Bûche de Noël

I know it’s after Christmas but Christmas is not a day but a season so why not a recipe three days late? I wanted to share this for the recipe-clippers and recipe-savers out there; it is pretty involved but well worth it as my family testified to.

A brief history: a yule log or bûche de Noël (in French) is a traditional dessert served on and around Christmas in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Quebec, and several former French colonies, one of which—Syria—yours truly happens to be from. The word “yule” actually means a festival observed during the winter solstice by the Germanic and Nordic peoples. The tradition of the yule log predates Christianity and is believed to be about luck. During the yuletide season (between November and January), families were to go into the forest and pick a hearty tree to cut down. They were then to return with the most robust log they could find and burn it in deference to various deities in celebration of life and prosperity. One old European belief says that the log had to catch fire on the first attempt to light it, otherwise the family was doomed to bad luck that year.

The yule log, the cake, is composed of a genoise—an Italian sponge cake—iced, rolled to form a cylinder, and iced again on the outside with chocolate buttercream decorated in such a way so as to resemble a log.

For the genoise (sponge cake). This recipe came from my mom’s tattered and batter-stained cookbook. She transcribed it long before I existed and got it from her childhood neighbor and mom’s dear friend Tante Viva—Tante meaning auntie, another remnant of French colonialism in Levantine Arabic.

100 g. all-purpose flour, sifted

125 g. powdered sugar, sifted

4 egg yolks

6 egg whites

The juice of half a lemon

The rind of a half a lemon

1 tsp baking powder

Heat the oven to 400˚F. Line a swiss role pan with parchment paper, leave some parchment as overhang.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour and baking powder, set aside. In a large bowl, beat the yolks, sugar, lemon juice, and lemon rind. The goal is to not have lumps, set aside. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Add one spoon of the flour mixture to the egg yolk mix and fold slowly and gently enough to not form lumps. Add one spoon of egg whites and fold gently. You want to incorporate the egg whites into the yolk mixture but maintain the fluffiness and airiness of their texture. Repeat this until all of the flour and egg whites are fully incorporated.

Spread evenly onto the prepared swiss role pan. Bake for exactly 10 minutes. Until the top of the cake begins to have a golden tinge—almost like the texture and color of the perfectly roasted marshmallow. Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes. While cooling, dust a clean kitchen towel with powdered sugar and gently peel the cake onto the powdered sugar-dusted towel. Roll gently and set aside.

While the cake cools, prepare the buttercream, recipe pieced together from multiple verifiable sources:

3 egg yolks (how convenient, you have 2 leftover from step 1)

1 egg

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

1 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1-2 tbsp. coffee extract or make a really strong coffee using 1 tbsp boiling water and half a tbsp instant coffee

In a standup mixture, beat the yolks and the egg until it has tripled in size. While it is beating away, prepare a syrup with the sugar and water in a heavy bottomed saucepan. You want the syrup to reach 225˚F, measure with a candy thermometer, and be patient because it may bubble over so you will want to do this over low heat and pay attention.

Once the syrup reaches 225˚, reduce the speed on the standup mixer, remove the syrup from the heat and add slowly and gently over the egg mixture. Once you’ve added all of the syrup beat for three more minutes.

Add the butter slowly, 1/4 stick at a time. You want the quarter stick to get at least half incorporated before adding the next quarter stick. Once all of the butter has been added, beat another ten minutes. Add the coffee extract, according to your preference.

Chocolate icing, from Paul Hollywood an English celebrity chef

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

200 g. powdered sugar, sifted

25 g. cacao, sifted

1 1/2 tbsp. milk

With a handheld mixer beat the butter until it’s soft. Sift sugar and cacao over the butter and mix well. Add the milk to soften the icing. Add it in increments because you may not use it all. Or you may need more, use your judgement, but you want it to be a somewhat stiff icing—soft enough to spread but stiff enough to hold the shape of “bark.”

