Quick, Easy and Seasonal: Try This Udon Bowl with Salmon and Spring Vegetables

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If there’s anything better than a Farmer’s Market to stimulate me to get into the kitchen and create a fresh, seasonal recipe, I can’t think what it would be. Warm weather and long sunny days have already descended on the Bay Area, and with that comes an abundance of early-season produce.  This morning I found leeks, garden peas, fava beans, green onions and shiitake mushrooms, all of which figure in this light, yet comforting udon noodle recipe. At my local Asian supermarket I picked up a package of fresh udon noodles. Using these precooked noodles makes an already easy dish go together even faster, and I find these noodles to be thicker and more succulent than noodles cooked from dry.  A caution: often these noodles come with a favoring packet full of weird ingredients–just toss it away! Start with a well-seasoned stock, and you’ll end up with a hearty, satisfying lunch or dinner. I’ve added only a little soy sauce, there’s no ginger or garlic or spice or oil, so the favor of the fresh vegetables, salmon and noodles really shines. And I think you’ll appreciate that this recipe requires only one pot, and comes together in under 30 minutes.  Happy Spring!  (Full recipe after the jump)

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Journey Back in Time: Take The A Train to The Cloisters

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As a newcomer living in New York some 45 years ago, the city seemed like like an alluring, unknown wonderland, and I felt like an explorer ever ready for a new adventure. And so, one weekend day, a friend and I set out for The Cloisters, not knowing what to expect. What I found was a series of ancient-feeling rooms filled with medieval art, and set in a park on river bluffs high above the Hudson. It was magical, and I made a promise to myself to someday return. Last week, I finally did. And on a chilly, blindingly-white and amazingly clear day, it was magical all over again.

I didn’t know much about medieval art then, and I don’t now, but you don’t need to know a lot  to appreciate the beauty and mystery of the centuries-old sculptures, stained glass windows, tapestries, carvings, architectural elements and religious objects on display. To visit The Cloisters is like taking a condensed tour through medieval France, Italy and Spain, with a bit of the Netherlands added in. Last week, it was empty enough that one could have a chapel all to oneself to sit and meditate, a wonderful luxury in a city like New York.

So, if you find yourself in New York with a half day free, take the A train (yes the same train which famously goes to Harlem) nearly to the tip of Manhattan, exit at 190th Street, and step into another world.

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Life Between Snow Storms: A Wintry (But Fabulous) Week in New York City

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What kind of crazy Californian goes to New York in February? Especially this year, during one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent memory? Well, I guess that would be me.  Yes, I’ve just returned from a week in the Big City where I had a chilly, but fabulous time. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Minnesota that the cold in New York doesn’t scare me. I knew enough to come prepared with a warm jacket, stocking cap, gloves, scarf and insulated boots. Thus prepared, I found temperatures in the 20’s to be invigorating rather than chilling.

Fresh out of college, I lived in New York for three years back in the late sixties, and I’ve visited a number of times since, so New York is not unfamiliar to me.  But New York is so vast and ever changing that each visit is a perplexing mix of the familiar with the new and surprising.  I come as both a returning ex-resident and a wide-eyed tourist.

And as much as I love playing tourist in New York, I come, most importantly, to be with friends. Two of my dearest friendships, with Bobby Quidone and Phil Magnuson, I made when we lived, briefly, in the same apartment building at 84 East Third St., in the East Village.  Somehow, we’ve kept a friendship alive for more than 45 years, and it is a joy to see them on the rare occasions when we get together. My other dear New York City friend, Mary Morgan, is a friend of more recent vintage. Until about three years ago, she lived in the Bay Area, and she returns here yearly, so I’m able to see her more frequently.

And so when I do find myself in New York, I’m torn between rushing about to see what is new and exciting, and just wanting to hang out with friends. In the end, I do a little of each.  With only a week to spend, any rational person would compile a precisely-choreographed list of what to to and where to go, so as not to waste a moment.  That’s not me.  I tend to make it up day by day, but I manage to pack quite a lot in, even so.  Here in photos with captions are my impressions of New York c. 2014. See more after the jump, and check back tomorrow for my post on eating in the Big City.

