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

Updated: Jan 2, 2021


2020 is nearing its exhaustive conclusion and as we inch closer to the end of this dark tunnel we are also that much closer to a COVID-19 vaccine, closer to a relief bill, closer to being able to hug our friends and families, closer to dinner parties, closer to my regular lunch date at Zuni Café, closer to being belly to the stage at a live music show, closer to seeing each other’s smiles again, and closer to breathing a huge sigh of relief.


December’s many festivities also bring with some of the darkest days of the year, and although they are feeling darker than usual right now there are plenty of things to celebrate. The aforementioned issues are each on their own reason to pop that cork on the bubbles (although it doesn’t take much to make that happen around here!), and we’ll absolutely do so like we did our virtual Thanksgiving, toasting our loved ones near and far via our computer screens.

Bringing friends and family into the kitchen with us via Zoom and FaceTime as we sipped, nibbled, cooked, chatted and laughed was such a tonic, and all without having to wake that sleeping uncle in the recliner to tell him it’s time to go. No cleaning up after and doing dishes for 25 people. No arguing politics with that one who just can’t shut up about it. None of it, but all of the food, fun, and people you’ve been missing. We look forward to catching up, checking in, laughing, crying, and making speculative plans for the days we can do so in person.


In our home we take a rather secular approach to the holidays and the decorating that comes along with. It doesn’t take much for me to be inspired to festoon many surfaces with seasonal, sparkly, evergreen-boughed, snow-kissed enchantment! Being raised in a home where matzo ball soup was served by the light of the Christmas tree might tell you a few things. Traditions are a big part of it for many folks and although we don’t do things like put up a Christmas tree (other than sweet little yule tree on Barry's desk!) I have forged my own rituals over the years. While many new customs have stuck and a few have definitely changed, there is always space for new ones, as Barry and I have made together.

Not surprisingly, most of my traditions center around food and one that remains in the festive mix is holiday cookie baking, or Cookie Day as we call it. This is a tradition I started with my sister around twenty years ago. The types of cookies changed a few times those early years until we found a rhythm and mix of recipes that were complementary, accessible and doable enough to get 3 to 4 varieties made in a day. We’d then divide the cookies up and assemble them into decorative containers that my sister would have purchased the day after Christmas sales the previous year. We usually assembled 12 to 14 of these gifts and then each took half to then go forth and spread the joy and lovin’ from the oven.


These aren’t your classic frosted or sprinkled cookies cut into tree, people or star shapes from sugar cookie or gingerbread dough. Pumpkin chocolate chip cookies have been made by Mom since sometime in the mid to late 70’s. Light and cakey, heady with pumpkin-spice (decades before it was a thing), and semi-sweet chocolate chips in every bite make for a seasonal offering and cause everyone who eats one a little eye-roll. My nieces now make the cookies for their families, and I love that the family recipe is being carried on.

Dried cherry-toffee-chocolate chunk cookies are another eye-roller, although a bit more for the sophisticated palate. Crunchy toffee holds the lacey, buttery, oatmeal cookie together. The delicate wafer is studded with bittersweet chocolate chunks and chewy dried tart cherries, beautifully balancing the caramelly toffee-brown sugar that could easily be rather saccharine without. I think this was a Martha Stewart recipe from way back, a definite keeper!


Rounding out the mix is a Cognac Snowball. My take on the classic Silver Palate Cognac Sugarplums are chocolatey, nutty, booze balls that should probably not be given to children, unless of course they need a nap. A base of ground Nilla Wafers (I’ve Snooted them up before with more high-brow vanilla shortbread cookies but always come back to the old school Nabisco standard) and pecans is held together with melted chocolate and a generous nip of Cognac, all rolled up truffle-like and then tossed in powdered sugar – a festive, spirited nibble with a subtle calming effect that will indeed cause visions of sugarplums!


We have made the lists, checked them twice, we have shopped, measured, mixed, rolled, scooped, dropped, baked, cooled, packaged and now mailed off the goodies along with a handmade card to lucky recipients across the land! And now, I can start one of my other favorite pastimes; planning menus for our holiday feast – more on that next time!

I wax nostalgic for treats of holidays past, some of which shaped my culinary trajectory. Great Aunt Marion’s lemon bars, that to little me in the 70’s were a revelation and cemented my lifelong love of lemon desserts (I’ve said before, if there is a lemon dessert on the menu, that’s the one for me!). A refined, buttery short crust holds a lush, tart and sweet citrus-punched curd that’s just able to hold its shape when cut yet so custard-like it barely does. Finished with a snowy landscape of powdered sugar it was nirvana and the humble lemon most truly exalted. Where had these been my short life?!?


My dear friend Marti would make and share sour cream walnuts and the most delicate sugar cookies; thin, crisp, buttery and simply but effectively decorated with tinted sugars and dragées. Marti graciously shared her recipes (I still have the handwritten 3x5 recipe cards!), however I was never able to recreate them with the delicious results she consistently had and I’m fine now with the delectable memories. I still dream about those walnuts, a veneer like an wintry iced pond, crunchy and sugary-sweet but the sweetness offset by the tanginess of sour cream and mild earthiness of the walnuts, sigh…

I hope you are able to maintain some of your favorite traditions, if a bit changed, or perhaps you are creating new ones, inspired by our current circumstances. I hope you can bake or enjoy in someone else’s baking. I wish you joy as the light returns and the days slowly start to get longer.


I can’t wait to catch up with folks during the holiday and I look forward to sharing with you all in the New Year. Hoping we all stay healthy and find happiness in our much smaller worlds this season and wait with anticipation when we can all share in new and old traditions in person; exchanging gifts, smiles, and hugs. I so miss hugs. I miss you all!


Love and hugs!


xoxo

Eric






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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

Baguette

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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