Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Perfect Black Midi Skirt for Traveling!

My friend Margaret and I were talking about how hard it is to find the perfect black dress, skirt or pair of pants. It always seems like the harder you look, the more impossible it is to find. You're better off just wait patiently for the universe to decide to grant you the ideal closet staple.

For a year, I've been looking for a perfectly packable midi skirt to take on trips. I was fairly obsessed when we were in Greece and Croatia last year and didn't find anything right. Browsing Bloomingdale's last night - the 25% off Friends & Family sale starts today - I stumbled across the very perfect thing. The best part is that the skirt was on clearance and that, plus the new sale, brought the price down to a ridiculous $15.
The midi skirt is from Lucy Paris in a slightly stretchy scuba fabric that is impervious to wrinkles. Hidden pockets are a huge bonus. I was hoping the skirt was still online, but it appears only still available in a striped version, which is also pretty.

Today, I paired it with a royal blue sweater, black and white belt and black pumps. I can't wait to wear it in Spain when we're abroad this summer! For inspiration, here are six ways to wear a midi skirt.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Casual Monday 5-Step Dinner Party Featuring Strawberries

I love an impromptu dinner party! Lauren emailed in the morning to see what plans we had for Monday night. With a fridge packed with fresh produce from last week and a flat of fresh strawberries ripening on the counter - I invited her over for a casual Monday night dinner party.

A Simple Strawberry Menu
Chicken, quinoa and snap pea soup
Grilled radish and strawberry salad
Asparagus and blue cheese savory bread pudding (based on this recipe)
Minted strawberries with angel food cake and whipped cream

Step 1: Shop
Or...actually, not shop. I had so much food in the fridge that my challenge was to make the whole menu from things we already had on hand. Fresh radishes, snap peas, lettuce, mint, lemons, green onions, cucumber, yellow onions and asparagus from farmer's market last week. A small piece of blue goat cheese, a few slices of rosemary meyer lemon bread from last week's party, leftover rice and quinoa from a Chinese food takeout dinner. And, I was making a fresh batch of chicken stock already on the stove.
Step 2: Prep
Savory bread pudding is my favorite brunch dish because it is so easy to assemble in advance and bake at the last minute. I cubed the leftover rosemary lemon bread and threw that in a small baking dish. Cut up some asparagus tips and yellow onion and quickly cooked the mix with a bit of butter in a pan. The lightly cooked asparagus mixture went in to the baking dish with the bread cubes. Cut the blue cheese into tiny pieces. Topped the bread mix with the cheese and some green onion. Covered with foil and into the fridge for later. In a small dish, I made the egg + milk mix with salt and pepper and put that in the fridge too.

Step 3: Decorate
I set the table for three people with blue straw placemats, red napkins, my blue wedding china. Quick centerpiece of strawberries on a wood tiered cake server.
Then, it was time to dash off to an afternoon of meetings! I returned home at 6:00 and Lauren was coming over at 6:45.

Step 4: Last Minute Prep
Preheated the oven for the bread pudding first thing. Then, I prepped the salad by cutting and grilling some radishes and chopping snap peas, strawberries and cucumber. Lauren arrived to help prep the dessert and to make a meyer lemon + truffle mustard vinaigrette for the salad.
To make the soup, I spooned out a couple cups of chicken stock straight from the pan where it was cooking. Added a bit of leftover quinoa rice, a few thin slices of snap pea, a little salt and fresh garlic.

Step 5: Party!
Soup course first, in small miso soup bowls topped with green onion. The bread pudding went into the oven to bake for 20 minutes right before everyone sat down.
While the soup bowls were being cleared, I took the foil off the bread pudding to give the top a good brown and tossed the salad with the vinaigrette. I was nervous about the bread pudding since I didn't really measure anything and haven't made it with blue cheese before - but it came out deliciously.
The truffle mustard and lemon juice were a nice complement to the grilled radishes in the salad. A pretty combination of spring flavors!
The three of us finished all the bread pudding and all the salad along with a really nice bottle of red wine that a guest brought to last week's party. I made a pot of chamomile tea to give us a breather before dessert.  The straw animals are part of my easter decorations, accumulated from my mom over the years.
Lauren's strawberry shortcake recipe came out perfectly. She tossed the fresh strawberries with lemon zest, fresh mint and sugar before dinner. Then made a batch of vanilla whipped cream during the tea break and served it up with massive slices of angel food cake.
A successful and easy dinner party for a last-minute Monday night! I think only Lauren's dog Maddie left dissatisfied - she wished we had served steak!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spring in Fresno with the Big Sandy Mountain Bike Race

