Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Peach Blackberry Pie

I read an article recently on Mission Pie, a company based in the Bay area. They shared (some of) their pie secrets, some of which surprised me greatly. For instance: They use whole wheat flour for the pastry dough, claiming it imparts a "warm" flavor to fruit pies. Also, they suggested letting the dough chill for 3 days before using it to let the gluten relax.

I decided to use these suggestions when I made my dad’s birthday dessert, a peach blackberry pie using fruit I bought at farmer’s markets in summer and froze. I was afraid to use all whole wheat flour, as I feared this would produce too dense a product. Therefore, I adapted the crust recipe as follows:

Wheat pastry double crust :
1 ½ c. white flour
½ c. whole wheat flour
1 tsp. salt
5 T. chilled butter
7 T. chilled butter-flavored shortening
Ice water

Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Cut the butter and shortening into the dry ingredients. Mix in the ice water, a tablespoon at a time, until the dough clings together. Form into a ball, cover with plastic wrap. Let sit at least 24 hours. Cut dough into 2 equal pieces. Roll each out on a piece of wax paper. Fit one into a 9-inch pie pan, save the other for the top crust.

For the filling, I used:
2 lb. sliced peaches
1 c. blackberries
1/3 c. white sugar
1/3 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. tapioca ( I like the texture of tapioca)
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Since I used frozen fruit, I let the mixture sit for about 30 minutes before putting it into the crust, placing the top crust over the filling, cutting 4 slits in the top crust, and brushing the top crust with water and sprinkling with turbinado sugar. I covered the edges with aluminum foil and baked at 375 for 50 minutes, removed the foil, and baked for another 30 minutes.

The top crust was absolutely perfect, the edges were wonderful, the filling was fresh and delicious. Just one problem: the bottom crust came out a bit soggy. I got online and found 2 things I could do next time to prevent this:

A good way to keep pie crust from becoming soggy is to sprinkle it with a mixture of equal parts sugar and flour before adding filling. You can also brush the bottom crust with an egg white before adding the filling.

Live and learn! I shall continue my experimentation.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Deepest Longing of My Heart

I have been blessed with a wonderful husband, a healthy body, a stable job, a comfortable home, and most days I feel pretty good about my life. One thing do I lack...

I desperately desire a puppy. Not just any pound puppy, mind you, but a bichon frise.

Pros: According to the American Kennel Club: “A cheerful, happy dog, the Bichon Frise is small and sturdy with a dark-eyed inquisitive expression and a plumed tail it carries merrily over the back. The Bichon is a naturally gentle, playful dog. He loves activity and requires regular exercise. His hair grows continually and does not shed, so extensive grooming is a must to prevent mats. Bichons also tend to be a good breed for allergy sufferers.”

I have also read that these adorable breeds are good for small living spaces. I used to be into Pomeranians, but Bichons have the advantage of not as much hair sheddding.

Cons: 1) I’m not home much. 2) My husband says we need a house with a backyard before we can have a dog. 3) With such an adorable happy little creature around, I may be so satisfied I’d never want kids. But my doggie will be gone when I’m old, whereas a child would still be around. If I raise them Chinese-style, they might even revere me and take care of me. Maybe I could do both after all. 4) Pets can be kinda costly.

Sigh. When shall my longing be requited by the acquisition my heart has so long desired?

Christmas Cookies - Part Two!

Here is the recipe for the Chocolate Hazelnut Thumbprints that we made for Christmas. They are pretty tasty - Paul loved them! This recipe is adapted from one that appeared in Cooking Light magazine (my favorite). I strongly suggest that you use the leftover Nutella to make banana/chocolate crepes. :-)

Chocolate Hazelnut Thumbprints
Yield: 28 cookies (serving size: 1 cookie)

4.5 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1 cup)

1 cup powdered sugar

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, softened

2 large egg yolks

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup finely chopped hazelnuts

1/3 cup hazelnut-chocolate spread (such as Nutella)

Preheat oven to 350F.Weigh or lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour, sugar, cocoa, and salt; stir with a whisk. Place butter in a large bowl, and beat with a mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Stir egg yolks with a whisk. Add the yolk mixture and vanilla to butter; beat well. Add flour mixture to butter mixture; beat at low speed just until combined.

Inside the bowl, knead dough 6 times or until smooth and shiny. Shape dough into 28 (1-inch) balls. Roll sides of balls in nuts, pressing gently. Arrange balls 1 inch apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Press thumb into center of each cookie, leaving an indentation. Bake, 1 batch at a time, at 350E for 10 minutes. Remove cookies from pans; cool completely on wire racks. Spoon a scant 1/2 teaspoon hazelnut-chocolate spread into center of each cookie.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Peppermint Meltaways

Sunday afternoon, I had a moment of bliss as I made Christmas cookies in the kitchen with my husband while Handel’s "Messiah" played in the background. What a glorious combination of sensory delights! We tried two new recipes this year: Chocolate Hazelnut Thumbprints and Peppermint Meltaways. Both were delicious and gorgeous on a plate! Here is the recipe for the peppermint ones- so cute, pink and festive! They truly melt in your mouth, leaving a fresh hint of mint behind. To crush candy canes, break it into pieces, place in a plastic baggie, and roll with a rolling pin.

Peppermint Meltaways

Cookie Ingredients:
1 c. butter, softened
½ c. powdered sugar
½ tsp peppermint extract
1 1/4 c. flour
½ c. cornstarch

1 ½ c. powdered sugar
2 T. Butter, softened
1/4 tsp peppermint extract
1-2 T. Milk (or soymilk)
2 drops red food color, if desired
2 candy canes, crushed

Combine butter, powdered sugar, and peppermint extract in large bowl. Beat at medium speed, scraping bowl often, until creamy. Reduce speed to low; add flour and cornstarch. Beat until well mixed. Cover; refrigerate until firm (30-60 minutes).