To assemble the cake:

Spread buttercream over the sponge cake and even it out. I only used about half of the buttercream, the other half you can put on toast and enjoy post holidays but before the New Year’s resolution goes into effect. Gently roll it up and transfer to the platter on which you will be serving. Delicately spread the chocolate icing over the rolled cake. I say gently because you don’t want to tear the sponge cake. Some people use a fork to make the effect of a tree’s bark. You can dust powdered sugar over it to look like snow, or shave chocolate, and add decorations such as macaroon or marzipan mushrooms—the traditional bûche décor. I made my mushrooms (and ladybug) by dying marzipan and hand-shaping the figures. And lastly, enjoy!

My 2018 bûche de Noël, I took the photo from the side
so you could see the genois and buttercream
Voilà

BBQd oysters to celebrate life

“What will survive of us is love.”

–Philip Larkin

Hello from Mill Valley, a small town in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I came up for my California grandma’s Celebration of Life; she passed away in October. She had a great run in this world and loved to party. So naturally a huge party was the best way to celebrate her. Her daughter—my aunt—arranged for 20 lbs. of See’s chocolate arranged on beautiful platters and spread all over her house, over 40 bottles of sparkling wine, the mixings for vodka tonic—her drink of choice along with sparkling wine, and the party was also catered so people could have some food alongside their drinks. There were over 200 people present and I guess that is the love that survived Marlene as the epigraph above says.

One father and son pair made BBQ’d oysters. It’s their family’s tradition and it was a perfectly wonderful way to honor Marlene. I hovered around the BBQ—having never BBQ’d oysters I wanted to learn how. They explained. You put the oysters on the hot grill unopened. As they heat they will begin to pop open slightly. That’s when you use the oyster shucker to open them entirely. The oyster has a deep bowl looking shell and a flat one. It is growing a “foot” onto the flat shell and you want to slice that off (oyster meat off flat shell) and put it in the bowl-like shell. At this point you add a dollop of BBQ sauce or garlic butter and let it grill a few more minutes until it’s ready to eat. I noticed the guys were adding vodka…maybe that’s where oyster shots come from?

When events like this happen in our life it’s important to allow ourselves time to explore what we’re feeling. Losing a person we love—while it is not easy—is bound to happen. Everybody deals with grief differently and I’m no psychology expert but I’ll share my two cents. Of course, I cried and on occasion find myself brushing my teeth and thinking of a great story I want to tell Marlene only to realize I can’t pick up the phone and call her. Alfred Lord Tennyson said “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have never loved at all.” And I wholeheartedly embody that. This is what I get for loving someone and how beautiful and amazing is that?

I leave you with the ending of the poem “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver:

To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

So love people and spend time with them. Tell them you love them and shower them with gifts, even if it’s just a flower you pick on the side of the road, like my mom says. And when it’s time to let go, know to let go because what survives the mortal body is love.

Now go call up someone you love—your friend, neighbor, etc. and make them some BBQ sauce for your favorite meat…even oysters!

Vodka BBQ Sauce

  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 garlic clove, pressed
  • 1 1/4 c. ketchup
  • 1/4 c. soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 c. vodka

Toast cumin in small skillet over medium heat until it turns dark in color and begins to smoke, about 2 minutes. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add ginger and garlic; sauté until very fragrant, 3-4 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients (ketchup, soy sauce, sugar, and toasted cumin) and bring to a boil, whisking gently to blend. Reduce heat to very low, add the vodka,  and simmer for about a minute, whisking constantly and carefully.

This BBQ sauce can be served on BBQ’d oysters or roasted vegetables, your favorite cut of meat, etc. Enjoy!

Raclette

“The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas; it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us after their departure.”

–Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving. And maybe you’re expecting me to write about Thanksgiving but I’m not. I’m writing about raclette, a Swiss dish consisting of primarily boiled potatoes, cured meats—prosciutto, salami, mortadella, etc.— and, pickles.  But it is so much more a process, an event, than simply a dish. Friday after Thanksgiving, I had the joy of experiencing it again.

