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Musings, inspiration, reviews, tales, and the occasional rant (sûrement!)

As we are settling deep in to fall, it seemed just days ago I was asking where summer went. It's all a bit confusing, even after all these years, becasue here in San Francisco, summer is actually more like September into November, following Fog-ust. Named so as we are pretty much socked in by a marine layer (or fog) that keeps us pretty cool and grey for the month of August. I like it like that, I’ll always take it a bit cooler than too warm. It does mess with my cooking clock however. I find myself in August (while there are heat waves and grueling humidity in most parts of the country) wanting to put up pots of soup, long simmering braises and hearty gratins. I have to refrain from daily baking, filling our home with fragrant warm spices, buttery goodness, yeasty good aromas, all of which is odd to do in August. Athough now, it is time!

I’m always amused when I see friends and family in the Midwest and Northeast, right after Labor Day packing away the lawn darts, hammocks and flip flops and suddenly pumpkins, corn husks and ghouls appear everywhere – barely in to September, still summer folks. Don’t even get me started on all of that which has already turned to Christmas décor come November 1, oy!

November deserves its moment to shine on its own, unencumbered by boughs of holly and inflatable Frozen characters. Why not add colorful fall leaves, berry branches, and bronze spray-painted decorative gourds to those uncarved Halloween pumpkins and extend the autumnal décor right up until Thanksgiving? After all, many people have no problem keeping Christmas décor and kindling-like pine trees in varying shades of brown, on display in their front windows well past Valentine’s Day (eye-roll).

I am jumping right into the autumnal season with this winter squash and tomato gratin, beautifully bridging the seasons here. A sauté of onion and leeks is deglazed with white wine. Tomatoes are added and cooked down and finished with a splash of cream. Thin layers of butternut squash (delicata, kabocha or the little candy-like honey-nut squash, which look like tiny Butternut squash fresh from a week on the beach in Cozumel are good subbed here as well) are layered into a gratin dish with the creamy tomato-leek mixture and baked until tender. The whole thing is covered in buttery Parmesan bread crumbs and browned to bubbly, golden and delicious.

I am also busy developing gluten-free versions of many of my favorite Holiday cookies – our lucky neighbors! I’m starting with Mom’s pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, which she has been making since sometime in the 70’s, familiar to many of you! These are always a favorite. A cake-like cookie, fragrant with cinnamon and vanilla and bejeweled with chocolate chips, they are quickly gobbled up, which has nothing to do with the fact that they are best eaten within a few days of baking. Look for an update on these in the next blog.

Happy Thanksgiving to and yours! Love, hugs and happy baking from me, Barry and Addie. Xo

Butternut Squash-Tomato Gratin

Serves 6 to 8

4 Tbsp EVOO, divided

1 leek, halved and thinly sliced (3 oz)

1 small onion, halved and thinly sliced (4 oz)

2 tsp fresh thyme leaves (or 1 tsp dried thyme), divided

1/8 tsp red pepper flakes

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 14.5 oz can petite diced or crushed tomatoes

1/2 cup heavy cream (or coconut cream)

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded, halved lengthwise and cut into ¼” slices (@ 24oz)

1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs ( I used Ian’s gluten-free panko)

6 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese (for dairy-free, sub more panko)

2 Tbsp melted butter, or olive oil

Generously grease a 2-quart gratin or baking dish with olive oil. Preheat 375°F oven and position rack in center of oven.

In a large skillet, combine 3 Tbsp EVOO, leek and onion with half of the thyme, pepper flakes and ¼ tsp salt over medium-high heat. When sizzling, stir and cook until leek and onion have softened a bit, 3 to 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until vegetables are soft and just starting to get a bit golden, 2 to 3 minutes more. Add wine. Deglaze, reduce to half, 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomato, stir cook until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in cream and season with ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper.

Layer ½ tomato in bottom of baking dish and top with half of the sliced squash, overlapping the slices slightly, like shingles. Repeat with the remaining tomato and shingled squash. Drizzle with remaining EVOO and thyme and season with ½ tsp salt and pepper. Cover the baking dish tightly with aluminum foil, place onto a rimmed baking pan and bake until a sharp knife inserted into the gratin easily glides through it, depending on squash it should take 45 to 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and remaining thyme in a small bowl and toss to mix. Pour the melted butter over the breadcrumb mixture. Mix to combine.

