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

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

It’s that time of year. Time to be thankful for everything, not the least of which is the anticipated bounty of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie that Americans look forward to cramming down our gullets this time of year. Although challenging to sift through it this year there is a lot to be thankful for, especially if you are healthy, sheltered, and have that annual buffet binge to look forward to. Sadly, this is not the case for so many, those not sheltered and/or without food in their future. And there will be many empty chairs at tables this year due to distance, distancing and deaths. But let me turn this around, quickly before I lose you!

Before going into what we should be thankful for, there’s one big reason to be expressing your thanks: it’s good for you! As cliché as “count your blessings” and other such expressions of gratitude may be, they have actually been proven to be beneficial by decreasing blood pressure, reducing anxiety and depression, and even helping you sleep better. Living with gratitude can be a healthful way of life. Thankfulness on the other hand is a good response expressed when you have received benefits – more automated response than mindful mantra.

Although still more than a few weeks to go as I write this, Thanksgiving looms. Long ago I stopped travelling for the holiday, opting to take part in or create new localized traditions and celebrations of thanks with my chosen family (no offense to given family!). Instead of crowded, hassled airports and besieged roadways, where no one appears at all in the spirit, I choose smaller, more civilized get-togethers in which I can feel relaxed, welcome and able to be mindful, grateful AND thankful! Goodbye to just unwinding from the trip there when suddenly it’s time to make the same stressful trip back. No THANK you!

For a few years, a friend and I would spend weeks planning a different thematic Thanksgiving meal. The usual suspects where there, although dressed up a bit differently. Gracing the Southwest inspired dinner table, our turkey was deeply bronzed with a pumpkin-chipotle glaze and served with green chili mashed potatoes and apricot-jalapeño relish. Another year a Tuscan-themed bird received an olive oil-fennel seed-citrus-sage massage and was then stuffed with fennel, kale, rosemary, pine nut and ciabatta dressing. Not tied to the traditional same old, same old, we enjoyed flexing our global culinary muscles, letting all the flags fly, all the while avoiding family drama, traffic, crowds, and airports. Grateful!

As time went by, people relocated, dynamics changed and with some friends, the ritualistic all stages act of preparing that ginormous, glistening-brown, lusciously lacquered, Rockwellian centerpiece becomes too much. When I took the call from our friend who we would be dining with hours later on one particular Thanksgiving Day, I assumed it was going to be a request to bring an extra bag of ice, or a pint of whipping cream. I wasn’t prepared to hear that his wife, my dear longtime friend, had just chucked the raw turkey out the back door onto the lawn. She was done, too much!

Barry and I hustled to get dressed, pull together our dinner contributions and were out the door within an hour. When we arrived, the flung fowl had been retrieved, grass rinsed off, and our friends attempting to regroup. At this point the turkey should have been in the oven for a few hours to accommodate dinner guests arriving in just a few more hours. I quickly decided that best way to get it moving along quickly was to spatchcock the bird for faster, easier cooking. Spatchcocking is a procedure in which you remove the backbone from and flatten or butterfly the bird for quicker, even cooking. Glad I brought my knife kit, bien sûr!

In hindsight, I probably should have warned our friend, who returned to the kitchen right when I was pulling out the backbone, exactly what I intended to do. “WHAT are you doing?!?” was his natural reaction, that aforementioned Rockwellian table-carving moment quickly dissipating. I explained, I apologized, I reminded I was asked to come help and help I did. It turned out a delicious and memorable meal, for so many reasons!

I later suggested that maybe it was the last year they hosted and encouraged the making of new, simplified traditions. They now make my easy whole roast beef tenderloin and have people over the days following Thanksgiving, where they can be more relaxed and inviting. No risk of arriving guests having to elude pitched poultry.

This year, we are all being urged into new traditions. Although I’m sure there are plenty of folks carrying on as if there is NOT a pandemic, we will again be reinventing Thanksgiving dinner this year. Staying safe, healthy and sane means we might consider an offer to a friend’s SD dinner or we may just stay home and enjoy a rare (and could become a NEW tradition) kitchen assist appearance from my sweet husband. We’ll mix up some cheer, maybe have a video chat or two with other friends and family, joining them as they prepare in their kitchens. Thankful for technology that we recently blamed for isolating people ironically is now bringing us together.

