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    Connections and Wishes 

    Have you picked up the new Best Food Writing 2011 yet? It's a must for anyone, like me, who can barely wait for the Wednesday release of the food section in the NYTimes. I look forward to this anthology all year long and eagerly consume it the minute it arrives (either in the mail or via download). Sometimes, I've already read some of the articles - either on the web or in food magazines. But more often than not, I stumble across such an excellently (and previously unknown) story or article, that I have to read it through several times.

    Allison Parker, a managing editor at Leite's Culinaria, wrote about Saint Phanourios's Cake, a homey Greek cake made in homage to Saint Phanourios, whose Catholic saint equivalent is Saint Anthony, the saint of lost things. Her story is beautiful. Feeling discontent and a bit desolate, she baked this cake one night. It's not that she had a particularly hard time of things - but, she was feeling the pressure of creating a career for herself as a freelancer and essentially acting as a single parent (her husband is a restaurant sommelier), spending hours upon hours alone. The article is deeply personal and she literally wears (or writes with) her heart on her sleeve.

    Not being particularly religious, she continues to bake this Greek Orthodox cake; a very simple cake in nature with only 9 ingredients. She either gave away slices (9 slices to each cake to be exact - there is a symbolism behind this number) or whole cakes - to friends, strangers, for charity. Before baking each cake, you're supposed to make a prayer or a wish. And through this process, she realizes none of her prayers (1 for each cake) have been answered.

    But like all nicely finished stories go, she realizes in the end that she gained one big reward - connection, after previously feeling so disconnected. Her story resonated with me. As someone who is now trying to make a career technically as a freelancer but more so as a self-employed individual, I now understand that the value of connection cannot be understated. Connection is how you network and how you begin to open doors. Connection is social media and cups of coffee with others in your same field. Why let someone in with whom you have no connection?

    I joked with my sister the other night that sometimes I watch a few minutes of Kelly Ripa (I swear, she could cheer anyone up!) in the morning when I'm getting ready for the day and eating breakfast. I don't think of it as daytime television - instead, I explained, it's my 'water cooler break.' Or my 'coffee break.' There are days when I work alone, or cook alone, and those days can be lonely, if I let them be. So sometimes I like to hear a little noise - Molly and Matthew's Spilled Milk Podcasts and Pandora can be godsends.

    My family and I always joke that I like 'alone time.' This is definitely true. I've always needed time to center myself, relax and generally just experience some down time. I translate this need into a busy life in many ways. Oftentimes, it can be eschewing headphones while walking and just focusing on the walk itself; taking time to run in Central Park or along the West Side Highway; reading a book. And with freelancing and cooking, there's always something to do, all of which usually needs to happen during 'alone time': a new bread recipe to try, recipes to test, cookies to bake, catering or dinner menus to plan, catering budgets to create, e-mails to send, blog posts to write.

    But the difference between working in an office and working in a kitchen or at home is vast. Now, I have time to workout in the mornings and time to plan my meals more carefully. I can take 15 minutes to walk to the grocery store for an ingredient, if I need to. Despite the pleasure of pursuing a dreamt-about career, there are some challenges involved. There are some days where I feel almost breathless and I'm out and about in the city running errands, meeting people, making appointments - trying to make connections. It just doesn't feel enough. Every day is different, for better or for worse, and a lack of routine can be both stimulating and difficult.

    I've realized that I'm happiest when my days are a blend of a few things. Maybe teaching a class in the morning and time at a coffee shop with my computer in the afternoon. Or cooking in the afternoon, and a morning at home. I like to be busy but I also like to feel centered and calm, cool and professional. And sometimes, I like to put on something other than a clean chef's jacket and Converse sneakers or clogs. When I put on a blazer or dress, I feel as if I'm wearing someone else's clothing or playing dress up. Outfits that used to be in serious rotation when I worked full-time. Now it's fun again to dress up!

    I remember reading a culinary test somewhere. If someone asked you to cook for 20 people tomorrow night, unpaid, what would you say? YES - when, where?! Having 'yes' pop immediately into my head made me smile - YES! 