One of Rob's favorite mountain biking races of the year happens to be in his hometown of Fresno, right before his birthday. Big Sandy is a great weekend escape where we get a double-whammy of visiting his parents and riding with friends. Plus, spring is quite lovely in Fresno, with lots of wildflowers around and warm, but not yet face-melting, temperatures. It's the right time to "say Fres-Yes!"
This year, we camped out the night before the race at the San Joaquin River Gorge rec area. It was cool and breezy at night. If I lived in the central valley, I'd require a screened in sleeping porch just for nights like that.
Rob's team, Super Pro, had breakfast in the morning before getting "kitted out" in their bright pink and blue uniforms. Rob usually brings me a cup of coffee in the tent to start the day.
Rob's race was a 23 mile course that began at 10:45. Thanks to him riding a single speed (no gears, no suspension, very little common sense) he was the only rider in his category.
The non-riders packed up and drove an hour west to the finish line at the Millerton Lake boat launch - which is sadly about 300 feet from the waterline with this drought. I read a magazine in the shade with a picnic while we all waited for the riders to come in.
Rob had a great race with no big crashes or mechanical failures. He came blazing across the finish line.
Those crazy bright Super Pro jerseys do photograph well! Riders were provided with locally-brewed beer and freshly made tamales for their recovery lunch.
The scene in the parking lot was classic race-day. Lots of dogs, kids, birkenstock sandals and worn out athletes while Aerosmith was piped out by some unknown DJ for hours on end. It was great to see local high schoolers from the Fresno Composite team out in force.
Finally, time for the podium presentation! Our friend Chava won second place in her category:
And Rob took home first in his - sure, he was the one and only rider but he's always No. 1 in my book.
We packed up three bikes and three riders and headed home. Along the way we bought fresh strawberries from a nice teenager who will be studying astronomy in college in the fall. We stopped in Manteca for a delicious Mexican dinner at El Jardin. I highly recommend the fish or shrimp in a spicy lime chili "Enlimonata" sauce.
The Fresno Bee covered the race today, including video of Rob eating lunch. Looking forward to the Big Sandy again next year!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A 5-Step Spring Dinner Party Featuring Sugar Snap Peas, Meyer Lemon and Asparagus

Last night's dinner party featured delicious fresh spring produce in simple, mediterranean combinations. Since one of the guests was vegetarian, the whole menu was meatless starting with a hot baked feta that was SO tasty and super easy. Rob and I discovered the miracle of baked feta when we were on the Greek island of Kos last year.

Cucumber mint ginger punch
Baked feta with meyer lemon and pita triangles
Sugar snap pea and grilled lettuce salad with goat cheese tzatziki (inspired by this Bittman recipe)
Italian ravioli with truffled asparagus and aged parmesan cheese
Rosemary meyer lemon bread
Nutella brown butter cookies
Step 1: Shop
I went to farmer's market first thing in the morning and picked up the most spring-y items I could find: a huge amount of sugar snap peas, asparagus, meyer lemons, green onions and mint. Stopped at Whole Foods on the walk home to buy feta cheese, a loaf of rosemary bread, pita bread and two packages of the most amazing fresh asparagus ravioli from Bertagni - an Italian company that has been making pasta since 1882. About $30 in supplies all together for six guests. I already had a cucumber, olive oil, garlic, paprika, plain greek yogurt and various alcohol at home.

Step 2: Decorate
I set the table similar to this rustic Italian dinner party last year - with a simple yellow tablecloth, yellow and blue napkins, blue china and a straw runner.  Those quince blossoms from February are still blooming and made an appearance along with a couple small straw easter bunnies.

Step 3: Prep
The punch was first to be prepped - combining slices of cucumber and lemon with mint, spicy ginger ale, plum brandy, muscato wine, vodka and gin. Basically, I emptied out a bunch of remnants from the liquor cabinet to make a delicious hybrid between sangria and a pimm's cup. The punch went into the fridge to cool.

Next, I prepped the feta for baking by drizzling it with olive oil, green onions, mint, meyer lemon (with rind) a bit of garlic and a dash of spicy paprika from Croatia. Covered with foil and into the fridge for baking later.