Shape rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake in preheated 350F oven fro 12-15 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Let stand 1 minute; remove from cookie sheets. Cool completely.

Spread glaze over cooled cookies. To make glaze, combine powdered sugar, butter, peppermint extract and enough milk for desired glazing consistency in small bowl. Stir in food color, if desired. Immediately sprinkle with crushed candy.

Friday, December 18, 2009

To Hong Kong I Go...

A friend of mine, Rachel, is fortunate enough to be going to Hong Kong soon, and our recent conversation left me pondering the following question: What would I do if I could go back to the city I lived in for 16 months? Here’s my list...

1) I would walk through a true, old-fashioned gai si, or Chinese market, again. My favorite is the one at Kwun Tong. I would buy fresh exotic fruits, marvel at the fresh vegetables, and avert my eyes as they slaughter live fish, frogs, turtles and more.

2) I would stop and order a big bowl of won ton noodle soup, with choi and Chinese mushrooms, and slurp it down as loudly as I please. (It’s not rude to slurp in Chinese culture, or burp for that matter.) If I saw a vendor on the street (a common sight in winter), I would buy his roasted yam or chestnuts.

3) I would pick at least 2 or 3 parks and visit them. My favorite choices for size and beauty: Kowloon Walled City Park and Kowloon Park. (Victoria Park - meh. Overcrowded and overrated.) Best time of day to go: Morning, when the elderly people are out doing their tai chi, swordsmanship, and other bizarre exercises (like banging their thighs or squirming about awkwardly).

4) I would go shopping at the markets at Mong Kok at night. During the day, one feels naked, vulnerable and conspicuously Caucasian, but at night, when the crowds of people throng in, one may be gloriously anonymous. I would walk the streets with mango boba drink in hand!

5) Go to Lantau Island and take the hike to see the Big Buddha. It’s a grueling trek, but lovely, and the Buddha itself is a marvelous spectacle.

6) I would go back to 10,000 Buddhas and admire all of the different faces of the honored one.

7) I would go to Monkey Mountain, carefully guarding my belongings against the aggressive and hungry monkeys.

8) I would go see the fishing village of Sai Kung, where one may watch locals buying ultra-fresh seafood from the floating markets. I would walk past the waterfront restaurants with innumerable clear bins in which one may see more species of sea faring creatures than you ever imagined existed. I'd eat dinner there and know that the fish and shellfish on my plate was alive just minutes before.

9) I would patronize an old-fashioned tea house in which to eat dim sum, one where the waiters roll the carts around and all you have to do is point. I would go in the late morning, which is prime time for Chinese to eat dim sum (they call it "drinking tea"); also, prime time for people watching.

10) I would go to the LDS temple at Kowloon Tong. It’s one of those buildings that a mission home/chapel/temple all in one. Lots of memories there! Also, the new chapel at Wan Chai because it’s gorgeous and there are always nice people there to greet you.

11) I would walk along the boardwalk at Tsim Sha Tsui, observing the celebrity monuments and enjoying the best views of the Bay. Hello, picture op!

12) Sure, I’d take one more trolley ride up to Victoria’s Peak (the ultimate tourist destination), but only on a clear day when I could truly appreciate the view and take a decent photo.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Best Egg Rolls in the Universe

Every Christmas Eve, my mom’s family gets together to celebrate. It’s an informal affair, with every family bringing some appetizers and cookies to share. Last year, I brought a dish that everyone liked- homemade egg rolls. They are more free form, similar to lumpia. I’d love to say I obtained the recipe from an aged Chinese master roller of eggs in Hong Kong, but as most people know, egg rolls are an American invention. Yet here they are, in all their glory! It is my Christmas gift to the world!

Stacy’s Egg Rolls

1 pound ground pork
4 cups shredded cabbage
1 large carrot, shredded
1/2 green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 teaspoons fresh ginger root, grated
1 tablespoon cornstarch 2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 quart oil for frying
1 1/2 (14 ounce) packages egg roll wrappers
1 1/2 cups sweet Thai chili sauce

Cook pork in a large wok over medium-high heat. Drain and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the cabbage, carrot, green bell pepper, onion, garlic and ginger. In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch, soy sauce, and molasses until smooth.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in wok. Stir in cabbage mixture in batches, cooking each batch 3 to 4 minutes, just until tender. Return vegetables to bowl, and mix in pork. Stir in the cornstarch mixture.

Heat 1 quart oil in a deep fryer to 365 degrees F (185 degrees C).

Place about 1 tablespoon filling on each egg roll wrapper. Fold one corner of wrapper over filling. Fold wrapper sides over filling. Roll wrappers to form egg rolls.

Fry egg rolls in batches in the hot oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve with sweet Thai chili sauce.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Only Thing That Can Lure Me Out of My Warm Bed

It’s a cold, crisp winter morning. You wake up, snug and warm in the embrace of a comfy blanket, and realize you’ve nowhere to go and nothing you must do today. Only one thing can lure you out of bed on a morning like this.

Pecan Rolls. Warm, gooey, sweet, soul-nourishing concoctions of cinnamon, butter, and crunchy nuts. Cinnamon rolls are well and good, but I always feel that they’re empty without nuts. This recipe is amongst the best I’ve found. It’s really not as much work as one might imagine would be required for such a heavenly reward. (This recipe first appeared in Bon Appetit magazine in October 1999.)

Note: One of the best tricks I know is to cut the rolls using dental floss! It cuts so cleanly and prevents the dough from being squished with a knife!

Pecan Rolls

1 1/2 cups warm water (105F to 115F)
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 envelopes dry yeast
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups (about) all purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup pecan halves

1. Combine 1 1/2 cups warm water and 1/4 cup sugar in large bowl. Sprinkle yeast over and let stand until foamy, about 6 minutes. Mix in vegetable oil and salt. Add enough flour, 1 cup at a time, to form soft dough. Turn dough out onto floured work surface. Knead dough until smooth and elastic, adding more flour if sticky, about 10 minutes.