Increase the oven temperature to 400°F. Remove the foil from the baking dish. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture evenly over the gratin, return it to the oven, and cook until the topping is golden brown and the gratin is bubbling about 15 minutes. Let rest for at least 10 minutes, then serve.

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It elicits strange looks, surprise reactions and a lot of questions when I answer that always awkward question that some people still insist on asking (oh, small talk, I haven’t missed you); “What do you do for a living?” When I answer that I work as a recipe developer and food stylist, among my other roles in the world of food, I often find that people apparently didn’t know any of them “was a thing”. When I point out that any image of food that they see online, in magazines, billboards, television, and cookbooks, there was a person or team behind getting that image to look just like it does, like something you want to eat, to make, or to dive into.

In addition to recipe development and food styling, another of my duties the three years I worked as a recipe editor with my dear friend Erika at her beautiful and inspiring GFF Magazine, was testing recipes. Yes, it’s just as awful as it sounds. I jest, but don’t get me wrong, recipe testing is work, but almost always delicious work that is also almost always gleefully consumed once completed – job done!

Recipe testing requires a thorough understanding of how recipes work, a pretty good idea of how most foods/recipes should look and taste, the technique it takes to get them there and the practiced eye to catch errors, typos, and other conundrums before you even start the actual cooking. The job also informed and satisfied my curiosity of how some things that I didn’t quite understand worked, as the world of gluten-free baking was relatively new to me then.

The myriad ways in which one can mimic the amazing stretchy, springy, structural, strong-yet-delicate properties of gluten can be overwhelming. The many different alternative flours, flour replacements, baking blends (they don’t all act alike!), substitutions and additions like xanthan gum, psyllium, chia or guar gum for binding, emulsifying or volumizing really need to be understood, how they work individually and how they work when combined with others. Years later, I am still a work in progress, but cooking, testing, baking, developing, asking questions, dissecting failures, celebrating wins and enjoying scrumptious results has been a labor of love. Discovering my high sensitivity to gluten earlier this year has made it a personal necessity. In my initial research, I found I was caught up in seeking the best gluten-free version of all of my former favorites. Hearty, rustic bread, flaky pastry crusts, buttery laminated doughs (oh, croissant my heart, I miss you most!), and my finally perfected pizza dough, now just memories, albeit more of a Stockholm Syndrome situation in hindsight. Where I am now, months later, is actually celebrating the beauty of recipes that just happen to be gluten-free rather than trying to imitate or recreate. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll most likely still see some version of all of my French favorites along the way, bien sûr, but I love that many recipes that just happen to be gluten-free are lacking nothing as they are their own lovely thing, just over here living their best life, a life that just happens to be free of gluten – like these Chocolate Quinoa Cupcakes.

A cupcake is a cupcake is a cupcake, right? Oh, no mes amies, not the case here. Cooked quinoa steps in to replace standard all-purpose flour, making these lovely little daymakers gluten-free as well as delighting with an amazing textural experience. Usually consigned to side dish status or ubiquitous salad bar selection, quinoa’s earthy nuttiness and fluffy, toothsome chew provides incredible depth and dimension to all of the enchantments and desirousness of chocolate. And what a lusty plunge into chocolate these little gems are. Topped with a frothy cloud of mint-kissed chocolate buttercream and my addition of toasty-crispy, puffed quinoa, who is going to even be thinking about gluten, much less missing it?!? Flour-schmour!

I made the cupcakes in miniature form for my husband to take to a recent al fresco work party potluck. I simply decreased the bake time by about 25% after scooping into paper lined mini muffin tin. For potlucks, I like to offer something more inclusive than standard buffet contributions. These cupcakes being gluten-free and nut-free could have easily been made dairy-free by replacing the butter and milk with plant-based options – everybody’s happy! Most importantly, nobody feels like they’re missing out on anything, and you sure don’t here. Potluck tip: use a simple planning tool for you next party, like so you don’t end up with 5 potato salads and NO cupcakes! Personalize it to make sure there’s something for everyone. It drives me crazy that more people don’t use great, easy tools like this.