Raclette has been mentioned in medieval writings as early as 1291; apparently Swiss-German monks enjoyed this rich dish in the cold winters of the Alps. It is believed to originate in the regions of Valais in Switzerland and Savoie and Haute-Savoie in France; all in the Alps. The raclette cheese itself is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese and made in rounds of 6 kg (a little over 13 lbs.). Traditionally, the round of cheese was cut in half and placed by the hearth or fire and once the exposed layer of cheese melted, it was scraped over one’s dish of potatoes, meat, and pickles. The dish is called Bratchäs, Swiss-German for roasted cheese. The French word for the dish, raclette, comes from the French verb racler which means to scrape, as you can imagine scraping the melted cheese onto your potatoes and meat.

After Thanksgiving, I drove to my brother and sister-in-law’s house with my mom. Some friends met us there, too and Friday night we prepared and feasted on a raclette.

The beauty of raclette—other than the obvious fact that melted cheese is one of the most beautiful phenomena in the gastronomic world—is that it’s a process. Each diner has their own small tray for melting the raclette cheese by the heating oven in the center of the table.  You have to wait for the cheese to melt and once it has melted, you assemble your food. The potato…cut nicely or smashed with the back of your fork; the meat laid out, multiple cuts of meat or all mortadella; and the melted cheese drizzled on top. And then you can’t just devour your food, you savor it, a few bites of raclette and a sip of wine, and then it’s your turn to participate in the conversation while your next round of cheese melts to your liking. Before you know it, hours have gone by in contented bliss, your belly is full, and life is good.

Cold cuts and cheese

 

Perfection

One thing my French friend, Franck, noted about Thanksgiving that he has observed now being in the US for 11 years is that it is essentially the most important meal of the year for Americans. People fly or drive or hours to be with their families and share this huge meal. But what he doesn’t understand is the fact that people spend hours, maybe even days, preparing the meal but is it devoured in 30-45 minutes. He compared this to French meals where meals are eaten at a much slower pace. You take your first course, tell stories, jokes, catch up, and then clear the plates, and prepare the second course. Then a third, and so on.  There isn’t a demanding expectation that everything be served at once and hot. Yes, food is served hot but it can be heated in between courses, by the host with help from a guest or two.

I am guilty of this, as well. I find myself eating quickly as though mealtimes are timed events. They are not. Especially on a day like Thanksgiving. We have the day off (most of us) to be with our families and maybe watch a movie, play games, talk, joke, or simply be. So why not linger around the table a bit longer. Help the host prepare the meal and savor each bite, each course, and the meal in its entirety, at a casual pace.

I wish lovely meals with family and friends for everyone this holiday. I hope that we all take the time to enjoy our meal, the company, and the process that is the pleasure of the table. Here’s to the start of the holiday season!

Mama’s Fish House, Maui

Aloha from Hawaii! Here I am as a bridesmaid in another wedding. Please do not mistake this as sarcastic or displeased. I love weddings, I love traveling, I love being a part of a celebration, I love family (definitely my own but certainly meeting others’) and most of all I love love.

There was a movie that came out a few years ago called 27 Dresses about a young lady who is a perpetual bridesmaid. She has a whole closet dedicated to bridesmaid’s dresses, etc. I haven’t actually seen the movie…why would I? It’s my life.

I didn’t have too much time to explore so the first day we landed (I was traveling with the maid of honor), I booked us a reservation for lunch at a restaurant that I had heard—from fellow travelers and review sites/blogs—was a great place to eat on Maui, Mama’s Fish House.

Water lilies at the hostess stand

Our table wasn’t quite ready when we arrived so we ordered a couple Mai Tais from the bar and sipped our cocktails and admired the gorgeous orchids floating around the ice. What an amazing thing, to be in a place so abundant with flowers that every cocktail, lei, and countless other decorations are made of fresh flowers. That and the perfect climate make it obvious why they call it paradise.

Cheers! Mai tai with a gorgeous orchid

 

Once seated, we were brought an adorable little loaf of honey wheat bread and a side dish of butter. Bikini season or not, I love butter on my bread. The perfect accompaniment to a cocktail and a gorgeous view.

I had never seen this before on a menu but Mama’s puts the name of the fisherman who caught the fish on the menu. Evidently, Mama’s has a team of fishermen who go out fishing every day and everything served is caught within the past twenty-four hours. It’s not a large menu but it certainly is fresh.

