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

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

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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The New Year has brought about such incredible change, mostly anticipated, welcomed, surprising, and often delightful. Some not so much. One of my most loved friends lost her mother to cancer just a few months after another dear friend also lost her mother to a longtime illness. I found out through her daughter that my longtime friend and gregarious soul, Marti, died in hospital, though not COVID related. I had plans to visit most of these folks the past year; that shit year that robbed us of so much on top of the many thousand deaths from COVID.

I was personally dealing with a gradual enigmatic illness that was slowly taking all of my energy, creating foggy brain, forgetfulness and a host of GI symptoms that I’ll spare you the details of. It was only through performing a food sensitivity test that I discovered I have quite high gluten and gliadin sensitivities, a level akin to celiac disease. What a difference finding out something like that, and within a week of taking gluten out of the picture, I felt so much better and continue to – although it is a process.

I was fortunate to have a good amount of work come my way recently after not having much of it this past year, so I’m just now acclimating to a gluten-free lifestyle, finding my stride. Although it’ll take some getting used to and I will probably be in transition for a while. A lot of my work the past 4 or 5 years has been with great organizations like GFF Magazine and Keto-Mojo, so alternative foods, recipes and lifestyles are not unfamiliar to me. I’m fortuitously armed with so much great information, many key ingredients and some wonderful and loved people as connections, resources and sounding boards.

Of course, I started thinking about the foods that I might have to live without, if I had to. Or… could I take on the task of researching and developing GF versions of favorites like croissants, rustic breads, fresh pasta, flaky tarts and quiche and so many more? I know that in taking on such an endeavor some foods will be easier than others but I am up to the challenge. Who is Snooty French without croissants, baguettes, and flaky tarts?!? Given how I was feeling, I’m happy to avoid these, but I sure would love the occasional flaky, buttery croissant…sigh.

If you follow my Instagram feed you’ll probably have seen that already I started revisiting some of the recipes I contributed to GFF Magazine and diving into delicious recipes by other talented contributors there. Savory soup by Simone Miller, a lush lasagna from Heather Crosby, magical baked goods by the equally enchanting Alanna Taylor-Tobin. See, I’m in good company, and so are you! One of my favorite things about developing recipes is that when you actually eat the finished product you don’t feel like something is missing. You gain a real sense of satisfaction from making and eating something that is more approachable, enjoyable and easier to eat for that many more people.

Change is good, it is all about perspective and mine has shifted into focus. Follow along here and via my Instagram account as the adventure continues.

Here’s the recipe for Alanna’s amazingly delicious Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Almond-Butter Oatmeal Cookies from GFF Magazine, that I featured in my Instagram recently. Make these, no one will be upset about it – and no one has to know that they just happen to be gluten-free AND dairy-free! À binetôt!

Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Almond-Butter Oatmeal Cookies

(from Alanna Taylor-Tobin)


1/2 cup sweet white rice flour (such as Blue Star Mochiko brand)

1/2 cup buckwheat flour

1/2 cup gluten-free old-fashioned rolled oats, plus more for optional garnish

1/2 cup gluten-free quick (baby) oats

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or 1/4 teaspoon if your almond butter is salted

1 cup smooth unsalted almond butter

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons maple syrup

6 tablespoons melted and cooled coconut oil

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (preferably 65%–70% cacao mass), coarsely chopped, plus more chunks for optional garnish

Flaky salt (such as Bitterman's Flake Salt, optional)

Position a rack in the upper third and one in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 375ºF. Line two or three baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a bowl, whisk together the sweet rice flour, buckwheat flour, old-fashioned oats, quick oats, baking soda, and sea salt.

In a large bowl, stir together the almond butter, maple syrup, coconut oil, and vanilla. Add the flour mixture, stirring until combined, then stir vigorously for 20 seconds to create a chewy texture. Stir in the chocolate.

Using two teaspoons or a #40 spring-loaded ice cream scoop, form the dough into 1-1/2-inch balls and place at least 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Top each cookie with a few flakes of flaky salt, a few oats, and a chocolate chunk or two. Bake the cookies for 5 minutes and rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom, then bake until puffed and slightly cracked on top and set around the sides, 8 to 10 minutes. (Although they will seem underdone and soft at first, they will firm up as they cool.) Let cool completely, then devour.