2. Lightly oil another large bowl. Place dough in bowl; turn to coat with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then cover with kitchen towel. Let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 1 hour. Beat butter, cinnamon and remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar in medium bowl to blend.

3. Turn dough out onto floured work surface (do not punch down). Roll out or press dough gently to 16x10-inch rectangle. Using spatula, spread 1 cup butter mixture evenly over dough. Sprinkle with chopped pecans. Starting at 1 long side, roll up dough jelly-roll style, forming log. Pinch seam and ends to seal. Cut log crosswise into 12 equal pieces. Spread remaining butter mixture over bottom of 15x10x2-inch metal baking pan. Sprinkle 1 cup pecan halves evenly over butter mixture in pan. Arrange rolls, cut side down, in prepared pan, spacing evenly. Cover pan with plastic wrap. Let rolls rise in warm draft-free area until light and puffed, about 30 minutes.

4. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 325F. Bake cinnamon rolls uncovered until tops are golden brown, about 35 minutes.

5. Remove pan from oven. Using sharp knife, cut around sides of pan. Place large baking sheet over pan. Using oven mitts as aid, hold baking sheet and pan together and turn over, releasing cinnamon rolls onto sheet. Serve cinnamon rolls warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cooking with Seinfeld

In 2006, moms cheered as Jessica Seinfeld (wife of you-know-who) published a cookbook titled Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Foods. The premise is that moms can steam or roast and then puree vegetables and surreptitiously add them to familiar favorite foods, thereby injecting an added measure of nutrition into picky eaters’ diets.

Yet as I flip through the pages, I scratch my head. Scrambled eggs with cauliflower? Chili with carrots? Chocolate pudding with avocado? Can these recipes really fool people besides small ignorant children? How is the quality of taste affected by these added ingredients?

The Test
I decided to put Seinfeld’s methods to the test. I volunteer to bring a dessert to family home evening and experiment upon my siblings and parents. My siblings certainly qualify as picky eaters, turning their nose up at anything other than "white kid food" (read: pizza, hamburgers with no vegetable condiments, Caesar salad, artificially flavored meats and cheeses, and so forth). My dad is a fairly tough food critic in his own right.

The Plan
The recipe I chose: brownies - with spinach and carrots. I envision the deceit in my mind: To the naked eye, I imagined it will appear a nice chocolaty brownie, innocuous looking with its dark coloring, and so attractive with the powdered sugar I will sprinkle on top. Just in case the flavor is slightly off, I planned to serve it with some nice vanilla frozen yogurt.

The Prep
Monday night after work, I prepared the purees, steaming the carrots and wilting the spinach, then blending these until smooth in my food processor. I worried that it wasn’t quite smooth enough, but it was the best my machine could do. I melted the chocolate, then mixed in the purees, sugar, etc. In the end, the batter looked grainy. Concerned, I sprinkled some semisweet chocolate chips on top. I baked the brownies (they emerged from the over looking relatively normal), sprinkled with powdered sugar, and headed over to my family’s house, leaving the brownies in the car and hoping they would be cool by the time we finished decorating the Christmas tree. (Seinfeld warns that the spinach flavor will remain detectable while the brownies are yet warm.)

The Panic
The moment of truth arrives: My dad asks, "Didn’t you bring some dessert?" My husband runs out to fetch the pan of brownies from my car, but as he places the pan into my hands, I notice with chagrin - they’re still warm! Worse, my mom reveals that she thought I wanted plain vanilla yogurt, and they must be served alone. Panic strikes and my entire cooking life flashes before my eyes. A grim vision of the future looms before me, in which I am discovered, my reputation soiled, and no one in my family will henceforth partake of my baked goods without poking and prodding and questioning me to death.

The Results
I improvise with some whipped cream and chocolate sauce and serve the rather dense squares of brownie, holding my breath. Mom and dad both comment that the brownie is good (my dad even says, "Very good!"). Little sister and adult brother, no comment. The only suspicious one was my 15-year-old brother, who has some kind of nutritious sixth sense which protects him from consuming any substance which might be beneficial to his body.

"What’s in this brownie? What kind of chocolate is in this? Is there anything organic in it?" Finally, we put him to peace by assuring him that the air he’s breathing is organic and he finishes it in silence.

The Conclusion
The brownies with carrots and spinach were OK. I don’t know that anyone will ask for the recipe, but it packs loads of vitamins and fiber into a decent chocolate treat. In my opinion, Seinfeld’s book is most beneficial for parents with kids who refuse to eat vegetables and/or fruit and are still young and gullible enough to eat foods with textures and flavors that are slightly "off". It also may also benefit adults who are looking to eat foods that pack more of a nutritional punch.

But shhhhh... It’s our little secret!

Monday, December 14, 2009

The English Major's Dirty Secret - Revealed!

I am an English major. I am of a romantic and emotional nature. I have frequently lived vicariously through films, music and literature. In college, I related with the main character of Amelie as a fellow introverted would-be altruist. The music of Muse, My Chemical Romance and other various and sundry emo bands supported me through difficult break ups. The Russian novel Anna Karenina showed me the mistakes I’d made in past relationships and taught me how a successful relationship works.

With all of this art appreciation, you might naturally assume that poetry would be right up my lane. Yet Keats, Whitman, and Coleridge perplexed and befuddled me for the most part while I studied them in college. Through research, I gained an admiration for their technical skill and imagination, but this sentiment was not the pure emotion of appreciation and kinship that I feel through other forms of art. And dare I confess... Most of the time, I am left with this sneaky suspicion that I'm missing something, or at worst - I just don't get it.

Before you take away my BA in English in outrage, let me assert that there are some exceptions to this anti-poetry sentiment. Every now and then, I will read a line of iambic pentameter that resonates in my soul. I do enjoy some works by Pablo Neruda and T.S. Eliot, for example. I collect the poems that I do enjoy in a notebook. Here is one such poem, shared with me by my friend Allison Felshaw. This captures how I feel at this time of life - married to a sweet man, enjoying the festivities of the holiday season.