    Being able to do what you love is a gift. This doesn't always apply to a career. It can be making time to exercise, eat well, see friends, limit stress... And more often than not, the cliche or new age truism rings true: you are responsible for living the life you want to live. Life doesn't just happen to you. I'm the happiest and healthiest I've probably been in my adult life! I feel very grateful.

    And in the spirit of the holiday season, I wish all of you happiness as well - what are you wishing for? What's your Saint Phanourios's cake?

    See that photo up top? That's definitely an example of a perk - and my personal Saint Phanourios's cake.


    More Soup

    I recently wrote about soup cravings and I'm still thinking about soup. Some may call it a rut, but I prefer to call it a stage. We've had coq au vin (more of a hearty stew), 101 Cookbook's Noodle Soup (seriously, one of my all-time favorites), tortellini soup, miso soup. At the risk of sounding redundant, I can't get enough!

    We had some leftover pork tenderloin the other night, so I decided to put my leftovers to good use and make cubanos. Cubanos are really just an amped up version of grilled cheese, complete with pork, pickles and mustard. And nothing goes better with grilled cheese than cream of tomato soup. 

    The Kitchn recently published a list of winter soups (I immediately got to work). Their cream of tomato promised to taste like a canned version. Even though I don't eat canned soup anymore (very high in sodium and preservatives), I definitely don't mind if a soup has the same comforting yet healthier nuances of the canned variety.

    This soup is incredible. I've made it 3 times - once for just me, and twice for a group of kids - all to rave reviews. I've made a couple of adjustments, which I outlined below (mainly that I used a bigger can of tomatoes and removed the celery rib). It only serves 4 (even though the recipe says 4 - 6) so double it if you want to make more. Don't be cheap with the can of tomatoes. I tried it with a store brand variety and the soup tasted dull and watery. I like to season this right at end.

    Cream of Tomato Soup

    Serves 4

    1 Tbs unsalted butter

    1/2 yellow onion, chopped

    1 small clove garlic, minced

    1 pinch ground cloves

    1 1/2 tsp dried basil

    2 Tbs flour

    1 28oz can whole roma tomatoes and juices (San Marzano is the best)

    1 Tbs tomato paste

    Pinch baking soda

    2 cups chicken stock (low-sodium)

    1 cup whole milk

    Salt/freshly cracked pepper

    1. Heat the butter over medium heat and add the onion. Saute until translucent. Add the garlic and saute 1 more minute.

    2. Add the spices and flour - saute another minute until the spices become fragrant. Pour in the can of tomatoes, while stirring into the onion mixture. Add the paste, baking soda and chicken stock. Bring to a boil and simmer 15 minutes.

    3. Turn off the heat and use an immersion blender to create a smooth texture. Alternatively, use a blender, but make sure you do so in batches and that the soup has almost completely cooled before blending.

    4. Add the milk to the soup and bring to a quick boil and then continue to simmer. Taste for seasoning and add salt and freshly cracked pepper. Simmer 5 more minutes and serve warm.


    Simple Cravings 

    I have been craving soup recently. It could be because I overloaded on the typical Thanksgiving diet of too many sweets, potatoes and carbs. Or maybe because soup is just SO easy to make and even easier to reheat for lunch. Or maybe because the ingredients are inexpensive, yet as a whole provide a satisfying and warming meal. Soup is simple and uncomplicated.

    When we returned home after being away for the holiday, I decided to whip up Bon Appetit's Faux Pho recipe. And it was... okay. The meat tasted tough and stringy and there was limited flavor. The ramen-like (or Chinese) noodles added much-needed texture but the mushrooms seemed to melt away into the broth. We ended up adding tablespoons of chili garlic paste and low-sodium soy sauce to wake up the soup, ending up with runny noses from the spice and too-full tummies. The magazine photograph was so compelling that even though it was a perfectly acceptable dinner, it was still a disappointment.

    For lunch both days, I've enjoyed cups of miso soup. I love miso. The miso paste adds a brininess to the broth without being overly salty and the cubes of tofu and slippery seaweed are like little treasures hidden in the cloudy soup. Secret: I actually ordered in my soup. But I do have a Table for One recipe for chicken miso. Such a satisfying soup, it's quite easy to prepare, if you have miso paste on hand (which I don't right now).