The only adjustment I would make to the cupcake recipe next time is to use fine brown sugar in the frosting or maybe even swap in superfine white or give your brown sugar a whiz in the food processor. The brown sugar I had on hand was an organic, unrefined brand that was coarse, more like turbinado sugar and just never fully melted, creating a bit of crunch to the finished frosting. Good thing I had that crispy quinoa to top them with! The recipe requires cooked, cooled quinoa, so be sure to plan ahead when you make these, and make them you should. Find the recipe for Chocolate Quinoa Cupcakes at Bon appétit, mes amours!

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Updated: Jun 14

Hello sunshine! Flowers are blooming, business are reopening and travel seems very ‘In” this season. I got a bit of a travel reboot myself this spring with a visit back to Michigan, where some of my dearest friends and family reside. With some trepidation and a bit more anxiety, I made a solo venture into the world of close proximity to others. For many this appears to be no big deal and nothing new, as some seem to have never stopped traveling, or to have never really taken the whole pandemic as a serious danger to their health or that of others. Well, I did and I still do. Baby steps. There is no right or wrong way to come out of this and it is all about your comfort level, but for now I will continue to wear that mask when in close proximity to those I don’t know and of course on public transportation, planes, trains, movie theaters (although not there yet either), stores, and shopping malls (ugh, never go there anyway!). And still only outdoor dining for now, which we have been doing all along here in San Francisco.

During my visit, I surprised my Mom on Mother’s Day, as well as my sister and her family, it was their home that I popped into – surprise! After a fun visit and catch up there I was eager to connect with friends who I hadn’t seen in a few years, most with their own challenges, hardships, health issues, loss and grief. Not all COVID related but most certainly exacerbated by the past year’s fear, trials, anxiety, and isolation. There was a lot of laughter through tears (mine and Dolly Parton’s favorite emotion), and some struggles and missteps while trying to find our way back to being close to (vaccinated) others. Hugs were welcomed and fully reciprocated. Faces, uncovered, revealing maskless smiles and tear-stained cheeks, were a grateful sight. Unfiltered laughter, touching an arm or a loved ones back as full-bellied chortles erupting, forcing a year of stale air out of open windows and filling hearts with something much needed and very sorely missed.

Of course, whenever visiting my peeps, it’s a given that food and delicious drink will be involved. The first such gathering, and the one I will expand on in this blog entry, was with my cher amis, Kathleen, Laenne, and Oksana. We were all brought together almost 30 years (mon dieu!) ago while working at a distinctive, quirky, and fun shop/restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, called Pastabilities. Ironically, my visit and this gathering were preceded a few months by the surprising release of a lovely book containing the recipes from and stories about Pastabilities and its pioneering and spirited owner, the lovely Marguerite Bertoni Oliver. Written by her daughter, Susan, the other three of us were gifted the charming book by Laenne – thanks, Laenne! We swapped stories, sipped wine, laughed and reminisced while flipping through the pages and photos, revisiting favorite recipes, rediscovering some we’d forgotten and delighting in new recipes added by Susan along with so much lore and rich history. We shared favorite moments, not-so-favorite moments and gratitude for that long-gone special place and time in our lives and the extraordinary woman who brought us all together.

Marguerite was born in Ann Arbor, her parents natives of Italy’s north-western Liguria region, The Italian Riviera. Over many years she’d visit and live in various regions of Italy, forging her pasta journey from an early age, learning from her mother and Nona along the way. After raising her family, and at 50 years young, the civic-minded community leader, gutsy Italian and painter launched her first professional culinary venture: Pastabilities in The Kerrytown Shops, next to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and a block from Zingerman’s Deli. As the company’s success grew, in 1991 Marguerite was invited to represent Michigan at a business conference in Moscow, that same year Pastabilities earned the title “Best Pasta in America” by CNN. Brava!

The few years that I worked for her, hired by my friend Linda who was the retail manager at that time, I began as a retail employee and quickly became Pastabilities catering manager. Marguerite allowed me to form and expand the catering business as well as help out in the kitchen. Soon, Kathleen became the retail manager, and fresh from a year in Italy, Laenne took up a kitchen position (and assisted in many catering antics!) and Oksana was hired as counter staff, along with an array of other eager, interesting, quirky, and fun folks that came and went over the years.

It wasn’t all laughter and bottomless pasta salads, there were tears, fights, exhaustion, underappreciation and a #metoo moment that troubles us still. But we wiped each other’s tears away, laughed when the fighting was done, held each other up and regarded one another and these newfound friendships, the kind you only can form in such situations, and when you’re young. Thirty years later, I’m happy to say that we still do, like no time has passed and with a lot less fighting.

