My dears, we are approaching picnic season! Including the grandaddy of picnics, 4th of July. I've got you covered with potluck etiquette, recipes and strategies to help make hosting or participating a delicious—and delightful—success!
It’s that time of year! We’re invited to block parties, 4th of July fests, family reunions, picnics, and potlucks of all shapes and sizes. This is when we’re supposed to show up with the PERFECT dish that everyone loves, something that won’t wilt in the heat, will go with whatever everyone else brings (or at least out shine all those other dishes).
Here’s my favorite potluck story ever.
When I moved in with my husband on his street in San Rafael, California, no one in the neighborhood knew about me yet. I was working really hard doing heavy-duty cancer retreat cooking at Commonweal at the time, and, well, I was like the shoemaker with holes in her shoes! The summer party invitation arrived, asking us to bring something for the grill, and something for the cooler. I thought, corn! I bought a whole blue bag full from our farmer’s market. Gregg brought a bottle of wine and some fish for the grill. We walked a few doors down to the Burford’s home, and on the counter were ALL these gorgeous dishes, the most AMAZING spread. Frittatas, tarts, grain salads, gorgeous vegetables. It was like, oh my God! I did not get the memo. I’m a trained chef, I had just come out with my first cookbook and I’m walking in with a bag of corn. Granted, it was shucked! And it wasn’t a bad thing to bring, actually. But ouch! Not the ideal first impression. I could have brought a million more sophisticated things!
We think of seasons: Fall. Winter. Spring. Summer… but it’s really more like transition to spring, late spring… summer… then late summer. Memorial Day feels like the pivot point, marking the start of summer; but you really never know what transition times will bring. Right now in the Bay Area, we’re having unseasonably cool temperatures and rain is predicted. For us, that’s like a blizzard coming! It’s a big deal. We may have harbingers of summer, but we’re not quite there yet.
Food-wise, I’m thinking spring soups, when you want something that whispers of late spring, honors the gorgeous spring harvest, and that’s bright and refreshing! Fresh pea soup… carrots… fennel… asparagus…cream of celery. Easy to put together, with the fresh, tender spring veggies.
So cute, they’re adorable! But so brash. They can be a little bossy, a little assertive. A wake up call! Of course I’m talking about radishes, the charming but somewhat overlooked actors waiting in the wings of our kitchen stage. Let’s talk about their myriad facets, and the many roles they are ready to play on our plates!
A bit of radish history
Radish plants are native to China, and are thought to have been cultivated in Europe as early as Neolithic times (from around 9,000 to 3,000 BC). They were certainly eaten in Egypt since the beginning of civilization. The 100,000 builders of The Great Pyramid evidently ate enormous quantities of radishes together with onions and leeks. The mind boggles.
Today’s familiar red globe radishes first appeared on the food scene in the 18th century, and now there are more than 250 varieties in various shapes, sizes and colors. A veritable treasure trove of radishes!
Arugula is my number one go-to green. I put it on EVERYTHING! I like a little bit of bitter, and it has good tooth—texture you can sink your teeth into. Arugula plays well with others, especially seasonal fruits like blueberries, roasted cherries, apricots. Throw it in with other lettuces, in a frittata, into a pesto. Throw it on top of soup! Top it with sardines. Throw it in at the last minute of scrambling an egg. On top of toast with smushed avocado. The topping looks like green hair! Like that girl in school who had that curly kind of crazy hair? Like that.
It’s kind of my savior.
What could be easier than grabbing a handful or two out of a bag, box or farm-market stash and plopping in whatever you’re doing? Drizzle on a little olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt. Done.
Vegetables are ALWAYS a good idea, and this post is a good reminder to eat the rainbow! A plate full of color means you are loading up on the important phytonutrients that can do better than anything else on the planet to balance your immune system, reduce inflammation, and make you FEEL better. My advice? Go for it.
For over a decade, I’ve been preaching that you need to love your vegetables, not just endure them. Veggies, and the fantastic array of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals they contain, are crucial for brain health, longevity, and cancer prevention, among their many good deeds. Cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower) contain B vitamins that are critical for methylation, for example, a process through which our brains repair themselves. We all need brain repair!
When it comes to healing, our notion of time can behave very strangely. It might speed up or it might be infinitely slow, like molasses. When we are eager for a loved one to get better, as I am now, it can seem like forever. The body heals at the rate that it heals. I remember Rachel Naomi Remen saying disease is a weird thing; it reveals itself when it’s ready to reveal itself. It can be frustrating when all sorts of symptoms appear, but no prognosis is certain. You are left wondering...where am I?