Whatever we do, I’m thankful to have options. Thankful for my friends, family, home and health. I plan to express my gratitude by offering and reciprocating help, cooking a friend dinner, assisting someone without expecting a return of favor, or donating time or money to organizations that are helping others less fortunate. Gratitude is a way of life that I’m thankful for.

Oh, and make this Tartiflette in a Pumpkin this season! Tartiflette is a traditional dish from the French Alps that showcases my two favorite food groups; dairy and carbs. Not typically made in a pumpkin but I found it the perfect edible vessel and a gorgeous addition to any holiday table. Love and hugs to you and yours! xoxo

Tartiflette is a perfect meal when paired with the essential accompaniments of salad and cornichon - add charcuterie and it's a proper meal, or a superb Thanksgiving side dish when cut into smaller wedges. Make it vegetarian - swap bacon for ½ cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes. You’re welcome!

Tartiflette in a Pumpkin

Serves 6 to 12

1 small pumpkin or sunshine kabocha squash, about 3 pounds

Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 oz sliced bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)

2 Tbsp minced fresh sage (or sub thyme or rosemary)

3/4 pounds (12 oz) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/3-inch pieces

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

6 oz crème fraîche (@ ¾ cup)

2 cups day old bread pieces, roughly torn 1/2-inch pieces rather than perfect cubes

6 oz Taleggio cheese or any soft, washed-rind cheese such as Brie (Reblochon if you can find it!)

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C. Position a rack in the center of oven. Line a rimmed baking dish with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Wash and dry pumpkin thoroughly then carefully cut the top off about 1 1/2 inches out from the stem, jack-o’-lantern style. Use a spoon, scrape out the seeds and strings. Reserve seeds to roast later, if you like!

Place the pumpkin and the stem on the prepared baking dish. Drizzle a bit of olive oil in and around pumpkin and stem, season the inside with salt and pepper then place in the oven until the flesh is soft when pierced with tip of a small knife, mostly cooked through and a bit golden on the edges, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the roasted pumpkin and allow it to cool.

Meanwhile, place the bacon in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat has nearly all rendered and the bacon is beginning to crisp, 8 to 12 minutes.

Add onion to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the sage and potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are quite brown and caramelized, and the potatoes are just cooked through, 20 to 22 minutes. Stir the nutmeg and crème fraîche into the potato mixture and season with salt and pepper.

Stir the bread into the potato mixture and spoon about half of the mixture into the pumpkin. Cut cheese into 1/4-inch slices and place a layer on the filling. Spoon in the remaining filling mixture, packing it gently so it all fits. Top with the remaining cheese and pour the cream over the cheese.

Place stuffed pumpkin in oven and bake until cheese has melted and browned, 15 minutes. You can blast under broiler for 20 to 30 seconds for super brown and bubbly. Serve whole with lid, slice into wedges at the table.

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If you haven’t seen Padma Lakshmi’s new Hulu show, Taste the Nation(a show that explores the rich and diverse food cultures of various immigrant groups, seeking out the people who have shaped what American food is today), I highly recommend you seek it out. I’ve been a fan of the glamorous food writer and longtime Top Chef host since the first Top Chef season aired. In 2016 Lakshmi released her memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate, and while devouring it I was quite moved and surprised by its honesty. The remarkable story of her journey details profound strength and support from some extraordinary figures, instrumental in shaping her along the way. It’s a beautiful story, rich in sensory detail and evocative food lore. Her memoir further opened my eyes and heart to a life traversing geographies and cultures, both internally and externally and also deepened my love for all things desi. Padma’s resonant immigrant story mirrors so very many others, just like the beautiful souls in each rich, colorful, and delicious episode.

We are almost all immigrants here in America, and though the years and broken family trees might make one’s lineage hard to establish, we fortunately now have the means to access our ancestry. A few years ago, like many of you may have, I submitted DNA for genetic testing and analysis. I was curious about my ancestral immigration stories, if there were any.