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Photo above: I’d never been to the top of the Empire State Building or the top of Rockefeller Center (The Top of the Rock), so that was on my agenda this time. This photo is from the Top of the Rock observation deck, looking south to the Empire State Building and beyond.  I feared it would be frightfully cold and windy up there, but it was surprisingly pleasant.

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A Week of Eating Out, And In, In Manhattan and Brooklyn

Food and New York just go together. New Yorkers clearly love to eat. On some Manhattan blocks, every single storefront is a restaurant. As cold weather always stimulates my appetite, you can be sure I did my share of eating. So, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with you a little bit of what happened food-wise during my week in the big city.

P1080929There are not as many hip and welcoming coffee-shop type cafés in Manhattan as one might think. One that I found and liked quite a bit is Think Coffee, 248 Mercer St., between 3rd and 4th Streets. They have four other locations in the Village and one in Seoul, Korea. Starbucks is present, of course, but for a chain coffee place, I found The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf stores to be less crowded and more comfortable. One place I stumbled upon and wanted to try for lunch was The Clinton Street Baking Company and Restaurant, 4 Clinton St. near East Houston, on the Lower East Side. However, at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon the waiting line seemed long, so I decided to pass. I hope to make it back to this popular spot some day because it looked like it would be really good.

P1080761P1080766One of the relative new-comers to the Manhattan museum scene, is the Neue Gallerie, Fifth Avenue at 86th St., which specializes in showing art and design from Germany and Austria. I was amazed by a show of  early  20th Century German posters. The museum’s popular restaurant, Café Sabarsky, offers a Viennese menu and ambiance in a space with views of  Central Park. Photos above: My friend Mary Morgan samples the excellent beet borscht, and lunchtime in the café.

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Celebrating 2014, The Year of the Horse

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Is it too late to wish you a happy new year?  Not if you follow the Chinese calendar which ushers in the Year of the Horse today or tomorrow, depending on where in the world you are. For most of us, it’s been a new year since January 1st and as usual I began my year with an open house. I’ve been holding an open house on New Year’s Day for so many years, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t.  It must be 20 years, at least. And every year I ask myself  “Do you really want to do this or are you doing it only because you’ve always done it?”  So far, I’ve always concluded that I really want to do it. Even for me, a professional cook, it’s a lot of work. Perhaps I should say, especially for me as a professional cook, it is a lot of work–no going to Costco or Whole Foods and buying prepared foods. Having a reputation of sorts to uphold, I figure everything (or almost) must be homemade and cooked from scratch.

There are any number of reasons I continue.  First, I love sharing my home with friends, and January 1st is the only time when friends from various parts of my life come together.  Also, as a caterer I must consider first my clients needs and tastes, and this is one occasion when I am the client and can create a menu solely to please myself (and hopefully, my guests). Therefore, I take it as an opportunity to  try new recipes or revive lost recipes. Too, having invited people over spurs me to complete small projects around the house that I’ve been procrastinating about. And finally, because years pass so quickly, I do find satisfaction in taking special care to celebrate the beginning of each new one.

How do I plan the open house? I begin thinking about a possible menu, weeks and sometimes months ahead.  Sometimes it will have an ethnic theme, other times it’s more a collection of dishes I like which I feel will go together. It would be easier were  my friends of one mind about what to eat.  Alas, that is so not the case. Some are vegan, others probably don’t feel they’ve eaten properly if  they didn’t see a sizable piece of meat on their plate. My menus, unlike so many holiday menus which can be heavy on meat, fat and sugar, lean heavily vegetarian, with only a bit of animal protein and with vegetables in the starring role. Also, as a matter of practicality, I very much favor dishes which can be made a bit ahead and served at room temperature. And although I have chafing dishes, I prefer not to use them.