View from our table

We split Papa’s sashimi as an appetizer and it was great, thick slices of three different fish each topped with some pickled fruit or vegetable or a jam and each with a different salt alongside—smoked, pink, and black. The waitress recommended we dip each slice of fish in its respective salt. It was a pretty cool experience, a crunch of salt that triggers that warm salivary response along with the soft meaty taste of the cool fish.

Papa’s Sashimi

I ordered the monchong (deep sea pomfret) a white fish served with black rice topped with onion chutney and vegetables—bock choy, broccoli, and carrots—with a ginger glaze. It was delicious. Melt in your mouth type of fish and perfectly al dente vegetables. The best way to welcome our vacation and enjoy a meal before the ensuing wedding activities.

Wonderful monchong and vegetables

You may have heard the word aloha, it is a Hawaiian greeting used for hello and goodbye but one thing I noticed while on the island of Maui was the notion of “living aloha.” Aloha means more than simply hello or goodbye, it means love, affection, compassion, mercy, sympathy, pity, kindness, and grace. Living aloha means going through life with compassion, love, mercy, affection, and peace. And what a beautiful thing. I leave you with a proverb I learned while in the Aloha State, Kahuna nui hale kealohalani Makua which means, love all you see, including yourself. So, I urge you to live aloha. We may not have orchids in all our cocktails here and tropical weather but we don’t have it so bad. Let’s embrace a little aloha in Monterey and love all we see, including ourselves.

Aloha

Cake aux olives (Olive loaf)

This recipe comes from a dear French friend of mine who is now a Californian. He just became a naturalized citizen a couple weeks ago…congratulations, Franck! He is one of the most kind-hearted, generous people I have the pleasure of calling my friend and he shared this recipe with me after I enjoyed the dish at he and his wife’s home in Monterey. It is an easy recipe to follow and will satisfy not only your friends, but your appetite, as well.

While it’s called “cake” in French, the word best translates to loaf. It is a savory, dense, egg-based loaf with ham and olives. I like to use manzanilla olives, I find them to be more flavorful.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups white wine, separated, one for you, one for the loaf; I used Chardonnay
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup ham, cooked, I used Trader Joe’s’ black forest ham
  • 1 cup pitted green olives
  • 2 cup grated gruyere
  • Butter to grease the pan

Preparation:

Heat oven to 350˚F. Pour yourself a glass of wine in your favorite glass. Mine happens to be a pink and green crystal wine glass from my late, adopted grandma. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

Cut the ham into small squares. Drain the olives and rinse them. Cut them in half crosswise (meaning cut at the fattest part of the olive). Eat an olive or two, they pair greatly with your Chardonnay.

Butter a 9” x 5” baking loaf pan, and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Add the other cup of wine. Do it a little at a time mixing constantly so that the flour doesn’t get clumpy. Then add the olive oil in a few additions and mix really well. The smell might encourage you to get yourself a nice piece of bread for yourself to dip in your own olive oil, go ahead, enjoy. Cooking is a culinary experience best enjoyed with all the senses. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Next add the mustard and stir in thoroughly. Sprinkle in the salt and mix it in well.

Add the ham, olives, and grated gruyere; mix well.

Put the mix into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 60-65 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when the top is slightly golden and the loaf has risen. It may bubble up on the edges with oil and that’s OK. While it’s baking grab your wine, any remaining ham and cheese, get cozy on the couch, and relax. You can rest in anticipation of a delightful treat in the oven.

I actually like to eat this dish when it is cooled. And it’s great to make on the weekend to take along with me for breakfast at work. Or to pack in a picnic. You see what I’m saying.

Voilà

Bon appétit!

Just looking for Coffee in Connecticut

Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways. –Stephen Vincent Benét

Greetings from Westport, Connecticut! My aunt and I are here for a wedding and we woke up on Friday, bleary eyed from having gotten to sleep at two a.m. and awoken by housekeeping pounding on the door at nine. Thinking we were in a cute, walkable part of town—how would we know otherwise, we Uber-ed in from the airport in the middle of the night—we went for a walk in search of coffee.

