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

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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Americans seem attached to this idea of the “Family Dinner” as the antidote for personal and societal evils and as essential for ensuring their children's success in school. Yet most parents offer reasonable enough excuses that they cannot consistently prepare and enjoy the elusive kinfolk meal together as a family; work obligations, kid's school and extracurricular activities, and planning conflicts among other things thwarting the aspirational repast. Studies reveal that the busy lives of family members outside the home are not the only culprit in the saga of the American family dinner. It seems that even when everyone is home, having dinner together remains a challenge in many households. Why is that?

My Mom sure had her challenges, raising five kids throughout the seventies and into the eighties, not the least of which was feeding the herd. Yet for most of those years, having all the kids at the table wasn’t among her struggles. Mom made the one meal and that was it. There was no accommodating of finicky eaters (my sister became adept at detecting onions and clandestinely spitting them into her napkin), no freezer full of polychromatic packages of microwaveable meals for the child-on-the-go and carryout/take-away was a very rare ‘special occasion’ treat. Don’t even get me going on why you don’t regularly take five kids out to a restaurant! You missed dinner, you didn’t eat, unless you could make your way with reheating leftovers – which, with four boys, leftovers were NOT usually an option.

Of the dishes Mom prepared, most of my favorites were the back-of-the-soup can recipes. These, typically one-pot/pan dishes, also informed my first intrigue around global cuisine (beyond our go-to Mexican and Chinese take-away), being transported to such exotic cuisines and destinations like Central Europe (courtesy of Campbell’s!) via Paprika Chicken, and to Sweden by way of creamy mushroom sauced pork chops. And always, the obligatory (childhood favorite) and oh-so Americana, tuna crunch casserole. The crunch coming from potato chips crumbled on top - the perfect crispy, salty complement to the creamy, savory comfort of the casserole.

As evidenced through social media proliferations, our pandemic pantries seem to provide myriad inspiration, creativity and sustenance as we struggle yet thrive, thanks to those humble, unsung and often neglected and dusty, shelf-stable crusaders. Here in the Snooty French fallout shelter, you won’t find the ubiquitous red-and-white soup cans but there are beans-a-plenty along with rice, grains, pasta, tinned tomatoes, tuna in oil, and coconut milk. As it is MY pantry, there are also some slightly more esoteric (to some) staples like harissa, French lentils (bien sûr), three different grinds of cornmeal (WTF?), Calabrian chilis, dried porcini, anchovies, and copious amounts of extra-virgin olive oil.

Although it’s just me and Barry, like many of you, I have been preparing meals three times a day the past several months. Luckily, my work as a recipe developer allows for some of my vocation (work that I am thankfully still able to get) to feed us - thus getting work and dinner done simultaneously. Now, smack dab in summer’s bounty I find it easy to be overwhelmed with possibilities and suddenly, with arm-loads of tomatoes that we just can’t say no to at the farmers market, and smooth, shiny ebonized purple eggplants and a rainbow of peppers catch my eye. Then, zucchini, summer squash and the strong, sweet, pungent bunches of basil - what is one to do but provide a happy home to them all!

Back home and channeling Mom’s one-pot or pan meal approach, the bounty gets cut up and tossed onto sheet pans with glugs of that before mentioned abundant olive oil and seasoning, then is popped into a hot oven. Alas, the humble ratatouille, sans the tedious steps of the classic stove-top preparation, comes together easily and quickly, filling our home with the aromas of Provence via Nor-Cal. This delicious tray-bake version, which doubles easily so you can feed ALL of your people, is finished with a piquant vinaigrette, yields enough for a few meals (you’re welcome!) and is easily completed (stretched) when tossed with or onto pasta, polenta, quinoa, farro, salad greens or even sandwiched onto ciabatta or a baguette, layered with crumbly chévre or feta cheese. Oh, I’d better check and make sure that there’s enough rosè chilled and then give Mom a call.

Ratatouille Tray-Bake

Serves 4

(Makes approximately 1 1/2 quarts/@ 2 lbs.)