Once I have a menu in mind, I make a detailed shopping list and head to Berkeley Bowl, where I love to shop because of their unmatched produce department and because I can most likely find everything else I need as well. This year, as he has for several years, my friend Frank Melanson came three days before the party to be my decorator, sous chef, and chief silver polisher. Frank helps with everything that makes a party run smoothly, and slips away before the first guest arrives. This year, my housemate, Mike Rother, also helped with cleaning and tidying, which is saying a lot, because when I cook, I make a mess!

(Find the full menu, descriptions of the dishes, and more photos after the jump).

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Thanksgivings–Past and Present

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I don’t know about you, but there have been times, and more than a few, when I’ve been thoroughly ambivalent about Thanksgiving, wanting nothing more than to avoid all the expected ritual. Several times, back in the seventies, I found myself outside the U.S., in places where it is just another work day. And too, I remember that I observed my first Thanksgiving after moving to New York City by taking a meandering walk through Central Park. The nonconformist in me resists the thought of eating a set menu on the fourth Thursday of November, just because everyone else does. In short, Thanksgiving and I have not always been on the friendliest of terms.

And yet, now that I’m in my “golden” years, I  see the value of family and friends taking time to gather around a table and eat a home cooked meal together. Which brings me to the photograph above, where you see all the close relatives of my maternal grandmother’s family gathered one chilly Thanksgiving day more than sixty years ago.  The setting is the dining room of the drafty house on the family farm where my grandmother was born, reared and married, and where my siblings and I also grew up.

This iconic family photograph (with turkey front and center), as far as I can tell, was taken by my father on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1950. I don’t know for certain that the year is 1950, but I appear to be about six years old and my sister about two, which would make it 1950 (I’m the smaller of the two boys in front of my mother who is standing in the rear and that’s my little sister in the red dress).  This Norman Rockwell-like scene, now seems  so distant from me that it’s hard to fathom that it happened in my lifetime.  I find it poignant that all the little kids in this photo are now senior citizens, and all the adults, with the single exception of my mother, have long since passed on. My mother, a 28-year-0ld housewife in 1950, celebrated her 91st birthday this year.

I can scarcely imagine what was going through her mind on this day when she was charged not only with supervising two little kids, but with cooking the year’s most significant meal for the elders of her mother’s family. At the head of the table, sits my mother’s great uncle, Thomas Jones who died within a  year or two, and to his right, my great, great aunt, Mary D. Jones, who was born the year the Civil War ended, and who died in 1966, just short of her 100th birthday. At the table also, are my mother’s parents, her brother (and only sibling) John, his wife and three of their children. The woman on the far left, we knew as “aunt”  Rosella, although we were not actually related. I should note that we kids were brought around this table only for the sake of picture taking–for dinner, we were relegated to a kid’s table in the kitchen.

This November day is likely one of the few times all these folks gathered in one place. Soon enough the elders died, my aunt, uncle and cousins moved to South Dakota and then to California. And I fled for parts far away as soon as I could. But I love how this photograph captures a moment now long gone and one which was never to come again.

And so, although I have not always rigorously observed this holiday, I am grateful that I grew up in a household which did.  I am grateful that my mother willingly took on the consequential task of entertaining her extended family.  I’m grateful that my father took the time to make this photograph. And I’m grateful that my parents kept us connected to their families, thus giving us kids a better sense of our place in the world.

As for me, and this Thanksgiving day, a small group of friends are gathering around my dining room table. The menu, I suspect, is strikingly similar to my mother’s on that day so long ago.

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Photo above: Siblings of my grandmother’s mother, my great, great uncle Thomas Jones, and great, great aunt Mary D. Jones arrive at the family farm November 23, 1950. In the background are cribs used for storing and drying field corn. Photos by Edward Alinder

You Asked for It: Here’s Robyn’s Millet-Coconut-Cardamom Cookie Recipe

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Robyn Swanson first came to us several years ago as an intern. We immediately loved her humor, energy and enthusiasm, and she has been an important part of our Monday night kitchen team on and off ever since. Recently, she’s been our go-to sous chef as well as part time baker–a role where her skills shine. A couple of weeks ago, she created these cookies, which were such a hit that many of you who attended our dinner that night asked for the recipe. Well, here it is… (full recipe after the jump)

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Photo by Robyn Swanson

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