It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
A wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
Something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn't need you to hold it down.
It doesn't need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
And disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.

Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
And now live over a quarry of noise and dust
Cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
It too could wake up filled with possibilities
Of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
And love even the floor which needs to be swept,
The soiled linens and scratched records…

Since there is no place large enough
To contain so much happiness,
You shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
Into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
For the moon, but continues to hold it, and to share it,
And in that way, be known.

~ Naomi Shihab Nye

Note on the author: Naomi Shihab Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She currently resides in Texas, although she was raised both in this country and in the Middle East. According to, she "gives voice to her experience as an Arab-American through poems about heritage and peace that overflow with a humanitarian spirit".

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Destination: Chocolate Decadence

Chocolate: We know it has antioxidants. We know it has mood-enhancing effects upon the human body. So... What are you waiting for? Have you had your serving today?

Personally, I prefer dark chocolate. For one, it has less milk (my sworn enemy) content than its lighter counterpart. Secondly, it is richer in antioxidants than milder chocolates. Thirdly, I dabble in all things dark. Even my husband has as much Mexican blood in him as me - none of these white nerdy guys- no, sir! Any other dark chocolate fans out there?

In a recent blog, I mentioned a recipe for Chocolate Decadence, with which I bribed a panel of judges into passing off my senior project. It was a smashing success, and I'm going to share a link to the recipe. This ingredients are few and the preparation is relatively simple. The results is rich and dense, sure to satisfy the staunchest chocoholic around. Served with a raspberry sauce and whipped cream, your guests will be lifted up to the highest heaven at first bite.

Here it is, in all its glory:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Best Small Towns in Northern California

The town of Mendocino, California

I love it when travel magazines publish lists of the best small towns to visit, because exploring such towns is one of my most enjoyed past times. Yet it’s always disappointing when one of these tempting little towns turns out to be, say, in the Catskill Mountains of New York, or the heart of Montana. Like I’m going to travel all the way there to visit a remote village! I understand that a magazine must appeal to a wide geographical range of readers.

But, since most of my readers are in the West, and more particularly concentrated in Northern California (and those who aren't hopefully intend to visit me soon!), I will share my personal list of best small towns to visit. In no particular order, they are:

1) Mendocino: With gorgeous views of the coast, this former hippie colony has maintained the laid-back vibe, lovely architecture, and environmental consciousness that was present when it was first established. Mendocino boasts lots of B&B’s; more organic restaurants and stores than you know what to do with; Mendocino Jams, offering housemade jams, mustard and marmalades; and Gallery Bookstore, a wonderful independent establishment where the sun shines in through the multitude of ocean-framing windows, and the soft sound of waves crashing on the cliffs across the street lull you into a state of nirvana. I hope to spend my birthday here this year... (December 28th, people!) :-D

2) Sebastopol: Not on the coast but near enough that you can smell the salty fresh ocean in the breeze. Features utterly quirky stores, such as East West Café - completely organic, largely vegetarian and bohemian as all get out. I dare you to find one local eating there who wears makeup! There's also an adorable pie shop on the outskirts of town specializing in pies made from locally grown Gravenstein apples. (Apparently, Gravensteins are an endangered species of apple. Poor little guys. The local are trying to save them from extinction by feeding them to tourists.)

3) Sutter Creek: In Amador County, this is my favorite stop. With relatively affordable B&Bs, quirky home decor shops, loads of antique stores, and the ever wonderful Susan’s Place for lunch or dinner, this town makes a great weekend getaway.

4) Nevada City: A wonderful town where gorgeous Victorian-style houses still abundantly dot the local neighborhoods. Fantastic shopping, including Degroot’s Truffles and Desserts, where one may procure the most sinfully pleasureful chocolate truffles ever created by human hand. The truffles alone are worth the trek, but there’s also a great café for lunch and toy store that will entertain kids and adults alike.

5) Marysville: This town hosts the Peach Festival every summer. Grab some tri tip sandwiches, enjoy the local musician performances, snag a piece of fresh peach pie with peach ice cream, and don’t leave without a few bags of locally grown white and yellow peaches to eat or freeze for peach cobbler later! Also has a very unique specialized bookstore that made for fascinating browsing and a much-needed respite from the summer heat. If you head back to Sac-town, make sure to stop at Stephen’s Farmhouse for the ollalieberry pies, jams, and handmade crafts! (If you’re full from the peaches, they offer frozen pies.)

6) St. Helena: Perhaps the least pretentious town in the Napa area, St. Helena has some lower-key spas, creative cafes, local olive oil, a chocolate store that is the equivalent of Tiffany’s for chocolatiers, an awesome bakery, and of course the famous burgers from Taylors Automatic Refresher (featured on the Food Network’s "Drive Ins, Diners and Dives).

Any other ideas or suggestions? I’m itching to discover someplace new...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Evolution of a Foodie

Last night, I watched the movie "Julie & Julia", a film that focuses on two women and their sustaining relationship with food. Upon noticing this theme, I reflected upon my own relationship with food and how it has changed over the years. I divided my evolution into a series of stages.

Growing up: Mom, as a dairy farmer’s daughter, is a meat-and-potato and comfort food personality. I admire her efforts to serve well-balanced meals. She taught me how to cook from a young age, mostly sweets like peach cobbler and pumpkin pie.

High school: My senior year project focuses on "gourmet" food. I discover and branch out with some new ideas. At the conclusion of my project, I have perfected my flourless Chocolate Decadence, serving it with raspberry sauce and real whipped cream to the judges and passing my exam with flying colors. No one seems to mind my bribing of the judging panel of teachers in serving this dish.