Rachel Naomi Remen, one of the pioneers of the mind-body health movement and relationship-centered care, is my inspiration for how to think about these unfathomable mysteries. How many of you have read (and reread) her book Kitchen Table Wisdom? I read it when it first came out and I was in culinary school. My copy is a dog-eared treasure on my shelf.
Julie Burford, my beloved Soup Sister and neighbor about whom I’ve frequently written (watch us making soup together here) is always on the frontline of cooking for people in need. She’s the Florence Nightingale of the kitchen, the one in our neighborhood who absolutely shows up with something nourishing or comforting or both when someone is sick or struggling. Her husband Stan says, “She’s the edible therapist!”
There have been a flood of people in her world who have been ill lately, including five people this week. Granted Julie’s 74 and has a bit more time on her hands now that she’s not running a non-profit, but she. Steps. Up. Every time. For her friend diagnosed with Parkinson’s... or for friends of friends... or friends of friends of friends! “Oh, I got home early from dinner tonight,” she says breezily. “I can whip up a batch of butternut squash soup.”
In California every spring (and briefly again in the fall) the baby artichokes arrive. It’s a very special moment, a seasonal splendor many of us cooks wait for. Especially those of us who’ve eaten the carciofi simply and elegantly prepared in Tuscany. One of the seven wonders of the culinary world!
I’ve written about finding my sweet spot with food when at 35, I left a hard-driving job on the east coast and took what I call my life sabbatical, arriving in Rome with no language and no luggage. What I haven’t shared is what happened after Rome, when I went up to Florence, largely because I thought I should. I didn’t really know what I was going to do other than continue studying Italian, since my skills were still not, um, very polished. In Italian class, the teacher shared information about a cooking class. All those memories of standing on a stool stirring soup in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens stirred something inside me…
Next thing I knew I was standing on a corner of the Via Taddea, where the big market is in the center of Florence. I’m waiting and waiting (turns out I was ½ hour early), not even sure who I’m waiting for. It’s late Friday afternoon. I’m thinking, if she doesn’t show up in 3 minutes… and here she came, with her basket—Judy Witts Francini, of Divina Cucina cooking school. Are you here for the cooking class? She asked. I am barely able to reply with my rudimentary Italian.
In the scheme of things, your brain is one of your greatest treasures. Learn to take care of it! Feed it what it needs. This post from the archives will fill you in of brain nutrition basics. And, by the way, you won't miss a beat on flavor! Brain healthy foods include some delicious favorites. I recommend making them part of your repertoire, and weaving them into your day on a regular basis.
It starts with the “p” word — and that would be “plants.”
A flood of new and surprising research is emerging about the role that plants play in brain health. For example, a study on the MIND diet — a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets — published online in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association — concluded that people who eat more dark, leafy greens at least once a day have substantially slower cognitive decline with age than those who eat the Standard American Diet (SAD).Bingo!
It's that time of year! Asparagus is on the way. As those of you who have followed my blog or played with my cookbooks already know, I am WILD about asparagus. Are you with me? Do like to eat asparagus in all its guises as long as you can get it while it's truly fresh and seasonal? It's uniquely delicious AND the perfect detoxifier as spring arrives. If you're already in love with this elegant vegetable—or if this will be a new romance—here's a favorite blog post to help you dive right in.Can I help it if I wear my culinary heart on my sleeve?
Those who know me, especially my farmer buddies at my local market, know that this is the time of year I SWOON over what I call those elegant green long ladies of spring.
Your inspiration for the week: don’t overlook cabbage! I call cabbage the bocce ball of the cruciferous set. A bowling ball, a big, heavy dense, ball of leaves. In terms of nutritional benefits, cabbage rocks. It’s chock full of goodness! Fiber, potassium, choline, B12, iron, selenium, pantothenic acid (B5), manganase…. But. It’s like the stepchild of broccoli and kale. It’s the humblest of vegetables. Nobody even thinks about it.
But I have something to say about cabbage, and why it’s number ONE on my list: it’s crunchy. You can eat it raw or cooked. It’s durable. You can do a zillion things with it. It’s always there for you, in your crisper drawer. How many things can you say that about?
With Valentine’s Day approaching, I could be thinking about chocolate... but I’m thinking about the color red. And I might be thinking about strawberries… but I’m thinking about beets!
What inspires me about beets?
DEFINITELY the color. Of all the plants in the plant kingdom, beets have the most electrifying color. I have my kitchen workshop and my art-making workshop, and I play with color in both! Sometimes it’s fun to take a food and look at all the colors that make up the color of that food.