After quite a bit of searching, we settled for what everybody suggested…Dunkin’ Donuts. As we approached the strip mall just passed our hotel, next to South Beach Tan and before Dunkin’ Donuts, we read in blue lettering: Layla’s Falafel.

“Chris, they might have coffee! Let’s try…”

We went in and a jolly man, who had the air of not knowing how to sit still, greeted us.

“Do you have coffee?” I asked.

“Turkish coffee?” He asked with a slight Arabic-accented-East Coast-English.

“Yes.”

“Of course,” he bellowed with a smile, “sit down.”

We sat and watched the comings and goings of the slow fast-food joint. By this time, it was the lunch crowd and we were starting to get hungry so I went to look at the food offerings. He was helping a young girl, she told him in Arabic that she thought I needed help. In Arabic he responded to her that I was a regular. I had never been to the place—or Connecticut—in my life, I did not know this man.

I looked at the food in the display case and he joined me. I asked him in Arabic if he could heat up the manooshay (singular form of manaeesh, the thyme-spice blend (called za’atar) atop flatbread).

Chameeyay?” He asked, which means lady from Damascus. I said yes and he touched his hand to his head, “ahla w sahla” (welcome). The touching of the hand to the head means he would metaphorically put me on his head, like a crown, it is a sign of hospitality and respect.

Swamped with customers he asked, “Do you know how to make ahwe (coffee)?”

“Yes.” I responded.

“You come make it.” He motioned for me to come to the kitchen.

I twisted my hair and secured it with a clip. I was handed a dallah (stovetop Arabic coffee pot), I filled it with water and added a bit of sugar, and balanced its small base on the commercial burner.

The woman working in the back wanted to help. Rabia was from Morocco. “But don’t be afraid!” She said with a huge smile, “Layla taught me how to make everything, even kibbeh.” Kibbeh are Levantine meat pies that are very labor-intensive.

I made the coffee and tried small talk with the dishwasher in Arabic. He smiled at me and told me, “I’m Porta Rican, aldo evry-wun tinks I’m Arabian.”

Rabia and I searched high and low for demitasses and couldn’t find them. She said she couldn’t ask Dino during the lunch rush. Almost intuitively, he yelled out from the register that the cups might be downstairs. She put down the paper soup cups she had pulled out as a backup and I asked her if I should go with her downstairs.

“No no no,” She patted my arm. I followed anyways. We fished through boxes of to-go boxes and napkins until we found a box of demitasses.

Upstairs I found my aunt patiently waiting. I served the coffee and that was the beginning of a three-hour meal.

We started with the strong Arabic coffee alongside the manaeesh.

Ahwe and mana’eesh

When we got our demitasses refilled we were also each handed a piece of baklava. We nibbled and sipped, chatted and enjoyed. Some piping hot falafel with sesame dipping sauce appeared. Next, we were brought a spicy spinach and chickpea dish. Dino asked over the counter if we would like some chicken shawarma. “Just a little one,” he motioned with very Levantine hand gestures. We were brought a second table and a platter with tabouli (Levantine parsley salad), hummus, garlic dip, pickles, and a chicken shawarma wrap.

Chicken wrap platter

At this second table Saul and a basket of freshly fried French fries joined us. Saul is on his sixth post-retirement job, hangs out at Layla’s every day, and helps with catering jobs.

The flavors and the people were fantastic. We sat back, pleasantly stuffed, and were thankful we had gone in search of Dunkin’ Donuts.

**This column originally appeared in The Cedar Street Times on 2 November 2018

Easiest Upside-down Apple Galette

I have said it before, I love fall. You may recall my column from a few weeks back where I was in Apple Hill and I wrote about apple cider donuts. Well now I’m writing you about an apple galette. You may be familiar with apple pie (top and bottom crust) or apple tart (bottom crust), however; an apple galette is a free form crusted pastry. This is a variation of a galette in that the crust is on the bottom but it’s unique in that it’s made in a skillet, baked upside down, and then flipped over when it’s done.