College: I set out amongst the people of Utah, determined to learn how to make dinner rolls from scratch and collect as many recipes from my classmates as possible. I take beginning and advanced cooking and nutrition classes. Main accomplishments: Learning how to make a good pie crust, homemade breads, and sampling every kind of casserole you can imagine. My favorite recipe from a roommate: Chicken with Broccoli (curry cheese sauce, served with rice... you know the one!) from Wendy Wittwer.

Study Abroad in France: I am introduced to the wondrous cheese platter concept, good bread, and all-butter pastries (note: this was pre-lactose intolerance). A new sophistication graces my taste in food and my mother begins to wonder where I got my eccentric tastes from.

Mission in Hong Kong: I learn more about Asian food- MUCH more. Walking through the market the first time was like walking on the moon and trying to find something edible. Over time, I notice that I feel healthier eating fresh foods and eliminating dairy and most sweets. Chinese companions teach me to make a steamed fish and fry bok choy like a pro; Thai companion teaches me to make pad thai and green curry. (And yet somehow the result for the latter is not the same when I try this at home in California...)

Past 3 years: I buy a subscription to Cooking Light, discover Williams-Sonoma and the scandalous luxuries found therein, and attempt to eat local/fresh/healthy, but sometimes I just end up with Spaghettios. However, I try harder now that I am married and have someone else to think about than myself. is a mainstay on my computer.

Through all the changes and places I’ve traveled, food has always been my most constant distraction. At one point in "Julie & Julia", Meryl Streep, portraying Julia Child’s character, sighs, "I just think about food all the time. I’m obsessed!" I know the feeling, Julia. If only we could all make a living off of our passions.

On Locavores, Or How Bananas May Be Destroying the Earth

A new catchphrase has arisen in the past decade, the result of books such as Michael Pollen’s "The Omnivore’s Dilemma" and Barbara Kingsolver’s "Animal Vegetable Miracle". The word is locavore, meaning someone who eats locally grown food, generally within a 100 mile radius of their home. The reasons for doing so are:

1) Superior taste. When it comes to most fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meats, the fresher the food, the better the taste. Asparagus tastes better freshly picked and eaten 2 days later than it does when flown in from Chile and eaten 10 days later by an American in Arizona.

2) Environmental conscientiousness. Food that is flown or shipped in from other countries has a negative effect on the environment. Take for example, bananas. I will venture to say that every grocery store in America that carries produce sells bananas, nearly all of which are flown here from Latin America. Think of all the fossil fuel used in shipping that many bananas to us, not to mention the gas emissions by the planes or boats that bring them.

3) It’s economically savvy. Buying locally grown food supports local farmers and the overall local economy. It may be cheaper as well, as the price you pay does not include the cost of shipping that product from another country.

Even with this knowledge, at times it’s hard to be a strict locavore when you’re standing in the grocery store in December (after the farmer’s markets have closed until the spring), so I think of it more as a stop light. If I see something was grown locally, it’s a green light - I try to build my meals around such foods. If it was grown in the US, it’s a yellow light - I buy it if I need it. If I see it was shipped here from New Zealand, it’s a red light - I only buy it if I really need to.

Eating locally may be particularly difficult in the winter, when the options tend to be less plentiful than during the summer. Barbara Kingsolver suggests that this is the purpose of canning and freezing the bountiful foods in the summer, to sustain one through the time of cold. It is also helpful to know what is available in the wintertime, so here is a list of foods that are seasonal in the month of December:

broccoli broccolini brussels sprouts butternut squash cauliflower celery root collards fennel leeks mache potatoes (maincrop) pumpkin rutabaga salsify sweet potatoes sunchoke turnips

chestnuts cranberries kiwi fruit oranges persimmon pomegranate tamarillo tangerines

duck goose partridge pheasant quail rabbit venison

clams crab mussels oysters scallops

Also check out the web site Eat the Seasons for monthly lists of seasonal food and recipes!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How to Eat A Healthy Breakfast Every Day

Breakfast: The most important meal of the day. Also the most disregarded and least heralded meal of the day, because everybody wants a few more hours of sleep. One of my solutions is to bake a big batch of muffins one night and freeze them. Then, on a busy weekday morning, I take out one or two muffins, heat ‘em up, spread them with some butter (or butter spread) and enjoy with a glass of soy milk/herbal tea.

Here is the best recipe I’ve ever tried for bran muffins. They’re delicious and good for you, what with the rolled oats (note: old-fashioned, NOT quick), wheat bran and whole wheat flour! I like to experiment with it, though it's perfect as it is, to try to boost the nutrition even more. Last night, I made a batch but added shredded carrot for added vitamin A and some ground flaxseed meal for extra Omega 3's, lignans, and fiber. Yum!

Bran Muffins

2 ½ tsp. baking soda
½ c. hot water
1 c. rolled oats
1 c. wheat bran
1 c. whole wheat flour
2 c. unbleached flour
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. salt
2 eggs
½ c. oil
1 c. brown sugar
2 ½ c. buttermilk
handful of raisins (optional)
handful of toasted walnut (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Coat 24 muffins tins with oil and set aside (or line with muffin liners). Combine the hot water and baking soda in a small bowl and set aside.

Whisk oats, bran, wheat flour, unbleached flour, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl to blend. In a separate large bowl, mix oil, brown sugar, buttermilk and eggs lightly. Add the hot water mixture and flour mixture, as well as raisins and walnuts if desired, and stir to incorporate.

Divide muffins into 24 muffin tins and bake for 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin comes out clean. Cool in a rack for five minutes.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

My Tribute to Whole Foods Market

A lunchtime run to the local Whole Foods Market inspired this, my tribute to this indulgent treat of a store.
Things I Love About Whole Foods Market:

1) The amazing prepared food section. From the deli, I love their all-natural chicken tenders and delicious couscous salad with seasonal veggie and dried fruit. Whether you're looking for Mexican, BBQ, Hanukkah specialities, soup, panini, speciality baked goods, or salads, Whole Foods has it ready to take out!