We learned a lot working for Marguerite. I can put together a lasagna in my sleep, and NEVER ricotta in those lasagnas! With her roots in Northern Italy, Marguerite had us perfecting a béchamel sauce (heady with fresh grated nutmeg and white pepper) and the fresh pasta sheets were layered with it, plenty of Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, and such deliciously simple filling as asparagus and prosciutto, or chicken and pesto, or artichoke and creations of our own, like apple-cheddar - I can’t remember if we liked that one or not...

I was young and little green, but cutting my teeth as catering manager, I learned a lot in those few years, much by trial and error. A smile while serving up delicious food and never letting them see you sweat got us through a lot of those moments. Years later and through many other food businesses: restaurants, catering, gourmet retail, and many positions: cook, cheesemonger, server, bartender, manager, dishwasher, through Michelin Stars, Mom & Pop’s, culinary school, salt-selling and cheesemaking, I look back and cherish the work, knowledge, friendships (family), lessons learned, and hardships overcome. Each a piece of the complex, layered, rich and varied puzzle(lasagna?) of the person I’ve become. Chef, cook, caterer, food stylist, teacher, recipe developer, Pasta brat, friend, husband, brother. Life lessons.

Marguerite sold Pastabilities after about 20 years, and she passed away in 2012 at 82. A life well lived! We all still make recipes or variations from those days, many by memory and have grown to become our own, but it’s great to have Susan’s beautiful cookbook/memoir/homage to remind, inspire and entertain with the effortless, heartleft verve that Marguerite did.

This lasagna recipe is my adaptation from over the years and yet not unlike so many of the other delicious lasagna and more recipes in “The Pastabilities”, by Susan Marguerite Oliver. Maybe it was all the pasta over the years that have caused my gluten sensitivity. I now use gluten-free, oven ready lasagna noodles with beautiful results, that is when I don't have time to make a batch of gluten free fresh pasta - that will be another post. Buon apppetito!

Artichoke and Greens Lasagna a la Pastabilities

Serves 8 to 10

2 cups milk

4 Tbsp unsalted butter

¼ cup AP or rice flour (I use superfine brown rice flour)

¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch of cayenne

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

1 Tbsp EVOO

2 6oz jars marinated artichoke heart quarters, reserve marinade

2 spring onions, sliced thin

3/4 pound fresh asparagus, sliced diagonally leaving 1 to 2-inch tips whole

5 oz (@ 3 cups) packed fresh baby spinach, chopped 1/4 pound grated Parmesan cheese 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella cheese 1 pound fresh lasagna sheets or 1 10oz box oven-ready lasagna noodles

Make béchamel – Warm milk in saucepan or microwave, set aside.

Melt butter in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat, do not let it brown. Add flour to butter, stirring quickly with wooden spoon. Cook, stirring mixture about 5 to 8 minutes, until raw flour smell turns into slight nutty aroma. Don’t let it brown.

Add just enough warm milk to moisten flour/butter mixture. Stir thoroughly to loosen up. Use a whisk to gradually add rest of milk while whisking constantly. Whisk vigorously until smooth!

Cook, stirring constantly, until starting to bubble and thicken. Season with nutmeg, cayenne, and salt and white pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil and artichoke marinade over medium heat. Sauté spring onions and asparagus until soft, 6 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and add spinach, stir until wilted. Remove from heat and add artichoke hearts. Remove and reserve 8 to 12 of the asparagus tips.

To build lasagna, spread a small amount of béchamel sauce in bottom of 13x9x2 baking pan. Then add a layer of lasagna sheets. Stir the sautéed vegetables into the reaming béchamel sauce add 1/3 of the sauce over lasagna and top with a about 1/3 of each cheese, until you have three layers, ending with sauce and cheese. Arrange the asparagus tips on the top.

Cover tightly with foil that has been sprayed with cooking spray so cheese doesn’t stick!

Bake about 45 minutes, remove foil and cook 1o to 15 minutes more, until golden and bubbly. Let rest 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

Note - This lasagna freezes beautifully and you can add a cup or two of diced or shredded rotisserie chicken to the sauce, or a cup of diced ham or sliced prosciutto. Or not.

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