I got this delightfully simple recipe from Cedar Street Times’s very own cartoonist, Joan Skillman. I think it is my new go-to favorite for an easy to make, autumnal, delicious treat.

Upside-down Apple Galette

For crust:

  • 6 tbsp chilled unsalted butter, cut in 1/2 inch chunks
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3-4 tbsp. cold whole milk

For filling:

  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 apples, cored, peeled, and sliced

Heat oven to 400˚F.

Put the flour in a medium-sized bowl and add the butter on top. Using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until it resembles a coarse meal. Add three of the tablespoons of milk and quickly knead in until the dough sticks together as a ball. You may need the fourth tablespoon or not, you don’t want a soft dough, you just want it to hold itself together. You also don’t want to play with it too much because the heat of your hands will melt the butter and you don’t want that. Press the dough into a disk on wax paper and place in the refrigerator until ready for use.

In a cast iron skillet or a Dutch oven, make the filling. Over medium heat, melt the butter and make sure you get it on the edges of the skillet. Gently sprinkle the sugar over in a uniform layer. Let it sit for a few minutes. You don’t want the sugar to burn but you want to heat it up just so. The caramelization adds a delicious taste.  Meanwhile, core, peel, and slice your apples. I have a handy dandy apple corer, peeler, and slicer—the coolest kitchen contraption and best gift I have ever received, I might add. With just the crank of a lever the device cores, peels, and slices (uniformly!) my apples. Amazing.

Place the apples in the skillet starting from the outside and working in, with each apple slice slightly over the one prior. I like a lot of apples in my galettes so once I have the bottom all filled up, I fill in the spaces with the remaining apple slices. Now don’t touch them. Let them sit over the heat for a good 5-10 minutes or until they are just about translucent.

Meanwhile, on a gently floured surface, roll out the crust to approximately the diameter of the skillet. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t touch it too much because you don’t want to melt the butter with the heat of your hands. When the apples are ready, you’ll know they’re just translucent, turn the stovetop off and quickly throw the crust on. At this point I pull the overhanging edges in a bit with my fingers.  Finally, put the skillet in the oven and bake for 25 minutes or until the crust is just golden.

Take out of the oven and being very careful, flip onto a platter or a cutting board. It should come out quickly and easily but some of the apples might stick to the skillet if you stirred them or didn’t coat the sides of the skillet with butter, like the first time I made it. The second time I tried, it came out perfectly.  Lesson: don’t stir the apples in the skillet. This is delicious with vanilla bean ice cream on top and will be devoured in minutes if you serve it all when it is still warm. Thank you, Joan!

Upside-down Apple Galette

**this story was originally published in my column Postcards from the Kitchen in the Cedar Street Times on 26 October 2018 

Cibo, Monterey

When I moved back from Spain I was nostalgic for everything Galician—I lived in the small town of Ourense in Galicia, the Northwestern corner of Spain, above Portugal. (You can read about my adventures in Spain here.) One of the things I thought I would miss the most was the live music, it felt like the old alleys incessantly reverberated with the piercing hum of violin music or echoed with the bellow of a cello. But as I re-settled into my hometown, I found that Monterey was rich with live music, too.

One such place is Cibo Ristorante Italiano (pronounced chee-bo), offering live music six nights a week. I often walk by on Alvarado and am drawn in by the music—it’s so lively and welcoming.

A friend invited me out there the other night and it was a nice reminder of what a fun place Cibo is. It’s wonderful to meet those friends that you see only once every few months and get to catch up on everything over a long, leisurely meal.

We sat in a booth and, having just driven back from the Bay Area, my friend suggested I order a glass of wine. The waiter recommended a nice Cabernet. We started with the polenta and sun-dried tomato appetizer. And talked and talked. My parents used to say when I was a kid that I talked more than I ate which I think is true during meal times—well not only meal times but especially meal times because I have a captive (read, stuck) audience.

The waiter brought us this incredible, warm, crunchy-crusted ciabatta bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I always ask for butter as well because butter is perfect. More on that another time.

