degrees, I join the rest of root vegetable lovers the land over in praise of the roast and braise. In the spirit of embracing the seasons as they change, I decided to take that as a challenge for pasta sauce and developed a comforting carrot simmer sauce that decidedly clings to each curlicue. This is a recipe perfect for the long nights ahead. Garnish a bowl of it with savory Carrot Top Pesto.
I am thrilled to be a new contributor to The Weiser Kitchen and will be writing about married life and sharing recipes in a column called Eat Takes Two. Sometimes my love of wordplay and cheeky banter find their own marital bliss. Head over there for the Carrot Simmer Sauce recipe.