Red is a primary color, but beets are not a singular, primary red. Beets have other colors in them: a little blue, a little purple, some magenta, and fuschia. Beets can look very dark and ruby-esque; or blended into soup, they can bright and magenta-y. Chioggia beets are swirled burgundy and white. Golden beets are a deep, earthy gold.
The key to heavenly flavor: roasting.
When I was little I hated beets. They used to come out of a jar. They were called Harvard beets. Ugh! It took me awhile to start loving beets.
And then I discovered roasting. Beets are VERY sweet when roasted, a whole new, almost addictively delicious thing. Oh, yum.
One of the most electrifying dishes I learned to make in Italy is pasta a la rubino, “ruby” in Italian. Basically a pasta with garlic, olive oil, chili flakes, roasted squares of beets tossed together on a blue plate. An electric purple!
Now I do roasted root vegetables or roasted root vegetable salads, which are very elegant, or pickled beets, or a borscht (both blended and not). I make a stunning electric slaw out of beets (an absolute smash hit on a buffet line!). I slice them very thin and make them into chips, an unexpected and delightful topper for salad or soup. (Don’t you love crunchy things?)
There is nothing better than a beet salad with a little feta, fennel, blood orange… OMG! Or valencia orange and beets! Electrifying.
Is everyone around you coming down with colds and flu? And those nasty respiratory infections that linger so much longer than anyone expects? That’s February. A volatile month, a gauntlet we run to make it to spring. Whether you’ve got kids in school, like little Petri dishes scooting around, or you’re hopping on an airplane, or shoulder to shoulder on the subway, unless you live in a bubble, you are vulnerable.
What can you do to prevent colds and flu?
One of THE great books of 2017, and sure to endure: Karen Page and photographer Andrew Dornenburg’s Kitchen Creativity: Unlocking Culinary Genius—with Wisdom, Inspiration, and Ideas from the World’s Most Creative Chefs.
That’s a tall order! And in this, their 11th book, they deliver. A couple of delightful quotes from the mountains of dazzling praise for Kitchen Creativity:
“Utter genius…If Leonardo da Vinci wrote a book on culinary creativity in 2017, this would be it.” — Michael Gelb, NY Times bestselling author of How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci
“A delectable mix of sensuality, intellect, insight and surprise that reveals not only the secrets of creative chefs, but of creativity itself.” —MacArthur Fellow Robert Root-Bernstein and Michele Root-Bernstein, Authors, Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People.
What I love about her new book: Karen is putting people at ease.
She lays out creativity in 3 stages:
- Mastery. Mastering the Fundamentals | Studying the Past | Learning by Copying
- Alchemy. The Evolution of Classics | Converting Food Through Flavor | Flavor Dynamics | The Flavor Equation
- Creativity. Cooking with All Your Senses | The WhoWhatWhenWhere&Why of Creating a Dish | Evolving to Interdependence
Kitchen Creativity pulls back the curtain on “a world of infinite culinary possibilities.” For the chef, it truly comes down to the basics: the quality of your ingredients, how you’re going to make your ingredients shine, and how you’re going to tell the story of your dish.
This is where I always feel that her books are so masterful and useful for a cook whether a beginner or expert. She piques our curiosity: Have you thought about this ingredient with that? But here she goes beyond heightening our knowledge and skills to cultivating our creativity— increasing our confidence, autonomy and leadership in our own kitchens. Did you know that “chef” means “chief” in French? Dear reader, you can be the chef/chief of your domain!
Lots of people think, I’m just not the creative type. But EVERYBODY has creativity. Whether you’re right- or left-brained, there’s an intuitive part of yourself that knows. You can be an accountant or coder and be incredibly creative. When you’re familiar with your world, there’s a way in which you can use your instincts to confidently move forward.
Here’s a woman who inspires me: Grace Young, who is THE absolute grand dame of the stir-fry. She’s been called the Stir-Fry Guru and the Poet Laureate of the Wok. I think of her as ne plus ultra, a major-award winning cookbook writer and food journalist who is THE one to teach and inspire us all to become sit-fry masters.
The Why of Stir-Fry
Why stir-fry? Because it is one of THE great healthy, fresh, quick-cooking techniques to get colorful, tasty, comforting foods on the table even on a weeknight. In other words, invaluable! I easily stir-fry one or two times a week. I shop and get my gorgeous fresh ingredients. I prep as instructed (see below). I pull up my sleeves and, quickly, employing my ultra stir-fry skills, create a glorious, sure-to-please meal in minutes. You can, too.