Eventually we ordered more appetizers: arancinette (crispy fried rice balls) and calamari. The calamari tentacles were crispy on the ends and meaty at the core, just the way I like them while the rice balls with tomato sauce were a tangy complement to the hearty squid. I think it’s important to have diversity in your life. Not just with the foods you eat but with your friends, too. Having friends with different backgrounds, ages, jobs, etc. really gives you a perspective on life and can often help you navigate your own life with a broader point of view. This particular friend is a generation older than me and has been wildly successful in her career in public relations. She says things to me about my just-beginning writing career as though they were so obvious and I have to remind myself that I am pursuing writing because I like to write, not because I’m a brilliant marketing specialist or PR person.

She’s also commanding which I love. She would give me a piece of advice and say, “write it down.” I diligently pulled my notebook out, for the fifteenth time and wrote down some brilliant piece of advice she had just casually passed along. “Don’t put it away, you’re going to need it again.” Another flippant, brilliant comment.

For dinner I ordered the gnocchi trio. If you’re not familiar with gnocchi I have to say it’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to tasting clouds. Well, my imagination’s idea of what clouds might taste like. They are light, fluffy potato dumplings that melt in your mouth. The trio were: spinach & ricotta filled with a Bolognese sauce, truffle-filled with brown-utter sage (who was the genius who thought to fry sage leaves, please thank her), and traditional potato with pesto cream shrimp. The nice thing about the trio is that it’s enough of each to taste a little bit of each very different flavor.

We wrapped the evening up with dessert, the only civilized way to eat a meal, and we had the pear almond tartlet that was nicely served with whipped cream, mango sauce, and crunchy, caramelized almonds.

Calamari & arancinette

The next time you’re looking for a place to liven up your evening, I really recommend that you check out Cibo in Monterey. Check their website to find out who is playing, one of my local favorites is Andrea’s Fault who play jazz there every Wednesday evening. Or, you could try all night happy hour on Thursday nights in the bar.

Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” So add a little music to your life, or more music because most of us could probably use more music.

*a shorter version of this story was published in the Cedar Street Times on 19 October 2018

The fireside lounge at the Hyatt in Monterey

A friend was staying with me this past week. It’s amazing how you meet, make, and keep friends. Years ago, a different friend had invited me to be his date to his company’s retreat in Bend, Oregon. The company was based in Portland. I love the rationing of people in their early twenties. He was single and so was I, “Sally, the company is paying for me to bring someone and it would be a waste for me to go alone. Plus, I think you’d be a good date because I don’t need to babysit you.” I took it as a compliment and booked a ticket to Portland, ready for the adventure. Justin had just started this job and was getting to know his future colleagues.

I mingled, ate delicious food, and drank great wine. After the sun set, the drinking got heavier and I decided it was time for me to go read my book in bed. I excused myself from the people I was talking to and Michele said, “Hey, I’m going back to my room to read, too!” We walked and talked all the way back to our rooms and learned that we had a lot in common. We exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch at the end of the weekend. It was just like being at summer camp.

When I got home I wrote and mailed her a letter. I told her that I had enjoyed meeting her and wished her luck on her new job—she, like Justin—was also new. With that started a friendship. The following year she took me as her date to the company’s retreat. And the year after she visited me here. I have visited her in Portland and we have remained pen pals. Here we are today visiting one another yet again and making plans for the future.

In talking, we learned that she and my boss do very similar work and I suggested they meet. We met at The Fireplace Lounge and Patio at the Hyatt Regency and sat in the lobby where indeed, the fireplace is magnificent. The place is great, I love well-lit spaces and the patio overlooks the golf course. The waiter was incredibly courteous and had a charming smile. He was attentive to our needs but not too pushy. We were able to enjoy our wine, tuna poke nachos, and conversation.

Poke is all the rage, as you may have noticed with the two Monterey locales that have popped up in the past few years: The Poke Lab (on Alvarado) and Poke Time on (Lighthouse in Monterey).