Ran the asparagus through a green bean frencher to transform it into thin ribbons. Tossed the asparagus with a bit of truffle oil, salt and pepper for later. Whipped up a version of simple tzatziki with a bit of herbed goat cheese. Made a lemon vinaigrette for the lettuce. Split open the sugar snap peas and cut up the bread. Everything was done for the party before 11 am!
Step 4: Last minute prep
Back home from an afternoon of meetings with an hour and a half before guests arrived. I made a simple butter wine sauce for the ravioli. Then, cleaned the bathroom and living room before pre-heating the oven and and staging all the pots and plates for the dinner. Having the pans you'll need already out and pots full of water makes the service go more smoothly.
Step 5: Party!
Guests arrived at 7:00 and we had a leisurely cocktail hour with the delicious punch and the melty baked feta with pita triangles. I stepped out for a minute to quickly grill the lettuce and assemble the salads before inviting everyone to sit down and turned on the water to boil for the ravioli. Grilling gave the lettuce an interesting almost lamb-like flavor that went really well with the tzatziki.
The ravioli went into the water for a quick 5 minute boil when the salads were being finished. Asparagus ribbons tossed on the same grill pan from the lettuce for a quick sear and the bread into the oven to be heated up. When the salad plates were cleared and wine glasses refilled, I just needed to shave some aged parmesan we got for Christmas on top of the finished asparagus dish.
I rushed to take a photo of everyone at the party before we devoured the ravioli and rosemary bread.
After the main course, we cleared the plates and had a pot of decaf coffee along with the decadent brown butter nutella cookies a guest brought for dessert. As always, the conversation went on far too late for a fun!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Gearing Up for a Spring Dinner Party

It is big news that Mark Bittman from The New York Times and various lovely cookbooks has moved to the Bay Area!  His simple, delicious farmer's market recipes have been an inspiration and now that he's released into the wilds of California, I can only imagine how exciting things will get.

After reading his column about spring peas and meyer lemons, I went straight to farmer's market this morning to stock up for a dinner party tonight. There's a vegetarian in the mix, so I think I'll make a version of Greek baked feta as a starter with mint, lemon and garlic. Then a grilled lettuce salad with fresh peas (am I the only one who likes the crispy sweet shells better than the actual peas?) and an asparagus pasta dish. Do you have a favorite spring produce recipe I should consider?

Stay tuned for the details and photos from the event later this week!

Monday, March 16, 2015

What to Wear: St. Patrick's Day Green

The March heatwave in San Francisco has finally broken and there's even a little bit of rain! Perfect time to get cozy for St. Patrick's day in a simple, every-day outfit. No plastic light-up shamrock necklace needed for a festive of celebration of all things Guinness, corned beef, Chris O'Dowd and green.

Sweater - I practically live in Bloomingdale's cashmere sweaters purchased on super sale - soft, light and durable. This green turtleneck for $90 is very, very tempting to add to the collection.
Pants - J. Crew calls these pixie pants, but I'm pretty sure they're leggings. Either way, they look really comfortable. Currently 25% off!
Shoes - Basic black pumps with a kitten heel give the outfit an Audrey Hepburn vibe.
Cape - Do you need a herringbone cape with an exposed zipper on major sale to go with this outfit...definitely!
Clutch - In bright cranberry leather with gold accents.
Glasses - Vintage-styled readers from Barney's.
Earrings - A clover-ish pair adds a bit of sparkle.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Satisfaction of Making Chicken Stock

I've been recently purchasing rotisserie chickens from the Roli Roti truck when I'm at farmer's market. They're a little more expensive than the chickens at Safeway - but free-range, plump and packed with herbs. When the chicken is picked clean over the course of a few meals, nothing is more satisfying than making a bone broth from the remains. My imagination runs directly to equal parts Boxcar Children (the descriptions of the meals these orphaned children scavenged always made me hungry), French housewife and victory-garden patriot. A lovely sense of being prudent for something so easy to do.

My secret to a good chicken stock is to include onions (with skin for color), celery, garlic, bay leaf and carrots along with a bunch of miscellaneous veggie scraps such as kale stems, yellow beet stems, the tops of leeks, those last few small cloves from the center of a garlic, etc. 
The mixture goes into a large canning pot along with the chicken remains and water to simmer for a couple hours. 
When the stock is boiled down and cooled, I strain out everything and add back in any good pieces of chicken meat that fell off the bones. 

Last time, I had three chickens leftover from the Valentine's luncheon and made gallons of chicken soup for the freezer. One, a Mexican lime chicken soup with black beans, beet greens, ancho chili and leek. The other a classic chicken barley (cooked separately and rinsed before adding) with celery, carrot and greens. You don't need to cook the veggies added at this stage because they'll boil again when the soup is heated. 
The frozen chicken soup is one of the few things that can tempt Rob away from making a quick lunch of instant ramen or a burrito from down the street. Plus it is convenient to have on hand to give to sick friends!