    Last night, I decided to make sandwich wraps. We love Ina Garten's curried chicken salad. Sometimes I skip the cashews and add whatever other nuts I have on hand (this time it was pistachios). I used only Greek yogurt (no need for mayonnaise) and a little ground ginger to compliment the sweet and tangy dried cranberries, punchy scallions and crunchy bits of minced celery.

    While at the store, I thought a soup would go well with our sandwiches. So I went to purchase a large butternut squash. But upon walking to the check-out, I reconsidered. Bleh. Butternut squash. Who isn't over it right now? So instead I picked up a bag of loose carrots and two Granny Smith apples, planning to experiement when I got home.

    I ended up making a tart and spicy pureed soup that was so divine, we were both spooning the very last drizzles of soup from the bowls into our mouths. The soup tasted creamy and warm, yet light and complex. Wine, butter and apples are the perfect companions for earthier and plainer root vegetables such as carrots, and the rosemary and thyme hit the right herbal notes. Easy to make, this carrot soup will go on our a rotating winter soup menu. I can even imagine eating this in the summer, chilled. I can't wait to make it again. And in fact, am craving it.

    Gingered Carrot and Apple Soup

    Serves 4 (or 2 with 2 portions)

    2 tablespoons unsalted butter

    1/2 yellow onion, diced

    1 stalk celery, diced

    5 medium carrots, peeled and chopped

    2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped

    3 sprigs of thyme leaves (stems discarded)

    Rosemary leaves from 1 stem (stem discarded, leaves chopped)

    1 teaspoon ground ginger

    1/4 teaspoon turmeric

    Pinch of cinnamon

    Pinch of nutmeg

    1/2 cup white wine (dry)

    2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken stock 

    Salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste

    1. Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a medium Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. Saute the onions, celery, carrots and apples with the herbs until the apples and onions are translucent, about 5 - 7 minutes.

    2. Add the spices, wine and chicken stock. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 20 - 30 minutes until the carrots and apples are tender.

    3. Use a hand-held immersion blender (or alternatively a blender in batches) and puree until creamy and smooth.

    4. Adjust the seasoning and serve warm.


    Holiday Gifts 

    I love to give food-related gifts for the holidays. And since Black Friday is soon upon us, this seems to be the appropriate time to write about gift-giving. Whether it's a package of cookies, a new cookbook or loaves of bread, sometimes even kitchen supplies - it's nice to have a 'signature' theme every year. One year I even gave away jars of granola.

    And I've always loved viewing mason jars of layered cookie baking mixes in stores. But you don't need to buy them. These jars would be super easy to replicate at home with your own dry ingredients. All you need to do is write out the recipe on an index card and include the amount needed for the remaining ingredients (example: how many eggs, milk, etc.) Above is a photograph of challah, which I made for one of my private chef families. The bread came from a cherished family recipe a friend let me 'borrow' to great success! Tightly wrapped loaves of this type of bread (similar egg bread, brioche) would be a fantastic gift.

    I always give my in-laws loaves of stollen, the German Christmas bread. It's similar to a traditional fruit bread, but much more alcoholic. I wrote about the bread back in 2009 (!) and still make it annually. I love the gingery sugar on top and the density. I usually follow David Leibovitz's recipe, which is a blend of both Melissa Clark and Hans Rockenwagner's original recipes. However, I like to double the recipe to make 4 large loaves and I skip the rye flour, instead using more all-purpose flour. It's not easy and takes a couple of days, or at least 2 long days, but it's fun and engaging.

    There are so many wonderful cookbooks in circulation that it's difficult to recommend only a few. But if you're looking for suggestions, below are my top 5 for this year.

    1) Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty. Ottolenghi is a Israeli-born British chef and the owner of several restaurants. He is famous for his vegetarian cuisine. The photographs are stunning and the recipes are fantastic. A couple I have earmarked: soba noodles with eggplant and mango; saffron tagliatelle with spiced butter; goat cheese souffles with vanilla-poached pears.