If you aren’t familiar with Poke, it’s a raw fish salad that originated in Hawaii. In Hawaiian, the word poke means “cut piece” or “small piece” and can be made with tuna, octopus, salmon, or other shellfish although the most popular is ahi tuna. Traditionally, it is cut up raw fish seasoned with salt, limu (seaweed), roasted kukui nuts (candlenuts), and sometimes pepper and/or furikake (a Japanese dry seasoning made of dry ground fish, sesame seeds, seaweed, sugar, and salt).

The dish we ordered was a spin on this salad, poke nachos. Tuna poke was served over crispy won ton chips with wakame (seaweed), sriracha aioli (sriracha is a red chili sauce), and wasabi (a Japanese horseradish). And it was delightful, the soft fish over the crispy won ton chips were the perfect treat.

As I sat back and listened to them talk about their very niche-specific work, I thought of the importance of listening but also asking questions. In asking Michele about her work and probing her for more details, I learned that she uses an instrument in her work that my boss’ husband co-developed in the 1970s. The three of them (my boss and her husband) and Michele chattered away as they all spoke the same language and I enjoyed listening. I learned so much in listening but I also learned that I am most certainly not an expert in conflict management (what they were discussing). I was reminded that there is a time to listen and a time to speak and this was certainly my time to listen.

Ahi poke nachos

**a shorter version of this story was originally published in the Cedar Street Times on 12 October 2018

Placerville, Apple Hill, and Pilot Hill

“Forever is composed of nows.”

–Emily Dickinson

Autumn is upon us and it’s glorious. I love everything that comes with the autumn season—fires in the fireplace, crisp air, rain, sweaters, sunrises, sunsets, and all of the autumn foods.

I spent the past weekend in Placerville, my closest high school guy friend (yes, PGHS grads) was getting married on Saturday night and I was honored to be a part of the celebration of marriage for someone with whom I have lived through so many of life’s milestones…and here yet another.

Main Street, downtown Placerville

I drove up on Friday and stayed at the Historic Carey House Hotel, built in 1857. Placerville is formerly known as Dry Diggings and Hangtown, both remnants of it’s role in the California Gold Rush.

Cool sign in the hotel

The wedding was Saturday evening so I spent the better part of the morning at Apple Hill. Apple Hill is not a town, rather a conglomerate of apple orchards. Apples are not only a sign that autumn is here, but also one of my favorite foods. I drove through the curving, hilly roads of Apple Hill and marveled at the trees and changing colors. I stopped at one orchard and ordered apple cider and apple cider donuts.

Apple cider and apple cider donuts

I had never heard of apple cider donuts so naturally I had to do a bit of research. The trick—I read in all the recipes—is to reduce the apple cider down in order to have a stronger and more pungent apple taste. After the donuts are fried they are rolled in cinnamon and sugar and served piping hot. How could they not be good?

The converted barn at the orchard I stopped at was a mad house of activity. The line for donuts and cider was fifteen people deep but I had to do it because when in Apple Hill…do as the people do and I guess that’s eat apple cider donuts.

The menu

Yay! Autumn!!

I sat on a bench and watched the kids and the families picnicking in the breezy autumn sun. The orchard had set hay bales in a circle and children were running around on the tops of the hay. I heard a guy sitting next to me say, “what can be better than jumping from bale of hay to bale of hay?” And I couldn’t help but agree. I watched the kids whose everything was chasing their friends from bale of hay to bale of hay. Later their everything would be eating donuts or throwing a fit because their parents told them running-on-hay-bale-time was over. But for now, they were filled with sheer glee. So many philosophers and theologians tell us the importance of living in the moment but I think a lot of adults in our society struggle with that. I know I do. I’ll be sitting in a meeting and start to jot my grocery list on the margin of my paper. While sitting in a meeting may not be as fun as jumping from bale of hay to bale of hay, chasing a squealing friend of mine, I would like to be present for the meeting. And for everything.

So while you read this, I hope you are enjoying a cup of coffee or maybe a pumpkin spice latte. I hope you are present and ensconced in the reading and the moment. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Henry David Thoreau: “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” I hope you’re enjoying the island of Pacific Grove as we welcome fall with open arms, well I at least do.

Welcome fall!

Life wants to live. Flowers growing through a crack in the pavement