2) Holistic healing magazines and their own store magazine, which features recipes such as vegan pumpkin pie. I don't know who makes and eats that stuff but it's fascinating nonetheless. Gotta love it!

3) Cute reusable bags and quirky cards and gifts for sale

4) Organic... everything! From fresh fruits and veggies to canned fire-roasted tomatoes to whole wheat bread, you'll find it here. Plus sustainably harvested fish, humanely raised meat, and a staggering offering of health foods that can be hard to find elsewhere. Quinoa, flaxseed meal, and soy cheese, oh my!

5) Non-dairy options, even including soy eggnog, which I bought today! Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about! My Christmas just got a whole lot merrier.

6) Edgy-looking but nice employees. Also, most of them seem to be Asian. I don't know why.

7) The ambiance itself seems to radiate good karma. I feel that I'm doing the earth and my body a good turn every time I visit. Or is it just me?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

How To Not Be A Scrooge

Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti depicts the Nativity

Today, noting that the month of December had arrived, I began to brainstorm my favorite ways to get into the spirit of Christmas.

1) Spend an evening baking cookies, then give them away... But not before tasting a few (or a lot!) myself.

2) Watch the ultimate Christmas movie, in my opinion - "It's A Wonderful Life"! That Jimmy Stewart - such a sweetheart. I cry my eyes out every time I watch it, starting when the mean druggist boxes his ears. Jimmy also stars in my second favorite Christmas film, "Mr. Kreugar's Christmas". My third favorite one is probably Elf, but Will Farrell is no Jimmay Shtewart.

3) Pick a family and do the 12 Days of Christmas for them. Leave little gifts on their doorstep each of the 12 days preceding Christmas. Still trying to pick our family - let me know if you want to volunteer. ;-)

4) Indulge in the beautiful arts. Thus far, we are planning on attending the Sacramento Master Singers' performance at St. Francis cathedral for some classical seasonal music, the Sacramento Ballet's "Nutcracker", our church charity choir concert/canned food drive, and my little siblings' Galena Street East performance. I need to fit some Handel in there somewhere too- my absolute favorite.

5) Drive through a festive neighborhood and enjoy the lights. I'm not sure where I'll go - maybe the Fab 40's? Ideas?

6) We bought a tree and decorated it. I even have my husband's presents wrapped and underneath, half for the sake of festivity and half to give him something to anticipate.

7) Today our bishop challenged each member of our congregation to read the 4 Gospels prior to Christmas. That is going to take a lot of time each day, but we started tonight. As I prepared dinner, Paul read 6 chapters aloud to me. I am excited to attempt to do this, because even tonight's reading served to remind me how much I love the stories and parables in the Bible!

8) Wrapping Christmas presents while listening to Christmas songs on the radio. Most despised: "Christmas Shoes". Too contrived and melodramatic. Favorite: Mostly the older stuff, before modern singers decided to add more runs to their holiday songs than a marathon trainer. I also like to do a sort of one-woman congo line to "Let It Snow" by Gloria Estefan. You know the part - in the bridge, where the brass comes in, "Buh, buh duh duh duh duh duh duh.... BUH!"

Any other ideas will be greatly appreciated! Merry Christmas to all!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Why I Want to Quit My Job and Explore Asia

The author in Bangkok at ancient temple

The travel itch has resolutely lodged itself within my being again. Growing up, my family finally found financial security, but perhaps due to our humble beginnings as my dad struggled through law school, my parents never spent money on things ordinarily wealthy people would indulge in. Expensive clothes, the newest electronics, fine home decor were not of value to them, and I thank them for teaching their children frugality and shunning materialism.

Travel was our main indulgence. We went on at least one family vacation every year, and so as a child I was blessed to visit most of the United States, the Bahamas, Mexico, the Caribbean, Switzerland, Disney World. We visited Disneyland, and Hawaii many times, and every year we always rented a beach house up on the North Coast of California.

Personally, I have also had many opportunities to travel. As an adolescent I participated in a touring performing arts group that took me to New York City, Washington D.C., Hawaii, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland. In college, I studied abroad one spring term in France, where I got to live in Paris and see much of that beautiful city, as well as Normandy in the north, the Loire Valley in central France, and Nice, Monaco and the more rural southern coast. I took a weekend trip to London, where I developed a lifelong loathing of and aversion to youth hostels (horrid, dirty hovels!).

My church mission took me to Hong Kong, and I later got to visit Beijing, and Bangkok, where I fell in love with Thailand. Our family took a cruise to Tahiti and the surrounding islands in 2008, and in March of this year, we visited South Africa in order to pick up my brother from his church mission.

The author on a private motu off the coast of Nuku Hiva

You would think this would be enough for me, but the trouble with traveling is, the more I do it, the more desire I have to do so again. It’s embarrassing to admit that I just took a week-long cruise to Mexico 6 weeks ago, and I’m already aching to hop on a plane again. Since foreign travel isn’t in the cards for the time being, I decided to reflect on what traveling I have done, so as to satiate my desire with the memories of and gratitude for the places I have gone.

But India, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, New Zealand, and others are still calling ... Who's with me?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Collecting Old Books - My Newest Fetish

Last summer, while exploring a small, quaint town (one of my favorite hobbies), I chanced upon a used bookstore. I spent hours there, exploring the rooms and categories of wonderful used books. Most were fairly recent titles; of these, I bought a few popular cheap novels for summer reading.

Then, I saw it - a blue 1929 Depression-era copy of one of my favorite British novels, Jane Eyre. It was in good condition and even boasted a few interesting illustrations. On the inside cover, I found an inscription: "From Auntie Lucy, Christmas 1930". I imagined a nameless young girl, now an old woman or even deceased, gleefully unwrapping this classic book from her aunt, thanking her for her gift, and devouring it through the cold winters before television.