Grace’s book: Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge
A stir fry can be lots of things. You can, as I used to, clean out your fridge, chop and throw everything in the pan. But: there are stir-fry skills to master that bring the technique to a whole nother level.
Where does inspiration come from? Often from the strangest things. You go in the kitchen, you want to cook something, and you wait for something to whisper in your ear, and give you the divine answer for what to make for dinner tonight. Or you wait in front of a blank computer screen, or a blank canvas. As I start to talk about inspiration, what’s the first thing that happens? Nothing!
Immediately when I thought, “inspiration,” I went into freeze mode. Then I started looking around in my space. I walked away from my computer, looked outside my window, and saw the blood oranges growing on the tree outside. Last year it wasn’t doing well. This year I’m going to have a bumper crop. I’m seeing the color orange, and the plants in my garden… Turning, I see the wooden spoon collection in my office, shelves full of favorite books, and my and my friends’ artwork. I see a very colorful throw on my office couch.
This is where my inspiration comes from—from paying attention to what’s around, in any given moment.
Two stories arise in my mind as I look at the oranges, for example.
A spot-on post from the archives: be kind to yourself this holiday season! Have fun. Savor those special treats! I wave my magic culinary wand, thus decree. Enjoy! :)
Why do we do it? We have this tendency over the holidays to put ourselves on a LONG nonstop guilt trip, like a first class ticket to Hong Kong and back, on the most expensive airline you can imagine. We splurge and purge AND beat ourselves up over it. I have a better idea: find a way that works for you to relax and enjoy life! If you have a brownie, enjoy it! And so you don’t massively overdo, and truly feel awful, plan ahead.
If you’re throwing the party, do what my friend Julie does and anchor your table with soups! Julie puts one on either end of her buffet, with lovely 5-ounce glass mugs, and peppers the rest of the table with different morsels (not mountains!) of yum. Hot smoked salmon. Serious mouthfuls of baked goods (she’s a fabulous baker). Beautiful cheeses. She replenishes as needed, rather than start with overwhelming masses of food. I watched how her guests interacted with all the tempting offerings this year, and noticed people kept filling their cups up with soup. The conversation flowed happily, and no one felt compelled to say, OMG, I’m going to pay for this!
What is more precious than the gift of time? Unless it’s the gift of yum. :) How about giving both to dear friends and neighbors, the ones who will TRULY savor the delicious, delectable treats that you drop off for their enjoyment? Some might love DIY kits, with all they will need to make something marvelous, and others might like a fait accompli. I’ve got some suggestions for both!
We live in a world where we are SATURATED with information. Gone are the days when we had wait with baited breath for the latest and the greatest. We are ALWAYS confronted with the latest and the greatest! But there is also a place for savoring the very best. One of those places is inside the covers of a superb cookbook. These are the books that have penetrated the constant barrage during 2017 for me, the ones that I REALLY like and recommend!
For me, the criteria are:
Does the author have a point of view?
Is the author telling a compelling story through the recipes?
Is the photography enticing?
Is it original? (That’s a big thing! So much of what is “new” is not original. Been there. Done that)
Does the front matter of the book set you up for success?
Is it well designed?
Otherwise, you could just go online. But then again, I haven’t had that much luck online. I get frustrated with the poor quality of the recipes. These books have all passed the litmus test of true value.
You know I’m not pushy, right? Well, here and now I’m climbing up on my soapbox and asking you to read Dr. Dale Bredesen’s new book The End of Alzheimer’s. And why would I ask you to read about a disease we regard with such fear, even horror? Because for the first time, there’s good news about Alzheimer’s disease. There’s hope.
As Dr. Bredesen explains in the intro to his book, “Let me say this as clearly as I can: Alzheimer’s disease can be prevented, and in many cases its associated cognitive decline can be reversed.”
This is precisely what he and his colleagues have shown in peer-reviewed studies that have been published in leading medical journals, based on 3 decades of research on the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s in his lab and case studies with real people. The first ever scientific study showing the reversal of cognitive decline in 9 out of 10 patients with Alzheimer’s disease or its precursors was published in the journal Aging in 2014, based on a sophisticated personalized protocol called ReCODE, for reversal of cognitive decline. And not only did it achieve a reversal in cognitive decline, but it allowed patients to sustain the improvement.
The journal Aging has shared that this 2014 article has had the greatest impact of any article they’ve ever published. And no wonder. Not only is the diagnosis and inevitable (until now) decline of Alzheimer’s tragic for the individual, but also for their family; and soon for the nation and the world, as a tsunami of Alzheimer’s patients could bankrupts Medicaid and Medicare and overwhelms long-term care facilities in the foreseeable future as our population ages. But…