1 pound eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes

1 large orange or yellow pepper, cut into 3/4-inch pieces

1 medium zucchini or summer squash, cut into 3/4-inch pieces

1 large shallot, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices

4 garlic cloves, smashed with side of knife

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons herbs de Provence (or Italian herb blend)

Kosher salt* and freshly ground black pepper

2 Tbsp red wine vinegar

2 tsp harissa paste

1/4 cup packed fresh basil leaves

Preheat oven to 450°F (230°C). Line a rimmed baking sheet pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Directly on the prepared sheet pan, combine the eggplant, tomatoes, pepper, zucchini, shallot, and garlic. Drizzle the vegetables with 1/4 cup of the EVOO, herbs de Provence, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 3/4 teaspoon pepper. Toss well to combine and coat the vegetables.

Place in the hot oven and roast until the vegetables are caramelized, and meltingly tender and the tomatoes are bursting, 35 to 40 minutes, tossing a few times during cooking.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the remaining 1/4 cup EVOO with the red wine vinegar, and harissa, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and whisk well to combine.

When the vegetables are done, drizzle the vinaigrette over the ratatouille, taste for seasoning. Serve ratatouille with the fresh basil hand torn and scattered over the top.

Note – Serve ratatouille as a side to your favorite protein, or over polenta, pasta, rice, lentils, quinoa, farro, or tuck it into a sandwich or serve over greens.

*Diamond Crystal kosher salt is used in Snooty French recipe development

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Are you in need of more joie in your vivre? More quelque chose in your quotidian? Basically, a little something more in your everyday. It’s possible to find moments of simply being present throughout the day and relishing in the simple beauty of everyday things. An observer in one’s own life. One way I do this every day is by making sure to take an unfettered moment to enjoy my morning coffee. This morning it’s in my kitchen, sunshine streaming in the window, cat in my lap, fresh flowers in a vase nearby. The effortless beauty found in a quiet moment; warm feelings of sunshine and a cozy feline friend, aromas of freshly brewed coffee, aaaahh. Un moment parfait!

I’m proud of my French heritage and whenever I visit France I feel a sense of belonging that I understand many Americans do not. It has nothing to do with the language (rusty, not fluent, but I can usually hold my own) but more about the French attitude, behavior and yes, joie de vivre (zest for life)! The French seem bound to "codes of behavior" and an idea that quality of life should be cultivated and savored, and I wholeheartedly agree. This belief doesn't apply only to the French approach to food (hello croissant, baguette, fromage, pâté!) but to everything from fashion to the arts. The French take pride not only in tradition, but to the depth and origins of their way of life.

Imagine enjoying a stroll and managing to do so without a destination in mind, with no regard for counting steps, no headphones in ears and managing to do it without your eyes glued to your device in one hand and a latte in the other. A free thought might actually enter. You may notice something you’ve never seen before. Smile at a stranger. This is what inspired the figure in my branding, the Flâneur.

Materializing from the imagination of Charles Baudelaire in his 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life”, Baudelaire’s Flâneur was essentially an observer of modern life. The word is from the French noun flâneur, referring to one who strolls, saunters, or lounges. Flânerie is the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations – observing, idling, exploring, daydreaming.

The support role in many an impressionist painting, the Flâneur, a dabbling observer caught forever in the spontaneous scenes and the landscapes of everyday life by artists like Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Degas. What would our world be if they’d had electronic devices and other such distractions at hand rather than paper, pencils, canvases, paint?

I recall a third-grade teacher snapping at me to “Stop daydreaming and pay attention.” I didn’t understand her reaction and to this day, rather than being ashamed of my daydreaming, I am grateful for it.

A misunderstood pastime, once thought to be a treacherous form of being idle, today daydreaming is more often classified as an enemy of productivity or a distraction from the true task at hand.

Daydreaming is an essential aspect of my work. Artists, playwrights, composers, designers, mathematicians and poets build whole worlds out of the abstract stream of consciousness that daydreams offer. Creative achievements often begin as a waking dream or a walking dream. Is it any wonder these professions attract introverts and loners — people like me, happily working inside their heads for extended periods of time?