This book told a story, and not just that of Jane Eyre, but of the former owners. I had to have it, and thus began my recent interest in collecting old books. Be it in thrift stores, used book stores, or Ebay, I have started a very modest collection of old books. A 1893 version of Cranford; a 1907 edition of The House of Seven Gables; and a beautiful 1884 copy of poems by Longfellow. To me, they're treasures, and I eagerly await my next purchase (although budget demands I continue to wait until the holidays are over).

Do you collect books, or anything else?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"I Yam What I Yam!" -Popeye

Food has been my lifelong passion. Baking is my favorite, but I enjoy cooking in general. As a single women, however, upon arriving home after a full day’s work, after dealing with clients and answering phones and typing till my fingers were numb and trying to placate my boss, I wasn’t always motivated to whip up a gourmet meal on ordinary weeknight. A dinner of a hot dog or a Lean Cuisine or takeout was a fairly regular occurrence.

However, now that I’m married, I feel a renewed desire to be in the kitchen. When I make dinner, I'm not just serving myself but the person I love most in the world, and cooking is one of the main ways in which I express love for people. I try to maintain a balance between cooking food that will make my husband happy and food that will keep him healthy, convincing him to consume as many phytonutrients as possible by making them as palatable as possible.
I also have to take into consideration Paul's allergy to mushrooms and my IBS, which rules out dairy, food with a high fat content, some vegetables, articifical sweeteners, and any fried foods. (Basically, anything that makes life worth living is out.) Entrees are usually easier for me to decide upon than side dishes. If anyone has any favorite recipes, by all means, please share! As for me, I decided to share with you my favorite easy, non-dairy, healthy side dish: Whipped Yams.

A note on yams: Remember, sweet potato flesh is yellow, paler, and dry in texture. Yam's flesh is darker and closer to an orange hue, and naturally sweeter and moister than sweet potatoes. Yams aren’t the famous superfood that sweet potatoes are, but they are still rich in vitamin A and contain more Omega-3 fatty acids than sweet potatoes. If you’d like to substitute sweet potatoes for yams, you may, but you will probably need to add more brown sugar and liquid to achieve the desired flavor. You may also need to use a hand mixer to achieve the smooth texture.

Stacy’s Whipped Yams (serves 2):

Take 2 small yams, or one large, halved yam, wash and pat dry.

Bake at 400F for about an hour, or until the flesh becomes soft to the touch. (This will make it easy to whip by hand.)

In a medium bowl, place ½ T. Butter, 1 T. Brown sugar, and a dash of cinnamon.

Slice open yams and scoop out flesh into the bowl. Using a fork, whip together until smooth, adding 1-2 T. Vanilla soymilk, rice milk, or almond milk to add moisture. (This imparts a delicious vanilla flavor and aroma.) Excellent served with ham or pork!

Monday, November 30, 2009

"I cannot live without books." -Thomas Jefferson

In January of 2009, I set a goal to read two books a month throughout the year. In order to accomplish more with the limited time available to me, I began regularly visiting the public library and checking out books on CD. I accomplished so much more once I started taking advantage of my daily work commute, which is an hour round trip.

Now that December has arrived, I reflected on the books I have read this year, which will soon total 23 (just need to squeeze one more in this month!). Here are my top book picks out of the books I read this year:

Best Cross-Cultural Reads:
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: Profound insights into the mother/daughter relationship as well as Chinese culture, Chinese history, and what it means to be an immigrant.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: Indian-American author Lahiri also astounds with her insightful glimpses into relationships of all kinds, but particularly those of family, and her examination of the meaning of exile and isolation.

Best Light Reads:
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert: A 30-something career-woman deals with her divorce and depression by spending a year living in Italy, India and Indonesia. In each place, she explores a different theme and writes a book based on what she learns and experiences. Who wouldn’t want to live that (vicariously)?

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver: The prominent writer Kingsolver buys a n old home on a fertile plot of land, moves her family to rural Missouri, and spends a year eating only what they can produce and grow themselves (or barter for with other locals). Anyone interested in the locavore movement will love reading about each season and how Kingsolver survived it all.

My Life in France by Julia Child: I listened to this one on CD, and it was delightful. Julia’s unique personality shines through as she describes in her own characteristic way her experiences moving to France as a middle-aged military wife, the sensual experience of eating her first French meal, her battle to perfect her technique as the only female chef at the Cordon Bleu, and finally her years-long effort to write a veritable "Bible" of French cooking.

Best Psychological Thriller:
Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Here is a thrilling murder-mystery with depth, that dares to question: What is the effect of isolation upon the human mind? If a crime is beneficial to society, is it still morally wrong? How does an imperfect human in a corrupt society and a fallen world find redemption? Not only is the plot interesting, but the book is fascinating from a historical, philosophical, religious, and social perspective, particularly when compared with the author’s own life.

Best Historical-Fiction Read:
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende: Similar in style to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this novel follows several generations of a prominent Chilean family and reflects the tumultuous, fascinating history of the country.

Best Inspirational:
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: The wonderful, brief, deceptively simple parable that catapulted this Brazilian author to international fame. You can’t help but love this book and its message, which empowers and makes readers believe in following their dreams.

Most Overrated:
The Time Traveler’s Wife: I hated the characters in this book. Not a single decent human being amongst them. The two main characters were equally horrible people and their relationship was based solely on lust. Neither person developed any moral, spiritual, or in any other depth from start to finish. By the end, I just wanted them all to go away.

Next up: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I have an odd quirk that only allows me to read certain books when it feels seasonally correct. Russian literature and winter weather have always seemed to go hand in hand! Then again... I need one more quick read before the end of the year in order to meet my goal... Any ideas?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pear Pie

My Thanksgiving pear pie turned out well, so I am going to post the recipe on my blog. It's actually a combination of 3 different recipes - hope you like the results! (Shout out to my friend Sydnie Speer for first introducing me to the concept of pear pie, and just how delicious it could be.)