    2) Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen. Those from the South may know of Sara via Foster's Markets. Her cookbook was essential when I catered the "Gone with the Wind" themed birthday party. The blackberry and peach cobbler is out of this world and her biscuits beyond easy to make.

    3) I fully admit that I'm biased. But the Clinton St. Baking Company Cookbook is a must-have. The soups are excellent, desserts inspired and breakfast food unparalleled. I promise you won't regret this purchase. NYTimes ranked it on their top 10 cookbook list for 2010 - and this cookbook has staying power.

    4) One book I always turn to is the Stonewall Kitchen Favorites. I purchased it for sentimental reasons, but I go back to it again and again. The recipes are simple and uncomplicated and all are crowd-pleasers. My all-time favorite dessert comes from this cookbook: (meyer) lemon cake with lemon-vanilla glaze. An intriguing marinade recipe for steak fajitas, which is requested time and time again, also comes from this cookbook.

    5) Of course, I could cite all of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, but you must know this anyway. I swear by the Cooks Illustrated periodicals that arrive every two months. A subscription would make an excellent gift for a foodie - however, make sure you slyly check that they don't already receive this. On my gift list (for myself!) is CI's The New Best Recipe cookbook. Several friends have recommended it to me over the years and I think it would make an excellent reference book.

    So there you have it! Any subscriptions or cookbooks you would recommend as gifts for this year?


    La Belle France 

    Once again, it's been a crazy couple of weeks. We just got back from a trip abroad, which included a too-short stay in Paris! I had the most incredible time soaking up both the culture and the food. I'm not stranger to this wonderful city, but nonetheless, I still continue to be amazed by the amount of things to do! I could spend two weeks there and only just get one foot wet.

    We sampled gorgeous macaroons at Laduree. I also bought some sachets of almond tea and pistachio marshmallows for hot chocolate. The lovely packaging is not to be missed and we happily munched on petite creamy and crisp macaroons throughout the day (we all agreed that the chocolate variety was the best). We also hit a Poilane Bakery outpost in the Marais neighborhood for breakfast one morning for the most buttery croissants and perfect cappucinos. I purchased some butter cookies to enjoy with tea once home.

    In Paris, long lunches are a must. One day we hiked up to Sacre Cour (in the Montmarte neighborhood) and ate at a casual neighborhood Scandinavian spot, tucked away on a picturesque side street. The day before, we had lunch at the Left Bank spot Cafe de Flore. Most cafes have an outdoor area, interior with big windows and completely interior dining room. We chose the big windows in order to people watch and experienced one of the most peasant and relaxing lunches I've had to date.

    For dinner, we also ate at Les Deux Magots (and entertained ourselves trying to pronounce the name of the cafe with purposefully terrible French accents) sampling favorite French fare such as croque monsieurs and foie gras. One night we ate at Camille, a cozy and classic bistro in the Marais. And for our last dinner, we ate at Chez Allarde, a very French restaurant famous for their roast chicken and beet and mache salads. While it sounds like we ate quite a bit, the portions were small and we made sure to walk all day, which isn't difficult in a city such as Paris.

    We made trips to the Musee d'Orsay, Tuilleries and to the Champs-Elysees. We explored our neighborhood, Marsais, in depth and I visited many of my favorite foodie haunts on the Left Bank. One morning, we tried to seek out the Raspail Boulevard farmer's market and found it was closed because of the season. All was not lost as this turned out to be a terrific walk.

    I came back with many ideas for recipes and meals. I want to try my hand at baking baguettes once more and figure out how to make the deliciously creamy vinaigrette that was tossed with the beet salad. A sweet friend sent me a new cookbook on macaroons and I can't wait to get started.

    In the meantime, this has been a very busy week. I met my Kindergarten class today. I'll be teaching all 26 (!) of them cooking classes through The Cooking Room starting Thursday. I've been occupied with my private chef work (making yummy dishes such as chicken pot pies and cinnamon swirl bread). And really big news: I volunteered to work on Food Network's Live Thanksgiving show this weekend! It premieres on Sunday, November 20. Tune in - you might see me in the background! 

    I continually tell myself (pinch myself really) how lucky I am. I am loving what I do and the trip to Paris was a passionate reminder. Viva la belle France!