Take this platter of gorgeous stone fruit; apricots, plums, and peaches. All of their contrasting textures; smooth, fuzzy, velvet, slick. Richly fragrant, heady with perfume and honey. So inspiring. Rather than painting it, I fall into a reverie rife with images of simmering confiture, scented with star anise, cardamom and vanilla. A chunky confetti of fruit bounces onto dewy, crisp lettuce leaves, landing among cubes of avocado, toasted almonds and chickpeas before getting drizzled with a warm-spice scented vinaigrette. Flaky, butter-rich pastry cradles the beautiful fruit, the aromas further intoxicate from the heat of the oven. Try, try, trying to hold their shape, until finally, nestled in bubbling comfort, they abandon themselves to become one, to become something beautiful and delicious. Transformed, changed, exalted. I think we’re going to need ice cream….

See, daydreaming, free thoughts, observing, exploring all good, right?!? Give yourself a break, take some time, have a wander or walkabout, free from distraction. And then make this stone fruit galette, you artist you!

Stone Fruit Galette

Depending on how juicy and sweet your fruit is will impact how much sugar and thickener you will need. You can easily make this galette with any fruit, just swap in the same weight; apples, pears, berries, etc. are all equally delicious.

Serves 6 to 8

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp kosher salt*, divided

1 stick (4 oz.) cold, diced butter

4 to 5 Tbsp ice water

2 pounds ripe stonefruit; peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots or any combo

6 to 8 tablespoons granulated sugar (less if you have sweet fruit, more of it’s a bit tart)

3 to 5 tablespoons tapioca starch (cornstarch or flour are also fine to use here)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (ground allspice, cardamom, or ginger can also used)

1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon cold water

2 tablespoons turbinado sugar (or other coarse/sanding sugar), or granulated sugar

Combine the flour and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add cubed cold butter and pulse several times until the flour resembles cornmeal and the pieces of butter rare broken down enough that they look like pea or lima bean shapes.

Alternately, using your fingers, a pastry blender, or fork, and mix until mixture resembles coarse crumbs and some pea-sized bits of butter remain.

Gradually add the ice water (start with 3 to 4 tablespoons – NO ICE CUBES IN DOUGH!), pulsing the food processor or mix gently with a fork, just until combined. It may be necessary to add another tablespoon or two of ice water for dough to come together. Squeeze a bit of the dough in your fist, if it holds it shape, your good to go. If it is still crumbly add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing and squeeze testing after each addition.

Brush off your hands then transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Using the heel of your hands gently press the dough away from you, slightly smearing it as you do. Gather and press away from you again, repeat this a few times until dough holds together. Gather the dough up one last time and press it into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill at least 30 minutes, or freeze (well wrapped) up to two months, thaw in refrigerator overnight before using.

When ready to bake the galette, remove the dough from refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a roughly 13-inch round, about 1/8-inch thick. Drape the dough over the rolling pin and transfer it to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Chill the dough until firm, about 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C) and adjust a rack to the center of oven.

Cut the fruit evenly into slices, about 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick. Place in a large bowl and add the sugar, tapioca starch (more if you have juicy fruit and less if it’s not so juicy), lemon juice, cinnamon, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Toss gently to combine.

Spread the fruit mixture evenly over the dough to within 2 inches of the edge. Arrange the fruit wedges into a decorative pattern, if you like. Fold the edge of the dough up over the filling to create a 2-inch border, pinching where it overlaps so it holds together during baking. (If the dough is cold and firm, wait for a few minutes until it softens a bit to prevent cracking.) Use a pastry brush to apply the egg wash to the pastry border and immediately sprinkle the border and top of fruit with the turbinado sugar.

Place the galette in the oven, reduce heat to 400°F (200°C) and bake for about 1 hour, until the fruit is quite soft, juices are bubbling and the crust is richly browned. If crust is getting too brown, carefully tent with aluminum foil. Let the galette cool to room temperature before serving.

* Our recipes are developed and tested using Diamond Crystal kosher salt. If you are using table salt or Morton’s kosher salt, use half the amount

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