Reprinted with permission from GFF Magazine

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Happier New Year to you all! Here we are, nearly a month in to it and I’m sure that you are all as thankful as I am to have put 2020 behind us and are hopeful and well intentioned moving forward into 2021. With every New Year there seems to be a glut of goodhearted declarations. All of the sudden everyone is going to be ‘Dry in January’, ‘Fit in February’, ‘Meatless in March’, and have ‘Abs in April’, ok, I made some of those up. I don’t know about you, but I’m just trying to keep from screaming or crying on any given day so the thought of taking up any of these well-meaning decrees is beyond me and beyond what I feel capable of right now.

Don’t get me wrong (or started, it’s my blog after all!), I think most of these are good ideas and I am making changes - slowly, gently, and because I want to. All through the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, I’ve made sure to move every day, to get outside and walk, get in a light workout most mornings and a rigorous one a few times a week (ok, at least once a week). I might be baking (and eating baked goods) less, and I’ll probably no longer be having a ‘Holiday-inspired’ cocktail every (other?) day, and ending each day with a sip or a nip, and I will be working even more meatless and/or plant-based dishes into our mealtimes. What I will NOT be doing is putting any added pressure on myself by jumping on the standard moniker bandwagon.

I will absolutely be cooking lots of comfort food this winter. After all, French food is the ultimate comfort food; creamy gratins, lush braises, hearty soups, flaky pastry, savory tray-bakes, cheese, chocolate, cheese and buttery goodness galore, and maybe some more cheese!

It also seems like a good time to do something else I love and that is to revisit projects that I worked on the previous year and dive back in to some favorites. I have been developing recipes and food styling for Keto-Mojo here in Napa for almost two years now and mixed in there I have the pleasure of occasionally working with some of my favorite industry folks on regular projects of theirs or on fun, one-off projects like cookbooks. Ayesha Curry’s latest cookbook, The Full Plate was one such project that I worked on late 2019/early 2020, thanks to my pal Jessica for bringing me onboard. As it was winter when I was testing these recipes, I find myself longing for a few of those comforting creations this winter.

The Full Plate is packed with accessible, weeknight-friendly, family-oriented, flavorful recipes that will surprise and delight with their ease, range and raves. Ayesha’s Jamaican red pea soup with spinners is the first one that I had to make again. A simple combo of canned red beans, coconut milk, sweet potatoes, and broth (use vegetable broth to make it vegan), a smoked turkey wing or neck offers smoky richness (which you could alternately acheive with a few hefty pinches of smoked paprika like I did, or a dash of liquid smoke), and the spinners (hand-rolled dumplings) can be made using a gluten-free flour blend with brilliant results. Soul-satisfying, simple, filling and deliciously moreish!

I recently made and posted the apple turnovers from the book on IG and other recipes from the book are on the repeat list for this winter, a time of year where we crave delicious comfort, especially when it’s as accessible as the recipes from this good book (those turnovers are just as good with pears!). Beet, walnut, goat cheese salad with maple dressing, hot honey chicken sandwiches, parmesan baked scallops, lamb pasta bake and wild mushroom orzo risotto will definitely make a comeback.

A month into the New Year and I already feel like I need a vacation. Well, no traveling yet, so I guess I’ll get into the kitchen and enjoy a cooking escape/excursion. Next stop, Comfort Town!

Want to satisfy some souls this winter? Here’s my adapted version of Ayesha’s Jamaican Red Pea Soup, enjoy! Get the book, and Happy New Year!!! XOXO

Jamaican Red Pea Soup with Spinners

Serves 4 to 6

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 large yellow onion, finely diced, about 2 cups

2 green onions, thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 (15.5 ounce) cans kidney beans (drained and rinsed)

1 (13.5 ounce) can coconut milk

½ to 1 tsp smoked paprika

¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 large sweet potato (about 20 oz) peeled and cut into ½-inch dice

1 quart low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

For the spinners:

1 cup all-purpose flour (or sub GF flour blend)

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and green onions and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the kidney beans, coconut milk, paprika, red pepper flakes, sweet potato and broth along with ½ teaspoon pepper.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the soup to a simmer for 40 minutes. Taste the soup and adjust with salt and pepper; increase the heat and return soup to a vigorous simmer.

For the spinners (dumplings): combine the flour and olive oil along with ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ cup cool water in a medium bowl, gently mix until combined. Transfer to a lightly floured work surface and knead the dough until it’s smooth. Scoop out tablespoonfuls of the dough and roll them between your palms into fat snakes. Drop the dumplings into the bubbling soup and simmer until the dumplings are cooked through, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve.

(couldn't help add this, acknowledging my acknowledgment!)

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