Pear Pie with Streusel Topping

1 ¼ c. flour
¼ tsp. salt
3 T. butter, cut into small pieces
1 T. shortening, cut into small pieces
½ T. fresh lemon juice
Ice water

Lightly spoon flour into measuring cups; level with knife. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl; cut in butter and shortening with a pastry blender until mixture resembles course meal. Add lemon juice. Sprinkle surface with ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and toss with a fork until moist and crumbly. Shape dough into a ball, and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill 1 hour.

3 T. flour
¼ tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. salt
2/3 c. plus 1 T. sugar
2 ½ lb. firm-ripe Bartlett or Anjou pears, cored and peeled, each cut into 8 wedges
1 T. fresh lemon juice

Whisk together flour, nutmeg, salt and sugar. Gently toss with pears and lemon juice.
Roll out dough and fit into a 9 ½ inch glass or metal pie plate. Fill shell with filling and sprinkle with topping.

½ c. sugar
1/3 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
¼ c. butter

Mix all together and crumble evenly over pie.

Bake pie on a baking sheet for 20 minutes at 400F, then reduce oven temperature to 350F and cover pie edge with a pie shield or foil. Continue to bake until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling, 50 to 60 minutes more. Cool pie on a rack to warm or room temperature, at least 2 hours. Makes 8 servings.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Stewed Apples and Apple Hill

Every fall, it is my tradition to drive about an hour east of Sacramento to a community collectively known as Apple Hill - a series of family-run orchards, farms, shops, bakeries, and craft fairs around the city of Camino, California. When I was young, I would make this trek with my family and we would visit the same farms every year, sticking mostly to the biggest and most well-known locations, such as High Hill.

However, this fall, my husband and I went with few other friends and we explored new farms. At Denver Dan’s, we picked our own apples from the orchard and paid by the bucket. On one hand, it was more labor-intensive and expensive to buy my apples this way versus the more convenient method of buying them from the bins or by the box at one of the shops.

On the other hand, the apples were undoubtedly fresher than the boxed ones (who knows how long they had been sitting there?) and I felt a sense of accomplishment and personal connection to the literal fruits of our labor. I had the power to personally select the finest specimens on the trees. Furthermore, what could be more satisfying than to hunt for and gather my own food, then later prepare and consume it? It was rewarding to be involved in the whole process of consumption on this occasion. Plus, we discovered new varieties of lesser-known apples as we explored the rows of apple trees, each row boasting a different kind of apple. Winter Banana apple, anyone?

As we stopped and visited the various farms, we sampled freshly fried apple cider doughnuts, apple dumplings, homemade fruit curds and jams, and freshly pressed organic olive oils. I bought a frozen Dutch apple pie and a gallon of good fresh cider to take home. Later, at home, I also make several batches of stewed, one of the true joys of fall. I like to use fresh Apple Hill Cider to amplify the flavor of the apples, but if you don’t have access to it, substitute water. Here is my method of preparation:

Stacy’s Stewed Apples

Start with sliced and peeled apples (preferably a mixture of several kinds of apples, both sweet and tart). Place them in a study saucepan or stockpot, depending on how many apples you have and how much you intend to make. Pour in some cider and sprinkle generously with cinnamon and just a bit of nutmeg - not too much, as nutmeg can overpower other spices. Add sugar or brown sugar as desired, depending on the desired level of sweetness.

Cook over medium heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until the apples start to become soft. You can use the spoon to cut and mash the apples, a lot or a little, depending on how chunky you like it. Add more cider/water if the mixture starts to look dry.

When the apples have reached your desired consistency, you may serve them either warm or cool. They will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. To store for longer, either freeze it in batches or can it for enjoyment all through the year. To can, ladle hot apples into sterilized cans and process for 20 minutes.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving has arrived, and with it, delicious fall flavors. The night before Thanksgiving, my mom and I always get together to bake pies. This endeavor has evolved over the years, although we still use Libby's recipe from the back of the can of pumpkin. (What? I still find it to be the best tasting recipe. Maybe that's just because I grew up with that taste? Also, I am in the camp of cooks who prefer recipes that use evaporated milk vesus condensed milk, which I feel adds an odd flavor.)

Growing up, my mom used frozen pie crusts, which I always thought to be chalky and flavorless. I usually ate around it in order to reach the irresistible pie filling. In college, I learned how to make decent pie crusts from scratch, and after I taught her this skill, we never went back to frozen. (Although I am still open to experimentation when it comes to crust. The best I've made so far combines shortening and butter. If anyone has an excellent crust recipe or secret, please share!)

Our family can be rather competitive when it comes to baking. One year, my brother (who also loves to cook) and I held an apple pie cook-off, which was officially declared a tie. Our two recipes were so different, it was like comparing apples and oranges- although we were really comparing apples and apples. This year, we are baking traditional pumpkin as a joint effort, and, since my brother claimed the apple, I am going to do a pear pie with a streusel topping. The recipe needs to be tweaked a little, but I will post it later.

In the meantime, we celebrated the holidays at work yesterday with our annual Pumpkin Potluck. Every dish revolves around the surprisingly versatile squash we so often relegate to pies only. My contribution was the following smooth, delicious soup. If you like mushrooms, you will love it! There's nothing better than a hot bowl of comforting soup when the weather is cold and damp. Enjoy!

Curried Pumpkin Soup

½ lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced
½ c. chopped onion
2 T. butter
2 T. flour
½ tsp. curry powder
3 c. vegetable broth
1 can (15 oz.) solid-pack pumpkin
1 can (12 oz) evaporated milk
1 T. honey
½ tsp salt
1/4 tsp. Pepper
1/4 tsp. Ground nutmeg

In a large saucepan, saute the mushrooms and onion in butter until tender. Stir in flour and curry powder until tender. Stir in flour and curry powder until blended. Gradually add the broth. Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened. Add the pumpkin, milk, honey, salt, pepper and nutmeg; heat through. Serves 7.