In conversations we’ve had over the years, my Mom has done her best to verbally chronicle some lineage; our Mexican great grandmother (Nana), a French grandfather, our Mexican-American/American-Indian grandma (unfortunately I have NO happy grandma stories to share), but we are lacking the tidy trees that many families have and much of Mom’s narrating is openly speculative. There is no documentation of familial lines and the stories about where we come from, who is who and where were they’re from, have always felt inconclusive. Never having a relationship with my late birth father (who was adopted), I wanted answers, needed answers.

I recall a rather brown side to our family as a child in San Diego. An early memory is of a family gathering that included Mom’s aunts and cousins and their families, proudly Latino, loving and fun. While my siblings and cousins played outside, I was mesmerized by all of the happenings in the kitchen. Curious; enthralled by the action, camaraderie and aromas - it may have been my first culinary stirring, so to speak. Nana on a step-stool tending a bubbling pot at the stove, steaming dishes in and out of the oven, someone making guacamole – little snooty me was spellbound.

For most of my life I’ve begrudgingly ticked the box marked White, although I find that term inadequate, if not lacking and imprecise. I’m more often tempted to check the box marked Other Race and add “None of your fucking business” in the Describe area. My own small protest to the increasingly silly, useless and maybe even harmful emphasis placed on race, ethnicity, national origin and skin color; everyone aggregated into their little boxes.

Looking at me it’s probably pretty easy to categorize me as a non-diverse white guy. Lacking any noticeable ethnic features or accent, other than So-Cal with of hint of Midwestern. It turns out though, according to my DNA results, I am actually quite diverse. Regrettably I’m all the wrong kinds of diverse, according to the available boxes one must tick. Despite my diversity, I rarely feel the urge to make claims at being what my genetic testing results reveal as Scotch/English-French-Native American-Mexican-Caucasian-American raised by a non-practicing Jew, oy!

Not brown enough to embrace my Mexican heritage, Jewish only by association, and eye rolls from some Americas and French because I was not born in France, WTF?* So, who am I? Where do I fit in? What are my family immigration stories?

When in France, I do feel a sense of belonging like nowhere else, except in the kitchen. And when cooking, I am often drawn to classic, humble, rustic and homey French preparations that, because they have French names, people mistake for complicated, quaint, or even (if you can believe it!) snooty. And here’s what I embrace as my own, it’s through a Mexican inflected, NorCal lens that my French cooking takes on a unique quality that satisfies via classic comfort food roots, surprises with spikes of chili heat, punchy garlic, bright citrus and exotic spice and delights by being at once approachable and aspirational. It has GOT to look beautiful, but not forced or too beautiful – us food stylist’s on-going dilemma.

I love our immigrant rich country and I appreciate the many stories being shared, the cuisines being studied, narrated and celebrated, and the insight of the journeys, struggles and navigating of our vast and varied landscape by these determined, strong souls. People looking for a safe place to live, work, play and feed their families. I feel fortunate to have every one of them and their many additions to the gorgeously vibrant tapestry that makes America great.

* WTF? = What the French?

Moules Mexicaines

(Mussels with Chorizo. A lot French, a little Mexican, and very California!)

Serves 4

4 lbs. fresh mussels, scrubbed and debearded

Kosher salt

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp unsalted butter

½ pound fresh Mexican chorizo sausage, bulk, not in casing

1 shallot, diced small

1 serrano chili, sliced into thin rings

1 cup dry white wine or Mexican beer

1 yellow or orange bell pepper, finely diced

1 Roma tomato, seeded and finely diced

½ cup cilantro leaves, loosely packed


Discard any cracked or open mussels that will not close when tapped on counter. Place mussels in a large bowl or stock pot and cover with cold water, stir in 2 tablespoon salt and let sit.

Place a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add the olive oil and butter. When the oil is shimmering hot, add the chorizo and shallot. Cook, stirring often, until shallot is soft and chorizo loses its raw color, about 5 minutes. Add the serrano chili and ½ tsp salt and cook, stirring often for 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the wine, bell pepper, and mussels (lifted gently out of the water they’ve been in). Stir to combine and bring wine to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover pot and simmer until mussels have opened, shaking the pot a few times during cooking, 5 to 6 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and half of the cilantro and toss to combine. Serve topped with the remaining cilantro and a whole baguette on the side that guests can tear into and sop up the delicious juices with.

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Growing up I hated my birthday. Not the actual celebration, what’s to hate about cake, ice cream, and presents?!? I’m talking about when my birthday is, the first week of September, the beginning of the school year. It was always a herald of summers end, back-to-school, and included presents that were almost always back-to-school clothes and/or supplies. I guess it wasn’t as bad as having a December 25 birthday (like one of my lovely nieces! How’d you navigate that one?), but there we are. As a kid, I felt a bit cheated.

Growing older I’ve thought less and less about Birthdays, mine and often other peoples(sorry). Not intentionally, mind you, it just has always been one of those things that’s eluded me and didn’t seem very important. I was terrible at keeping a calendar with all those dates and as time went on I remembered other people’s special days less and less, calendars and address books (remember those?!?) didn’t get updated. I recall even forgetting my own birthday once or twice, until getting a birthday call from Mom. Sadly, hers another birthday I’ve not remembered over the years. Was it the 26th? No, the 29th! Wait, the 28th…? Merde! I’ve got it now, don’t anyone worry!

Some milestone birthdays and celebrations with certain people and/or in particular places (and cakes!) stick with me. Into my 40’s I started feeling a bit more appreciative of each year that I’ve gone around the sun. And, although this year feels like a wash and I desperately want a do-over, my birthday is here. And for the first time in a LONG time, I want the party! I want the song sung, the candles lit, I’ll even take balloons (I hate balloons), definitely cake AND ice cream! I want friends and (some) family around. I wish, I wish…

Unfortunately, I think I will be a bit cheated this year. Now, I’m sure upon reading this my sweet husband, Barry, will probably try to pull something wonderful together in response (I won’t stop you or protest, if you’re reading this!), he indulges me every year and I hear there’s already a birthday outing/adventure planned for later in the month! Sadly, it can’t involve loved ones around, arm slung over the shoulder of one, toasting another with my free hand, and right when I’m ready for you all and miss you the most.

As a kid, one thing we always got for our birthdays was to choose what kind of cake we’d like and what we wanted for dinner. I can’t for the life of me recall any of my choices, but I do recall my oldest brother requesting a strawberry cake one year – that same year we found out he is allergic to strawberries! To this day, I have a love of lemon desserts. If there is a lemon dessert on the menu, I will almost always get it. One year, I made my own birthday cake, this luscious, layered lemon torte that recalled one at a gourmet food shop I worked at in Ann Arbor, MI in the late 80’s - it’s just not the same.

I always make a birthday cake (or pie) for Barry and make a dinner of his choosing, so I do carry on that family tradition. I love when someone else cooks for me, but outside of restaurants this rarely happens, especially now. I’m sure a lot of my fellow culinary folk know this tale all too well. We are going out for my birthday dinner, and someone else will be cooking for me, as one of our favorite local spots is now accommodating SD dining outdoors in their lovely backyard garden– yay!

Blue Plate restaurant here in San Francisco’s Mission District is a leisurely walk from our home in Noe Valley and has been in business for just over 20 years. No longer the shiny new, buzzy, see-and-be-seen place that all of the cool kids love to frequent and post about, I think it remains relevant and consistent in its quality of food, incredibly gracious, engaging and fun crew, and so much welcoming charm and whimsical character in its ambiance.

We used to love to sit at the counter (when indoor dining was a thing) and watching all of the action, engaging with the line cooks and (tongue-firmly-in-cheek) seeing-and-be seen! My years working in restaurants, I found it was all about your regulars, your neighborhood folk who pop in a few times a week or month, book larger tables for special occasions, whose names you know, and whose faces you’re always happy to see. Eventually the cool kids see something shiny and new and need to run to that – buh-bye! The regulars are the people sustaining your business, and its especially important now for us to support these small, struggling businesses.

I LOVE being a regular myself, and when it’s a place that makes me feel all of the feels, like I do when dining at Blue Plate, then I’m all in. Every visit feels like a celebration, especially these days, and calls for a glass of their sparkling Rosé as SOON as we arrive, greeted by name. As usual, we’re off to a great start!

Happy Birthday to me and Happy Labor Day to you all. I hope you all find a way to safely celebrate this weekend in the spirit of the holiday and consider ALL of the workers, past and present, whose contributions add to the character, strength, prosperity, and well-being of our great country. Santé!

Birthday Chai-Chocolate Pudding and Port, yes please!

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